Book Notes: “The Revolt of the Public”

The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority
By Martin Gurri
Stripe Press, 2018

As someone who cares deeply about society’s long-term well-being, I was disturbed by the ransacking of the U.S. Capitol on January 6. The attack on the nation’s symbolic (and actual) center of political power was the latest manifestation of an illness that has afflicted our body politic. It’s a complex situation, and the causes are hard to diagnose. In my search to understand what’s going on, I came across The Revolt of the Public by Martin Gurri, a former CIA analyst.

The book argues that the internet ushered a “fifth wave” in how we relate to information and each other. (The fourth wave was broadcast media, which were a product of the industrial era.) Societies washed over by this fifth wave show symptoms of a “uncertainty and impermanence.” These symptoms, in turn, manifest a breakdown in information hierarchies. (I.e., how authorities have traditionally kept the public informed.)

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Privacy and Metadata

The U.S. is emerging from a hyper-polarized electoral season that boiled over in the storming of the U.S. Capitol by followers of President Trump on January 6. Ensuing efforts to hold the perpetrators accountable remind us that we live double lives: one in physical space, where our bodies act, and another online, where those actions are recorded – either by us or others.

Shortly after the mob broke into the Capitol, the FBI sought public assistance to identify the instigators. This type of crowdsourced public investigation is a novel phenomenon. The task is easier because some people uploaded videos and photos of themselves and others breaking into the Capitol to public social networks. Several of these people are already in custody.

Others incriminated themselves unwittingly. Leaked data from the Parler social network revealed over six hundred videos with GPS metadata that located users in and around the Capitol during the attack. A student quickly created a website that uses machine learning to sift through these videos to extract and publish individuals’ faces.

Such developments should concern all of us, regardless of where we are on the political spectrum or whether or not we abide by the law. Although Parler seems to have been remiss in its handling of geolocation metadata, it isn’t the only organization keeping track of its users’ whereabouts. A recent article on The Verge notes that the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) has bought such data from brokers without a warrant.

Another case of publicly available data helping identify the Capitol’s attackers — and one that is more directly relevant to those of us who structure information systems — involves the dating app Bumble.

Among other information, Bumble allows users to state their political affiliation. According to one Twitter user, at least one woman used this feature of the system to lure men who may have been involved in the attack, so she could report them to the FBI. The tweet drew a lot of attention, and Bumble eventually disabled its politics filter in the U.S. “to prevent misuse.”

One can easily imagine why this field exists in a dating app. Few subjects are more contentious than politics, especially these days. People looking for a compatible mate would likely want to know the other persons’ political leanings. However, I doubt Bumble’s designers envisioned their system being used against its users in this way. (“The street finds its own uses for things.” — William Gibson)

I suspect most people don’t realize they’re not just beings with bodies that move in physical space, but also information ‘objects’ described (and identified) with metadata. The events of January 6 prove that the existence of these digital selves can have serious consequences.

While I’m pleased to see the Capitol’s attackers held to account for their actions, I’m also more aware of the implications of being a tagged individual in an information society. The same technologies and information structures that allow us to bring miscreants to justice can also be used for other, less noble, purposes.

Those of us who structure information environments must consider the implications of how we categorize and describe people. Information about people’s identity — including gender, race, nationality, religious commitments, and political affiliation — is especially sensitive.

Creating and maintaining categorization schemes bestows great power. People who design and manage such systems have tremendous ethical and moral responsibilities.

Icons by Maxim Kulikov from the Noun Project

The Assault on U.S. Democracy

Last week’s events in the U.S. — the deadly ransacking of our Capitol by a mob seeking to overturn the election — shocked and distressed me. I’ve felt emotionally drained since the attack.

I am an immigrant. My family made the U.S. our home in great part because I love this country and the principles it was founded on. Naturalized citizens like me must pass a higher bar than native-born citizens; we’re not here by accident, but by choice. (This isn’t rhetorical flourish: In completing the naturalization process, I had to overcome a series of tests — including a civics exam — that I suspect few of the people who desecrated the Capitol would’ve passed.)

From my perspective, the violent attempt to overturn the election stands in direct opposition to the U.S.’s core principles. I’m sure the insurgents would disagree. From the language I hear in the news, these people see themselves as patriots who are trying to save the country. How can you reconcile such differences in fundamental principles?

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The Optimism of Design

I’ve been accused of being optimistic. I say “accused” because the word is often uttered with disdain. It seems de rigeur for some folks to think of these as the worst of times. The environment is going to hell, political institutions and the rule of law are under attack, injustice and inequality seem to be on the rise, resources are dwindling, etc. How can one be optimistic under such circumstances?

It seems an unpopular and old-fashioned perspective, but I remain steadfast: things can get better — and designers have an important role to play in improving them.

Design is an inherently optimistic practice. It requires an open mind about the possibilities for creating a better future. I’ll say it again: design is about making the possible tangible. “Making the possible tangible” means testing alternate ways of being in the world. The point is making things better. If you don’t believe there’s room for improvement, why design? And if things can be improved, why despair?

This doesn’t mean designers must be naive about the state of the world. To the contrary: we can’t begin to design a better future if we don’t clearly understand the present. At least that’s what we’ve been telling clients; at this point, many have bought into the idea that a solid design process begins with understanding the problem domain through research.

What research informs your worldview? If your understanding comes primarily from sources incentivized to capture your attention (read: advertising-supported media), then be wary. Good news doesn’t sell; rage is an excellent way of keeping you tuned in. Misery loves company, and there are many lonely people out there looking for someone to friend. “A lie travels halfway around the world before truth puts on its boots.” (Churchill) — and with social media, we’ve built a teleporter.

The challenge our forebears faced in understanding the world was a lack of information. That’s not our problem; we have information to spare. Our challenges are deciding what is true and who to believe. We can be more selective today than ever before about the facts that inform our worldview; in seconds I can call up a counter-fact to every fact you can muster. As a result, our attitude towards the possibilities matters more than ever; it’s never been more important to cultivate a beginner’s mind.

Again, this doesn’t imply naiveté. It implies seeing reality for what it is and keeping an open mind towards the possibilities. I’m reminded of this exchange between Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell:

CAMPBELL: There’s a wonderful formula that the Buddhists have for the Boddhisattva. The Bodhisattva, the one whose being — satra — is illumination — bodhi — who realizes his identity with eternity, and at the same time his participation in time. And the attitude is not to withdraw from the world when you realize how horrible it is, but to realize that this horror is simply the foreground of a wonder, and come back and participate in it. “All life is sorrowful,” is the first Buddhist saying, and it is. It wouldn’t be life if there were not temporality involved, which is sorrow, loss, loss, loss.

MOYERS: That’s a pessimistic note.

CAMPBELL: Well, I mean, you got to say, “yes” to it and say, “it’s great this way.” I mean, this is the way God intended it.

MOYERS: You don’t really believe that?

CAMPBELL: Well, this is the way it is, and I don’t believe anybody intended it, but this is the way it is. And Joyce’s wonderful line, you know, “History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.” And the way to awake from it is not to be afraid and to recognize, as I did in my conversation with that Hindu guru or teacher that I told you of, that all of this as it is, is as it has to be, and it is a manifestation of the eternal presence in the world. The end of things always is painful; pain is part of there being a world at all.

MOYERS: But if one accepted that, isn’t the ultimate conclusion to say, “well, I won’t try to reform any laws or fight any battles.”

CAMPBELL: I didn’t say that.

MOYERS: Isn’t that the logical conclusion one could draw, though, the philosophy of nihilism?

CAMPBELL: Well, that’s not the necessary thing to draw. You could say, “I will participate in this row, and I will join the army, and I will go to war.”

MOYERS: I’ll do the best I can on earth.

CAMPBELL: I will participate in the game. It’s a wonderful, wonderful opera, except that it hurts. And that wonderful Irish saying, you know, “Is this a private fight, or can anybody get into it?” This is the way life is, and the hero is the one who can participate in it decently, in the way of nature, not in the way of personal rancor, revenge or anything of the kind.

With our practice centered on making things better, designers are heroes in society. We can choose to be. Kvetching is unbecoming.

Brexit Explained

Are you confused by Brexit? I am. This short video from the folks at Information is Beautiful clarified for me the conundrum the UK finds itself in now:

Information is the lifeblood of democracy. People can’t effectively govern the system if they don’t understand the choices before them. I wonder how many people who voted in the Brexit referendum truly understood the implications of their decision.

Brexit Explained