Politics

Saving democracy by talking about it

In a time when many people are getting all of their news from one polarized, personalized information feed or another, it’s interesting to see how low-tech 1930s solutions helped save democracy then.

The core elements were ways to get people talking about the real issues instead of the tribes they associated with.

The more argument the better is what the North Carolina-born George V. Denny, Jr., was banking on, anyway, after a neighbor of his, in Scarsdale, declared that he so strongly disagreed with F.D.R. that he never listened to him.

Like this program which opened up schools at night for the community to discuss topics:

The federal forum program started out in ten test sites—from Orange County, California, to Sedgwick County, Kansas, and Pulaski County, Arkansas. It came to include almost five hundred forums in forty-three states and involved two and a half million Americans. Even people who had steadfastly predicted the demise of democracy participated. “It seems to me the only method by which we are going to achieve democracy in the United States,” Du Bois wrote, in 1937.

And this one, which enlisted diverse people to all explain what democracy was:

Somehow, in the end, NBC arranged a coast-to-coast broadcast, in which eight prominent thinkers—two ministers, three professors, a former ambassador, a poet, and a journalist—tried to explain to Alice the meaning of democracy. American democracy had found its “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” moment, except that it was messier, and more interesting, because those eight people didn’t agree on the answer.

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.

Seshat Global History Database

Interesting database of the evolution of several cultures around the world–when they developed which technologies, religious beliefs, political systems, etc.

Anarchy and our interconnected future

Most societal critiques today come from either the right or the left, so it was interesting to read this (very!) long analysis of multiple interconnected issues–democracy, capitalism, equality, opportunity, the climate crisis, technology, and more–from a self-professed anarchist perspective.

Near the end the author describes the central challenge of defining societal narratives that can compete with the dominant one:

We are increasingly being sold a transhumanist narrative in which nature and the body are presented as limitations to be overcome. This is the same old Enlightenment ideology that anarchists have fallen for time and again, and it rests upon a hatred of the natural world and an implicit belief in (Western) human supremacy and unfettered entitlement. It is also being increasingly used to make the capitalist future enticing and attractive, at a time when one of the primary threats to capitalism is that many people do not see things improving. If anarchists cannot recover our imagination, if we cannot talk about the possibility of a joyful existence, not only in fleeting moments of negation but also in the kind of society we could create, in how we could relate to one another and to the planet, then I don’t believe we have any chance of changing what happens next.

This is one of the few attempts I’ve read to even describe an alternative system encompassing economic, political, environmental, and technological aspects; the Green New Deal is another, though that’s still early in development. It’s clear that trying to change any single aspect of our interconnected society is doomed to fail against the inertia of the status quo; change will come all together or not at all.

Power and choice

One might think that the most powerful man has the most choices, but in reality he has the fewest. Too much depends on his every move.

Dystopia and its discontents

Kim Stanley Robinson breaks down the various flavors of utopia and dystopia and comes out in favor of writing about, and pursuing, utopias, despite their limitations.

He concisely explains why dystopias are unable to spur real change:

These days I tend to think of dystopias as being fashionable, perhaps lazy, maybe even complacent, because one pleasure of reading them is cozying into the feeling that however bad our present moment is, it’s nowhere near as bad as the ones these poor characters are suffering through…If this is right, dystopia is part of our all-encompassing hopelessness.

And why utopias meet such strong opposition:

It is important to oppose political attacks on the idea of utopia, as these are usually reactionary statements on the behalf of the currently powerful, those who enjoy a poorly-hidden utopia-for-the-few alongside a dystopia-for-the-many.

It’s interesting to read his comments in the context of reactions to politically progressive efforts like the Green New Deal and universal healthcare. Some of the loudest opposition has come from those who already enjoy the desired benefits.

Immediately many people will object that this is too hard, too implausible, contradictory to human nature, politically impossible, uneconomical, and so on. Yeah yeah. Here we see the shift from cruel optimism to stupid pessimism, or call it fashionable pessimism, or simply cynicism. It’s very easy to object to the utopian turn by invoking some poorly-defined but seemingly omnipresent reality principle. Well-off people do this all the time.

Crafting a compelling utopia–or as I sometimes put it, designing a better way to live together–is the defining project of our generation. We have the resources and capability; what we still lack is the right design and pathway.

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.

The Ethical OS

Great toolkit and checklist for designing software that doesn’t “accidentally” turn into a tool for addiction, oppression, inequality, and hate: The Ethical OS

If the technology you’re building right now will some day be used in unexpected ways, how can you hope to be prepared? What new categories of risk should you pay special attention to now? And which design, team or business model choices can actively safeguard users, communities, society, and your company from future risk?

Maybe the most important fact about living in the 21st century is that we are now hackable animals.

Measuring national curiousity

So, curiosity is a pretty weak motivator, unfortunately…in society, if you measure how much fear motivates you versus how much curiosity motivates you, it’s actually measurable: it’s the ratio of the defense budget versus the science budget. – Peter Diamandis