Type ‘parliament fight’ into your favourite search engine and you will be treated to a stream of fisticuffs breaking out in the national parliaments of Canada, Ukraine, India, Kenya, Taiwan, and South Korea. It’s not just them who are coming to blows, surely every major assembly has suffered similar outbreaks at some point in their history. When the laughter subsides, aren’t you left with a sinking feeling? Our parliaments and congresses were designed to be the most rational, deliberative chambers in the land but few would claim they actually are.
Politicians are not the only ones experiencing the difficulty of making decisions. Communities seeking to build anything from green energy facilities to highways have also felt it, by contending with the Not-In-My-Back-Yard (NIMBY) tendencies that can quibble with a project’s details and block it altogether. And individuals such as yourself, standing in the grocery store, face a wider variety of choices than ever before. What used to be as simple as comparing apples to apples, looking for the ripe ones, is now complicated by the intangible values we bring with us to the store. Does a Granny Smith look different if it’s farmed organically? Can you tell at first glance the carbon footprint of a Golden Delicious? You’re probably not losing sleep over the profusion of choice at the store, and if we’re privileged enough to choose our victuals based on values rather than sustenance we’re some of the lucky ones.
As we look on with equal parts horror and schadenfreude at the polarized debates in parliament, it’s tempting to ascribe some degree of personal failure on behalf of our sparring statesmen. But as each year passes with another promise to work across party lines we gather more evidence that it's not the individuals—or at least not just the individuals—who’re failing us. If democratically elected representatives are not able to make shared decisions in democratic chambers, then maybe we need to look more carefully at democracy itself as a piece of technology which is old, but surely not obsolete.
Bone & Muscle
One of the things that has changed are the inputs to our democracy. Our process was designed to accept ‘facts, the immutable truths identified by science, which may then be deliberated upon by elected representatives. In a democracy, facts act as a bit of ‘bone’ that gives resistance to the ‘muscle’ of political interpretation. Without bone and muscle working together in contradistinction, the body politic has a hard time moving in any productive way.
French sociologist Bruno Latour argues that today indisputable facts are harder to come by as they are increasingly clouded by alternative interpretations or inconclusive findings. When facts cease to be the simple and reliable narrators that they once were, we’re left instead to grapple with what Latour calls ‘concerns.’ While facts are discovered, concerns are composed from a soup of evidence and shared opinion. Topics as diverse as greenhouse gasses to declining tiger populations, AIDS to homelessness, earthquake preparedness to lung cancer each have a group vying for your attention and your dollars. Is it really that pandas are more important than orphans or that tar sands are more dangerous than identity theft? Of course not. This is life in a world without universal facts: levels of importance, funding, and attention given to every thing, every idea, every person are constantly up for grabs. The body politic has no bones but it’s still trying to walk.
Humans have been able to amicably settle subjective disagreements since the first Homo sapiens found themselves arguing over which cut of mammoth had better flavor, but this is different. Our challenge is to find ways to agree and act when the facts are always inconclusive, multiple and unfurling and there are no reigning institutions to neatly arrange things into a hierarchy for us. Latour’s observations imply that we’re floating in a state between complete relativity where everything is up to personal interpretation and one where Right Answers are handed down by Kings, Experts, or God.
God is dead, trust in government is plummeting around the world and the markets happily cannibalize long term security for short term profit. Science may have been our last institution of stability, with its promise of delivering objective knowledge about the world around us, but even this is now complicated. For every report that claims to produce facts about the health benefits of a particular drug, there’s another reporting contradictory findings. For every successful laboratory churning out objective research there’s a host of subjective decisions that led to the laboratory’s creation and colour its work. Who to trust?
The Wherewithal to Take Action Together
Paradoxically, more of us know more about the world than we ever have before and we’ve never been more capable, yet it feels as though we are unable to act when it matters most. In the past year 400 humans scaled to the highest point on Earth and one visited the planet’s lowest. Right now someone in California is controlling the Curiosity Rover millions of kilometres away on the surface of Mars while a separate spacecraft, NASA’s Voyager 1, is poised to exit our solar system still sending back signals. An uninitiated traveler visiting from another time, less jaded and with different baggage, would be sent reeling by these accomplishments. Some of them, like summiting Everest, can now even be considered rather mundane. Despite this massive showing of ability, almost a quarter of humanity lives in poverty and planet Earth is suffering too. In 2013, ability abounds but agreement still often evades.
It’s tempting to ascribe narratives of political inaction against our most pressing crises to villains and their conspiracies. While it makes for entertaining movies, putting the emphasis on blockages and bottlenecks is debilitating because it implies monolithic enemies. This, in turn, demands singular heroes to defeat the monsters and help push us forward. A cocktail of corruption, evil, greed, narcissism and other negative tendencies may very well stifle progress, but are they the sole explanation for the fractured state of human decision-making today?
As a thought experiment, let’s take personal failings off the table as a possible explanation. If we remove the ‘easy out’ of simply demanding that people be better, more upstanding citizens, what is keeping us from more often finding the wherewithal to agree to take action together? As we increasingly need to co-operate across geographies, work across professions and collaborate across party lines, we are discovering that the diversity which makes us strong in the aggregate also creates small mismatches between our various world views that can make it harder to find common ground.
When thinking of culture, geographic and linguistic distinctions come to mind first, but we each participate in multiple overlapping cultures including those of our professions, clubs, associations, families and other groups. And the way we make decisions is affected by the roles, spaces, jargon and relationships that come with each of these cultures. A dentist will decide what is risky, innovative, good or bad differently from a lawyer, not just because the content of their decisions are different but because the stew of expectations and incentives that the cultures of dentistry and law have created are distinct from one another.
While the individual is clearly important in this discussion, it’s also the part that we understand best right now thanks to the work of scholars such as Daniel Kahneman and others who have given us insight into the psychology of individual decisions. There’s an emerging picture of the competing forces that are at play inside an individual’s mind when considering options, but how are these individual considerations layered over by the pressures of various groups that one participates in? And how do we make this basic awareness part of our everyday lives?
Cultures of Decision-Making
To make sense of our current struggles to agree, I propose that we need to look more carefully at what could be called ‘cultures of decision-making.’ By developing an understanding of the sociology of conclusions we will be better prepared to inflect future choices more constructively. By suggesting that we need to pay attention to culture in an expanded sense, I’m proposing that we re-internalize those factors which have been assumed to be outside or irrelevant to the work of experts.
Unique cultures have different currencies for personal reputation; they have different standards about sharing credit (or not); and some weigh accuracy over precision, while others do not. Some don’t even have a notion of accuracy at all. Can a poem be accurate? Cultures value and relate to formal institutions differently; think about scale and time in different ways; construct arguments using different accepted building blocks; and create documents using different fonts. Would you sign a legal contract typeset in Comic Sans? Cultures are attracted to different cities and spend time in different bars, they dress differently and work under lamps of different power and light temperature. These may all be obvious, but they’re also largely tacit. Collaborating between sectors or professions is hard enough as it is, so why let all of these unspoken differences add extra friction?
A tourist heading to Europe will learn that in Switzerland they kiss on the cheeks three times, while across the border in France they do it only twice. It’s a cultural choice with no right or wrong answer but a good bit of potential for awkwardness if bungled. Because of that, some effort is taken to discuss and publicize these local customs, enabling visitors and locals alike to more easily negotiate a common existence. In the future, might there be booklets telling us that neuroendocrinologists prefer short sentences with words of latin root, that plumbers require at least 10 minutes of smalltalk before opening their toolbox, or that Indonesian engineers insist upon 5 decimal places of accuracy to be genuinely comfortable? Surely somewhere in an advertising office this knowledge is already being codified…
When we acknowledge difference, overlapping cultures are a source of vitality and innovation. But unspoken mismatches, particularly those of experts that claim professional objectivity, inhibit our ability to work together effectively. The more we make explicit the specific shape and size of the space between two cultures, the better equipped we are to bridge it productively. Professional cultures are particularly tricky here because they share some norms amongst themselves globally while being beholden to local geographic communities for others. For example, until recently it was illegal to build tall buildings out of wood in Finland, yet one hour away in Sweden, with the same wood construction engineering and similar socioeconomic structure, wood construction has been legal for years. Who was ‘wrong’?
When regulations finally changed to allow such construction in Finland it was not because some singular conspiracy was wrenched out of place to make it possible, but because enough attention and urgency was amassed around this particular matter of concern for long enough to enact the change. Sorting out the fine-grain details was, as always, the real work to be done and that included finding a solution that made sense to the differing cultures of decision-making represented by regulators, engineers, business people and others.
Learning from Technology
Institutions have traditionally provided us a framework within which to do this kind of detailed negotiation but as the power of our institutions shrink, new potential is seen in technology. Might the emergent potential of the crowd enable direct collaboration? The success of the open source software movement would seem to indicate yes. Leveraging the power of a distributed crowd without much in the way of formal structure, the open source community has yielded accomplishments including the Apache web server and the Linux operating system, both of which power a significant portion of the Internet. Software projects have more freedom to avoid the messy task of zero-sum decisions, and therefore they may not be the best metaphor to learn from as we think about how democracy will evolve.
When designing a piece of software, you can have it all. Prefer to use a menu option to make words bold? Ok. How about a keyboard command too? And an icon on the toolbar just to be sure? No problem. Those choices can be made independently because they are not competing for the same resources. The fluidity of the screen as an interface allows multiple options to coexist without the software becoming a glaring monument to indecision. But apply the same logic to decisions that have material consequences and indecision becomes evident in the specific details of an incoherent object. This was the case in another open source project, the OpenOffice Mouse.
Chuffed with the success of developing the OpenOffice project, a free clone of Microsoft Office, a splinter group decided to create a piece of hardware as well. Spreadsheets, word processing and presentations are not among the most demanding computing tasks, so there probably should have been a hint that this was a bad idea from the start. Nevertheless, a group of programmers set out to design a physical thing presumably using the same tools that had worked well for them in the past. The result is a mouse with 18 buttons—about 15 more than you probably have any use for.
Diligent ethnography would likely reveal this to be the product of office software aficionados and more than a couple gamers, the latter having more need for things like thumb joysticks than the average Excel jockey (different cultures to be sure). The tools this group had at hand to resolve disputes in a software project are effective in that arena, but did not work as well for resolving the zero-sum conflicts of the material world. They needed new tools and they’re not alone. Instead of synthesis, the OpenOffice Mouse was the result of an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to design that leaves us with an artifact that is overly capable, but also unwieldy and therefore impractical. It’s poetic that after some disputes about whether the project was making legitimate use of the OpenOffice branding it has been renamed to the ‘War Mouse.’ Zero-sum indeed.
Assembling a Common World
Software, like rhetoric, allows us to agree to disagree by expressing multiple ideas simultaneously but atoms, on the other hand, are more stubborn. Today, stories of tangible production find new relevance as parables of elegant decision-making in a world of limited time, money, space and material. After all, while our economy boomed for decades on the assumption that it was not constrained by the finite resources of our planet, we are wiser now and beginning to change the ways we live, work, eat, move and shop together with (hopefully) greater respect for the consequences of our decisions.
Unpicking the deadlocks that arise between multiple overlapping cultures of decision-making means developing new ways to adjudicate between possibilities in situations where we cannot simply agree to disagree. A small wind farm located in Hamina, Finland gives us a tentative but hopeful example. The project owes its existence to the fact that one turbine out of three total was moved 500 metres from where it was originally planned. In this particular case the dispute was over the sight and sound of the turbine that a part-time resident claimed would be a disturbance.
The conflict pitted two dissimilar groups of concerns against each other. On the one hand, the engineering of the machinery and its optimal functioning. On the other, the perceptions of the turbine by the local community. The former has to do with things like soil stability, wind patterns and grid infrastructure while the latter involves personal preference, individual physiology, land ownership and national narratives of success. This is no apples to apples comparison, so a simple answer was elusive. In Finland, areas zoned for cottages enjoy stronger ambient noise restrictions than those with year-round occupation. The cottage in the woods plays a central role in the national mythology of ‘the good life’ that flourished after World War II and now, as the country attempts to catch up to its Nordic neighbours’ successful application of wind power the intergenerational promises of the past are bumping up against those of the future. As it happens, the same coastal areas which are great for turbines happen to be among the most popular for summer retreats.
The parties attempting to build the wind farm in Hamina opened a dialog about their plans and sought input from the local community. Moving the turbine, which from an engineering perspective reduced its efficacy ever so slightly, turned out to be just enough of an adjustment to dissolve local resistance. Importantly, this also avoided a battle of competing environmental impact assessments, which is a familiar NIMBY tactic that dresses up concerns as facts. In this case, the resolution came from a direct engagement of individual needs and desires on a detailed level—not just on behalf of the complainers, but all parties involved. There are reams of counterexamples where no amount of flexibility could be found and this is what makes NIMBYism an excellent example of the friction between different cultures of decision-making. “I like your idea, I just don’t want it in my backyard” is a monolithic problem too big to meaningfully grapple with. Moving beyond a binary yes-or-no and getting to a detailed discussion of possibilities allowed the stakeholders in Hamina to find their own mutually-agreeable solution.
Latour describes this as the challenge of assembling a “common world… built from utterly heterogenous parts that will never make a whole, but at best a fragile, revisable and diverse composite material.” As the village of Hamina has begun to show, achieving such a composite entails negotiating details until we find tentative, wending pathways towards decision. Eschewing abstractions and instead engaging the specifics—of a wind farm, of the design for a computer mouse, of apples in a grocery store—help us confront the occasional tradeoffs that life on a finite planet inevitably forces upon us. Without the luxury of Gods, Kings, or Experts to tell us what's right or wrong, confronting the rigor of the material world with gusto may be just the bit of backbone we need to take progressive steps forward.