Phillip Smith

Post-fact democracy: political engagement in an era of "truthiness"

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This was the title of an impromptu session that I pitched a couple of Saturdays ago at the first Collaborative Democracy Camp in Toronto. It’s a question that has been making the rounds in journalism circles and I was keen to put it to a room full of researchers, academics, bureaucrats, and software developers with a passion for collaboration and decision making.

I teamed up with Luke Sargent, a film and television editor who was also pitching a session on the media’s role in modern-day democracy, and we sketched out a frame for the session and a few questions to get the conversation started. To our surprise, we had a packed room; the question of “post-fact democracy” had struck a chord. A quick role call included: Satsuko VanAntwerp, Jean Kunz, Helen Yung, Thomas Homer Dixon, Jordy Gold, Mike Gifford, David Mason, Stuart Lee, and a few others that I’m forgetting.

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What unfolded was one of the most interesting conversations about democracy – seriously – that I’ve had the opportunity to eavesdrop on in a long, long time. As the session wrapped up well past the allotted time, I kicked myself for not hitting the audio recording button on my phone.

The ideas presented were far-ranging, poignant, and practical and sought to shine some light on the question of “How do we get people to engage their democratic engines in a time where concepts like ‘truth’ and ‘fact’ are getting a bit fuzzy, particularly in the mainstream media that most people rely on to get their information?”

While our group didn’t come up with any definitive answers, the conversation certainly touched on some very interesting ideas: framing, creation myths, and the idea that presenting people with facts often works in a way that is opposite to what we would expect. The most intriguing to me was the idea that increasing individualism in northern North America – our obsession with personal privacy – often reinforces self-interested behaviour, whereas there are examples outside of North America that demonstrate how living a less private life can lead to more collectively-beneficial decisions.

I one point, I wondered if the current obsession with the quantified self, when projected into the future, could help to address this challenge by making the invisible visible. For example, imagine if I was walking down the street and my “personal stats” were visible in some way to others: Phillip has used 1KW of electricity and released 5kg of carbon into the atmosphere today. His annual carbon footprint is the size of big foot. Phillip did not vote in the last federal election.

I’m riffing here on a concept that Cory Doctorow introduced in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, which he called “Whuffie” (that is really not that far off, and was reinforced by a piece I saw on recycling culture in Japan, where families are required to sort their recycling into 34 different bins and put out their remaining “waste” in clear plastic bags with their apartment number clearly displayed.

There are some days when I actually believe that many of the larger societal challenges are merely design problems that have yet to be solved with simple, elegant, solutions. Those are good days.

Until then…

About

Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.

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