What is misalignment?

An inaccurate social object can also be useful—in the production of advantage.

Some abstractions obscure reality more than they reveal.

A social object is a collectively held abstraction which helps us navigate reality. While we may assume that the goal of social objects is to provide relationships with reality that are aligned and accurate, misalignment and inaccuracy are equally (if not more) constructive—depending on who you are.

Consider “recycling.” Recent studies have revealed that 91% of plastics are never recycled and end up like any other piece of trash in a landfill, local community or the ocean. Despite the very real labor of near-global coordination among municipalities, citizens and businesses to separate certain materials to be “recycled” into new materials, the premise is mostly an illusion. While “recycling” presents as an objective solution to address the problem of disposable waste, it is a subjective tactic designed to maintain a positive (and profitable) relationship with plastic—profitable because it is disposable.

“Few things are ever more political or secretively powerful than the (mis)construction of social objects.”

Edward LiPuma, ‘The Social Life of Financial Derivatives’ (2017)

The production of advantage.

The inaccuracy of “recycling” produces imbalances which can be exploited. If you are the plastics manufacturer, you can produce positive association with your product and maintain its economic viability by externalizing disposal costs to municipalities and consumers. If you are a municipality, you can limit your area’s waste by sorting it and having a private buyer move it elsewhere. If you are a consumer, prices of goods can stay low and consumption remains quick and convenient. These advantages are produced because a line is drawn to externalize a cost—often via a misalignment.

Consider the idea of something “disposable” like a styrofoam cup of coffee.

Our generalized abstraction would lead us to refer to the cup itself as “disposable.” What is more accurate is that our relationship to the cup is disposable. The material continues to exist in the world as it moves through a waste system and eventually into the environment—beyond our obligation to it.

By inaccurately placing the abstraction as a quality of the material, we are allowed to draw a line and externalize the future costs of its existence as it circulates. And as we see with accumulations of externalized material like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, we have no clear method of reprogramming obligation or externalized costs back to a responsible party. Accountability is evaded across multiple actors by layers of misalignment.

How do we know when a social object is aligned enough to be accurate?

How do we know when a social object is misaligned enough to be inaccurate?

Can we tell the difference?