Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘sociology’

18 SEPTEMBER, 2012

Steven Johnson on the “Peer Progressive” Movement and What the Internet Wants

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“When you give people more control over the flow of information and decision making in their communities, their social health improves — incrementally, in fits and starts, but also inexorably.”

Such is the nature of the reader’s ego: Whenever your favorite author comes out with another thoughtful, beautifully written, culturally relevant book, it’s potent and gratifying validation of your preference for his or her work and, by proxy, of yourself. This week, I have Steven Johnson to thank for gratifying my ego with Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age (public library) — an absorbing, provocative, and unapologetically optimistic vision for the society we have the capacity to build if we use the remarkable tools of our age intelligently and wisely. Driven by what Johnson calls “peer progressives” — a cohort of people who are “wary of centralized control, but [are] not free-market libertarians,” who identify as entrepreneurs but work mostly in the public sector, who believe in building “a new kind of institution, more network than hierarchy” — this new groundswell is using the power of networks as a problem-solving tool for civic society, and one of the finest nonfiction writers of our time has taken it upon himself to tell its story.

In the introduction, Johnson reminds us of something crucial Anaïs Nin observed more than 70 years ago — namely, the importance of understanding the role of the individual in making sense of mass movements:

Most new movements start this way: hundreds or thousands of individuals and groups, working in different fields and different locations, start thinking about change using a common language, without necessarily recognizing those shared values. You just start following your own vector, propelled along by people in your immediate vicinity. And then one day, you look up and realize that all those individual trajectories have turned into a wave.

One paradox of the digital age Johnson examines is the challenge of whether it’s “possible to believe that the Internet and the Web are pushing us in a positive direction, without becoming naive cyber-utopians.” To resolve the dissonance, he turns to Marshall McLuhan’s concept of “affordances” — the deeply engrained tendencies of each new medium, which shape the message it conveys in consistent and predictable ways. Among television’s key affordances, for instance, was the strong bias for the visual and spoken over the textual. Johnson reflects on Neil Postman’s golden-age-of-TV bestseller, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business:

You do not need a ‘thorough theoretical understanding of the context’ to assume that the introduction of television will diminish the role of the written word in a given society.

On the web, however, these affordances get murky. It’s a medium that at once allows meticulous micro-customization — like, for instance, those Google AdSense ads that
“know” your search history and preferences, pushing you products and services increasingly more tailored to your tastes — and spews out endless, mass-produced spam. Johnson puts it wrily:

For every website that knows exactly what you want to read right now, there are probably ten penis-enlargement ads sitting in your inbox.

But, he points out, the web is after all software and, as such, it’s malleable and nimble enough to be able to thrive on these schizophrenic affordances:

Software interfaces are not fixed properties; they are possibility spaces, open to a near-infinite range of experimentation, which means that the defining affordances of the medium are more elastic than those of traditional media.

[…]

But this capacity for reinvention does not mean the Internet and its descendants are without affordances altogether. In fact, one of the Net’s affordances flows directly out if its shape-shifting powers. Because the software networks are more malleable than earlier forms of media, they tend to engage more people in the process of deciding how they should work. In the days of analog telephony or radio, the number of people actively involved in the conversation about how these technologies should work was vanishingly small. If we have too much of anything on the Internet, it’s engagement: too many minds pushing the platform in new directions, too many voices arguing about the social and economic consequences of those changes. A medium that displays a capacity for reinvention tends, in the long run at least, to build up a much larger community of people who anted to help reinvent it.

Ultimately, Johnson poses, then answers, one of our era’s most profound questions:

So what does the Internet want? It wants to lower the cost for creating and sharing information. The notion sounds unimpeachable when you phrase it like that, until you realize all the strange places that kind of affordance ultimately leads to. The Internet wants to breed algorithms that can execute thousands of financial transactions per minute, and it wants to disseminate the #occupywallstreet meme across the planet. The Internet ‘wants’ both the Wall Street tycoons and the popular insurrection at its feet.

Can that strange, contradictory cocktail drive progress on its own? Perhaps — for the simple reason that it democratizes the control of information. When information is expensive and scarce, powerful or wealthy individuals or groups have a disproportionate impact on how that information circulates. But as it gets cheaper and more abundant, the barriers to entry are lowered. This is hardly a new observation, but everything that has happened over the last twenty years has confirmed the basic insight. That democratization has not always led to positive outcomes — think of those spam artists — but there is no contesting the tremendous, orders-of-magnitude increase in the number of people creating and sharing, thanks to the mass adoption of the Internet.

The peer progressive’s faith in the positive effects of the Internet rests on this democratic principle: When you give people more control over the flow of information and decision making in their communities, their social health improves — incrementally, in fits and starts, but also inexorably. Yes, when you push the intelligence out to the edges of the network, sometimes individuals or groups abuse those newfound privileges; a world without gatekeepers or planners is noisier and more chaotic. But the same is true of other institutions that have stood the test of time. Democracies on occasion elect charlatans or bigots or imbeciles; markets on occasion erupt in catastrophic bubbles, or choose to direct resources to trivial problems while ignoring the more pressing ones. We accept these imperfections because the alternatives are so much worse. The same is true of the Internet and the peer networks it has inspired. They are not perfect, far from it. But over the long haul, they produce better results than the Legrand Stars that came before them. They’re not utopias. They’re just leaning that way.

Future Perfect, which comes on the heels of Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation (2010) and The Innovator’s Cookbook: Essentials for Inventing What Is Next (2011), goes on to examine the wide-reaching impact of the peer progressive movement through a fascinating cross-section of Johnson’s characteristic seeming-deviations-that-turn-out-to-be-brilliant-allegories-for-the-core-argument, spanning everything from the history of early aviation to New York’s mysterious maple syrup event of 2005 to what the “pothole paradox” tells us about the future of journalism.

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21 AUGUST, 2012

Anaïs Nin on Why Understanding the Individual is the Key to Understanding Mass Movements

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“Every individual is representative of the whole, a symptom, and should be intimately understood.”

French-Cuban writer Anaïs Nin (1903-1977) was one of the most prolific and dedicated diarists in modern literary history, her journals a treasure trove of insight on life, literature, society, and human nature. From the The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944 (public library) — which gave us Nin’s illustrated insights on life, this poignant mediation on Paris vs. New York, and Henry Miller’s wisdom on giving vs. receiving — comes this thoughtful reflection on why understanding the masses, in sociology and in politics, must be preceded by understanding the triumphs and tragedies of the individual:

The general obsession with observing only historical or sociological movements, and not a particular human being (which is considered such righteousness here [in America]) is as mistaken as a doctor who does not take an interest in a particular case. Every particular case is an experience that can be valuable to the understanding of the illness.

There is an opacity in individual relationships, and an insistence that the writer make the relation of the particular to the whole which makes for a kind of farsightedness. I believe in just the opposite. Every individual is representative of the whole, a symptom, and should be intimately understood, and this would give a far greater understanding of mass movements and sociology.

Also, this indifference to the individual, total lack of interest in intimate knowledge of the isolated, unique human being, atrophies human reactions and humanism. Too much social consciousness and not a bit of insight into human beings.

As soon as you speak in psychological terms (applying understanding of one to the many is not the task of the novelist but of the historian) people act as if you had a lack of interest in the wider currents of the history of man. In other words, they feel able to study masses and consider this more virtuous, assign of a vaster concept than relating to one person. This makes them …. inadequate in relationships, in friendships, in psychological understanding.

A couple of pages later, Nin ties this to political leadership in a way that, in an election year, rings more urgent than ever:

My lack of faith in the men who lead us is that they do not recognize the irrational in men, they have no insight, and whoever does not recognize the personal, individual drama of man cannot lead them.

The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944 is sublime in its entirety.

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06 AUGUST, 2012

The Wisdom of Crowds

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“Under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them.”

“Men, it has been well said, think in herds, wrote Scottish journalist Charles Mackay in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, his satirical 1841 history of mass manias and popular folly. “It will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”

In this episode from PBS’s NOVA ScienceNOW video podcast series, Neil deGrasse Tyson tells the story of British polymath Francis Galton, who in 1906 set out to confirm Mackay’s contention but found, instead, the opposite: That crowds can have astonishing collective intelligence that far supersedes the cognitive capacity of individuals.

In The Wisdom of Crowds (public library), whose title plays on Mackay’s book, James Surowiecki examines Galton’s insight more closely to demonstrate how, under the right circumstances, groups — from game-show audiences to multibillion-dollar corporations — “are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them.” He recounts Galton’s experiment and its connotation for democracy. (Ironically, Surowiecki wrote this years before the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and Anonymous.)

One day in the fall of 1906, the British scientist Francis Galton headed for the country fair.

[…]

As he walked through the exhibition that day, Galton came across a weight-judging competition. A fat ox had been selected and members of a gathering crowd were lining up to place wagers on the (slaughtered and dressed) weight of the ox.

[…]

Eight hundred people tried their luck. They were a diverse lot. Many of them were butchers and farmers, but there were also quite a few who had no insider knowledge of cattle. ‘Many non-experts competed,’ Galton wrote later in the scientific journal Nature, ‘like those clerks and others who have no expert knowledge of horse, but who bet on races, guided by newspapers, friends, and their own fancies.’ The analogy to a democracy, in which people of radically different abilities and interests each get one vote, had suggested itself to Galton immediately. ‘The average competitor was probably as well fitted for making a just estimate of the dressed weight of the ox, as an average voter is of judging the merits of most political issues on which he votes,’ he wrote.

Galton was interested in figuring out what the ‘average voter’ was capable of because he wanted to prove that the average voter was capable of very little. So he turned the competition into an impromptu experiment. When the contest was over and the prizes had been awarded, Galton borrowed the tickets from the organizers and ran a series of statistical tests on them, including the mean of the group’s guesses.

[…]

Galton undoubtedly thought that the average guess of the group would be way off the mark. After all, mix a few very smart people with some mediocre people and a lot of dumb people, and it seems like you’d end up with a dumb answer. But Galton was wrong — the crowd guessed 1,197 pounds; after it had been slaughtered and dressed the ox weighed 1,198 pounds. In other words, the crowd’s judgment was essentially perfect…. Galton wrote later: ‘The result seems more creditable to the trustworthiness of a democratic judgment than might have been expected.’ That was, to say the least, an understatement.

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