"Undermining my electoral viability since 2001."

Things are wired up wrong

Started as a tweet, but I can't fit it into 140 characters.

What makes an idea good, or "compelling"? What makes a person expressing an idea worth listening to?

I've been thinking about "Suck On This", the infamous Tom Friedman statement after "the war was over" in Iraq:

(it gets really great towards the end)

Friedman is a bit of a piñata because he makes all kinds of generally innocuous but-still-ridiculous statements, and has a really ridiculous bio photo. He's an architypical gasbag with a perch on some of the most influential forums for "ideas" that the english-speaking world convenes, which is a shame, but I think what he represented in the video above deserves special attention. It's above and beyond simple buffoonery.

As a nation, we have a dysfunctional political culture, and it's in part due to terrible information inputs. Like we say in my game, "garbage in, garbage out": if your inputs are bad, you can't have quality output. The fact that most congressional offices have a TV in the main area playing 24-hour cable news (or, also, that financial institutions play CNBC) is an enormous problem.

It really doesn't matter all that much whether you tune in to CNN, MSNBC or Fox. Sure, Fox is aggressively partisan, but really the point is that any of the 24-hour networks are stupid. They do an ok job of covering live breaking events (mostly by piping in an affiliate feed), but their moment-to-moment patter is the information equivalent of Krispie Kreme. Empty calories. And don't get me started on CNBC: it's propaganda on a level that would make the Soviets say nostrovia. The fact that this is the mood-music for the people who ostensibly run the world is deeply unsettling.

Things are wired up wrong, and it's not just cable news in the reception area. The information that gets into the heads of the power elite is driven to an enormous extent by in-person conversation. Politicians mostly talk to other like-minded people. They spend vastly more hours talking to donors than constituents. They trust various experts they meet directly, who are actually lobbyists. They meet with colleagues, they talk to advisors, but very rarely do they get out of the building.

The few "public" inputs to their information diet that rise above the 24-hour talking heads in quality are largely the likes of Mr. Friedman, with varieties to salt to suit your ideological taste. It is only though these public windows that we have some actual insight into the psychology of our leaders. The war in Iraq. Suck on this. Indeed.

Finally, at the margins you have the sealed, self-referential, information biodomes. The fever swamp. I'm thinking in particular of the AM Radio dial and everything that spawns off it — Rush Limbaugh is a terrible human being, but his power over a twenty year period is historically remarkable. To a lesser extent, there are data feedback-loops on the left, but they're mostly marginal and almost entirely harmless.

Let's be real: hippie kids occupy administrative buildings. Feedback-looped wingnuts assassinate doctors who perform abortions and blow up federal buildings. Left-wing extremism and violence over my lifetime have been almost exclusively restricted to radical environmentalism, and those people are so further outside the liberal mainstream than white-supremacists are from the Republican National Committee. While I think confirmation bias is a problem to be wary of for me and my colleagues in the Liberal camp, comparing leftie information amplifiers to the human centepde that is the right-wing media apparatus is a clear molehill/mountain fallacy. It's by no means equivalent, and on some level can't be given that a core value espoused by liberalism is curiosity and questioning of authority. Our central message undermines that kind of set-up.

However, as I learned after my full-time engagements with politics, simply disseminating the facts isn't going to fix our problems. There's a common notion among those of us with well-exercised logical faculties that "if only everyone knew the right information" the right outcomes would emerge. I think this is probably abstractly true, and probably a very useful operating assumption when working with relatively small groups of highly competent and organically cohesive actors — e.g. a Marine battalion — it totally doesn't work out at scale. It's like personal responsibility. Good, hugely useful locally, but radically insufficient in maintaining things in large populations. Information doesn't solve our problems.

This is where "ideas" come in. Facts can be disputed. Data can be interpreted as noise, or incorrectly. Ideas have a way of sticking. People who espouse sticky ideas have a way of gaining reputation. How do these processes actually work? What makes a good idea? What makes someone who's espousing ideas compelling? What holds ideas and their proponents accountable?

These are questions I wrestle with. How can we change the wiring to connect not only better information, but also better ideas?