On the problem of defining "Humane"

Dear Humane Tech Community members,

Defining “Humane” can be a difficult task. We live in complex systems that are inside other complex systems. Presenting a big picture thinking point-of-view for defining “humane” as well as offering some guidelines for everyone to consider while working on your own “humane” design, tech, policy etc. We begin with the simple, actionable concept of labor, and go on to define “Work”…

The following text is a “draft” and split into 2 parts. It hasn’t considered “trading” or “financial systems” yet. As such, it can be a “Special Theory of Humane”, with a more “General” theory yet to be drafted. (EDIT2: Why is trading relevant? Because it is the biggest money-maker. And it was intended to solve a fundamental problem: How to determine the price or value of something?)

EDIT1: 2 topics in the forum that already reference this idea are-

  1. The Anti-Work Phenomenon: Can you explain it? (plus, a new perspective on Work)
  2. The Great Recycling Con


Work, as a basic concept (and not necessarily the jobs in our today’s job market), is a set of actions done with a given purpose. Let’s call it labor from now on. This labor will yield benefits or cause harms to different entities. “How much?” and “for whom?” makes all the difference in determining whether our labor classifies as “Work” or “Anti-Work”!

We need to adopt a systems perspective for determining who did the labor, who all got the benefits and the harms, and in what amounts. This will also help us to determine what someone’s “rightful share of value for doing good things in the world” is. Any balance of the value that we haven’t already received through the benefits generated into the various Systems due to our labor can be added to our account as a “Promise to pay you later” or “Money”. Thus, the sum of “systemic benefits for us” and “Money” is the true yield that we receive from our labor. In other words, this sum is our true “Income”. In a perfectly efficient system, the benefits returning to us through the System will be directly able to sustain and grow us, and there will be no need to make any “Promise to pay you later”, or “Money”. Thus, “Money” = 0 means all debts cleared, all promises fulfilled, and is a very good indication of (but not necessarily a sufficient condition for) determining that we have stopped “Decline in Humanity”. (described later)

All these entities doing the labor & getting benefited or harmed, need to be determined carefully, and not merely by looking at what’s common-knowledge and visible to us. We must determine the different “sub-systems” comprising “our System”, and also the “other Systems” alongside ours, which together with ours comprise the “Super-System”. From time to time, you may need to expand your context for increasing your clarity about the Systems, and then also narrow your context for formulating a practical strategy and a practicable line of action.

Having thus set the right context and developed clarity: defined “our System”, identified various entities under, alongside and above (the “sub-systems”, “other Systems” and the “Super-System”), and calculated the benefits and harms for each, we should find that labor done with “Ethics and Empathy” (together = “Humanity”) generates more benefits than harms for both the “sub-systems” and the “Super-System” in the long run. Any “other Systems” alongside “our System” can be allies and benefit from co-operation; fair competitors (not enemies) who use alternate strategies and thus help us all together to determine the best strategy; and unfair competitors who are bad actors or enemies, who try to usurp power just for the sake of staying ahead, rather than for solving the problems.

A “System” which is motivated and guided by “Humanity” to do more and more “Work”, and lesser and lesser “Anti-Work” over time, can be called a “Humane System”. The opposite would be an “Inhumane System” or “Anti-Humane System”. There will be a Power struggle between Humane and Inhumane Systems, and this is the fundamental problem: Inhumane Systems seem to have an advantage over Humane Systems through cheating, using deceit, exploitation of other systems, corruption etc.


“With great power, comes great responsibility”.

Greater the Power, Greater the Responsibility.

Greater the Power -> greater the scope for “Work” or “Anti-Work”, or in other words, greater the scope to be “Humane” or “Anti-Humane”. This ‘scope’ might be what we experience & commonly call as “free will”, or more accurately “agency” (“free will” scientifically cannot exist since we live in a causal universe bound by consistent laws of physics, but the more powerful we are in our systems context, the greater our agency over affecting our own and others’ set of possible choices & final decisions).

Therein lies the problem of Power. If “our Humane System” has more Power, it can very well be able to make other Systems “Humane” over time through “Work”. But, if “other Systems” are “Not Humane” (or “Inhumane” or “Anti-Humane”) and are more powerful that us, then they will slow us down, stop us or even destroy us.

Let’s look at the different pages on humanetech.com again now… it would appear that the Extractive Attention Economy and Human Downgrading mentioned there can be rephrased more broadly and described as “Labor controlled by ‘Anti-Humane’ Power”, or basically “Anti-Work”, which causes further growth in “Anti-Humane Power”, and simultaneously a decline in “Humanity” and “Humane Power”, in a vicious spiral of “Decline in Humanity” or “Anti-Humane Growth”. In short, Extractive Attention Economy, when expanded to be more than just about attention, is “Anti-Work”, and it causes not the mildly termed Human Downgrading, but rather “Anti-Humane Growth”.

“With great power, comes great responsibility”. Sadly, power doesn’t lie with the responsible, or get used responsibly these days. Why? Too much greed? Too less of a will-power to take risks with a good vision? Just lethargy & inertia? A combination of all these and bad design maybe? The last makes more sense, because it is the design of our systems that is responsible for kinds of feedback effects we get, making us powerful in both good and bad ways. This is how humans as a collective race have become efficient, effective & smarter in exploiting nature. But so far, we have mostly seen concentration of power in the hands of a few humans, and been adversely affected by the corrupting influences of such vast power on those few humans (or their inability of properly using that power at the very least).

So the over-arching problem for us is: How to do “Work” so that a “Humane System” (or an alliance of multiple such systems) can get more Power than the other “Anti-Humane Systems”, so that over time we can slow down, stop and reverse the “Anti-Humane Growth”, or in other words, start, sustain and accelerate “Humane Growth”, while protecting our systems from the vulnerabilities that individual humans have?

Continuing from my commentary in the “Anti-Work” thread…

I think “humane” refers to anything that demonstrates people’s care for other beings. It means that people care about people, not just some people, but any and all people who are affected by their actions. It means that this is taken as a high priority… as high as, or higher than, all other priorities.

I think that “human downgrading” means that powerful forces have relegated the above to a lower priority. And I think the masses go along with it for two reasons, one is that they get paid more (by those powers) to go along with it, and the other is semi-conscious herd mentality – they encourage each other to go along with it.

Funny story: A few years ago, a friend proudly told me that his daughter, a college senior, got a job interview at FB. I told him, “I’m sorry to hear that…” (and proceeded to tell him why).

My perception is that a lot of the discussion around this problem is aimed at trying to find a “systems solution” or “policy solution”. The fly in that ointment is that all systems and policy solutions imaginable (by me, anyway) can be defeated by people not caring about people (if that’s what’s trendy). The only solution I can think of is to decide for myself that I care, and to try to behave accordingly… even if that puts me in a small, non-trendy minority for the rest of my existence… and reduces my paycheck as well. So be it.

Rotsa ruck…

1 Like

You’ve all had to have heard Douglas Rushkoff’s criticism of the term “humane” before, likening it to a more ethical treatment of humans still brought to the slaughter.

“Humane technology” to me immediately invoked cage free chickens; the idea that now we create technology that treats humans more humanely has the whole orientation of humans and technology reversed. I don’t want technologies that are treating me humanely, I want technologies that I am using; I want to be the user not the used. It puts humans into the object role.


Interesting, wasn’t aware of Douglas Rushkoff - yeah in that context “humane” may start looking like an apologia - but lumping together everything and calling it bad misses the value created: there’s serendipity in social networks, but then there’s also ephemerality. Everyone maintaining their own blogs will be better focused, but then their ideas may not interact like on twitter.

Same thing happened with the Zucked book and BJ Fogg (Has anyone read Zucked?). If there’s an unexplored field of knowledge, and someone advances it, you can’t lay the blame on them. Advancing our knowledge has always been like opening a Pandora’s box: do we stop exploring because there are dangers in the way?

Also, everywhere I’ve looked, everyone’s been referencing the 70s - EDIT: which is interesting… something fundamental must’ve really changed for the worse back then… wage gaps started widening, volatility in the economy, many policies, propaganda etc. (i’m lacking clarity regarding this, really a hunch from many recent readings, so just mentioning this for indication of something significant - to be explored and connected later!)

and if you don’t have the mitigating factors of a real world social life to modulate you, you just go deep in there. In some sense it we may have to recognise that there’s a public health crisis; this is the same as cigarettes in the 70s where the companies were not admitting what was going on.

But there are plenty of useful perspectives in what Rushkoff is saying. The call to go back to more of “real life”, as well as to the original ideas of the web makes so much sense. The ideas of Tim Berners Lee, Ted Nelson, Douglas Engelbart… Have a look at Kevin Kelly’s books from the 90s, so prescient of the times to come. What EFF, Mozilla etc. have been doing. Importance of net neutrality, ownership in the hands of the users, less consumerism more creators…

Ha! I wrote something like this in my diary in 2015.

What would you like to say to Mark Zuckerberg?

…best thing you can do is break up the company. Break it up for the good of humankind, create a public utility, and be remembered for that. And if your shareholders sue you, give the 90 per cent back to them instead.

1 Like

NOTE: link to Han’s referenced post is The Anti-Work Phenomenon: Can you explain it? (plus, a new perspective on Work)

People caring about people is absolutely essential. And we should also be able to scale this “care”, hence the talk of systemic solutions using design & policy.

Capra on UN, SDGs, values/ethics - Wahl says “not happening enough” https://vimeo.com/391367528 cc: @gctwnl

Capra on ethics https://vimeo.com/298676647

see more: https://vimeo.com/capracourse

@hans Doing the right thing oneself is a great way to start, possibly the best way ethically that one can start. But it’s not all said and done until you add a multiplier to the mix: we need to be able to inspire more and start a chain reaction. Otherwise, most people will continue preferring the higher paycheck.