Monday, January 22, 2007

The Wiki Campaign

There is a new organizational paradigm propogating itself through society - once-strict hierarchies are disolving, and actors (not like Harrison Ford. I mean in the sense of 'an entity capable of self-directed activity', i.e. organizations, individuals, companies) are finding themselves no longer gears in a rigid machine, but as free agents. Actors in the new paradigm form loose associations with each other that are essential to their success but are non-binding. This effect appears EVERYWHERE, in government, the military, volunteer associations, companies, even families. That divorce rates are on the rise and at the same time that traditional labor unions are struggling is not, actually, a coincidence (although I don't imply any causality here). Both family members and workers are behaving according to the same imperative: flexibility. David Harvey calls the phenomena "Flexible Accumulation". Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams call it "Wikinomics" in their book of the same title. This network paradigm is increasingly pervasive, but its power has yet to be effectively harnessed for social activism.

How can the productive power of the network paradigm, which created Wikipedia, has earned billions of dollars for companies around the world, and has even transformed military conflict, be useful for civil society?

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Fast talking

The dangers of the fast-talking are a common thematic element in movies and literature. I don't know who the most famous fast-talker is, but their MO is usually the same. With the right mix of compliments, technical language and other tricks, these individuals (often villains or at least anti-heros) fool their victims out of making a decision that matches their true interests. A common moral: sweet talking is a weapon not to be used by the honest.

Plato's record of Socrates's famous conversation with Gorgias fits the model. Gorgias is a debater, and a master at his craft, who boasts that his profession is the best of all professions. A debater can use language to con decision-makers into making any decision the debater would like. He gives examples. Suppose a group of people had to choose a new doctor, and a real doctor and a debater are vying for the job. The doctor may know how to treat a hernia, but the debater knows how to convince the people that HE is the best choice. Plato argues that this is precisely why the profession of Gorgias is immoral. His profession is one of illusion, of convincing people of things regardless of whether or not they are true. Communication must convey facts to allow people to make decisions based on them. Plato's solution, it seems, is to limit the ability of individuals to communicate to a simpler and more rigid pattern that does not leave space for the kind of artistry that provides opportunities to artists like Gorgias.

I understand Plato's position. It certainly makes sense that it is no good to have a few elite rhetoricians using their power to fool the rest of us. However I think the solution, instead of banning the rhetoricians, is to democratize their skills. We could prevent an aristocracy of the silver tounged from snatching inappropriate influence by making sure that everybody is studying and improving his/her skill at communication.

Dishonest or misleading rhetoric cannot be banned. There will always be sentiments to appeal to, new ways of linking ideas, new ways of obsuring truth or shifting the scope of a debate. If these tools belong to a few, they are dangerous as Plato points out. But if they belong to, and are diffused widely through, the entire population, we will be safer from the insidious effect that Plato worries about. In this case, our ignorance of the thing threatens us more than the thing itself.

A big problem remains - one of the ideas implied in the Plato conversation (and supported by the experience a lot of us have had) is that learning to do anything really well takes a lot of time, including communication. Thus a communication advantage can be conferred to one who can devote the most time to it. Those who also pursue other professions are left behind.

So how can people learn a LOT about communication in a very small amount of time? A website of resources organized in a particular way? What else could work? Please let us know your ideas for tools to address this question.

You're Gorgeous,

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Communication reshaping our brains

This is just a nugget of an idea. Take it where you want.

I've seen some research that says eye contact actually rewires our brains. The eye is a nerve connected straight to the brain, and as I understand it (not being a scientist) what they eye sees directly changes the wiring of neurons insidee the brain. And when one person's eyes meet those of another, the rewiring is extra intense. This suggests all sorts of poetical possibilities. If you look into a person's eyes long enough, how does your brain change? Do you become more like the other person? There is a part of the brain which tries to emulate what is going on in the brains of those around you. This may be the seat of empathy.
Then what about other nerves? The tongue is a nerve. What happens when.... Love, it stands to reason, changes who we are, chemically.
Anyway, this also has important ramifications for discourse about social issues. When people are discussing and have to look into each other's eyes, certain effects are going to be present that are absent in other situations. What are the eye-contact effects?

And what about long-term effects? If people have been discussing issues for years with eye-contact, what would happen when a particularly divisive issue arises? How would it differ if the same people had not been looking each other in the eyes for so long?

These may be impossible things to study, but we can certainly talk about them and speculate.

Getting on your nerves,

Experiment (game) : Non-verbal decision making

We rely heavily on speech to communicate with each other. words are reasonably precise nuggets of iinformation that can convey pretty much any idea (how well they do that is subject for more discussion). But they are far from our only method of communication. So when we are making up discussion models to acheive particular goals within a group, we will do well to consider how non-verbal communication affects our models. And since there is no stone not worth turning over, we can play around with discussions that use exclusively non-verbal communication. I expect there to be all sorts of obstacles and new opportinities with this kind of discussion.

Here is a very simple game to play with non-verbal communication: With a single partner, use a single body part (e.g. a hand, a finger, or if you're really adventerous, an eyebrow) to communicate information. The info-nugget in question is how each person feels about a particular issue. Then decide how the pair of you together feel about the issue in question. Communicate ONLY with the chosen body part. When you think you have reached a decision, compare your answers. Were you right about what you thought you'd been told? Now make the discussion more complex. Add more people. Or instead of simply surveying the players, try to come a conclusion about how the group feels about an issue. Or try to come to concensus about something. Some kinds of issues will work better than others. There are all kinds of variations you can make on this theme. It could be a party game like charades, where teams get points for how well they communicate information.

While we are experimenting with this, we should record what we learn. How is index-finger communication limited, and what is an index finger good at communicating? How can games like this be useful at an event? As an icebreaker? Something else?

Fingers crossed,

Knee Jerk Night

Discussion formats are more completely described on the website, But Knee Jerk Night is a favorite and worth mentioning here.

Knee Jerk works like this:

You need a group of people, 10-20 is ideal. Less than that and its harder to get the ball rolling. More and you might get chaos or you'll find some people are shut out of the conversation.
Also you'll need a moderator. The moderator writes a list of controversial statements. For example, "The Minimum wage is bad for business", "Universal Health care is a right" and "The United States has a responsibility to spread democracy around the world" are all great examples. Next line up plenty of chairs in two opposing lines. One line is the the Disagree side, and the other is the Agree side.

Starting the discussion:
The moderator reads a statement, and all the participants must decide to either agree or disagree with it and jump to the corresponding row of chairs. A person isn't allowed to take more than a few seconds to make their knee jerk reaction to the statement. They will complain, and sometimes they will say they don't want to make a decision. But the moderator has got to try to pressure them to decide.

Once people have picked sides, they must argue the other side into changing their position. Everyone can talk at once, or people can take turns. That is up to the moderator and depends on the participants.

Why this game is a lot of fun:
This game works for a couple different categories of individuals. First, those who love talking about politics and are already opinionated are Expected to yell and shout at each other in this game. And the set up shows that it is so clearly a game that participants are unlikely to get upset. With Knee-Jerk, we are celebrating the fact that we disagree with each other.
Second, individuals less comfortable with taking positions can feel more prepared to do so, when taking a side is a requirement of the game. People feel less responsible for the choice they are making, and are therefore less hesitant to make it. And I have seen people that were hesitant to pick a side can get into the spirit of the debate and really let loose on the temporary enemy.

Finally, while this game emphasizes division, the end result is that it can be a powerful tool for unification. What I have always found is that participants get surprised by who they end up sitting next to. Conservatives and liberals sit next to each other as often as not. Knee Jerk demonstrates that our ideological divisions are cross-cutting. There is no "us v. them", but rather a complex salad of ideas, world-views, political theories and experiences. The whole group, by exploring the differences within it, finds traditional divisions are transgressed at every point.

So go ahead. Try Knee Jerk, and tell us how you liked it. What worked? What didn't? How can we make it better? What new discussion models did it inspire for you?


Thursday, January 4, 2007

Bienvenidos a la 110th Congress!

Like the title says we're glad the Congress is continuing its venerable tradition of taking place, and we hope they'll keep it up for many years to come.

Partisan politics are a funny thing. A lot of us spend a lot of time decrying how partisanship takes away from the real business of running the country. But a lot of the bickering comes out of disagreements on how the country ought to be run. We want bickering, but we also like to complain about it. That could be a useful state of affairs. But if we were to decide its not, one way to make the situation better would be for more people to get involved in governance. Then we'd figure out how to tell the difference between useful argument and ugly. If a person doesn't like how politics work, she should do it herself. Obviously, there are quite a few politicians out there that could use the help.

With love,

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Welcome to the Talk-Lab

Hi, friends.
This blog is about creativity. Specifically, your creativity. And communication. I'll explain:

A few years ago a good friend of mine and I were having lunch and we realized that we were both felt that our understanding of communication left a lot to be desired. We'd both been active with organizations that worked to improve political discourse. My group held knee-jerk nights, her group held Open Mic forums. (More on both of these later) We discovered in our respective projects that what people are able to say to each other depends a lot on the rules that govern their discussion. A simple example: Say two people are talking but they are only allowed to use one word answers. How constructive is there discussion going to be? Probably not very. On the other hand there must be ways to make communication more productive too. So we figured that there are probably all sorts of ways to jiggle the rules people use to talk to each other. Different rules, in different situations would have all kinds of outcomes, allowing or forcing people to say all kinds of different things. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we understood these rules, and then designed discussions to help us get the results we want? Another example:
What if (this is an implausible scenario, of course) two politicians weren't getting along and obstructing any real governing? What if then their constituents decided to ask them to have some sort of a discussion to work out their problems? The constituents could design the discussion to make it more likely that the two would come together.

Understanding rules of communication, and having a range of communication tools would be useful to anybody who has to work with anybody else, not just for politics. My friend and I figured out a few things through our work. But we also realized that instead of trying to figure out everything for ourselves, we could try to create a place for everybody thinking about these things to come together to compile our collective knowlege.

Thus the Talk-Lab is a laboratory. People use it to find ideas for communicating with each other. You can use it to find an ice-breaker for a committee meeting. Or you can use it to find models for debates or other kinds of discussion. But we ask that you contribute, too. What have you learned about how people communicate? What causes and effects have you noticed in events that you have held? If the speaker is standing and everyone else is sitting, how does that tend change what the speaker says or how she feels?

We operate on the principle that no one knows anything till we've tried it. Could it make people more talkative if a meeting has food? Maybe. Give it a try. Then let us know how it goes.