Monthly Archives: April 2016

Deliberative Democracy and Who Gets to Speak

There is a radical idea at the core of deliberative theory: every person’s voice is important.

I say this idea is radical because it’s the kind of thing one generally feels they ought to say without necessarily being the kind of thing one is genuinely inclined to believe.

Believing every voice is important has the virtuous quality of implying an egalitarian sense of justice and equity. Being in favor of the continued oppression of the oppressed is hardly popular in most circles.

But making this claim, truly believing this claim, goes beyond the nobel argument that those who are most vulnerable, who are most silenced should, too, have a voice in our collective creation of the world.

Believing that every voice – every voice – is important means supporting blowhards and bigots, the ignorant and the idiots.

That is a difficult belief to bear.

One can try to resolve this conflict through imposed norms of consideration and inclusion, but such measures fall short of being deeply satisfactory. For one thing, it raises complex normative questions as people’s core identities conflict – cries of religious discrimination and reverse racism are sure to follow; arguably trading one person’s silence for another.

More deeply, while such norms importantly shape the safety of an otherwise hostile environment, they do little to eradicate the deep, systemic issues underneath. Being ‘color blind’  may have made overt racism impolite, but it has done little to resolve the structural racism of our society.

These are, of course, meaningful topics to debate – perhaps it is entirely worthy to ask a person of privilege to step back so that someone else has the opportunity to step up. Perhaps the harm done in silencing a bigot is little compared to the harm done in letting them speak.

But such discourse also highlights the deeper, theoretical tension: who gets to speak? whose voice is important?

So in this sense, believing that every voice is important is indeed radical.

That’s not at all to say that deliberative theorists want to support bigots and idiots, but it’s a narrow path to follow.

In most deliberative discussions, participants begin by setting their own ground rules. Sometimes rules are suggested to get them started, but this is the group’s first critical task of co-creation.

Because no one else can set these rules for them. No facilitator or outside person can tell them what to think or how to behave. The members of the group need to think about what kind of conversation they want to have and they each need to agree to the rules collectively set out.

Respect is typically among the first of these values – respecting the voice and experience of every person; those you agree with and, importantly, those with whom you don’t.

This is the only way out of this tangle.

Because to believe in the value of every voice means also to believe in the power of deliberative dialogue. To believe that when every person is truly valued, when diverse perspectives are thoughtfully exchanged – that it is this collective experience which truly has the power to transform us and move us towards the ideal democracy we all separately seek.

It is radical, this belief, and – despite the possible complications – ultimately the greatest benefit to those who have been silenced; who have been deeply taught to believe that their voices, minds, and experiences don’t matter.

After all, you cannot believe that every voice is important if you don’t first find your own.

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Networks of Connected Concepts

Yesterday, I ran across a fascinating 1993 paper by sociologist Kathleen Carley, Coding Choices for Textual Analysis: A Comparison of Content Analysis and Map Analysis.

Using the now antiquated term “map analysis” – what I would call semantic network analysis today – Carley explains:

An important class of methods that allows the research to address textual meaning is map analysis. Where content analysis typically focuses exclusively on concepts, map analysis focuses on concepts and the relationships between them and hence on the web of meaning contained within the text. While no term has yet to emerge as canonical, within this paper the term map analysis will be used to refer to a broad class of procedures in which the focus is on networks consisting of connected concepts rather than counts of concepts.

This idea is reminiscent of the work of Peter Levine and others (including myself) on moral mapping – representing an individual’s moral world view through a thoughtfully constructed network of ideas and values.

Of course, a range of methodological challenges are immediately raised in graphing a moral network – what do you include? What constitutes a link? Do links have strength or directionality? Trying to compare two or more people’s networks raises even more challenges.

While Carley is looking more broadly than moral networks, her work similarly aims to extract meaning, concepts, and connections from a text – and faces similar methodological challenges:

By taking a map-analytic approach, the researcher has chosen to focus on situated concepts. This choice increases the complexity of the coding and analysis process, and places the researcher in the position where a number of additional choices must be made regarding how to code the relationship between concepts.

On its face, these challenges seem like they may be insurmountable – could complex concepts such as morality ever be coded and analyzed in such a way as to be broadly interpretable while maintaining the depth of their meaning?

This conundrum is at the heart of the philosophical work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, and is far from being resolved philosophically or empirically.

Carley is hardly alone in not having a perfect resolution dilemma, but she does offer an interesting insight in contemplating it:

…by focusing on the structure of relationships between concepts, the attention of the researcher is directed towards thinking about “what am I really assuming in choosing this coding scheme?” Consequently, researchers may be more aware of the role that their assumptions are playing in the analysis and the extent to which they want to, and do, rely on social knowledge.

A network approach to these abstract concepts may indeed be inextricably biased – but, then again, all tools of measurement are. The benefit, then in undertaking the complex work of coding relationships as well as concepts, is that the researcher is more acutely aware of the bias.

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A Taste of Immigrant City

On Thursday of this week, The Welcome Project, a non-profit dear to my heart, will hold it’s annual YUM: A Taste of Immigrant City Celebration and Fundraiser. (Get your tickets here or at the door!)

I have to admit, it’s a little surreal for me – after serving as event chair for four years, this is the first year I’ve hardly been involved at all, since I’m currently focusing my energy on school. I still find time serve on the board of The Welcome Project, though, and I’m looking forward to waltzing in to enjoy a great event without having to worry about all the planning.

Founded over 25 years ago, The Welcome Project builds the collective power of Somerville immigrants to participate in and shape community decisions. Through practical offerings such as ESOL classes for adults and supporting interpretation at local meetings, we work to ensure that immigrants have a real voice and role in our community.

In many ways, I see the philosophy of The Welcome Project as turning the paradigm of immigrant assimilation on its head. Rather than demanding that immigrants abandon their cultural backgrounds in order to become part of the community, we start from the genuine belief that immigrants are full members of the community.

Our work is therefore to support the civic leadership, engagement, and voice of immigrants. This is their right as members of the community and, importantly, such equal participation adds real and needed value to the community.

This is the work of The Welcome Project, work that you have the opportunity to support on Thursday, April 14 by attending a delightful fundraiser with live music and delicious food immigrant-owned Somerville restaurants.

Or, you know, you could skip the food and just donate here.

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Northeastern’s Historic Buildings

Like many universities, or indeed many large institutions, Northeastern’s history is seeped in the stories of numerous property acquisitions.

Some of those, of course, have been quite scandalous. Northeastern’s Speare Hall, for example, lies on Huntington Avenue between the Boston Symphony and the Museum of Fine Arts – on land which was once housed a magnificent “temple of music”; Boston’s original Opera House.

Opened in 1909, the glory of this opera house was unfortunately short-lived. Its original opera company went bankrupt by 1915. Various theater companies used the space, but the building fell into disrepair.

In 1957, the property was purchased by the Boston Redevelopment Authority, who sold it to Northeastern a week later. It’s unclear to me exactly how transparent this deal was. In a 2009 story, the Boston Globe indicated that the building really was far past repair, and mentions off-handedly that a Northeastern building now sits there.

But in a 2011 piece from Northeastern’s student newspaper, Emeritus Professor Wilfred Holton indicates a different story:

“It was kind of sneaky how they did it,” said Holton. ”Northeastern said they had no interest in the building. Then the developers bought it and it looked like Northeastern had a deal with them because within a week, the university bought it from them. But the university got away with it, obviously.”

Despite the sale, Boston’s cultural community tried to save the building, but “the condition of the building required it to be demolished and rebuilt.”

While I imagine some are skeptical of the necessity of this demolition, Northeastern’s 1976 Master Plan is clear that the Boston Opera House “had been condemned as
unsafe prior to acquisition by Northeastern.”

Apparently a brick from the original building is preserved in the university archives.

What started me on this story, though, was the history of Northeastern’s Holmes’ Hall. Purchased in 1961 and dedicated in 1979, four Northeastern buildings – Lake Hall, Meserve Hall, Nightingale Hall, and Holmes Hall – once belonged to United Drug Company.

United Drug Company (UCD) was the corporate force behind the retail chain of Rexall Drug Stores. Founded in 1903 by Louis Kroh Liggett, the Boston-based company once boasted “as many as 12,000 drug stores across the United States.”

Incidentally, Liggett apparently got his start selling “Vinol” made from wine and cod livers. It’s unclear to me exactly what ailment this tonic was intended to address.

Northeastern’s archives – which house an odd assortment of Rexall remedies – indicates that “in the 1930s, UDC built six buildings on its Boston campus that housed its corporate offices and manufacturing and research facilities.” While many of these buildings were eventually demolished, Northeastern renovated one UDC building – splitting it into the four Northeastern buildings which exist today.

Now, somebody had told me that one of these buildings, Holmes Hall, used to be a rubber factory – a fact I was beginning to doubt as I read about the history of United Drug Company.

But then I ran across this tidbit. After the initial construction of “a small factory” in Boston, “A candy making department was the next installation, followed by one for perfumery in 1905. Stationery and fountain supplies were added in 1910, rubber goods in 1912, brushes in 1913 and hospital items in 1919.”

So I guess United Drug Company had a rather diverse manufacturing portfolio.

John N. Ingham’s Biographical Dictionary of American Business Leaders, Volume 2 – the book you never knew you needed – confirms this history, noting that “United’s first product was a dyspepsia tablet, but it soon was bringing out a wide variety of patent medicines, along with spices, toilet soap, candy, and rubber goods.”

Furthermore, optically scanned versions of various trademark and patent applications can be found online.

But what I really want to know is how the still-standing building maps onto UDC’s original operation.

Some indications of this can be found in a 1998 Northeastern publication:

Evidence of the United Drug Company survives today. Fired terra-cotta shields at the tops of the beveled corners at Greenleaf Street carry the lettering “UD Co.” On the fifth floor of Lake Hall, the Math Department enjoys the dark wood paneling and marble fireplace of United Drug’s president’s office. Every floor in the building carries a large, walk-in safe, perhaps for protecting secret product formulas. And over the door on the Leon Street end of today’s Ryder Building is a carved sign: United Drug Company Department of Research and Technology.

And one more fun fact revealed by that document:

In 1961, Northeastern purchased a seven-acre parcel of land from the United Realty Company. The entire, red-brick industrial complex occupying the site, once owned by the United Drug Company, was to be razed to make way for a sports facility. After reducing three blocks of buildings facing Forsyth Street to rubble, however, the demolition crew was ordered to stop. The University had grown so rapidly that the old buildings now had to be salvaged for offices and laboratories.”

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Networks in Political Theory

While graph theory has a long and rich history as a field of mathematics, it is only relatively recently that these concepts have found their way into the social sciences and other disciplines.

In 1967, Stanley Milgram published his work on The Small World Problem. In 1973 Mark Granovetter studied The Strength of Weak Ties. But while this applied methodology is young, the interest in networks has been in the ether of political theory for some time.

I’ve noted previously how Walter Lippmann can be interpreted as invoking networks in his 1925 book the Phantom Public. Lippmann argues vehemently against this thing we call ‘public opinion’  – a myth Lippmann doesn’t believe truly exists:

We have been taught to think of society as a body, with a mind, a soul, and a purpose, not as a collection of men, women and children whose minds, souls and purposes are variously related. Instead of being allowed to think realistically of a complex of social relations, we have had foisted upon us by various great propagative movements the notion of a mythical entity, called Society, the Nation, the Community.

Rather than thinking of society as a single, collective whole, Lippmann argues that we ought to “think of society not as the name of a thing but as the name of all the adjustments between individuals and their things.

I’d noted this passage in Lippmann when I first read his work several year ago. But I was surprised recently to come across a similarly networked-oriented sentiment in John Dewey’s 1927 rebuttal, The Public and Its Problems:

In its approximate sense, anything is individual which moves and acts as a unitary thing. For common sense, a certain spatial separateness is the mark of this individuality. A thing is one when it stands, lies or moves as a unit independently of other things, whether it be a stone, tree, molecule or drop of water, or a human being. But even vulgar common sense at once introduces certain qualifications. The tree stands only when rooted in soil; it lives or dies in the mode of its connections with sunlight, air and water. Then too the tree is a collection if interacting parts; is the tree more a single whole than it’s cells?

…From another point of view, we have to qualify our approximate notion of an individual as being that which acts and moves as a unitary thing. We have to consider not only its connections and ties, but the consequences with respect to which it acts and moves. We are compelled to say that for some purposes, for some results, the tree is an individual, for others the cell, and for a third, the forest or the landscape…an individual, whatever else it is or is not, is not just the specially isolated thing our imagination inclines to take it to be.

…Any human being is in one respect an association, consisting of a multitude of cells each living its own life. And as the activity of each cell is conditioned and directed by those with which it interacts, so the human being whom we fasten upon as individual par excellence is moved and regulated by his association with others; what he does and what the consequences of his behavior are, what his experience consists of, cannot even be described, much less accounted for, in isolation.

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“Love the Hell Out of Everybody” – an Evening with John Lewis

There aren’t too many people who get a standing ovation before they even speak.

John Lewis, former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the  last living member of the “Big Six” civil rights leaders, is one of them.

From the movement he walked on stage, I could feel the energy in the room: the overwhelming love and appreciation for this man who endured so many brutal beatings as he strove for justice; the rising hope that tenaciously carries on from the victories of the civil rights movement; and the growing despair that we are sliding backwards in time, regressing towards our darker days of hatred and oppression.

And then he spoke. A deep, melodic voice that rolled across the room, reverberating from every corner. The crowd fell silent.

This was actually the second time I had the pleasure of hearing John Lewis speak. The first was in 2009 when he was my commencement speaker as I finished my Masters’ degree at Emerson College. The second time, last night, he delved even deeper into his experience of the civil right movement as he was hosted by my former colleagues at Tisch College at Tufts University.

He’s a politician now – Lewis has served as Congressman for Georgia’s 5th congressional district since 1987 – but he doesn’t speak with the same canned cadence which is so widespread amongst elected officials.

You get the distinct impression he genuinely believes what he says; and that his beliefs have been shaped by the difficult crucible of experience.

In 1965 he led nearly 600 protestors in a peaceful march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

Prepared for being arrested, the 25-year-old Lewis carried the essentials with him: two books, an apple, a banana, and a toothbrush. All the things he thought he might need in prison.

“I thought I’d be arrested an jailed,” Lewis recalled. “But I didn’t think I’d be beaten – that’d I’d be left bloody there.”

Lewis’ skull was fractured by a police nightstick and he nearly lost his life.

It wasn’t the first time Lewis had been beaten, either. At the age of 21, Lewis was the first of the Freedom Riders to be assaulted while working to desegregate the interstate bus system.

This was life for a young, black man in 1960s America.

And, perhaps, most remarkably, through it all Lewis continues to follow the message of his friend and mentor, Dr. Martin Luther King. In response to such brutal attacks, in the face of the terrible of injustices of today, Lewis turns not to anger, but to love.

“To revolutionize America to be better, we must first revolutionize ourselves. We have to humanize our institutions, humanize ourselves,” he argues.

For Lewis, the choice is quite simple, “You can’t set out to build the beloved community and use tactics which are not loving.”

So he endured the bloody beatings, endured the deepest injustices of our system. And in 2009, when a former Klansman apologized for being one of Lewis’ assailants, the two hugged and cried.

“That’s the power of the way of peace, the way of love, the way of non-violence,” Lewis said.

Of course, not all activist share this view – and in remembering the civil rights movement, we too often gloss over or belittle the important contributions of activists like Malcolm X. But that’s a longer debate for another day.

So for now, I will leave you with a final thought from John Lewis, who has endured so much in his continuing fight for the equality of all people. Quoting Dr. King, Lewis just smiles and explains his philosophy simply:

“Just love the hell out of everybody.”

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The Death of Dr. Martin Luther King

On April 4, 1968 – forty-eight years ago yesterday – at 6:01 pm, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated as he stood on the second floor balcony of room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

Four days later,  Congressman John Conyers (D-MI) introduced legislation to establish a national holiday to honor Dr. King. That legislation was eventually signed into law on November 2, 1983; fifteen years after Dr. King’s death.

On the occasion of the bill signing, President Ronald Regan declared:

…our nation has decided to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., by setting aside a day each year to remember him and the just cause he stood for. We’ve made historic strides since Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus. As a democratic people, we can take pride in the knowledge that we Americans recognized a grave injustice and took action to correct it. And we should remember that in far too many countries, people like Dr. King never have the opportunity to speak out at all. 

But traces of bigotry still mar America. So, each year on Martin Luther King Day, let us not only recall Dr. King, but rededicate ourselves to the Commandments he believed in and sought to live every day: Thou shall love thy God with all thy heart, and thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself. And I just have to believe that all of us—if all of us, young and old, Republicans and Democrats, do all we can to live up to those Commandments, then we will see the day when Dr. King’s dream comes true.

Perhaps, in the optimistic spirit of Dr. King, it is right that we remember his legacy on the day of his birth. Yet this observance is cruel in kindness, somehow – a soft celebration of our darker days.

As a democratic people, we can take pride in the knowledge that we Americans recognized a grave injustice and took action to correct it. 

Took too little action, I’m afraid.

We made progress, no doubt, but far too little compared to the difficult work still ahead of us. The legacy of our history, the deeds of our ancestors, are not so easily wiped out. It’s shameful to pretend otherwise.

Yet once a year, we blithely celebrate our victory; we take pride in our justice and imagine that we, if given the opportunity, would have been on the right side of history. Such tragedies would never happen in our America.

And little do we note the day of Dr. King’s passing; the day white violence took him from our world.

It’s an easy choice in some ways; far better to recognize a day of hope, to celebrate our better selves. But the murder of Dr. King is our legacy, too; a painful reality which is easier to ignore.

So perhaps we would do well to remember the speech Dr. King gave the day before his assassination.

Dr. King declared that he was happy to have lived “just a few years” in the current time. It was a dark and dangerous time, but he was happy because:

Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same: “We want to be free.”

Dr. King knew that there were threats against him. He knew that the FBI had invested him and urged him to commit suicide. He knew that there were many who would act to see him dead. But, he declared:

…it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.

And I don’t mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

And so I’m happy, tonight.

I’m not worried about anything.

He was murdered the next day.

And his legacy lives on.

But his true legacy is not a reflection of the injustice behind us, but rather a reminder of the work still ahead of us. He had gone up the mountain; he had seen the promised land.

We have a long journey remaining, and there is much work to be done.

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Politics in an Ideal World

Not long ago, a friend asked me why anyone would want to engage in politics for politics’ sake. We worry about such things because we have to, but wouldn’t it be better, in some theoretical, ideal world, if we didn’t have to?

Imagine, for a moment, a perfect world; a society so flawless that it was always just and fair without any need for engagement from its citizens. In such a world, people would have no need for the frustrating practice of politics – they would be free, instead, to devote their time to more productive endeavors.

Now, such a thought experiment immediately raises all sorts of practical concerns; but let’s for a moment put those aside and assume that such an ideal society is both attainable and sustainable. In such a world, what would the role of citizens be?

In thinking about this question, it seemed natural to turn to John Dewey, philosopher, educator, and unwavering proponent of what he called the Great Community . Dewey’s 1927 book, The Public and It’s Problems defended democracy and responded directly to the skeptical critique of Walter Lippmann.

You’ll note here a subtle shift in language – is the thought experiment one of politics or one of democracy? Much lies, I suppose, in the definitions of these terms, but I’ll borrow here from Dewey in detangling them:

We have had occasion to refer in passing to the distinction between democracy as a social idea and political democracy as a system of government. The two are, of course, connected. The idea remains barren and empty save as it is incarnated in human relationships. Yet in discussion they must be distinguished. The idea of democracy is a wider and fuller idea than can be exemplified in the state even at its best. To be realized it must affect all modes of human association, the family, the school, industry, religion. 

To be clear, Dewey had little loyalty to the specific mechanisms of political democracy:

There is no sanctity in universal suffrage, frequent elections, majority rule, congressional and cabinet government. These things are devices evolved in the direction in which the current was moving, each wave of which involved at the time of its impulsion a minimum of departure from antecedent custom and law. The devices served a purpose; but the purpose was rather that of meeting existing needs which had become too intense to be ignored, than that of forwarding the democratic idea. 

So, if ‘politics’ is simply the act of engaging in a narrow system of political democracy whose mechanisms randomly sedimented over time, it’s unclear that Dewey would have much zeal for the idea of politics as an essential element of human life.

However, ‘politics’ can also be interpreted through the wider lens of democracy as a social idea; a concept to which Dewey was deeply committed.

For Dewey, democracy wasn’t a set of systems or an inventory of regulations; it was a way of life:

Regarded as an idea, democracy is not an alternative to other principles of associated life. It is the idea of community life itself.

In this sense, ‘politics’ is the very element which transforms the “physical and organic” stuff of “associated life” into the moral entity of community. The work of politics is the work of building the Great Community:

We are born organic beings associated with others, but we are not born members of a community. The young have to be brought within the traditions, outlook and interests which characterize a community by means of education…Everything which is distinctively human is learned…To learn to be human is to develop through the give-and-take of communication an effective sense of being an individually distinctive member of a community; one who understands and appreciates its believes, desires and methods, and who contributes to a further conversion of organic powers onto human resources and values.

Importantly, Dewey argues that the two senses of politics cannot exist separately; without the broader understanding of social democracy, the mechanisms of political democracy reduce to nonsense: Fraternity, liberty and equality isolated from communal life are hopeless abstractions.

It is only through the engagement of the people in this deeper politics, in democracy as a way of life, that we can ever achieve the mechanisms of political democracy we strive for.

If, some how, the ideal world described above were possible – if justice rained from the sky with no effort from below; such a society would still be lacking in the moral concept of democracy writ large.

Dewey was under no illusion that transforming the mechanisms of political democracy would be an easy undertaking – but it was a transformation he believed could only occur through the political work of the Great Community:

The highest and most difficult kind of inquiry and a subtle, delicate, vivid and responsive art of communication must take possession of the physical machinery of transmission and circulation and breathe life into it. When the machine age has thus perfected its machinery it will be a means of life and not a despotic master. It had its seer in Walt Whitman. It will have its consumption when free social inquiry is indissolubly wedded to the art of full and moving communication.

 

 

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The Ethics of Personalization

Near the beginning of the week, someone asked me about the ethics and effect of algorithms which filter your content for you; “helpfully” prioritizing those items which fit into your existing world view.

I was reminded of that question yesterday when I had an interesting and somewhat similar conversation with computer scientist Vagelis Papalexakis, whose work explores the way different people’s brains respond to various stimuli. Papalexakis discussed the possible implications for improving education: a classroom where teachers could tailor their lessons to the particular neural responses of their students.

While I can see the potential good in such technology, being somewhat cautious of the ills of human nature, I asked Papalexakis about the ethical implications – with access to student neural readings, what would stop ‘big brother’ from punishing children whose minds tend to wander?

While there’s no guaranteed way to prevent such abuse, Papalexakis rightly pointed to this as a broader ethical question – the ethics of personalization.

Filtering algorithms, for example, could easily be misused as tools for efficiently delivering propaganda. There is a value in having this personalization available, but there is also a risk.

What I find particularly interesting about the challenge of filtering is that it is not at all clear that there is a neutral solution to the problem.

In 2012, an estimated 2.5 billion gigabytes of data were generated every day – far more than we would expect ourselves to be able to handle. The reality is that some type of filtering is necessary – so the question becomes one of what type of filtering we think is best.

Imagine for a moment, the “things you wouldn’t enjoy…” filter. That is, rather than having an algorithm that tracks what you like and presents you with similar content, it tracks what you like an intentionally presents you with divergent views.

In theory, I would love to have this. It is a problem that we each tend to fall into our own little filter bubble, with little exposure to opposing views.

But, how would such a tool play out in practice? First, no algorithm can remove the need for human agency – I might be presented with opposing articles, but I would need to actually click on them.

This presents a real challenge for content providers who – even putting aside profit motive – need to serve their customers. If people don’t like the content that is being filtered for them, they will leave for a different service.

Furthermore, research indicates that even when interacting with conflicting information, people are likely to interpret the results with a bias that favors their initial view and even double down on their initial opinion.

So it’s not clear at all that changing a filtering algorithm in such a way is sufficient to relieve polarization and bias.

That’s not to say either, that we should just let filtering algorithms off the hook. They by no means a full solution to the challenges of information bias, but they do play a critical role in shaping the information atmosphere around us.

Markus Prior, for example, has show that when it comes to factual matters, a less-personalized media environment increases people’s political knowledge. On the other hand, he has also found that “there is no firm evidence that partisan media are making ordinary Americans more partisan.” So again, the personalization of the media environment is only part of the solution.

What does all this have to do with using brain scans to tailor information to recipients?

Well, I guess, we need to find ways to get all these moving pieces to work together. Personalization is good. It has real benefits and helps each focus on the signal in a sea of noise. But we should also be weary of too much personalization – a little noise and inefficiency should be intentionally built into the system. And, of course, we have to remember that we are our own agents in this work as well – systems of personalization can shape the broader context, but they cannot determine how we each choose to act.

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