May 6, 2008 by Allen George
What is the relationship between organization size, personal responsibility, and individual vs. communal ‘good’? The question came to mind as I watched FLOW: For Love of Water at HotDocs ’08; as it unfolded it highlighted our current thinking: bigger is better. It’s a notion I find flawed.
Throughout the last century each one of us struck a tacit bargain with societal entities: keep growing, as long as I benefit – from decreased prices, more choice, greater clout. But unrestrained size has drawbacks: it is no longer possible to punish large entities for their poor decisions – too many of us would be affected; the mass of stakeholders makes it unlikely that a community’s needs will be placed above the individual’s; and, most unhappily, it hides the connection between each person’s actions and their effects in the larger context.
It’s the last point that troubles me the most. There is a communal good, and it doesn’t always line up with what’s best for us as individuals. But if we can’t see the direct result of our choices will most of us stop considering it at all? This is really troubling, since given the large scale of the things we’ve allowed grow, the high communal price of our choices shows up not here, but half a world away. What’s more, we’ve grown to equate size with change, size with impact, and so discount the effects that our actions have; we thus give ourselves the freedom to take the selfish option. It’s ironic: in empowering large organizations to tackle problems, we have become less willing to acknowledge our part in causing the selfsame problems and to accept the pain of solving them. And we excuse our reluctance to act by asking “What effect will I – one person – have?”