Attention, Policy, and Problem-Solving

I upset a lot of people with this tweet:

As Twitter is a very limited conversational medium, I will expand a bit on my reasoning. There are two primary reasons to be outraged by what are inevitable asymmetries in attention in policy matters (which arise from bias, the availability heuristic, and many other psychological and social distortions in the distribution of eyeballs).

  1. Differences in attention are bad because they suggest an invalid moral hierarchy of suffering.
  2. Differences in attention are bad because they are a barrier to a solution.
  3. Item 1 is related to item 2.

I do not feel that argument 1 is, frankly, that useful. It is a product of a desire to endlessly castigate the West for its sins and imperfections, real or imagined, that exists among a certain set of commentators. That desire becomes tyrannical and pseudo-religious when it reaches down to the level of trying to manipulate and control individual behavior to produce an elaborate display of having purged oneself of unclean thoughts and emotions. The person who will not be happy until you have shown that you have read an article about all of the other bad and monstrous things happening in the world outside of Paris and made an appropriate display of your outrage and concern will also demand that you do many other things to signal that you concur with their belief system. Xavier Marquez has written much about these elaborate displays of belief-concurrence in authoritarian societies and political propaganda, and I do not feel that I can add much to anything that he has already said.

2 and 3, however, are much harder to dismiss outright. Suppose that if only we paid more attention to X, solution Y necessarily or probably would follow. Also suppose that an invalid hierarchy of suffering that unnecessarily marginalized X is a direct or sufficiently direct impediment to generating solution Y. That is indeed, a worthy argument. The problem lies in substantiating it. As Laura Seay has noted, Western advocacy has frequently had catastrophic unintended consequences in everything from “conflict diamonds” to the abortive “Stop Kony” movement. I would also observe more broadly that since the 1970s, every US president has invested substantial political capital in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the conflict receives an absurdly disproportionate amount of attention from the global media and NGOs. What has the result been? Oh…..wait. And the last time that the international community, spurred by highly publicized atrocities and led by the United States, intervened in Lebanon 200 Marines died from one well-placed bomb. Sometimes, as Ed Luttwak said, international attention to a crisis can be worse than neglect.

What I am trying to argue, however, goes well beyond the issue of international political violence. There is no inherent requirement that a large amount of people need to care about something for meaningful work to be done on it. Very few people care about stopping one of the biggest killers in America — car accidents. Yet a small group of technical experts may render human driving irrelevant and substantially lower the death toll by working on self-driving cars. The research and technology that will make this happen — deep neural networks — came as a result of a few lonely artificial intelligence researchers toiling away when very few people in their own field cared about the parallel distributed processing research program. The Manhattan Project, often invoked as a desired thing that would follow if only we cared about X, was conducted in secret by governmental, industrial, and scientific elites. But lest you think that I am drawing all of my examples from the sciences, American external support has — in a low key way — generated substantial gains in helping resolve the Philippines’ security problems. The United States and the United Nations, every day and every hour, are generating practical solutions to problems that few people care about or even know exist on the ground in Africa and many other parts of the world.

None of this necessarily follows from a mass of people changing their Facebook profiles, making elaborate expressions of concern, or even necessarily a large amount of institutional support. Andrew Marshall and the Office of Net Assessment revolutionized American national security by, simply, staying out of the way of the Pentagon bureaucracy as to not be perceived as a threat to existing bureaucratic rice bowls. Fred Turner observed that a few hippies in love with technology managed to create the foundations of the modern computer industry. Both the Netroots and Tea Party movements managed to change the course of the Democratic and Republican parties despite the fact that very few people outside their group cared about the issues as passionately and (some say, fanatically), as they did. Most modern cultural trends in the arts emerged from the underground and went massively viral, turning figures (such as Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain) that may have never wanted mainstream fame into pop culture gods. And, speaking of the divine, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, and others asked their flock to follow them through trial and tribulation. They did not ask their followers to change their Facebook profiles or tweet about it.

Sometimes attention and mass public participation is necessary to fixing a problem. The #BlackLivesMatter movement has been succesful due to the organizational acumen of its leaders in focusing public attention on a narrow problem — police violence — and getting themselves a seat at the table. Likewise, public embarrassment of the US at a time when it badly needed to show the Third World that it was progressive to compete with the Soviets played a strong role in helping the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. And, as Joshua Foust has argued in the case of Syria and Russia, attention asymmetries also can have very real consequences when the bodies that are diverting their gaze have real decision-making power or influence. But all of this has to be demonstrated rather than merely asserted. Awareness-raising is only useful if it is somehow necessary for the instrumental process of achieving the desired aim. In many cases, it is not and is in fact an obstacle to that aim. And when the purpose is, as a more perceptive tweeter than I noted, tragedy hipsterism, it is really useful to no one.

If you are really interested in solving a neglected problem that you care about, you will think about how public attention can help play a role in fixing it instead of shaming people for not making appropriately distributed displays of outrage.