Scene 25: Juanita learns about Capitalism


In which high-school student Juanita grumpily learns about capitalism.

Technology and interactive design techniques for understanding complex systems will ratchet understanding quickly.

"Yes, ma'am, I see the issue in your cooling unit, and I apologize. I'm afraid we can't fix it remotely this time, so we'll have to send out a technician."

The character was visibly incensed. "So, what am I supposed to… our food is going bad!"

The argument continued as their voices faded, and a narrator explained, "At this level, people's needs are viewed most directly. If customers aren't satisfied, then they'll buy from someone other than ModernCorp…"

Juanita was a little impatient and unsure where this was leading, but kept going.  She had just previously visited a different social justice site that had been very subversive and thus more to her liking (though it had necessitated circumventing a parental-approval barrier.)


The teaching approach in this site was to quickly show a series of perspectives at various societal strata, ultimately to illustrate that everyone doesn't have the same "lens" on the world. This particular module was in the realm of economics.

Next up was a snippet of debate between the same customer service rep and a Marketing director, in which the director asked why so many customers were complaining, and the rep tried to describe their frustrations. After that was a conversation between the Marketing director and ModernCorp's CEO; the CEO asked hard questions about the plan to get more sales, more markets, and more products. At each level, Juanita was obliged to engage in a bit of Q&A interaction about the significance of the conversation.

In between dialogue snippets, sometimes the private thoughts of characters were displayed.

"…We think our new product will appeal to a more price-conscious market group," continued the Marketing director. He thought to himself, "I hope she appreciates how much work it was to reduce our manufacturing costs!"

"Hmm, same old unimaginative ideas," the CEO thought to herself grumpily. "How is this going to make our company successful?"  She nodded and said sternly, "All right. Please get me your planning documents by Tuesday."

The narrator jumped in.

"At this level, the CEO is concerned about sales and profits for the corporation she is managing. ModernCorp has millions of customers, and she can't possibly pay attention to the needs of each of them, so she must motivate and direct all of her employees to do so.

"More personally, the CEO and the Marketing director are ambitious people. They are concerned about their careers, and about their accomplishments, and, like most business managers, they have hopes for larger personal paychecks and greater authority."

Next, the CEO spoke with an investor about how bright ModernCorp's prospects were. The investor asked aggressive questions about why profits had not increased compared to last year, using a few complicated-sounding financial terms. Juanita didn't really understand the narrator's explanation about maximizing return on investment, and so she selected one of the available questions, “What, really, does the investor want?”    The narrator responded:

"The main thing investors like this one want is to increase their own wealth as much as possible, by buying ownership of those companies that will increase in value the fastest. Companies increase in value by spotting the best new business opportunities before other competing companies do."

Juanita considered this, with not a little cynicism. She scanned through the displayed follow-on questions, and selected: "Do investors care about customers?"

"Only indirectly. Investors know that the company's employees must try to satisfy customers, or else the company will lose sales. But it is hard for investors to get a deep understanding of what is really happening in the company and in its markets."

She glowered, but moved on. Last in this module was a conversation between the investor and a congresswoman for the state in which ModernCorp was headquartered. The two discussed areas of mutual interest and concern, and the narrator then concluded with a short exposition about the private sector and the invisible hand of the market.

Juanita shook her head at the depravity she perceived. Why were rich people running the country? She didn't care for any of the follow-on questions provided, so she verbally tried her own.

"The system is evil…" she growled, and then, remembering that she should ask a question, concluded, "isn't it?"

The program responded, "Are any of these questions relevant to your question?", followed by several completely irrelevant questions.

Juanita is a high-school, social-justice-warrior wannabee who is looking for ways to hate capitalism and wealth.  This interactive animation is on a more legit site, which to her mind is not a plus.   (It points to a more general phenomenon called “motivated reasoning”, where people tend to avoid or dismiss information that doesn’t agree with their current beliefs.)   But this activity has managed to keep her engaged.  Youth often is the best opportunity to counter motivated reasoning.

Think about the structure of the activity itself. A watchable tour of the economy – from bottom up to top – in a few minutes. Anyone who does this activity understands that layers of bureaucracy are required to deliver products to customers. Did many of us understand this on our own before we left college?  Doesn't it clear up some of the mystery of why we have to have corporations?

The design approach of quickly showing the learner a “broad sweep”, while showing concrete peeks inside each separate part, is a particularly good one for helping learners understand the system as a whole.  Today, we don’t see this technique often enough—certainly not in textbooks—because it’s not the easiest to develop.  But as educational content development centralizes into larger teams of designers, scriptwriters, multimedia developers, programmers, and SMEs (subject-matter experts), techniques like this one will multiply and accumulate.


cast of characters