Networks

Prosocial and cultural change

Prosocial is “a change method based on evolutionary science to enhance cooperation and collaboration for groups of all types and sizes that’s effective at a global scale.”

It combines Elinor Ostrom’s insights about the behaviors of effective groups with evolutionary science and theories of change–moving toward or away from goals, with visible and internal reactions–that can make existing groups more effective.

Prosocial was used to fight Ebola in Sierra Leone, where the facilitators worked with local people to create a new way of honoring the dead that didn’t cause more infections; and to design a new community park in Detroit.

Be careful little eyes what you see

The past few years have taught the human race a few surprising things about itself, and they’re not very flattering.

First, we are not the rational creatures we think we are; our decisions are largely driven by emotions, biases, and even unrelated activities. For instance, simply using hand sanitizer can temporarily change your political beliefs.

Second, the new way to exert power in the world is not physical but digital. Online social networks have immense mindshare and impact on our lives.

And third, dangerous, powerful professionals are using these digital tools to manipulate us.

Renee DiResta has written an in-depth article looking at how state-sponsored professional attackers use misinformation to divide and influence society. Increasingly, their strategy is to directly target individual citizens, through the media and social networks, feeding them misinformation to steer their minds in specific directions.

In a warm information war, the human mind is the territory. If you aren’t a combatant, you are the territory. And once a combatant wins over a sufficient number of minds, they have the power to influence culture and society, policy and politics…
Combatants are now focusing on infiltration rather than automation: leveraging real, ideologically-aligned people to inadvertently spread real, ideologically-aligned content instead.

What’s especially dangerous about this kind of polarization is that it’s often good business. Digital influence is cheap, as online advertising platforms love to remind us, and angry or scared viewers are especially profitable.

Combatants evolve with remarkable speed, because digital munitions are very close to free. In fact, because of the digital advertising ecosystem, information warfare may even turn a profit.

If you’ve ever felt that a news show, reshared Facebook post, or blog post was designed to rile you up and make you angry…well, it probably was. And this misinformation will only get more extreme and convincing over time, as technologies like deepfaked videos move into politics.

So what can we do against such attacks? DiResta’s analogy of the Maginot Line suggests that our current understanding of how to fight this war is outdated, and she lists several alternative defenses that will require the world to work together against the attackers. Much responsibility lies with the tech platforms to develop and enforce stronger policies and filters, but DiResta also argues:

The government has the ability to create meaningful deterrence, to make it an unquestionably bad idea to interfere in American democracy and manipulate American citizens.

As individuals, meanwhile, we can be far more critical in what we read and believe. Understanding that malevolent forces are constantly trying to manipulate us is a good first step.

We can also be more careful in what we repeat and share with others, checking multiple trusted sources and fact-checkers (like PolitiFact and Snopes) before resharing an article with friends or online. The best way to influence Americans, after all, is to get another American they trust to do it for you.

World War III is a guerrilla information war with no division between military and civilian participation. – [Marshall McLuhan, 1970](https://www.ribbonfarm.com/2018/11/28/the-digital-maginot-line/?fbclid=IwAR3t_52VLqXcaO8oy7Ve8y0I7NnlZuDg-i9dguTLW0l_p6OHKwlZgVC8XpQ)

And there’s never been a better time to support a professional, free, and independent press. One good way to tell if a news outlet is worth trusting and supporting is, of course, how they cover the news about digital manipulation and misinformation. People and sources that deny manipulation is happening are likely not worth trusting about other things either.

Be careful, little eyes, what you see.

Social connection is more important than many other resources in surviving crises:

Throughout the city, the variable that best explained the pattern of mortality during the Chicago heat wave was what people in my discipline call social infrastructure. Places with active commercial corridors, a variety of public spaces, local institutions, decent sidewalks, and community organizations fared well in the disaster. More socially barren places did not. Turns out neighborhood conditions that isolate people from each other on a good day can, on a really bad day, become lethal.

Also: The biggest threat facing middle-aged men is loneliness.

Why voting doesn’t make anyone happy

The Exploratorium explains voting paradoxes, and why, no matter what happens tomorrow, no one will really be happy:

Or is it because society is too complex for us to even understand our choices?

“We’ve become fundamentally confused about what the decisions are, and what their consequences are. And we can’t make a connection between them,” he added. “And that’s true about everybody, as well as about the decision-makers, the policymaker. They don’t know what the effects will be of the decisions that they’re making.”

Kenneth Arrow even won the Nobel Prize for proving that when there are 3 or more choices, no system is guaranteed to choose an optimal winner.

Smaller decisions with smaller groups are more likely to work, but still fraught with peril. But go vote tomorrow, and may the odds be ever in your favor!

Civilization as AI

Smart perspective on “artificial intelligence” from Brian Eno:

Global Civilisation is something we humans created, though none of us really know how. It’s out of the individual control of any of us—a seething synergy of embodied intelligence that we’re all plugged into. None of us understands more than a tiny sliver of it, but by and large we aren’t paralysed or terrorised by that fact—we still live in it and make use of it.

Logic and the brain

Buzzfeed asked 12 scientists “What is the one fact humanity needs to know” if civilization was destroyed. Lots of good answers, but my favorite was from psychologist Dean Burnett:

People aren’t logical or rational by default, and it’s vitally important to remember this when trying to impart knowledge and guidance. Having some useful knowledge like atomic theory or the nature of gravity isn’t going to be much use if enough people don’t want to believe it.

I had an MRI done recently (purely for entertainment, through Klarismo), and it’s humbling to see that for all its capabilities and seemingly logical behavior, the brain is mostly wrinkled fat and water with electricity pumping through it. It’s a miracle that we can make sense of anything at all.

Burnett’s quote is a good reminder that if we want to make real advancements in society, improved technology (which has its own agenda) is not enough–we’ll need to deal with our monkey minds first.

AidPod: Truly great design

I love the ColaLife AidPod:

  • Designed to fit in the empty space in Coca-Cola shipping crates, piggybacking on the most successful distribution network in the world
  • Provides diarrhea medicine (the Kit Yamoyo) along with literacy-not-required instructions
  • The sustainable business model provides value at every step of the supply chain

That’s great design. You can help fund the AidPod project at Global Giving.

Update Interesting follow-up: the founder says that actually fitting into Coca-Cola crates wasn’t important after all… but it drove them to simplify the product in ways that made it successful.

Empathy and imagination

Is it possible that, we human beings–who are soft-wired for empathic distress–is it possible we could actually extend our empathy to the entire human race as an extended family, and to our fellow creatures as part of our evolutionary family, and to the biosphere as our common community?

If it’s possible to imagine that, then we may be able to save our species and save our planet. And…if it’s impossible to even imagine that, I don’t see how we’re going to make it.

Alone together

“Users of social networking services are 30% less likely to know their neighbors.” – PEW Internet survey

Judging a book by its highlights

Viewing Kindle books ranked by number of highlights is pretty interesting. I assume the excerpt on the list page is the most highlighted passage in each, and it gives better insight into the book’s true theme and content than any “publisher’s description”.