the power of theory in the construction of the world and the responsibility that comes with it

The last Friday was supposed to be a “Black Friday”. And, yesterday was “Cyber Monday” . Black Friday means that this is the day when retailers finally turn to black for the first time in the year. Cyber Monday is supposed to be the busiest on-line shopping day in the year. Media said a large percentage of people would shop on-line at work on Cyber Monday. I don’t know where they are coming from, but, somehow the news media treat them as if what these are true. Or, at least they treat this as if plausible theories of retail behavior.

As a result, retailers promote big sales and open the stores very early in the morning on Black Friday. Shoppers wait outside of the door in anticipation of big sales. They literally break into the door as soon as they are allowed. As a result, we get people stamped to death at Wal-Mart. On Cyber Monday, people who would not otherwise think about shopping on-line become intrigued about online shopping deal, as they constantly hear about this huge sales going on Amazon and eBay. I felt almost guilty not shopping online yesterday.

What is going on here is a social construction of reality in real time. One espouses a theory of Black Friday. Then, everyone begins to treat it as if it is real, adjusting their own anticipations and behaviors based on that espoused theory. And, we become very much a part of the newly constructed reality that looks just like what the theory anticipated.

We saw similar phenomenon during the bubble, financial derivatives, presidential politics and short-selling. A theory is espoused and circulated. As more people talk about it, it becomes a part of reality. And, in that process, we all participate the construction of social reality as we talk about that theory. Technology that we use are all the outcome of such theories (not necessarily social theories, however). They are put in practice, shaping what we do and how we live. Each time we fly in an airplane, we entrust our body to the theory of Bernoulli’s principle. The theory has shaped the way we travel. So, there is no question that the theories have the power of shaping the world in which we live.

The question then is who bears the responsibility of the consequences of these theories, when they go wrong. As a default, the society as a whole seem to bear the consequences of the theories as it affects the reality, whether it is the three dead people, or trillions of dollars of lost wealth (whether they were ever created or not is another subject), and hopelessly depressed stock prices. What is striking here is that no one individual ever take the responsibility of the consequences of these espoused theories. In a way, whoever first came up with the idea of Black Friday is indirectly responsible for the death of three people on Friday. People who developed the theory of financial derivatives are at least indirectly responsible for the loss of life-long savings.

Scientists, social scientists in particular, tend to think that the sphere of influence of their theories are often constrained in the intellectual arena. Whether it is a marketing scholar who first coined the notion of Black Friday or the finance scholar who first developed option pricing model, or the technologies who designed new circuitry that enabled mobile phones, they are all responsible for the consequences of the theories that they developed. They are never just intellectual and academic exercise. We academics often strive to have relevance in our work. Yet, one must not lose the sight of the moral responsibility that comes with it. The theory that we build, hypothesize, prove and disprove has real social implications. It can kill people. Before we develop yet another theory, this is something to think about.

Professor | Writer | Teacher Digital Innovation, Design, Organizational Genetics Case Western Reserve University

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