Willow BCivics in an age of mistrust and decentralization
For the January salon at NECSI, Ethan Zuckerman and Erhardt Graeff led a discussion and workshop on civics in a distributed society. Both are at the Center for Civic Media at the MIT Media Lab, Ethan as director and Erhardt as a PhD researcher. We explored how people in with influence/power/money try to create change in the world, how those affected by those changes view and respond to those attempts and changes, and also what we would do as people of influence/power/money.
Many people want to change the world.Leverage through money or power
Democracy as it tends to be generally practiced is the act of selecting people for positions of power, and then pressuring them through petitions, protests, and letters. Ethan remarks that this is a remarkably impoverished view. We interact with governance and our social systems also based on what we buy (and don’t buy), where we live, how we speak. Regardless, our trust is low, and not just in government , but in institutions as well; and not just in the US, but all over the world. This distrust comes from many sources — leaders who insist government is useless while diminishing funding to the point it can’t be effective, an unfettered (and high-velocity, highly-connected) press, visibly lacking integrity.
But what about individuals and foundations with large amounts of wealth who also hope to act in the public interest, who aren’t elected, and aren’t subject to public opinion in the same ways? They might invest in think tanks, in market-based interventions (like Tesla), in campaigns to affect public opinion to place pressure on courts and elected officials.
Regardless of if an individual came to have influence through an electoral process or through having access to wealth, Lawrence Lessig provides a framework in his book Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace on which most (if not all) change is attempted.
Laws are explicit, and created and enforced through governance systems.
Norms are implicit social expectations, enforced through social pressure and assumptions based on media and other environmental factors.
Markets shape behavior by making some actions more or less expensive financially or time-wise.
It’s possible to track enforcement of laws. A market-based intervention is either successful in the market or fails out. Architecture demands use and maintenance, but use implies success (except for those pesky hackers and other reappropriators). Ethan and Erhardt primarily focus on changing norms. These are also arguably the most difficult to know if your hoped-for-change is occurring, as norms are implicit, rather than explicit. At the Center for Civic Media, we think about the attention economy, and so one way of seeing shifts in norms is by tracking how the media talks about and shows topics. Media Cloud is a tool for gathering media sources, creating visualizations, and comparing various topics. For instance, Erhardt showed a shift in the media conversation around Trayvon Martin (highly recommended reading - w).
In short, creating change is hard, even if you’ve got money and/or power.
Here’s the video from our salon:
More on the topic of civics in a distributed society from Ethan’s post about his keynote at Syracuse University’s Humanities annual symposium on Insurrectionist Civics in the Age of Mistrust (highly recommended reading, and most of the images on this blog comes from the associated slide deck- w).
How would YOU create change?
With this framing, this question was posited to the salon attendees. Erhardt facilitated an interactive workshop he’d designed. “So let’s say you have 10 million dollars. Powerball hooray! What would you do, to deal with climate change? Fund think tanks and organizations? Fund advocacy groups / passing laws? Fund research? Create tech to do things we can’t otherwise do?” The room divided into 4 groups, and then picked one of Lessig’s 4 means of interventions.
First, what would you focus on doing?
The markets group suggested moving businesses from current energy consumption modes to “greener” methods. Architecture focused on triggers against bad behavior, as well as visualizations about industry consumption and pollution automatically sent to surrounding populations. The norms group suggested outright bribing of COP representatives to sign binding agreements which countries would then have to adhere to.
Erhardt then asked the groups how they would know that their initiative was working. The architecture group spoke of running similar experiments with sensor networks in two cities - one with the information visible to the population, and the other where it wasn’t. Pushback was that it’s considered unethical to collect data without letting the participants view it, and that there are many confounding factors at play with your N is 2. The law group focused on microgrids, and passing legislation which required a shift to modernized infrastructure. Pushback was around sufficient infrastructure for the change to take place. The markets group spent their cool 10mil on shifting ALL transport systems to bicycles, and norms created individual carbon-based emission scores which reminded yours truly of buycott.
To shift the world, even with massive funding and assumed power, is difficult to do. All of the posited interventions at the salon were pilot/demo level. To know you’re succeeding in any way is also difficult. Empathy was certainly built for those who have money and power, and who still aren’t wildly successful at changing the world. Perhaps a few “why don’t you just…” phrases were put to rest. At the same time, as individual citizens, we saw how much of a role we have to play in societal shifts — perhaps more effectively in our distributed and connected networks.
YaneerFollowing discussion on Oct 28 (about open publication and Interjournal) one should ask: What is the reason that the open internet has not given rise to open academia? The answer is that academia is a collaborative/competitive system, i.e. an evolutionary one. If it were just a collaborative system there would be an immediate solution in the form of an open access. The problem is that there is need for gatekeeping because of the role of peer review in career advancement, i.e. credits that advance reputation which is a necessary aspect of position, funding, publication (competitive process).
Steps to advance science must recognize that science is not just an abstraction of knowledge but it is also a social phenomenon. This means that the process of scientific advancement is both linked to individual social dyanamics, as well as collective social dynamics, i.e. the development of the community structure (individuals as part of topical domains, areas of expertise, educational programs) and organizations/institutions that are essential to the (mostly unknown) future progress of science, as much as they are to the current or immediate advances. This suggests that in order to develop effective scientific communication we need elementary mechanisms of evaluation and recognition as much as we need elementary mechanisms of sharing of information. The current social mechanism that gives rise to evaluation and recognition is the peer review process. It is widely understood to be problematic. It fosters an environment of zero-sum game / conflict of interestes competition that motivates "unethical" behaviors and those who advance are those who are able to successfully navigate this landscape (i.e. combinations of scientific prowess and unethical behavior [think about this next time you meet a highly recognized scientist, ouch]), and is known to inhibit innovation (this follows from the analysis). This also gives rise to large scale failed (from the point of view of advancing scientific knowledge) dynamics of collective behavior (one example is theory of high-Tc superconductivity, i.e. when the subject of inquiry is important enough to individual recognition the community shuts down the process of recognition in order to prevent individuals from gaining the recognition that many other people want).
The mechanism of the peer review system is that there is a gatekeeper system that has its own social structure, i.e. editors and funding program officers. They serve as the coordinators of the peer review process. Their requests for additional effort (nominally uncompensated both financially and in the recognition system) by participants in the process are being agreed to because of the power it gives to the reviewers to influence the process itself, i.e. the implicit gain of their participation (there is an altruistic component, particularly among some of the young scientists, which is just enough to mask the more prevaling reason) as well as "points" they gain from their interactions with editors that promote the editors bias toward the helpful referees (editorial bias becomes part of the mechanism o peer review system in all contexts, editors become part of a political process).One of the examples is the use of reviews to get ones own work cited, but more generally it includes placing additional burden on other researchers so that their work is delayed in publication and they are unable to do other important work, restricting others to doing less important or innovative work in the process of zero sum game competition, promoting the work of associates and collaborators, friends, other types of affiliated in-group members, and, where relevant, family members. There are rules that are designed to prevent such "cheating" but any time there are such rules it just points to the existence of ways around the rules which are widely exploited by those who are engaged in active planning of how they will succeed.
The reduction in the financial and technical barriers to publication has changed the ballance of how this process works in recent years. This has affected the power of refereeing and the nature of the zero sum game. It has not clear whether a critical transition has occurred to a different pattern of behavior altogether.
There is some variation from field to field about the appilcation of this mechanism. For example, economic papers are often published in working paper format, physics papers are published on the arxiv, both before peer review.
However, it is important to recognize that one of the main mechanisms of control of attention is "ignoring." This can be willful or not but is part of the underlying mechanism of the system. People choose to, or not to, cite articles based upon what they want to give recognition to. Thus, putting articles in the public domain often leads to the use of ignoring, excused by claimed lack of knowledge of the existence of the work, amply justified by the volume of information and the existence of the gatekeeper system that specifies which articles are less ignorable. Note that even articles published in high profile journal may be considered ignorable (and often are).
Rather than considering this as something to solve as a problem, we need to think about how we can make it work better for the purposes and functions that it serves. The main issue therefore, is the solution of the attentional mechanism of recognition (nominally the zero sum game) rather than the problem of open communication per se.