In school I had course on the history of Western Civilization. The lesson that stuck with me most was the idea that in order to fully understand history you have to take a step back and another and another. To look at an event’s broader contexts and the events that lead up to it. And after you’ve deconstructed its context, build the story forward again to understand not just that one event led to another, but also how and why. James Burke did this in Connections and The Day the Universe Changed.
In a similar vein, the Powers of 10 video by Charles and Ray Eames starts looking at the world at one meter square, zooming out to the limits of the knowledge of astronomy and then down to (what was then) the knowledge of physics.
To be able to keep focus on an immediate question and simultaneously unpacking its deep intricacies while also stepping back to recognize and understand the broader contexts is powerfully difficult. But to keep us thinking about all the levels of focus, the teacher had us put “I can write this because of the Agricultural Revolution.” at the beginning of every essay we wrote.
It was pretty effective.
So I want to start this series with a question I’ve been thinking about—in some form or another—for 12 years:
How do we build a society that takes care of all who live in its communities?
A lot of political philosophy wants to start from a priori conditions and build up. I don’t want to do that, I doubt it is even possible even though philosophers keep trying. This question has gone through many revisions and the each version of the question is flavored by recent experiences, other ideas and problems I’ve been working on, or conversations with scholars in particular fields. I don’t think it’s possible to come up with an a priori answer to a question that is deeply steeped in a posteriori conditions, and the solution space is charted by the expertise and experiences of the ones asking the question.
I want to look at the world we have now. The problems we are confronted with when real people create real projects to create social change in civic tech, activism, open data. But I also want to look at scholarship and theory. Fields like anthropology, literature, political science, sociology, digital humanities, information sciences, and all the other have much to help us understand what it means to exist in society and how we can organize ourselves within it.
It is pretty easy to ask “Do we really need to go into that much detail to figure out how to create a good society?” Because oftentimes the answers—at least on the surface—seem to be pretty intuitive, and often that answer might be good enough. But it can also be good to dig deeper, to deconstruct and understand ourselves better or find how what we assume is fundamentally good may also contribute to injustice. As an analogy: while you don’t need to understand Thai history to enjoy a well-made green curry, it takes some cultural knowledge to understand that you’re supposed to eat it with a fork and spoon, not chopsticks.
To give you a picture of what is coming down the line, here are a few questions I hope to explore:
- What is the point of community and society? Why do we even have them? What are they supposed to do for us and us for them?
- How do we create social justice in a society where it is easier for people to ignore the experiences of those who are different?
- What is the role of education in society? What is school’s role in education? What are their roles in creating engaged citizens?
- What does it mean to be an educated person? Is that even worthwhile? What about an engaged citizen? What does it even mean to be an engaged citizen
- What things should a person know to be a good member of the community and society? What does being a good member of society even mean?
- How do we create a society where the first reaction to a marginalized community voicing their concerns is listening and understanding rather than reproach?
- How do we create forms of democracy where citizens are deeply engaged because their experience and expertise are needed, respected, and heard? How do we do it in a way that everyone is able to participate, especially if they are in commonly marginalized communities?
- Does social network size and Dunbar’s Number limit the effects of attempts to make government more responsive to its citizens?
- Should audience biases shape the duties of how journalists and artists create our work?
- How does language use and framing shapes political decision making?
- How do cognitive limits affect the effectiveness of political information?
- How can architectural decisions promote interdisciplinary collaboration?
- Should publicly communicating their scholarship be core to academic work? What is the point of scholarship at all?
Questions come from a viewpoint. They are embedded within systems of understanding and assumptions about the world. So as we try to find answers, I want to unpack underlying assumptions. This isn’t about creating questions that are objectively pure or free from bias. Because objectivity itself is based in a system of bias. This is about exploring and understanding the systems we are steeped in so we can better navigate them and guide ourselves towards justice, inclusion, and sustainability.
I don’t know how long this series will last or what formats it will take. Some pieces will be long, others will be short collections of resources, fragments of thoughts, or even lists of things I am looking for. Perhaps it will go out as emails in a TinyLetter or move to its own CMS. The system that runs SAP is far more flexible than most blog CMSs so I may try to take advantage of that as time and resources allow. And normally I will cite and link to other things far more often than I have in this piece because citing your sources is important. I do know that I want this to be a conversation. I’m not writing because I have the answers, I’m writing because I have questions to explore and I think I’ve gathered friends who also pretty good at asking smart questions (that’s you).
This is best as a conversation. I suspect that together we’ll find even smarter questions that none of us would be able to come up with individually. I don’t know what shape this or format will be best. For now, if you have thoughts, questions, resources, or anything else, find me on Twitter or send a message here on SAP.
In the next few pieces I’ll look at Taiwan’s experiments with participatory democracy, try to lay out a working draft of first principles (first principles for what? who knows), a few notes on how I have been approaching inclusivity in my work, and perhaps a reflection on Letters for Black Lives and what traditional advocacy work can and can’t learn from there, and the role of technology in all of this work. We’ll look at works in political philosophy and political theory, anthropology, literature. I will make an effort also emphasize work and scholarship by women and nonbinary folks, those in often-marginalized communities, and outside the normal western tradition.
Social change will not come to us like an avalanche down the mountain. Social change will come to us through seeds in well prepared soil—and it is we, like the earthworms, who prepare the soil. We realize there are no guarantees as to what will come up. Yet we do know that without the seeds and the prepared soil nothing will grow at all.Ursula Franklin, The Real World of Technology
This is not merely another intellectual exercise, this is about trying to fundamentally understand our world so we can move it towards justice. And it not just about creating change in forms of government, policy, and business practices, but also mores and social norms, hearts and minds. Because if we are to make the world more just and sustainable for all, institutions, cultures, and individuals need to work together. So…
I can write this because of the Agricultural Revolution.
Let’s see where that takes us.