Varieties of Consensus

English: Flowchart of consensus based decision...

Flowchart of consensus based decision-making (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

[Alternate title: Hacking Consensus]

Did consensus kill Occupy or are reports of its death greatly exaggerated–or both?

First of all, words like Occupy, consensus, capitalism, socialism, democracy, anarchy, liberal, conservative, and green all have one very important thing in common: each is, by itself, absurdly ambiguous. Each has a wide range of definitions, variations, and parts…some of which conflict with or totally contradict each other. Depending on the intended definition(s) (often absent or poorly specified) each term can represent a desirable set of ideals or a set of dreaded evils, or a mix of both.

For example, early capitalism was relatively democratic compared with the aristocratic manorial and feudal systems it emerged from. Many serfs and tenants evolved into self-employed freeholders. Eventually, however, that decentralized and egalitarian form of capitalism tended to morph into its own opposite: a system of concentrated  monopoly capitalism.  US capitalism returned, full circle, from its egalitarian, anti-feudal roots to a new iteration of top-down rule by a small, rich elite–in effect, neo-feudalism. So early capitalism was revolutionary while modern capitalism became mainly counter-revolutionary, both under the same banner, after numerous reversals of bias in the interim. Other minor but potentially competing or co-evolving variants include green, natural, ecological, and p2p capitalism.

Similar arcs, trend reversals, and full-circles can be found in the histories of  socialism, democracy, anarchy and most other “brands” of political and economic ideology and their many variants and hybrids.

Even within a single culture and a narrow historical period, simple one-word labels like capitalism and socialism, liberal and conservative, etc., conceal important variations and overlaps. Over time a brand like “Made In Japan” can go from signifying “inferior crap” to being associated with high-quality, high-tech gear. The fallacy of brand bias, whether for products or ideas, is partly a matter of intellectual fads and out-dated assumptions, and partly a matter of over-generalization.

As we are re-discovering today, largely thanks to the Occupy movement, effective political democracy and  economic democracy are mutually interdependent. Changes in economic bias, either democratic or anti-democratic (distributed or concentrated, egalitarian or authoritarian, etc.), sometimes precede corresponding  political shifts. Political trends may follow more “organic” grassroots economic trends. In other cases the chicken comes before the egg and economic trends follow political reforms. But in almost every case, it seems clear that political or economic extremes of any kind can lead to backlash: collapsing bubbles, revolutions, counter-revolutions, etc.

An interesting catalog of intellectual fads and over-generalizations related to common ideological brands is presented in Dave Pollard’s review of The Democracy Project  (a new book by David Graeber, prominent analyst of the Occupy movement and author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years). Pollard not only summarizes some of the key issues in Graeber’s  book; he adds important social, economic and political insights of his own including a “sketch of the ‘camps’ of political and philosophical movements of the 21st century; elaborated on here.”

Pollards New Political Map

Source: Dave Pollard, how to save the world

Intelligence vs Ideology

Both Graeber and Pollard point towards consensus decision-making, rather than obsolescent ideologies, as a basic common denominator of civic intelligence.

In Creating a World Citizen Parliament (published in Interactions, the magazine of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM)), Douglas Schuler writes:

Building civic intelligence. The seventh, final, and probably most daunting challenge is building civic intelligence [22]. The goal of this project is to help make individuals, and especially groups, actually smarter in relation to our shared problems. This is the conjecture that motivates this project: We won’t successfully address our problems if we don’t increase our civic intelligence.

Civic intelligence is the ability of people working together to address shared problems. It’s a type of community capacity or collective intelligence focused on shared goals: the capability of addressing civic ends through civic means. Although this idea has been explored by countless authors (including, somewhat prominently, John Dewey), it has not historically been the orientating idea it needs to be.

–Douglas Schuler

Comparative Consensus

Many people insist that consensus is an all-or-nothing proposition, which is what distinguishes it from majority rule. This is the ideal or “pure” form of consensus. But if consensus is seen as relative (a matter of degree), rather than Boolean (true or false, all or nothing), then in some form, and and in some degree, it is common to any collective problem-solving or decision-making model. It is the basic currency of civic intelligence.

But many of the arguments for and against consensus just seem to beg the question: what is it? What forms can it take? What are its internal moving parts? The topic of consensus, like democracy, anarchy, capitalism, etc., covers both an abstract general notion (with varied definitions) and an evolving set of in vivo and in situ practices that are application-specific and context-dependent.

Like many movements before it, OWS bumped up against various practical limits of “pure” consensus. But Occupy’s process of innovation and work-arounds (hacking consensus) is ongoing. So reports of Occupy’s death are greatly exaggerated. In fact it has a growing number of definitions, variations, and moving parts. Its increasing diversity and complexity outpace the ability of activists, journalists, and scholars to connect all the dots.

The challenges of hacking consensus models might include:

  • inefficiencies of scale (numbers of people involved) and scope (number and complexity of issues)
  • resource constraints (physical space, infrastructure, time requirements, process proficiency levels, information distribution)
  • disruption by minorities
  • inequalities of access, influence, etc.
  • manufactured consent

I have a few opinions about consensus based on personal experiences but I’m not an expert on the subject. So I would love to see a broad comparative analysis of variations, case studies, and academic research on social/civic organizing and decision-making models that have, as a common theme, a significant bias towards consensus; but which also try to address the practical limits or failures of consensus. Can anyone suggest one or two of the best available resources on this topic?

Innovations in consensus processing

Automation might be one approach to minimizing some of the problems with consensus process. For example, a consensus status metric (the relative degree of consensus at a given point in time) might be generated from data mining using sources of “Big Data”  including opinion and preference data from social networks, consumer purchasing data, polling and petition data, referendum results, public comment data, etc.  Instead of starting from scratch with a blank slate on any topic (degree of consensus = zero or unknown), efforts at creating consensus on a given topic or set of topics might begin from a data-derived point of reference–a de facto initial consensus status benchmark. This might save a lot of the time and energy associated with seeking consensus, especially in the early stages of consensus processing.

Another example of automation might be a “human microphone (mic check)”  app for mobile phones. If lots of people in a general assembly could “conference” their mobile phones together in “speaker phone” mode, this might be a way of creating a mobile public address system on the fly.

Mobile and remote meeting apps might also address many other infrastructure and consensus-processing issues faced by online and in-person assemblies, committees, etc. For example, an “artificial intelligence immune system” for consensus-toxic behavior patterns might be able to minimize disruptions by minorities, reduce inequalities of access or influence, or produce antibodies against manufactured consent.

Innovation can have unintended negative consequences but Trial and Error is the Hinge of Evolution; and the perfect is the arch nemesis of  both the  individual and the Common Welfare even in the sometimes highfalutin’ world of consensus.

Poor Richard

LP: You favor consensus democracy with collective deliberation and equal participation. How can that operate at a large scale? What’s wrong with majority voting with rights?

DG: Majority voting tends to encourage maximizing the differences between people, rather than encouraging compromise, creative synthesis, seeking common ground, which is what consensus is designed to do. Majority voting also invariably needs some sort of coercive mechanisms of enforcement. Don’t get me wrong, nobody’s talking about absolute consensus, like they used to do, where just one person can block everything and there’s nothing you can do about it. Consensus is just a way to change proposals around until you get something the maximum number agree on, rather than our system, say, where practically 48-49 percent of voters each time always ends up crushed and defeated. And yes, when you get up to a larger scale, you can’t just rely on assemblies or spokescouncils. It does make sense to decentralize as much as possible. Consensus only works if you don’t have to ask for it unless you really have to. But as for scaling up: there are any number of possibilities.

One I’ve been studying up on of late is sortition. Through much of Western history, it never occurred to anyone that elections had anything to do with democracy — they were considered aristocratic. The democratic way of choosing officials, if you had to do it, was lottery. Give people basic tests for sanity and competence and then let anyone who wants to throw in their name have an equal shot. I mean, how can we do much worse than a lot of the people we have now? Sortition would be more like jury duty, except non-compulsory. But there are all sorts of other possibilities.

LP: Is democracy possible in America? If so, what might it look like?

DG: It’s possible anywhere. But it would take enormous changes in our economic and political assumptions. Myself, I’m less interested in mapping out a constitution for a truly democratic society than creating the institutions by which people can collectively decide for themselves what it might look like. The one resource in the world that’s absolutely not scarce at all is smart, creative, people with ideas we’d never have thought of. Solutions are out there. The problem is 99 percent of those people spend most of their lives being told to shut up.

Addiction to Irrationality

Drunkard’s cloak — Source: Wikimedia.

[updated 5-13-2013]

The typical alcoholic (outside of treatment or AA) often says “I don’t have a drinking problem. I can stop whenever I want.”

In a way, we are all like this about our innate irrationality. We tend to think we can be rational whenever we want. We refuse to admit, to ourselves and others, that we have a problem with spontaneous, compulsive, and unconscious irrationality. This includes, but is not limited to, the matters discussed by Dan Ariely in Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, in which he challenges assumptions about making decisions based on rational thought. Many of the problems listed below have clinical diagnoses as pathological states, but they are also prevalent (if not ubiquitous) in “normal”, “healthy” people at sub-clinical levels.

Our struggle with irrationality includes (but is not limited to):

In evolutionary terms, reason is only an emerging property of the brain. Irrationality is still more the rule than the exception.  It is innate in every one of us–even in the best and brightest of our scientists, philosophers, educators, and leaders. Although scientists and scholars take great pains to eliminate irrationality from their work products, it is insidious, and it often still intrudes in subtle ways. Even in our most rational-seeming people, irrationality often runs rampant in areas outside their core competence and in their private lives. Irrationality and bias often arise from a cognitive dissonance between individualism and cooperation (or selfishness and altruism).

It is always popular to minimize and/or look on the bight side of irrationality. This reminds me too much of the rationalization tricks of alcoholics. Even Dr. Ariely has joined this trend with his newest book, destined to be a smash-hit bestseller, The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home. This will be popular in may quarters, but especially among all the boneheads of the world for the ammunition it will give them against their more rational friends, coworkers, and family members.

It is undeniable that evolution has given the brain powerful heuristic tools for making snap judgments. These may serve us well (or not) when circumstances don’t permit more conscious, deliberate, and scientific methods of decision making. It is also undeniable that “facts” are often incomplete or presented in a biased way, that appearances (even “scientific” and “empirical” appearances) may deceive, and that sometimes our contra-factual  intuitions turn out  right. But no amount of benefit we may derive from irrational thinking  and behavior (which can often only be judged in hindsight) in any way changes, diminishes, nor even remotely compensates for the harm it does. Of course we wish to keep the cute, irrational baby– but that’s no excuse for not throwing out the  toxic bath water. The only rational thing is to do both.

Recognizing and saving the baby (the upside of irrationality) is all well and good. Nevertheless, the downsides of irrationality are accelerating humanity towards a cliff. If we all go over the cliff, what happens to the effing baby? As Richard Dawkins  points out in the The Selfish Gene (1989 p.8), things that give selective advantage can, if carried to an extreme, lead to annihilation of species.

It is no doubt precisely because irrationality seems so often to bear gifts, especially in the short term, that it is so seductive. It may also have to do with our inclination to be “cognitive misers“.

The problem with irrationality is that it is easy, it is pleasant, and it is reassuring; but it is also an unconscious compulsion or addiction, and we continue to pursue it and defend it way past the point of diminishing returns.

Why? Because irrational behaviors, emotions, and mental states are reinforced by the same neurochemicals that cause other forms of addiction. In An Open Letter to Researchers of Addiction, Brain Chemistry, and Social Psychology, the astrophysicist and author David Brin writes:

Consider studies of gambling. Researchers led by Dr. Hans Breiter of Massachusetts General Hospital examined with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) which brain regions activate when volunteers won games of chance — regions that overlapped with those responding to cocaine!

“Gambling produces a similar pattern of activity to cocaine in an addict,” according to Breiter.

Moving along the spectrum toward activity that we consider more “normal” — neuroscientists at Harvard have found a striking similarity between the brain-states of people trying to predict financial rewards (e.g., via the stock market) and the brains of cocaine and morphine users.

Along similar lines, researchers at Emory University monitored brain activity while asking staunch party members, from both left and right, to evaluate information that threatened their preferred candidate prior to the 2004 Presidential election. “We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning,” said Drew Westen, Emory’s director of clinical psychology. “Instead, a network of emotion circuits lit up… reaching biased conclusions by ignoring information that could not rationally be discounted. Significantly, activity spiked in circuits involved in reward, similar to what addicts experience when they get a fix,” Westen explained.

How far can this spectrum be extended? All the way into realms of behavior — and mental states — that we label as wholesome? Rich Wilcox of the University of Texas says: “Recovery process in addiction is based to a great extent on cognitively mediated changes in brain chemistry of the frontal/prefrontal cortex system. Furthermore… there is even a surprising amount of literature cited in PubMed suggesting that prayer also induces substantial changes in brain chemistry.”

Clearly this spectrum of “addiction” includes reinforcement of behaviors that are utterly beneficial and that have important value to us, e.g., love of our children. I get a jolt every time I smell my kids’ hair, for instance. The “Aw!” that many people give when then see a baby smile is accompanied by skin flushes and iris dilation, reflecting physiological pleasure. Similar jolts come to people (variously) from music, sex, exercise and the application of skill.

Although a lot of recent research has danced along the edges of this area, I find that the core topic appears to have been rather neglected. I’m talking about the way that countless millions of humans either habitually or volitionally pursue druglike reinforcement cycles — either for pleasure or through cycles of withdrawal and insatiability that mimic addiction — purely as a function of entering an addictive frame of mind.

For a majority, indeed, this process goes un-noticed because there is no pathology! Reiterating; it is simply “getting high on life.” Happy or at least content people who lead decent lives partake in these wholesome addictive cycles that have escaped much attention from researchers simply because these cycles operate at the highest levels of human functionality. (It is easy to verify that there is something true, underlying the phrase “addicted to love.”)

This wholesomeness should no longer mask or exclude such powerfully effective mental states from scientific scrutiny. For example, we might learn more about the role of oxytocin in preventing the down-regulating or tolerance effects that exacerbate drug addiction. Does this moderating effect provide the more wholesome, internally-generated “addictions” with their long-lasting power?

Even more attractive would be to shine light on patterns of volitional or habitual addictive mentation that are NOT helpful or functional or desirable.

Gambling has already been mentioned. Rage is obviously another of these harmful patterns, that clearly have a chemical-reinforcement component. Many angry people report deriving addictive pleasure from fury, and this is one reason why they return to the state, again and again. Thrill-seeking can also be like this, when it follows a pathology of down-regulating satiability. Ernst Fehr, Brian Knutson, and John Hibbing have written about the pleasure-reinforcement of revenge, that Hollywood films tap incessantly in plot lines that give audiences a vicarious thrill of Payback against villains-who-deserve-it.

The Most Common (but Unstudied) Form of Self-Addiction

So far, we are on ground that is supported by copious (if peripheral) research. If nothing else, at least there should be an effort to step back and notice the forest, for the trees, generalizing a view of this whole field as we’ve described so far. A general paradigm of self-reinforcement.

Only now, taking this into especially important new territory, please consider something more specific. A phenomenon that both illustrates the general point and demands attention on its own account.

I want to zoom down to a particular emotional and psychological pathology. The phenomenon known as self-righteous indignation.

We all know self-righteous people. (And, if we are honest, many of us will admit having wallowed in this state ourselves, either occasionally or in frequent rhythm.) It is a familiar and rather normal human condition, supported — even promulgated — by messages in mass media.

While there are many drawbacks, self-righteousness can also be heady, seductive, and even… well… addictive. Any truly honest person will admit that the state feels good. The pleasure of knowing, with subjective certainty, that you are right and your opponents are deeply, despicably wrong.

Sanctimony, or a sense of righteous outrage, can feel so intense and delicious that many people actively seek to return to it, again and again. Moreover, as Westin et.al. have found, this trait crosses all boundaries of ideology.

Indeed, one could look at our present-day political landscape and argue that a relentless addiction to indignation may be one of the chief drivers of obstinate dogmatism and an inability to negotiate pragmatic solutions to a myriad modern problems. It may be the ultimate propellant behind the current “culture war.”

If there is any underlying truth to such an assertion, then acquiring a deeper understanding of this one issue may help our civilization deal with countless others.

Actually, there are other problems besides the enormous political, social, and personal costs of irrationality. Another is what I would call the “atrocity cost”.  As Voltaire said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”

Well, as they say in all the Twelve-Step programs, the first step to recovery is “admitting that one cannot control one’s addiction or compulsion.”

Hello. I’m Poor Richard, and I’m an irrationalcoholic.

Are you an irrationalcoholic, too?

Poor Richard

by Dave Pollard (howtosavetheworld.ca)

Dr. Gabor Maté ~ Who We Are When We Are Not Addicted: The Possible Human

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