availability entrepreneurs

images.jpgIn popular usage the entrepreneur is a scrappy individual who creates by his sweat and passion a new business and since sweat is moral his wealth is admirable. Usually one must be suspicion that his wealth is due to one of the other four less moral ways. But, that isn’t actually a good definition. The entrepreneur is actually the agent of creative destruction. He builds new institutions. Since in many cases those displace existing institutions this work is often adversarial. He’s a change agent. For good or bad since act of change is ethically neutral. Further the entrepreneur is usually assumed to be a leader; a coordinator at the hub of the new institution which is emerging. I think that’s probably far too limiting; I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t grant the attribution to many many more individuals involved in the emerging institution. Personally I have no trouble treating most of the members of the group that manages to establish a new institutional form the title. For example the engineer or marketing people who craft their portions of these new institutions are doing difficult entrepreneurial work as well.

The problem of how to manage (build, displace) institutions is important. Entrepreneurs are key players in that. I’d rather not see the title tainted with the presumption that the change agent’s primary, and possibly only ethically plausible, motivation is his exit strategy through a liquidity event. That would be silly, but it’s also a common misunderstanding. More functionally, ignoring all these other variations is a handicap, it blinds you to their methods.

I yearning to see the word entrepreneur given a broader and more nuanced meaning so we can apply to a wider range of institutions and professions. I raised my eyebrows when I saw this phrase: “availability entrepreneur.” It’s used in this bit of climate change advocacy. The advocate is pushing to continue the status quo – of inaction – but that’s not the topic at hand.

I guess you might guess that an availability entrepreneur strives to create new ways of managing the supply chain. I know a few of those. Or maybe they would be people working to create better pricing models for that impulse borrowing shelf at the public library. But no. You can see the roots of that usage by looking up the phrase in one of or another of the scanned book collections. The availability entrepreneur is a sales and marketing actor his goal is to convince you to join the institution being built. He tells stories that increase the chance his institution building goals are achieved.

It is a possible Cass R. Sunstein introduced the term. In a book published in 2000 he wrote: “‘Availability entrepreneurs’ will thus focus attention on a specific event in order to ensure that this event will be salient and available to many members of the public.” Availability is a psych term, it’s a sophisticated name for the children’s game: “Don’t think about elephants!” It names the tendency we all have to solve problems using what is at hand; e.g. Got a hammer? Well, problems come to look more nail like. ‘Availability’ is a fact of life, it is usually treated as a source of cognitive failure in the literature. Practical people manage it. For example when building a team one of the questions you keep asking is what skills should I be adding or subtracting – which is all about about availability (as well as flexibility and budget).

So this is cool; these entrepreneurs aren’t good guys. The preceding sentences in Sunstein’s work illustrate that: “Interested actors in the private and public sectors can be expected to exploit the availability heuristic for their own purposes these actors are amateur behaviorists, operating strategically to promote their selfish or nonselfish goals.” They are suspicious characters, how non-standard is that! You can poke around in his book, which is fun.

At this point I find myself recalling the term I took away from Tilly’s work on collective violence, e.g. “violence entrepeneur“.

Somebody was poking me recently to opine on the question of displacing Facebook with something less owned, less evil, more open, more community-ish … well something like that. I was surprised that my first thought was how you would need to focus on breaking off groups from the existing network. That one of the tools you’d use to do that would be too weaken their ties to the Facebook network by – to use the framing above – raising the salience in their minds it’s risks. That you could then begin to break them these groups with the help of a bit of further polarization, and obviously some carrots.

That kind of awareness of risks inherent in the existing network is all we got out of the anti-trust case against Microsoft. Developers became more aware of the risks associated with participation in that network. Managing that perception is a part of why Google used too make a point of their “do no evil” motto. I have heard Google people say publically that motto may have been a mistake, and I think Facebook has been more transparent about it’s risks in a way that helps to immunize it – to a degree – from the accusation that you can’t trust them. It’s curious how few people who participate in Facebook seem to be resigned about how the network owner will abuse their trust. That’s a pattern that’s not uncomon with the customers of monopolies.

I think I’ve become more conscious of how the entrepeneur working to create an alternate institution is always forced to devote significant resources to making the risks of the existing network more apparent and in turn diving into the midst of the community and polarizing it so they can weaken and break of portions. These same methods seem to be needed if your don’t intend to create a fresh institution but only hope to create change in the existing one.

I can’t resist taking a swipe at that piece in the New York Times. Boy have we come a long way. A few years ago the advocates of inaction on climate change would accuse their opponents of being a hysterical herd of unreasoning who’s pseudo-science was little more than a lie. Today the best they can do is to suggest that a modicum of accessibility entrepreneurship maybe unfolding in the media. And yet it remains the same rhetorical tactic, and in this presentation it is curiously rich with projection.

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