Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Making it Political

In my Intro to Ethics class yesterday we watched a video about Carrotmob.org. The idea is that people want to do good, and one source of average people's power is the money they spend. So the company behind Carrotmob does the footwork of organizing ways to help people create good effects by deciding where to spend their money. In the video we watched, one food market agreed to put 22% of their Carrotmob-acquired profits toward increasing their energy efficiency.

I asked for students' critical responses to the video. One was that people might be traveling so far to participate, that it effectively wipes out the environmental good that's created. Another is that it can be inconvenient to participate, taking considerable extra time. And if it does take so much time, one wonders what else could be done with that time instead, such as some kind of service or personal action (don't we all have ways we could make our own lives energy efficient, if that's what we're into?) rather than standing in a checkout line. That is, does it create change in the right proportion to the perception of creating change?

In general, this sort of effort raises some difficult questions. Should there be skepticism about a for-profit company set up to facilitate environmental and social activism? Or is this a case where the people behind Carrotmob should be applauded for finding a way to set up a company that makes profits (well, presumably they will profit if the model works) by encouraging people and businesses to make a better world?

A different video that I've shown in class before--one which is more radical and more thought-provoking about economic and social arrangements--is "The Story of Stuff." Implicitly, this video criticizes the Carrotmob approach by questioning the culture of consumption and showing that it is a historical, intentionally created social arrangement. This gives a political valence to DIYers, MAKErs, and hackers, such as Mark Frauenfelder and Carla Sinclair, who visited RIT last month.

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