Many people illuminate their paths in life with a vision of where they are headed, a notion of how they would like to view the world, or an intention for their journeys or destinations. For an artist this might be an image of a body of work or of the life she dreams of leading. For a social change maker or social entrepreneur this might be a semi-utopian vision of the community or world he would like to help realize.
The vision in a person’s mind often isn’t a fixed long-term vision. Rather it is often an image that is compelling in the moment and which may evolve or change quite dramatically over time.
One such potentially compelling vision lies in Jewish teachings within the Talmud. In Jewish legend the world continues to exist because of the selfless deeds of thirty-six anonymous tzaddikim, or wise and virtuous people. None passes from life without another to take his place. In some versions of the legend there are 18,000 such people.
I do not personally believe in the truth of this legend, but I do love the concept of a network of much larger than thirty-six people who give of themseves as much as they can to serve those around them, without considering how that might be turned into a reliable income stream.
There are, I am delighted to notice, scholars and writers thinking along similar lines, both optimistically and practically. Clay Shirky, a lecturer at New York University, in his book Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age makes what to me is a most appealing case. He argues that people educated during the post-war period have intellect, time, and energy beyond what their daily work and activities require and that there is tremendous potential to harness that “cognitive surplus” for the public good. He offers the case of Wikipedia as one example of a hugely valuable public resource provided entirely by volunteers who add to the culture with their collaborative generosity.
Shirky argues that building around the abundant resource of surplus talent by what he calls “designing for generosity” has potential to transform our world. For a start it is important to promote and applaud such generosity in terms of its civic value, to counterbalance a competing inclination within modern culture to capitalize on all ones talents for economic gain or not at all.
Yochai Benkler of Harvard University takes Shirky’s argument one step further. He argues that the phenomenon of large collaborations of individuals organized without markets, payments, or managerial hierarchies is already emerging worldwide as a new economic and cultural force. He writes that what he calls “commons-based peer production” can be a highly efficient strategy for drawing the best talent to a worthwhile project (as long as there is also a robust mechanism for screening out contributions by those with exceptional interest but without great competency).
Benkler presents a model of behavior that acknowledges that humans are driven to service by three inducements rather than the single one classical economics assumes. Specifically he follows on the work of decades of organization theorists before him by specifying the following three points of leverage that can draw people to worthwhile enterprises: monetary compensation, the joy or fun of the work, and the socio-psychological benefit of participating in something worthwhile.
Taking Benkler’s model into account, it is critical in designing for generosity to recognize that the relative weight of these three inducements will be entirely different for different people. More interestingly, the weights are not fixed. There is potential to shift some people’s values from the more individualistic to the more altruistic. Furthermore, the social entrepreneur or change maker can lure others to serve their fellows without trying to make a paying business of it by structuring the work to make participation sufficiently fun or socially rewarding.
There is one tricky design element that throws a wrench into organizing these good works. That is, individuals’ decisions on participation in a cause are not independent. There will be people, for example, who would be quite willing to offer time to a collaborative project without seeking compensation if all similarly competent people thus engaged do the same. But many might not feel like offering their services for free if others who are no more talented than they are being compensated. To some, this sort of volunteerism seems a proposition only for suckers.
The scholars who have begun to work in this area, as best I can see, have not worked out all the kinks. But the prospect of balancing the world on the shoulders of millions of generous tzaddikim of all faiths and cultures remains an exciting and compelling one. If successful, it would be a dramatic cultural shift from a world that can seem sometimes to be all about the individual, his marketing, and his pocketbook.