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The Gap

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The internet has a democracy problem. It has too much of it.

What? You might ask: how could having too much of a democracy be a bad thing?

Because pure democracies are non-functional. Some folks think if we each had a voting button on our iPhone that somehow the world would be a fairer place, but it wouldn't. One week we'd be invading Egypt, the next week Libya. One month we'd be bailing out banks. The next month we'd be throwing all bankers in jail. One month we'd elect one bunch of guys, the next month we'd throw them all in jail. People are fickle and easily moved by emotion -- pure democracy is the mob, which never is a good thing.

That's why many nations have a representative republic: we elect people who then make decisions for us for a period of time. Using this "proxy", we manage to slow down the tempers of the masses and get things done (or so the theory goes)

But you'd be lucky to get that far in a conversation online. Voting? Good thing! The more of it, the better.

I love watching groups of people reach decisions, and I love seeing how some structures work and some don't. What I'm seeing online, however, is that hundreds of millions of folks are having discussions in which, although they know nothing of the background, they are perfectly willing to apply some 3rd grade social studies ideas to how the solution is supposed to work. As we continue to democratize everything online, this lack of foundational knowledge is going to really hurt all of us.

There exists a gap between what's required to do stuff folks want to do and the actual knowledge they have to go make it happen.

Take, for instance, the recent revolutions in the Mideast. There are some really angry people over there who have been oppressed for a long time. No matter what, I think they are doing the right thing by rising up.

But history shows that most revolutions don't end in peaceable cosmopolitan governments -- instead they end up switching off one bunch of evil rulers for another. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the main one is that people get so impassioned about being "right" and others being "wrong" that they try to make a government that is always "right". _Real_ governments don't care about wrong or right -- they realize these things change with time. Instead they concentrate on peacefully changing rulers and direction every so often. That way the new rulers can always reflect whatever "right" happens to be. This subtle change in protesters between outrage over oppression and becoming the oppressors of somebody else is never clear-cut. But more times than not it happens. The French Revolution is probably the most understandable example of this.

I seriously doubt most people know that, or if they do, they imagine the threat to those revolutions as coming from sinister outside forces -- the Muslim Brotherhood or Iran or some such. It's much easier to understand these threats in terms of good guys and bad guys than it is to understand them in terms of good people doing the best they can and still screwing up because they don't understand the types of mistakes they are making. That hits a little too close to home.

Speaking of home, surely the more educated you are the more able you would be to make political decisions about economics, right? Not so much, says a study last year.

...for people inclined to take such a survey, basic economic enlightenment is not correlated with going to college...

Ouch. The editorial gets nastier from there, taking a look at knowledge of economics as it relates to political party and income. I won't go there -- if you are interested you should not only read the editorial, but the PDF.

Key question for the rest of us: how many times do we associate the badges of traditional education -- a PhD in science or an award by scientists -- with knowledge on economic issues? If we do, we're barking up the wrong tree.

A dear family member who is passionate about gay issues recently tweeted something like "Good to see Obama Admin not supporting DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act). If righties had any sense, they'd leave it alone"

I'm one of those old assholes who liked marriage the way tradition intended it, but I'm all for civil unions, even to the point of eliminating all use of the word "marriage" in the code and replacing it with "civil union", or whatever else is necessary. I don't mind social change, but I like my nouns with four thousand years of tradition behind them to stay the same, thank you very much.

But none of that is important. The important thing is how the administration changed things: by deciding that the law passed by Congress was unconstitutional and refusing to defend it. While I'm quite ignorant here as well, it seems to me the jobs of the courts are to determine whether something is constitutional or not, not the Executive Branch. If we start down this road, then the next Republican administration will just ditch defending ObamaCare, after all, most Republicans believe it is unconstitutional as well.

Once each administration starts pulling support for legally defending lawfully passed laws simply because they don't agree with them, we've opened a huge pandora's box that has nothing to do with gay rights. Housing policy, income tax, healthcare, commerce -- it's all fair game for an administration to decide they don't want to support any more. But to my relative, the discussion was about gay rights, and it was a victory for gay rights. They were clueless about the rest of it. My guys -- the good guys -- won. The bad guys lost. They should be polite losers.

Just like the protesters, simply because things are going your way does not mean that things are getting better. People destroy big stuff because little stuff is all so very critical to them at the moment. They feel good today, then bitch and complain ten years from now when the same principles they espoused now comes back to bite them.

Another relative works at a call center. I never knew this, but call centers are notorious for measuring the living heck out of everything. Each call is recorded, each action the person says is scripted, and at random intervals the calls are inspected and given a "score".

We all know where this leads to. Ever call in to cancel a service with a regular payment? Good luck. You're not going to get away with that until you go through what's nicely called a "loyalty program" or a "customer retention program". That means you have to listen to somebody read a script where they try to get you to stay. They'll offer discounts and other freebies. They'll ask you to complete surveys. They'll ask you to stall. Anything but simply letting you push a button and cancel your contract. It's a computer program, and the person on the other end of the phone is simply a pawn of the company, executing their code.

My relative has the same experience. On a good, "normal" call, it's possible to do all of the 50-100 things they are supposed to do for a call -- trying to upsell, trying to sell credit cards, trying to suggest random items in addition to what the customer wants, etc. But every now and then, somebody calls in who is upset. They simply want their order fixed, the problem resolved, or to make a simple purchase and to leave.

Can those people get what they want? Nope. Not unless they are willing to go through the scripted gauntlet. Just lose your wife in an awful disaster and are calling to cancel her new dress she ordered last week? Better be prepared to answer questions about what you thought of the service, be offered another product of equal value, or sent to several special departments. If not -- if you are treated for the unique, emotional human being you are -- then the people you are talking to will be punished.

They don't care about the big picture -- that a business makes money because it cares about helping people and wants to be a friend that people can trust. Nope. They have a system that can provide metrics at a microscopic level of detail and therefore they must use it. The little gets in the way of the big. Not understanding principles influences little things, which then destroy big things. These are not bad people. They simply doing the best job they know how. Their fault, like all other examples in this essay, is that they look at one particular thing as being the most important thing at the expense of the system itself. It's like changing your oil in your car everyday and never checking the air in your tires. Yes, the oil is critically important. But lots of things in a car are critically important.

It's this gap of systemic knowledge that prevents us from seeing and understanding how larger systems work and instead focusing on the small items that continually hurts us.

In most of these examples, taking the opposite viewpoint from popular opinion is a good way to get flamed online. It's only the call center example where we can see that the focus on one thing at the expense of the larger system is harmful. But that's simply because we don't run call centers. I'm sure that in an audience of call center managers the suggestion that such metrics are counter-productive would be met with a lot of outrage. Don't I understand that by managing these metrics the company is able to squeeze and addition 2 or 3 percent in sales out each year?

We have become so indoctrinated with the idea or good and bad people that it's very difficult for us to understand that in each of these cases there are good people on every side of the problem. We want winners and losers, so each of these issues must have a clear right or wrong way to be solved. The protesters are correct, therefore it will turn out okay. Gay rights are important, therefore whatever advances them is good. Economics is a dismal art, therefore we don't need to know the terms or how things are commonly understood to work, upselling means an increase in sales, therefore we'll upsell everybody, etc.

Of course, everybody has a gap compared to somebody else, and a little bit of humility can go a long way. And I certainly didn't mean this essay as "I'm so smart and you guys are a bunch of morons". But without a common understanding -- not of what is good or bad, but what works or doesn't work, or what sounds good and what actually is good, or even what actual the terms in the debate are, the gap hurts discussion, and therefore hurts us all.

We have met the enemy, and he is us.


This weekend, I learned that there's a term that describes some of the phenomena that you describe: "ochlocracy." Ochlocracy (literally meaning "mob-rule") is something that seems democratic, except certain groups are excluded from the process. Ochlocracy is to democracy what tyranny is to monarchy - that is, it is its illegal, usurped equivalent.

The important thing seems to be for any community, whether a web community or a country, that decisions need to be made using processes that expect rules and conventions and which include all stakeholders, including (or rather, most importantly!) those we disagree with.


Thanks for the comment. Never heard of that term before, but it makes sense. Folks should take a good look at the French Revolution sometime.

Democracies should cherish true diversity -- not diversity of color, creed, skin color, or sexual preferences, but diversity of thought. It's the outliers, the guys that are "wrong" about 99% of things, that are right about th 1% of things that are most critical. Instead of championing a wide variation in opinions and behavior, we seem to naturally cloister into little groups and shun those outside our groups.

This might be simply a function of mob size. After all, we've never really had the technology to band together in a "mob" before that consisted of 10 thousand people scattered all over the globe.

Today, more than any other time in history, all these little details of how people interact and work together are more critical than ever. It's as if the last two thousand years mankind has been studying up on philosophy. And now we have the final exam.

Interesting stuff.

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This page contains a single entry by DanielBMarkham published on February 28, 2011 10:21 AM.

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  • DanielBMarkham: James, Thanks for the comment. Never heard of that term read more
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