Sunday, October 14, 2012

Can Politics become Intelligent?

That's a bit of a loaded question isn't it. It implies perhaps that we believe there is a problem with how politics are managed today.  But to verify whether that perception is true or false we must first define what it is we think should be happening in our political process. Only then can we determine if politics are indeed occurring the way we think they should or whether they could somehow be improved.

Politics are built atop a foundation of information and collaborative communication. They are both a facilitating mechanism for governance as well as an expression of each culture it represents. Our politics in the United States is different than those in Britain and Britain's are different than France and so on. They share certain characteristics just as our cultures and forms of governance do - yet they remain distinct. We refer to politics as a "system" but if it is one perhaps it is a dynamic system. While we don't expect major changes in the form of our government over time, we are not surprised by the ebb and flow of political movements.  The "politics" of the age influence the government and culture influences politics - it is a dynamic and symbiotic relationship.

Election 2012 Debate 1 - Perhaps the least informative 90 minutes of talking ever witnessed.
If we were to define precisely what happens in our political system, it might be defined this way:
  1. Politics informs the society regarding issues.
  2. Politics provides a process for how people can collaborate and coordinate around shared goals.
  3. Politics provides both the formal and informal structures for governance and facilitates both.
  4. Politics is also a vast network of interpersonal relationships and perhaps a code of conduct for how those relationships ought to work in the larger context of the "political system."
  5. Politics is and also has been on the leading edge of exploiting new technologies; how they get exploited however doesn't always turn out the way we'd hope.
Negative politics have been around, well, forever. Only recently though have they become the norm rather than the exception.
 So, based on that definition, let's attempt to diagnose whether politics in 2012 America are indeed dysfunctional. Many of believe, and perhaps rightly so, that an ever-growing percentage of political communication is directed at misdirecting the public. This occurs through the following mechanisms:
  1. Condensing political discourse into relatively meaningless byte-sized chunks that contain blanket statements and / or accusations with little substance.
  2. Painting the opposition in a universally negative light. This goes beyond the use of negative ads (which seems to grow every campaign season), it now involves the attempt top brand all opposing views as heresy.
  3. There is a growing emphasis information and perceptual manipulation - this leads to deliberate misrepresentations of both facts and positions. This could be characterized as the "Say Anything to Win" syndrome.
  4. The level of discourse itself is sinking - many arguments now are made at 5th grade level. Two decades ago perhaps it was 7th grade level which begs the question; how low can it go?
  5. Politics are becoming intensely person and discourteous. This directly undermines the ability for both political networks and governing structures to work.
American politics have taken the worlds' most powerful communication mediums in the history and used to broadcast all of the worst aspects of our current dysfunctions which has had the impact of turning off a huge portion of the population, whose officially polled opinions of politics, politicians and our governing structures are at an all time low in our history.

And let's face it, if an ever-growing portion of the people a political system serves find it distasteful and opt out then in fact we're dealing with something that is becoming less intelligent.  Of course we understand that many of these things have been occurring in American politics for a long, long time. We also clearly believe that these trends involve all the current political parties. This is a systemic problem that is growing worse - what used to be cosidered fringe political behavior has become mainstream. How does one reverse a trend like this; where would we even start?

Accountability in politics begins with the ability discover and compare what people really stand for...
Here's a suggestion - let's take a look at how politics and technology intersect. If we accept the premise that politics are built atop communication and communication consists of information then we have a possible path for remediation. One of the key things missing from how technology is being applied to politics now is accountability. What does that mean exactly; let's look:
  • Accountability in sourcing - where does the idea or issue come from. This ought to expose clear conflicts of interest.
  • Accountability in behavior - what has the politician or group actually done in relation to an issue or idea. Also, how do we rate behavior both in terms of a scorecard for governing and electioneering. If we can rate teachers on skills, why not politicians? And this is a different rating than the ideological litmus test that each party uses today.
  • Accountability in access - this is more difficult as it affects media business models and the Citizen United decision - but at the very least it ought to be made clear who has placed what information in front of the public (this differs from sourcing in that the ideas may have come from elsewhere but then are distributed different groups).
  • Accountability in context - this is new and doesn't happen much today - not even with the fact checking exercises that journalists use during campaigns. There is no technological reason why we can't display - in real time if needbe - the conflicting views of opposing candidates. They can mapped / matched one to one so voters can see how they really differ and in contrast to one liners used in TV ads or debates - this contrast could be linked to detailed explanations atop a coherent synopsis.
The fact is that while many politicians seem to feel as though the only way that voters can understand what they're trying to say is to dumb things down, the voters themselves have determined that the current form of political discourse is what has gotten stupid. Rather than continuing to allow the current system to assault our intelligence, it's time we employed the same technology that's being used to inform us in every other aspect of our lives in 21st century and break through the "wall of noise" we're being drowned in now. This will likely need to occur at the "grass-roots" level using social media and only after it's accepted there can it filter up to more traditional media outlets.  Remember, when we give Congress a 7% approval rating we're not just condemning them - we're indicting the whole political system including all of those who are supposed to encourage politicians to be informative, positive and effective. Lucky for us, this problem is relatively easy to solve - if we're willing to view it intelligently...

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