Friday, 12 February 2010

Data, Doubt and Dissent (Part 3, enough already)

Statistics was compulsory when I studied geography, maybe it still is, but it is dull, worthy, grey and complicated which means that few labour over the minutiae of sampling methods, aggregation units, timelines, confidence intervals, error and so on. Too many shades of grey for politicos, lobbyists, media and the hobbyist too.

So what happens in the mashup, in the creation and consumption of information, the thirst for knowledge and some degree of certainty? Both producer and consumer can define and divine intelligence in their mashup and the chosen analytical methodology (though few would think in those terms). And so we have it, a few producers, a myriad consumers, a willing public, a na├»ve one, ripe for gulling. It is an interesting area….

We are in the arena of filters, choice architecting, framing effects and the tools of cyber balkanisation - data through a lens, information of the providers making, online. The often self-referential, self-reinforcing nature of this information and its blogosphere, contributes to a kind of tribalism or ghettoism and narrow world view, wittingly or otherwise; we use recommender systems, profiles/preferences and other tools to make sense of the volume of information available to us online. We have to, to slow it down to an intelligible level. As one of my colleagues put it, the consequence is that we sometimes appear to be on the threshold of a return to medieval mores and customs in the descent to the lowest common denominator/maximum attention.

Once I started trying to frame some of this stuff for myself, and having read Anderson, Shirky and others, I stumbled across Sunstein who has had plenty to say over the last decade on these subjects, though not the medieval part!

And, while I am writing this a piece appears on similar themes only in the context of religious extremism. But right there is a similar argument about the frictions that mediation creates; it seems that without friction we couldn’t function – historically we were limited to the number of relationships we could sustain around the parish pump and would filter those through common interests and now, while the opportunities are limitless, it is impractical to endeavour to exploit them without filters of some kind. My own blogroll and my usage of Twitter and the delivery of that via Twitter Times are indicative of the issue and the paradoxical challenges it throws up.

Am I living in my own cultural cul-de-sac while believing that that through my apparently unmediated interaction with it I am participating in the ‘global’ (well, as the 1 in 4 who is) village? This narrative of individualism disintegrates on the anvil of community solidarity as a mechanism for giving purpose and creating cohesion for otherwise fragmented causes and those who would espouse them. Some of the traditional boundaries of community may have dissolved but they are being re-created in cyberspace in part to restore the friction we need to make sense of our individual environment.

And into that space step the ‘internet commentators’. But not just ‘people like me’ even if you believe who I am! Surveillance, overt (you did agree to tell everyone where you are didn’t you, what planes you’re catching, hotels you’re staying in, when your house will be empty etc) and covert is ubiquitous. Personalised adverts, recommender systems, blogrolls, Twitter lists, forums, ANPR, CCTV (did I tell you we have 20% of the world’s CCTV cameras in the UK!), loyalty cards, cell-ID, memberships to name but a few – you (and your community of interest, worn clearly) are ‘out there’ so let the trolling begin, let loose the dogs of doubt.

‘Guiding opinion’ online whether through social networking tools, ‘formal’ information exchange or publishing for or against a given community of interest is the (not so) new spin and engenders a corrosive form of ‘followtics’, witness political soundbites, mainstream media’s publicising of the climate change denial agenda and the vaunting of the particular at the expense of its milieu.

The natural direction of this is stoning, hanging and the ducking stool, a descent to medievalism, the dilution of all that a liberal multi-cultural society aspires to. A corresponding paralysis in decision making and law giving will spawn a new era of plunder of the worlds natural and human resources. That’s a dim analysis that I don’t share.

The world is too inter-connected to allow this to happen but is also dependent on often distant institutions to ensure that it remains so. Our new ‘hyper’local virtual communities, whether narrowly identified or with broad allegiances, represent the opportunity to hold the wider networked world to account.

To do so requires two (at least) things:

First, a fundamental shift in the interventionist nature of the political landscape to one that is more responsive, in the national and global context, to and supportive of, in terms of reframing the relationship between individual, third sector, business, families, interest groups and wider community affiliations, multi-agent solutions (where the agent is not an 'agency' but rather a (human) instrument for effecting change). That is I accept a bit of a rambling mouthful - key words - responsive, supportive government. However, no government should respond to, support or galvanise such solutions on the back of narrow agendas, however presented.

So, second, back to PSI….it is essential that the agents of change and the solutions they develop understand the context in which a particular issue is invoked. This is where hyperlocality and the virtual community of the internet helps in reframing the relationships that can power that change. Potholes or pensioners, social housing or cycle lanes - limited budgets, resource constraints, hard choices - context, analysis, action, communication.

So, and here is the really big but…….once we get past the easy sniping and the shallow agendas that will be the low hanging fruit of the vexed and the vicious, what are we into…..essentially we are into a world of comparisons, greener grasses and fences, difficult decisions, conflicting agendas and the yah boo politics that follows. Oh yes, and statistics. The question is, are we big enough to get past the one and chew on and make sense of the latter…..

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