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The Lee Atwater Legacy and Attack Ads

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The Lee Atwater Legacy and Attack Ads

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Thanks to a recommendation on Twitter last week, I watched Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story. For those of you who aren't familiar with his legacy, Lee Atwater was the campaign strategist that pretty much invented the negative political game. He was a master at planting rumors and spreading lies that would take hold before any fact checker could come along and dispel them. He knew that first impressions would last. We see so much of this in politics now. It's commonplace to have a political ad or statement be an outright lie and have the lie teller get away with it. Fact checkers during the 2012 Obama/Romney election went crazy. Even during the debates, stats were fudged and statements were made that were bold-faced lies. And even though fact checkers were quickly setting the record straight, the original lie stuck with more people than it should have.

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And all of this was just exacerbated with social media. Infographics with half-the-story statistics spread around Facebook faster than the latest Kimye rumor. I started to get weary of sharing anything as every time I did, I'd get a slap on the wrist from followers (while dozens of others spread the not-so-accurate graphic).

We are all aware of this, but very few of us know where it came from or why it's so damned effective.

It didn't 100% start with Lee Atwater, but he definitely put on a great show of what you could get away with if you had no scruples. PR spinners had been effectively massaging the facts and pulling the wool over the eyes of the masses since the days of Eddie Bernays, but even these spinners had limits and played it careful. I highly recommend the movie to anyone who is curious about how attack ad in politics got it's start (btw, Karl Rove is a 'student' of Lee Atwater, though I'd say he's a much clumsier version. Atwater had a special level of apathy to what he was doing...until his deathbed when he realized that he had created a monster.).

But the origins are easier to stomach than the fact that negative political ads work so effectively at the end of the day. Even the Obama campaign deployed them heavily during this last election. The question has been asked and explored: Do Negative Political Ads Work? Well, in a way YES.

According to research, the way in which negative ads DON'T work is:

1. they won't increase voter turnout

2. they don't change the minds of people who already have a political leaning

But the way they DO work is that they get the attention of the people who are undecided. And really, that's who all ads target, right?

According to an article on the Discovery network, human beings "are emotional creatures, wired to pay attention to harmful information." We pay more attention to the negative stuff because paying attention to the negative stuff contributes more to our survival. The negative ads are stressful, but they make us engage and pay attention.

This spells bad news for the future of politics everywhere, even Canada, where attack ads are definitely on the rise. There is an upside to the downside: negative politics actually engages the disengaged at a certain level and even those who could care less about politics start to remember the issues. And this wouldn't be so bad if the negative ads were fact based, but because of Atwater's legacy, many strategists realized that lying is just no big deal.

But there is good news, too. It seems that the over-saturation of attack ads lessens the effect. A researcher and associate professor from the University of Miami, Juliana Fernandez, showed in experiments that the overuse of attack ads renders the ads less effective than no advertising at all:

In one experiment, Ms. Fernandes showed participants a 30-second negative advertisement one, three, or five times. Results indicated that that positive perception of the candidate sponsoring the ad was highest when the participants saw the ad three times and lowest when they saw it five times.

Which, thankfully, means that we have our limit. And according to the 7:1 ratio of negative to positive political ad placement in the last US election, I'm hoping we've reached it.

So how do you combat negative attack ads? Well, here is first what you should NOT do:

1. respond with negative attack ads

2. be silent/ignore them

3. dodge and change the topic

Past political candidates learnt the hard way that neither of these 'reactions' work well. Bill Clinton was a classic dodger and it earned him the nickname, "Slick Willy". Michael Dukakis tried to ignore Bush's attacks on his political past and his involvement with www.santacruzsolarcompanies.com Santa Cruz solar companies with stone cold silence and he paid a dear price for it (when one 'side' is delivering a sticky message, it's best you respond quickly). Anyone who has responded to negativity with negativity has just come out looking like they were defensive (and thus guilty). The best way to combat negative ads is to do what we were taught as young children:

Counter with honesty and openness...and a little humor never hurts.

This works especially well now with the web and the public's increased desire for 'human' and authentic interactions. Barack Obama, though his campaign was quite negative in itself, won HUGE points during the campaign when responding to negative ads by using honesty peppered with humor. One of my favorite moments was Barack Obama on the Tonight Show discussing the negative campaigning Donald Trump had been doing against him:

[youtube=http://youtu.be/g1C453KwDzY]

I'm hoping Obama's ability to step up and be open, honest and have a sense of humor about it becomes the anti-Atwater of the next era of political campaigning. Messages delivered through humor are also emotionally sticky and we need more of the funny emotions sticking than the angry or fearful emotions.

I recommend everyone watches Boogie Man to understand where the attack ad came from so we can figure out how to move beyond it.

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How Do We Make Canadian Politics Sexier? A: Nerds

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How Do We Make Canadian Politics Sexier? A: Nerds

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When I was in university, I did some volunteering for the political party I most admired. I put signs on my lawn. I called. I handed out leaflets. I knocked on doors. I felt engaged. But something happened over the years. Year after year, I lost interest in Canadian politics. And I'm not alone. Voter turnout in Canada declined terribly since a pretty good number 1988 (75.3%) with only a slight improvement in the last election (61.4%). Still, considering how quiet Canadians are about politics compared to our southern neighbors (57.5% of population voted this last election), it's not awful. But I have noticed a general apathy amongst the newest voters that is troublesome. In fact, it's their disengagement that is leading to the majority of the decline in voter turnout. My son, who will be 20 in March, hasn't voted in a Canadian election (though he could have) and is much more engaged in US politics than he is in his own Canadian politics.

But I completely understand where he's coming from. I was glued to the web from the Primaries in this most recent US election. Part of it had to do with my previous involvement in the 2008 election (I volunteered and donated to Obama's campaign while living in San Francisco), but that wasn't it. I was also completely enrapt with the whole circus of it.

Some of that circus was painful to observe. I wasn't a fan of the political ads and smear campaigns. But I did love the passion that practically oozed from the voters. And the passion I was most enrapt with was from the nerds. And the king of those nerds was Nate Silver and FiveThirtyEight.

Of course Harper Reed, Josh Thayer, Mark Trammell and the rest of the Obama nerd core were pretty amazing to watch, but I had FiveThirtyEight consistently open in a tab for months leading up to the election and I may have been more engaged there than I was in Facebook. And of course, there were the debates on YouTube and the exciting election hashtags on Twitter and the neverending stream of self-appointed pundits on Facebook, but nothing made me feel as good or as concerned as the graphs on FiveThirtyEight.

I love data and have heard multiple explanations of what is behind this simple chart, but I'm still enthralled by it. It's math. It's logical. It's straight forward. But wow, it's stunning and magical.

And what is the most stunning and magical part about it is the story behind the project. Nate was a baseball stats nerd (I used to think that sounded really boring, but then I read Moneyball and watched the movie, and realized there was nothing boring about it) who turned his formulas to politics when he got interested in the 2008 election. He built an application and a website and, ultimately, a huge following of people like me who relied on his math to give us some insight into the election.

He wasn't paid to do this. He wasn't employed by any campaign. He just got interested and built something really really amazing that he probably had no idea would blow up so much. Of course HE was fascinated by it, but did he know where it would lead? He didn't buy Google Adwords or run a Facebook campaign or put banners on sites all over the web. News about this amazingly geeky and potentially accurate site just spread through the networks organically. And now he is king of nerds.

This is why I love the web. And democratization. Because people build stuff  out of passion. And I love US politics because it makes people so passionate they want to do this. And nerds are SUCH great builders of interesting stuff out of their passion.

We are still just over 2 years away from another Canadian election. This is plenty of time to build the type of passion for our politics that we could birth our own Nate Silvers. And hint. Hint. ThreeZeroEight.org is available (.com is being squatted by a reseller). Just in case you read this and think, "Hey! I love Canadian politics and I could totally do this!"

Please do.

Because I'm going to stop being apathetic myself. This is an amazing country that we have LOTS to be proud of. And rejoice over. And vote to maintain and grow. And hell, maybe I'll crack open my old statistics text books and try to figure this stuff out myself. Because Canadian politics needs more nerds.

UPDATE:

There IS a FiveThirtyEight for Canada...I'm not sure why I failed to look up the full number:

http://www.threehundredeight.com/

Followed! It looks super promising. You can also follow Éric on Twitter.

[cover image: Nerd by Bayat on Flickr]

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The Hole in the Soul of Business

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The Hole in the Soul of Business

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(the title of this post is a direct 'tribute' to a column of the same name by one of my favorite management writers, Gary Hamel) For the past 12 years, Edelman has conducted a very in-depth study of the level of trust consumers have for government, media and corporations and has found, unsurprisingly, that there has been a steady decline in public trust. This doesn't come as a big surprise to most readers who feel continuously manipulated and lied to by government, media and corporations in the interest of their own gains.

But trust works both ways and I'm less interested in convincing customers and citizens to trust and more interested in convincing government, media and corporations to trust their customers and citizens.

I've observed and been part of a growing DIY culture - one that is demonstrating that individuals can and will come together to achieve results that are inspirational and often reflecting a more democratic outcome than any of the top-down efforts.

Take, for instance, the amazing efforts of #OccupySandy, a grassroots, people powered movement of engaged and concerned citizens looking to help Hurricane Sandy victims and get affected areas back to normal (or better) in the wake of the storm. Government did an okay job coming in in the immediate aftermath, sending in troops, supplies and boosting the cleanup and some corporations have donated a good number of proceeds to the clean up (mostly going to the Red Cross and other large NGOs). But the #OccupySandy volunteers can go deeper and further and not have to encounter much for red tape. They can see a crisis, figure out the most efficient and best way to fix it and just do it. Are mistakes made in the process? Probably. But the benefits of these agile, scrappy "organizations" outweigh the losses.

I've been a fan, advocate of and participant in grassroots change for a long time and continue to believe that encouraging participation is a good thing. Generations of people were encouraged to be passive and dependent, but the web came along and changed that paradigm. Instead of Read-Only, it gave us writing privileges. We gained a voice. It allowed us to connect with others who wanted to contribute. Those who grew up with the web expect interaction and their default is participation. Those of us in the 'sandwich' generation (half our lives were pre-browser) and older are still trying to figure out what that means.

I was raised in a culture that promoted a paternal outlook on the world. People needed protection: from invasion, from the communists, from brand confusion, from the bad guys and, mostly, from one another. The default was security, not transparency. Sites like Wikipedia were frightening before they were invaluable. But as the web has evolved, it's as if the curtain is being pulled back on the Wizard of Oz and we are realizing more and more that we don't have to wait for permission or someone else to save us. We have the tools and power at our fingertips.

But power is a funny thing. Once you have it, you don't want to give it up, especially if you have it based on some default or otherwise extrinsic means. Real power and leadership is when people trust and respect you and choose to follow you. When I think of real power and leadership, I imagine those that really affected change like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Simone de Beauvoir and more recently Steve Jobs (and yes, Steve was reportedly hard on people, but he led with such inspiration). These leaders didn't feel threatened by others. If they were criticized or challenged, they would engage in the challenge and open themselves up to improvements. But most power is fleeting and extrinsic. It's gained from having money or given a position in which one can exercise their power. I've watched lots of people luck out on a bit of success only to let it go to their heads. These are the same people who feel the most insecure about their power.

Most corporations fit this bill. It's such a dog-eat-dog world. Customer loyalty is fleeting. And you can have a hit one day and be forgotten the next. Smart companies who will succeed will remain more agile and flexible like the #OccupySandy example. What works today may not work tomorrow, so how does one know how to stay a step ahead? By being open and flexible and empowering every employee in your organization to bring their innovation to the forefront. And how do you ensure that this innovation is focused and not haphazard? Strong culture and leadership. The more your employees understand and are invested in your brand, the better their ideas will be.

But the hole in the soul of business is that it can't trust. It can't trust partners, employees, customers or even themselves most of the time. Even when doing the same thing over and over stops achieving results, leaders would rather turn to outside consultants that don't know their business for the answers rather than asking their own employees who have hundreds of ideas on how to evolve. Every corporation and every government has an #OccupySandy of their own just waiting to be the incubator of potential awesome, but they either ignore or alienate their biggest assets.

I'm guessing that Edelman's Trust Barometer has a direct correlation to the trust that government, media and corporations have for their customers and citizens. You trust us and we'll reward you by trusting you back. I know it sounds more than utopic on my part, but I still believe in the awesomely powerful potential of collaboration between people, government, media and corporations - with an emphasis on people - to solve problems (and make profits) more effectively.

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Five Things I've Learned By Listening to People Whose Views Differ

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Five Things I've Learned By Listening to People Whose Views Differ

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Last night after the awesome Bill Clinton speech, which I watched first through people talking (via Twitter, Facebook and Current.tv, which is thoroughly fascinating during live events) about it and have since watched online. Right afterwards, my friend Deb Schultz, tweeted:

It reminded me of a tweet I saw 4 years ago during the last election. I can't remember who said it at the time, but I decided that day to 'fix' it myself. I combined a bit of the Current stream (found people from the Republican camp that were making intelligent comments) with people I've met along the way who I knew defined themselves as Libertarians or Republican Party members and followed everyone I could. I certainly don't have an ideally balanced network. I'd say people with opposing political views make up about 5% of my stream and maybe 10% of my Facebook, but they are there and I try to listen and engage and understand.

One of these people is someone whose thoughts I really admire. His name is Charles Hope and he is a Facebook friend. I met Charles back in 2005 at a really cool community-organized conference in San Francisco. He was one of the founders of Blip.tv and I was in awe of the stuff they were doing. I had no idea what his political views were, but I thought this startup from New York was awesome. So somewhere along the line as Facebook was growing, Charles and I became friends on the network.

I don't know how he votes, but we definitely have different approaches to how we would like to see the world work. But what I admire about Charles is that he is incredibly educated on what he is talking about. So much so that I find myself taking a step back from my own point of view quite frequently to adjust it. I'd like to think our conversations do the same for him. ;)

But Charles isn't the only one and after an exchange with Deb and some others, I realized that my adding a bit of dissenting/oppositional type diversity to my social stream has taught me some good lessons that I should share out to the world.

LESSON #1: THE 'OTHER SIDE' ISN'T UNEDUCATED OR 'IDIOTIC'

Sure, when I hear someone like Todd Akin talking about super vaginas that can kill a rapists sperm, my first reaction to that comment is, "WTH? What an idiot!" But Akin isn't representative of his entire party (though some people wanted to paint that portrait). And though the comment wasn't very informed, he was falling prey to a couple of factors:

  1. misinformation from a source he trusted that told him what he wanted to hear (the result of confirmation bias, which we all fall prey to in varying degrees)
  2. the lack of knowledge in that particular area (without sex education, we don't have a good understanding of how bodies actually work)
  3. the propensity to talk with authority on stuff we don't know much about, but have been given a platform so we use it (which, once again, we all fall prey to...just watch your social media stream for a couple of minutes)

I'm not making any excuses for the comment. It was asinine. But there were more than a few leaps of logic that made people question how educated members and supporters of the Republican party are. Truth is, there are educated and uneducated members of both parties. And education doesn't always mean smarter either. A doctor may understand reproduction, but not necessarily budget balancing.

Either way, just because someone doesn't agree with you or thinks in a manner that opposes your views doesn't mean he or she is uneducated or idiotic. And dismissing someone's viewpoint in that manner is doing a disservice to both them and you.

LESSON #2: IT DEPENDS IS A REALLY GOOD ANSWER

In March of this year, I had the pleasure of listening to New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu speak at an Inc. conference. He was a last-minute addition to the roster and I nearly used the time to make notes for my own presentation, but I'm glad I stuck around. He gave an impassioned talk on how rebuilding New Orleans was done by group effort: government, private companies and the people of New Orleans. He told us that it was only successful because ideology took a back seat to doing what is right.

The more I listen to the 'sides' the more I realize that Democrats and Republicans are right sometimes and wrong sometimes - depending on the situation. And I'm not talking about design by committee or consensus, either. I've seen how that can sometimes turn out first hand (and once again, I said sometimes because there are some situations where consensus actually works well). I'm referring to what Mayor Landrieu advocates: speaking with responsibility, not ideology. Privatizing can be a really great thing and it can be a really disastrous thing. Government intervention can be necessary at times and an impediment at other times. And sometimes a concerned citizen can just pick up a shovel and plant a tree and that's fine, too.

And listening has helped me let go of ideology and understand responsibility for ourselves, our country and our world.

LESSON #3: FACTS AREN'T REALLY

I've watched a Republican friend post a table to her Facebook wall to underscore a point, then shortly after, I saw the same table with a slightly different emphasis (or zoomed out a bit more or in a bit more) posted on a Democrat friend's wall to underscore his point. I should have taken screenshots when this happened (Facebook is notoriously bad at history...but aren't we all?), but it's happened more than once and each time I've been reminded how the facts can be altered to anyone's reality.

So yeah...about that arithmetic...

LESSON #4: SOMETHING REPEATED ENOUGH TIMES BECOMES FACT

When I was moving and had to use shipmycar.info ship my car, I was thinking about this a lot and this is the bit that makes me very sad. Remember, not everything you read on the web is truth. I've fallen prey to this, too. But I see lots of lies, defamation and conjecture travel through grapevines until they become irrefutable too many times now. It's how marketing works at the end of the day and politicians are VERY good at marketing. Buyer beware.

Oh...and as an adjunct to this sad lesson: remember that once you believe something, our good friends in the cognitive distortion department of our brains will amplify all of the data that supports our POV so that we validate those untruths even more. Beware. Your brain lies to you, too.

LESSON #5: THE RIGHT AREN'T GREEDY PIGS AND THE LEFT AREN'T COMMIES

There ARE bad people in the world, but they don't exist disproportionally on one side or the other. I know you think so and have all sorts of evidence to support it, but let me refer you back to Lessons 1-4. Everyone genuinely believes that their point of view is the best one for everyone. This is the hardest lesson of all.

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These are lessons I'm still learning daily. Every single day, I fall prey to my own brain's desire to destroy all opposing evidence. But I'm getting more and more comfortable in my fence sitting position. My dad used to joke, "Stop! Stop! You're both wrong!" when my brother and I fought (and sometimes substituted the "wrong" for "right"). I'm finally understanding what he meant. Stop fighting. We all have the same goal. Maybe if we ALL listened to one another more (as Deb suggests), we could get there faster.

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Charmed (again) by Charm City

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Charmed (again) by Charm City

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[youtube=http://youtu.be/X77j_D0L5ug] (thanks for the title suggestion Sharon!)

A few months back, I wrote about a short trip to Baltimore, Maryland that fundamentally rocked my core. I've always wanted to visit Baltimore as I'm one of the many fans of the amazing show The Wire, but discovered quickly that Baltimore is so much more than The Wire. Another name for Baltimore is Charm City and before I even knew that, I commented to my hosts, "Wow, this city is so charming." It is. It's filled with gorgeous brick buildings and lovely row houses with marble stoops where people sit and enjoy the company of their neighbors. It's also a harbor, so there's lots of waterfront activity: paths and restaurants and museums.

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But there is a major disparity that is highlighted in The Wire - especially in Season 3 & 4 - and highlighted in the map to the right by Chris Whong. The red pins on the Baltimore City map represent all of the vacant homes in Baltimore (est. 40,000+). They are often seen in great numbers for entire blocks, making it feel like you have entered an abandoned town, but a few blocks away you wouldn't know it.

Every city in North America has a disparity between the rich and poor, but these "unburied corpses" make it incredibly visible in Baltimore. And like a cancer, these vacancies spread. People leave their homes, their neighborhoods and the cancer keeps creeping.

There are many reasons for this, but much of it is very much like the reason Detroit went from a booming (1.85M) to abandoned (706,000) in a few decades (thanks to Damian Rintelmann for pointing out this great video on the boom to bust). And though the migration wasn't near as devastating (Baltimore peaked in 1960 at just under 1M and is down to 635,000 today), it shows in the vacancies.

Baltimore, much like Detroit, is a manufacturing city. I learnt that Baltimore used to be home to everything under the sun manufacturing: from garments to ships to umbrellas to flour to hats and you name it. It was a perfect port for raw materials to come into, get built, then get shipped across America. But with manufacturing being done overseas, the jobs left and so did the people. But Baltimore is still incredibly well-located, has great universities and so many great residents who love their city. I was tempted to never leave!

As someone charmed by the city, I felt compelled on my first trip to contribute in some way. I didn't want to just feel sad about this and forget it. It felt as if I needed to be part of changing this. The city is just too amazing.

I used to do all sorts of civic action-type BarCamps and the like, including TransitCampBayArea, where I'd reach out to a whole bunch of stakeholders -citizens, politicians, public service providers, hackers, etc- and create a space for them to discuss how we can all collaborate to make things better. It was a hit for events like TCBA and EqualityCamp - where 'rival' organizations got together and actually decided to cooperate for the public good. Why couldn't it work in Baltimore?

So I called up Jason Hardebeck (gb.tc) and we started conspiring. The results are explained in the video above as well as a few blog posts, but I do want to highlight a couple of amazing bits from the event:

  • The talks from the first day will be going up online in the near future, but were incredible and inspiring. From education to job creation to public art to great stuff we can do with public data was presented. The quality blew my mind.
  • The second day where we collaborated was the tougher part, but ended up working out great. There were four amazing projects that emerged: HirED (from Wired to Hired Baltimore), The Lean, Mean Art Machine (a community-driven public art project), A Barclay Centre for Adult Education/Training, and a LinkedIN group + searchable map to pull together the various non-profit and service organizations in Baltimore - you can see the video from the final presentations here. And here are the notes from the sessions.
  • At the tail end of the event, Dave Troy walked up and showed me something he had hacked together during the day that showed tweets in Baltimore and demonstrated that people from many of the neighborhoods we were talking about were tweeting frequently. What this could mean is that we no longer have to wonder what is on the minds of the residents of these neighborhoods. This is awesome data. Dave and Chris Whong collaborated on making this more visually friendly  and it is BRILLIANT.
  • And as a bonus at the end of the day, as the group retired to have pizza and beer, we sat down at a table beside Clarke Peters, who plays Lester Freamon on The Wire (one of my favorite characters). I didn't want to disturb his dinner with the family, but did tell him briefly how fitting it was that we picked a restaurant and table next to him after working all weekend on making Baltimore LESS like The Wire. He seemed amused. ;)

I encourage anyone who hasn't been to Baltimore to check it out. It's hip like Brooklyn/Portland but without the attitude. Baltimorians are very Canadian in that they are quite self-deprecating (I can identify). It's beautiful and fresh and healthy. There is an abundance of good seafood. The houses are lovely (and real estate is affordable!). And if you want to be part of a community that is completely engaged, this is the place to be.

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Musing on Collectivism vs. Individualism

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Musing on Collectivism vs. Individualism

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For some reason, Facebook is a hotbed of political discussion. Actually, I know the reason: Facebook is where we express our opinions and promote the ideas we want to promote. It's the ultimate in Confirmation Bias. We like the statements people make that support our opinions and views and argue with those who we disagree with.

I had one of those arguments on my own wall in the last couple of days. It started with a quote from Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations (1776) (I was underscoring that the 'father of Capitalism' foresaw that corporations should not have influence in law):

"The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order, ought always to be listened to with great precaution...It comes from an order of men, whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it." Book I, Chapter XI, Part III

...and spiraled into a debate with a person I hardly know about the benefits/evils of Individualism vs. Collectivism. I should say straight up that I'm opposed to the extreme of both ends of this duality. There needs to be a balance between the two - an uneasy, messy, complicated balance. I feel that the US is lacking balance (Individualism lite and Individualism extreme are the 'ends' of the spectrum), but that's another rant. Either way, I posted a rather lengthy reply to the commenter and I thought to myself, "This is a blog post, not a Facebook comment," so I have posted it here.

Here is the latter part of the conversation. Let me know if you have opinions of your own:

ME: "FWIW, I believe in a good balance between individual and community - no extremes on either side. Extremes, in my opinion, never lead to good solutions. Of course the balance between the two is not easy, but I live in a country that does a pretty good job of it."

FB Commenter: "Ah, the good balance...Problem is, you can not satisfy the hunger of the collectivist for power. That's why the founding fathers drafted the constitution in the form of negative liberties ("Congress shall not") and gave Gov only certain enumerated powers so that we'll enjoy maximum freedom. They never envision that communists will be able to win elections and impose their tyrannical ways here in the U.S. , but hey, it is a never ending battle. Freedom will have its day...:)"

ME: "you can not satisfy the hunger of the collectivist for power." Is this a singular collectivist? Or a group of people? I'm pretty sure you have been influenced somewhere by someone who doesn't truly understand what Collectivism is.

The whole basis of Democracy is political Collectivism - the idea that no one person is given power above others and each of us has one vote - and that we are interdependent beings (need one another to survive). Unless, of course, you are talking about Centralism (sometimes referred to as vertical collectivism), which is a specific scenario in which a chosen group of people decide what is best for everyone. This occurs in a Monarchy, which I don't believe anyone in the US represents or champions. It's also what Totalitarian regimes adopted.

Canada (my country) is a political Collectivism. It's a Social Democracy with regulatory bodies, free public health care and education, grants and programs to help entrepreneurs get off the ground and one of my favorite former leaders once said, "The State has no business in the bedrooms of its people." We're not perfect and there are lots of inefficiencies in the system, but we strike a nice balance between the individual and collective. (and contrary to popular belief, our taxes aren't that much higher - higher, yes, but by a few percentage points in most cases and our lower income threshold is much higher, so our working class pays lower taxes than US working class...it's complicated, but the wealthy have fewer tax breaks in Canada, so they definitely pay the lion's share)

I wasn't raised with the idea that collectivism is inherently evil, but I was given lots of history lessons and see how all sorts of governments in all sorts of forms have become power hungry. The issue is the human predisposition for power. Anytime any one person or group gains too much power, they abuse it. Power allows a person or a group to maximize their individual freedoms (sort of a 'na na na boo boo, I can do whatever I want to and you can't stop me' thing we are born with).

Theoretically, pure individualism would work in a completely flat society - one in which hierarchies and status is eradicated. Because one's power could never eclipse that of his or her neighbor. Unfortunately, the same power-hunger exists in individuals without power as it does for those who have it, so there will be an endless struggle to maximize individual power (this is referred to as vertical individualism btw). In our world, money and privilege are great unequalizers. And money and privilege create more money and privilege.

This is why I believe in uneasy, messy, complicated balance. It may seem to a 'free will' advocate that it limits personal freedoms, but it also protects us from someone's personal freedoms impeding on our own (more of a Compatibilism idea where Free Will and determinism exist in peace to keep the peace).

At the end of the day, I'd rather it be an obvious law or regulation than have to spend each day in and day out fighting for my own space in the world (which I feel we do enough of with the biases and inequality that already exists in society). At least in a democracy, I can vote. Maybe I don't get my way, but at least I have the same say as the next guy.

(I've made a few edits to explain the argument better outside of the FB context - nothing that changes my position, just underscores it)

...

When I lived in SF, I encountered MANY Randians (you know, Ayn Rand worshippers) who sounded very much like my FB commenter. I think Rand represents an extreme of an idea and profited through her controversial outlook (but didn't always live by it, btw. She's a truly fascinating character...). But following the Atlas Shrugged or Fountainhead lessons like gospel would be akin to me following Star Wars as gospel - they are fictional stories with underlying lessons and messages, but not real life.

Real life is filled with real people who generally try really really hard to be good people, but more than often lose our way, become power hungry, selfish, needy, insecure, afraid and fall prey to all sorts of psychological imperfections that we can't control (and often don't even recognize in ourselves).

In a world filled with only those who act like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Mother Theresa and the Dalai Lama (each of whom fought their own demons btw), we'd be fine no matter what political or social or whatever system we chose. We could be anarchists and live harmoniously. But we aren't.

We smoosh ourselves into cities, living on top of one another, feeling stressed and alienated and anxious day in and day out. When we get a whiff of escape from this, we don't want to go back to the struggle of everyday existence, so we do what we can to hold onto the power.  Power acts like the Gadget-Mobile, allowing us to transcend every day barriers (but we all know it was Penny and Brain that saved Inspector Gadget's butt constantly). Once you sit in first class, going back to economy is tough. I know this. I want to throw temper tantrums daily to get my way, but I don't because I know that I don't deserve getting my way any more than anyone else.

We are seriously free, lucky, incredibly privileged mofos at the end of the day. To cry about our freedoms being taken away because we've been asked to pay for our employee's healthcare plans is an insult to those who can't walk down the street without fearing for their lives because of a corrupt government and an even more corrupt revolution (my sister-in-law was raised in Sierra Leone...ask her how free you are).

The problems we have are deep, but we can only blame government and leeches on the system and anyone else who is our scapegoat for their small part. The biggest problem is our perception of things. Our lack of freedom and our biggest enemies lie within our own selves. We are never happy. We are insatiable. We believe that we are getting ripped off. We think we are the center of the bloody universe. We invent most of our own problems. And we project all of our insecurities onto others.

Hell, maybe the Buddhists have the answer. There is no self and no other. Man, I need to learn how to meditate...

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With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

greatpower So as any of you who visited HPC yesterday know, it was attacked by a malware hosting site. I'm not sure how they do it, but somehow they get in and implant iframe code to serve up malicious software for unsuspecting visitors. I think it may have been a security hole in WordPress combined with my own laziness around passwords (now fixed). Either way, it wasn't a good day and I spent many hours cleaning out this bad code and trying to figure out what the heck was going on. Many hours were also spent by Ivan Storck (of Sustainable Websites - my host), William Dodson (from OBX Designworks) and my friend Mathieu (developer in Montreal) in helping me through this. By the time we got all of the malware attack cleaned out, Google had blacklisted my site (which led to a series of blacklisting by all the sites using Google's indexing API). Yuck.

I wasn't attacked personally. This happens randomly all of the time. Somehow there is money to be made in ruining the internet. However, I find it very odd to think that one would wreck the very thing that provides them with a steady stream of income. I compared the action to the self-replicating Smith on the Matrix. (spoiler alert) Imagine if Smith would have won - he would have taken the machine down and everyone would have died. There would be no point in him existing anymore.

Which brings me to my point: where did we go wrong in the world to encourage the Smiths? The malware hosts? The scammers, spammers, frauds, grifters, etc? Those that would pollute the very environment they need to exist in? These people are obviously gifted with the ability to problem solve, code, think up elaborate schemes and strategize. If they used this talent for good and not for evil, imagine how AWESOME the world would be!

It's a tragedy of the commons, where selfish thinkers abuse the common space for their own gain. Of course, this thinking - if truly strategic - assumes that not all will follow the selfish path. The tragedy occurs when everyone thinks selfishly and the commons is ruined and unusable, leaving nothing for anyone to exploit any longer.

If instead human beings thought truly strategically - and this is the basis to my favourite book in the universe The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation by Matt Ridley - and contributed to the commons, we would all thrive! But this selfish, short-term thinking hacking away of small pieces of the pie happens and we all suffer...including the hackers themselves eventually.

This happens because - as Ridley says in The Origins of Virtue - the system is set up to encourage such selfish, short term thinking. Narrow view competition, multiple times removed culpability and a focus on short-term rewards have encouraged this. For instance, there are corporate structures, with their quarterly reporting (short-term view) and lack of social responsibility (the responsibility is with the shareholders who are far removed from the decision making as well as the consequences of that decision making). Copyright and patents also contribute to the attitude. I would argue that almost everything about surviving in modern society has to do with removing ourselves from responsibility and giving us the individual task to survive one day at a time (but that is a different post).

Thus, we encourage a great deal of tragedy in the commons themselves, costing billions of dollars in security, fraud protection, insurance and damages every year to those who try to live their lives on the up and up.

So, how do we stop this insanity? Like Peter Parker in the picture - whose tragedy was focusing on his own selfish needs resulting in the loss of his uncle - we aren't recognizing the long term consequences of our actions. I really think this needs to be forefront in our discussions around this stuff. We also need a good dialogue and understanding of the butterfly effect - how one action leads to effecting so many others. It may seem small and insignificant to cheat here and there, but it adds up and changes the system we are part of. And finally, and I know this type of thinking isn't popular amongst Americans, we have to imagine how we can contribute to the commons to mutually benefit (instead of one or two people benefiting, leading to the suffering of others). It's not socialism, it's smarter thinking. Just think of the costs we will save on our taxes alone when we don't have to pay for the inefficiencies of a system full of people trying to cheat it.

We do have great power here. These tools can be used for great things. Solving hunger, poverty, creating peace, boosting economies (in countries where most of the spammer/scammer stuff comes out of), finding cures for bad diseases and all of the other social pitfalls we've created by thinking too short term for our world. So...where do we start?

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Rebooting America

Rebooting America book Yay! Totally stoked that Rebooting America is now available for sale, an anthology I worked on with the good peeps at the Personal Democracy Forum. Rebooting includes forty-four essays by political and digital luminaries including Craig Newmark (of craigslist), Esther Dyson, Joe Trippi, Newt Gingrich and many others -- including my slightly provocative essay, "Who Needs Elected Officials Anyway?"! Each essay has a unique central idea but all are infused with the hopes of reenergizing, reorganizing, and reorienting our government for the Internet Age.

Rebooting America is more than a book, it is an “open source” experiment in new media publishing underwritten by the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy. Copies of the book are available as .pdfs for download for free. Every essay has been posted online with an invitation for readers to comment.

However, I'm hoping that you'll consider buying a paperback edition to support this open model. Rebooting America is available today online for viewing and purchase.

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You can't eat Whuffie (but it's getting harder to eat without it)

How to Monetize Whuffie The last couple of times I've come across the border to apply for my TN1 Visa (NAFTA Visa between Canada and US), the border officers have Googled me. And, to my surprise, have actually told me that the results were good enough to back up the resume I handed them. One official actually said, "You should state on your resume that you are very Google-able!"

This isn't new, really, and it has certainly been the practice for many savvy recruiters over the years. I worked for a spell at an HR organization in Canada and met many who ended up hiring the candidates with the most impressive online presence...especially when it came to more senior positions at organizations. The more results one has that points to professional accomplishments, the easier it was for them to determine if what was in the resume was accurate. It helped even more if those accomplishments were from websites and blogs other than the candidate.

I believe Google is probably the closest thing we have today to a Whuffie meter. Whuffie, for those who are new here is (and this is my definition):

The sum of the reputation, influence, bridging capital and bonding capital, access to ideas and talent, access to resources, potential access to further resources, saved up favors, accomplishments (resumes, awards, articles, etc.) and the Whuffie of those who you have relationships with.

The term, itself, was coined by Cory Doctorow in his amazing Sci-Fi book, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, as the currency of the future. The generalized definition gleaned from this book is:

Whuffie has replaced money, providing a motivation for people to do useful and creative things. A person's Whuffie is a general measurement of his or her overall reputation, and Whuffie is lost and gained according to a person's favorable or unfavorable actions. The question is, who determines which actions are favorable or unfavorable? In Down and Out, the answer is public opinion. Rudely pushing past someone on the sidewalk will definitely lose you points from them (and possibly bystanders who saw you), while composing a much-loved symphony will earn you Whuffie from everyone who enjoyed it.

So, you can gain Whuffie through being nice, networked or notable. This is not science fiction. It's becoming more and more relevant today.

Competition is fierce in the world. There are billions of people working to get ahead. Hundreds compete for jobs. And that is just the individual. When it comes to starting a company that provides a service or a product, you will also be in a position of competition: customer attention. Without differentiating yourself somehow, the battle to make ends meet gets tougher.

This is where you figure out that you CAN eat Whuffie...just indirectly.

Google is powerful because companies and individuals alike know that if people find them online, they will have a better chance of getting the business or the job. And, if they find them in a positive light reflected through the eyes of other customers and contacts, they will have even a better chance than that. Online tools that help customers voice their satisfaction with your product will help boost your Google ratings and instill a sense of confidence in a potential customer making a decision. This is no different than pinging someone's Whuffie, as Cory describes it in his book. When you get that new customer or you get that better job because of your positive online presence, the money to buy that food follows.

I've been thinking of this ever since Michelle Greer posted "No More Whuffie Please" on her blog. I totally see where she is coming from. She has added up a great deal of Whuffie in her social capital bank account, but hasn't found a place to spend it yet. I certainly hope that Michelle doesn't give up the amazing work she is doing to make a name for herself in the community, but raising Whuffie without spending it is also a mistake. I generally don't work for people for free unless I see an opportunity to cash in my Whuffie at a later date. This isn't mercenary, it is smart and it is definitely part of the reciprocity that ties community together. 'Cause if valuable community members like Michelle aren't able to pay the bills, we lose them and nobody wins.

So, Michelle, you are totally right. You can't eat Whuffie, but it is getting harder to eat without it, so keep up the good work and look for opportunities to raise Whuffie where you can cash it in at a future date. Pick events to work on where potential clients or employers can see the good work you are doing. Let your expertise shine through the content you are producing. People will notice and then you can cash in that Whuffie and pay the bills.

:: Very cool...Dean (@thedudedean) Bairaktaris showed me his post where he pretty much directly cashed in his Whuffie for a new MacBook Air!

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