How To Fix The Future: Make More Values Legible

This Could Be Our Future is a book about what we value. The author, Yancey Strickler, argues that society values the idea that every action should aim to maximize financial wealth. What he calls financial maximization. Financial considerations dominate the world, and we don’t know what the other options are.

Strickler gives many examples of financial maximization and how it impacts society. Arguments that you have heard before: healthcare, stock buybacks, CEO pay, movie sequels, and more. The critical area he doesn’t spend enough time on is why financial maximization exists. Financial maximization is exists because it is a legible measure of success.

Legibility is the idea that we can control and understand what is orderly. People in power want to bring order a naturally complex society. A legible system is able to be managed “efficiently” (used loosely) but, it is also more fragile.

From Venkatesh Rao’s excellent “A Big Little Idea Called Legibility:”

“The state is not actually interested in the rich functional structure and complex behavior of the very organic entities that it governs (and indeed, is part of, rather than “above”). It merely views them as resources that must be organized in order to yield optimal returns according to a centralized, narrow, and strictly utilitarian logic.”

Money is the most legible way to tell if you are succeeding. People want your stuff, they give you money. You don’t have to understand why someone bought your product, only that they did. We know who is successful based on the amount of money they make. Other ways of understanding success are illegible. People who care about success are going to pursue money over everything else.

Strickler’s insights come from his success. Before writing the book, he was the CEO of Kickstarter. Kickstarter relies on creating things people didn’t know they wanted. Art from artists they liked but never had the chance to financially support. Innovative gadgets that traditional investors don’t see the potential in. Kickstarter helps makes illegible projects legible. It provides a structure for understanding illegible projects, and this is what Strickler believes our values need.

Strickler’s solution is called bentoism. The idea that we should not only focus on our “now me” values (like financial maximization), but our “now us,” “future me,” and “future us.” By thinking more about these categories we will create a better society.

 

bento

Bentoism helps us understand less legible values. It makes our illegible values more legible. Doing this is as simple as writing down values in each of the categories and making decisions based off those values.

“We ‘measure what matters.’ Therefore, if we don’t measure it or can’t measure it, it must not matter. And values are not something we know how to consistently measure right now.”

It is difficult to understand values, but we know they exist. Almost no one can explain their full values if you asked, but they are revealed in actions, priorities, and interests. By creating structure, people are better able to understand their values and act on them.

With bentoism, more people focus on values other than financial maximization. They make different decisions when they take into account values such as community, tradition, mastery, sustainability, and knowledge. Organizations will follow. Many, like Patagonia and Tesla, already do.

There is a lot of value waiting to be understood and created apart from financial maximization. It starts with the realization of the hidden default of financial maximization many currently stuck on. We can then help people make their other values more legible.

It takes a long time to change the values of the world. Strickler cites that one generation (30 years) is about the fastest we can go. We don’t know where we are along the process of change.

Now seems like a time where values are especially in flux. Many people are realizing they value things other than commuting, spending all day in offices, and buying the latest gadget. Coronavirus is having a massive impact on small businesses who often have values other than financial maximization. It is unclear if financial maximization grows or shrinks as we make our way back to “normal.”

It is also difficult to get people to think about the future. Bentoism makes the future more legible. Right now, we care deeply about the “now me.” Strickler hopes that we will move up and to the right in the graph.

We are in a societal shift away from financial maximization. What values will replace it is something we have thirty(ish) years to figure out. It is an ongoing process without a right answer, but I recommend that you think about your values and the values you wish to see in the world moving forward.


You can learn more about bentoism and “build a bento” here. Let me know what you think on Twitter.

Read “This Could Be Our Future: A Manifesto for a More Generous World,” and “A Big Little Idea Called Legibility.

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