the online world looks dark

(Chicago) I’m at the #ObamaSummit, much of which can be followed online.

In the opening plenary, several speakers (including President Obama) noted the drawbacks of social media: psychological isolation, manipulation by powerful companies and governments, fake news, balkanization, and deep incivility.

I remember when discussions of civic tech were generally optimistic: people saw the Internet and social media as creative and democratic forces.

I went to the specialized breakout session with “civic media” entrepreneurs and asked them whether they shared the dark picture painted by the plenary speakers. Each gave an interesting and nuanced answer, but in short, they said Yes. The reason they build and use digital tools is basically to combat the larger trends in social media, which for the most part, they see as harmful. Even Adrian Reyna of @ United We Dream, a leader of one of the best social movements that has used online tools, emphasized that relying on civic tech can disempower people and alienate communities.

This is no reason to give up on improving the civic impact of digital media. The work remains as important as ever. It’s just that the atmosphere now feels very sober; the heady days of cyber-optimism have passed, at least for people concerned about politics and civic culture.

[See also democracy in the digital age and four questions about social media and politics]

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Kieran Setiya on midlife: reviving philosophy as a way of life

I read Kieran Setiya’s Midlife (Princeton, 2017) not only because I have that condition and am sometimes troubled by its complaints, but also because I appreciate the style of thought that Pierre Hadot named “philosophy as a way of life.” Practitioners of this style acknowledge that it is important to develop and test arguments. The philosophical life is one of critical reason. However, arguments should have a purpose: to improve a life. And we must remember that people are habitual and affective creatures. Therefore, arguments—no matter how valid and rigorous—will not change us. We also need practices or mental disciplines to accompany our arguments. But a mental habit or practice can lead us away from the findings of our critical reason. We may train ourselves to be foolish or selfish. So we need habits that are at least consistent with the best arguments, and, ideally, habits that actually include argumentation.

That is exactly the combination offered by the Hellenistic Schools (Stoicism, Epicureanism, Skepticism) and by the classical Indian traditions. It has been relatively weak in the modern West. Setiya shows that it can be practiced today.

He is a professional philosopher in the Anglophone, analytic tradition. A clue that he is trying something different in Midlife is the book’s grammar. Setiya often writes in the second-person singular: “You should …” (as in “You should not prefer to rewind time, erase your son, and try again.”) He also sometimes uses the first-person singular or plural: “I wish …”; “We think …” Midlife reads like a conversation that reports Setiya’s real efforts to combat his ennui in order to improve your life, too.

Midlife is almost free of jargon. But one person’s jargon is another’s helpful terminology, and Setiya makes occasional use of specialized words. His distinctive stylistic move is not his informal vocabulary but his shift to the second-person, which implies a stringent test that can be applied to each sentence and chapter: would an actual “you” find this text useful?

Another clue that Setiya is working in the tradition of philosophy as a way of life is that he recommends repeated practices, habits, or meditative exercises at the conclusion of each chapter. These are meant to turn the arguments of the chapter into therapies that might change our mental habits.

Many of Setiya’s recommendations are drawn from the history of ethics, not original to Midlife. Of course, that is fine; it is useful to review and revive others’ points. But some of his arguments are novel, and I will mention two.

Continue reading

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working on civic education in Ukraine

(Kyiv, Ukraine) I am here for just a few days, working with Ukrainian civic educators and my American colleagues at Street Law, Inc. I’ve served on Street Law’s board for more than a decade, but this is my first time directly helping with a project. Ukraine’s plans to revamp democratic education in their primary and secondary schools seem highly promising, and I’m pleased to be able to participate. This effort also connects to another project I’ve done with Ukrainian colleagues since 2014: the European Institute of Civic Studies (which is aimed at adults). Finally, it’s nice to be back in this handsome city as the leaves turn yellow and the air is cool and damp.

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the Tisch College initiative on gerrymandering

Gerrymandering displays several features that are typical of 21st century problems. It’s a consequence of deliberate human action that’s not in the public good. It’s highly technical. If you possess the data, the methods, and the authority, you can draw district lines that will give your side enormous advantages. These methods are scarce and monopolized by self-interested actors who have power of various sorts. It’s tempting to imagine a technical solution, such as programming computers to draw electoral districts, but there is no self-evidently best map. Well-intentioned people who draw district lines (or who write algorithms for computers to draw maps) must balance valid goals, such as competitiveness, compactness, and representativeness. Each of these general values can be defined in several reasonable ways. Tension among values under conditions of great technical complexity is typical of our age.

I’m proud, therefore, of Tisch College’s Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group, led by Tufts Math Professor Moon Duchin. Her Group conducts advanced research on the math of redistricting, helps develop a more diverse cadre of people who can participate in these debates (including as expert witnesses in litigation), and educates the public. One of their approaches to education is working with k-12 teachers to teach the geometry of district maps.

Moon and I have a new piece in The Conversation drawn from this work: “Rebooting the mathematics behind gerrymandering.

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Building Civic Capacity in an Era of Democratic Crisis by Hollie Russon-Gilman and K. Sabeel Rahman

About $3 billion was contributed to influence 2016 federal campaigns. In a new paper entitled “Building Civic Capacity in an Era of Democratic Crisis,” Hollie Russon-Gilman and K. Sabeel Rahman suggest a much better way to spend some of that money.

I realize, by the way, that political donors want candidates to notice their support. It would nevertheless make all the difference if they gave one percent of their $3 billion to activities that strengthen democracy–compensating for irradiating the body politic with polarizing and demoralizing messages. Progressive donors would also build the base for more progressive policy by investing for the longer term.

Russon-Gilman and Rahman argue “that today’s populist moment emphasizes the need to create a genuinely responsive, participatory form of democratic politics in which communities are empowered, rather than alienated.” They advocate investments that “self-consciously strive to build constituencies and identities that are more inclusive and accommodating. Think of this as ‘us’ populism, as opposed to ‘them’ populism.”

That basic stance supports two strategies:

  1. More investment in community organizing, especially the types that build “new bridges across racial, gender, and geographic divides.” Russon-Gilman and Rahman advocate broad-based, long-term organizing instead of mobilizing people around specific issues.
  2. “Reforming our institutions of governance” so that agencies offer citizens more “hooks and levers” to influence power, and so that public sector workers have skills and incentives to engage the public better.

These strategies imply (as the authors note) a broad understanding of democracy. It is not all about elections, nor even about the official government. It’s about how people come together and exercise power.

The paper offers valuable case studies. For instance, under the heading of organizing:

  • “The Center for Rural Strategies (CRS) … based in Whitesburg, Ky. in the central Appalachian coalfields, provides rural communities and nonprofit organizations with resources on innovative media and communications strategies in order to strengthen their work.” CRS provides information, challenges stereotypes about its communities, and lobbies for better access to the physical infrastructure for communications, because both content and conduit matter. (See “Building Democracy in ‘Trump Country’” by Ben Fink for a similar case.)
  • “ (Coworker) is a digital platform for workers’ voices founded in response to the decline of formal institutions organizing workers and geared towards building a twenty-first century model of worker power. The organization provides tools directly to workers to self-advocate within the workplace, usually where no labor structure or organizing already exists.” Like CRS, Coworker invests in people who develop as leaders.

Examples under the heading of institutions include:

  • “The Office of Community Wealth Building (OCWB) was established as a permanent city agency in Richmond, Va., in 2015 to provide anti-poverty strategy and policy advice to the mayor and to implement municipal poverty reduction initiatives and systemic changes around housing, education, and economic development.”
  • “The Public Engagement Unit (PEU) is a division in New York’s city government started in 2015 [is] devoted to knocking on doors and making calls to hard-to-reach constituents to enroll them in city services, as well as foster long-term individual relationships with city staff.”

Overall, “Building Civic Capacity in an Era of Democratic Crisis” helps make the case for investments that are less short-term, less oriented to immediate efficiency, less split between government and civil society, but more experimental, more open-ended, and more truly inclusive than we normally see (especially, I would say, on the left).

See also: why the white working class must organizeto beat Trump, invest in organizingfighting Trump’s populism with pluralist populism; and community organizing between Athens and Jerusalem.

Posted in populism, revitalizing the left | 1 Comment

new research on “civic deserts”

(Washington, DC) My colleagues Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg and Felicia Sullivan coined the phrase “civic deserts” to name places where there are few or no opportunities to be active and constructive participants in civic life. The analogy is to “food deserts”–geographical communities where there is little or no nutritious food for sale. You can still be an active citizen in a civic desert, just as you can grow vegetables in your back yard; it’s just that the whole burden falls on you.

Today at the National Conference on Citizenship, we are releasing Civic Deserts: America’s Civic Health Challenge by Matthew N. Atwell, John Bridgeland, and me. It’s a 36-page report that documents the declining opportunities for civic engagement in America. John Bridgeland and Robert Putnam also write about it today in a PBS opinion piece.

This is an example of a table from the report:

Thanks to friends at USC’s Center for Economic and Social Research, we were able to ask a  large, representative sample of Americans whether they belonged to various kinds of groups; if so, whether they participated actively in any of them; and if so, whether they thought that the group’s leaders (a) usually did what they promised and (b) usually tried to serve and include all the members. It turns out that only 28% of adult Americans actively belong to groups whose leaders are accountable and inclusive. That statistic does not tell us how much geographical space is taken up by civic deserts, but it suggests that they are common. And the historical data implies that civic engagement used to be much more widespread.

I separately formed a hypothesis that lacking direct, personal experience with good leadership would make a person more tolerant of the leadership style of Donald J. Trump, controlling for one’s political ideology. In other words, given two people who agree with Trump on issues, the one without experience of good local leadership would be more supportive of Trump as a leader. This was testable with the USC data, which includes a whole battery of questions about ideology, issues, and Trump. My hypothesis turned out not to be true: partisanship and media choice seem to explain opinions of the current president almost completely, and experience in groups adds no explanatory power. Still, I think there may be a more circuitous story about civic deserts as a cause of Trump’s victory: the decline of civic associations increases the power of partisan heuristics and ideological media. Even if that hypothesis is also false, civic deserts are still a problem, because civic engagement benefits health, economic development, safety, education, and good government.

See also: The Hollowing Out of US Democracy (my blog post for USC); Mitigating the Negative Consequences of Living in Civic Deserts – What Digital Media Can (and have yet to) Do (a new CIRCLE article); America needs big ideas to heal our divides. Here are three by Bridgeland and Putnam; and the power of the NRA in an age of civic deserts.

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Comparative Effectiveness Research for democracy?

In health, we’ve seen an influential and valuable shift to Comparative Effectiveness Research (CER): measuring which of the available drugs or other interventions works best for specific purposes, in specific circumstances. Why not do the same for democracy? Why not test which approaches to strengthening democracy work best?

My colleagues and I played a leading role in developing the “Six Promising Practices” for civic education. These are really pedagogies, such as discussing current, controversial issues in classrooms or encouraging youth-led voluntary groups in a schools. Since then, we have been recommending even more pedagogies, such as Action Civics, news media literacy, and school climate reform. I am often asked which of these practices or combinations of practices works best for various populations, in various contexts, for various outcomes. This question has not really been studied. There is no CER for civics.

Likewise, in 2005, John Gastil and I published The Deliberative Democracy Handbook. Each chapter describes a different model for deliberative forums or processes in communities. The processes vary in whether participants are randomly selected or not, whether they meet face-to-face or online, whether the discussions are small or large, etc. Again, I am asked which deliberative model works best for various populations, in various contexts, for various outcomes. There is some relevant research, but no large research enterprise devoted to finding out which deliberative formats work best.

Some other fields of democratic practice have benefitted from comparative research. In the 2000’s, The Pew Charitable Trusts funded a large body of randomized experiments to explore which methods of campaign outreach were most cost-effective for turning out young people to vote. Don Green (now at Columbia) was an intellectual force behind this work: one motivation for him was to make political science a more experimental discipline. CIRCLE was involved; we organized some of the studies and published this guide to disseminate the findings. Our goal was to increase the impact of youth on politics.

Our National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NLSVE) is a database of voting records for 9,784,931 students at 1,023 colleges and universities. With an “n” that large, it’s possible to model the outcome (voter turnout) as a function of a set of inputs and investigate which ones work best. That is a technique for estimating the results that would arise from a whole body of experiments. We also provide each participating campus with a customized report about its own students that can provide the data for the institution to conduct its own experiments.

So why do some fields of democratic practice prompt research into what works, and others don’t?

A major issue is practical. The experiments on voter turnout and our NSLVE college study have the advantage that the government already tallies the votes. Given a hard outcome that is already measured at the scale of millions, it’s possible to vary inputs and learn a great deal about what works.

To be sure, people and community contexts are heterogeneous, and voter outreach can vary in many respects at once (mode, messenger, message, purpose). Thus a large body of experiments was necessary to produce insights about turnout methods. However, we learned that grassroots mobilization is cost-effective, that the message usually matters less than the mode, and that interactive contacts are more efficient than one-way outreach. We believe that these findings influenced campaigns, including the Obama ’08 primary campaign, to invest more in youth outreach.

Similarly, colleges vary in their populations, settings, resources, missions, and structures, but NSLVE is yielding general lessons about what tends to work to engage students in politics.

Other kinds of outcomes may be harder to measure and yet can still be measured at scale. For example, whether kids know geometry is hard to measure–it can’t be captured by a single test question–but society invests in designing reliable geometry tests that yield an aggregate score for each child. So one could conduct Comparative Effectiveness Research on math education. The fact that mastering geometry is a subtler and more complex outcome than voting does not preclude this approach.

But it does take a social investment to collect lots of geometry test data. For years, I have served on the committee that designs the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) in civics. NAEP scores are valuable measures of certain kinds of civic knowledge–and teaching civics is a democratic practice. But the NAEP civics assessment doesn’t receive enough funding from the federal government to have samples that are reliable at the state or local level, nor is it conducted annually. This is a case where the tool exists, but the investment would have to be much larger to permit really satisfactory CER. It is not self-evident that the best way to spend limited resources would be to collect sufficient data for this purpose.

Other kinds of outcomes–such as the quality of discourse in a community–may be even more expensive and difficult to measure at scale. You can conduct concrete experiments in which you randomly vary the inputs and then directly measure the outcomes by surveying the participants. But you can only vary one (or a few) factors at a time in a controlled experiment. That means that a large and expensive body of research is required to yield general findings about what works, in which contexts, for whom.

The good news is that studying which discrete, controllable factors affect outcomes is only one way to use research to improve practice. It is useful approach, but it is hardly sufficient, and sometimes it is not realistic. After all, outcomes are also deeply affected by:

  • The motivations, commitment, and incentives of the organizers and the participants;
  • How surrounding institutions and communities treat the intervention;
  • Human capital (who is involved and how well they are prepared);
  • Social capital (how the various participants relate to each other); and
  • Cultural norms, meanings, and expectations.

These factors are not as amenable to randomized studies or other forms of CER.  But they can be addressed. We can work to motivate, prepare, and connect people, to build support from outside, and to adjust norms. Research can help. It just isn’t research that resembles CER.

Democratic practices are not like pills that can be proven to work better than alternatives, mass produced, and then prescribed under specified conditions. Even in medicine, motivations and contexts matter, but those factors are even more important for human interactions. It’s worth trying to vary aspects of an intervention to see how such differences affect the results. I’m grateful to have been involved in ambitious projects of that nature. But whether to invest in CER is a judgment call that depends on practical issues like the availability of free data. Research on specific interventions is never sufficient, and sometimes it isn’t the best use of resources.

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symposium on issues raised by Big Data

Wednesday, November 8th 2017, 9AM – 5PM
Breed Memorial Hall • 51 Winthrop Street • Medford, MA 02155

Keynote Presentations • Panel Discussions • Poster Sessions

As Tufts seeks to develop a University-wide, interdisciplinary center dedicat­ed to data-intensive research and pedagogy, studying the science of data and its uses in application domains that span the breadth of the university, we are happy to announce the upcoming Fall’s DISC symposium. We encour­age you to visit the DISC website for more information on the purpose and goals of this University-wide initiative.

For updates to the Program: Fall DISC Symposium
For RSVP Details:
Contact me if you have a poster idea!


Welcome Remarks
Anthony Monaco, President at Tufts University

Session I: City and Urban Planning

AnnaLee Saxenian – Dean of the School of Information at UC Berkeley

Panel Discussion
Herbert Dreiseitl, Justin Hollander, David Mendonca, Adam Storeygard

Session II: Ethical Use of Data

David Lazer – Professor of Political Science and Computer and Information Science at Northeastern University & Co-director at NuLab

Panel Discussion
Chaitanya Baru, Matthias Scheutz, Nick Seaver

Lunch and Poster Session

Session III: Privacy and Security

Jeannette Wing – Avanessians Director of the Data Sciences Institute & Pro­fessor of Computer Science at Columbia University

Panel Discussion
Kathleen Fisher, Erin Kenneally, Alex “Sandy” Pentland

Session IV: Data Science and Computational Science in Healthcare

Henry Kautz – Founding  Director at Institute for Data Science & Professor of Computer Science at University of Rochester

Panel Discussion
Frank Alexander, Harry Selker, Jerry Sheehan, Harry Sleeper

Session V: Data Science and Computational Science in Biology

Peter Coveney – Professor of Computer Science & Director of the Centre for Computational Science and the Computational Life and Medical Sciences Net­work at University College London

Panel Discussion
Christoph Börgers, Diego Martinez, Grace Peng, Donna Slonim

Reception and Poster Session

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what it means to view modernity as our basic condition

Let’s say that modernity has the following features, which tend to arise together fairly rapidly because they are causally linked. Their arrival is the process of modernization:

  1. Instead of using a small number of traditional tools to affect nature and other people, we begin investing substantial resources in a continuous process of inventing and improving tools.
  2. Traditional values–moral, spiritual, and aesthetic–are subject to doubt. One response is a fragile conservatism about the inherited values. Another is heroic creativity: making up new values. Another is imitation: self-consciously replicating values from the past or from other places. A fourth is nihilism: losing commitment to values in general.
  3. Instead of assuming that roles (responsibilities and powers) derive from individuals’ social status, which people typically inherit, we view roles as the result of contracts, which can be renegotiated.
  4. We become increasingly skillful at choosing efficient and effective means to a given end, but less confident about being able to choose good ends. Many people become relativists or subjectivists, assuming that ends are simply what individuals happen to want.
  5. In addition to relating directly to people whom we know, we have frequent and important interactions with strangers, often via abstract media such as money or written orders.
  6. People become increasingly fungible, not only in market systems but also in organizations of all kinds.
  7. Social roles constantly differentiate and specialize; and complex systems develop to train, evaluate, and coordinate specialists. Many of the specialists work on inventing or improving the systems for coordinating people like themselves.

I see modernization as momentous. That sometimes makes me dissent from widely-held opinions:

  1. I disagree that we are living in a time of especially rapid change, at least in the OECD countries. The really big shift occurred during modernization, which had happened in countries like the USA by 1910. Constant novelty still arises as a result of #1, #2 and #7 (above), but new tools and fashions are superficial developments compared to the wrenching shift from pre-modernity to modernity.
  2. I often disagree that capitalism is the underlying cause of social problems. For one thing, the same problems occur under state socialism. If “capitalism” meant free markets, it would be something quite different from socialism. But capitalism is mainly a system in which large organizations–firms and governmental agencies–employ and coordinate specialized workers. That is a feature of modernity, not specific to market systems.
  3. I have doubts about the term “postmodern.” Most of the moves made by postmodern thinkers were well known to Nietzsche and others in 1890. To be sure, the heroic, create-new-values strand of modernity was especially dominant ca. 1900-1960, and the skeptical, doubt-all-grand-narratives strand has been more prevalent since then; but both were available as soon as modernity arose.
  4. I am less impressed by cultural differences across space–but more struck by changes over time–than many people seem to be. I start with the assumption that life in France and in China ca. 1500 was pretty similar, as is life in Paris and Beijing today. The big difference is before and after modernity in each country.
  5. I interpret imperialism a bit differently from many people. I have no doubt that it has been exploitative, cruel, and traumatic. But I don’t see it as the imposition of “Western” culture on “non-Western” societies as much as a phenomenon of modernization. To be sure, it was much worse to be on the receiving end of colonialism and to have modernity thrust on you at gunpoint, rather than to profit as an agent of modernization. But the imperialist countries typically shed their traditional cultures by modernizing while they exerted power abroad. Today, people all over the world are just as authentically “modern” as Europeans are, and global modernity contrasts with European traditions as much as with other traditions.

Modernity is neither good nor bad; it is liberating and traumatic. It isn’t recent–we’ve had a century of it already. But it is a change compared to two centuries ago, and therefore older social theories don’t apply without serious modification.

See also: Dubai, Uganda, and today’s global political economy;  the rise of an expert class and its implications for democracyon modernity and the distinction between East and WestLifeworld and System: a primertwo cheers for the West; and postcolonial reaction

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changes in how we talk about cities

At a meeting at a community organization in Boston, we were using various terms to describe local issues and observing that those phrases would not be clear to the people we were talking about–especially new immigrants. That made me wonder about the history of our vocabulary, so I used Google’s Ngram tool to see the frequency of “urban poverty,” “inner city,” “gentrification,” “deindustrialization,” and “urban redevelopment” in published books. This graph shows trends since 1900.

In rough order of when these phrases became popular…

  1. “Urban redevelopment” starts very soon after WWII but declines after 1970. It is a keyword of high-modernist urban planning from the era of big housing projects and highways blasted through downtowns.  It has been notably less popular (at least in books) since ca. 1980.
  2. “Urban poverty” rises in the 1960s and the 1990s, but has–interestingly–fallen in the 2000s.
  3. “Inner city” seems to have become rapidly popular during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, plateaued at a high level until about 2000, and then fallen off.
  4. “Gentrification” enters the lexicon in 1975. It plateaus in the 1990s and then rises rapidly in our century.
  5. “Deindustrialization” is a new term ca. 1980, describing a phenomenon that started in the 1970s. It peaks in the 1990s.

These changes seem to reflect objective circumstances–cities lose their industrial base but then sometimes attract yuppies who push up housing values–as well as shifts in intellectual fashions, such as the rise, and then fall, of high-modernist design.

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