Collaboration, cooperation, democracy

Everybody’s head is a strange universe filled with echos of voices they’ve heard over and over again. Against this, we try to manifest our intentions, to persuade with more voice, more conversation. Sometimes we get through, but even when we get through, we’re often filtered, just as we’re filtering. Is it any wonder that it’s so difficult to build and sustain an effective collaboration?

I’m looking at the ways that we strive to aggregate our attentions, find common ground, and work together. Over the years I’ve approached this through the lens of democracy, or what I’ve referred to as the “democratic intention” to create a participatory process that works. The older I get and the more I think about it, the more I realize that this intention, though we so often profess it, is actually rare. Most of us would really like to assert our self interest, our own preferences, but society is a collision of interests and preferences, we have to give in order to take. In a recent discussion of the book The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod, I was struck by the hardwired assumption that self-interest inherently rules, and cooperation is reached most effectively with an understanding of that point, thus the prisoner’s dilemma. In fact, I find that real people are fuzzy on that point, they’re not necessarily or inherently all about self-interest. We’re far more complex than that.

There’s a force of democratization in this world that I suspect is an inherent effect of two factors, population growth and density (which forces us to socialize and co-operate) and human evolution (hopefully we’re growing wiser, more capable, and continuing to adapt). I see aspects of it in work that I do. My internet work is often about building contexts to bring people together for shared experience and collaboration. At the Society of Participatory Medicine I’m involved in communications, and the concept of participatory medicine is driven by a democratization of health information and process. In politics I’ve focused on grassroots emergence, ad hoc and headless organizations, methods for effecting and enhancing participatory culture and activism. In thinking about markets, I’m drawn to the Cluetrain Manifesto and Doc Searls’ current Project VRM, or vendor relationship marketing, which is about giving consumers tools for symmetrical power within the vendor/customer relationship.

I’m thinking about all this in the context of my ongoing fascination with culture, media, and the Internet, and developing thinking that might feed into several interesting projects here and elsewhere. One thought I had was about a potential revival of Extreme Democracy and new conversations about emergent democracy. These are potentially lush gardens of thinking and doing that at the moment are barren, having been untended for a while.

Science, lies, evidence, knowledge

In so many fields, owing to the Internet-driven democratization of knowledge, we learn that that the power associated with hoarded knowledge has been abused, and the position of leadership – the priesthood – associated with the acquisition of knowledge has been leveraged to manipulate and deceive. “Everything you know is wrong!”

David Freedman has a great article in the Atlantic about medical deception, called “Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science,” which focuses on Dr. John Ioanniddis’ dedication to exposing bad science in medicine.

He’s what’s known as a meta-researcher, and he’s become one of the world’s foremost experts on the credibility of medical research. He and his team have shown, again and again, and in many different ways, that much of what biomedical researchers conclude in published studies—conclusions that doctors keep in mind when they prescribe antibiotics or blood-pressure medication, or when they advise us to consume more fiber or less meat, or when they recommend surgery for heart disease or back pain—is misleading, exaggerated, and often flat-out wrong. He charges that as much as 90 percent of the published medical information that doctors rely on is flawed. His work has been widely accepted by the medical community; it has been published in the field’s top journals, where it is heavily cited; and he is a big draw at conferences. Given this exposure, and the fact that his work broadly targets everyone else’s work in medicine, as well as everything that physicians do and all the health advice we get, Ioannidis may be one of the most influential scientists alive. Yet for all his influence, he worries that the field of medical research is so pervasively flawed, and so riddled with conflicts of interest, that it might be chronically resistant to change—or even to publicly admitting that there’s a problem.

At, Peter Frishauf writes a response to the Atlantic article, called “Fixing those Damn Lies.” How do we fix them? The Atlantic piece discusses Ioannidis’ suggestions to change the culture of medical research, and reset expectations. It’s okay to be wrong in science – in fact, it’s almost a requirement. The scientific method is about testing and proving hypotheses – proving can be “proving wrong” as well as “proving right.” Either way, you’re learning, and extending science.

Frishauf also mentions how medicine and science should embrace the Internet “and figure out a way to better incorporate patient self-reported and retrospective data in trials,” which is one goal of participatory medicine. He also suggests “giving up on tenure-tied-to-the-peer-reviewed-literature, and embracing a moderated form of pre and post-publication peer review,” something that came up in discussion when I spoke at the Central Texas World Future Society Tuesday evening. (More about this in an earlier post by Frishauf.)

Knowledge is not a citadel or ivory tower, but a network that we could all be working, challenging, and improving.

All government is local 2.0: manor.govfresh

Manor, a small town in Texas a few miles from Austin, has become an unlikely star player in the new world of “Government 2.0.” This week Manor and GovFresh, an organization that provides news and information about technology innovation in government, joined forces to host a conference on “big ideas for local America.” The conference highlighted the work Manor, nearby DeLeon, and other small governments in the U.S. are doing to incorporate social media and open data approaches to provide better information and services to citizens, and to engage them more effectively. This is part of an open government trend that’s been brewing since the 1990s, but is catching fire with pervasive Internet adoption and digital convergence.

When Obama was President-Elect, Gary Chapman at the LBJ School in Austin spoke to a local community media summit and told how the Obama Transition Team had been working with the LBJ School on government transparency, with Open Government as the new administrations highest priority. Beth Noveck, Assistant to the White House CTO, was in Manor affirming that priority – the Obama Administration is providing leadership from the top.

In the last 5 years or so, as we’ve seen an acceleration of digital convergence and increasingly pervasive use of smart digital devices to access all sorts of information, we’ve seen a disruptive democratization of knowledge and information and demand for all sorts of data to be opened up via application programming interfaces. The world’s information is increasingly sorted, sifted, and combined in various useful and creative ways. This is transforming the worlds of journalism, healthcare, energy, and law as well as politics and government. The Manor gathering was an acknowledgement and update. Janet Gilmore of the Texas Department of Information Resources noted that there’s an open data movement within governments – and governments have all sorts of data sets they can expose – about weather, wildlife, real estate, income flows, resource locations, etc.

There’s also a huge potential for government at all levels to use social media to engage citizens – not just to get the word out about what government is doing, but listening to citizen input on what government should be doing. The message I heard in Manor is that people don’t want to talk about doing cool and innovative stuff with emerging technologies, they want to stop talking and start doing. And there’s so many easy ways to start doing: WordPress sites, 311 systems, Facebook and Twitter presences, QR codes, mobile applications… a list as long as crowdsourced minds can make it. Manor is soliciting ideas and conceiving new ways to incorporate technologies via its Labs, in partnership with Stanford Univeresity’s Peace Dot Program and others.

There are many challenges to opening up government, not the least of which is culture. Someone at the Manor gathering commented that “the technology is easy, but the people are hard.” That speaks to all sorts of challenges – training and adoption, privacy issues, culture change, apathy, control. But we’re on kind of a roll here, and picking up momentum and energy.

On January 28th and 29th, there will be a Texas Government 2.0 Barcamp at the Eastview Campus of Austin Community College. Watch this space for more information.

Information/culture wars

In creating with a history of the “climate fight,” Dr. Spencer Weart has created a history with interesting points about the democratization of knowledge. [Link] He talks about a decline in the prestige of all authorities, expansion of the scientific community with greater interdisciplinarity, and a decline of science journalism.

These trends had been exacerbated since the 1990s by the fragmentation of media (Internet, talk radio), which promoted counter-scientific beliefs such as fear of vaccines among even educated people, by providing facile elaborations of false arguments and a ceaseless repetition of allegations.

Mike Hulme’s response:

I think Spencer is helpful by suggesting there is a much bigger story happening in the world of science, knowledge and cultural authority of which the climate change incidents of this moment are just part. These are going to be increasingly difficult challenges for many areas of science in the future – how is scientific knowledge recognized, how is it spoken and who speaks for it, and how does scientific knowledge relate to other forms of cultural authority. It’s not just about the politicization of public knowledge, but also about its fragmentation, privatization and/or democratization.

In comments, Bob Potter says

The key phrase is “expert public relations apparatus”. In the mid 20th century scientists had the luxury of public respect. People believed what they said. As public confidence in authority figures of all types waned, scientists took no notice. When global climate change became a serious issue scientists still assumed that a “word from the wise” would be sufficient, and that is all they brought to the fight. They lost the war because industry had a public relations army and they did not.

All great points: we’re in the midst of culture and information wars, and the concept of “authoritative voice” is less meaningful, if not lost. We can’t fix this by going backwards… as so many of us have said before, we have to focus more than ever on media literacy. Should be right up there with reading, writing, and arithmetic.