David Stairs

Either we live in the most enlightened era of recorded human history, or the most cynical. I don’t think this statement is contradictory.

Last year when I wrote Arguing With Success I was subsequently taken to task for criticising the very motives among designers I’d been calling for for years. One respondent said, “I feel your statements above are belittling to a vast amount of well-intentioned and successful work that is being done as part of this so-called social design movement.”

The discussion was reopened this year by Bruce Nussbaum in his essay “Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?” and led to a number of impassioned and lengthy responses. Obviously, designers are paying attention (at long last), and feeling exercised by the “topic.” But the discussion isn’t limited to design, not by a long shot. In fact, as I’ve argued, designers were a little slow to pick up the thread.

When I began to look around at the prevalence of the topic of altruism in society at large, I realised that, in the six or seven years I’ve been writing about it, social altruism has certainly come into its own. Long before Angelina Jolie became a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, more than a decade before Bob Geldof sponsored the first Band-Aid concert, George Harrison raised nearly a quarter million dollars for UNICEF through the Concert for Bangaladesh (1971).

Since that time, it has become increasingly commonplace for celebrities like Bono to participate in the discussions of what has come to be known as the civil sector. This consortium of non-governmental organizations came into being earlier in the 20th century in response to humanitarian crises, but has exploded exponentially under the influence of the internet, and is now the subject of its own UN office, the United Nations Non-Governmental Liason Service, and its own universal colloquium, the World Social Forum.

It doesn’t stop there.

In the last twenty years some companies made hay by bringing attention to social imbalances and taboos. Here I think of Bennetton’s Colors magazine. Even before that some corporations had famous parallel charitable foundations. Sometimes, as with Coca-Cola, these were related to corporate interest. At other times, as with the Ford Foundation, they were not associated. Recently, other multi-national corporations have contracted the altruism bug too. A casual glance at evening broadcast television yields commercial spots for Hyundai’s Hope on Wheels campaign, or Pepsi’s Refresh project. And a walk through Time magazine reveals similar initiatives for American Express (Members Project), Siemens (Answers), Kraft (Huddle to Fight Hunger), Shell (Let’s Go), Amway (Positivity), and NASCAR (Drive for COPD).

A recent attempt by Chevron, their We Agree initiative, was undermined by a collaborative of culture jammers who weren’t sitting pretty for Chevron’s “greenwashing” techniques. The results are a warning to Fortune 500s attempting to buy social credibility in an age of online guerilla warfare: there’s a fine line between hypocrisy and humanitarianism. “Chevron’s super-expensive fake street art is a cynical attempt to gloss over the human rights abuses and environmental degradation that is the legacy of Chevron’s operations in Ecuador, Nigeria, Burma and throughout the world. They must think we’re stupid,” said Ginger Cassady, a campaigner at Rainforest Action Network. “They say we’re ‘interrupting the dialogue,’” said Andy Bichlbaum of the Yes Men, referring to Chevron’s terse condemnation. “What dialogue? Chevron’s ad campaign is an insulting, confusing monologue – with many tens of millions of dollars behind it.”

If rock stars, famous actresses, and Fortune 500’s were the only ones practicing social altruism, it would seem an open and shut case of image management. But even little people are involved. I have two students in current classes, themselves active in African philanthropy (one with Invisible Children, another with The GO Effect), who have approached asking me to talk about my own experiences in Africa. American students are forming on-campus chapters of non-profit philanthropies at an amazing rate. And the students I’ve talked with both in America and Europe are more sophisticated, more concerned, hell, more active in social altruism than any preceding generation.

Is entrepreneurialism the latest form of social credibility? Never before have I seen so many people referring to themselves as entrepreneurs. Most institutes of higher learning promote entrepreneurship of some form through established degree programs. Many universities are offering master’s degrees in some sort of “social responsibility.” Entrepreneurship has been formalized, but has it become formulaic?

When I started the Design-Altruism-Project five years ago, the first post was entitled A Meme for Altruism. In it I discussed the scientific arguments for the genetic basis for altruism in terms of Richard Dawkins’ invention of a unit of cultural transmission, the meme. At the time I wrote, “The Design Altruism Project is an attempt to create an interactive online community for the sole purpose of discussing the altruism memeplexe from the perspective of design.” Now I’m wondering whether the memeplexe has truly come of age, or is it just another instance of media-driven fashion hype?

Marcel Duchamp once created a readymade entitled “In Advance of the Broken Arm.” It was a snow shovel he leaned against his studio wall and called art. My own dear father, Emerson Alfred Stairs (1917-2006), whose last snow shovel is pictured above, used to warn my brothers and I to “not break our arms patting ourselves on the back.” He didn’t believe in self-praise. Although he never met Marcel Duchamp, nor was he familiar with Duchamp’s sculpture, I think he would have appreciated the work’s irony. About the explosion of social do-gooderism he would have been less enthusiastic. As a Kiwanian he certainly did his part for many years, but I know he’d think there are limits.

Is there a point to this digression? Merely that, while we should take this outpouring of human kindness appreciatively, we should also maybe recalibrate our bullshit meters. Human nature seems to be moving in a good direction, historically speaking, but, in spite of seatbelts, anti-bullying programs in schools, and poverty eradication programs, I personally don’t see an end to exploitation, self-aggrandizement, or war anywhere in the near future.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, and try vigorously to advance the altruism meme. According to one of the master narratives of the Star Trek franchise, late in the 21st century the people of Earth realized the intelligence of putting an end to strife, and joined the United Federation of Planets (never mind that the overriding premise of the franchise is that humanity was born to strive). If that fantasy ever comes to pass, perhaps the future citizens of Earth will look to our era as the seedbed of general social evolution. In the meantime, Mother Theresa notwithstanding, altruism’s so hot it’s cool. Who’da thought?

David Stairs is the founding editor of Design-Altruism-Project