Money Has Hacked Evolution
Capitalism at its best strives to be like life itself. As nature gambles on genetic mutations, businesses gamble with an idea, and the law of survival of the fittest kicks in to sort out the good from the bad. In this way, a society full of self-interest money-makers actually seems destined for greatness - when only the best ideas survive, soon the world will have to be populated by amazing products, good prices, and businesses that compete to treat their customers in better ways than all the others.
Unfortunately, business has outsmarted evolution. When Adam Smith conceived of capitalism, he went out of his way to note that a capitalist society would require that consumers are capable of making the best choices: the best product will survive only if the consumer knows what the best product is; overpriced goods can flourish if people don’t know there are cheaper versions out there that are just as well made.
Tricks in advertising have allowed corporations to peddle subpar products, and this ruins everything. But tricks can’t work on a smart customer armed with information, and this is where we become grateful that we’re entering that terrifying new thing called The Information Age. Today, people can share their reviews and experiences online with the click of a button, and everyone from bracelet makers on Etsy to the Manhattan Uber Driver is terrified that a bad review could end them. This is great for customers, but it hasn’t reached it’s full potential. And this is partly because people making good choices doesn’t only depend on them being well informed, it even means that they have to be wise.
We have to be wise enough to discern between the boring whole foods that might serve our gut, and the flashy cereal boxes that trigger wonderful feelings in our brain, and hide their dirty secret - a mass amount of sugar eager to kill you and your new year’s resolution to fit into those old white jeans that were so cool in ’86. If we aren’t wise enough to do that, then sugar will win the day. Instead of a utopia where survival of the fittest has filled the world with commercials that advertise to our health and happiness, we will have allowed colorful boxes of cigarettes to thrive, and cheese burgers that dominated the competition by being eaten by a girl in a bikini on a Mercedes Benz on a billboard the middle of Time Square. This is already a lot of our world.
What Adam Smith may not have foreseen is that we have evolved in a way that is easily hacked. And when it comes to our genetics, wisdom seldom applies. When we lived in caves, we may have thought that fat was rare. So our tongues developed itself as a compass: fat tastes good! Eat it! But now fat isn’t scarce at all. And instead of people thinking the best way to get rich is to sell us things we really need, the more efficient, cheaper, and sexier option is simple: butter. More butter. It sells everything.
And now our biology is used against us. Profit has hacked our nature, and the financial ecosystem that was designed to only let the best businesses survive has been disrupted and replaced by smart, delicious, and deadly profiteers.
The way to a better world demands a lot from everyone. We have to be smart when we go to the store, vote with our money, and help convince the world that we actually want what is good for us. It means putting in the effort to judge a business by its ethics, which is to say by its methods of production, the way it treats its employees, the way it treats our wallets, and the way it treats our happiness. And it requires innovators to think candidly about the effect of the things they are selling. The temptation to take over the world with an idea that caters to people’s baser instincts is tremendous. But the future’s fortune will go to the entrepreneurs who change our lives for the better. Who can finally engineer some broccoli that tastes like butter, or a pill that makes running fun, or a vitamin D vape. Ethical innovations are happening everyday: AGS in Hong Kong can test your DNA and make you a tailor made diet and exercise program, Qantas just flew a plane from Melbourne to LA and powered it with mustard seeds, apps are being built to battle depression, and education is being open sourced online.
When what we create is of real benefit to the people we’re selling to, then when we advertise we don’t need to rely on tricks, we need only tell the truth. We can take advantage of the internet by producing content that informs our audience. Why should they need you at all? Why should it be you and not all the other hard working people striving for their money? If you really care about people, today we have more opportunity to communicate that than ever. For this to work, your business has to be ethical to its core. And if we can convince people to want what is best for them, they can convince us to make it. Then maybe we all really can evolve.