Tag: United States

complexityevaluationjournalismpsychologystrategic foresight

Unpossible

Yinka's Ship

‘Post-truth’ was named the Oxford Dictionary word of the year. No fitting word reflects the strangeness of 2016 with the exception of unpossible, a word I made up and in a post-truth world might as well be as legitimate as many of the arguments being made about the most important things of the day, which is why we need to rethink how and what we pay attention to. 

When I was a little kid I was absolutely fascinated by ships in bottles (and still am). To me this was the embodiment of the impossible made possible. I’ve been shown how its done, read about it and still can’t really believe it despite seeing many ships in bottles over my lifetime. Gothic boxwood prayer beads are in the same category: they are both of the world and otherworldly at the same time. Brilliant stuff.

These are creations of human ingenuity, craft, patience and beauty.

What we have started to see in the social world are acts that are equally implausible to comprehend, yet lack all of these qualities but share one feature: creativity.

It may be time to examine what creativity means and what its impacts are because what might have been harmless chatter is now becoming big business and its transforming our world in ways we never could imagine and ways we might not really want.

In short: we are creating the unpossible.

Truthiness of fiction

Writing in Salon, Erin Keane reminds us that it was ten years ago that the concept of ‘truthiness’ was first floated out by Stephen Colbert and went on to become the 2006 Word of the Year by Mirriam-Webster. Keane reflects on the genesis of the word and how it articulated how a feeling of something being true could override the availability of evidence to support its existence without necessarily creating an entirely new reality.

With truthiness, though, we still recognized that truth exists, just that it could be overridden and bent to serve our own emotional purposes.

In a truthy world the absence of clear evidence didn’t mean that something didn’t exist if our feelings suggested that it might. Hence, we had an assault of Iraq and search for weapons of mass destruction based on a feeling that someone like Saddam Hussein would want to deploy them if he had them (which might have been true, but he didn’t have them and there was no evidence to suggest he did so it wasn’t true).

Now, those logical or hypothetical — if unproven — suppositions matter less. We’ve taken out ‘facts’ from the middle of the equation separating truth from fantasy.

In the US election, ‘fake news’ sites outperformed ‘not-fake news’ sites. In other words: those peddling fictions about the world drew more attention than those who sought to share what actually happened in the world. Except, what also actually happened was that people were reading, maybe believing, but certainly sharing and endorsing these made up stories, which were once referred to by names such as ‘lies’, ‘propaganda’ and ‘slander’. Now, it’s called reporting in a post-truth environment.

When the head of a news organization that promotes people who believe there ought to be a cap on women and girls in science and attacks citizen movements focused on social justice like Black Lives Matter is promoted to the role of chief strategist for the White House to serve as a representative of the people in strategy, that is post-truth at work. **

Tardigrade amnesia

The Tardigrade is perhaps the most remarkable animal on the planet. They can survive in temperatures close to absolute zero and over 150 degrees centigrade. If resilience had a mascot, it would be the tardigrade (pictured below — with credit to Bob Goldstein and Vicky Madden).

waterbear

While the effect of an election on policies and practices from healthcare, environmental protection, human rights, and safety and security may be wide-reaching and last beyond the term of office for most politicians the response can’t simply be to ‘toughen up’ and accept what’s being done, even if it is done under the banner of electoral legitimacy. Resilience is not about just absorbing shocks, but also about adapting to prevent the shocks from coming, to lessen their intensity, and also about systems change wherever possible.

The tardigrade is an expert on resiliency. It is as if it decided that, rather than plan for the best-case scenario, it figured out what the worst case would be and developed itself for that context first. Even if the tardigrade doesn’t encounter absolute zero temperatures that much in the world, it is ready for it.

Resiliency in social systems requires the same thinking.

In the US election and Brexit vote we saw politicians, pollsters and the media all get it wrong: they didn’t assess the mood and mindset of voters accurately. More importantly, voters may not have voted for what they are getting, but against what they got. In that case, what they ‘got'(i.e., had) was a sense of falling behind, perceived unfairness, absence of connection between their social world and the one talked about on TV or in government, and isolation from the economy, society and a world they thought they knew and were promised — something that built up over decades.

The voters wanted something different than what they had, but they may not have understood what they might get from this difference.

Foresight, in hindsight

Strategic foresight is a discipline that combines creative thinking, data, and planning together. It’s a burgeoning field of practice-based inquiry that offers an opportunity to explore various hypotheses about possible futures. We cannot reliably predict the future, particularly in complex systems, however it is possible to anticipate events based on trends, forecasts and signals that emerge from the data we have about the past and present when applied to the planning for the future.

Strategic foresight is a relatively young discipline, yet it holds much promise in aiding our ability to be resilient in the face of adversity and guide our actions to prevent problems and amplify those factors that can generate solutions. The result are ‘evidence-informed imaginations’ like the one that my colleague Peg Lahn and I did on the future of the neighbourhood in a growing city like Toronto, Canada. Ahead of legislation curbing the way high-rise building were built, we anticipated massive problems for Toronto’s high-rise condominiums based on the data we gathered and scenarios we developed. Falling glass was largely an ‘isolated’ incident 5 years ago and soon became a massive problem across the city and will continue to plague these buildings that will likely need to be completely ‘re-skinned’ in less than 20 years due to their reliance on poor design choices based on the city’s climate.

Our work bucked the trend toward optimism in condo development toward evidence-informed pessimism. Neither optimism or pessimism are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, rather what’s key is creating the kind of storyline that fits evidence, emotion and provides a narrative for what might happen. In doing so, a strategic plan can develop the kind of performance measures and monitoring and evaluation plans that help detect whether a particular scenario is starting to play out in the world. If so, it’s possible to correct things before they get problematic.

Strategic foresight combined with resiliency and systems thinking can be a way to envision the impossible as possible to prevent what becomes unpossible.

Consider what systems you’re working in and ask yourself if you’re seeing all (or many of) the pertinent possibilities and how they might play out. This is where fiction can be an asset, not a symptom, related to a larger issue. If you want some initial foresight into the current state of affairs in Western politics — from Le Pen in France, Farage in the UK,  Hofer in Austria, Wilders in the Netherlands, Trump in the United States, Kellie Leitch in Canada — dive into Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 classic “It Can’t Happen Here” .

It can.

The unpossible can only happen if we collectively create it.

Image credit: Yinka’s ship by Garry Knight used under Creative Commons License. Garry’s work is amazing and worth checking out. Thanks for sharing your art with the world!

** I struggled with the notion of even linking to this content, but also feel that I’m contributing to an echo chamber if those views aren’t seen and experienced, even if it’s just a small dose.

If we are to address truths — hard ones, complicated ones, ugly ones — we need to speak with truth and not pretend these voices aren’t there or comment on them if we are unwilling to expose ourselves to some of it in its original form and not solely filtered through other perspectives. One of the issues we face is that too often we (humans) speak about groups we know nothing about from any source that came from that perspective.

complexityeducation & learningevaluationinnovationknowledge translation

You Want It Darker?

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It is poetic irony on many levels that weeks after Leonard Cohen releases his album about the threat of death that he passes on, mere days after we saw the least poetic, most crass election campaign end in the United States with an equally dramatic outcome. This points to art, but also to the science of complexity and how we choose to approach this problem of understanding– and whether we do at all — will determine whether we choose to have things darker or not. 

A million candles burning for the love that never came
You want it darker
We kill the flame

Canadian-born and citizen-of-the-world poet, literary author, and songwriter Leonard Cohen passed away last night and the words above were part of his final musical contribution to the world. It is fitting that those words were penned at time not only when Cohen was ill and dying, but also as we’ve witnessed the flames of social progress, inclusion, and diversity fall ill.

Donald Trump is the president-elect of the United States, a fact that for many is not only unpalatable, but deeply troubling for what it represents. A Trump presidency and the social ills that have been linked to his campaign are just the latest sign that we are well into a strange, fear-ful, period of history within Western democracies. His was not a win for ideas, policy, but personality and as a vector for many other things that simply cannot be boiled down exclusively to racism, sexism, celebrity, or education — although all of those things played some part. It was about the complexity of it all and the ability for simplicity to serve as a (false) antidote.

No matter what side of the political spectrum you sit, it’s hard to envision someone less suited to the job of President of a diverse, powerful nation like the United States than Donald Trump using any standard measure of leadership, personality, experience, personal integrity or record of public conduct. Yet, he’s in and his election provides another signal that we are living in complex times and, like with Brexit, the polls got it very wrong.

We are seeing global trade shrink at a time when globalization is thought to be at its highest. We are witnessing high-profile acts of hatred, discrimination and abuse at at time when we have more means to be socially connected across contexts than ever before. We are lonely when the world and connection is at our fingertips.  It is a time of paradox and when we have so many means to cast light on the world, we seem to find new ways to kill the flame.

It is for this reason that those who deal with complexity and seek positive social change in the world need to take action lest things get darker.

Complexity just got real

The election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote are two examples that should serve to wake-up anyone who seeks greater accounting of complexity in the making of social decisions.

This is not about voting for a Republican President or for citizens wanting greater control of Britain, it’s about understanding the premise of which those decisions were based on. The amount of cognitive dissonance required to assume that Donald Trump has the qualities befitting a leader of a country like the United States is truly astounding. And just like Brexit, the theories and models proposed post-event by the same people who predicted the opposite outcome pre-event will be just words, backed with too little understanding of complexity or why things actually happened.

Those who understand complexity know that these simplistic explanations are likely to be problematic. But that doesn’t make us better people, but it does mean we have certain responsibilities.

Complexity rhetoric vs science

For those who rely on complexity science as a means of understanding these kinds of events its now time to start matching the science to our rhetoric so we can back up the talk. In crude, but truth-speaking pop culture parlance: “This shit just got real“.

As complexity and systems thinking has gained attention in social science and policy studies we are seeing much more attention to the idea of complexity. Yet, the level of rhetoric on social complexity has overwhelmed any instances of evidence of how complexity actually is manifest, emergent, harnessed, or accounted for in practical means.

This isn’t to say that the tenets of complexity for understanding social systems aren’t true, but rather we don’t know that it’s true for sure and to what extent in what situations. I write this as a true-believer, but also as one who believes in science. Science is about challenging our beliefs and only if we cannot refute our theories through our best efforts can claim something is true. Thus, if we can’t show consistently how the principles of complexity are employed to make useful choices and inform the documentation of some of the outcomes related to our actions based on those choices, we are simply making fables not flourishing organizations, communities and societies.

Showing our work

Without something more than rhetoric to back our claims up we become no better than a politician claiming to make America great again because we’ve got great ideas and will be the greatest president ever because we have great ideas.

This is not about reverting to positivist science to understand the entire world, but about responsible practice in evaluation and research that allows us to document what we do and explore the consequences in context. Powered by complexity theory and the appropriate methods, we can do this. Yet, too often I hear reference to complexity theories in presentations, discussions and papers without any reference to how its been used in real terms (and not just extracted from some other realm of science like bee colonies, natural ecosystems and simulation models) to influence something of value beyond serving as an organizing framework.

Like little kids in math class: we need to show our work.

How did complexity manifest in practice in this case? What methods were used to systematically document the process? How does this fit / challenge the theories we know? These are questions that are what responsible scientists and evaluators ask of their subjects and its time to do this with complexity, regularly and often. No longer can we give it the relatively unchallenged ride it’s been given since first being introduced as a viable contributor to social theory about 20 years ago.

The reasons have to do with what happens when we stop trying to understand complex systems.

Evaluators and social sciences’ new moral imperative

As the US election was unfolding I became aware of some prescient, wise words that were uttered by former US Supreme Court Justice David Souter speaking at a town hall prior to the last election. His words were chilling to anyone paying attention to the world today. In the quote and interview (see link) he says on the matter of government and democracy:

What I worry about is that when problems are not addressed, people will not know who is responsible.

His words are not just about the United States or even politics alone. The further we get from understanding how our social, economic, political and environmental systems work the more we all become vulnerable to the kind of simplistic thinking that leads us to someone that embodies H.L. Mencken’s mis-paraphrased words*:

There is always an easy solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong

It is our duty as scientists and evaluators to show the world the work of the programs, policies and initiatives that are aimed at changing systems — no matter what that system is. We need to be better at telling the story of programs using data and communicating what we learn to the world. It’s our role to show the work of others and to let others see our work in the process. By doing so we can make a contribution to helping address what Justice Souter meant about people not knowing who is responsible.

And like Mencken’s message, our answer won’t be one that is all that neat, but we if we approach our work with the wisdom and knowledge of how systems work we can avoid Mencken’s trap and avoid presenting the complex as simple, but we will go further and illustrate what complexity means.

It is our moral duty to do this. For if not us, who?

People do understand complexity. Anyone with a child or garden knows that there is no ‘standard practice’ that applies to all kids or any years’ crop of vegetables all the time in all cases. It’s evident all around us. We have the tools, theories and models to help illuminate this in the world and a duty to test them and make this visible to help shed that light on how our increasingly complex world works. Without that we are at risk of demagogues and the darker forces of our nature taking hold.

We have the means for people to see light through the work of those who build programs, policies and communities to illuminate our world. In doing so we not only create the candles as Leonard Cohen speaks of, but the curiosity and love that keeps that flame burning. We can’t kill the flame.

And we could use some love right now.

Thanks Leonard for sharing your gifts with us. I hope your art inspires us to reflect on what world you left to better create a world we move to.

*Mencken’s original quote was: “Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.” Alas, this doesn’t make as pithy, Powerpoint worthy comment. Despite the incorrectness of the paraphrased quote attributed to Mencken, it’s fair to say that in many organizations we see this as a true statement nonetheless.

Image Credit: Shutterstock, used under licence.

behaviour changesocial systems

The Design Paradox of Democracy

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The series on paradox continues as the matter of politics, democracy and the power of the people get puts under the spotlight as we consider what it means to empower, express power and re-claim power in this post-liberal, globalized, information age and how we can do better, by design. 

It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time – Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill’s often paraphrased quote was uttered in the British House of Commons at a time when Britain (and Europe) was literally and figuratively rebuilding itself after horrible continental war that killed millions of people and left an echo that is still firmly felt today. The European Union and its various associated trade and cooperation agreements were, in part, a designed solution aimed at bringing the continent closer together as a means of preventing the kinds of conflicts that had ravaged Europe for centuries. And yet the European Union is just one of many examples of a situation where enhanced cooperation through democracy is creating some of the conflicts it was meant to solve.

Democracy has different forms, but ultimately is about individuals having the freedom and means to choose their own path on collective matters. It sounds fair and reasonable, but as Churchill knew too well: it has a lot of problems associated with it and they are ignored at our peril

On matters of complexity, these problems become all the more clear.

Complexity by referendum

Earlier this month we saw what many thought would be the end to the 50-year war between the FARC rebels and the Colombian government as a peace agreement was made and put before the people for a vote, where it was defeated to the surprise of the world. How could this happen? many asked after so much effort when into the agreement — something that many thought would never become reality. The answers can be found looking deeper into the rationale why people who consistently and uniformly wanted peace also demand fairness and justice and for many that wasn’t seen in the agreement. Add in real-world issues of weather, logistics, voter turnout and you have something that may have partly earned Colombia’s president a Nobel Peace Prize disintegrate before the world’s eyes.

Referenda are blunt instruments used to shape complex social phenomena. On matters of identity politics we’ve seen relatively narrow defeats of proposed separatist/independence referenda in Quebec (Canada) in the mid-1990’s and in Scotland (United Kingdom) in 2014 . This year, we saw another separation-focused referendum put before the Scots and the rest of the United Kingdom and it was narrowly voted for, hence ‘Brexit‘.

No matter what your perspective on any of these initiatives, there were substantial costs and benefits to be weighed for each decision and those were all bundled under either “for” or “against”, which is part of the problem. We have a very complex set of issues treated using a tool that is both inappropriately simple and rational when neither of those conditions are (solely) present in the problem itself.

Complexity tools: the heart and the brain

In the United States presidential race, Donald Trump is showing that facts, truth, ethics, morals or integrity don’t matter as much as many think when it comes to who should lead the nation. That he is even the Republican candidate for president in itself should be shocking to anyone, no matter what your political leaning is, when you consider the vast litany of things he says (and has said) and does (and has done). Yet, this man who recently admitted to statements caught on tape that confessed to assaulting women, still has support among 38 per cent of decided voters two days after the video of that confession was released — a number that is just four points lower than Hillary Clinton, his opponent.

Do Americans not care about all these things? Do they love Trump so much that they are simply blind to his flaws, perhaps thinking he’s just misunderstood? Are they stupid? The answer is: (mostly), no. So why? Canadian newsmagazine Macleans ran a cover story on Americans who had thrown their support behind Donald Trump and found surprisingly nuanced thinking underlying their choice architecture on the matter. But what struck me was this reported felt sense that something was wrong, had been that way for a long time, and that Donald Trump brought an entirely new way to approach an old problem

What often comes through in these accounts is a feeling that something isn’t right and a resonance for a person or group that is reflecting something that comes closer to mirroring that feeling. We respond strongly to mirroring as a form of social persuasion and relating to one another. Human behaviour is this complex weave of social, cognitive, biological and inter- and intra-personal influences and too often we focus our energy on just the cognitive (rational) parts of this relating when it comes to change-making. The thinking is that if we just convince people of things using the best evidence, we’ll win the day.

You see this with Trump. “Surely this is will sink his campaign” or “he’s done, now” and phrases of that kind have been uttered now for 18 months and he’s still here with nearly 2/5 of the polled population behind him.

What Trump is doing is bringing to light a manifestation of that felt-sense of injustice that people are experiencing and they see a shock to the system as a remedy for changing that system.

Systems change: shock and awe vs slow and steady

As a recent cover story in the Economist in a defence of globalization pointed out “Since the 184os advocates of free trade have known that, though the great majority benefit, some lose out. Too little has been done to help these people“. Trade deals are a mix of both shock and awe and slow and steady, which make them very tricky things to evaluate. The shock comes with the rapid change in policy from one day to the next, the slowness comes with the impact on the system as certain industries fade, others emerge and yet others adapt. Whether one agrees with any particular deal or not, it’s undeniable some benefit more than others and what hurts is when people feel they lose, unfairly.

This is a matter of justice. This feeling of justice is what these referenda — and elections, which in the case of the United States’ political system is ultimately a referendum on the candidate for President — are all about.

justice |ˈjəstəs| , noun

1 just behaviour or treatment: a concern for justice, peace, and genuine respect for people.

• the quality of being fair and reasonable: the justice of his case.

On social matters, justice isn’t black and white. Social issues are multilayered, contextual, and dynamic and referenda treat this complexity more as static. It’s why change in complex systems is better done through a slower, less dramatic, but persistent set of actions connected together than through a dramatic shock. In the case of Brexit, Colombia and the US election the issues that people are complaining about are large, persistent ones and those aren’t easily rationalized, but they are felt. This is the emergence of slow change, and its powerful and is often disguised as a shock. The two are siblings and live together when it comes to complexity and paradox.

Even on matters of crime and punishment, there is a real disconnect between the logic of a a sentence or decision and the experience of those around them. Those who commit a crime and their victims may have their lives completely transformed because of one moment of poor decision making that isn’t greatly changed after ‘justice is served’. There is still that cauldron of emotions — regret, anger, loss, confusion, resentment — that can linger well past the term of sentence or the financial compensation, if any is received. Yet, justice is often viewed as a decision, a single event, meted out through rational argument, application of law and rules, deference to evidence.

This isn’t how people experience it.

Getting out of our head

This need to feel and not just think about the issues one of the reasons an approach like sociodrama, used by change leaders like John Wenger, can be a useful tool as it allows not only for thinking about an issue, but feeling it and doing so within a social context. Another approach is the dialogic design method that my colleague Peter Jones has been undertaking through his design practice and DwD events in Toronto.  Bodystorming is another approach that makes design feel more real and less ‘in the head’ and more ‘in the body’.

Designers at their best know this connection between heart and head and body well. The bodymind is a guide. Legendary Finnish product designer Alvar Alto designed a three-legged stool that by most rational accounts is one of the worst ideas ever for a piece of furniture, yet it’s style and utility was embraced and is still made today more than 80 years after it was created. Alto’s approach was rooted in how people saw themselves, their lives, their environments and that philosophy was what contributed to the design even if there are many other ways of doing a stool that are more stable and functional. He got his designs out of his head and into the world he was designing for.

If we are to expect to do anything about our democracy our designs have to be better  at allowing us to communicate, decide, and influence the world around us that ensures the heart and head are heard and justice not just served, but lived. In doing so, we may still find ourselves wanting to make similar choices about staying or leaving or on certain other policies, but we might be better at asking the right questions at the start and also avoiding decisions that risk putting someone like the man pictured above into positions of global power.

Photo credit: Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore. Thanks for offering your images to the world, Gage.

psychologysocial systems

The healing power of curiosity

 

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It has been a heavy few weeks in the world. In times like this we often raise our voice to speak when perhaps we ought to listen more, for it is in listening and asking questions that we may be better positioned not only to understand what’s happening around us, but resist having these events control us and risk repeating unhealthy patterns.  

It’s hard not to get discouraged with all of the things that are going on; these are heavy days filled with conflict, tension and confusion.

These are dynamic, difficult times. It’s easy to get discouraged, but it’s also easy to get lulled into a pattern of thinking and behaviour that could serve to later perpetuate some of the very problems that these issues partly arise from: dealing with difference.

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A curious thing…

A funny thing happens with certainty: you stop asking questions.

I don’t question how to tie my shoes: I simply know how to do it. I’m not curious about whether there are better ways to do it, more enjoyable or more efficient strategies or ones that will leave my shoes better tied. I’m Ok with that. But what happens when my certainty extends to things with more dimensions to it like what to eat for dinner, places to live, potential career paths, friendship or partner choices, or attitudes toward social groups or political situations? The consequences of excluding other perspectives and options are more substantial.

It reminds me of a scene in the first Men in Black film when the character played by Will Smith is confronted with a truth that he is living among aliens from other planets. Tommy Lee Jones’ character explains how it is that people resist the idea of accepting other possibilities because of what they ‘know’.

When we judge something or assert knowledge, we dampen or even shut down our curiosity. Particularly with complex systems, there are tremendous advantages (and need) to see them from different perspectives by asking questions and being curious.

Curiosity is what protects us from developing a locked in mindset focused on singular solutions and opens up possibilities.

Seeing the situation from others’ points of view may not shift your beliefs about that issue, but can make you better able to deal with it.

Contemplating alternative paths to love

Contemplative inquiry is one manner of doing this. Contemplative inquiry allows for seeing past events and anchoring those signals to the present and future desires. It is a very old way of doing things with more modern sensibilities. Arthur Zajonc, a professor of physics and former president of the Mind and Life Institute, has written about contemplative inquiry in a book with the same name. The approach is rooted in traditional mindfulness practices and brings, in many ways, the same focus and discipline that you would to science. Scientists ask questions and always seek to disprove their ideas for it is only then that they can make a confident assertion of something being ‘fact’ or evidence.

Contemplative inquiry is about advancing understanding to produce love. Adam Kahane of Reos Partners has written about the tensions between power and love, saying that it is in that quest for love and understanding of power that much of social change takes place. These are times where power and love are colliding and opening ourselves to being curious about perspectives that are different from us, hold alternative currency, or are simply alien to our way of life will help ensure that we don’t allow things like violence and aggressive conflict to consume us, lest we become the very thing we struggle against.

The Beatles sang “all you need is love”, but love on its own is blind. Curiosity with love is what help you to see.

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Photo credits: Protest by Jennifer C., Black Lives Matter by Bille Grace Ward, and Curiosity by Jason Armstrong all used under Creative Commons License via Flickr. Thank you all for sharing your work.

 

complexityjournalismscience & technologysocial media

The more we get together

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As we forge ever-greater connections online to each other and the world of ideas the thinking was that we would be far better off, more tolerant, educated and wise and yet there is much evidence to suggest this isn’t the case. What does it mean to come together and how can we do this that brings us closer rather than driving us further apart? 

The more we get together, the happier we’ll be – lyric from popular song for children

Like many, I’ve grown up thinking this very thing and, for the most part, my experience has shown this to be true. However upon reflection, I’m realizing that most of this experience is related to two things that could reveal a potential flaw in my thinking: 1) I’m thinking of face-to-face encounters with others more than any other type and also 2) most of the relationships I’ve formed without aid of or post use-of the Internet.

Face-to-face interactions of any real quality are limited in nature. We only have so many hours in a day and, unless your job is extremely social or you live in a highly communal household complex, we’re unlikely to have much interaction with more than a few dozen people per day that extends beyond “hello” or something like that. This was explored in greater detail by anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who determined that our social networks are usually capped at 100 – 250 individuals. Dunbar’s number (the commonly held mean number of people in these networks) is commonly considered to be 150.

Why does this matter? When we engage others online, the type of interactions and the number of ideas we engage can be far larger, or at least is certainly different in how those relationships are managed. We see comments on discussion boards, social media posts, videos and pictures shared online, and are exposed to media messages of all types and through myriad news (official, professional and otherwise) sources. Ethan Zuckerman, who I’ve written about before, has written extensively about the paradox of having such incredible access to diversity in the world and yet we often find ourselves increasingly insular in our communication patterns, choosing like-minded opinions over alternative ones.

Looking ahead by looking back at Marshall McLuhan

Journalist Nicholas Carr, who’s written extensively on the social context of technology, recently posted an interview with Marshall McLuhan from 1977 speaking on his views about where media was going and his idea of “the global village”. His piece, the global village of violence, was enlightening to say the least. In it, Carr points to the violence we are committing in this global village and how it doesn’t square with what many thought were the logical outcomes of us connecting — and does so by pointing back to McLuhan’s own thoughts.

McLuhan’s work is often a complicated mess, partly because there is a large, diverse and scattered academic culture developed around his work and thus, often the original points he raised can get lost in what came afterwards. The cautions he had around hyper-connection through media are one of those things. McLuhan didn’t consider the global village to be an inherently good thing, indeed he spoke about how technology at first serves and then partly controls us as it becomes normalized part of everyday life — the extension becomes a part of us.

As is often the case with McLuhan, looking back on what he said, when he said it and what it might mean for the present day is instructive for helping us do, just as his seminal work sought to help us do, understand media and society. Citing McLuhan, Nicholas Carr remarked that:

Instantaneous, universal communication is at least as likely to breed nationalism, xenophobia, and cultism as it is to breed harmony and fellow-feeling, McLuhan argues. As media dissolve individual identity, people rush to join “little groups” as a way to reestablish a sense of themselves, and they’ll go to extremes to defend their group identity, sometimes twisting the medium to their ends

Electronic media, physical realities

These ‘little groups’ are not always so little and they certainly aren’t weak. As we are seeing with Donald Trump‘s ability to rally a small, but not insignificant population in the United States to join him despite his litany of abusive, sexist, inflammatory, racist, discriminatory and outwardly false statements has been constantly underestimated. Last week’s horrible mass shooting in Orlando brought a confluence of groups into the spotlight ranging from anti-Muslim, both anti-gay and gay rights, pro-gun, along with Republican and Democratic supporters of different issues within this matter, each arguing with intensity and too often speaking past each other. Later this week we saw British MP Jo Cox murdered by someone who saw her as a traitor to Britain, presumably on account of her position on the pending ‘Brexit’ vote (although we don’t yet know the motivation of the killer).

 

There are many reasons for these events and only some that we will truly know, but each matter points to an inability to live with, understand and tolerate others’ viewpoints and extreme reactions to them. The vitriol of debate on matters in the public sphere is being blamed for some of these reactions, galvanizing some to do horrible things. Could it be that our diversity, the abundance of interactions we have and the opportunities to engage or disengage selectively

If this hypothesis holds, what then? Should we start walling off ourselves? No. But nor should we expect to bring everyone together to share the tent and expect it to go well without very deliberate, persistent, cultivation and management of relationships, collectively. Much like a gardener does with her garden, there’s a need to keep certain things growing, certain things mixing, certain things out and others in and these elements might be different depending on the time of year, season, and plants being tended to. Just as there is no ‘one garden’ style that fits everywhere, there is no one way to do ‘culture’, but some key principles and a commitment to ongoing attention and care that feed healthy cultures (that include diversity).

As odd as this may sound, perhaps we need to consider doing the kind of civic development work that can yield healthy communities online as well as off. We certainly need better research to help us understand what it means to engage in different spaces, what types of diversity work well and under what conditions, and to help us determine what those ‘simple rules’ might be for bring us closer together so, like the childrens song above, we can be happier rather than what we’ve been becoming.

Complexity isn’t going away and is only increasing and unless we are actively involved in cultivating and nurturing those emergent properties that are positive and healthy and doing it by design, and viewing our overlapping cultures as complex adaptive systems (and creating the policies and programs that fit those systems), we put ourselves at greater risk for letting those things emerge that drive us further apart than bring us together.

 

Photo credit: Connections by deargdoom57 used under Creative Commons License via Flickr. Thanks deargdoom57 for sharing your work!