On Monday I was at the Digital Democracy Teach-In (see also Joi Ito's paper on Emergent Democracy). I was interested in the bigger picture beyond the political application. I find it fascinating how one can use systems and technology to build a grassroots advocacy, to mobilize and coordinate supporters, and to spread a message or meme quickly and effectively.
Basically it's marketing, but it's not conventional marketing. There's more...there is an emergent, self-organizing aspect that can't be controlled from a hierarchical "top" but trusts empowered representatives will use their best judgment. All great stuff.
But then I started wandering. Halley Suitt, a panelist and blogger, said she purposefully reads the blogs that disagree with her views, the ones that think the opposite. So she says she reads Andrew Sullivan’s blog each day.
Not being an Andrew Sullivan connoisseur, I went to the site. Found this post which contradicts Halley's comment but she's probably the exception and not the rule:
RED AND BLUE READING: Fascinating graphic of how hermetically sealed we are becoming one from another. We don't even read the same books any more, depending on our blue-red identity. I agree with Jonah that there's nothing wrong with a divided country. It can be fun! But a divided country where both sides don't even talk to one another? That's a little more worrying. One side benefit of my raising gay issues on this blog strikes me as being exactly that conversational clash. I understand why most people avoid it - it's grueling to be in the middle of the vortex. But it's important too. And increasingly rare." - Friday, February 06, 2004, 2:18:53 PM
That's just one divide. Just one instance of taking sides. You can easily come up with tons of examples of dichotomies and dualities...night/day, poor/rich, multinationals/environmentalists, big media/little media, east/west, science/religion, black/white.....
Red and blue. First thing that came to my mind were gang wars. Not the stuff of democracy.
While I sat in the next few sessions I was wondering if social networking, particularly sites like LinkedIn and Orkut just make our strong ties even stronger. (Summary of Mark Granovetter paper: The Strength of Weak Ties) In a sense, making it easier to find more people JUST LIKE US and perhaps inadvertently making us more insular? Does social networking serve to safely and confidently reaffirm the 'identity' we think we are without ever challenging our concepts about ourself and our assumptions and beliefs? Would our brains hurt if they stretched or might we feel uncomfortably uncertain and groundless?
The Dean campaign being the (bloodied?) poster child of the day, I found this post by Clay Shirky entitled "Is Social Software Bad for the Dean Campaign?":
"We know well from past attempts to use social software to organize groups for political change that it is hard, very hard, because participation in online communities often provides a sense of satisfaction that actually dampens a willingness to interact with the real world. When you’re communing with like-minded souls, you feel like you’re accomplishing something by arguing out the smallest details of your perfect future world, while the imperfect and actual world takes no notice, as is its custom.
There are many reasons for this, but the main one seems to be that the pleasures of life online are precisely the way they provide a respite from the vagaries of the real world."
Sounds pretty insular to me.
Of course, it's not inherent to social software itself, because people do this in the real world too.
But can the architecture of today's social software actually amplify this effect?
In another session Cory Doctorow quoting Mitch Kapor said, "Architecture is political." Then Marc Powell from indyvoter.org at another point said, "The political is social.” Thus transitively maybe "architecture is social."
Management consultants (and just plain common sense) tell you to hire a few mavericks to get a fresh perspective. Tom Peters simply calls mavericks "weird people" in his new book. (And, he says hire more women too - wow, what about weird women!). Basically anyone not just like you. Strategic consultants that came up with the scenario planning process for long-range planning (cool tool for futurists) also talk about exposing yourself to a diverse set of people. Peruse magazines and newspapers in totally random fields or topics previously unknown to you once in a while. (Reference: My distant memories of The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World by Peter Schwartz)
From Tom Peters site: If "learning" is more about "good questions" than "correct answers," consider this from Christopher Phillips ... "Questions, questions, questions. They disturb. They provoke. They exhilarate. They intimidate. They make you feel a little bit like you’ve at least temporarily lost your marbles. So much so that at times I’m positive that the ground is shaking and shifting under our feet... (From the book, Socrates Café: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy.)
Besides stretching ourselves, after a while it just gets pretty old preaching to the converted. Who then pat you on the back. And you go to hear their sermons too. It's the so-called echo chamber effect.
Of course, once in a while there is a person in the pulpit who asks, "How do you get people of different persuasions to get together?" Tim O'Reilly asked this of Wes Boyd of MoveOn.org, which tends to be oh, just slightly left of center. O'Reilly was lambasted when he first invited Microsoft to participate at the O'Reilly conferences. (A few more: Anti-Microsoft, pro-Microsoft, anti-Bush, pro-Bush.) Wes says the the reality is that the political arena is an attack-defend game that they need to play too. Conflict is what makes a good story (at least according to media) and the state of democracy is such that it's a broadcast culture.
Conflict. Attack. Defend. These are the good stories?
Then at dinner last night Christopher Allen mentioned how a blog highlighting complaints about Orkut was picked up and rocketed in popularity but a similar follow-up which was more positive didn't register a blip. To which Ross Mayfield commented, "It's not an echo chamber, it's an anti-chamber."
I don't find anti-anything to be very illuminating or instructive. It doesn't tell me whatsoever about what you are FOR. Tell me what you want or what you would do - not what you don't like or wouldn't do.
Do we really need more examples of failure and reactionary barbs? It's not a Pollyanna world, but if social software is really about connections...what is it that we are trying to connect? People JUST LIKE US being divisive and whiny? Probably not.
Referencing complex adaptive systems theory, Wes Boyd said: "Connection creates a more vibrant system. There may be an emerging public mind that's way smarter than any individual, any politician or any journalist."
But are we in danger of emerging many disparate splintered minds where the neural net looks a lot like the red-blue reading graph. Where the left brain and right brain vehemently refuse to even have a dialogue with each other.
"Design is the first signal of human intention." -- William McDonough. (Funny, just realized two of my heroes are architects, see also Bucky Fuller). Everything - architecture, end-results - follows that intention.
Is there an architecture that encourages and highlights the common goals among people, unites more than it divides and opens up a dialogue among disparate groups?
Is there an architecture that allows us to open and stretch our minds, to question our basic assumptions and cherished beliefs just in case we're wrong, to be exposed and connect to new ideas and people?
Is there an architecture that promotes and helps us formulate a vision and plan of what we want to have, what's already successful and working right, what's life-enhancing and positive?