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2011-02-01

Food, Safety, and Moral Behavior

A colleague of mine sent me a link to an article in Foreign Affairs by Evan Fraser and Andrew Rimas titled, "The Psychology of Food Riots: When Do Price Spikes Lead to Unrest?" In citing the article, he challenged us to try to understand the rapid emergence of such popular movements because their causes are predictable. The article's authors look at not just the physical and economic realities of food security, but the moral dimension as well. The perception of merchants' efforts to take advantage of fluctuations in market price and availability of commodities poses a moral issue from the perspective of those who are going hungry. It's not just the fact of the shortage of food that encourages people to take to the streets, but the perception that they have been morally wronged by these merchants in the domain of food. The authors drew from a variety of historical examples to illustrate their thesis and made a strong case about the moral imperative that we all share.

The question my friend posed concerns the development of our technological system and its use. The point he made is that just understanding the physical properties underlying an alert in our context is not completely sufficient in understanding the fuller meaning of what is going on. Just as a sense of moral outrage provides the catalyst for food riots and civil unrest, we need to be aware of the context of the signals we detect that are outside the frame of our data. Put in a more folksy way, when considering information technology, the most important distance is the space between the screen and the back of the chair. That's the place where we need to focus our thinking and consider how to help bridge that gap. If we can do that, then we will be successful.

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