What Happened to Consensus Reality?

Essay by Jon Askonas: “Do you feel that people you love and respect are going insane? That formerly serious thinkers or commentators are increasingly unhinged, willing to subscribe to wild speculations or even conspiracy theories? Do you feel that, even if there’s some blame to go around, it’s the people on the other side of the aisle who have truly lost their minds? Do you wonder how they can possibly be so blind? Do you feel bewildered by how absurd everything has gotten? Do many of your compatriots seem in some sense unintelligible to you? Do you still consider them your compatriots?

If you feel this way, you are not alone.

We have come a long way from the optimism of the 1990s and 2000s about how the Internet would usher in a new golden era, expanding the domain of the information society to the whole world, with democracy sure to follow. Now we hear that the Internet foments misinformation and erodes democracy. Yet as dire as these warnings are, they are usually followed with suggestions that with more scrutiny on tech CEOs, more aggressive content moderation, and more fact-checking,  Americans might yet return to accepting the same model of reality. Last year, a New York Times article titled “How the Biden Administration Can Help Solve Our Reality Crisis”  suggested creating a federal “reality czar.”

This is a fantasy. The breakup of consensus reality — a shared sense of facts, expectations, and concepts about the world — predates the rise of social media and is driven by much deeper economic and technological currents.

Postwar Americans enjoyed a world where the existence of an objective, knowable reality just seemed like common sense, where alternate facts belonged only to fringe realms of the deluded or deluding. But a shared sense of reality is not natural. It is the product of social institutions that were once so powerful they could hold together a shared picture of the world, but are now well along a path of decline. In the hope of maintaining their power, some have even begun to abandon the project of objectivity altogether.

Attempts to restore consensus reality by force — the current implicit project of the establishment — are doomed to failure. The only question now is how we will adapt our institutions to a life together where a shared picture of the world has been shattered.

This series aims to trace the forces that broke consensus reality. More than a history of the rise and fall of facts, these essays attempt to show a technological reordering of social reality unlike any before encountered, and an accompanying civilizational shift not seen in five hundred years…(More)”.

From Knowing to Doing: Operationalizing the 100 Questions for Air Quality Initiative

Report by Jessica Seddon, Stefaan G. Verhulst and Aimee Maron: “…summarizes the September 2021 capstone event that wrapped up 100 Questions for Air Quality, led by GovLab and World Resources Institute (WR). This initiative brought together a group of 100 atmospheric scientists, policy experts, academics and data providers from around the world to identify the most important questions for setting a new, high-impact agenda for further investments in data and data science. After a thorough process of sourcing questions, clustering and ranking them – the public was asked to vote. The results were surprising: the most important question was not about what new data or research is needed, but on how we do more with what we already know to generate political will and investments in air quality solutions.

Co-hosted by Clean Air Fund, Climate and Clean Air Coalition, and Clean Air Catalyst, the 2021 roundtable discussion focused on an answer to that question. This conference proceeding summary reflects early findings from that session and offers a starting point for a much-needed conversation on data-to-action. The group of experts and practitioners from academia, businesses, foundations, government, multilateral organizations, nonprofits, and think tanks have not been identified so they could speak freely….(More)”.

Meet the fact-checkers decoding Sri Lanka’s meltdown

Article by Nilesh Christopher: “On the evening of May 3, the atmosphere at Galle Face Green, an esplanade along the coastline of Sri Lanka’s capital city of Colombo, was carnivalesque. Parents strolled on sidewalks with toddlers hoisted on their shoulders. Teenagers wearing bandanas played the flute and blew plastic horns. People climbed atop makeshift podiums to address the crowds, greeted by scattered applause. 

The crowd of a few hundred was part of a series of protests that had been underway since mid-March, demanding the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. For months, the country has been trapped in a brutal economic crisis: Sri Lanka is currently unable to pay for imports of essentials, such as food, medicines, and fuel. Populist tax cuts, an abrupt ban on fertilizer imports, decimated crop yields, and the collapse of tourism during the pandemic all helped to push the country into the worst economic crisis it has faced since gaining independence in 1948.

The island nation owes nearly $7 billion this year and has next to no foreign reserves left. “We don’t have any gas. We don’t have fuel and some food items. We lose power for three to four hours daily now,” Nalin Chamara, 42, a hotelier protesting with his family and children, told Rest of World. Meanwhile, the presidential family at one point controlled around 70% of the nation’s budget and ran it as a family business, spending billions of dollars of borrowed money on vanity projects, such as an extravagant airport and cricket stadium that now sit almost entirely unused.

Yudhanjaya Wijeratne walked among the Galle Face Green crowds, surveying the scene. He pointed out where demonstrators had jury-rigged their own electricity supply by welding solar panels atop an open truck and connecting them to a battery. The power generated was being used to charge over two dozen smartphones inside a big blue tent, which also contained a library housing 15,000 books. “This is what Sri Lankans will do if you let them build stuff. Fucking build infrastructure from scratch,” Wijeratne said. The protest featured a giant middle finger monument made of plastic bottles, directed at the Rajapaksas. “Our real educational export should be B.Sc. in protest,” Wijeratne said.

Wijeratne, 29 years old, is best known as the author of Numbercaste, a science fiction novel about a near-future world where people’s importance in society is decided based on the all-powerful Number, a credit score determined by their social circle and social network data. But he is also the chief executive of Watchdog, a research collective based in Colombo that uses fact-checking and open source intelligence (OSINT) methods to investigate Sri Lanka’s ongoing crisis. As part of its work, he and his 12-member team of coders, journalists, economists, and students track, time stamp, geolocate, and document videos of protests shared online.

Watchdog’s protest tracker has emerged as the most comprehensive online archive of the historic events unfolding in Sri Lanka. Its data set, which comprises 597 different protests and 49 conflicts, has been used by global news organizations to demonstrate the extent of public pushback.

“[Our] core mission is simple,” Wijeratne told Rest of World. “We want to help people understand the infrastructure they use. The concrete, the laws, the policies, and the social contracts that they live under. We want to help people understand the causality of how they came to be and how they operate.”…(More)”.

Another World Is Possible: How to Reignite Social and Political Imagination

Book by Geoff Mulgan: “As the world confronts both the fast catastrophe of Covid and the slow crisis of climate change, we also face a third, less visible emergency: a crisis of imagination. Millions of us can picture the world going awry, yet our confident visions of the future are largely dominated by technology and hardware. Most citizens struggle to envisage how we could live better-improve our democracy, welfare, neighborhoods or education-fueling a pervasive, pessimistic resignation.

This book argues that, although the threats are real, our fatalism has overshot. Achieving a better future depends on creative imagination: the ability to see where we might want to go, and how we might want to get there. Political veteran Geoff Mulgan offers the lessons we can learn from the past and the methods we can use now to open up our thinking about the future; to discover how to look at things not only in terms of what they are, but also what they could be.

Drawing on social sciences, the arts, philosophy and history, Mulgan shows how we can recharge our collective imagination. At a time when the public wants to see transformational social change, he provides a roadmap for the future…(More)”.

Collective Intelligence for Smart Cities

Book by Chun HO WU, George To Sum Ho, Fatos Xhafa, Andrew W. H. IP, Reinout Van Hille: “Collective Intelligence for Smart Cities begins with an overview of the fundamental issues and concepts of smart cities. Surveying the current state-of-the-art research in the field, the book delves deeply into key smart city developments such as health and well-being, transportation, safety, energy, environment and sustainability. In addition, the book focuses on the role of IoT cloud computing and big data, specifically in smart city development. Users will find a unique, overarching perspective that ties together these concepts based on collective intelligence, a concept for quantifying mass activity familiar to many social science and life science researchers. Sections explore how group decision-making emerges from the consensus of the collective, collaborative and competitive activities of many individuals, along with future perspectives…(More)”

How to Make Better Decisions Online

Article by Josh Lerner and Rose Longhurst: “…First, the good news. Digital participation platforms can enable people to learn, debate, and decide together in more inclusive ways. They generally have several core functions that work well: collecting, reviewing, and revising ideas and proposals; voting on proposals; and reporting outcomes. Along the way, people can receive updates, give feedback, share information beyond the platforms, and integrate offline and online discussions. Advanced platform features are increasingly using artificial intelligence, algorithms, and randomization to connect people and ideas in new ways.

These platforms can make it easier to reach more informed decisions that have broader support. They make engagement easier by automating and distributing work— by collecting ideas, for example, and compiling votes. They make decision-making more transparent by documenting and sharing key information and discussions online, in usable formats. And they make participation more accessible by creating easier opportunities for people to engage at times and in places and languages that work for them.

At FundAction, a European community of activists has used one such platform to make decisions about funding priorities and grants. FundAction is a participatory fund that aims “to shift power to make decisions about funding from foundations to those closer to the issue, strengthen collaboration and mutual support among European activists, and build the capacity of activists and the social movements they work with.” The community is spread across many countries in different time zones, so people need to engage asynchronously at times most convenient for them.

The platform that FundAction uses has made it easier for activists to share their work with people outside their thematic or geographic community, which has helped build solidarity and buttressed political education. For example, disability justice activists shared links to their proposed social model of disability on the platform, making it easier for peers and reviewers to learn about the concept and ask questions. The questions and responses are shared transparently with all, saving the activists time as they do not have to repeatedly address the same points. This open format also serves as a reminder that all of us have questions, as well as solutions, to contribute.

People Powered has used a platform to allocate funds at a global level—and also to decide new organizational policies. People Powered is a global hub for participatory democracy that aims “to expand people’s power to make government decisions.” Its community of members from over 35 countries provides direct support for programs such as participatory budgeting and citizens’ assemblies. Members have used the platform to propose and debate funding allocations and policies and then vote to allocate funds to new projects (e.g., mentorship, trainings and a digital participation platform guide and ratings) and approve new policies (e.g., for membership, board elections, inclusion, and accessibility)….(More)”.

Let the People Rule: How Direct Democracy Can Meet the Populist Challenge

Book by John Matsusaka: “Propelled by the belief that government has slipped out of the hands of ordinary citizens, a surging wave of populism is destabilizing democracies around the world. As John Matsusaka reveals in Let the People Rule, this belief is based in fact. Over the past century, while democratic governments have become more efficient, they have also become more disconnected from the people they purport to represent. The solution Matsusaka advances is familiar but surprisingly underused: direct democracy, in the form of referendums. While this might seem like a dangerous idea post-Brexit, there is a great deal of evidence that, with careful design and thoughtful implementation, referendums can help bridge the growing gulf between the government and the people.

Drawing on examples from around the world, Matsusaka shows how direct democracy can bring policies back in line with the will of the people (and provide other benefits, like curbing corruption). Taking lessons from failed processes like Brexit, he also describes what issues are best suited to referendums and how they should be designed, and he tackles questions that have long vexed direct democracy: can voters be trusted to choose reasonable policies, and can minority rights survive majority decisions? The result is one of the most comprehensive examinations of direct democracy to date—coupled with concrete, nonpartisan proposals for how countries can make the most of the powerful tools that referendums offer….(More)”.

Information aggregation and collective intelligence beyond the wisdom of crowds

Paper by Tatsuya Kameda, Wataru Toyokawa & R. Scott Tindale: “In humans and other gregarious animals, collective decision-making is a robust behavioural feature of groups. Pooling individual information is also fundamental for modern societies, in which digital technologies have exponentially increased the interdependence of individual group members. In this Review, we selectively discuss the recent human and animal literature, focusing on cognitive and behavioural mechanisms that can yield collective intelligence beyond the wisdom of crowds. We distinguish between two group decision-making situations: consensus decision-making, in which a group consensus is required, and combined decision-making, in which a group consensus is not required. We show that in both group decision-making situations, cognitive and behavioural algorithms that capitalize on individual heterogeneity are the key for collective intelligence to emerge. These algorithms include accuracy or expertise-weighted aggregation of individual inputs and implicit or explicit coordination of cognition and behaviour towards division of labour. These mechanisms can be implemented either as ‘cognitive algebra’, executed mainly within the mind of an individual or by some arbitrating system, or as a dynamic behavioural aggregation through social interaction of individual group members. Finally, we discuss implications for collective decision-making in modern societies characterized by a fluid but auto-correlated flow of information and outline some future directions….(More)”.

Four ways we can use our collective imagination to improve how society works

Article by Geoff Mulgan: “In the first months of the pandemic there was evidence of a strong desire for transformational change in many countries. People wanted to use the crisis to deal with the big unresolved problems of climate change inequality and much more, encouraged, for example, by the very obvious truth that the most essential jobs were often amongst the lowest paid and lowest status. That everyone was affected by the pandemic seemed likely to fuel a more collective spirit, a recognition of how much our lives are intertwined with those of millions of strangers.

Now much of that energy has gone. People are exhausted, expectations have fallen and a return to normality looks acceptable, however inadequate that normality might have been. War in Ukraine has reminded us just how easily the world can go into retreat and that basic values remain under threat. My hope, though, is that as the pandemic fades from view we will return to our shared need for radical imagination about the future, and the transformations ahead.

I have long believed that we have a major problem with imagination: that we can more easily imagine ecological apocalypse or technological advances than improvements in how our society works: better options for health, welfare or neighbourhoods a generation or two from now.

Some of the reasons for this problem are objective. The majority of people no longer expect their children to be better off than them. They have good reasons for their pessimism: stagnant incomes for much of the population, particularly since the financial crisis. But the causes of this pessimism also lie with institutions – our universities have become better at commenting on or analysing the present than designing the future. Our political parties have largely given up on long-term thinking, while our social movements are generally better at arguing against things than proposing. Amazingly, there are now no media outlets that promote new ideas: magazines and newspapers focus instead on commentary.

One symptom of this is how much public debate, even in its progressive forms, is dominated by quite old ideas. Take, for example, the circular economy. The main ideas were first proposed in the 1980s. They guided many projects (including ones I worked on) in the 1990s, got the backing of the Chinese Communist party nearly twenty years ago, and were then ably evangelized by people like Ellen McArthur. Yet they’re still not wholly mainstream…(More)”.

Inclusive policy making in a digital age: The case for crowdsourced deliberation

Blog by Theo Bass: “In 2016, the Finnish Government ran an ambitious experiment to test if and how citizens across the country could meaningfully contribute to the law-making process.

Many people in Finland use off-road snowmobiles to get around in the winter, raising issues like how to protect wildlife, keep pedestrians safe, and compensate property owners for use of their land for off-road traffic.

To hear from people across the country who would be most affected by new laws, the government set up an online platform to understand problems they faced and gather solutions. Citizens could post comments and suggestions, respond to one another, and vote on ideas they liked. Over 700 people took part, generating around 250 policy ideas.

The exercise caught the attention of academics Tanja Aitamurto and Hélène Landemore. In 2017, they wrote a paper coining the term crowdsourced deliberation — an ‘open, asynchronous, depersonalized, and distributed kind of online deliberation occurring among self‐selected participants’ — to describe the interactions they saw on the platform.

Many other crowdsourced deliberation initiatives have emerged in recent years, although they haven’t always been given that name. From France to Taiwan, governments have experimented with opening policy making and enabling online conversations among diverse groups of thousands of people, leading to the adoption of new regulations or laws.

So what’s distinctive about this approach and why should policy makers consider it alongside others? In this post I’ll make a case for crowdsourced deliberation, comparing it to two other popular methods for inclusive policy making…(More)”.