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A Bridge Too Far? Have We Overdone Globalization?

There are many benefits to globalization. Indeed, I have been somewhat involved personally in attempting to make one of the organizations I belong too more global. In the early days of the Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group in Computer Human Interaction, major conferences were held in North America and most of the attendees were from North America with a good number of European colleagues joining. Over time, there have been more local chapters world wide and we have had our major conference in Europe several times and recently held a very successful conference in South Korea. Others have been held in other continents as well. I have no doubt whatever that this process has brought a wonderful diversity of thought into our field that would not be there if we had stayed focused in North America. Apart from the progress in an academic field, meeting people from all over the world provided a huge opportunity for everyone involved. If you meet decent people from all over the world, it certainly becomes more difficult to “demonize” them or desire your government to bomb them.

Similarly, the economic benefits of “Free Trade” have been touted for a long time and by many economists. Although opinions differ somewhat, most economist believe that the net effect that freer trade has had. for example, on the US economy is good, not only in providing cheaper goods for consumers but ultimately creating more jobs than are lost. Of course, if you are one of the people whose job is lost and you have almost no prospect of getting one at equal or greater pay, that is small comfort. I am willing to grant that, on average, it makes more sense from an efficiency standpoint to have the “cheapest” place produce goods and services, other things being equal.

Naturally, other things are seldom equal and jobs often shift overseas from North America and Europe to places who not only give less money to their workers but where they have very lax safety conditions, loose child labor laws, loose if any controls on environmental impact and allow harassment of workers. In addition, there can be unanticipated costs associated with coordination across time zones, cultures, and educational backgrounds. The predicted savings of moving operations overseas are not always realized.

I have seen all of these issues been addressed before but I would like to focus on another issue: the impact of situational ethics. We all like to believe that we are one of the “good guys.” We like to believe that we (and indeed, most people) behave ethically most of the time and it is only a few “bad apples” who behave unethically. When people’s behavior has actually been studied though, what we see is a more nuanced picture. Most people most of the time in most situations, cheat “a little bit” and about as much as they assume other people cheat. However, the propensity to cheat depends a lot on the details of the situation. In particular, people are more likely to cheat or take more than their fair share when they are removed from the situation.

For example, if ten people are sitting around a table passing around a plate of twenty Easter Eggs, the vast majority of people will make a quick calculation and pick two. Indeed if someone is allergic and passes on the eggs leaving two left to share among 9 people, everyone falls all over themselves to offer the eggs to someone else. It’s extremely rare for someone to start by taking six or seven eggs for themselves! No-one would think of taking all twenty!

Now, imagine instead that the Monday after Easter, I bring into my work group (which happens to have ten people) 20 Easter Eggs. I tell everyone at the morning staff meeting that I brought in 20 Easter Eggs and put them in the fridge next to the coffee maker. Let us assume that all ten of us get along pretty well. The chances that someone goes into the break room and takes 3-4 eggs increases hugely over the “sitting around the table” scenario.


We humans are social animals. We respond to social cues and we care about our reputation. Most of us experience empathy. If we are sitting around the table and take more than our share of eggs, we don’t just worry that others will judge us badly. We genuinely do not want to “feel the pain” of someone looking forward to the eggs and not getting any. That’s just the way we are wired. If we take more than our share from the break room however, it is far more abstract. We don’t really know whether everyone will really want Easter Eggs. And, even if we are pretty sure they will, we don’t know who the last person will be. We can’t really “see” the disappointment of the last few people who open the fridge.

Now, consider how this plays out in commerce. Imagine that you are a baker of bread for a local village. It doesn’t really matter that much whether your are the baker for a small town in Vermont, Germany, England, France or Egypt. Of course, you want to make enough money to survive, but you want to make really good bread. You want people to say good things about your bread. You want to think of these faces that you recognize having your bread be a part of the pleasure of their meal. You want to be part of having them and their family grow up and thrive because of your bread. 

Now, contrast this with being a worker in a bread factory that makes bread that is shipped all over the country. Again, it doesn’t matter that much what the country is but let’s assume it’s a factory outside of Paris. You feel some obligation to do a good job, but you are far less invested in making sure your bread is especially good than if you were the baker in a small town. Part of the reason for that is that you won’t really see that many faces of the people eating your bread. Part of the reason is also that you are following a recipe and a procedure that someone else constructed for you. Of course, other things being equal, you’d like to make a good product and do a good job — and not just because you could lose your job if you don’t. It’s more than that. Most people really do want to do a quality job. But suppose one day the boss comes in and says, “Hey folks. Bad news. Profits are down and costs are up. We are really getting squeezed. We are going to change our recipe to put a little more water and a little less egg in the bread. It will save costs and we’ll be able to stay in business. And, you’ll be able to keep your job.” You realize that this will make the bread a tiny bit less tasty and a bit less nutritious but still —- you do need to keep your job. So, you go along as do your fellow workers.

Now suppose a few months later, the boss comes in and says, “More bad news. We are going to have to cut costs still further. We are going to add more water, but to keep the bread from being too runny to bake properly, we are going to add a bit of glue. Most people won’t notice the taste and most people won’t get sick enough to die from it, although a few might. Still, we need this to keep in business.” I believe that at this point, there would be a rebellion. You would not go along with this and neither would most of your colleagues. But we need to remember that in France, there are strong unions, the population reads, there is a government that you may not agree with but that you count on to enforce laws. You may not be able to get a job as good as the bread factory job, but you will get something. If all else fails, you have friends and relatives you can count on as well as a financial safety net. You have reasonable costs for health care.

Now suppose instead that this factory is not outside Paris and shipping bread to France. Instead, let’s imagine it’s in a country that is far more authoritarian and hierarchical. You are in a small village constructed solely for the purpose of making bread at a giant factory. You are not making bread for your fellow citizens. This bread is being shipped overseas to somewhere you have very little knowledge of and no realistic prospects of ever visiting. Even under these circumstances, I believe the vast majority of people would like to do the right thing; they would like to do a good job. However, you are being told to adulterate the bread in order to keep your job. You already owe two months rent on the company housing that you would have no way to pay off without your job. You have zero other job prospects in any case. There is nothing in the town except the bread factory. You cannot call up “Sixty Minutes” or the local newspaper or the police and protest this. You know from your own personal experience that every other worker is likely to go along. And so do you. It isn’t because the people in all these previous scenarios are “good” while the ones in this scenario are “bad.” It’s because the scenario has become increasingly divorced from our natural social cues for doing the “right thing.”

In essence, this points to a “hidden cost” of globalization. It isn’t just a question of efficiency. As producers become more and more isolated from the consumers in terms of geography, culture, and physical contact and as more and more steps intervene, there is an increasing process of abstraction. Along with increasing abstraction, it becomes easier and easier for people to avoid, ignore or actively work against ethical principles. (By the way, there is another hidden cost to globalization; the bread may not be as tuned to local tastes as bread made in the village but that’s a topic for another post).

Simultaneously, there is another sort of abstraction going on. The top executives of the hypothetical “bread company” are not themselves making bread. They are not meeting with consumers. What they are looking at is numbers; specifically, they are looking at the profit and loss, ROI, their stock value. So for them, in fact, it has very little if anything to do with nutrition, bread, pleasure of eating, or ethics. It is all a numbers game. The numbers do not typically reflect much about ethics. Of course, there is a chance that poison bread may come to light and that might be slightly embarrassing, but the chance of the top executives going to jail is slim. True, they may scapegoat the local manager or some of the workers, but they themselves are fairly immune and they know this. But it isn’t only that they are immune from prosecution. It is also because they will not have to look the sick end users in the eye.

Besides the abstraction that comes from remote geography and the abstraction that comes from monetization of interaction (as opposed to actual face to face interaction), there is another kind of abstraction that makes unethical behavior easier. Discussions of driverless cars lately have quite rightly begun to focus on ethics. One scenario involves a car having to “decide” whether to run over a small number of children or veer off the road quite possibly killing the driver. Regardless of what you personally think the “right answer” is, I contend that most human drivers in control of such a car would instinctively swerve off the road and avoid the children even though it was likely to result in a serious accident or death for the driver. It would be extremely difficult for most drivers to choose intentionally to run over the children to save their own skins. On the other hand, if you worked at a car company as a programmer, it would be far less stressful to program the car to behavior in that way. It would be easy to rationalize.

“Well, the chances are, this section of code is never going to actually run.”

“Well, the driver after all is the one paying for the car. And, he or she does have the option to over-ride.”

“Well, if I don’t program what I am ordered to program, what is the point really? They will fire me and hire someone else to program it and they will keep doing that until they find somebody who will program it that way.”

All is “well.” Or is it?

But I contend that this same programmer, if they were actually driving the car, seeing the faces of little children, is quite likely to swerve off the road to avoid the kids.

Yes, we humans have developed some fairly elaborate ethical codes, but often we behave “ethically” simply because our sociality is “built in” genetically and guides us to the ethically correct behavior. If we abstract away from social situations, whether through geography, monetization of value, or by programming another entity, our “instinctive” ethical behavior becomes easier and easier to over-ride. Perhaps then, rather than making unethical behavior “easier” for people by removing social cues, we need to re-instate them — perhaps even amplify them. If you really need to send a drone into an elementary school, maybe you need to hear the screams of the unwitting “participants.”