Analysis: Why Nordea is no Agent Smith but Commander Data

What can Star Trek and The Matrix teach us about the row over banking giant Nordea's move, asks Ruben Brunsveld.

Analysis: Why Nordea is no Agent Smith but Commander Data
Nordea's current headquarters in Stockholm. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

Sweden is in uproar over Nordea's decision to move its HQ to Finland. How can a company that, in the words of the Swedish Prime Minister “owes its very existence to the Swedish taxpayers” move its HQ to another country, displacing hundreds of jobs and possibly destroying Stockholm's hope of being a major financial hub by 2020? The debate is an emotional one. Nordea is at best portrayed as an ungrateful child and at worst as a traitor of the national Swedish interest. In fact it is neither.

READ ALSO: Nordea moves headquarters from Sweden to Finland

In psychological terms the attribution of human traits, emotions or intentions to non-human entities (such as a financial institution) is called “anthropomorphism”. When a dog shows its teeth we assume it smiles; and when a cat doesn't react to our call we assume it's bored. Placing these kinds of human behaviours or emotions on our pets is a very recognizable and even logical thing to do. It is part of our human psychology and helps us to categorize and understand the world around us. We see it in branding, TV programmes, mascots and… in companies.

Companies are associated with a certain country or region due to their geographic location, history and branding. Nordea, which likes to profile itself as a 'Nordic' bank 'feels' nonetheless more Swedish than Norwegian or Finnish. The legal restructuring of 2017 made its Norwegian, Finnish and Danish subsidiaries into branches of the Swedish bank and the HQ was conveniently located in Stockholm 'Capital of Scandinavia'.

Moreover, the bank has survived previous financial crises through a bail out financed by the Swedish taxpayer. The disappointed body language of the Prime Minister and the other ministers at the press conference was very understandable. This was obviously “not done”. The Prime Minister was not angry, he was disappointed. He continued “as a thank you for the bail out, you move your HQ abroad”. And that is where the Prime Minister goes wrong.

In the legendary movie The Matrix, one of the main drivers of Agent Smith was a “disgust” toward humanity. But Agent Smith was a program. An Artificial Intelligence controlled by algorithms. And while an artificial intelligence could be programmed to simulate or even emulate human emotions, it could not spontaneously develop human emotions as a purpose in itself. To imply otherwise is an anthropomorphism or better said: fiction.

Now let's look at Commander Data. The legendary self-aware android, serving as second officer and COO on the Federation Starship USS Enterprise. Data has an open and accessible personality and is friends with everybody on the ship. Yet he does not understand (and continuously struggle with) the abstract concept of friendship. He is programmed to be loyal to the federation, but aware that his loyalty comes forth out of an algorithm which can easily be altered. His friendly demeanor is not more than an interface concealing his positronic brain which allows him to compute huge amounts of data in a small time. For all his best intentions to understand his fellow crew mates, he is not human and he knows it. But like the Prime Minister, they sometimes forget.

In the same way as Data is an integral part of the Enterprise crew, Nordea is a part of Swedish society. But a corporate citizen is not the same as a human one. It is not possible to place the same kind of expectations (such as national loyalty) on corporations as we do on our fellow man.

Does that mean we should not try to foster a culture of loyalty or even identity within our organizations? No. In this age of globalization and digitalization fostering an inclusive culture which allows individual staff members to influence and co-design the company's culture and identity is more important than ever.

But we can never mistake the loyalty of individual (or even the collective) employees of a company for loyalty of the organization itself. In the end, it's luckily still people who make the organization and not the other way around.

Despite Nordea's friendly smile and Swedish behaviour, we cannot say it “owed us” or “thanked us by moving its headquarters (cynically)”. It simply behaved as it was programmed to do: in the best interest of Nordea.

On the other hand, the financial entity Nordea could possibly learn a lesson from its Star Trek equivalent who is always looking for ways to improve:

“If being human is not simply a matter of being born flesh and blood, if it's simply a way of thinking, acting, and feeling, then I am hopeful that one day I will discover my own humanity. Until then, I will continue learning, changing, growing, and trying to become more than what I am.” – Lieutenant Commander Data

Ruben Brunsveld is head of culture and leadership at Enact Sustainable Strategies. His opinion piece was first published on LinkedIn.


‘Chemical crayfish’: Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

It's time for this year's "kräftskivor", Swedish crayfish-eating parties! A cause for celebration? Not if the Swedish media has its way.

'Chemical crayfish': Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

Sweden’s main newswire this week ran a story warning that an analysis of the eight brands of Swedish crayfish available in the country’s supermarkets contained elevated levels of PFAS, a persistent pollutant which can damage your liver and kidneys, disrupt your hormones, and even cause cancer. 

But don’t worry. If you weigh 70kg or more, you can still safely eat as many as six of the outsized prawn-like crustaceans a week without being in the risk zone. 

While I’m sure the news story, which was covered by pretty much every paper, is accurate, it is also part of a grand Swedish media tradition: running miserable, killjoy news stories whenever there’s a sign that people might be planning to have a bit of festive fun. 

The two public service broadcasters, Swedish Radio (SR) and Swedish Television (SVT) are by far the worst offenders, their reporters unusually skilled at finding a downbeat, depressing angle for every public celebration. 

To give readers a sense of the genre, we’ve spent half an hour or so searching through the archives. 

‘This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is’ (and other yuletide cheer)

Source: Screenshot/SR

Christmas is a time for good food, drinking a little too much, and cheery decorations to ward away the winter darkness. But have you considered the risks?

SR has.

In “This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is”, a local reporter in Kronoberg looked into the possibility that your tree might have been sprayed with pesticide, or if not, might be covered in pests you will then bring into your house. 

By far the most common recurring Christmas story reflects Sweden’s guilt-loaded relationship with alcohol. 

You might enjoy a few drinks at Christmas, but what about the trauma you are inflicting on your children?

In this typically festive report from SVT in Uppsala, a doctor asks, ‘why wait for the New Year to give up alcohol? Why not start before Christmas?’, while the reporter notes that according to the children’s rights charity BRIS, one in five children in Sweden has a parent with an alcohol problem, with many finding drunk adults both “alarming and unpleasant”. 

God Jul! 

The Swedish media finds ways to make you feel guilty about the food you eat at Christmas too. You might enjoy a slap-up Christmas dinner, but what about those who suffer from an eating disorder? SVT asked in this important, but less than cheery, story published in the run-up to the big day. “This is the worst time of the year,” Johanna Ahlsten, who suffered from an eating disorder for ten years, told the reporter. 

Don’t you just love a cosy Christmas fire? Well, perhaps you shouldn’t. A seasonal favourite in Sweden’s media is to run warnings from the local fire services on the risk of Christmas house fires. Here’s some advice from SVT in Blekinge on how to avoid burning your house down. 
Those Christmas lights. So mysigt. But have you ever added up how much those decorations might be adding to your electricity bill? SVT has. Read about it all here
Finally, isn’t it wonderful that people in Sweden get the chance to go and visit their relatives and loved ones over Christmas.
Well, it’s wonderful if you’re a burglar! Here’s SVT Jämtland on the risk of house break-ins over the Christmas period. 
Eat cheese to protect your teeth! and other Easter advice 
“Eat cheese after soda”. Good advice from Swedish Radio. Photo: Screenshot/Richard Orange
For the Swedish media, Easter is a fantastic opportunity to roll out all the same stories about the risks of open fires and alcohol abuse, and that they do. But the Easter celebration has an additional thing to be worried about: excess consumption of chocolate and sweets. 
Here’s Swedish Radio, with a helpful piece of advice to protect your teeth from all that sugary ‘påskmust’, Sweden’s Easter soft drink. “Eat cheese!”. 
Yes, you and your children might enjoy eating all those pick-and-mix sweets packed into a decorated cardboard egg, but have you thought who else has had their grubby hands on them? SVT has. In this less than joyous Easter article  a reporter gives viewers the lowdown on “how hygienic are pick-and-mix sweets?” (According to the doctor they interview, sugar acts as an antibacterial agent, so they are in fact less dangerous than the newsroom probably hoped). 
Perhaps though, it’s better to avoid those unhealthy sweets altogether, and instead cram your mouth with healthy raw food alternatives, as SVT advises in this Easter report
Aren’t daffodils lovely? Well they’re not if you’re a dog. They’re deadly, according to this Easter report from Swedish Radio on all the “dangers lurking for pets over Easter“.
Glad Påsk!
Midsommar drowning  
Midsommar, again, has all the same possibilities for worried articles about excess drinking etc, but in the summer there’s the added risk of drowning. 
From Midsummer until the start of August, the temp reporters who take over Sweden’s newsrooms as everyone else goes on their summer holidays churn out a steady stream of drowning stories, all of them with a slightly censorious tone. After all, most of these accidents are really about excess drinking.
Here’s SVT Västmanland tallying up the Midsummer weekend’s death toll in a typical story of Midsommar misery. 
So, what is the reason for the Swedish media’s taste for removing as much mirth from festivities as possible?
It’s partly because Sweden’s media, unlike that of many other countries, sees its public information role as at least as important as entertaining or interesting readers, so an editor is likely to choose a potentially useful story over a heart-warming one. 
This is the aspect of the Swedish media beautifully captured by the singer Lou Reed when talking about how he’s more scared in Sweden than in New York in the film Blue in the Face
“You turn on the TV, there’s an ear operation. These things scare me. New York, no.” 
But it is also reflects the puritanical streak that runs straight through Swedish society, leading to a powerful temperance movement, which meant that by 1908, a staggering 85 percent of Socialist parliamentarians in Sweden were teetotallers.
Sweden is now a liberal country where you can get good food and drink, and enjoy a decent nightlife, but sometimes that old puritanism bubbles up.