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Homo Economicus and Homo Ludens

In this video Viktor Dörfler problematises the concept of the economic man.
I like to contrast the idea of the homo economicus with the idea of the homo ludens. There is a post that you can find on LinkedIn, by Henry Mintzberg, which is about a hypothetical MBA student who is trying to apply what he learned in his MBA course to the symphony orchestra. He delivers an argument that the number of oboes should be reduced, because they don’t do anything most of the time. The number of violins should be reduced, because they play from the same notes most of the time. Then the work should be spread a little bit more evenly amongst the musicians to avoid the peaks and valleys of activity. Then the repetitions should be removed for the sake of efficiency.
And that way we could also shorten the overall concert time, which means that we can remove the breaks as well. Now the twist is that everyone finds it ridiculous that we want to do this to the great music. However, very few are laughing if we talk about doing this to an organisation. Do we really think that orchestrating an organisation is so much simpler than orchestrating the symphonic orchestra? I don’t think so. Now behind this whole story is the idea of the homo economicus. This is the economic man, it is a nonexisting imaginary being, which is totally rational. And the only thing that he or she cares about is to maximise its utility function.
Now all of us are occasionally behaving like the homo economicus, only not all the time, or not even most of the time. Most of us are also occasionally a homo ludens, a playing man. So if you are building information systems, should we customise the information system to one of these nonexisting imaginary beings, or should we try to customise our information systems to real individuals? That reminds me of a joke. In the main square of the village, they set up a shaving machine. And a potential customer was inquiring how this machine can work when all the faces of different people are so different. And the machine operator came on, reassuring the potential customer. Don’t worry, sir.
Your face is only different before the first use of the machine. I would really, really like if we did not do the same thing to our information systems.
The idea of the Homo Economicus is so obviously wrong that we cannot imagine why economists believe that it is how people are or that this utility-maximising emotionless entity is a good approximation. Therefore we have asked a few economists about this. The answer was surprising: it is not that we believe this, we simply don’t care. What we do is not about the real world, it is about this imaginary world in which our calculations work.
Of course, not all economists are like that. I don’t even have a problem if someone wants to explore an imaginary, and to me not very attractive, world. I like this real world, in which we can be so beautifully different. I am afraid of those who confuse that imaginary world with this real one. This is what Mintzberg describes in his story. Information systems can help achieve efficiency as Mintzberg describes it, it can support the Homo Economicus, it can shave everyone to look exactly the same (by the way, my spellchecker just recommended here that I replace ‘exactly the same’ with ‘the same’ as my version is too wordy…). Or, it can support the variety, help us with what we are passionate about, what we like and whom we like. Let’s make IS/ICT help to create a more human world rather than a more robot-like one.
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