Tom Atlee: How to Integrate Information for a Wiser Democracy

Cultural Intelligence
Tom Atlee
Tom Atlee

How to integrate information for a wiser democracy

Many fields and professions – from journalism and academia to video games and movies – can and do stimulate informed – or misinformed – democratic engagement. Usually these sectors operate in semi-independent silos. Bringing them together to craft synergistic innovations on behalf of actionable shared understanding could result in new ways to make democracy both more participatory and more wise.

This year I decided that one of my focuses would be promoting a truly fruitful confluence between journalism and the “dialogue and deliberation” community. I particularly wanted to share the powerful innovation of Canada’s Maclean’s magazine who engaged their readers in vicariously experiencing a transformational dialogue among their polarized peers.

I’ve also been exploring with various colleagues the pros and cons of informational briefings in citizen dialogues and deliberations. Expert information can educate citizens about the dynamics of an issue and the likely outcomes of various solutions, but it can also constrain the kind of breakthrough thinking we may need to effectively address issues held in place by existing assumptions and systems.

In the midst of exploring all this, I had a conversation with Linda Fantin at American Public Media. APM has done intriguing experiments using an online video game to increase public awareness of the trade-offs involved in decisions about the US federal budget. Linda and I discussed other existing and possible ways for citizens to generate their own deliberative environments online where they can explore together arguments and evidence associated with various issues and options. (This is also the subject of Chapter 12 of EMPOWERING PUBLIC WISDOM: “Empowered Public Wisdom Arising from the Grassroots.”)

The US political environment is filled with misinformation, ignorance, and distortions of science. This generates biased public opinions and dangerous public policy decisions – most poignantly about climate change. It generates “co-stupidity” which of course interferes with society’s capacity for collective intelligence. Citizens can’t understand or make sense of what is happening around them, or relate well to others who make different sense.

So how can we set things up so that citizens can and do make useful sense of public affairs, individually and collectively?

It is clear that journalism can, does, and should play a major role in this. But what about the roles of public conversation, of video games, of educational and research institutions and activities? There are a number of major professions involved in shaping the knowledge environment within which citizens and other political players make decisions that impact how we address public issues.

Within each of these professions we find some individuals and groups deeply concerned about the condition of democracy and their professional role in it. What if such diverse, caring people got together to co-create and test innovations that combined their professional specialties to make democracy much more collectively intelligent – learning as they went – with the explicit intention of having a revolutionary impact within as little as five years? Would they develop powerful democratic innovations which we cannot even imagine today? Might those innovations make a profound difference BECAUSE these diverse professions stopped operating so separately and consciously wove their complementary gifts together into a more healthy, wisely functioning democracy?

Such a collaboration could come from this vision taking off in a self-organized viral way, with passionate people in all these fields networking their ideas into many shared pilot projects. I can also imagine someone consciously promoting a common understanding of these complementary roles and organizing a new coherent Manhattan Project* well-funded by visionary philanthropists eager to transform democracy into the wise collective mind it can become.

What would happen if that vision caught fire…..?


* The Manhattan Project was a very secret and very intense US project late in World War II which successfully developed the atom bomb despite a lot of uncertainty about whether it was even possible. Truly massive amounts of money, people, and scientific genius were invested in it with immense pressure to succeed as quickly as humanly possible, in order to beat German researchers and win the war. The Manhattan Project offers a fitting metaphor for any truly monumental project undertaken with total determination, despite profound uncertainties.

Read raw references supporting the above reflections.

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