Reflections on innovation

XV.6 November + December 2008
Page: 42
Digital Citation

SUSTAINABLY OURSA call for pro-environmental conspicuous consumption in the online world

Bill Tomlinson

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Biological researchers have suggested that the phenomenon of conspicuous consumption [1, 2] can be an evolutionarily viable survival technique. Conspicuous consumption can enhance an organism's fitness because it demonstrates that the organism has sufficient resources to live, and then some. This abundance of resources suggests to other members of the organism's community that he or she may be a valuable social or sexual partner, with sufficient resources to squander some on goals beyond mere survival [1].

Two forms of conspicuous consumption are particularly notable. "Sexual handicapping" involves an individual exhibiting resource-intensive behavior or morphology in order to communicate his or her (but usually his) good genes [1]. For example, the brightly colored tails of many birds are a significant handicap to those organisms; the tails require a lot of energy to produce (since bright pigments are energy intensive), and make it harder for the organisms to survive (since predators can see them). A bright tail conveys unequivocally that the bird sporting it is a "winner," with sufficiently abundant resources to have reached maturity despite the encumbrance of the tail, and is therefore a prime mate.

A second form of conspicuous consumption is "competitive altruism [2]". In this behavioral pattern, organisms behave in prosocial ways, issuing alarm calls or saving the offspring of other members of their community, in order to demonstrate their abundance of resources. Similar to sexual handicapping, competitive altruism is a drain on the resources of the individual and marks that individual as a high-quality social or reproductive partner.

There are several characteristics that make an attribute or behavior a good vehicle for exhibiting conspicuous consumption. It must be obvious, so that other members of the target community can easily recognize it. It must be accurate; community members must be able to use it to evaluate the relative merits of different individuals. And it must be unfakeable; that is, it must be easier for the organism to exhibit the attribute or behavior than to exhibit an indistinguishable facsimile of that behavior [1].

Like many other animal species, humans exhibit a tendency for conspicuous consumption [3]. To an evolutionary biologist, a BMW looks a lot like a peacock's tail. The bird's tail is obvious; so too is the Beemer's logo and characteristic body shapes—visible on the highway, in the driveway, and on a date. The bird's tail requires the expenditure of significant resources. So too does the BMW; no resource-poor losers here. Finally, the bird cannot attach a fake tail to itself; neither is it viable to manufacture a fake BMW, with glossy paint and carefully tuned engine. Thus, a BMW has a lot in common with a brightly colored tail; in both cases, the owner is clearly an excellent mate choice.

Similarly, people engage in competitive altruism in a range of ways. The high-end grocery store Whole Foods has begun selling an organic cotton and burlap bag with a large logo reading "Feed the Children of the World" on it. To own this bag, a shopper must pay $29.95, $10 of which will be donated to the World Food Program's Rwanda School Feeding operation. This amount is sufficient to provide 100 meals to school-age children in Rwanda. This demonstration of resource abundance may not only make the bearer feel good, but it may also cause others to consider them worthy social or sexual partners. (While one might find charity irrelevant to sexual ends, a group of psychologists recently found that "although mating motivation did not lead women to conspicuously consume, it did lead women to spend more publicly on helpful causes [4].")

The world would be more sustainable if the human urge to squander resources could be piped into socially beneficial efforts rather than into corporations' bank accounts.

Whenever resources are squandered, there must be some "sink" into which those excess resources are poured. For example, when a species of birds tends to have long colorful tails, their resources are being poured into the populations of snakes and other predators that are better able to catch and eat the birds because of their highly visible tails. When people drive BMWs and other luxury cars, the resources are being poured into the corporations that produced them. (When people drive luxury SUVs, the resources used to buy the gas needed to move so much metal around ultimately end up poured into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and other pollutants.) Snakes and corporations serve the same role in this system; they are the keepers of the unfakeability needed to make a trait costly.

Corporations, like snakes, are not evil. They are simply tasked with a single purpose—maximizing shareholder value. Unless there is a profound shift in the corporate law in the U.S. and many other capitalist countries, we can reasonably expect that environmental sustainability will never be the primary goal of corporations. At best, it will be an indirect goal, when consumers have it as their primary goal and the corporations must satisfy the consumers. Nevertheless, the world would be more sustainable if the human urge to squander resources could be piped into socially beneficial efforts rather than into corporations' bank accounts.

back to top  Online Tools

Many behavioral patterns that people exhibit are being enhanced by online tools. We are able to communicate over great distances, play games with millions of people, and spawn fast-spreading grassroots political movements. There are also a variety of environmental efforts that seek to harness the strengths of information technology, using social networking systems, blogs, mobile devices, and new design techniques. However, there are few if any online systems that seek to achieve environmental ends by explicitly encouraging people's evolved desire to squander resources. If people are going to engage in conspicuous consumption, they may as well do it in a way that is sustainable. We need online social tools that can help enable pro-environmental conspicuous consumption.

An awareness of the characteristics of a good medium for conspicuous consumption—one that is obvious, accurate, and unfakeable—can help inform the design of these online tools. The Web is very good at making projects obvious—the popularity of some websites grows so rapidly that it becomes problematic to scale fast enough. "Accurate" and "unfakeable," though, are a bit trickier. Accuracy is difficult because what constitutes "value" may vary across communities; monetary expenditures, time, skills, or other factors may be the key to social status within a given group. Making the display of conspicuous consumption unfakeable requires the community to settle on an inherently hard-to-duplicate medium, to agree on some standard through which to verify authenticity, and/or to enact ways of punishing fakers. Reputation-management systems may be able to help with both accuracy and unfakeability to some degree, as can connections to existing institutions with credibility and longevity.

This article is a call for readers of this magazine to design and build systems that enable communities to engage in conspicuous consumption in ways that recycle resources into the same local community and/or serve environmental ends. To provide some unimplemented examples of how these systems might work, consider the following project ideas:

  • Wickedly Expensive Local Green Products and Services. Each local community maintains some directory of the greenest members of that community, anyone from farmers to manufacturers to recyclers. These individuals are reimbursed for their services well beyond the sheer financial need, in exchange for explicit acknowledgment of the purchaser via a website or other medium. The green community members benefit from the increased prices, and the conspicuous consumers are honored for their contributions.
  • Integrated Environmental Action and Dating. While organizations such as the Sierra Club already have "singles" events, few if any of them explicitly celebrate their most vigorous volunteers in an obvious, accurate, and unfakeable way. An online dating system could be designed such that, for each time a person spends a day planting trees, his or her profile could be listed higher in the site's search results.
  • Craigslist-to-Credit-Card Ratio. Craigslist could team up with credit card companies to enable people to have an officially sanctioned score of what percentage of their purchases are made through Craigslist (or other recycling venues) rather than through providers of brand-new goods. The system could provide people with a dynamically updating widget that they could include on their blog or website. Used IKEA table—$40. Sustainable capitalism—priceless.

Each of these examples may have conceptual problems or implementation challenges, but perhaps they can initiate a conversation about how to enable conspicuous consumption in ways that are more environmentally sustainable than current online systems. By tracking, analyzing, and sharing the pro-social squandering of resources that a community cares about, systems such as these may provide pathways for people to engage in conspicuous consumption in ways that match their ideologies. Doing so can help people find friends, business associates, and romantic partners who belong to similar communities, and who share similar values.

A concern that has been raised involves the possibility that these systems could be seen as gauche or tacky. Volunteerism, for example, loses its charm if one toots one's own horn about it. However, there are clear examples that this does not need to be the case. The "I Gave Blood" or "I Voted" stickers often seen around college campuses and other communities demonstrate that it is not necessarily frowned upon to wave a flag for civic engagement. While it would certainly be important to remain aware of this potential challenge, it is certainly not an unsolvable problem.

This article draws inspiration from human biology and social behavior for the design of novel technological systems that can help us live together more sustainably. While we are smarter than monkeys, the Earth has begun to suffer from the success enabled by our intelligence. Human technology has looked to biology many times for inspiration, from robots to AI to flying machines (including the airplane in which I'm flying right now). Perhaps we can look to biology for inspiration once again and design systems that satisfy our evolved needs. Systems that let us engage in conspicuous consumption (as we appear to need to do in order to demonstrate our quality as social or sexual partners) but that do so without wasting resources unnecessarily could be the basis for new social interaction styles. An understanding of the biological and cultural issues underlying these phenomena could help inform the creation of a range of new technological systems that support these novel interactions.

back to top  Acknowledgments

The author would like to thank Eli Blevis, Richard Anderson, Jon Kolko, Rebecca Black, Katie Clinton, Linda Ward, and Steve Price for their feedback and discussions that contributed to this article.

back to top  References

1. Zahavi, A. and A. Zahavi. The Handicap Principle: A Missing Piece of Darwin's Puzzle. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

2. Roberts, G. "Competitive altruism: from reciprocity to the handicap principle," Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 265, no. 1394 (1998).

3. Veblen, T. The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions, 1912.

4. Griskevicius, V. et al. "Blatant Benevolence and Conspicuous Consumption: When Romantic Motives Elicit Strategic Costly Signals," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 93 (2007): 85–102.

back to top  Author

Bill Tomlinson is an assistant professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, and a researcher in the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology. His research focuses on the intersection between the field of human computer interaction and the world's growing environmental concerns. He holds an A.B. in biology from Harvard College, an M.F.A. in experimental animation from CalArts, and S.M. and Ph.D. degrees from the MIT Media Lab.

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©2008 ACM  1072-5220/08/1100  $5.00

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