Throughout history, humans have spent countless lifetimes battling against sun, wind, and wave. Their almost limitless power has the capacity to change our lives in an instant. Yet instead of harnessing this energy to meet our needs for electricity, we continue to spend huge amounts of lives and money removing non-renewable fuels from the ground. We who are young today will pay the price for this shortsightedness over the course of the rest of our lives.
Everyone knows that there are better ways to power our homes and vehicles than with fossil fuels, but structures of power and interest make it practically impossible to make the transition. Energy is treated as something scarce and expensive, when it should be free and abundant.
Last year, in the United States alone, firms spent more than nine billion dollars conducting market research. And yet our knowledge of public opinion is basically zero. Ad campaigns flop, products lose market share, and well-funded political campaigns manage to spectacularly implode. The return on all this opinion research investment is shamefully low.
The current opinion research regime treats people and their minds as commodities. The methods of gathering opinion are extractive. The company bothers you on the phone at dinner time, or pops up a totally unrelated survey on a website you happen to be browsing, or worst of all, someone with a clipboard comes up to you in a public place and disrupts your peace. In all of these cases, the experience is the same. You are presented with a list of stultifying questions with a mystifying purpose, and then your answers are taken away and vanish forever. It’s no wonder that the vast majority of people refuse to participate in polls and surveys, even after they’ve been ambushed.
But people love to answer questions and share their opinions! Everyone is telling everyone else what they think, and non-stop. The opinions that we want are out there, we just have no way of collecting them. What percentage of New Yorkers like baseball? How many Americans think Hugo Chávez was a dictator? These are extremely simple questions, and it shouldn’t be hard to answer them, but one thing is clear: with the extractive approach currently in use, not billions, but trillions of dollars would be required to find out what the world is thinking.
We believe that the act of finding out what people think should be creative, not extractive. People love answering questions, and they love asking them too. That is fundamental, since if you are trying to find out what a group of people are thinking, you concede that you do not know what they think in advance. If you don’t know what they think, why assume that you know what questions to ask? Yet this basic mistake is repeated every day by every opinion researcher in the world. With all of the extractive research that money has been wasted on over the years, we know next to nothing about what the world is really thinking.
The opinions are out there. As a researcher of what people think, your focus should be much less on getting your questions answered than on surfacing questions that you hadn’t imagined. With a creative, collaborative approach that empowers the people you contact, your knowledge of the world around can only increase. The question is the foundation of science. And it is for this reason that we believe that people should have the right to ask questions at all times, in any situation, no matter where they are.
That a resource as valuable as petroleum is being depleted to benefit the greed of an interested few is a terrible waste. But without the construction of global public opinion, global democracy will never be possible. Treating human beings and their minds as commodities to be used and thrown away is worse than a waste: it is a crime.