Anyone can be faithful to an employer; millions are, daily, constantly; it is one of the dullest and most vulgar of loyalties.

– Rex Stout, The League of Frightened Men.

In Sapiens, Yuval Harari develops a theory that human civilization’s key innovation is our facility for shared fictions. We can agree that “France” exists, can use it as the subject of a sentence, even though the physical world has no such thing as France 1. But caution is required.

We are good at dealing with each other. Through intuition and years of developing theory-of-mind, we come to mostly understand what other people want and fear. This mutual understanding underlies all human interaction. Animals, too, we basically get. Their response to stimuli is not so different from what we would do. We can inhabit their minds as necessary. Nonhuman fictions and institutions, though, we have a harder time with.

Loyalty, love, duty, reciprocity: these emotions serve us well in the human world. But corporations don’t feel them. Feeling towards institutions as though they were persons is dangerous.

  1. It’s less satisfying. Your local coffee shop gives you a “loyalty card”: buy 10 coffees and get one free. Well-placed loyalty is a noble virtue, it makes you feel good. But when this impulse becomes commercialized, when it is reduced to punching out a card for what amounts to a 10% discount, does it contain the full richness of loyalty to a lover or friend?
  2. You can be exploited. We are uneasy around human sociopaths, who feel no feelings themselves but have learned to mimic human emotional expressions to manipulate others 2. We should feel the same discomfort with companies. They too do not feel our feelings, and they have poured massive resources into understanding and exploiting your emotional responses.

Counterpoint: even with other people, you need to be careful with your emotions and wary of manipulation. In the long run, to successfully mimic human interaction and elicit these positive emotions, any agent has to act well, in a way that mirrors the good things a person would do in the same situation.

Response: there’s something to that. A long track record of “prosocial behavior” is relevant for both. But the fundamental asymmetry remains. One example of this is economies of scale of attention, which I’ve written about previously.

  1. Terry Pratchett in Hogfather: “Take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy.” 

  2. This is a massive approximation, likely does not reflect the latest DSM, etc.