Monday, February 26, 2007

Intelligence in the workplace

This post from Headshift mentions a BBC article which identifies information over-stimulation as a factor which can adversely effect employees. Distraction by email and phone and other sources can reduce a person's functional intelligence. John Adams told his son, "A scholar is made alone". Reflection is a mental space where intelligence can grow and be nurtured.

Does this present a paradox when contrasted with argument of the popular book Blink? The premise of this idea is that people make excellent decisions based on split second intuition. So which is it? Do people think best by reflection or by immediate intuition?

I think a balance seems likely. To everything, turn turn, turn. We need to find ways for the workplace to foster both short-term decision-making and long-term reflection.

On a related note, this article from LiveScience.com about American job satisfaction paints a grim picture. Fewer than half of Americans are satisfied with their jobs, and the problem gets worse as study subjects get younger. And the problem is on a downward trend.

Just as we are starting to try to design our way out of a climate crisis (or at least its worst effects), we have a responsibility to try to design work environments and processes that are healthy and appealing to us. A maxim of software design is that software should change to meet the needs of the user, not the other way around. The same is true of our workplaces. The workplace should be shaped not to force us into unnatural processes, but rather should nurture and unlock our innate creative and productive potentials.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Maintaining a network as it segments

Okay, so I'm way beyond where I can back up what I say with proof or mathematical models, but I was musing on the paper I talked about yesterday (That link seems not to work anymore- any ideas?). If a network tends to diverge into different camps given the right circumstances, and if those circumstances exist in most human networks (we can certainly see evidence of divergence all over the place), there could be strategies for balancing this effect to maintain a single community.


Here is one idea - In a network that has split into two camps, an actor could be added to create new connections. In the picture, the new actor and its links are blue and purple, respectively. In the social activism world, this translates to individuals who decide it will be their role to identify the cleavages within a community and work to bridge those cleavages. New avenues for transmitting ideas, concerns and strategies could open up. On the other hand, 'cleavages' between networks exist for a number of reasons. There could be geographic ones, the bridging of which requires only someone willing to do the legwork getting between the groups. There could also be ideological cleavages which would be harder to bridge. The job of the 'bridger' would be to negotiate some kind of common rules for interaction, or to even translate the information flowing from one network into something palatable for the other network (opportunities for sticky situations abound there!)


This second drawing depicts a hub and spoke/tree network. The new actor here connects spokes. This actor becomes kind of an alternative hub. In any hub and spoke network, the more spokes rely on the hub, the more fragile the network is. Just imagine trying to find something on the internet if Google shut down. So the actor reduces the whole network's dependence on the central hub.

Finally, for both of these models, the actor's final goal is not to just increase connection to itself, but to enable the nodes to which it connects to connect to each other. The network's dependence on the new actor will diminish, and the new actor's final success will be its own obsolescence. A victory brings the end of the victor's usefulness.

Wouldn't it be fun if we could test what happens in a network adding these kinds of activist nodes? You mean that wasn't your plan for the weekend already?

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Social Networks fall apart

I posted a few days ago a model of a book-buying network over time. The researchers found that over time, a network which began as an undifferentiated and evenly connected network (every node attaching to other nodes with about an average number of links and without favoring any particular type of node) gradually changes. Certain links become favored and other links diminish in strength. Eventually where there was one network, three separate ones emerge.

This is an interesting phenomenon with implications for how a society governs itself. Where else does this segmentation occur? Why? And what social engines can affect it, making segmentation more pronounced or less pronounced? I thought I would take a look to see if I could find more information about it.

I found this paper which asks, "Why do populations often self-organize into antagonistic groups even in the absence of competition over scarce resources? " I can't promise that I understand the findings correctly (and I definitely don't understand them completely), but they do seem to find that especially in a large population, social segmentation is likely to occur.

Here is why: They assume, based on previous models, that actors change based on influences of their neighbors, either through attraction to similar actors or revulsion from dissimilar actors. In previous models in which actors tried to be more like their similar neighbors and tried to associate with similar actors, researchers had found a powerful force that led to total homogeneity of a network. But if actors instead emulate similar neighbors not out of homophilia but out of xenophobia, distinct communities are likely to emerge and can even become persistent indefinitely.

The authors of The Federalist Papers decided that a large republic would be more stable than a small one because the number of factions would be so large that none could overpower the entire state. These findings seem to support the Framers' conclusion from 200 years ago. In a large network such as the United States, individuals are driven, not into homogeneity but a number of disparate groups.

On the other hand John Dewey still pointed out the homogenizing effect of modern technology. He was speaking of the railroads, but the internet is but a railroad for ones and zeros. And homogenization still seems to happen. The article's findings don't say that a population splinters itself into as many camps as their are actors. But the model only accounts for two camps. If people are driven only away from those dissimilar and driven to become more like those they are driven too, will each actor eventually create its own unique camp?

Also, what role does linking play? I didn't understand, from the article, how one actor is linked to another. How does an actor acquire neighbors? What happens to a network when new links become possible? Is a network's size determined by its number of actors, or by the distance from one actor to another? I could imagine that the population trends toward heterogeneity when there can be greater distance between actors, but that when the distance shrinks (because new technologies, for example) the effect toward homogeneity becomes stronger. What role does distance between actors play in the balance between segmenting and unifying forces?

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Links to good introductory information on the mathematics of networks

Networks as an abstract organizing principle may be one of the most important (or at least fashionable) areas of study in a number of fields, from business to economics to math. I think it will also help designing networks of activists to understand what the laws of networks are. As this article says, "These laws of networks may prove as robust and universal as Newton's laws of motion". We wouldn't design a hangglider without at least a familiarity with gravity, so maybe it will help to study the basics of the new mathematics of networks. And if not, its also just pretty cool to find out about all these rules we never even knew we were following. (And we can't break 'em, if we don't know what they are :) )

"Network Theory's New Math" at CNET

Site about Actor-Network Theory from the University of Colorado.


More on the way, and if you find anything useful, let us know!

Cheers,
Speeker

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Rethinking online activism networks part 1

Hundreds of activists everywhere are trying to find out better ways of bringing activism to the web. The Talk Lab and its brethren want to use new internet technologies to build a single vibrant community that can share its wealth of experience, coordinate action and engage in group activities of which we haven't yet conceived.

There are communities that have already sprung up all over the place. There are different approaches falling at different points on the spectrum bounded by social networking at one end and resource provider/info consumer at the other end. One which I found, Zaadz , is about social networking and encouraging individuals to pursue their independent projects. Its proposal is to change the world not by fighting and winning specific campaigns, but creating a community of independently active individuals, each fighting their own battles. Conversely, Campaigns Wikia follows the encyclopedia model and invites users to write content to be consumed by themselves and other users. It is a little colder, a little less personal than the social networking model, but it is a lot better at conveying information.

I don't know what is more effective, but I can see how the Zaadz model, which makes no demands on the activists other than to be willing to showcase their own ideas, is better suited to the modern organizing paradigm. No one has to do anything with anybody else, but it still encourages action offline. Treehugger ranks top 5 environment-related social networking sites, Zaadz among them, and they are worth a look, if only for comparison to other types of communities.

The Treehugger post mentions and interview with Phil Mitchell, founder of 2People in which he says "Our aim is to build a network of 20 million climate voters by 2008, and make climate the dominant issue in the 2008 elections: the Climate Elections.That number sounds pretty high, but exponential growth can get us there in a short time — all the polls show that there are far more than 20 million people in the U.S. who already get this issue. They’re just not connected. They’re not empowered. We aim to do that."

Maybe we process oriented activists are barking up the wrong tree with this idea? Are we trying to create a network of activists in which all individuals are connected to a single (or a very small number) of central connecting nodes? This isn't a new strategy - this is using new technology to recreate the centrally coordinated (or at lease centrally connected) organizations that have dominated for decades: a few dominant nodes producing value for other consumer nodes to, well, consume. If you were to picture this type of network, it would look like a star.

But this isn't the future of the internet's networks, and I think we'd do better if it isn't the future of activists' online networks either. This post has a nice graphical illustration of the phenomenon. It shows a book-buying network from Amazon.com. Individuals buying one book bought others too, and thus created a network of books leading to other books. The post illustrates how a network segments into smaller communities. But it also shows that this well connected network is not based on a single central node connecting all its spokes. Rather, each node maintains its own connections, each node supporting a roughly equal number of connections.

This is a more democratic structure. In the old paradigm, a single power asks all other nodes to use it for access to the network. Remove that single node and the network fails. One node is agent and the others are consumers. But in the modern evenly distributed structure, each node has the tools to create and maintain connections with other nodes. Each node is as agent as all the others.

So I think that what we need to be building for activist communities are not new nodes that activists are supposed to go to and use to get access to the network. It is difficult to be a part of more than one such centralized community. Instead we should be building collections of tools that activists can use simultaneously, widgets for activism. The trend to use widgets is already growing. Google with the Personalized Home tab allows users to create personal home pages with personalized collections of widgets. Macs have incorporated widgets into their operating system as well.

The new network will not be users plugged into monolithic gateways. Rather users will pick their technology to create links of their own to places they deem valuable. So what we need to build are not new single gateways, but tools, such as widgets for Google and desktop computers, that activists can use simultaneously with other tools. What tools can work? I have no idea.

Link to a Blog about love as activism

This article on alternet on Valentine's Day is lovely, and by extenstion it makes an important point about social reform - every act can make the world happier, safer and more beautiful. This post is about how simple, quotidian everyday love between partners is an act of social consciousness with the potential to create kindness and thoughtfullness where before there was none. And there is no reason to stop with love among partners. Painting a picture, riding a bike, playing a game - social responsibility is not a job, I guess, not a campaign a person works for or an issue a person strives to solve, but a way of life. I really like this message and the way the article presents it, so I thought I'd share it with you. Enjoy!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Sites for reforming governance - E government innovators

Civicus is an international alliance of civil society advocates. The coolest thing I've found they do is create a Civil Society Index. Unfortunately, the site stopped working while I was looking at it today, displaying a message that makes me think it might have been hacked. Hopefully we'll be able to get back to look at it later.

Gov2u.com is a company that uses technology to improve the efficiency of government. They do research and training, and partner with other e-government organizations to extend their work.

Politics online.com is a consulting company for the civic sector, providing news, strategic consulting and other services to government, NGO and media.

There are plenty more sites and organizations like these out there, I am sure. These are just a few interesting ones I ran across today. Send in good ones you know of.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Web 2.0 and Poverty Research 1

The 2005 US Census bureau report on computer and interet use has some revealing statistics. In 2003, 61.8% of households in the US have a computer, and 54.7% households (so almost all housholds with a computer) have internet access. That is pretty impressive, considering that 10 years ago noone had internet access and 21 years ago, in 1984, only 8% of American households had computers. I'd be interested to hear any comparisons to any similarly radical transformations - when has a household product become so pervasive so quickly before? The TV? the Radio?

Households are more likely to have computer and internet access as the number of people in household rises. Also higher likelihood with higher education and higher annual income. Only 41% of families with income of under $25,000 have one or more computer in the home and only 30% have internet access. That means that of 13,905 families in the study with incomes of under $25,000, only 4,276 had internet access in 2003.

As for why families did not have internet access, the most commonly given reasons were that families lacked interest, lacked money, or lacked an adequate computer. All other reasons were far less often cited. Older householders were more likely to say they were not interested in the internet, and 20-40 year old householders were more likely to say that they couldn't afford internet access or that they had an inadequate computer.

One finding I don't quite understand: children from families with higher incomes were slightly more likely to use computers at school. I suppose this might be because higher income kids go to different schools with better access?

Public school kids tend to use the internet AT SCHOOL just a touch more than private school kids.

Here is another surprise - since 2001 women use the computer at home more than men by just a couple percent (83.5%:81.5%) Also, more women use the computer at work, this time by a larger margin (62.5%:50.5%) and women use the internet at work much more than men (47.4%:39.2%)

As for why people in the United States use the internet, the study's numbers are not too surprising. E-mail is the most important internet function (almost everybody in the study does it), followed by information about products and services, news, info about government and health services, purchasing products, games and other uses.

So what does all this mean? I'm not going to try to draw any broad conclusions - if you do please share!

But basically computer use and internet use is pretty widespread. The most financially disenfranchised groups are still kept away from computer use at home, but with access at schools and other public places, most people (especially most young people) have access of some kind.

Who is shut out of the internet revolution in the United States? I can't really answer that question with the data here. I would guess that the un-computered is a small group of mostly poor, mostly older individuals. Many of them live in the south United States (states like Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama having the lowest rates of computer and internet use, and by region, the Midwest and the South have the 3rd and 4th lowest computer and internet use. The West has the highest)

But is this much of a problem? What does one get shut out of for not having computer and internet access? How important is it to one's financial well being? Only a small percentage of people use the web for banking and job hunting, so the internet-less aren't necessarily losing out there. I dunno. At this point I'll turn this over to you.

What I need to figure out now is -
1) What about internet and computer use/access in other countries?
2) What exactly are the benefits of computer use/access? What does one miss out on for not having it?

Ahh, fresh air

I took a long walk today, and boy was it lovely. In all this excitement about blogs and wikis and the like, its refreshing to get outside and remember what the REAL goal of technology is - make it easier for us to enjoy what really matters.

Web 2.0 and Poverty

There is a lot of enthousiasm for the new peer-produced web . I feel it too. There does seem to be a lot of potential for blogs, wikis, and other new technology to disseminate information and involve a broader audience in the conversation of governance. But how widespread is the conversation really?

Is the Web 2.0 a way to make democracy a participatory sport? Many think it is. Its underlying principles are peer-production, freedom of information and community. Dion Hinchcliffe's blog post about Web 2.0 is most informative, and Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams' book Wikinomics extolls the virtues of the open source, collaborative Web 2.0 as a new business model. It is easy to imagine that the ideals of the movement - sharing information for free, allowing access to intellectual property for the sake of fostering others' creativity, and relying on egalitarian communities to actively shape their own rules - would be good to apply to a democratic society.

I believe the ideals are in the right place. There are those, particularly in the music industry, who forsee the new Web as a danger to creativity. I'm not one of them. But I do wonder about who Web 2.0 is really good for. Is it really a tool for allowing everyone to participate in a pan-society conversation? Whom does it shut out? Who gets to use the internet? How do different groups use these new technologies? I hypothesize that the Web 2.0 is a great tool mostly for the middle and upper class in well developed democracies. It is kind of a recreation of Habermas' coffee houses . But I hope that my hypothesis is incorrect. If you've got research on the subject, share it, please. Lets see if we can't put together an answer to this.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

International Peace and the habits of communication

Today the BBC reported a story about President Vladimir Putin's recent remarks regarding American unilateralism. He said that American unilateralism "is nourishing an arms race with the desire of countries to get nuclear weapons." This is only one example of a frightening trend. In the same article Sen. John McCain spoke of the modern multi-polar world. That's new. A few years ago, we lived in a unipolar world. In a multipolar world, what is to prevent devastating conflict?

Mr. Putin suggested an answer when he said, "This is very dangerous. Nobody feels secure anymore because nobody can hide behind international law." International law, if it works, chave the potential to instill in states, leaders and citizense the habits of international cooperation and openness. The Student Political Network, a group I worked on at Haverford College, was meant to instill in students the habits and skills of communicating through political differences. We develop effective tools and pervasive habits for the same thing at the international level.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Projects to bring interactive net technologies (Web 2.0) to political organizing

I am discovering quite a few of these projects out there.

Idealist.org has one. So far their project is limited to local meetups and some unorganized chatter through the comments of their website. If they have got something a bit more developed, let me know.

TakingITGlobal has a very international approach and has developed a very good social networking site, as well as an online magazine, art gallery, and other great features. Members are from ALL over, and the site offers its services in a large number of languages. I haven't yet found the kinds of resources or organizing power that is the goal of these projects. But its so huge, I might have just not found it yet.

Campaigns Wikia has the beginnings of a good project, but right now, its organization is a little bit confusing - I don't really understand what exactly its trying to do.

That is also the problem for Grassroots Wikia . This one also suffers from having too few editors.

Campaigns Wikia also has a directory of related projects . There are tens of projects on the page, which means there are probably many, many more out there. I haven't looked through all of them, yet, but many sound quite interesting. Wikiocracy and MorePerfect ask users to rewrite laws. PoliticWiki and Participatory Democracy Party are political parties with Wiki platforms. The New Organizing Institute has a wiki for their mission: training progressive online organizers.

There is a beautiful variety of projects. Each project is unique, and expresses ideas and principles not found in other projects. But it is dangerous, too, because of the diffuse-ness of the field. One of the cheif virtures of Web 2.0 is that it makes it easier for the right ideas and people to connect with one another. How can this be possible when everybody has their own website, and activists are competing with each other for influence?

Maybe the best strategy is to allow projects to compete with each other. The users will decide what sites are the most useful. But we want to avoid a single monolithic website that stifles other efforts. Rather I think the blogosphere model would be most productive - a variety of sites that each display their own principles and methods for acheiving their objectives. These sites will link to each other and communicate with each other through messages, blogs and other fora. This way we'll preserve (and foster) diversity of ideas while bringing the best ideas to the front of users' attention and make it possible for users to find the sites that match their diverse interests and needs.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Inventing the Outdoor Office

Imagine a world where "going to the office" meant meeting at a pavilion in a park. Tomorrow it might be at the bowling alley or if you are having a more formal event, the nearest Rent-an-Office-for-a-day. You and your coworkers get your business done while playing soccer and hanging out in the grass. You are more productive than ever thanks to the wireless networks and information technology you use. But you are also healthier, you get the fresh air, the flexibility and the free time that keeps your mind agile. You look back with disgust on the olden days of sitting for hours at a computer screen. Now you compose documents by voice while software transcribes them and sends them to the company network. You meet with coworkers in person or by mobile devices.

The modern work environment, I think, is stifling and still a throwback to the industrial era office. Places like Google are becoming famous for their flexible and light-filled workplaces. How can we take the next step and design a workplace that can be anywhere workers decide to assemble?

This can be a reality, but we'll need to figure out how to do it.

I found MIT's Digital Life . The research that seems most exciting (and least like builiding super computer-brains to rule the future robotocracy ) is the website for "Lifelong Kindergarten" .

Their stated goal is "a world full of playfully creative people, who are constantly inventing new possibilities for themselves and their communities." That seems like a project I could get behind.

Improving the brain

Today's article "Smart Strategy: Think of the Brain as a muscle" reveals a study that finds that students do better if they are taught to treat their brains as muscles that can get stronger. The elasticity of the brain is an important new step in the development of education theory. And we'd do well, I think, to apply it to other endeavors, including careers and political organizing. Students who recognize that the brain can be improved (rather than just a static organ) are more concerned with challenging themselves. Students who think intelligence is fixed are more concerned with looking smart, and avoid risk. Activists in an organization can benefit from the same mentality: mistakes are the reps that make your brain work better next time. And crafting the structure of an organization, leaders can craft structures that nurture the brains of their employees and volunteers. The physical and emotional structure of the organization can mean the difference between a vibrant organization and a dull gray one.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

A million penguins and the Wiki Future

I just now found on Writing & the Digital Life a post called The Making of a Million Penguins about a wiki novel project. It hasn't been really done before, so I guess that makes it a novel wiki novel project. Ha. (pause) Ha. (pause)

Well anyway, I checked it out and I'm really glad it exists. It sounds like a great experiment to test the power of group intelligence and the ability of people to negotiate an intellectual product. And a Wiki Novel is completely a different kind of product from the factual Wikis we're used to. A fact-Wiki like Wikipedia contains ... no, not juice.... yes, facts! Things that are verifiable. And even then there is a lot of argument about them.

But a creative wiki? It will be fascinating to see how people come to develop a group writing style, a group voice. If they do. Looking at the novel now, it is clear that voices of authors change. And plenty of the authors are not very good.

Will it improve? If it does, will it get better by a few good authors' voices drowning out the less gifted majority? Or will not-so-good authors be taught to be better authors?

That points to a problem of Wikis I just thought of. They bring out the knowledge of people who are knowledgeable, but how much education do they do? I think with factual Wikis its not a problem. Their product is the educational tool. But with a creative Wiki, the danger exists that those not already skilled won't have the opportunity to become skilled because their voices will be drowned out by the skilled.

Skilled silly,
Speeker

Blogging leads us to specialization




Today i have a choice - many choices in fact. Right now I have to decide whether to spend another second making the post a little more coherent or whether my time would be better spent elsewise. Earlier today I had to decide if adding grass to this painting was worth the time. Managing one's time has always been difficult, and getting the most out of ones efforts has always led to specialization of sorts. Two hundred years ago, cabinet makers make cabinets, blacksmiths made iron goods, etc. 20 years ago businesses and factories got consultants to help specific problems. Today consultants have consultants for special consultant problems. Specialization happens.

And the internet revolution is making it speed up. There is so much information available that we must try to get the most efficient use of every tiny moment. From one second to the next I could be doing completely different things, given the speed of the internet. Every moment I must choose whether to stay with my current task or to move on. Will I get enough benefit from not changing tasks to justify the loss of whatever I didn't do next? In the short term I get more good out of doing something I'm already good at. So I stick to my skills and leave other skills to specialists in other fields. Its like water running down a hill that flows always to the next lowest elevation without any forethought to its entire path. We might lose a lot if we can't see our way around this problem, if specialization goes too far. See the Civil Society theorist Adam Furgeson to read about the dangers of too much specialization.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Value of connection within the Blogosphere



The value of inter-blog connections is very high. In the top diagram, there is no connection among blogs within the blogosphere. Users must use search engines to get to any blog within the blogosphere because using one blog to find another is impossible. Search engines have a lot of power in this model to control which blogs get traffic. Given the top 10 rule, and the fact that a popular blog will come up higher in a search engine, a small number of blogs will become more and more popular.

In the bottom diagram, high connectiveness within the blogosphere serves to even out the traffic and limit the power of the search engines as gatekeepers. To enter the blogosphere, a search engine is still essential. There are probably still a few very popular blogs that act as gatekeepers too, but since they and other blogs link to each other, users can use them to navigate instead of relying solely on search engines.

There is an ineresting question about choice here - Search engines allow users to type in keywords to choose what to find. But search engines limit choice by using search algorithms that are unavaliable and un-understood by users. So the search engine is still directing the choice of users in ways they cannot know.

But a well connected blogosphere is no better. There users find choices (links from one blog to other sites) that are entirely selected for them by authors. They will usually be related to a topic the user is already interested in, but the user has no choice about what links are on a blog he visits.

Perfect choice, in which a user can completely design search criteria in such a way as to return the most useful links, is impossible given the complexity of the web. It is a traveling salesman problem . So we can only approximate it with employing a library of varied search techniques. Is the Search Engine + interblogosphere links equation enough? Or are there ways to still improve the robustness of search strategies?

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Too Friggin Much! And How!

So today I'm exploring the blogosphere - Just a first foray to find those discussing issues related to process-oriented activism. And in just a few minutes, I found an overwhelming amount of text. A couple highlights:
http://transition.turbulence.org/Works/gothamberg/

Gothamberg is a a collaborative literature project, where people write their experiences with living in apartment buildings.


The most golden hit: Communication Nation

This one is by the founder of a company that works to improve communication for for-profit companies. The header for the blog is: "Communication is one of the most important skills anyone can have, in business and in life. As individuals and as a species, I believe we will be happier and more productive if we can improve our ability to communicate. This blog is dedicated to that effort. Join the conversation!"

I totally dig the message, and I look forward to the posts in the future.

This sortie into the blogosphere (the BS for short) has whacked me with a direct experience of the size of this landscape. There is so much out there. So many voices striving for attention, (and so many voices that have really valuable things to say) But with all the thousands of voices, how do the most valuable things rise to the surface? Should projects try to coalesce to avoid splitting the readership into too many peices?

Maybe the answer is in the community that builds up through inter-liking of content in the BS. Assume the blogosphere is a giant graph, and each blog is a node. Instead of trying to consolidate nodes, we can just build a constantly evolving network of links among nodes that reflect the interests and needs of individuals using the BS to answer questions they have.

I'm a little too disorganized to keep going with this, but here is another radish for the pot: search engines in this many-node interlink are soo important and powerful, because they are the gatekeeper that can expose a blog or keep it from seeing the light of day. But on the other hand, maybe not - if the links that exist among blogs are robust enough, one blog should be the light that directs users to other blogs they will find useful. Search engines are still essential for finding that entry point, but they are not the only way to move around inside the blogosphere either.

Lost and found,
Speeker

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Frank Lutz on Diane Rehm

Today on WAMU's excellent show, Diane Rehm, Frank Lutz appeared as a guest to talk up his new book, "Words that Work" . You can hear the segment at http://www.wamu.org/programs/dr/07/02/01.php#12645 . The book is the newest in the trend to write about how rhetoric works. Talk-Lab is probably the smallest musician on that bandwagon, and the biggest on the left might be George Lakoff. His book, "Don't think of an elephant" is all about how communication is all about framing and creating associations. If you want to convince someone of something, craft your argument to get them to link the conclusion you Want them to make to something they already think. For example, if you want people to oppose a tax on large estates when they are being passed from a deceased individual to her heirs, call it something people already think is bad. By association, the tax will be bad too.
I haven't read "Words that Work", so I'll only talk about what Mr. Lutz said in the interview. He talks about the same issues as Lakoff. People make decisions in large part based on emotional reactions to stimuli. So effective language, rather than being geared to convince through reason, will inspire emotional connections that produce the right decision. [There was an article in the Washington Post about a Women Studies expert who complained that women don't make sufficiently rational political choices. Maybe she's right, but men aren't any more rational!]

Many of the callers were upset by what Mr. Lutz had to say. "It's manipulation" they said, to use language to get emotional responses from people. Listeners are being played with. They are being used, and they don't even know how they are being led to decisions advertisers and politicians are making for them. Mr. Lutz's response was a little disappointing. He could only question where the difference between manipulation and honest talk lies [pun intended].

He ignored real concerns. He ignored that people really don't like being messed with. His attitude is like Gorgias' (see an earlier post). To the one who can talk the smoothest belong the spoils. But that is no way to run a country. And there are alternatives. Banning rhetoric is not one of them. As long as people speak there will be rhetoric. But we CAN even the playing field by recognizing in our social discourse and our education system that communication involves tools that can be learned and taught. So people watching commercials can have a chance to know how their emotions are being played. So they can decide if they want to be played or not.

It would be a multi-lectic. One group learns some rhetorical tricks, and another counters them. A third group one-ups the first two and so on. It'd be uneven. But instead of relying on a small elite to own the tools of the rhetorical trade, our language will belong to all the people.