A new vocabulary for the 21st Century: Cognitive Democracy

NYU  is having a LaPietra Dialogue this Friday on “Social Media and Political Participation” (#SMaPP_LPD). The purpose of the dialogue:

“We are only beginning to scratch the surface of developing theories linking social media usage to political participation and actually beginning to test causal relationships. At the same time, the data being generated by users of social media represents a completely unprecedented source of data recording how hundreds of millions of people around the globe interact with politics, the likes of which social scientists have never, ever seen; it is not too much of a stretch to say we are at a similar place to the field of biology just as the human genome was first being decoded. Thus the challenges are enormous, but the opportunities – and importance of the task – are just as important….The conference will serve to introduce cutting edge work being conducted in a field that barely existed five years ago to the public and students, to introduce the scholars participating in the conference to each other’s work, and also to play a role in building connections among the scholarly community working in this field.”

Among the presenters is Henry Farrell from George Washington University who drafted a paper with Cosma Shalizi on Cognitive Democracy and the Internet (an earlier version appeared on the Crooked Timber Blog).

In essence, the paper is focused on which social institutions (hierarchies, markets or democracies) are better positioned to solve complex problems (resonating with GovLab Research’s mapping of contemporary problems that drives gov innovation) .

“We start instead with a pragmatist question whether these institutions are useful in helping us solve diifficult social problems. Some political problems are simple: the solutions might not be easy to put into practice, but the problems are easy to analyze. But the most vexing problems are usually ones without any very obvious solutions. How do we change legal rules and social norms in order to mitigate the problems of global warming? How do we regulate financial markets so as to minimize the risk of new crises emerging, and limit the harm of those that happen? How do we best encourage the spread of human rights internationally?

These problems all share two important features. First, they are social. That is, they are problems which involve the interaction of many human beings, with different interests, desires, needs and perspectives. Second, they are complex problems, in the sense that scholars of complexity understand the term. To borrow the defi nition of Page (2011, p. 25), they involve diverse entities that interact in a network or contact structure (italics in the original).”

They subsequently critique the capacity of hierarchies and markets to address these “social problems”. Of particular interest is their assessment of the current “nudge” theories:

“Libertarian paternalism is flawed, not because it restricts peoples’ choices, but because it makes heroic assumptions about choice architects’ ability to figure out what the choices should be, and blocks the architects’ channels for learning better. Libertarian paternalism may still have value where people likely do want, e.g., to save more or take more exercise, but face commitment problems, or when other actors have an incentive to misinform these people or to structure their choices in perverse ways in the absence of a “good” default. However, it will be far less useful, or even actively pernicious, in complex situations, where many actors with different interests make interdependent choices”

The bulk of the paper focuses on the value and potential of democracy to solve problems (where diversity has a high premium). With regard to current state of our democratic institutions the paper observes that

“We have no reason to think that actually-existing democratic structures are as good as they could be, or even close. If nothing else, designing institutions is, itself, a highly complex problem, where even the most able decision-makers have little ability to foresee the consequences of their actions. Even when an institution works well at one time, it does so in a context of other institutions and social and physical conditions, which are all constantly changing. Institutional design and reform, then, is always a matter of more or less ambitious “piecemeal social experiments”, to use the phrase of Popper…As emphasized by Popper, and independently by Knight and Johnson, one of the strengths of democracy is its ability to make, monitor, and learn from such experiments”.

Taking into account current advances in technology, Farrell and Shalizi state:

“One of the great aspects of the current moment, for cognitive democracy, is that it has become (comparatively) very cheap and easy for such experiments to be made online, so that this design space can be explored”

They subsequently conclude emphasizing the need for “cognitive democracy” :

“Democracy, we have argued, has a capacity unmatched among other macro-institutions to actually experiment, and to make use of cognitive diversity in solving complex problems. To realize these potentials, democratic structures must themselves be shaped so that social interaction and cognitive function reinforce each other. But the cleverest institutional design in the world will not help unless the resources | material, social, cultural | needed for participation are actually broadly shared. This is not, or not just, about being nice or equitable; cognitive diversity is not something we can a fford to waste.”

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