Why So Meaningless?

Few manage to live by their values day-by-day, moment-by-moment. Which is to say, few live meaning-packed lives. Why's that?

I'll break it down, starting with large-scale, societal trends, but quickly zooming into problems that crop up in individual social spaces—the things which, as social designers, we must be aware of and avoid in our designs. I'll end by mentioning a few sources of inevitable meaninglessness—meaninglessness that can't be removed from life, even in a society with better social systems.

The Big Picture

Products mostly live or die within a larger social system we call "the market"; users mostly find products through marketing and word-of-mouth; and other non-market social spaces often live or die within a nest of social systems we call "democracy".

At these large scales, these meta-social systems don't support meaning very well. What thrives under the market or in various democratic systems are not the most meaningful social spaces but those that drive the most purchases, votes, or other engagements, or which serve the people who generate the most purchases, votes, or other engagements. I covered this in detail in


What we would want, ideally, would be systems that help people find the smaller systems that would best support what's meaningful to them—helps them discover new scenes, new practices to try with existing friends, etc. A kind of values-based market and marketing.

In fact, we have a kind of an opposite meta system that works by promising people meaning, promising them adventure and love, and so on. While selling them on things that make things even more meaningless. We promise adventure and sell blue jeans. We promise love, and sell breath mints and Tinder. We promise impact, and sell desk jobs.

Why do we have this bad system, and not the one that'd address meaninglessness? This is a bit of a puzzle. Here are three possibilities:

  1. Such a system would only make sense if there were more values-based designs to make a market out of.
  2. The more values-based designers, the more likely a community or a system will emerge to route people whose values are suppressed to designs that help.

  3. Such a system would require values-articulate consumers, and there are very few.
  4. We don't have such systems, because people have not been articulate about what's meaningful to them. Which means they can't shop by what's meaningful to them, or design around it, very well. Even articulacy about feelings is new, and articulacy about values is much newer. The kind of values articulacy we developed in quest one is extremely new.

    Spreading values-articulacy would lead to values-articulate designers, and also to systems for shopping by values—systems which help people find where their values would be supported.

  5. It just hasn't been invented yet.
  6. Someone just needs to invent a new meta-system, that responds to meaninglessness by helping people (1) identify suppressed values, and (2) find social spaces where those values are supported.

    I have some experiments in this direction.

What to be aware of, as designers

From a design perspective, that big picture view isn't so helpful. We need to zoom in, and ask why individual social designs end up meaningless. The answer is surprisingly simple.

There are two ways our environments fail to support our values.

  • Crowding out. The environment can make something else, besides our values, a more pressing concern. We'll be unable to focus on our values, because we're too busy with some other other concern.
  • Missing Affordances. Second, the environment can make it impossible or exceedingly difficult to live by our values, even when we are able to focus on them, because there's some information we'd need to live by our values that we are unable to get, or because there's some action we'd want to take to live by our values which is impossible in the environment.

I'll define each of these and give examples, then show why these problems cannot be entirely avoided—why improving an environment for one value will often make it worse for another value.

Crowding Out


Debbi needs this promotion to pay for her son's private school. Normally she'd try to be honest with her boss, but in this meeting she's just trying to say everything right. To behave as expected. The stakes are too high.

Debbi's locked in a social situation where she can't follow her values. She may have taken her job because of her values, but now that she works there, she don't have much agency.

A situation like Debbi's can happen in many kinds of high stakes environments—whether the threat is one of violence, economic hardship, becoming an outcast, etc.


Edward works at a call center and every action he takes is scripted. He wishes he could be kinder to the customers who call in, and take more time to hear their concerns, but the binder is clear about what he should say when, and how long he should spend on different kinds of problems, and he could get fired.

A situation like Edward's doesn't just occur in work and compulsory schooling environments, but also in social scenes where there are strong norms.

When other, non-value concerns make it hard to live by our values, I call that crowding out. (See


Missing Affordances

Every person operating a social environment has limited information, limited ability to figure things out on their own, and a limited set of actions available to them, that are acceptable in that environment.

  • Lack of information. If you're looking for someone you can confide in, in an environment, but there are no clues about which person which people would be trustworthy, then you're not going to be able to find that person.
  • Lack of reflection time. My policy of looking really deep within me for the right answers, and answering as truthfully as I can. This policy requires a space where such reflection is an option. It would be hard for me to do this kind of reflection while being eaten by a bear. Or with an air raid siren blaring around me.
  • Limited vocabulary/actions. Or if the only available moves in an environment are announcements to the entire room, even if you know the person that you'd confide in, that kind of operation is not available in the environment.

Inevitable Meaninglessness

Even if you make sure to protect the values you're designing around from crowding out and missing affordances, some meaninglessness will inevitably slip into the environment you're making. This is due to...

  1. The emergence of new rules that you didn't design in the system
  2. The difficulty all people have in finding scenes with a perfect fit
  3. Psychological traumas and false beliefs of your participants

Inevitability of Crowding Out

Here's a sad fact about crowding out: it occurs even in ideally designed systems. Norms Inevitably Arise, and Crowd Out Values.


What's a norm? a behavioral guideline that everyone is monitoring and putting pressure on you to comply with. where it becomes kind of clear if you violate it, that you're doing something wrong. And usually that your place in the environment, or legitimacy to make further moves, is jeopardized.

Social designers never get to design all of the rules and roles in social environment. You can make some rules, but other rules will emerge as the agents within the system develop expectations for each other, put pressure on each other, and sanction each other to accomplish their own goals within the system.


In an office, there's a stand-up meeting every morning. Unofficial rules (we call them "norms" or "expectations") will emerge about getting quickly to the point in these meetings, so that people's legs don't get too tired, and they can go get work done. Such a norm will inevitably crowd out values, like deeply reflective thinking or intuition, at the standup.

Often, the designer can predict the norms that will arise, if they give some thought to this possibility during their design process. One job of a social designer is to anticipate norms that will arise, and which values they will interfere with, and to make sure the most important values are safe.

Formal Systems are Necessary and Disastrous

In I wrote:

There's a reason that formal social systems are so common—the clearer the rules, the more scalable a social system is: it's easier for people to join and to leave, to predict the impact of their actions, to accept newcomers, and to navigate by their own goals and values, once they've picked up the vocabulary.

Unfortunately, there's also a cost to this. These systems are less malleable by the players, and thus less adaptable to different values.

One way people deal with this is by introducing a variety of social games into a scene: if you can get your friends dancing when you want to dance, or talking when you want to talk, you can make room for more of your values than if your friends only do one or the other. But to do this, all your friends must know all these different games and rules, and you need a meta game for deciding when to switch games. This grates against many of the above advantages of formality.

Another approach is to have different scenes—some friends can dance, some friends have intellectual debates. Different systems in different scenes. This has its own drawbacks.

A third approach is to have friends who can discuss values, and invent or modify games on the fly. This, also, has drawbacks in terms of inclusivity.

Any social scene you can set up will have a limited repertoire of games, and this limits values that can be supported well. This means that, to the extent our values are social, they can never be completely expressed.

Psychological Barriers to Life Meaning

Some people feel like they're in situations like Debbi's and Edwards's (above) this even when they're not. For instance, those who've been in situations of violence, threat or extreme economic hardship in the past may project those situations into the present, even if they're not there. Some people who are raised to be proper and to follow social scripts don't realize when they actually could deviate from the script.

Whether you're actually in such a situation, or merely think that you are, it becomes difficult to improvise according to your values. Often it feels like there is no choice. Instead of conflicted emotions, the person may feel like things are meaningless, fake, an empty performance, or hopeless.


Despite the inevitable sources of meaninglessness, it's clear we can make much more meaningful social designs. The job of a values-based social designer to do this as well as possible. This is what we'll learn in quest 2 and 3.