Taking back the narrative

MASHI’ve tried for years now to catalyze greater participation in the conversations that drive governance, not necessarily advocating pure democracy but nudging the body politic in that direction. And I don’t think it’s completely wrong-headed to go there. As we’ve evolved a new form of media that’s bottom up, low barrier to entry and participation, we’ve discovered vital and compelling voices that would never have been heard in the broadcast era of scarce channels.

We watched Robert Altman’s MASH recently, and I was struck by the depiction there of the two cultures we see battling for our hearts and minds today. On the one hand, you have true believers who are religious about religion and also religious about bureaucratic protocols – in the film, represented by Frank Burns and Hot Lips Houlihan. On the other hand, you have “secular humanist” professionals, Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John McIntyre, who are competent, get the job done, ignore bureaucracy – eschew belief in favor of practice. The true believers were prone to mediocrity and cruelty, whereas the professionals were competent and generous. You could trust them to put people first, vs the believers, who put beliefs and rules first, and often put themselves first, rationalizing ego as god’s will or “it’s in the rules, dammit.”

MASH was just a movie, but Altman’s characters always had depth; these were believable stereotypes, representing something real within our culture, differences that are even more pronounced today, and visible in the U.S. culture wars. The difference is that the true believers are learning to leverage media and build effective mobs. It’s like Frank Burns and Hot Lips found a big-ass megaphone and rallied enough troops to their corner to accumulate some power.

Big-ass megaphoneThe big-ass megaphone could be what we call “social media,” as well as its effect on big media (because social media has siezed the day, big media tries to be more inclusive). Anyone can toss a meme into the idea commons, and some have found that simple, loud, persistent messages can overwhelm the societal narrative. So we have Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, et al creating more following than they could ever have amassed in the world of old media and politics, wherein politics and media professionals would have recognized them as loons and ignored them. They would never have taken the stage, in a world where the stage is held and controlled by people and entities who are relatively sane and committed to professionalism over believe. We always had people like this, but they couldn’t get traction. McCarthy was an exception, but cooler head eventually prevailed.

So I’m wondering if a down side of the new media environments we’ve built is that we’ve facilitated the ascendance of complete loons who are cultivating mobs of supporters and getting far more traction than they deserve. If so, I think saner elements have a responsibility to contribute to the narrative and sort it out. I.e. don’t be apathetic. Take time to write what you’re thinking. Call bullshit on flaky, inhumane, outright cruel ideas. Answer simplistic messaging with readable explanations of the real complexity of our 21st century world.

Times are changing: foraging, simplicity, Shirky-smart, etc.

Two of the best ideas I heard this week were curated or catalyzed by Clay Shirky.

One is the mathematical concept of the Lévy flight, which I already wrote about in my last post.

The other is in a link e-Patient Dave sent me. I ran across it again in a discussion of models for connectivity (“freedom to connect”). In a post called “The Collapse of Complex Business Models,” Clay discusses Joseph Tainter’s Collapse of Complex Societies, applying Tainter’s thinking to the web and digital media. Tainter says that societies that become increasingly sophisticated will tend to collapse, not despite their sophistication, but because of it.

Early on, the marginal value of this complexity is positive—each additional bit of complexity more than pays for itself in improved output—but over time, the law of diminishing returns reduces the marginal value, until it disappears completely. At this point, any additional complexity is pure cost.

Tainter’s thesis is that when society’s elite members add one layer of bureaucracy or demand one tribute too many, they end up extracting all the value from their environment it is possible to extract and then some.

The ‘and them some’ is what causes the trouble. Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond. In retrospect, this can seem mystifying. Why didn’t these societies just re-tool in less complex ways? The answer Tainter gives is the simplest one: When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t.

He then goes on to explain the evolution of complex and entrenched procedures within sophisticated, high quality media production, and how these are now trumped by the popularity of (commitment of mindshare to) simple, “good enough” media. Clay’s closing paragraph:

When ecosystems change and inflexible institutions collapse, their members disperse, abandoning old beliefs, trying new things, making their living in different ways than they used to. It’s easy to see the ways in which collapse to simplicity wrecks the glories of old. But there is one compensating advantage for the people who escape the old system: when the ecosystem stops rewarding complexity, it is the people who figure out how to work simply in the present, rather than the people who mastered the complexities of the past, who get to say what happens in the future.

Interesting to note that there are no comments on this post, only pingbacks (links to it by others). It’s an important, already influential piece.

The first point, about foraging, is that people don’t necessarily sustain adoption of something, even if they really really like it. In the early days of blogging, I made this point in talking about links and hits from blogrolls and RSS feeds. Someone finds your blog, they really like it, so they add the link to their news aggregator. Everytime the news aggregator updates, the link to your blog produces hits, but those hits are questionable, because a common behavior is to add an RSS feed, read it for a while if at all, then move on to something else. People don’t get the web delivered every morning as a newspaper, or monthly as a magazine. It’s not push, it’s pull, and they’re surfing based on criteria other than loyalty. We have to adjust our thinking accordingly.

The second point is that complexity reaches a point of diminishing return, costs escalate beyond what we’re willing to pay, and whole systems break as a result. With media, it’s not just that it’s simpler to make something that is compelling and gets mindshare. It’s that simpler access to “good enough” media (via the web) trumps more complex (or costly) access via movies or television. Consider the traffic in torrents of lower def but “good enough” copies of movies, television shows, record albums, etc. Or think of simpler paid access to slightly more lossy music/video via iTunes, or Hulu.

There’s more to talk about, like the social thing – we’re committing mindshare to online conversations that, before, we might have commmitted to passive consumption of television programming. But you get the drift – behaviors are changing online. And low-cost/free/good-enough is as entrenched in online culture as expensive/complex/high quality is entrenched in old media culture.

Times are changing. And I’m out of time, for the moment.


After experiencing politics in action via the crowd at Lloyd Doggett’s town hall meeting on health reform yesterday, and considering the opposition to health care reform, I tweeted “It always surprises me that some sheep would rather be guarded by a wolf than a bureaucrat.” That tweet was ported to Facebook, where there were several responses, some critical of bureaucrats. I posted this comment in response:

Having been part of a bureaucracy in my first career, I know something about this. Bureaucracies exist to manage complex policies and civic processes. What we generally regard as “bureaucratic inefficiency” is a manifestation of legal and regulatory complexity, often more complex than the bureaucrats themselves can grasp, certainly difficult for most citizens to understand. The policies and systems are complex because they emerge from a political process that is responsive to many often conflicting interests. I’m not sure what an alternative to this complexity would be, but I don’t think it would be a Good Thing. What we might hope for is smarter bureaucrats, just as we hope for more and better engineers and scientists.

Here’s video I shot at the town hall meeting. Lloyd Doggett is talking. I just shot his talk. When he was done, he invited people to speak, alternating healthcare reform proponents and opponents.