Freedom = Choice + Autonomy + Protection

I came across this article in this past weekend’s WSJ. It discusses the transformation of work instigated by the pandemic lockdown. I have long maintained that people living in a free society crave the positive freedoms of choice and personal autonomy, subject to the negative freedom of security against the fear of risk and loss. The pandemic has brought that behavior to the fore with the demands for freedom to work when and where we want, with whom, and on what as the fulfillment of life’s meaning. At the same time we have demanded protection through government from healthcare risks we cannot control ourselves. Now that we have been forced to reexamine our lives and search for new meaning, we are mostly unwilling to give it up and go back to how we worked and lived before. This is social progress, because the post-industrial employment and career path was an economic imperative imposed on our human nature, and therefore faintly unnatural. We all felt it inside.

Within this new structural paradigm of freedom, people are free to imagine, create, share, and connect. This the vision of tuka, the social network platform that connects the creative…

I reprint the article in full:

The Real Meaning of Freedom at Work

wsj.com/articles/the-real-meaning-of-freedom-at-work-11633704877

October 8, 2021

By Adam Grant

As the Covid-19 pandemic moves into a new phase, many companies have started insisting that we come back to the office full-time. In response, people are quitting their jobs in droves. Flexibility is now the fastest-rising job priority in the U.S., according to a poll of more than 5,000 LinkedIn members. More than half of Americans want their next job to be self-employed—some as entrepreneurs, others as freelancers in the gig economy or content curators in the creator economy.

When Covid untethered us from our offices, many people experienced new forms of flexibility, and the taste of freedom left us hungry for more. We started rethinking what we wanted out of work. But the Great Resignation is not a mad dash away from the office; it’s the culmination of a long march toward freedom. More than a decade ago, psychologists documented a generational shift in the centrality of work in our lives. Millennials were more interested in jobs that provided leisure time and vacation time than Gen Xers and baby boomers. They were less concerned about net worth than net freedom.

In a classic 1958 lecture, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin distinguished between two types of freedom. Negative liberty is freedom from obstacles and interference by others. Positive liberty is freedom to control your own destiny and shape your own life. If we want to maximize net freedom in the future of work, we need to expand both positive and negative liberty.

The debate about whether work should be in-person, remote-first or hybrid is too narrow. Yes, people want the freedom to decide where they work. But they also want the freedom to decide who they work with, what they work on and when they work. Real flexibility is having autonomy to choose your people, your purpose and your priorities.

Remote work has granted us some negative liberties. It can release employees from the manacles of micromanagers, the trap of traffic jams and the cacophony of open offices. But it has also created new constraints on time. Even before Covid, many people reported spending the majority of their work time in meetings and on emails. Once everyone was reachable around the clock, collaboration overload only got worse.

In a study led by economist Michael Gibbs, when more than 10,000 employees of a large Asian IT company started working from home during the pandemic, productivity fell even as working hours increased. The researchers didn’t measure the physical and emotional toll of Covid, but the data showed that people got less done because they had less time to focus. They were stuck in more group meetings and got interrupted more often.

Good segmentation policies allow people to commit to predictable time off that shields them from work intrusions into their lives.

To free people from these constraints, we need better boundaries. There’s evidence that working from home has been more stressful for “segmentors” who prefer to separate the different spheres of life than for “integrators” who are happy to blur the lines. Good segmentation policies allow people to commit to predictable time off that shields them from work intrusions into their lives. For example, the healthcare company Vynamic has a policy called “zzzMail” that discourages sending emails on nights and weekends.

We need boundaries to protect individual focus time too. On remote teams, it’s not the frequency of interaction that fuels productivity and creativity—it’s the intensity of interaction. In a study of virtual software teams by collaboration experts Christoph Riedl and Anita Woolley, the most effective and innovative teams didn’t communicate every hour. They’d spend several hours or days concentrating on their own work and then start communicating in bursts. With messages and bits of code flying back and forth, their collaborations were literally bursting with energy and ideas.

One effective strategy seems to be blocking quiet time in the mornings as a window for deep work, and then coming together after lunch. When virtual meetings are held in the afternoon, people are less likely to multitask—probably in part because they’ve been able to make progress on their own tasks. For the many workplaces rolling out hybrid schedules of one or two remote days each week, it might also help to have teams coordinate on-site days so they can do individual work at home and collaborate when they’re in the same room.

Over the past year and a half, we’ve discovered a new constraint of remote work: Zoom fatigue is real. Yes, turning off your self-view can make you less self-conscious, but it doesn’t remove the cognitive load of worrying about how other people will perceive you and trying to read their facial expressions. Turning the camera off altogether can help. In a summer 2020 experiment led by organizational psychologists Kristen Shockley and Allison Gabriel, when employees at a healthcare company had the freedom to turn their video off during virtual meetings, it reduced fatigue—especially for women and new hires, who generally face more pressure to monitor their image.

New research reveals that having voice-only conversations isn’t just less exhausting; there are times when it can be more effective. When two people working on a problem together only hear each other’s voices, they’re more likely to pause to listen to each other, which translates into more equal speaking time and smarter decisions. And if you’re trying to read someone’s emotions, you’re more accurate if you close your eyes or turn off the lights and just listen to their voice.

This doesn’t mean cameras should never be on. Seeing human faces can be helpful if you’re giving a presentation, building trust or trying to coordinate in a big group. But videos can also be a constraint—you don’t need them in every meeting. The most underused technology of 2021 might be the phone call.

In a world of rising inequality, remote work has released some restraints. Many working mothers have struggled during the pandemic, in large part because of the responsibility of child care when schools were closed. But research suggests that in normal circumstances, the option to work remotely is especially helpful for working mothers, giving them the flexibility to excel in their jobs. And working from home, Black employees have reported less stress. One survey found that 97% of Black knowledge workers currently working from home want to remain partially or fully remote for the foreseeable future.

But going remote runs the risk of limiting positive liberties. In a landmark 2014 experiment at a call center in China, a team led by economist Nicholas Bloom randomly assigned hundreds of employees to work from home. Although remote workers were 13% more productive, they were only half as likely to be promoted—likely because they didn’t have enough face time with senior managers.

It’s well documented that many managers mistake visibility for value and reward presence instead of performance. The very employees who gain freedom from constraints thanks to remote work may end up missing out on the freedom to develop their skills and advance their careers.

One source of positive liberty is the freedom to choose who we interact with and learn from. After more than 60,000 employees at Microsoft transitioned to remote work during the pandemic, researchers found that their personal networks became more siloed and static. There were fewer new connections between people, fewer bridges between teams and fewer real-time conversations within groups. That made it tougher to acquire and share knowledge.

To give people the freedom to learn, we need to work harder to open doors. In the summer of 2020, researchers teamed up with a large company that hired more than a thousand interns to work remotely in 16 cities. They found that scheduling “virtual water coolers”— informal meetings with senior managers—elevated interns’ satisfaction as well as their performance ratings and their odds of getting a return offer. Just three or four virtual meetings with senior managers was enough to open the door to learning, mentoring and trust. What if more leaders hosted virtual office hours?

Another source of positive liberty is the freedom to decide what work we do. A few years ago, I visited a California tomato paste company called Morning Star to understand how they’ve managed to sustain success for several decades without bosses. When you first arrive at Morning Star, you’re assigned the job of your predecessor. After a year, you’re invited to rewrite your job description, with two conditions. You have to explain how your revamped job will advance the company’s mission, and you have to get the people who work with you most closely to agree to it.

When employees have the flexibility to customize their work, they’re more effective, more satisfied and more likely to stay.

Organizational psychologists Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane Dutton call this “job crafting,” and it enables people to become active architects of their own tasks and interactions. Extensive research suggests that when employees have the flexibility to customize their work, they’re more effective, more satisfied and more likely to stay.

The biggest source of positive liberty may be the freedom to decide when and how much we work. If we’ve learned anything from the pandemic about going remote, it’s that people aren’t shirking from home—they’re working overtime. But the 40-hour workweek was not ordained from above; it’s a human invention that grew out of the Industrial Revolution. Anthropologists find that for more than 95% of human history, people enjoyed more leisure time than we do now. Generations of hunter-gatherers subsisted on 15-hour workweeks. When we started treating humans like machines, we began confusing time spent with value created.

At the Brazilian manufacturing company Semco, leaders noticed that when retirement finally gives people the freedom to pursue their passions for travel, sports, arts and volunteering, their health often stands in the way. So the company started a Retire-A-Little program, inviting workers to trade 10% of their salaries for Wednesdays off. They expected it to be popular with employees in their 50s, but it was actually employees in their 20s who jumped at the opportunity to trade money for time.

When people have the flexibility to work less, they often focus better and produce more. In the U.S. alone, researchers estimate that companies waste $100 billion a year paying for idle time. When Microsoft Japan tested a 4-day workweek, productivity climbed by 40% and costs declined. The Icelandic government tested reducing workweeks from 40 to 36 hours at the same pay in offices, hospitals and police stations over a four-year period. It found that well-being and work-life balance improved, while productivity was sustained across the board—and in some cases heightened.

Offering the freedom to work less is an opportunity to attract, motivate and retain talented people. From 2018 to 2021, the number of job postings offering a four-day workweek has tripled, but they are still less than one in 100 jobs. Along with shortening the workweek, it’s worth rethinking the workday. What if we finished at 3 p.m. so that working parents could be with their children when they came home from school? Would we see better results—and higher quality of life—in six focused hours than eight unfocused hours?

Flexible work is here to stay, but companies that resist it may not be.

Flexible work is here to stay, but companies that resist it may not be. One of the biggest mistakes I saw companies make before Covid was failing to experiment with new forms of freedom. As employers contemplate a return to the workplace, a good place to start might be to ask people about the experiments they’ve run in the past year and a half and the ones they’d love to try moving forward. What old constraints should we try removing, and what new freedoms could we test?

Work isn’t just our livelihood. It can be a source of structure, belonging and meaning in our lives. But that doesn’t mean our jobs should dictate how we spend most of our waking hours. For several generations, we’ve organized our lives around our work. Our jobs have determined where we make our homes, when we see our families and what we can squeeze in during our downtime. It might be time to start planning our work around our lives.

Appeared in the October 9, 2021, print edition as ‘The Real Meaning of Freedom at Work The Value of Liberty for Workers.’

Is Social Media Destroying Democracy?

It doesn’t seem so long ago when the promise of an inter-connected world was all the rage, with the free sharing of information being praised as the dawning of a new age for global communication and community. An audacious young Mark Zuckerberg praised his nascent social network, proclaiming that “Connecting the world is really important, and that is something that we want to do. That is why Facebook is here on this planet.”

The equally precocious founders of Google offered a mission to Do No Evil while organizing the world’s information to make it universally accessible and useful. Likewise, their youthful optimism gushed about “the potential for technology to remake the world into a better place.” Early outcomes were hopeful, as Facebook’s network grew quickly to more than 2 billion users, while the Arab Spring was heralded politically as “the Twitter revolution,” and “google” became a verb.

But how fast the wheel has turned. Today we find ourselves blaming social media for disseminating misinformation as propaganda (“fake news”), destroying objective journalism, invading user privacy, corrupting elections, enabling and fomenting ideological extremism, canceling political dissent by censoring free speech, cornering markets and suppressing competition, crushing small businesses, and harming the physical and mental health of its users. Whew!

No, it really hasn’t been that long. It’s like we’ve imbibed a heady drug, woke up, and found ourselves addicted, wondering how we got here and how to break this compulsive habit before it breaks us. To paraphrase David Byrne, “How did we get here?”

There are two things we need to understand to better answer this question. One is the nature of social interaction, individually and socially, and how that flows from our behavioral instincts. Second, is how the business model and logic of large-scale social media networks manipulate and profit from those natural instincts.

Man is by nature a social animal” – Aristotle, Politics

As Aristotle noted, humans crave social interaction. As young people, we seek the approval of elders and peers as a form of bonding and belonging. We form families, tribes, neighborhoods, and communities to fulfill this instinctual need for social engagement and mutual protection. Modern social networking technology feeds on that need, but what technology offers today differs from centuries of traditional social interaction in terms of scale and the implications for identity, trust, and commitment.

Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar has observed that human face-to-face relationships have an upward bound of about 150 relationships before dissipating. Beyond that we lose track of our personal networks, so institutional structures must be established to cohere the community network. We understand intuitively that friendships formed through in-person relationships are fundamentally different than “friends” on Facebook. Nobody has 6000+ “friends.” Friends connected through online social networks (OSNs) are too easy; requiring little or no commitment. As the degrees of separation increase, peers on OSNs become virtually anonymous. So, as defined by trust and commitment, our social media friends are not really true friends at all. OSNs have allowed us to make connections that live on the other side of the globe, so we don’t really ‘know’ who we are engaging. What this means is that on social media we are able to shed the constraints of reputation, integrity, and trust. This opens up social engagement to all kinds of malicious intent.

If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all.”  ~ Aesop (c.620-560 BC)

Gossiping and lying go hand in hand.” ~ Proverb

Whoever gossips to you, will gossip about you.” ~ Spanish Proverb

Comparing OSNs to traditional gossip networks can provide valuable insights. As these quotes show, gossiping has a long, checkered history. In traditional societies, the human propensity to gossip can serve a useful purpose in reinforcing a community’s cultural norms and values by calling attention to and ostracizing those who violate those norms. These practices can range from the harmless to quite ruthless, all in the name of solidifying the community under those accepted norms. It’s how the traditional community survives and maintains stability. Individuals living in modern liberal societies often find such conformity stifling. But gossip can also be positive, promoting one’s good character, as indicated by the phrase, “Your reputation precedes you.” (The key here is how we value reputation.)

Scientific studies show the reward center in the brain—the caudate nucleus—is activated in response to gossip, especially malicious gossip. For instance, subjects seem to be amused or entertained by celebrity scandals. We all know this form of Schadenfreude as the basis of the business model for supermarket tabloids, as exemplified by the modern fascination with the British monarchy and its human foibles.

Furthermore, studies have shown that subjects get a dopamine hit from superficial engagement on social media. The likes, the emojis, the comments, all offer instant gratification that somebody out there approves of us or at least notices us. Popularity metrics signal our status on the social media hierarchy. All this feeds our sense of self-worth and self-esteem and helps shape our identity. This dopamine rush is exploited by social media user interfaces in order to provoke and prolong user engagement on the platforms.

By appealing to our base instincts social media has transformed itself into this role of spreading gossip, but on a far larger scale with far less restraint. In this respect, Facebook and Twitter have become little more than global gossip networks, where those gossiping and being gossiped about have no relationships to a shared community. We see this today in the attempts to cancel those who disagree with an accepted narrative or ideology, where perceived transgressors are set upon by Twitter mobs and trolls. We see it with teenage bullying and exploitation. We see it with constant virtue signaling.

With large-scale, anonymous networks, where no one can be held accountable for attacking another, bad behavior becomes far too easy and tempting, perhaps irresistible. Peoples’ careers and lives are being destroyed by what can be viewed as an unserious game with very serious consequences. In one study conducted in Germany, researchers found that Facebook’s own engagement tools were tied to a significant rise in membership in extremist organizations. In the US, Facebook has been blamed, rightly or wrongly, for the rise of white supremacist groups.

Paradoxically, this scaling effect, enabling anonymity and lack of accountability, is what really makes today’s social media anti-social. There is no trust or reputational capital to be lost and removing these constraints can bring out the worst in us. OSNs have developed to the point where we are getting all the negative effects of gossip with fewer of the positive effects of shared community promised. In this respect, large-scale OSNs make no sense as a social institution. Nevertheless, the psychological and emotional allure of online social engagement is overpowering, while the financial power associated with OSNs is formidable. In terms of economic power and global reach, our social media giants can go head-to-head with most countries. The top five company valuations on US financial markets are all Big Tech, with Google and Facebook ranked at #4 and #5.

The Primacy of Technology

The big social media platforms today, such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, make money through targeted advertising, creating specialized interfaces to keep users engaged and collect as much data as possible to sell to targeted advertisers. The more users, sharing more information flowing through the network, the more advertising revenues increase along with company valuations.

With this profit incentive, the OSN platforms’ engagement strategies go beyond user-initiated behaviors, using AI machine algorithms and click-bait to solicit engagement among users by suggesting friends, games, similar content, contests, and memes. This is why Facebook asks users to play what seem to be silly games: such engagement, no matter how meaningless, can become instantly monetized. Most of these interactions are fairly innocuous, but, because sensationalism and conflict attract engagement, many are meant to provoke political conflict or collusion. In addition, the engagement strategies depend upon keeping attention siloed. If users are regularly exposed to different points of view, if they develop healthy habits for weighing fact versus fiction, they will be tougher targets for engagement.

At best, OSN click-bait strategies and target algorithms yield an endless cacophony of digital noise to compete against any positive human interaction. At worst, and most often than not, we get warring tribes that only venture outside their walled silos to engage with the enemy.

Furthermore, social media is a winner-take-all industry as OSNs have become virtual monopolies through network effects. Much like national languages and computer operating systems, the more users on the network, the more new users want to join the party, the more personal data is harvested, and the more valuable the growing network is to advertisers. This creates a significant barrier to entry for competitors, where any successful new platform is quickly swallowed up by the giants, as when Facebook bought up WhatsApp and Instagram, and Google purchased YouTube.

Their dominance grants Facebook and Google immense bargaining leverage over publishers, content creators, and other stakeholders, who often have no choice but to hand over their own proprietary data to satiate the platforms’ thirst for content. This bargaining power has crushed many creative professions and independent publishers. As far as users who provide all this valuable content go, well, they get a free profile page and a few tools to deepen their engagement.

When it comes to business practices and power over the global internet, Big Tech is unrivaled. As plainly stated by one recent study:

Facebook and Google use their dominant position as gatekeepers to the internet to surveil users and businesses, amass unrivaled stores of data, and rent out targeting services to third parties who can then target content – from ads for shoes to racist propaganda – at users with a perceived precision unrivaled by any other entity. …The longer users remain on the platform – hooked on sensationalist content, which the platforms’ algorithms prioritize – the more money Facebook and Google make from advertising.[1]

Despite the apparent toxicity of these social media platforms, for those who wish to fulfill a sincere desire for wider social connection and engagement, there is no other game in town. Without meaningful competition, Big Tech has transformed their platforms not to help us communicate, but to addict us to their services in order to sell more advertising. For the rest of us the result has not been the promised congenial, global community, but rather a malevolent battle for primacy and survival.

The result is that Big Tech has acquired its own acronym for its five biggest players—the FAANGs—referring to Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google. Fangs have never been warm and fuzzy.

The Nature of Political Engagement in Democracy

As suggested in the title of this essay, we need to address what all this means for political democracy. Current events might give us a clue, from a previous summer of ongoing urban riots across the country against local government and law enforcement to a protest at the Capitol in January against the 2020 presidential election that turned violent. The chaos in both cases can be traced to the role of social media provocation and coordination.

Democracy is a form of political order that relies on a social choice mechanism called voting that seeks to support and manage self-government. The social choice challenge is always how to distill an inestimable number of personal preferences and interests down to a single pragmatic social policy agenda. It’s not a simple task, nor an obvious one. Neither an authoritarian hierarchy nor a chaotic populist mob accomplishes the objective. Democracy is a messy business, as Churchill said, the worst of all possible political systems, except for all the alternatives.

American democracy is built on a decentralized structure that seeks to best fulfill the goal of self-government while adhering to our stated values of liberty and justice. This is an especially difficult challenge in a large population made up of diverse cultural, ethnic, and racial groups spread over a large landmass, like the USA.

When systems grow large and complex, nature, technology, and history show us that the best way to manage is to decentralize the process. So, in the US we have fifty states made up of thousands of counties and municipalities to decentralize government. What is also required to facilitate the process is a method of ranking policy priorities that can converge on a workable ordering of those priorities. The final condition is a voting process that allows people to compromise on the big issues and find convergence on decisions the entire population finds acceptable, if not ideal.

Our decentralized system of representative governance seeks to fulfill these objectives while also imposing some necessary trade-offs. Our voting system of winner-take-all plurality yields a two-party system where the winning strategy is to acquire more than 50% of the vote. This design eschews proportional representation with a multitude of competing interests by forcing voters to set priorities and move toward a centrist coalition. This design seeks a majority mandate through a process acceptable to the minority as well, the incentive being to capture the center of American politics.

After capturing that center through elections, the governing coalition must then govern the entire populace while adhering to the accepted process to maintain legitimacy. This requires, above all else, convergence through compromise.

The beauty of a two-party system is that voter choices are forced towards the center of compromise to be successful, so a winning strategy will appeal more to commonalities among voters rather than differences. The alternate idea of proportional representation and multiple parties creates more responsive but fragile coalitions, whereas with a dominant centrist coalition, the two-party structure creates greater stability with greater resistance to change.

Naturally, this process favors the status quo (i.e., conservatism?) rather than change (progressivism?) and thus the trade-off is unappealing to those agents of change among us. Understandable, but all societies survive by following time-tested values and practices until they no longer serve, so the burden of change is always on those eager to embrace it. While time is on their side, the change agents often cannot wait.

Given America’s profile as a large country with a large culturally, ethnically and racially diverse population, democratic governance is no small task. Convergence is far easier with a smaller population, a smaller land area, and a more homogeneous culture, with shared racial and ethnic identities. The USA has none of these advantages, but, starting with a relatively small population and land area, the designers of the US Constitution displayed remarkable foresight in their design.

So, the million-dollar question is whether our social media technology is making our task easier or more impossible?

As discussed above, social media is making us more tribal, more isolated from those different than us, more alienated from a common national identity. The face-to-face appreciation of each “other” is lost and technology’s depreciation of humanity allows us to cast that “other” in dark shadows instead of bright enlightenment. It is replacing true meaning with a false sense of tribal identity and differentiation. And where we cannot find this differentiation, we create it. It’s ironic that our commonalities far outweigh our differences, yet these small differences are what we magnify through much of our social media engagement.

We can easily see that these behaviors are short-circuiting our political democracy. We are creating a bimodal distribution of political preferences rather than a unified, centrist “national” one. Ultimately, we are adrift, wondering what American democracy is all about. Without the strength of conviction, we are weak and vulnerable. And as we drift, those with anti-democratic tendencies, whether authoritarian or anarchic, are harnessing these tools to overcome our institutional constraints and undermine our foundations of liberty and justice. We have seen how some of these interests have used the unique crisis of a global pandemic to advance their narrow agenda. It is particularly shocking how some narrow interests employ science as a political weapon, but then completely dismiss scientific skepticism when it doesn’t serve their purpose.

In the social media space, we are seeing censorship of opinion, even informed opinion; canceling of those we disagree with professionally and socially (this is a modern form of ostracism, banishment, and exile from the community); invasions of privacy; collusion; attacks on personal liberties; and the incitement of social disorder and chaos. What is worse is that our traditional media platforms in news journals and television/radio broadcasting have been sucked into this vile vortex, spreading propaganda as objective news.

These developments expose two serious threats to free democracy:

  • An ideological ‘tribal’ civil war among citizens inflamed by information media, making democratic compromise impossible; and
  • A danger of collusion between Big Tech and Big Govt to infringe upon constitutional freedoms and privacy by co-opting social media platforms, such as we have seen in China.

This second danger seems particularly acute as the solution recently discussed in the US Senate in response to the first danger. We cannot allow unaccountable governments to co-opt unaccountable technology platforms with the idea that “they” will make us safe. It flips the definition of a people’s democracy on its head.

Remedies?

Are there remedies that can halt this disintegration of our social and political institutions or do things just fall apart? As a free democracy, we need to defend free speech as the basis of communication and comprehension of differing viewpoints. How else to find compromise? We also need objective sources of information we can trust. And we need the integrity of objective national media.

There are many policy proposals that address the problems of Big Tech, from rewriting the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to make OSNs more accountable and liable for the information spread on their networks to breaking up the Big Tech monopolies to changing the revenue model. This essay is intended to bring attention to and explain the problem without going deeply into possible regulatory solutions, but the author’s impressions are that online “search” is likely a public good just like the public library and should be regulated like a public utility; broad and deep vertical integration of product markets is likely subject to anti-trust laws; while barriers to entry should be reduced to counter the network externalities that create quasi-monopolies and help foster greater competition and innovation in technology markets. The advertising revenue model relies on harvesting free data from users, so a more just model would share that data value with the users that create it.

But just as important is an appeal on the personal level to voluntary behavioral modifications among social media users, much like those promoted to decrease tobacco consumption. This is necessary for our personal mental health and our social peace of mind. We know the nihilistic and narcissistic behaviors we engage in on social media are unhealthy. We are fighting for attention, we are competing for status, we are allowing ourselves to become smug with our own created self-image. We are in zero-sum, finite games. But I doubt any of this brings us a sense of meaning, purpose, or fulfillment, no matter how many “likes” we get.

We also know that we crave the affirmation of our unique personal identities and a sense of belonging in our social communities. We need positive-sum, infinite games. (War is a finite game, peace is an infinite game.) Technology can serve us in this capacity, but only if we create social media that makes sense. What makes sense is small scale, inter-personal, commonality of interests, and a great deal of empathy and open-mindedness. What makes sense are positive social interactions that reward our human social and creative instincts.

Lastly, we need to reject ideological politics as personal identity. Political differences are natural, but fused with identity they become threatening and lead to self-defensive reactions. Our partisan identities should mean relatively little compared to our identities as creative, intelligent, interesting, empathetic individuals.  

Our online, interconnected world will become more so, but we need to ensure it doesn’t become a more conflicted and contentious one. We do not want a world that wages war by cyber means. More crucial, we need to ensure that technology enhances our humanity by safeguarding our treasured values of liberty and justice for all. 


[1]Addressing Facebook and Google’s Harms Through a Regulated Competition Approach,” American Economic Liberties Project, April 10,2020.

Social Media and Social Networks: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

View at Medium.com

Our obsession with our mobile phones has distracted us from the essential awareness of where we are and where we are going.

 

In our Information Age, social media engagement has become ubiquitous, and contagious. According to recent surveys, internet users are now spending an average of 2.3 hours per day on social networking and messaging platforms (the most popular being Facebook and YouTube).

This proliferation of online social networks (OSNs) has had both good and bad consequences. In What Technology Wants, technology author Kevin Kelly gushes with the promise of social connection:

Right before my eyes, I saw online networks connect people with ideas, options, and other people they could not possibly have met otherwise. Online networks unleashed passions, compounded creativity, amplified generosity.[i] (italicsmine)

In Alone Together, psychologist and author Sherry Turkle examines how technology, in turn, shapes our social interaction:

People love their new technologies of connection. They have made parents and children feel more secure and have revolutionized business, education, scholarship, and medicine. …They have changed how we date and how we travel. The global reach of connectivity can make the most isolated outpost into a center of learning and economic activity. The word “apps” summons the pleasure of tasks accomplished on mobile devices, some of which, only recently, we would not have dreamed possible…[ii]

Nonetheless, we’ve witnessed how this wondrous technology also imposes a Faustian bargain, with implications for our social relationships, mental health and happiness, and our public discourse. Turkle presents a large body of evidence that portrays the tech generation as increasingly insecure, isolated, and lonely. We’ve discovered that digital connections offer the illusion of companionship without the commitment of friendship. We are drawn to the comfort of connection without the demands of intimacy. Facebook offers us hundreds of “friends,” but not a single one to confide in. What’s happening, Turkle discovered, is that as we expect more from technology, we expect less from each other.

On the societal level, social media has come under fire for promoting political propaganda and fostering malicious or even violent behavior, polarizing democratic societies into uncompromising bubbles. The negatives are starting to outweigh the positives.

In order to better manage this technology, we need to investigate the positive and negative effects of OSNs so we can enhance the good, minimize the bad, and, if possible, eliminate the ugly. Let us start by summarizing these mixed effects:

1. The Good: social media has enriched opportunities for social connection and genuine friendship across distances, much as the telephone did a century ago. It has enabled decentralized peer-to-peer information sharing that can be essential during times of crisis. Social media has increased the potential for serendipity in social relationships and social participation. Finally, social networking has aided in building more robust communities among like-minded users and also enabled connections across diverse groups.

2. The Bad: social media engagement is often contagious (and is designed to be that way) and can become addicting. This can lead to asocial behavior with personal narcissism and status seeking. As a substitute for real human connection, it can lead to emotional isolation and severe anxiety due to fear of missing out (FOMO). Public metrics, like the number of friends, can contribute to feelings of inferiority and despair. Social networking can erect barriers as well as break them down.

3. The Ugly: the competition for status on social networks can lead to malicious gossip and bullying. Emotional isolation increases the potential for violent anti-social behavior, such as that promoted by the Unabomber. Social media has generated misinformation and political propaganda on a large scale, diminishing our trust in social institutions and enabling malignant actors to organize their mischief. Lastly, it has empowered the invasion of our personal privacy, often through our own ignorance of the dangers.

What separates the good from the bad and ugly? Largely it is the nature of the content and the context in which it is shared. Much of the deterioration of online content and interaction can be attributed to the advertising revenue models of the platforms, where the business incentives of the platforms do not align well with the social needs and wants of users. Social media giants like Facebook and YouTube generate huge advertising revenues from free, user-generated content. It is not in their interest to guard user privacy, but rather to promote all data sharing to monetize. They reap no meaningful benefit by costly monitoring of users or content, so their platforms have become playgrounds for trolls, flamers, bullies, hackers, propagandists, and digital media addicts.

Turkle observes that the psychological logic of social networks can be stated thus, “I share, therefore I am.” This is a degenerate form of René Descartes’s famous proposition, “I think, therefore I am.” One might smartly identify one major problem of social networking as “I share before I think.” There’s certainly some truth to that, but the psychology goes deeper than this. Turkle argues that we have used OSN technology to alleviate social isolation, but also to avoid the emotional intimacy that often makes social relationships uncomfortable, but ultimately rewarding.

Many who have felt this odd tension have disengaged completely, as reflected in attrition rates for OSNs. But with so many benefits, the public will not abandon social networking; rather, we must and will transform it. Consider the fact that Facebook is actually a centralized global gossip network. Even given the benefits of gossip for monitoring social behavior in small communities, a global gossip network makes no sense from a social human psychology perspective.

So, how do we promote good effects and weed out the bad effects? First, the sharing of content becomes meaningless if the actual content is devoid of meaning. The blessing and curse of the Information Age is Too Much Information. Given the constraints of the time and energy required for attention, why are we distracting ourselves with nonsense on social media?

If we look at Maslow’s hierarchy of psychological needs, we find the pinnacle of self-actualization occupied by moral thinking, creativity, and problem-solving. These provide meaning to our inner lives. At the next stage down we find self-esteem, confidence, and mutual respect, while at the third level we find social connection and belonging. Below these are the crucial stages of personal security and physiological needs. The first four stages of human needs are necessary, but the meaning of our lives is attained through the final stage at the top of the pyramid. One might expand Descartes’s proposition to: “I think, I create, I imagine; therefore I am.”

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

 

Meaningful information is valued more than trivia, but what is meaningful? That depends somewhat on the context of social interaction. Friendships tend to focus on highly personal and particular information and content, i.e., photos of your dog or last night’s homemade casserole. Larger scale networks lean toward more universal ideas, content, or information. Huge centralized platforms, what we might call Big Social, are seeing less engagement, with a wide range of new niche platforms stealing the attention and devotion of people who prefer decentralized and peer-to-peer interactions outside a system of attention control based on advertising. These niche competitors will be less focused on sharing and more on what is being shared and with whom. To promote meaning in human interaction social media needs to be more about imagining, creating and collaborating. Such connections are more in tune with the human than the technological. These activities enhance our mental health rather than distract us. Psychological studies show that creative stimulation and interaction can help reverse debilitating addictions.

Who we share meaning with, in what context, is becoming more crucial to online engagement. User anonymity provides cover for anti-social behavior as anonymous users can do and say anything without being sanctioned or censored. Fake user accounts lead to fake information and uninhibited abuse of community trust. It’s like going to a masquerade ball and entrusting your valuables to masked actors who cannot be identified. The loss of privacy in the context of meaningful social interaction is secondary to building trust and reputational capital through accountability, which makes privacy less salient.

The challenge for the future of social networking, as it moves away from Big Social into smaller niche platforms, is whether we can use technology to avoid segregating ourselves into smaller tribal communities that inhibit interaction with a world larger than our provincial concerns, while at the same time retaining the human scale of social interaction.

Appropriate technological and business model design should be able to solve this problem because technology tackles the tasks of searching, filtering, sorting, connecting, and reconnecting far more efficiently than serendipitous face-to-face social interaction. A good example is online dating, with the stark comparison between eHarmony and Tinder. Social networking should help us coordinate rather than segregate. It should enable us to harmonize our social interactions in a positive direction, according to complex matrices of particular interests, while also allowing us to filter out unwanted noise and negativity.

This networking challenge is best addressed by empowering human assets within the network, rather than relying solely on mechanistic algorithms based on network metrics. As Turkle says, real communities are constituted by physical proximity, shared concerns, real consequences, and common responsibilities. Also by real people. Online connectivity relaxes the physical proximity constraint, but the shared human imperatives of socialization remain, even when we connect through a computer interface.

Looking into the future of social media and social networking, we can summarize the aforementioned qualities it will likely need to embody:

1. The future will be decentralized. We have little need for a centralized global gossip network. Rather platforms will be built on peer-to-peer interactions, which means decentralized control;

2. Content matters. Content is valued by participants in the social community. Content that does not enhance the value of the network needs to be screened out, by users and/or the design of the network;

3. No anonymity. Community networks will reward reputational capital and reciprocity through verified identities, so there is a negative carry cost to anonymity. This, along with potential sanctions, helps minimize threats by bad actors;

4. User engagement in managing network dynamics is essential. User control not only encourages participation and engagement in the community, but it also places responsibility and accountability for engagement in the right hands. The human element is critical;

5. Scale matters, especially for social engagement. Everything else is broadcasting. Larger sharing networks can be filtered and segregated into smaller entities for engagement, without losing connection to the larger community.

The future will be better.

 


[i] Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants.

[ii] Sherry Turkle, Alone Together. Turkle also presents her views in a compelling TED Talk.

Why We’re Jaded With Facebook

likenolike

Facebook has been under constant fire for more than a year now and seems unable to answer its critics. Under such criticism the company’s executive team has promised to make user privacy its primary concern, until the next revelation exposes its duplicity. Now it seems every other week another article is written demanding that Facebook be broken up or regulated by government oversight.

We might wonder what exactly is wrong with Facebook and why can’t they fix it?

https://www.tukaglobal.com/why-were-jaded-with-facebook

 

Pondering National Governance

This is a recent article published in the NY Times. To make any sense of our answers to this question requires some ideological and historical clarity. [Blog comments]

Is the United States Too Big to Govern?

By Neil Gross

May 11, 2018

Last month the Pew Research Center released a poll showing that Americans are losing faith in their system of government. Only one-fifth of adults surveyed believe democracy is working “very well” in the United States, while two-thirds say “significant changes” are needed to governmental “design and structure.” [Because nobody really knows what these words mean, or they don’t agree among the many meanings, polling results are questionable indicators.]

The 2016 election is one explanation for these findings. Something is not right in a country where Donald Trump is able to win the presidency. [Well, that’s a selective value judgment – one could easily substitute in the names Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. The point of a democratic society is that the people get to make those decisions and the people agree to abide by them or revolt. Are the people revolting against themselves or against their political representatives?]  

But here’s another possibility: What if trust in American democracy is eroding because the nation has become too big to be effectively governed through traditional means? With a population of more than 325 million and an enormously complex society, perhaps this country has passed a point where — no matter whom we elect — it risks becoming permanently dissatisfied with legislative and governmental performance. [There’s an implicit assumption here that the original intent of the founders is that some central authority should “govern” the affairs of the population and manage the national interest (“traditional means”?). This is probably half true in that a national interest must be represented as the sum of its many parts. We have a Federal government. What was not intended was an all-powerful Federal government.]

Political thinkers, worried about the problem of size, have long advocated small republics. Plato and Aristotle admired the city-state because they thought reason and virtue could prevail only when a polis was small enough that citizens could be acquaintances. Montesquieu, the 18th-century French political philosopher, picked up where the ancient Greeks left off, arguing for the benefits of small territories. “In a large republic,” he wrote, “the common good is sacrificed to a thousand considerations,” whereas in a smaller one the common good “is more strongly felt, better known, and closer to each citizen.” [I suspect Dunbar’s number is at work here.]

The framers of the United States Constitution were keenly aware of these arguments. As the political scientists Robert Dahl and Edward Tufte noted in their 1973 book, “Size and Democracy,” the framers embraced federalism partly because they thought that states were closer in scale to the classical ideal. Ultimately, however, a counterargument advanced by James Madison won the day: Larger republics better protected democracy, he claimed, because their natural political diversity made it difficult for any supersized faction to form and dominate. [With Federalism and the separation of powers and overlapping jurisdictions, I think the founders split the difference here.]

Two and a half centuries later, the accumulated social science suggests that Madison’s optimism was misplaced. Smaller, it seems, is better. [This is a false and impossible choice. When complex networks grow too large, they break-up into smaller, more manageable pieces, but these smaller entities are vulnerable to competitive pressures. This is true in industrial organization, economic and financial markets, and digital and social networks. It also applies to social choice and governance. The founders’ idea was to create a coordinated network of states, counties, and municipalities to manage affairs at the appropriate jurisdictional level. National issues are the sole responsibility of a Federal government balanced by parochial interests. This would secure the strongest union to guarantee citizens’ rights and freedoms. As that task grows in complexity, the need for decentralization and coordination reasserts itself.] 

There are clear economic and military advantages to being a large country. But when it comes to democracy, the benefits of largeness — defined by population or geographic area — are hard to find. Examining data on the world’s nations from the 19th century until today, the political scientists John Gerring and Wouter Veenendaal recently discovered that although size is correlated with electoral competition (in line with the Madisonian argument), there is no association between size and many other standard measures of democratic functioning, such as limits on executive power or the provision of human rights. [Another question raised here is what exactly we mean by democracy. Strictly democracy means government by the people, but popular democracy is a narrow offshoot of that definition. IT also begs the question of what a government by the people is trying to accomplish. Our founders made it clear they thought it was life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Note: the pursuit of happiness, not its guarantee.]

In fact, large nations turn out to have what the political scientist Pippa Norris has called “democratic deficits”: They don’t fully satisfy their citizens’ demands for democracy. [Again, what is that demand? Is it coherent?] For one thing, citizens in large nations are generally less involved in politics and feel they have less of a voice. [Are they unable to secure life, liberty and pursue happiness or do they just not like the results?] Voter turnout is lower. [Low voter turnout could mean that voters are happy with the status quo, or don’t believe voting matters to their individual fates.] According to the political scientist Karen Remmer, smaller-scale political entities encourage voting in ways large ones can’t by “creating a sense of community” and “enforcing norms of citizenship responsibility.” [Perhaps because they enjoy more intrinsic rewards to participation. This would suggest more localized control over politics.] In addition, small countries promote political involvement by leaning heavily on forms of direct democracy, like referendums or citizen assemblies. [This is a feature of scale. Direct democracy on a large scale can empower the tyranny of the popular majority because the effects are so far removed from that majority.]

A second problem is political responsiveness: The policies of large nations can be slow to change, even if change is needed and desired. In a book published last year, the sociologists John Campbell and John Hall compared the reactions to the 2007-2008 financial crisis in Denmark, Ireland, and Switzerland. These three small countries didn’t cause the crisis; a homegrown Irish housing bubble notwithstanding, the shock wave they dealt with came from America. But though the countries were economically vulnerable, Mr. Campbell and Mr. Hall observed, this vulnerability fostered unexpected resilience and creativity, generating in each nation “a sense of solidarity or ‘we-ness’” that brought together politicians, regulators, and bankers eager to do whatever was necessary to calm markets. [Again, a sense of “we-ness” is one of scale. Cultural homogeneity helps.] 

With the United States lacking the same sense of shared fate and vulnerability, American policymakers could organize only a tepid response, which helps explain why the recovery here was so slow. This theory sheds light as well on developments in environmental and social welfare policy, where it is increasingly common to find a complacent America lagging behind its smaller, more innovative peers. [Complexity plus centralization leads to sclerosis, which is why centralizing authority in a large, diverse, pluralist society make be unworkable.] 

Finally, largeness can take a toll on citizen trust. The presence of a wide variety of social groups and cultures is the primary reason for this. Nearly all scholars who study country size recognize, as Madison did, that large nations are more socially heterogeneous, whether because they represent an amalgamation of different regions, each with its own ethnolinguistic, religious or cultural heritage; or because their economic vitality encourages immigration; or because population size and geographic spread promote the growth of distinctive subcultures; or because they have more differentiated class structures. [Agreed, which is why encouraging a large diverse population of the virtues of multiculturalism may actually be a detriment. I believe the original idea, or at least the one that prevailed in past influxes of cultural groups, was the melting pot of gradual, voluntary assimilation.]

It isn’t inevitable that a large amount of social variation would undermine trust. Well-governed societies like Canada address the issue by stitching diversity and multiculturalism into their national identities. Yet in the absence of cultural and institutional supports, heterogeneity and trust are frequently in tension, as different ways of life give rise to suspicion and animosity. Without at least a veneer of trust among diverse social groups, politics spirals downward. [This characterization of Canada seems counter-intuitive. Stitching ethnic diversity and multiculturalism into a national identity means that national identity must be based not on ethnicity, race, or diverse cultures but in a national identity based on universal principles and social contracts. In other words, on something called patriotism and fealty to the larger community, subsuming ethnic, racial, and cultural differences.]

The challenges of American largeness are here to stay. The task now is for individuals, civic organizations and institutions to commit themselves to building stronger communities and a renewed sense of shared responsibility and trust among different groups. Within the constraints of our nation’s size, we can create conditions for as much democracy as possible. [So, we converge on the idea that it is inevitable we decentralize power and assume the responsibility of self-governance? What then is the real political conflict of interest?]

Neil Gross is a professor of sociology at Colby College.

Order vs. Chaos: How We Choose

(The Towers of San Gimignano)

Below is a thought-provoking essay by historian Niall Ferguson examining the fluid structure of societies that swing from hierarchies to decentralized networks.

Anyway, this is a subject dear to my heart, as it is the overriding theme of several of my fiction books. See interjections below…

In Praise of Hierarchy – The Wall Street Journal
https://apple.news/A3UEyEvI-SnuHNdt8fLLjzg (paywall)

The Saturday Essay
Established, traditional order is under assault from freewheeling, networked disrupters as never before. But society craves centralized leadership, too.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that we now live in a networked world, where everyone and everything are connected. The corollary is that traditional hierarchical structures—not only states, but also churches, parties, and corporations—are in various states of crisis and decline. Disruption, disintermediation, and decentralization are the orders of the day. Hierarchy is at a discount, if not despised.

Networks rule not only in the realm of business. In politics, too, party establishments and their machines have been displaced by crowdfunded campaigns and viral messaging. Money, once a monopoly of the state, is being challenged by Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, which require no central banks to manage them, only consensus algorithms.

But is all this wise? In all the excitement of the age of hyper-connection, have we perhaps forgotten why hierarchies came into existence in the first place? Do we perhaps overestimate what can be achieved by ungoverned networks—and underestimate the perils of a world without any legitimate hierarchical structure?

True, few dare shed tears for yesterday’s hierarchies. Some Anglophile viewers of “The Crown” may thrill at the quaint stratification of Elizabeth II’s England, but the nearest approximations to royalty in America have lately been shorn of their gilt and glamour. Political dynasties of the recent past have been effaced, if not humiliated, by the upstart Donald Trump, while Hollywood’s elite of exploitative men is in disarray. The spirit of the age is revolutionary; the networked crowd yearns to “smack down” or “shame” each and every authority figure.

Nevertheless, recent events have called into question the notion that all will be for the best in the most networked of all possible worlds. “I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place,” Evan Williams, a co-founder of Twitter, told the New York Times last May. “I was wrong about that.”

Far from being a utopia in which we all become equally empowered “netizens,” free to tweet truth to power, cyberspace has mutated into a nightmare realm of ideological polarization, extreme views and fake news. The year 2016 was the annus horribilis of the liberal internet, the year when the network platforms built in Silicon Valley were used not only by Donald Trump’s election campaign but also by the proponents of “Brexit” in the United Kingdom to ends that appalled their creators. In 2017, research (including some by Facebook itself) revealed the psychological harm inflicted by social media on young people, who become addicted to the network platforms’ incessant, targeted stimuli.

Most alarming was the morphing of cyberspace into Cyberia, not to mention the Cyber-caliphate: a dark and lawless realm where malevolent actors ranging from Russian trolls to pro-ISIS Twitter users could work with impunity to subvert the institutional foundations of democracy. As Henry Kissinger has rightly observed, the internet has re-created the human state of nature depicted by 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, where there rages a war “of every man against every man” and life (like so many political tweets) is “nasty, brutish, and short.”

We should not be surprised. Neither history nor science predicted that everything would be awesome in a world of giant, online networks—quite the contrary. And now that it becomes clear that a networked world may be an anarchic world, we begin to see—as previous generations saw—the benefits of hierarchy.

The word hierarchy derives from ancient Greek (hierarchia, literally the “rule of a high priest”) and was first used to describe the heavenly orders of angels and, more generally, to characterize a stratified order of spiritual or temporal governance. Up until the 16th century, by contrast, the word “network” signified nothing more than a woven mesh made of interlaced thread.

For most of history, hierarchies dominated social networks, a relationship exemplified by the looming Gothic tower that overshadows the Tuscan town of Siena’s central piazza.

DSC_1483_2

Siena’s torre

This is roughly how most people think about hierarchies: as vertically structured organizations characterized by centralized and top-down command, control and communication. Historically, they began with family-based clans and tribes, out of which more complicated and stratified institutions evolved: states, churches, corporations, empires.

The crucial incentive that favored hierarchical order was that it made the exercise of power more efficient. Centralizing control in the hands of the “big man” eliminated or at least reduced time-consuming arguments about what to do, which might at any time escalate into internecine conflict. The obvious defect of hierarchy—in the mid-19th century words of Lord Acton, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”—was not by itself sufficient to turn humanity away from the rule of “big men.”

There have been only two eras of enhanced connectedness, when new technology helped social networks gain the upper hand. The second is our own age. The first began almost exactly half a millennium ago, in 1517, and lasted for the better part of three centuries.

COM2014-tiny FB cover

The epic story of chaos vs. order during the Savonarola-Machiavelli era, foreshadowing Martin Luther.

When the printing press empowered Martin Luther’s heresy, a network was born. Luther’s dream was of a “priesthood of all believers.” The actual result of the Reformation he inspired was not harmony, but 130 years of polarization and conflict. But it proved impossible to kill Protestant networks, even with mass executions. Hierarchy had to be restored in the form of the princely states whose power the Peace of Westphalia affirmed, but this restoration was fleeting.

Like the Reformation, the 18th-century Enlightenment was a network-driven phenomenon that challenged established authority. The amazing thing was how much further the tendrils of the Enlightenment extended: as far afield as Voltaire’s global network of correspondents, and into the depths of Bavaria, where the secret network known as the Illuminati was founded in 1776.

In Britain’s American colonies, Freemasonry was a key network that connected many of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington and the crucial “node” in the New England revolutionary network, Paul Revere.

IGWT Cover12 6x9 large 2017

Freemasons in today’s Washington, D.C.?

At the same time, the American revolutionaries—Franklin, Jefferson, Lafayette—had all kinds of connections to France, land of the philosophes. The problem in France was that the ideas that went viral were not just “liberty, equality and fraternity,” but also the principle that terror was justifiable against enemies of the people. The result was a descent into bloody anarchy.

 

Those who lived through the wars of the 1790s and early 1800s learned an important lesson that we would do well to relearn: unless one wishes to reap one revolutionary whirlwind after another, it is better to impose some kind of hierarchical order on the world and to give it some legitimacy. At the Congress of Vienna, the five great powers who defeated Napoleon agreed to establish such an order, and the “pentarchy” they formed provided a remarkable stability over the century that followed.

Just over 200 years later, we confront a similar dilemma. Those who favor a revolutionary world run by networks will end up not with the interconnected utopia of their dreams but with Hobbes’s state of nature, in which malign actors exploit opportunities to spread virus-like memes and mendacities. Worse, they may end up entrenching a new but unaccountable hierarchy. For here is a truth that is too often glossed over by the proponents of networked governance: Many networks are hierarchically structured.

Nothing illustrates this better than the way the internet has evolved from being an authentically distributed, decentralized network into one dominated by a few giant technology companies: Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Alphabet’s Google—the so-called FANGs. This new hierarchy is motivated primarily by the desire to sell—above all, to sell the data that their users provide. Dominance of online advertising by Alphabet and Facebook, coupled with immunity from civil liability under legislation dating back to the 1990s, have create an extraordinary state of affairs. The biggest content publishers in history are regulated as if they are mere technology startups; they are a new hierarchy extracting rent from the network.

The effects are pernicious. According to the Pew Research Center, close to half of Americans now get their news from Facebook, whose incentive is to promote news that holds the attention of users, regardless of whether it is true or false, researched by professional journalists or cooked up by Russian trolls. Established publishers—and parties—were too powerful for too long, but is it really a better world if there are no authorities to separate real news from fake, or decent political candidates from rogues? The old public sphere had its defects, but the new one has no effective gatekeepers, so the advantage now lies not with leaders but with misleaders.

The alternative is that another pentarchy of great powers recognizes their common interest in resisting the threat posed by Cyberia, where jihadism and criminality flourish alongside cyberwarfare, to say nothing of nuclear proliferation. Conveniently, the architects of the post-1945 order created the institutional basis for such a new pentarchy in the form of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, an institution that retains the all-important ingredient of legitimacy, despite its gridlocked condition throughout the Cold War.

It is easy to be dismissive of the UNSC. Nevertheless, whether or not these five great powers can make common cause once again, as their predecessors did in the 19th century, is a great geopolitical question of our time. The hierarchical Chinese leader Xi Jinping likes to talk about a “new model of great power relations,” and it may be that the North Korean missile crisis will bring forth this new model. But the crucial point is that the North Korean threat cannot be removed by the action of networks. A Facebook group can no more solve it than a tweet storm or a hashtag.

Our age may venerate online networks, to the extent of making a company such as Facebook one of the most valuable in the world. Yet there is a reason why armies have commanding officers. There is a reason why orchestras have conductors. There is a reason why, at great universities, the lecturers are not howled down by social justice warriors. And there is a reason why the last great experiment in networked organization—the one that began with the Reformation—ended, eventually, with a restoration of hierarchy.

There is hope for hierarchies yet. “The Crown” is not mere fiction; the hierarchy of the monarchy has continued to elevate the head of the British state above party politics. In a similar way, the papacy remains an object of authority and veneration, despite the tribulations of the Roman Catholic Church. Revolutions repeatedly sweep the countries of the Middle East, yet the monarchies of the region have been the most stable regimes.

Even in the U.S., ground zero for disruptive networks, there still is respect for hierarchical institutions. True, just 32% of Americans still have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the presidency and 12% feel that way about Congress. But for the military the equivalent percentage is 72% (up from 50% in 1981), for the police it is 57%, for churches 41%, and for the Supreme Court 40%. By comparison, just 16% of Americans have confidence in news on the internet.

We humans have been designed by evolution to network—man is a social animal, of course—but history has taught us to revere hierarchy as preferable to anarchy, and to prefer time-honored hierarchs to upstart usurpers.

Mr. Ferguson’s new book, “The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook,” will be published by Penguin Press on Jan. 16.

 

Why You Should Play Music

 

Following text excerpted from The Ultimate Killer App: The Power to Create and Connect   Chapter 3.

…Music is a bewitching art because it seems to engage areas of our brain that integrate emotions, memory, language/communication, and motor skills. Music not only stimulates more areas of the brain, it resonates to the very core of our physical being, especially when we dance and sing.

Through the ages philosophers and artists have often argued over which of the arts is preeminent and most venerated.[i] The ancient Greeks lauded poetry, Leonardo da Vinci exalted painting, and Michelangelo favored sculpture as the most sublime art of all. I have to side with philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s judgment that music portrays the inner flow of life more directly than the other arts,[ii] and Friedrich Nietzsche, who famously said “Without music, life would be a mistake.” With music we dance, we sing, we communicate, we synchronize and coordinate, we contemplate, we remember. Sometimes we even fall into an otherworldly trance. Reggae icon Bob Marley perhaps puts it most simply when he sings, “One good thing about music, it gets you feeling okay…”

schopenhauer

Reflect, for a moment, on how we interact with music: how we remember and respond to certain melodies over time; how a particular song or melody can replay constantly in our mind’s ear, even to the point of distraction[iii]; how particular melodies and harmonies can make us feel joyful or sad, fearful or fearless; how some individuals can see musical pitches as colors; how a particular shuffle rhythm can make us relax with a resting heartbeat, or an up-tempo straight beat can make our hearts race. Interestingly, humans are unique among primates in being able to tap their feet in time to a rhythm, an activity that involves a process of meter extraction so complicated that most computers cannot do it.

E.O. Wilson argues from an evolutionary perspective that creating and performing music is instinctual, one of the true universals of our species. Anthropological studies of tribal cultures show the extent to which singing and dancing is a natural activity in various communities, seamlessly integrated and involving everyone.[iv] In many of the world’s languages, the verb for singing is the same as the one for dancing; there is no distinction, since it is assumed that singing involves bodily movement.

Functional brain imaging shows that playing and listening to music involves nearly every region of the brain and nearly every neural subsystem. Learning to play a musical instrument even alters the structure of our brains, from subcortical circuits that encode sound patterns to neural fibers that connect the two cerebral hemispheres and patterns of gray matter density in certain regions of the cerebral cortex. One neuroscientist [Harvard’s Gottfried Schlaug] has shown that the front portion of the corpus callosum—the mass of fibers connecting the two cerebral hemispheres—is significantly larger in musicians than in non-musicians.[v]

Music is also powerful in its impact on human feeling and on perception. This is why movie soundtracks have the sublime capacity to enhance our multisensory experience. Music is extraordinarily complex in the neural circuits it employs, appearing to elicit emotion in at least six different brain mechanisms. We have all experienced the pleasures of music and neuroscientists have found that music is strongly associated with the brain’s reward system through the release of dopamine.

The emotional power of music is also reflected in that most time-honored form, the romantic love song. One researcher who analyzed the lyrics of the year’s 10 most popular songs listed in Billboard for two eras, 2002-2005 and 1968-1971, found that 24 of the 40 songs in the modern era — 60 percent — and half the songs of the classic era were devoted to the subject of love and relationships.[vi]

In The Descent of Man Darwin surmised that “musical notes and rhythm were first acquired by the male or female progenitors of mankind for the sake of charming the opposite sex. Thus, musical tones became firmly associated with some of the strongest passions an animal is capable of feeling, and are consequently used instinctively.” Beyond love and sex, music in politics and revolution can become a national anthem, a rallying cry, or a military march. In a communal celebration, such as Mardi Gras, music becomes an expression of collective joy and celebration.

Music is a language, not only an aural language but a written one. Music invokes some of the same neural regions as language but, far more than language does, music taps into primitive brain structures involved with motivation, reward, and emotion. The mental structure in music requires both halves of the brain, while the mental structure of language only requires the left half. In this sense, music is even more powerful than spoken language and is its likely precursor. Music may have prepared our pre-human ancestors for speech communication and for the very cognitive, representational flexibility necessary to become human. Singing and instrumental activities might have helped our species to refine motor skills, paving the way for the development of the exquisitely fine muscle control required for vocal or signed speech.

Not surprisingly, studies have found that children who take music lessons for two years also process language better. Music therapy using listening and instrument playing has been shown to help people overcome a broad range of psychological and neurological problems. Patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease, in whom movements tend to be incontinently fast or slow, or sometimes frozen, can overcome these disorders of timing when they are exposed to the regular tempo and rhythm of music.

In This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin offers evidence to support the view that musical ability served as an indicator of cognitive, emotional and physical health, and was evolutionarily advantageous as a force that led to social bonding and increased fitness. Levitin writes:

The story of your brain on music is the story of an exquisite orchestration of brain regions, involving both the oldest and newest parts of the human brain, and regions as far apart as the cerebellum in the back of the head and the frontal lobes just behind your eyes. It involves a precision choreography of neurochemical release and uptake between logical prediction systems and emotional reward systems. When we love a piece of music, it reminds us of other music we have heard, and it activates memory traces of emotional times in our lives. Your brain on music is all about…connections.[vii] (emphasis added)

Medical research into two specific neuro-developmental disorders reveals an interesting neurological link between music and social development. Williams Syndrome (WS) is a rare genetic disorder that causes physical and cognitive deficits, such as heart defects, stunted physical development, brain abnormalities, low IQs, high levels of emotional anxiety and various learning disabilities. However, WS individuals also exhibit high levels of sociability, gregariousness, and an affinity and talent for music. In contrast to WS are the family of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), such as Asperger’s syndrome. Individuals with ASD exhibit deficits in sociability and an inability to empathize. In general, they also display no emotional affinity for music. As Levitin explains, complementary syndromes such as these, which neuroscientists call a double dissociation, strengthen the putative link between music and social bonding.

Historically and anthropologically, music has been involved with social activities. People sing and dance together in every culture, and one can imagine them doing so around the first fires a hundred thousand years ago. This observation dovetails with E.O. Wilson’s narrative of the campfire as the focus of social and community development cited in Chapter 1.

In Music and the Mind, psychologist Anthony Storr stresses that in all societies, a primary function of music is collective and communal, to bring and bind people together. As Storr explains, in modern culture the choice of music has important social consequences. People listen to the music their friends listen to and people who listen to the same music form friendships. Particularly when we are young, and in search of our identity, we form bonds or social groups with people whom we want to be like, or with whom we believe we have something in common. As a way of externalizing the bond, we dress alike, share activities, and listen to the same music. It becomes a mark of our chosen identity. This ties in with the evolutionary idea of music as a vehicle for social bonding and societal cohesion. Music and musical preferences become a mark of personal and group identity and of distinction.

As a powerful biological, psychological, emotional, and communicative medium, music reinforces the ties that bring us together and then bind us. Think of two musicians playing together, jamming, or playing a structured piece – the music is heard as one indivisible expression. A duet can become a trio, then a quartet, a quintet, and finally a full orchestra or big band. The possibilities for creative variation multiply with collaborative input. There is nothing more enjoyable to jazz aficionados – players and audiences alike – than an artful improvisation on a theme that becomes a new musical exploration of the unknown. Philharmonic audiences, likewise, are thrilled by the grandeur of an orchestra that plays as one.

I have deliberately highlighted the role of creativity in music because it provides strong evidence for the synergistic power of creating and sharing (connecting). The power of creative art is that it connects us to one another, and to larger truths about what it means to be alive and what it means to be human.

music

[i] Granted, this judgment may be largely influenced by the era in which the art is technically applied. Certainly film has been a dominant art form of the 20th century, while others claim that virtual gaming will be the preeminent creative art form of the near future. Nevertheless, I will stick with the universality and simplicity of music.

[ii] See Schopenhauer on the “Hierarchy among the fine arts.”

[iii] For some inexplicable reason as I write this, the song “Winchester Cathedral” keeps repeating in my head. A song I most certainly have not heard replayed for at least 50 years, and yet, there it is playing back in my memory. Not my first choice!

[iv] This points out the modern travesty of dividing communal music performance between virtuosi and the rest of us listening in the audience. The communal drum circle is much more in tune with our nature.

[v] Gottfried Schlaug, “Musicians and music making as a model for the study of brain plasticity.” Prog Brain Res. 2015; 217: 37–55.

[vi] http://news.ufl.edu/archive/2007/05/love-still-dominates-pop-song-lyrics-but-with-raunchier-language.html

[vii] Daniel J. Levitin, This is Your Brain on Music, p. 188. For a lovely graphic illustrating the myriad brain functions that music engages, which I cannot print here due to copyright issues, go to http://www.fastcompany.com/3022942/work-smart/the-surprising-science-behind-what-music-does-to-our-brains?