We’re Becoming Intellectually “Obese”

Humans are defined by scarcity. All our evolutionary adaptations tend to be built to ensure survival in harsh environments. This can sometimes backfire on us in times of abundance.

For example, humans are great at foraging. We have built-in algorithms that tell us which patches are most promising and when we should give up on the patch we’re in and move to another patch.

We’re also good at borrowing strategies that evolution designed for one purpose and applying them for another purpose. This is called exaptation. For example, we’ve exapted our food foraging strategies and applied them to searching for information in an online environment. We use these skills when we look at a website, conduct an online search or scan our email inbox. But as we forage for information – or food – we have to remember, this same strategy assumes scarcity, not abundance.

Take food for example. Nutritionally we have been hardwired by evolution to prefer high fat, high calorie foods. That’s because this wiring took place in an environment of scarcity, where you didn’t know where your next meal was coming from. High fat, high calorie and high salt foods were all “jackpots” if food was scarce. Eating these foods could mean the difference between life and death. So our brains evolved to send us a reward signal when we ate these foods. Subsequently, we naturally started to forage for these things.

This was all good when our home was the African savannah. Not so good when it’s Redondo Beach, there’s a fast food joint on every corner and the local Wal-Mart’s shelves are filled to overflowing with highly processed pre-made meals. We have “refined” food production to continually push our evolutionary buttons, gorging ourselves to the point of obesity. Foraging isn’t a problem here. Limiting ourselves is.

So, evolution has made humans good at foraging when things are scarce, but not so good at filtering in an environment of abundance. I suspect the same thing that happened with food is today happening with information.

Just like we are predisposed to look for food that is high in fats, salt and calories, we are drawn to information that:

  1. Leads to us having sex
  2. Leads to us having more than our neighbors
  3. Leads to us improving our position in the social hierarchy

All those things make sense in an evolutionary environment where there’s not enough to go around. But, in a society of abundance, they can cause big problems.

Just like food, for most of our history information was in short supply. We had to make decisions based on too little information, rather than too much. So most of our cognitive biases were developed to allow us to function in a setting where knowledge was in short supply and decisions had to be made quickly. In such an environment, these heuristic short cuts would usually end up working in our favor, giving us a higher probability of survival.

These evolutionary biases become dangerous as our information environment becomes more abundant. We weren’t built to rationally seek out and judiciously evaluate information. We were built to make decisions based on little or no knowledge. There is an override switch we can use if we wish, but it’s important to know that just like we’re inherently drawn to crappy food, we’re also subconsciously drawn to crappy information.

Whether or not you agree with the mainstream news sources, the fact is that there was a thoughtful editorial process, which was intended to improve the quality of information we were provided. Entire teams of people were employed to spend their days rationally thinking about gathering, presenting and validating the information that would be passed along to the public. In Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s terminology, they were “thinking slow” about it. And because the transactional costs of getting that information to us was so high, there was a relatively strong signal to noise ratio.

That is no longer the case. Transactional costs have dropped to the point that it costs almost nothing to get information to us. This allows information providers to completely bypass any editorial loop and get it in front of us. Foraging for that information is not the problem. Filtering it is. As we forage through potential information “patches” – whether they be on Google, Facebook or Twitter – we tend to “think fast” – clicking on the links that are most tantalizing.

I would have never dreamed that having too much information could be a bad thing. But most of the cautionary columns that I’ve written about in the last few years all seem to have the same root cause – we’re becoming intellectually “obese.” We’ve developed an insatiable appetite for fast, fried, sugar-frosted information.

 

Damn You Technology…

Quit batting your seductive visual sensors at me. You know I can’t resist. But I often wonder what I’m giving up when I give in to your temptations. That’s why I was interested in reading Tom Goodwin’s take on the major theme at SXSW – the Battle for Humanity. He broke this down into three sub themes. I agree with them. In fact, I’ve written on all of them in the past. They were:

Data Trading – We’re creating a market for data. But when you’re the one that generated that data, who should own it?

Shift to No Screens – an increasing number of connected devices will change of concept of what it means to be online.

Content Tunnel Vision – As the content we see is increasingly filtered based on our preferences, what does that do for our perception of what is real?

But while we’re talking about our imminent surrender to the machines, I feel there are some other themes that also merit some discussion. Let’s limit it to two today.

A New Definition of Connection and Community

sapolsky

Robert Sapolsky

A few weeks ago I read an article that I found fascinating by neuroendocrinologist and author Robert Sapolsky. In it, he posits that understanding Capgras Syndrome is the key to understanding the Facebook society. Capgras, first identified by French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras, is a disorder where we can recognize a face of a person but we can’t retrieve feelings of familiarity. Those afflicted can identify the face of a loved one but swear that it’s actually an identical imposter. Recognition of a person and retrieval of emotions attached to that person are handled by two different parts of the brain. When the connection is broken, Capgras Syndrome is the result.

This bifurcation of how we identify people is interesting. There is the yin and yang of cognition and emotion. The fusiform gyrus cognitively “parses” the face and then the brain retrieves the emotions and memories that are associated with it. To a normally functioning brain, it seems seamless and connected, but because two different regions (or, in the case of emotion, a network of regions) are involved, they can neurologically evolve independently of each other. And in the age of Facebook, that could mean a significant shift in the way we recognize connections and create “cognitive communities.” Sapolsky elaborates:

Through history, Capgras syndrome has been a cultural mirror of a dissociative mind, where thoughts of recognition and feelings of intimacy have been sundered. It is still that mirror. Today we think that what is false and artificial in the world around us is substantive and meaningful. It’s not that loved ones and friends are mistaken for simulations, but that simulations are mistaken for them.

As I said in a column a few months back, we are substituting surface cues for familiarity. We are rushing into intimacy without all the messy, time consuming process of understanding and shared experience that generally accompanies it.

Brains do love to take short cuts. They’re not big on heavy lifting. Here’s another example of that…

Free Will is Replaced with An Algorithm

harari

Yuval Harari

In a conversation with historian Yuval Harari, author of the best seller Sapiens, Derek Thompson from the Atlantic explored “The Post Human World.” One of the topics they discussed was the End of Individualism.

Humans (or, at least, most humans) have believed our decisions come from a mystical soul – a transcendental something that lives above our base biology and is in control of our will. Wrapped up in this is the concept of us as an individual and our importance in the world as free thinking agents.

In the past few decades, there is a growing realization that our notion of “free will” is just the result of a cascade of biochemical processes. There is nothing magical here; there is just a chain of synaptic switches being thrown. And that being the case – if a computer can process things faster than our brains, should we simply relegate our thinking to a machine?

In many ways, this is already happening. We trust Google Maps or our GPS device more than we trust our ability to find our own way. We trust Google Search more than our own memory. We’re on the verge of trusting our wearable fitness tracking devices more than our own body’s feedback. And in all these cases, our trust in tech is justified. These things are usually right more often than we are. But when it comes to humans vs, machines, they represent a slippery slope that we’re already well down. Harari speculates what might be at the bottom:

What really happens is that the self disintegrates. It’s not that you understand your true self better, but you come to realize there is no true self. There is just a complicated connection of biochemical connections, without a core. There is no authentic voice that lives inside you.

When I lay awake worrying about technology, these are the types of things that I think about. The big question is – is humanity an outmoded model? The fact is that we evolved to be successful in a certain environment. But here’s the irony in that: we were so successful that we changed that environment to one where it was the tools we’ve created, not the creators, which are the most successful adaptation. We may have made ourselves obsolete. And that’s why really smart humans, like Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking are so worried about artificial intelligence.

“It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate,” said Hawking in a recent interview with BBC. “Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”

Worried about a machine taking your job? That may be the least of your worries.

 

 

A Market for Morality

Things are going to get interesting in the world of marketing. And the first indication of that was seen this past Sunday during the Super Bowl. As Bob Garfield noted, there were a lot of subtle and not so subtle undercurrents of messaging in the ads that ran in between the distracting sub-story that played out on the field. Things got downright political with a number of 167 thousand-dollar-a-second ad swipes at the current president and his policies.

I and many others here at Mediapost have been criticized over the past several months for getting political when we should have been talking about media and marketing. But as this weekend showed, we’re naïve to think those two worlds don’t overlap almost completely. And that’s about to become even more true in the future.

Advertising has to talk about what people are talking about. It has always been tied to the zeitgeist of society. And in a politically polarized nation, that means advertising’s “going to go there”. That’s normal. What’s not so normal is this weird topsy-turvy trend of for-profit companies suddenly becoming the moral gatekeepers of America. That’s supposed to be the domain of government and – if you believe in such things – religion. That’s in a normal world. But in the world of 2017 and the minds of 53.9% of America (the percentage of the electorate who didn’t vote for Trump) there is a vast, sucking moral vacuum on at least one of those fronts. It seems that Corporate America is ready to step up and fill the gap.

Suddenly, there is a market for morality. Of course, we have always had “feel-good” advertising and codes of corporate responsibility but this is different – both in volume and tone. It is more overtly political and it plays on perceived juxtaposition of the mores of the nation and the official stance of the government. Markets are built to be nimble and adaptive. Governments are seldom either of these things. Corporate America is sensing a market opportunity by taking the high road and the Super Bowl marked the beginning of what may become a stampede to higher moral ground.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. Around the turn of the last century, we saw the rise of welfare capitalism. In a rapidly expanding industrial market where there was a scarcity of human resources and little legislative regulation of working conditions, corporations became paternalistic. The reasoning was that no one could better provide stability for workers than the corporation that employed them. What is different about the current situation, however, is that this moral evangelism is primarily aimed at the market, not internal operations. We’ll come back to this in a bit.

This creates an interesting dynamic. In a free market economy citizens have the right to vote with their wallets. After a deeply divisive election the debate can continue in a market suddenly divided along political lines. This is compounded by the interconnected and interactive nature of marketing today. We have realized that our market is a complex system and plays by it’s own rules, none of which are predictable. Social network effects, outriding anomalies and viral black swans are now the norm. As I said in an earlier column, branding is becoming a game of hatching “belief worms” – messages designed to bypass rationality and burrow deep into our subconscious values. Our current political climate is a rich breeding ground for said “worms.”

You might say, “What’s wrong with Corporate America taking a moral stand? “

Well..two things.

There is no corporation I’m aware of that has as its first priority the safeguarding of morality. As economist Milt Friedman said, corporations are there to make a profit. Period. And they will always follow the path most likely to lead to that profit. For example, Silicon Valley has been very vocal in its condemnation of the Muslim travel ban not because it’s not right but because it jeopardizes the ability to travel for its employees from Muslim countries. And a century ago, welfare capitalism spread because it helped employers hang on to their employees and gave them a way to keep out unions. Even if morality and profitability happen to share the same bandwagon for a time the minute profitability veers in a new direction, corporations will follow. This is not the motivational environment you want to stake the future on.

Secondly, there is no democratic mandate behind the stated morality of a corporation. There are a lot of CEO’s that have robust ideological beliefs, but it is fair to say the moral proclivities of a corporation are necessarily tied to a very select special interest group: the employees, the customers and the shareholders of that corporation. Companies, by their very nature, should not be expected to speak for “we, the people.” Much as we would like morality to be universally defined, it is still very much a personal matter.

Take just one of these moral stakeholders – the customers. According to Blend, a millennial messaging app, their users loved the Coke, Budweiser and Airbnb ads that all had overt or thinly veiled moral messages. But there was a backlash from Trump supporters asking for boycotts of all these advertisers along with others that got political. The social storms stirred up on both sides were telling. Reaction was quick and emotionally charged. In a world where branding and beliefs are locked together at the hip, we can probably expect that morality and marketing will be similarly conjoined. That means that morality, just like marketing, will be segmented and targeted to very specific groups.

Back to the Coffee House: Has Journalism Gone Full Circle?

First, let’s consider two facts about Facebook that ran in Mediapost in the last two weeks. The first:

“A full 65% of people find their next destination through friends and family on Facebook.”

Let’s take this out of the context of just looking for your next travel destination. Let’s think about it in terms of a risky decision. Choosing somewhere to go on a vacation is a big decision. There’s a lot riding on it. Other than the expense, there’s also your personal experience. The fact that 2 out of 3 people chose Facebook as the platform upon which to make that decision is rather amazing when you think about it. It shows just how pervasive and influential Facebook as become.

Now, the next fact:

“Facebook users are two-and-a-half times more likely to read fake news fed through the social network than news from reputable news publishers.”

There’s really no reason to elaborate on the above – ‘nuff said. It’s pretty clear that Facebook has emerged at the dominant public space in our lives. It is perhaps the most important platform in our culture today for forming beliefs and opinions.

Sorry Mark Zuckerberg, but not matter what you may have said in the past about not being a media outlet, you can’t duck this responsibility. If our public opinions are formed on your private property that is a unimaginably powerful platform then – as Spidey’s Uncle Ben said (or the French National Convention of 1793; depending on whom you’re prefer to quote as a source) – “With great power comes great responsibility.” If you provide a platform and an audience to news providers – fake or real, you are, ipso facto, a media outlet.

But Facebook is more than just an outlet. It is also the forum where news is digested and shared. It is both a gristmill and a cauldron where beliefs are formed and opinions expressed. This isn’t the first time something like this has happened, although the previous occurrence was in a different time and a very different place. It actually contributed directly to the birth of modern journalism – which is, ironically – under threat from this latest evolution of news.

If you were an average citizen London in 1700 your sources for news were limited. First of all, there was a very good chance that you were illiterate, so reading the news wasn’t an option. The official channel for the news of the realm was royal proclamations read out by town criers. Unfortunately, this wasn’t so much news as whatever the ruling monarch felt like proclaiming.

There was another reality of life in London – if you drank the water it could possibly kill you. You could drink beer in a pub – which most did – or if you preferred to stay sober you could drink coffee. Starting in the mid 1600’s coffee houses started to pop up all over London. It wasn’t the quality of the coffee that made these public spaces all the rage. It was the forum they provided for the sharing of news. Each new arrival was greeted with, “Your servant, sir. What news have you?” Pamphlets, journals, broadsheets and newsletters from independent (a.k.a “non-royal”) publishers were read aloud, digested and debated. Given the class-bound society of London, coffee houses were remarkably democratic. “Pre-eminence of place none here should mind,” proclaimed the Rules and Orders of the Coffee-House (1674), “but take the next fit seat he can find.” Lords, fishmongers, baronets, barristers, butchers and shoe-blacks could and did all share the same table. The coffee houses of London made a huge contribution to our current notion of media as a public trust, with all that entails.

In a 2011 article the Economist made the same parallel between coffee houses and digitally mediated news. In it, they foreshadowed a dramatic shift in our concept of news:

“The internet is making news more participatory, social, diverse and partisan, reviving the discursive ethos of the era before mass media. That will have profound effects on society and politics.”

The last line was prescient. Seismic disruption has fundamentally torn the political and societal landscape asunder. But I have a different take on the “discursive ethos” of news consumption. I assume the Economist used this phrase to mean a verbal interchange of thought related to the news. But that doesn’t happen on Facebook. There is no thought and there is little discourse. The share button is hit before there is any chance to digest the news, let alone vet it for accuracy. This is a much different atmosphere of the coffee house. There is a dynamic that happens when our beliefs are called on the mat in a public forum. It is here where beliefs may be altered but they can never change in a vacuum. The coffee house provided the ideal forum for the challenging of beliefs. As mentioned, it was perhaps the most heterogeneous forum in all of England at the time. Most of all it was an atmosphere infused with physicality and human interaction – a melting pot of somatic feedback. Debate was civil but passionate. There was a dynamic totally missing from it’s online equivalent. The rules and realities of the 18th century coffee house forced thoughtfulness and diverse perspectives upon the discourse. Facebook allows you to do an end run around it as you hit your share button.

The Mindful Democracy Manifesto

 

The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.

Winston Churchill

Call it the Frog in Boiling Water Syndrome. It happens when creeping changes in our environment reach a disruptive tipping point that triggers massive change – or – sometimes – a dead frog. I think we’re going through one such scenario now. In this case, the boiling water may be technology and the frog may be democracy.

As I said in Online Spin last week, the network effects of President-elect Donald Trump’s victory may be yet another unintended consequence of technology.

I walked through the dynamics I believe lay behind the election last week in some detail. This week, I want to focus more on the impact of technology on democratic elections in general. In particular, I wanted to explore the network effects of technology, the spread of information and sweeping populist movements like we saw on November 8th.

In an ideal world, access to information should be the bedrock of effective democracy. Ironically, however, now that we have more access than ever that bedrock is being chipped away. There has been a lot of finger pointing at the dissemination of fake news on Facebook, but that’s just symptomatic of a bigger ill. The real problem is the filter bubbles and echo chambers that formed on social networks. And they formed because friction has been eliminated. The way we were informed in this election looked very different from that in elections past.

Information is now spread more through emergent social networks than through editorially controlled media channels. That makes it subject to unintended network effects. Because the friction of central control has been largely eliminated, the spread of information relies on the rules of emergence: the aggregated and amplified behaviors of the individual agents.

When it comes to predicting behaviors of individual human agents, our best bet is placed on the innate behaviors that lie below the threshold of rational thought. Up to now, social conformity was a huge factor. And that rallying point of that social conformity was largely formed and defined by information coming from the mainstream media. The trend of that information over the past several decades has been to the left end of the ideological spectrum. Political correctness is one clear example of this evolving trend.

But in this past election, there was a shift in individual behavior thanks to the elimination of friction in the spread of information – away from social conformity and towards other primal behaviors. Xenophobia is one such behavior. Much as some of us hate to admit it, we’re all xenophobic to some degree. Humans naturally choose familiar over foreign. It’s an evolved survival trait. And, as American economist Thomas Schelling showed in 1971, it doesn’t take a very high degree of xenophobia to lead to significant segregation. He showed that even people who only have a mild preference to be with people like themselves (about 33%) would, given the ability to move wherever they wished, lead to highly segregated neighborhoods. Imagine then the segregation that happens when friction is essentially removed from social networks. You don’t have to be a racist to want to be with people who agree with you. Liberals are definitely guilty of the same bias.

What happened in the election of 2016 were the final death throes of the mythical Homo Politicus – the fiction of the rational voter. Just like Homo Economicus – who predeceased him/her thanks to the ground breaking work of psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman – much as we might believe we make rational voting choices, we are all a primal basket of cognitive biases. And these biases were fed a steady stream of misinformation and questionable factoids thanks to our homogenized social connections.

This was not just a right wing trend. The left was equally guilty. Emergent networks formed and headed in diametrically opposed directions. In the middle, unfortunately, was the future of the country and – perhaps – democracy. Because, with the elimination of information distributional friction, we have to ask the question, “What will democracy become?” I have an idea, but I’ll warn you, it’s not a particularly attractive one.

If we look at democracy in the context of an emergent network, we can reasonably predict a few things. If the behaviors of the individual agents are not uniform – if half always turn left and half always turn right – that dynamic tension will set up an oscillation. The network will go through opposing phases. The higher the tension, the bigger the amplitude and the more rapid the frequency of those oscillations. The country will continually veer right and then veer left.

Because those voting decisions are driven more by primal reactions than rational thought, votes will become less about the optimal future of the country and more about revenge on the winner of the previous election. As the elimination of friction in information distribution accelerates, we will increasingly be subject to the threshold mob effect I described in my last column.

So, is democracy dead? Perhaps. At a minimum, it is debilitated. At the beginning of the column, I quoted Winston Churchill. Here is another quote from Churchill:

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…

We are incredibly reluctant to toy with the idea of democracy. It is perhaps the most cherished ideal we cling to in the Western World. But if democracy is the mechanism for a never-ending oscillation of retribution, perhaps we should be brave enough to consider alternatives. In that spirit, I put forward the following:

Mindful Democracy.

The best antidote to irrationality is mindfulness – forcing our Prefrontal cortex to kick in and lift us above our primal urges. But how do we encourage mindfulness in a democratic context? How do we break out of our social filter bubbles and echo chambers?

What if we made the right to vote contingent on awareness? What if you had to take a test before you cast your vote? The objective of the test is simple: how aware were you not only of your candidate’s position and policies but – more importantly – that of the other side? You don’t have to agree with the other side’s position; you just have to be aware of it. Your awareness score would then be assigned as a weight to your vote. The higher your level of awareness, the more your vote would count.

I know I’m tiptoeing on the edge of sacrilege here, but consider it a straw man. I’ve been hesitating in going public with this, but I’ve been thinking about it for some time and I’m not so sure it’s worse than the increasingly shaky democratic status quo we currently have. It’s equally fair to the right and left. It encourages mindfulness. It breaks down echo chambers.

It’s worth thinking about.

Mobs, Filter Bubbles and Democracy

You know I love to ask “why”? And last Tuesday provided me with the mother of all “whys”. I know there will be a lot of digital ink shed on this – but I just can’t help myself.

So..why?

Eight years ago, on Mediapost, I wrote that we had seen a new type of democracy. I still think I was right. What I didn’t know at the time was that I had just seen one side of a more complex phenomenon. Tuesday we saw another side. And we’re still reeling from it.

It’s not the first time we’ve seen this. Trump’s ascendancy is following the same playbook as Brexit, Marine Le Pen’s right winged attack in France and Rodrigo Duterte’s recent win for the presidency of the Philippines. Behind all these things, there are a few factors at play. Together, they combine to create a new social phenomenon. And, when combined with traditional democratic vehicles, they can cause bad things to happen to good people.

The FYF (F*&k You Factor)

Michael Moore absolutely nailed what happened Tuesday night, even providing a state-by-state, vote-by-vote breakdown of what went down – but he did it back in July. And he did it because he and Trump are both masters of the FYF. Just like you can’t bullshit a bullshitter – you can’t propagandize a propagandist. Trump had borrowed a page out of Moore’s playbook and Moore could see it coming a mile away.

The FYF requires two things – fear and anger. Anger comes from the fear. Typically, it’s fear of – and anger about – something you feel is beyond your control. This inevitably leads to a need to blame someone or something. The FYF master first creates the enemy, and then gives you a way to say FY to them. In Moore’s words, “The Outsider, Donald Trump, has arrived to clean house! You don’t have to agree with him! You don’t even have to like him! He is your personal Molotov cocktail to throw right into the center of the bastards who did this to you!”

What Michael Moore knew – and what the rest of us would figure out too late – was that for half the US, this wasn’t a vote for president. This was a vote for destruction. The more outrageous that Trump seemed, the more destructive he would be. Whether it was intentional or note, Trump’s genius was in turning Clinton’s competence into a liability. He succeeded in turning this into a simple yes or no choice – vote for the Washington you know – and hate – or blow it up.

The Threshold Factor

The FYF provides the core – the power base. Trump’s core was angry white men. But then you have to extend beyond this core. That’s where mob mentality comes in.

In 1978, Mark Granovetter wrote a landmark paper on threshold models of behavior. I’ll summarize. Let’s say you have two choices of behavior. One is to adhere to social and behavioral norms. Let’s call this the status quo option. The other is to do something you wouldn’t normally do, like defy your government – let’s call this the F*&k You option. Which option you choose is based on a risk/reward calculation.

What Granovetter realized is that predicting the behavior of a group isn’t a binary model – it’s a spectrum. In any group of people, you are going to have a range of risk/reward thresholds to get over to go from one behavioral alternative to the other. Being social animals, Granovetter theorized the deciding factor was the number of other people we need to see who are also willing to choose option 2 – saying F*&k you. The more people willing to make that choice, the lower the risk that you’ll be singled out for your behavior. Some people don’t need anyone – they are the instigators. Let’s give them a “0”. Other people may never join the mob mentality, even if everyone else is. We’ll give them a “100.” In between you have all the rest, ranging from 1 to 99.

The instigators start the reaction. Depending on the distribution of thresholds, if there are enough 1, 2, 3’s and so forth, the bandwagon effect happens quickly, spreading through the group. It isn’t until you hit a threshold gap that the chain reaction stops. For example, if you have a small group of 1’s, 2’s and 3’s, but the next lowest threshold is 10, the movement may be stopped in its tracks.

Network Effects and Filter Bubbles

None of what I’ve described so far is new. People have always been angry and mobs have always formed. What is new, however, is the nature of this particular mob.

As you probably deduced, the threshold model is one of network effects. It depends on finding others who share similar views. It you can aggregate a critical mass of low thresholds; you can trigger bigger bandwagon effects – maybe even big enough to jump threshold gaps.

Up to now, Granovetter’s Threshold model was constrained by geography. You had to have enough low threshold people in physical space to start the chain reaction. But we live in a different world. Now, you can have a groups of 0s, 1s and 2s living in Spokane, Washington, Pickensville, Alabama, and Marianna, Florida and they can all be connected online. When this happens, we have a new phenomenon – the Filter Bubble.

One thing we learned this election was how effective filter bubbles were. I have a little over 440 connections in Facebook. In the months and weeks leading up to the election, I saw almost no support for Trump in my feed. I agreed ideologically with the posts of almost everyone in my network. I suspect I’m not alone. I am sure Trump supporters had equally homogeneous feedback from their respective networks. This put us in what we call a filter bubble. In the geographically unrestricted network of online connections, our network nodes tend to be rather homogeneous ideologically.

Think about what this does to Granovetter’s threshold model. We fall into the false illusion that everyone thinks the same way we do. This reduces threshold gaps and accelerates momentum for non-typical options. It tips the balance away from risk and towards reward.

A New Face of Democracy

I believe these three factors set the stage for Donald Trump. I also believe they are threatening to turn democracy into never ending cycle of left vs. right backlashes. I want to explore this some more, but given that I’ve already egregiously exceeded my typical word count for Online Spin, we’ll have to pick up the thread next week.

America, You’re Great (But You Might Be Surprised Why)

The first time I went to Washington D.C. I was struck by the extreme polarity I saw there. That day, the Tea Party was staging a demonstration against Obamacare on the Mall in front of the Capitol building. But this wasn’t the only event happening. The Mall was jammed with gatherings of all types – from all political angles: the right, the ultra-right and left, the rich and poor, the eager and entitled, the sage and stupid. The discourse was loud, passionate and boisterous. It was – in a word – chaos.

That chaotic polarity is, of course, defining the current election. After the second presidential debate, commentator Bob Schieffer said, with a mixture of incredulity and disgust, “How have we come to this?” The presidential debates may have hit a new low in presidential decorum, but if you dig deep enough, there is something great here.

Really.

A recent PR campaign has asked Canadians to tweet why America is great. I’m going to do it in a column instead.

You’re great because you argue loudly, passionately and boisterously. You air out ideologies in a very messy and public way. You amplify the bejeezus out of the good and the bad of human nature and then put them both in a cage match to battle it out in broad daylight. You do this knowing there will be no clear winner of this battle, but you hope and trust that the scales will tip in the right direction. There is no other country I know of that has the guts to do this in quite the way you do.

You personally may not agree with Donald Trump, but there are many that do. He is giving voice to the feelings and frustrations of a sizable chunk of the US population. And as much I personally don’t like how he’s doing it, the fact is he is doing it. Your country, your constitution and your political system has allowed a man like this to take a shot at the highest office of the land by questioning and attacking many things that many Americans hold to be inviolable. It’s scary as hell, but I have to admire you for letting it play out the way it has and trusting that eventually the process will prevail. And it has for 240 years. Candidates and elections and campaign rhetoric will all eventually disappear- but the process – your process – has always prevailed.

The polarization of the US is nothing new. It defines you. For a quick history lesson, watch The Best of Enemies on Netflix; a documentary on the televised debates of William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal clashing on left vs. right during the 1968 Nixon vs. Humphreys vs. Wallace election. What started as an intellectual dual ended with Buckley threatening to smash Vidal’s face in after being called a neo-proto-Nazi on live TV.

If you look at the US from the outside, you swear that the whole mess is going to end up in a fiery wreck. But you’ve been here before. Many times. And somehow, the resiliency of who you are and how you conduct business wins out. You careen towards disaster but you always seem to swerve at the last minute and emerge stronger than before.

I honestly don’t know how you do it. As a polite, cautious Canadian, I stand simultaneously in awe and abject terror of how you operate. You defy the physics of what should be.

You’re fundamentally, gloriously flawed..but you are unquestionably resilient. You are an amazing example of emergence. You, in the words of Nassim Nicolas Taleb – are Antifragile:

“beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.”

You are discordant, divided and dysfunctional and somehow you’re still the most powerful and successful nation on the planet. I suspect you got there not in spite of your flaws, but because of them.

Perhaps you’re embarrassed by the current election cycle. I understand that. It has been called “unprecedented” many, many times by many, many commentators. And that may be true, but I would say it’s unprecedented only in the vigor and volume of the candidates (or, to be frank, one candidate). The boundaries of what is permissible have been pushed forcefully out. It may not be what certain constituents think is proper, but it is probably an accurate reflection of the diverse moods of the nation and, as such, it needs to be heard. You are a country of many opinions – often diametrically opposed. The US’s unique brand of democracy has had to stretch to it’s limits to accurately capture the dynamics of a nation in flux.

I don’t know what will happen November 8th. I do know that whatever happens, you will have gone through the fire yet again. You will emerge. You will do what needs to be done. And I suspect that, once again, you’ll be the stronger for it.