Three Kinds of Information Sensitivity

OK, a naive meditation on three modes of paying attention to the world.

Pretend you are a politician, perhaps a senator or member of congress. What do you pay attention to?

Some would have us believe that poll numbers are the most important. You open your mouth, emit a sound bite, the media disseminates it, people react and respond to polls, and you adjust accordingly. Depending on your point of view, that’s either democracy in action or appalling pandering. In either case, the opinions/reactions of “the people” are aggregated via some presumably reliable and accurate method.

Another theory would be that you are listening to powerful interests who have your ear and who donate to your campaign. Your comments are probably a little more proactive than reactive — they’ve let you know what they want to hear and so you make sure you say it. But as above the whole thing is a cycle — we get the initial attention by saying things and then it cycles from there. In this case, though, the method for aggregating the reactions (and pre-actions) of donors is harder to suss out. Tally up the dollars? Is there a pecking order? Or a “one topic each” rule?

A third approach would be that you apply accepted methods of policy analysis and make use of trustworthy data to decide what policies would best achieve desired aims. Here information is aggregated and decisions made using generally accepted (and open) methods. Of course, deciding on those aims is an information problem that can bring us right back into one of the first two approaches, but we’ll set that aside for the moment.

My guess is that a system COULD run on any of these three approaches to information processing. What presents a challenge to govern-ability, though, is when one or more of these is the public face of what’s going on while another one is what’s going on behind the scenes. Or, worse, when the actors themselves don’t really have a handle on when they are using one or another to try to ascertain how to govern.

And yes, this could be seen as an attempt to translate direct democracy, some variation on aristocratic pluralist democracy, and technocracy (help me on the terms, polisci friends) into information terms.

Author: Dan Ryan

I'm currently an Academic Program Director at I've been a professor at University of Toronto, University of Southern California, and Mills College teaching things like human centered design, computational thinking, modeling for policy sciences, and social theory. I'm driven by the desire to figure out how to teach twice as many twice as well twice as easily.

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