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Thursday, October 05, 2006

Empowering Ordinary Citizens Through Gross Oversimplification

(in part via Searchviews)

Platonists to the right of us, Platonists to the left... and apparently inside the bowels of the Googleplex, too.

Let's make a truth-assessin' machine!

Politician A says "Headstart Programs didn't create any opportunities for disadvantaged children, and were a waste of money."

Politician B says "Headstart Programs worked, if you compare outcomes over 25 years, looking at the numbers in this way."

Politician A retorts with something else. Politician B counters with something else entirely. Politician C appears to agree with both, then changes the subject. Meanwhile various layers of government are working on the problem or not working on it based on the shifting sands of institutional reform. Etc. And so on.

"Sure," Schmidt might say, "the idea of a politician truth predictor might be slightly flawed crude now, but eventually we'll perfect it." Yikes?

Social engineering. Literally.

Chantal Mouffe, in her spare time, once gave a paper chronicling 300 historical definitions of social and political equality. Can't even find that precise paper, but the overview of Mouffe works on Google Scholar gives you the idea. Where would one begin?

And now we'd like to nail down the whole "truth" thing for the betterment of society? Well, sure. I'm glad someone thought of it.

So - the manner in which facts and perspectives trickle into the policy process is incredibly complex. It's not just a matter of saying x proposition is more or less true, like some Socratic dialogue... even if you had a relatively gullible sidekick to help things along ("it seems like it, Socrates").

(Perhaps you are aware of the term "sophistry"?) This is life, not a reality show. And progress in (what is it we value again? let's say self-determination) won't be boiled down to a simple matter of lie detection in scripted situations. As Google well knows, you can avoid lying by keeping the wraps on sensitive and pertinent information. Ah, where to begin with this can of worms of a topic?

How about the concept of "power" - remember that from your advanced political studies class? "Agenda-setting power" might actually decide the structure of the questions around which truth or falsity get determined. (Indeed, there are decisions, and nondecisions.) Indeed, in a policy debate, it's been customary that if you don't structure your analysis in a certain way - you aren't using analysis at all! In 1974, Steven Lukes posited a "third" dimension of power that's barely perceptible to people immersed in a certain set of norms. Other great scholars like Hollis and MacIntyre explore similar themes.

Is "truth" manipulated in the political process? Needless to say, it is. Can a fun algorithmic truth-predictor game bust up this history of, er, untruthiness, and ... empower people? Not really. The mere presence of fast-growing citizen usage of Internet resources is empowering in itself... far more so than any contrived attempt to help this along.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




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