Dave Meslin: The antidote to apathy

Speaker

Dave Meslin is a Toronto-based artist, activist, community organizer, writer and the Creative Director of PigeonHat Industries.

Summary

Often it is said people are too stupid, selfish, or lazy to care about local politics. Dave proposes the opposite view: that people do care but there are barriers put in their way to prevent action. These barriers are:

  1. City Hall: ‘community engagement’ for a project may be by placing an ad in the local paper, but the ad is in tiny font with the details (what is proposed, how to object) hidden within a page full of pointless text. If people were supposed to be involved, the ad would have just a picture, large font next to it with the proposal, and contact details – similar to when a business advertises. When people don’t respond, it isn’t because they are apathetic: they have been intentionally excluded.
  2. Public Spaces: Public advertising goes only to the highest bidder. But some important messages are unprofitable to say.
  3. Media: Media subtly discourages engagement. When they review theatre or a restaurant they often include a short paragraph describing price, address, opening hours in case people want to go. For political campaigns or messages there is no similar way for people to get involved or read more (eg a website address). This sets the tone that politics isn’t something that people can be involved in.
  4. Heroism: movies teach us that heroes are ‘chosen’ by prophecy. In truth leaders voluntarily step forward, form a collective team and work to achieve their goal.
  5. Political parties: They should be an entry point to getting involved in politics, but are so poll-driven they just tell us what we want to hear. This feeds cynicism and shows they cannot be trusted to be bold leaders.
  6. Charitable status: (In Canada) Charities are not allowed to politically advocate. This prevents some of the most passionate people from getting involved.
  7. Elections: (Canada’s) system creates random results, with the winner someone who most people didn’t vote for. It’s no wonder people struggle to vote.

If we believe people are NOT too stupid, selfish or lazy to care, then we can fix each of these issues. We have to redefine apathy as a series of barriers, then identify and dismantle them.

My Thoughts

This is a good list of barriers, but I’m disappointed so few solutions. His solution is to identify then dismantle each one, but that process is blocked by the same barriers he identifies, and the political process itself. Major Political Parties benefit from the election system: and people will (probably rightly) greet attempts to change it with cynicism. Other vested interests will also fight against any change, especially if noone can propose something fairer. Given Canada has a first-past-the-post system with 3 significant parties, so a preferential system would probably work better, but plenty of people will fight to prevent that.

‘Community engagement’ has been reduced to fine print ads to make things easier for people implementing projects. While the ads are one barrier in the process, would they really take on board community suggestions anyway? Would you expect them to?

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Pia Mancini: How to upgrade democracy for the Internet era

Speaker

Using software to inspire public debate and enable voter engagement, Pia Mancini hopes to upgrade modern democracy in Argentina and beyond.

Summary

Democracy as a system is rooted in thinking and constraints from 500 years ago. Every few years it represents a few to make decisions on behalf of everyone else. It has high thresholds of entry: you need either a lot of resources or to devote your life to politics. The language is also complicated, so we can choose the authorities but are left out of how the decisions are made. The political system is 200 years old, and expects us to be passive recipients of the monologue. This attitude itself alienates citizens – giving them no opportunities to intervene except by protest’. People want their seat at the table.

The current generation has been good at using technology to organise protests, that have overthrown totalitarian governments and changed unpopular laws. However we have not yet used the technology to change the system itself. If the internet is the new printing press, then what is democracy for the internet era? Pia asks what institutions we need to build for the 21st century, and doesn’t know the answer.

Pia and some friends in Argentina were left thinking about how we can use technology to solve current political problems, rather than relying on the tools of the past. She developed an open source app ‘DemocracyOS’, which translates issues into easy-to-understand language and allows people to informally vote on them. They could compare citizen’s votes with the votes of their representatives to see the discrepancies. When she tried to get politicians on board with the idea of a 2 way conversation with voters, she failed. Reflecting, she says she was naieve to expect the political elite to go along with this – the problems are cultural and not purely technical.

Pia took a leap of faith and ran a politcal party in Buenos Aires, with the idea that they would always vote along the same lines as the voters from DemocracyOS. To change the system, they needed a seat at the table, which meant playing by the political rules. While they did not win a seat, they did pick up 1.2% of the vote and have used their influence to have 3 bills to be voted on by DemocracyOS. Congress would not be bound by the vote, but they are at least showing willingness to consider the results.

My Thoughts

It’s a brave product, but asking everyone to vote on a smartphone app has some issues of representation. It makes things expensive for the poor – effectively dealing them out of the issues. It also may not be trusted – security concerns could undermine the authority of the product. And a vote could still be hijacked by a small but committed group. It also may not be the best way to make complex, or unpopular but necessary decisions – eg reducing spending in some areas.

However, as time goes on and if such a product became ubiquitous, I think it could be a good system. Certainly on pure ‘conscience’ or social issues it could work. I still think for some more complicated issues it should be experts picking which way to go (which still isn’t done properly by the current system).

Sally Kohn: Don’t like clickbait? Don’t click

Speaker

Sally Kohn is a liberal political commentator, community organizer, and founder and chief education officer of the Movement Vision Lab, a grassroots think tank. Kohn was a contributor for the Fox News Channel.

Summary

The internet can be a nasty place, and has been shown to be much worse if you are gay, a woman, or a person of colour. Sally herself has found a fake twitter account which accuses her of being a bull dike, a man hater, and someone who only talks to spread her ‘perverse sexuality’.

However, if everyone hates this, we can change it by making a small sacrifice. People are no longer passive receivers of a media run by elites – no longer is the world divided into media creators and media consumers. By reading twitter or posting to a blog we are making a public act. We decide what gets attention by clicking on something – algorithms will decide that is what you need to see more of.

60% of Americans think America is becoming incivil, but they also click these the same ridiculously worded rumour-mongering articles. In an increasingly noisy media landscape, there are more incentives to make as much noise as possible. The tyranny of the loud encourages the nastiest comments. We need to change the incentives.

When you see someone abused, do something – drown out the negative with the positive. And don’t click on nasty and inane stories – it only encourages more of them. Clicking on them will force more stories of the same to appear.

My Thoughts

Good advice to all – however I disagree with her about ‘doing something’ to online trolls. By ‘being a hero’ and fighting nasty comments, you are giving them merit. By responding to a nasty article or a nasty person, you are triggering another incentive in both the article and the trolls. The articles are nasty because that generates controversy – by responding to an article you are feeding that controversy.

Beyond that – spread the word to others. Don’t click on garbage – it only encourages more garbage.

Martin Rees: Can we prevent the end of the world?

Speaker

Lord Martin Rees, one of the world’s most eminent astronomers, is an emeritus professor of cosmology and astrophysics at the University of Cambridge and the UK’s Astronomer Royal.

Summary

The Earth has existed for 45 million centuries, but this is the first where threats to the Earth could conceivably come from humanity. The political will to deal with these catastrophic threats is weak – instead we focus on minor hazards such as plane crashes and chemicals in food. In the same way as we pay a premium for car insurance, doesn’t it make sense to plan for these threats?

It is likely that common people will have the capability to design biological organisms this century. These could be misused by people looking to do immense damage. Regulation cannot prevent misuse, since there will always be a country where anything is possible.

People were concerned when the particle accelerator came online, but this has been done naturally many times. Of more concern is the truly new technologies being developed.

Martin suggests that a core question is existential – is a 100% death rate from a disaster significantly worse than 90%? Some would suggest it is only 10% worse, but Martin says it is immeasurably worse. He can’t believe that humanity is the last link in an evolutionary chain. Even on an astronomical or evolutionary time scale, there is still a lot of life left in the Earth (~5 billion years), and future evolution may develop faster on a technological time scale. Surely even a 1 in a billion risk of human destruction should be mitigated. While some threats are pure science fiction, others are improbable but possible.

To study these risks, Martin has established a centre to mitigate these existential risks at Cambridge university. It makes sense for at least a few people to think about these issues.

My Thoughts

Martin talks well about the risk management approach we need to take to deal with unlikely but catastrophic events. However aside from biological terrorism, he does not delve too much into what issues he is particularly concerned about, or possible solutions. I am curious to see what comes out from his studies.

Eric Liu: Why ordinary people need to understand power

Speaker

Eric Liu is a former speechwriter for then-president Bill Clinton and founder of ‘Citizen University’ which brings together leaders, activists and practitioners to teach the art of effective and creative citizenship.

Summary

We are currently confronted with an apathy for power – people are afraid to acknowledge the word and see it as evil. But power is simply the capacity to have others do what you want them to. People have delegated to a professional political class – lobbyists and media managers who hold the power to themselves and happily keep the rest of us ignorant. When a politician retires, they join a business and continue to use their political contacts to wield power. Those on the extreme left think only corporations wield power, and those on the far right think the government itself has too much power, while others with too little power will just think they deserve their political weakness. Eric wants us all to learn about power in civics class, to counter the ignorance or apathy most of us feel.

Think of your city, and something you want to achieve with it – what to do with a piece of abandoned land for example. The types of power at play could be financial, people, informational, misinformation, the threat of force. How could you use or neutralise these to get what you want? Cities are also one of the most interesting forms of power remaining. Federal politics has become so partisan and gridlocked that it is difficult to change anything. In contrast cities are becoming more dynamic, and good ideas spreading faster from one city to the next. For example, local governments are implementing programs to reduce greenhouse emissions, and bypassing the difficulties of federal government.

Eric’s organisation “Citizen University” is building a curriculum of power – to educate lay people in power. He wants us to help build the curriculum, by imagining the future of our city if we could implement our pet project. By looking from that future point back at how it got there we can think about how to achieve it. If we can make civics sexy again we can make it safe for amateurs and allow us to self-govern.

My Thoughts

He had a good start about a general apathy and fear of power that created a political class. His talk had plenty of examples of power, however none of them seemed to go anywhere (hence they were omitted in the summary). The ending of the talk was also disappointing – this talk contained very little discussion of power and how to use / achieve it. It was more a call to arms for people to get interested in power.

Hans Rosling: Debunking third-world myths with the best stats you’ve ever seen

Speaker

Hans Rosling is a medical doctor and statistician. He is co-founder and chairman of the Gapminder Foundation, which developed the Trendalyzer software system.

Summary

Hans taught ‘Global Development’ to Swedish undergraduates, finding they had preconceived ideas about statistics of Child Mortality after failing to predict which of 2 countries had worse child mortality. He talked through some common myths about the third world

  1. Developed world has long lives with small families, while developing world is the opposite: Hand showed this was true in 1962, but since then (until 2003) most countries have moved towards a trend of smaller families and increasing life expectancy. The African countries were one area lagging in life expectancy, due to a HIV epidemic in the 90s.
  2. Income distribution: there is no ‘gap’ between rich and poor (in that people earn incomes at all possible rates from $1 to $100 per day). The riches 20% take 74% of income, while the poorest 20% have 2%, and the middle 60% have 26% of money. There is some overlap in income rates between OECD and Africa (in that some Africans earn more than some OECD).
  3. Child mortality vs GDP: there is a clear linear trend between Child survival and GDP.
  • However within regions such as sub-Sahara Africa, there is tremendous variation – with Mauritius having OECD level high GDP and child health, but Sierra Leonne being much lower than average. He credits Mauritius’ success with breaking down trade barriers.
  • Taking China as an example, Hans showed Mao Ze-Dong’s period as bringing health to China (with decreased child mortality on one axis), and the Deng Xiao-Ping bringing money to China (moving across the GDP per capita axis).
  • UAE is an example of a country that started with high GDP but poor child mortality. Over time it has improved, but it is evidence that money alone is not enough to guarantee health, you need time to train doctors and build infrastructure.
  • Within countries, there is tremendous variation in income – eg over 3 countries in Africa there is the full spectrum of income levels. This makes it deceptive to talk of health issues in ‘Africa’, since the management strategies for the richest would be very different to those of the poorest.

These data will increase everyone’s understanding of the world, but is hidden away with separate organisations, making is difficult to access. Hans linked up some of the key databases using ‘GapMinder’ organisation. Gapminder has provided animation, search functions and design features to make it accessible and usable for all.

Lawrence Lessig: The unstoppable walk to political reform

Speakers: Lawrence Lessig – Lawrence is an academic of law and political activist, a proponent of reduced restrictions on copyright and trademark.

Summary

Lawrence talks passionately on behalf of Aaron Swartz, a programmer and software freedom activist who died a year before the talk. The focus of the talk is on the financial influence on politics.

When Intel discovered a problem with the early Pentium chips, that caused a miscalculation 1 in 360 billion times, they spent $475 billion to fix it. However, when politics is currently ‘broken’ in a way that influences every single decision, no one responds. When Aaron Swartz asked Lawrence why he doesn’t respond, he said it wasn’t his field as an academic.

in 1999, at the age of 88, Granny D walked from Los Angeles to Washington DC carrying a sign labelled “Granny D for Campaign Finance Reform”. 18 months later, Granny arrived in Washington, with hundreds of followers. Most people don’t have the time to devote that long to walking 32,000 miles, but Lawrence instead organised a 185mile walk across New Hampshire with 200 passionate people. During his walk Lawrence conducted a poll, and found that 96% of Americans want to remove the influence of money from politics, but 91% believe there is nothing they can do about it. There is a politics of resignation about the issue.

Lawrence wants to keep the hope alive that something can be done.

  • He wants to organise a 1,000 person walk in 2015, and 10,000 people in 2016 to influence primaries in 2016. He has designed an open platform to the walks to allow other states to replicate the New Hampshire walk.
  • A list is being circulated to inform voters where candidates stand on the issue of finance reform.
  • Organising a Super PAC (a political action group, that collects funds to influence politics on an issue) to end all Super PACs. They will coordinate with experts to work out how much money it would take to influence this issue, then arrange a kickstarter-style funding model to make it happen.

Lawrence calls on you to join this movement not because you are a politician, not because you are an expert, not because it is your field, but because you are a citizen.