GovLab Editorial Board Meeting Links, 7/19/13

1. Environment, Technology and Governance: Geo-Engineering – A New Cold (er, Cooling) War?

Geo-engineering (or climate engineering more accurately) involves active intervention to modify global-scale properties of the atmosphere and climate system, to offset some of the heating and climate disruption being caused by elevated greenhouse gases. There are two broad forms of climate engineering: the first type removes CO2 from the atmosphere; the second type reduces the amount of energy absorbed from sunlight at the Earth’s surface. The interest generally in geo-engineering is in response to growing concern over mounting signs of climate change and our continuing failure to cut emissions. Why is the CIA interested? “one of the objectives of the study is to discuss the possible national security concerns that might arise should geo-engineering techniques be deployed either by a private entity or another country.”

This is not really a technology issue – it’s a governance issue. With the technology within reach of most countries (and even some billionaires), and no global governance regime to control their use, we could see the use of global geo-engineering efforts soon. If you want to know more about geo-engineering and the governance issues, David Keith’s TED Talk <> is really good: “Suppose that space aliens … land at the UN headquarters … and they give you a box. And the box has two knobs. One knob is the knob for controlling global temperature, maybe another knob is a knob for controlling CO2 concentrations. You might imagine that we would fight wars over that box. Because we have no way to agree about where to set the knobs. We have no global governance. And different people will have different places they want it set. ”

2. Collaborative Technology and Peer-Production: What Topics Matter in the Edit Wars on Wikipedia

Researchers have determined the most-controversial Wikipedia articles and topics across 10 different languages. Religion, politics, global warming … and professional wrestling. The researchers identified the articles by looking for “mutual reverts” in which one editor reverts another’s work and vice versa, so both editors are undoing each other’s changes repeatedly.

The original research article is: Yasseri T., Spoerri A., Graham M., and Kertész J., The most controversial topics in Wikipedia: A multilingual and geographical analysis. In: Fichman P., Hara N., editors, Global Wikipedia: International and cross-cultural issues in online collaboration. Forthcoming: Scarecrow Press (2014).

3. Civil Society: Political Apathy, Disengagement and Declining Voter Turnout

“Canadians, especially young Canadians, are profoundly disengaged from formal politics. Not only are citizens voting less and participating less in political parties, they are not writing, reading or even talking with friends about party politics. With every passing year, we get more evidence that trust in politicians, government and our democratic institutions is in sharp decline. Every election seems to bring a new low in voter turnout and, inevitably, a flurry of opinion on what needs to be done – elevate politics, renew democratic institutions, strengthen accountability and transparency, motivate disengaged citizens. And yes, these are all worthy objectives but despite the studies, despite all the talk, nothing much changes, things just seem to get worse. Are we missing something?”

Alex Himelfarb (@alexhimelfarb) is a former Clerk of the Privy Council and a thoughtful commentator on Canadian public policy and politics. He focusses here on “social trust” as the antidote to disengagement: “By ‘social trust’ is meant something more than whether we trust our neighbour or others in our community or in similar circumstance. It is rather the generalized belief that most people in a society can be trusted, including those quite different from ourselves. Social trust … [means] people are readier to trust their democracy, more willing to give the benefit of the doubt to government when something goes wrong, and less likely to see the latest scandal as indicative of the entire class of politicians.”

This reminds me of Robert Putnam’s book Making Democracy Work from 1993 which focused on voluntary civic engagement and social capital as key to government institutional performance and democratic systems. As with social trust though, the challenge with social capital was: if you’ve got it, it’s easy to build more; but if you don’t, it’s really hard to know where to start.

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