How to integrate information for a wiser democracy

Many fields and professions – from journalism and academia to video games and movies – can and do stimulate informed – or misinformed – democratic engagement. Usually these sectors operate in semi-independent silos. Bringing them together to craft synergistic innovations on behalf of actionable shared understanding could result in new ways to make democracy both more participatory and more wise.

This year I decided that one of my focuses would be promoting a truly fruitful confluence between journalism and the “dialogue and deliberation” community. I particularly wanted to share the powerful innovation of Canada’s Maclean’s magazine who engaged their readers in vicariously experiencing a transformational dialogue among their polarized peers.

I’ve also been exploring with various colleagues the pros and cons of informational briefings in citizen dialogues and deliberations. Expert information can educate citizens about the dynamics of an issue and the likely outcomes of various solutions, but it can also constrain the kind of breakthrough thinking we may need to effectively address issues held in place by existing assumptions and systems.

In the midst of exploring all this, I had a conversation with Linda Fantin at American Public Media. APM has done intriguing experiments using an online video game to increase public awareness of the trade-offs involved in decisions about the US federal budget. Linda and I discussed other existing and possible ways for citizens to generate their own deliberative environments online where they can explore together arguments and evidence associated with various issues and options. (This is also the subject of Chapter 12 of EMPOWERING PUBLIC WISDOM: “Empowered Public Wisdom Arising from the Grassroots.”)

The US political environment is filled with misinformation, ignorance, and distortions of science. This generates biased public opinions and dangerous public policy decisions – most poignantly about climate change. It generates “co-stupidity” which of course interferes with society’s capacity for collective intelligence. Citizens can’t understand or make sense of what is happening around them, or relate well to others who make different sense.

So how can we set things up so that citizens can and do make useful sense of public affairs, individually and collectively?

It is clear that journalism can, does, and should play a major role in this. But what about the roles of public conversation, of video games, of educational and research institutions and activities? There are a number of major professions involved in shaping the knowledge environment within which citizens and other political players make decisions that impact how we address public issues.

Within each of these professions we find some individuals and groups deeply concerned about the condition of democracy and their professional role in it. What if such diverse, caring people got together to co-create and test innovations that combined their professional specialties to make democracy much more collectively intelligent – learning as they went – with the explicit intention of having a revolutionary impact within as little as five years? Would they develop powerful democratic innovations which we cannot even imagine today? Might those innovations make a profound difference BECAUSE these diverse professions stopped operating so separately and consciously wove their complementary gifts together into a more healthy, wisely functioning democracy?

Such a collaboration could come from this vision taking off in a self-organized viral way, with passionate people in all these fields networking their ideas into many shared pilot projects. I can also imagine someone consciously promoting a common understanding of these complementary roles and organizing a new coherent Manhattan Project* well-funded by visionary philanthropists eager to transform democracy into the wise collective mind it can become.

What would happen if that vision caught fire…..?

Coheartedly,
Tom

* The Manhattan Project was a very secret and very intense US project late in World War II which successfully developed the atom bomb despite a lot of uncertainty about whether it was even possible. Truly massive amounts of money, people, and scientific genius were invested in it with immense pressure to succeed as quickly as humanly possible, in order to beat German researchers and win the war. The Manhattan Project offers a fitting metaphor for any truly monumental project undertaken with total determination, despite profound uncertainties.

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A NEW MANHATTAN PROJECT TO IGNITE THE LATENT WISE FIRE OF DEMOCRACY

It’s not just ordinary citizens who think that American democracy has gone haywire. The first scientific study of the U.S. political system has concluded that the U.S. is an oligarchy, not a democracy.*

Principled professionals in a wide range of fields are very concerned about the state of America’s politics and governance. Many of them also feel that their professions have something to offer to the recovery, improvement, and evolution of America’s democracy.

A key factor in the quality of a democracy is how it handles information – particularly information relating to public affairs and the social issues and politicians about which citizens are presumed responsible for making informed decisions. This is a major part of the US Constitution’s First Amendment, quite in addition to its relevance to individual freedom.

To adequately address shared challenges and opportunities, flourishing democratic societies require good decisions – both official policy decisions and the countless self-organizing decisions of ordinary people, organizations, and communities. The creation of good collective decisions – decisions about public affairs that are effective and beneficial – requires an informed, active citizenry and lively, intelligent public discussion.

In the absence of such a dynamic, astute civic culture, special interests move into the vacuum, injecting disinformation, polarization, distraction, and manipulation of decision-making processes at the expense of the society as a whole.

So at the foundation of a strong democratic culture we find high quality accessible information that supports citizens developing accurate, useful understandings of their world and the issues they face. People can only make wise decisions to the extent they have such information available and are able to test it out in the marketplace of ideas and in the real world.

So what does a society need in order to foster a democracy that continually evolves towards greater manifestations of that ideal of an informed, deliberative citizenry?

MANY FIELDS HAVE GIFTS FOR DEMOCRACY

Many fields and professions can and do offer special gifts to healthy civic culture at the intersection of information and democracy. In their ideal forms, they do the following:

* JOURNALISTS AND BLOGGERS provide information about current events and issues, as well as forums for public dialogue and expert debate. They dig out information that is hidden from public view, ask important questions, and fill in important details and contexts that clarify what events and facts mean for the lives of citizens, their communities, and their children. And they constrain the tendency of concentrated power to limit, parasitize, and distort the democratic process.

* RESEARCHERS AND SCIENTISTS deepen, verify, and revise (or even revolutionize!) our understandings of the world through rigorous theory and systematic observation and experimentation. Their discoveries and evidence provide insightful, workable patterns to guide our technologies, our policies, and our cultures’s perspectives, practices, and evolution.

* EDUCATORS, LIBRARIANS AND CURATORS maintain and develop the basic knowledge infrastructure upon which all other information and knowledge systems depend. They steward and spread information and understandings that society has developed over time and also enhance people’s capacity to share and evaluate information and narratives and to generate useful knowledge of their own, individually and in conversation.

* QUALITY CONVERSATION PROFESSIONALS – especially conveners, hosts, facilitators, and mediators of dialogue, deliberation, choice creation, and conflict resolution around public issues – help people with diverse views and interests talk together constructively and generate varieties of group intelligence that include and transcend their diversity.

* POLITICIANS, PUNDITS, ACTIVISTS AND THINK TANKS shape and tap public opinion, often in support of specific proposals or candidates. Usually driven by partisan perspectives, they inspire passion, dig out and distribute information, and develop argumentation – all of which feeds vigorous public debate among diverse perspectives. Some of them focus on keeping all information free and flowing.

* STORYTELLERS AND ENTERTAINERS – including game developers; movie, TV, and video makers and actors; writers and poets; musicians, comedians, and other performers; and artists of all types – inform and engage people in dramatic narratives, confrontations, and activities; stimulate awareness of positive and negative possibilities and the meaning and practical and ethical challenges of various human roles; and deepen people’s understanding and experience of themselves, each other, the world, and what it means to be an aware human being.

* DIGITAL, TELECOM, AND SOCIAL NETWORKING PROFESSIONALS like programmers, website and app developers, and digital visionaries design online forums, facilitate online connections, and create or promote digital tools for collaboration and the co-creation, presentation, sharing, and evaluation of information, ideas, images and resources.

* PUBLIC SERVICE NGOS AND PHILANTHROPISTS provide information, inspiration, guidance and wherewithal to make a difference in social, environmental, and humanitarian situations. Some are specifically concerned about the state of democracy and support the activities of one or more of the above professions in serving democracy more powerfully.

* AND…. There are undoubtedly others. Who are they?

A REVOLUTIONARY VISION FOR QUALITY DEMOCRACY

What would it take to engage people from each of these professions – people dedicated to using their skills, resources, and special perspectives in concert to increasingly enable citizens to access, make individual and collective sense of, and utilize information and knowledge to more wisely shape public policy and their everyday decisions?

Imagine a democratic culture that integrates expert and crowdsourced knowledge into coherent, compelling collective understandings of public issues which engage the citizenry through games, art, conversations, and entertainment so that an informed, wise and irresistible voice of We the People emerges with which politicians and pundits find it useful to ally themselves, thereby shaping the policies and programs in ways that work for the vast majority of people as well as the sustainability of natural systems and the viability of future generations.

What kinds of ongoing gatherings, conversations, networks, collaborations among information-related professions could enable them to work together toward this end? How could such a committed effort – such a movement – envision, pilot, and learn from innovations that carry our democratic culture to progressively higher levels of functionality, vitality, and collective wisdom? How could it be inspired, convened, and funded in a way that would ensure that democracy was radically different – not just twenty years in the future – because too much wise action needs to be urgently and democratically accomplished before then – but five years from now?

Who and what could make this possible? Numerous resources for such an effort already exist in, among, and around us. Sufficient resources to launch it and to continue it and to realize in its vision await our creativity and our passion.

What is to be done?

* http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2014/04/08/rich-people-rule/
Gilens and Page analyze 1,779 policy outcomes over a period of more than 20 years. They conclude that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

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