Exploitation and nurture in the digital industry

In The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry writes:

The exploiter is a specialist, an expert; the nurturer is not. The standard of the exploiter is efficiency; the standard of the nurturer is care. The exploiter’s goal is money, profit; the nurturer’s goal is health… The exploiter wishes to earn as much as possible by as little work as possible; the nurturer expects, certainly, to have a decent living from his work, but his characteristic wish is to work as well as possible. The competence of the exploiter is in organization; that of the nurturer is in order—a human order, that is, that accommodates itself both to other order and to mystery… The exploiter thinks in terms of numbers, quantities, “hard facts”; the nurturer in terms of character, condition, quality, kind.

Mr. Berry has our modern agricultural system, built on the principle of exploitation, in his crosshairs. But it’s easy to see the principle of exploitation guiding many of the industries in our society, including the production and marketing of digital goods.

From pushy newsletter subscription forms on blogs, to inappropriate in-game ads on a kid’s tablet, to social networks mining user information to sell to advertisers, there’s an implicit belief in the digital industry that any action to produce the maximum profits (or maximum newsletter signups, for that matter) is acceptable and encouraged, provided it’s legal. Law becomes the only limiting factor.

It’s often considered “best practice” to optimize a specific, desired outcome on it’s own, without considering the whole system of producer > product > customer. When a specialist is called in to optimize clickthroughs, or signups, or purchases, or even page speed, everyone is pleased if they move the needle in the desired direction. But in systems (whether a farm or a digital product) the optimization of any one aspect, taken to it’s logical extreme, leads to system failure.

This is one reason why generalists are needed in digital production. They are not experts, focused on a single aspect of the system – they work across the system. They consider the system as a whole. They are able to think “in terms of character, condition, quality, kind.”

They can measure success in terms of care.

Care of worker.
Care of visitor.
Care of customer.
Care of codebase.
Care of interface.
Care of server.
Care of device.
Care of network.
Care of data.

These are the values we should strive for in digital work.

The maximum health of producer > product > customer should be our aim, not maximum profit. Many companies and workers might assent to that view, and yet imitate the practices of the exploiter, out of ignorance or negligence.

Posted January 25, 2017 at 2:09 am