From a 100ft tower, I still can’t see more than 12 miles away
I graduated towards the top of my class at Annapolis studying economics, then to a top grad schools for operations research on full scholarship. I was an Eagle Scout, joined the military, did 4 deployments, am now a reservist. Those credentials make it sound like I’m an informed citizen. I’ve got to admit though, I have trouble naming a bill that’s been signed into law recently and for the few I can name, I can only regurgitate talking points. I mean, I have a crap load of analytical ability and lots of experience with numerical methods, but when I conversationally analyze what Clinton did, Bush did, or Obama did, I’m relying on abridged and framed information from the news, or even more likely, one of my friends that’s repeating the news, or another friend. So… despite my analytical ability… and education… I’m always at a level of abstraction that makes my opinions… well… worthless… possibly, misleading.
This election cycle is interesting because a transition has been made in electronic communication where most of what I see is what’s trending, or gets shared and I may not even know the original source. Even mainstream organizations play fast and loose, give click bait titles, post editorials as news, or intentionally frame a story with a set of facts that has already been debunked. Straw men don’t have to be made up anymore as news sources reply to one of the over 3 billion internet users that has the opinion they want to respond to. The weakening of news brands forces us to be more cautious of the articles yet forgiving of the sources. This structure combined with negative campaigning, i.e. the mindset of choosing between the lesser evil, changes the calculus of how statements are decided on by politicians. Since the public doesn’t penalize wrong information attached to a brand as much anymore, the political decision becomes: Will my statement get more views than the fact checkers?
Do I have a solution for this media cycle? Will the next national election be less crazy than this one? Are we in trouble as a nation? No, nah, not really.
There is hope that technology is maturing in positive ways. The first push of the internet was connecting the whole world, but the app and startup craze is about creating small systems, often putting constraints on connection, that can be infinitely replicated if they work. The predominant school of thought is users tell technologists what to build and then iteration occurs until there’s a great product that everyone loves which I see as kind of like advocating pure capitalism. It ignores a lot of the whys and often leads to local optimums instead of global ones. Often externalities (or consequences for other people) are ignored with that mindset (see two paragraphs above). Despite these criticisms, people are getting more options of how they want to connect with others through technology and the current state may change given a little time.
I’ve been attending neighborhood council meetings about every third day for the past few weeks. All neighborhoods near me. Yes they’re weird. The council members outnumber the audience every time I’ve been. They’re old people with most of the exceptions looking to transition into paid city government positions. They exist at the pleasure of the city council and can be decertified, defunded, or taken over at any time. Their only power lies in the ability to print a community impact statement on the city council’s agenda and the budget they get from the city council that amounts to a little less than a dollar for each person in their neighborhood. They’re heavily regulated and spend much of their small budgets on the crappy technology they have and reaching out to their neighborhoods about their existence. Out of the last four I attended, the local paper sent me to the wrong location twice and there isn’t a shared calendar across different communities despite them being only a few miles apart (the city calendar doesn’t show neighborhood council meetings). Yet, they are able to organize pumpkin patches, marches, music festivals, bird watching, neighborhood film showings, informational sessions about rent control, Christmas tree lightings, clean ups, farmers markets, take stands against rooftop decks that are obscuring views and propelling sound in heavily gentrifying areas. The questions and answers I heard asked at a light rail presentation were much more intelligent, relevant, and informative than the Clinton e-mail congressional hearings I’d watched a few weeks before.
I’m getting an understanding of local issues and how policies enacted by city, state, and federal bodies filter down and impact the meetings and community. What policies I care about have shifted. I get to see city officials pitch their services. Today at a chamber of commerce meeting I listened to someone opening a new sandwich shop have a discussion about how to set up their bathrooms and the regulations and politics surrounding it. My ability to vote locally and hold officials accountable to tangible actions is more realized… but, I’m putting in significant effort and researching schedules.
If the outreach on these types of events gets better, they still may be annoying to go to and not for everyone. But if the outreach on these types of events gets better, and the outreach on the events they organize, and the outreach of the local businesses that have larger percentages of people that attend these events, serious network effects can happen with the way information flows. It still usually doesn’t give too much benefit to understanding national issues like defense, security, gun control, abortion, or may not even effect personal philosophical views on taxes (although maybe it’s easier to see where more of the money flows), but at least there is some information that is solid to build on while every effort is made making sense of trending news feeds.