Opening Government Reflections of the Week

Geoff Mulgan, in his article “Systems Success, Failure & Rebirth,” argues that entrenched systems inevitably demand reform:

“Seen in the long view, however, there are signs that we are on the cusp of another jump forward in collective intelligence. A financial system that had lost sight of its role as a servant of the real economy is not the only system in need of drastic change. The systems that provide us with energy, health, social care, transport, food and knowledge are also being remade in ways as radical as those of 70 years ago. (The word ‘system’ is often overused: we use it here to refer to the complex, interconnected arrangements of multiple institutions, roles, technologies and flows that now provide us with many of the essentials of daily life.) Each of these systems is, at present, visibly broken: energy systems designed to produce and distribute energy, but not to use it well; a food system that generates worsening obesity; a health system dominated by hospitals ill-suited to populations suffering from long-term conditions, including mental illness; social care systems wholly unprepared for rapid ageing; and, among others, economic systems that still suffer profound imbalances of unused resources and unmet needs. In each case, these systems that now look broken are as much victims of success as anything else. As so often, success repeated itself until it finally became failure, which is why those at the heart of each of these systems are often the last to understand how they need to change.”

Author Nate Silver, in his recent book, The Signal and the Noise, pushes back against the notion that the era of Big Data will create objective truths and predictive models while removing the need for human analysis:

“Data-driven predictions can succeed—and they can fail. It is when we deny our role in the process that the odds of failure rise. Before we demand more of our data, we need to demand more of ourselves…Big Data will produce progress—eventually. How quickly it does, and whether we regress in the meantime, will depend on us…We can never make perfectly objective predictions. They will always be tainted by our subjective point of view…But this book is emphatically against the nihilistic viewpoint that there is no objective truth. It asserts, rather, that a belief in the objective truth—and a commitment to pursuing it—is the first prerequisite of making better predictions. The forecaster’s next commitment is to realize that she perceives it imperfectly.”

Duncan Watts, interviewed in “What’s Wrong With Common Sense,” an IEEE Spectrum “Techwise Conversation” with Steven Cherry, argues that polling and predictive models based on probability, while valuable, do not provide answers to many of the questions asked of them:

“Just like when I say there’s a 60 percent or a 52 percent chance of Obama winning the presidential election, you know, it’s sort of—it’s—it quickly gets into the realm of sort of philosophy what that actually means because there’s not going to be a hundred such elections of which Obama will win 52, right? There’s only going to be one and really all you care about is who’s going to win it. The other problem is that many of the things that we really care about like, you know, the next, you know, blockbuster company or the next hip product or the next financial crisis or the next political revolution are events that do not conform to historical patterns. And so even if we were trying to make probabilistic type predictions about these sorts of events, we wouldn’t do a very good job precisely because they’re not consistent with historical patterns. You know, the whole we look back at the—at the failure of—of—of a number of—of mathematical models in the last financial crisis, part—or a big part of the problem was that the models had been trained over a period of time, you know, a couple of decades during which housing prices had only ever gone up. And so they simply weren’t prepared or weren’t trained to predict a massive drop in housing prices because, you know, they only looked at—all the historical data they had had not shown that sort of event. And so they didn’t place any weight on that kind of event.”

Örsan Şenalp writing on new communication technologies’ effect on activism in his paper “The Dramatic Rise of Peer-to-Peer Communication within the emancipatory movements Reflections of an International Labour, Social Justice and Cyber Activist,” argues:

“The new methods and tools of communication and self-organising that have been experimented with and developed by the new-generation activists [are] creating a shared feeling and experience, strategy and tactics, public space and political impact. Information-gathering and exchanges before making proposals to the local General Assemblies about the mobilisations, action or alternative initiatives to be taken forward have been representing varying combinations of direct democracy powered by P2P relational dynamics and tools, which were developed and adopted by the previous and current generation activists, including those active in Anonymous and Pirate party movements. Activist from different movements need to reflected upon these new knowledge and experience in order to strengthen international level practices in order to contribute to most radical social change possible.”




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