While many other consumer electronics designers were inviting customers to help co-create new technologies, Steve Jobs famously advanced the philosophy of elite design: “Get closer than ever to your customers. So close that you tell them what they need well before they realize it themselves.”
He didn’t say, “So close that you can tell them what they need…” If you know what your customers need better than they do, then Jobs recommended giving them no other option. Rather than sell people what they think they need, he recommended selling them only the best.
To clarify: The concept of elite design starts with the worldview that people ultimately face some real nature beyond their fantasies such that designs which better align with that real nature really are better, even if they align less-well with customers’ fantasies. In other words, goodness is not merely a matter of opinion, so the customer is not always right. Some people will be better at design than others because they have greater talent and/or experience, and inviting customers to design their own world will not be as good as having these elite designers design it for them. Inferior designs should not be implemented, even if most customers would be willing to pay for them or the majority of the electorate would vote for them—in short, elitism leaves serious problems of political philosophy open.
But those problems are for another article—this article focuses on interpersonal issues. When some designers participate in (what they perceive to be) inferior design, they experience anxiety strong enough to prevent them from thinking straight. Their response may range from rage to withdrawal. A similar response should prevent people from committing crimes—a bell-in-the-mind should warn “This is wrong!” and should be so distracting that crime cannot continue. Such bells can cause people to obsess over grammar errors, errors of calculation, errors of logic, factual errors, moral errors, or missed opportunities to improve quality. Whether we criticize the people who experience such anxiety for lacking flexibility or praise them for having conscience, the bottom line is that their interpersonal relationships must accommodate their special anxiety.
This may sound all well and good when dealing with engineers of iPhones, computer systems, skyscrapers, rockets, or movies, but the special accommodation seems more burdensome when dealing with social engineering. We expect to be able to co-design our nation, our church, our family and especially our marriage. When someone insists on his/her own designs for society, we call him/her a “narcissist.” Some of us avoid such people; some apply special rules and boundaries to such people as though dealing with a child; some sacrifice their own mental health to stay in the relationship.
Is there no other way to treat such people? Is there no hope of healthy social relationship with elite social designers?
Notice that we are not necessarily talking about accommodating people diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder. We are talking about accommodating people who do not recognize what we consider to be our rights, whether that is because the person has narcissistic personality disorder or because that person is simply immature or because that person is gifted (or any combination of causes). Our inability to have healthy relationships with people we call “narcissist” is something we need to address, regardless of whether we correctly diagnose those people or not.
What is at stake in facing this challenge of interpersonal-skills?
Corporantia are people who form into a body. Not a mere colony, but a body. That means relinquishing independence to accept an assigned role in a shared design for social functioning, much as neurons accept the role of neuron and bone cells accept the role of bone. Cells are not all invited to modify the design of the body, and any co-creation that ever occurred to produce the design in the first place surely occurred long before the parts differentiated. Thus, the corporantia rely on elite social design.
For example, although the tagline of the GRINfree.com website is “How to let people be themselves,” it does not describe processes by which people express their own fantasies of who they ought to be. Rather, it explores evidence of a real world beyond our invention—it invites people to discover their nature, rather than invent it. Much like a narcissist doubting the competence of his or her victims, the website even explores evidence of common human biases (e.g. evaluativism and anthropomorphism) which may justify delegation of design to elite experts. One could uncharitably rephrase the tagline as “How to save people from their lack of self-awareness.”
To be fair, much social science—not just that of corporantia—will ultimately have to defend itself against the accusation of narcissism. When the Church says, “You have to take it on faith,” Science shuts down. “I cannot be myself and ignore evidence,” says Science, echoing the narcissist who complains, “I cannot be myself and accept inferior designs.” The response from the Church is to stigmatize Science and set boundaries on it, letting Science address questions of medicine and physical engineering, but dismissing scientific analysis of the mechanisms that generate our beliefs about morality and the divine. Ever since Galileo, the Church has refused a healthy relationship with certain areas of Science, especially moral psychology.
Social scientists need to understand this: Whether scientists happen to be narcissists or not, the Church will treat certain science as narcissism. This relationship problem could even stem from flaws in the person who claims to be the victim:
- The victim might not know his/her role. When someone identifies as a victim of narcissism, they seem to doubt both that they should obey the narcissist and that they should force the narcissist to obey. Cells of the body that do not know their role are called “cancer,” and the inability of humans to recognize their social roles is a similar disease for society.
- The victim might not accept his/her role. Sometimes suicide and denial of reality come less from ignorance than from pride. Anyone with enough pride will perceive narcissism in their opponent, and anyone with sufficient humility will not find narcissism troubling.
In short, “narcissistic” is a term that applies better to relationships than to individuals because both sides can take blame and because it might be beyond the ability of either side alone to solve the relationship problem. It is not enough for social scientists and the corporantia to work on their own psychology. Neither would it help to persecute those who embrace faith—if we need elite designers, then we need for the people who are not elite designers to have faith in designs that are not their own. The solution needs to be social engineering, rather than psychological treatment.
What is the solution?
Star Trek’s “Borg” supposedly solved the interpersonal-relationship challenge of narcissism by shackling each brain to a computer that would force each person to accept assigned roles with humility. That might not work in reality—it might even destroy the very diversity that the Borg aimed to “asymilate.” The case of Steve Jobs points towards a more practical solution:
Whether Steve Jobs was an actual narcissist or not, he did have interpersonal relationship issues associated with narcissism, yet those issues did not block his designs from changing our world. Both of the mechanisms which allowed him to circumvent the relationship issue involved layers of intermediaries.
First, there were layers of people. Most complaints about Jobs’ personality were made by people who dealt with him directly. The rest of us might have believed that Jobs was a narcissist, but we did not complain about it because we did not deal with Jobs directly. We dealt with Apple as a company or with a particular Apple salesperson or even with a competing company that copied aspects of Jobs’ design.
Of course, some people did need to deal with Jobs directly, so some people did need special relationship skills. The people who can surround an elite designer are their own kind of elite. When the rest of us were frustrated with the designs being imposed on us (by Apple or its followers), our complaints to the people we dealt with directly were diffused by making Jobs the scapegoat. “What can we do?” they said, “Jobs has all the control!”
One might imagine the corporantia would be like the Apple Company as a whole. It would take a large group of people to change the world, but only a few members of that group need take the blame. Effective social change may even require someone to embrace the reputation of a narcissist in order to direct blame away from the rest of the corporantia, thus empowering the group as a whole to overcome the interpersonal relationship challenge.
The second kind of layer of intermediaries was norms. People were more likely to dispute Jobs’ designs before they became normal. Today, some young people complain about never experiencing a world without the pressure smartphones have brought them to make themselves available to their friends at a moment’s notice, but this frustration is not perceived as an interpersonal problem with Jobs or Apple. Rather than identify as victims of narcissism, these young people identify as victims of dogma or of “The Machine.”
Similarly, the work of the corporantia can be built up over the course of generations by building up norms. For example, the last couple hundred years have established the norms of change, health science, and management of diversity. The designs of the corporantia would have seemed far more objectionable before those norms were established. It may seem nefarious—like addicting a customer to powerful drugs by starting with gateway drugs—but cumulative shifts in social norms may be necessary to address the interpersonal problem, and therefore necessary to accomplish certain worthwhile social changes.
You might think that the greatest challenge facing corporantia is to figure-out the natural design for how all the parts of society should work together. But following the Steve Jobs metaphor, consider what actually turned-out to be the greatest obstacles to achieving his ultimate goal of ubiquitous computing.
Jobs and many others knew that ubiquitous computing must mostly be housed in site-based hardware like smart homes, smart offices, smart ships, and smart cars (that’s the only way to be able to be everywhere at once), and that carried devices will be justifiable only if they permit us to communicate more intimately with our computer agents (as with Google Glass or computer-brain interfaces). Discovering that natural design for ubiquitous computing—which notably does not include smartphones—was easy compared to figuring-out how to get from here to there. Who would guess that the path to ubiquitous computing would start with payphones, which would be obsolesced by cell phones, which would be obsolesced by smartphones, which would be obsolesced by…?
Smartphones cannot have any natural design because it is clearly natural for them to be obsolesced. Smartphones are merely an intermediary step, a fad designed at whim to nudge us closer to ubiquitous computing. There might even have been a possible path that never included smartphones at all. Similarly, we should expect the advance of the corporantia to require intermediary steps for which many design decisions must be arbitrary: Some elite will need to take power and make indefensible decisions that rightly inspire criticism and interpersonal difficulty.
Jobs managed his interpersonal relationship challenges such that most of us did not identify as victims of narcissism, but his tactics boiled-down to spin-doctoring. Perhaps “narcissism” is a bad word for what oppresses us—perhaps it would be more accurate to claim we are victims of a world so imperfect that manipulation is the only way forward—but we do and will need to continue suffering unjustifiable inequality.