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August 2006
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October 2006

Why corporate "social responsibility" frightens me

In October, ID at IIT's About, With, and For conference in Chicago will focus on social responsibility. It was also a module in AIGA Harvard Business School. The target of all this social responsibility is corporations. While it is important for corporations to be responsible citizens of the world, there is an inherent danger, especially in the US, in leaving the "greater good" up to corporations.

One of the most important documentaries that I rewatch occasionally is The Corporation by  Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott, and Joel Bakan. The premise is that since the corporation is a legally defined person, what kind a person is it. The answer is that the corporation is a sociopath. Now, reinforcing social responsibility has become the treatment for the corporation's pathology. Even in the documentary, they show the efforts of Ray Anderson of Interface to make carpet manufacturing more sustainable. And in my corporate consulting days, I would even try to get my clients to be more sociallly responsible  by pointing out how they have no social responsibility heading and content on their website. (This was actually effective in terms of getting clients to think about what they are doing in that area.)

Yet with all the emphasis on the corporation as the beacon of social responsiblity, there seems to be a deemphasis on government, which by charter is responsible for the greater good of society by protecting the weak and insuring the sustainability of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Yet, one of the key distinctions between the US and Europe is the extent to which the seat of power in the US lies with corporations not the government. By handing over social responsibility to corporations, do we let the US government off the hook?

As I have shifted my primary focus from corporate clients to government and non-profits, I have rediscovered the power of government. What I mean is that I have become deeply aware of the extent to which government regulations do effect significant changes in human possibilities and people's behaviors. It is one thing to say that "Voting counts" but another to see the tremendous shifts in priorities when one adminstration replaces another. But as the anxieties about the upcoming mid-term elections demonstrate, there is a certain accountability to the people in government that does not exist in the same way to corporations.

It is this lack of accountability that makes me nervous about the all the efforts to make corporations more responsible for social responsibility. This is not to say that there should not be efforts. Corporations do and ought be be more responsive to and responsible for the long term impacts of their decisions. But we must not forget that legally, corporations are accountable only to their shareholders and democractic processes need to be increased in that area.

Government, for better or worse, is the best system we have to ensure social responsibility and the "greater good." Because government is accountable to the people much moreso than corporations. So when we talk about social responsibilty, we should make sure that we talk about government as well.

Anthropological methods for art and design 1: Preview of my lecture tomorrow

Bmc_athenahead_cr So tomorrow, I begin classes. This is my first lecture class, which I am really excited about. There is something about the lecture format that captures the romance of being a professor. Perhaps because each week you have to write an essay, you feel like you are more deeply engaging in the act of thinking.

Tomorrow's lecture is the overview of the class + a lecture on why you need anthropologically-based research for art and design. My key points are:
The activities of creative "making" is as much theory as it is practice, in other words it is a praxis.

Theory consists of four elements (from Alan Barnard's History and Theory in Anthropology, Cambridge 2000):

  1. Questions, or what you need/want to know and understand
  2. Assumptions, or what you and others  think is known and understood
  3. Methods, or the materials and techniques used to answer the questions and ground the assumptions
  4. Evidence, or how you communicate one's knowledge and understanding to others in a meaningful way

It is because of the "power" of assumptions that research needs to be conducted skillfully and systematically. Not because assumptions are bad, but because they are dangerous when disconnected from appropriate contextual milieus.

In the creative distrust of too much theory, there is a presumption that thinking is not an act, but rather something that precedes the real act, which is making. But according to Dewey, thinking is an act by which the reflection on discordant factors in situations results in the creation of new situations and solutions.

This reflection on discord and constitution on harmony (which again resonates with Daoist ideas) is why creative thinkers have ethical responsibilities for the human impact of their creative conceptualizations and manifestations.

Anthropologically based research methodologies provide creative thinkers with the tools (equipment) to inquire and reflect on the human impact of the creative conceptualizations and manifestations.

This is important in terms of the problematization (ie. identification and sensory perception of situational/experiential discord) of the disciplines of art, design, and anthropology in terms of their power and relevance to the human experience.