Review: Why Societies Need Dissent (Oliver Wendell Holmes Lectures)

5 Star, Censorship & Denial of Access, Consciousness & Social IQ, Decision-Making & Decision-Support, Democracy, Education (General), Information Society, Intelligence (Public), Philosophy, Values, Ethics, Sustainable Evolution

Society DissentEssential Contribution to Democratic Dialog,

January 30, 2007

Cass R. Sunstein

It took me a couple of years to get to this book, but I am glad I did. Interestingly, it is dedicated to Judge Richard Posner, who has become quite a celebrity in writing and talking, from a legal point of view, about secret intelligence, in addition to his many other works.

The author's position is not completely new (see for instance Elizabeth Janeway's 1987 classic, “IMPROPER BEHAVIOR: When and How Misconduct Can be Healthy for Society”, and the more standard but still seminal “The Social Construction of Reality.”

The author rises beyond the law to embrace sociology, psychology, and philosophy, and in that vein, reminds me of Norman Dixon's classic work, “The Psychology of Military Incompetence.”

The core of the book addresses what the author names the two influences (most people get most of their information second-hand; and the general desire for good opinion of oneself) and the three phenomena (conformity, social cascades, and group polarization).

He notes that pluralistic ignorance is dangerous; that groups and systems work better when there are incentives for sharing information openly; and that “free speech” requires BOTH legal protection AND cultural acceptance.

He discusses the superiority of the more adaptive and open democratic decision making to that of totalitarian societies, but his description of their pathologies, ideas hatched in secret and for which no opposition will be accepted, sound starkly like Dick Cheney's Standard Operating Procedure–facsist control, lies to the public with impunity, and no tolerance for flag officers, including flag officers like Tony Zinni and General Shinseki, who have the courage to say that invading Iraq is not only nuts, it will be a disaster. For deep insights into Cheney's impeachable suprression of dissent, see “One Percent Doctrine,' “VICE: Dick Cheney and the Hijacking of the American Presidency,” and “Crossing the Rubicon”–and of course the various books on impeachment (see my list).

The author concludes with a special focus on the role of Judges and Senators as dissenting voices, and I am reminded of Senator Robert Byrd's courageous and erudite opposition to the illegal war on Iraq, with his speeches available to all in book form as “Losing America: Confronting a Reckless and Arrogant Presidency”).

The author concludes with a very disappointing section on education and affirmative action, and in this section, spoils an otherwise superb book by focusing on the banalities of affirmative action. Like George Bush and Hillary Clinton, he is toying with the cosmetics and avoiding the deep–the really deep–need for a complete recasting of education to fully integrate distance and self-paced online learning, multi-cultural learning, deep historical and cross-cultural understanding; a draconian Manhattan Project to improve desktop analytic tools and the need for an Information Economy Meta Language (IEML) such as Pierre Levy is creating (see his “Collective Intelligence”), as well as life-long learning, the localization of everything, and so on. I beg to emphasize this: it is the agricultural era school schedule (summer off) and the industrial era rote learning rigid structured program, that is killing the creativity of our kids while locking them up in a program that is nothing more than advanced child care with a semblance of prison population, the “club med” aspects for cheerleaders and jocks not-with-standing. Our HIGHEST national priority should be to churn education so that our kids are liberally and broadly educated and armed with all of the tools for thinking that the Central Intelligence Agency still does not have today because it too is a vestige of the Soviet era of gray desks and dumb telephones.

Thomas Jefferson had it right: “A Nation's best defense is an educated citizenry.” Cass Sunstein is arguably, with Lawrence Lessig, one of the greatest lawyers of our generation, but in the final section, he plops quietly.

Never-the-less, a five star book.

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Review: Infotopia–How Many Minds Produce Knowledge

4 Star, Change & Innovation, Democracy, Education (General), Future, Information Society, Intelligence (Collective & Quantum), Intelligence (Public), Intelligence (Wealth of Networks)

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Complements Wikinomics, Solid but Incomplete,

January 17, 2007
Cass Sunstein
I was initially disappointed, but adjusted my expectations when I reminded myself that the author is at root a lawyer. The bottom line on this book is that it provided a very educated and well-footnoted discourse the nature and prospects for group deliberation, but there are three *huge* missing pieces:

1) Education as the necessary continuous foundation for deliberation

2) Collective Intelligence as an emerging discipline (see the Innovators spread sheet at Earth Intelligence Network); and

3) No reference to Serious Games/Games for Change or budgets as a foundation for planning the future rather than predicting it.

In the general overview the author discusses information cocoons (self-segregation and myopia) and information influences/social pressures that can repress free thinking and sharing.

The four big problems that he finds in the history of deliberation are amplifying errors; hidden profiles & favoring common or “familiar” knowledge; cascades & polarization; and negative reinforements from being within a narrow group.

Today I am missing a meeting on Predictive Markets in DC (AEI-Brookings) and while I regret that, I have thoroughly enjoyed the author's deep look at Prediction Markets, with special reference to Google and Microsoft use of these internally. This book, at a minimum, provides the very best overview of prediction markets that I have come across. At the end of the book is an appendix listing 18 specific predictions markets with their URLs.

The author goes on to provide an overview of the Wiki world, and is generally very kind to Jimbo Wales and Wikipedia, and less focused on the many altneratives and enhancements of the open Wiki. It would have been helpful here to have some insights for the general reader on Doug Englebart's Open Hypertextdocument System (OHS) and Pierre Levy's Information Economy Meta Language (IEML), both of which may well leave the mob-like open wiki's in the dust.

Worthy of note: Soar Technology is quoted as saying that Wikis cut project development time in half.

The book draws to a close with further discussion of the challenges of self-segregation, the options for aggregating views and knowledge and for encouraging feedback, and the urgency of finding incentives to induce full disclosure and full participation from all who have something to contribute.

This book excels in its own narrowly-chosen domain, but it is isolated from the larger scheme of things including needed educational changes, the importance of belief systems as the objective of Intelligence and Information Operations (I2O), the role of Serious Games/Games for Change, and the considerable work that has been done by Collective Intelligence pioneers, who just held their first convergence conference call on 15 January 2007.

Final note: the author uses NASA and the Columbia disaster, and CIA and the Iraq disaster, as examples, but does not adequately discuss the pathologies of bureaucracy and the politicization of intelligence and space. As a former CIA employee who also reads a great deal, I can assert with confidence that CIA has no trouble aggregating all that it knew, including the reports of the 30 line crossers who went in and then came back to report there were no Weapons of Mass Destruction. CIA has two problems: 1) Dick Cheney refused to listen; and 2) George Tenet lacked the integrity to go public and go to Congress to challenge Dick Cheney's malicious and impeachable offenses against America (see my reviews of “VICE” and of “One Percent Doctrine” on Cheney, and my many reviews on the mistakes leading up to and within the Iraq war). See also my reviews of “Fog Facts” and “Lost History” and Gaddis' “The Landscape of History.”

To end on an upbeat note, what I see in this book, and “Wikinomics” and “Collective Intelligence” and “Tao of Democracy” and my own “The New Craft of Intelligence: Personal, Public, & Political,” is a desperate need for Amazon to take on the task of aggregating books and building out from books to create social communities where all these books can be “seen” and “read” and “understood” as a whole. We remain fragmented in the production and dissemination of information, and consequently, in our own mind-sets and world-views. Time to change that, perhaps with Wiki-books that lock-down the original and then give free license to apply OHS linkages at the paragraph level, and unlimited wike build-outs. That's what I am in Seattle to discuss this week.

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Review: Risk and Reason–Safety, Law, and the Environment

5 Star, Change & Innovation, Complexity & Catastrophe, Complexity & Resilience, Decision-Making & Decision-Support

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5.0 out of 5 stars Huge Helping of Reason, Needs Salt,

December 2, 2002
Cass R. Sunstein
The bottom line on this book is clear: our governance of risk to the public tends to be managed by political gut reaction rather than informed investigation; there is no clear doctrine for studying and articulating risk (for example, distinguishing between high risks to a few and low but sustained risks to the many, or between three levels of cost-benefit analysis so that choices can be made); and the best form of risk management may be through the effective communication of risk information to the public rather than imposed costs on private sector enterprises.As reasoned as the book is, it also constitutes a direct attack on all those who expouse the “precautionary principle.” While I do not agree completely with the author, who seems to feel that rational study allows for the discounting of any risk to the point where it can be economically and politically managed at an affordable cost, he certainly take the debate to an entirely new level and his book is–quite literally–worth tens of billions of dollars in potential regulatory risk savings.

Most compelling is his methodical aggregation of data from several sources to show that the cost of saving one life (he notes that we fail to distinguish adequately between a life saved for a few years and a life saved for many years, or between young lives saved for a lifetime and old lives saved for a brief span of time). Table 2.1 on page 30 is quite astonishing–of 45 major regulated risks, one (drinking water) costs over $92 billion per premature death averted; eight including asbestos cost between $50 million and $4 billion; seven including arsenic and copper cost between $13 million and $45 million; 14 including various electrical standards cost between $1 million and $10 million per death averted; and 15 cost less than $1 million per death averted.

What cost human life? Even on this there is no standard, and even within a single regulatory agency (e.g. the Environmental Protection Agency) there are different calculations used in relation to different risks being regulated. The author does a really fine job of comparing the public perception of the value of a life saved ($1.3 million for automobile-related risks, $103 million for aviation-related risks) with the values used by the government and the courts, which vary widely (into the billions) but seem to hover between $10 million and $30 million per life saved and without regard the the number of life-years actually involved.

The heart of the book is in its conclusion, where the author proposes a four-part strategy for dramatically reducing the cost of regulatory risk management, suggesting that we focus on 1) disclosure of information to the public; 2) economic incentives; 3) risk reduction contracts; and 4) free market environmentalism. With respect to the latter, he is strongly supportive of allowing the “sale” of pollution privileges between nations and industries and companies.

For additional observations on reducing risk to the future of life see my reviews of Joe Thorton on “Pandora's Poison,” Raffensperger and Tickner on “Protecting Public Health & The Environment,” Novacek on “The Biodiversity Crisis,” Czech on “Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train,” Lomberg on “The Skeptical Environmentalist,” Helvarg on “Blue Frontier,” and Wilson's “The Future of Life.”

Cass Sunstein and Lawrence Lessig join Jerry Berman and Marc Rotenberg and Mike Godwin as America's “top guns” in responsible law-making. This book makes a great deal of sense, is worth a great deal of money, and should guide the future evolution of regulatory and information-driven risk management.

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5 Star, Civil Society, Culture, Research, Democracy

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5.0 out of 5 stars 21st Century Primer for Cyber-Constitution,

April 8, 2001
Cass Sunstein
Every page offers up elegant thoughtful, *relevant* ideas that connect people, technology, and their government in dramatic useful ways.Core ideas explored by the book include the difference between populism and deliberative accountable judgment; the relationship between free speech and social well-being; the vital importance of being exposed to diverse opinion, not just similar opinions; the danger of cyber-cascade information, a form of Hitler-esque propaganda with malicious effect; the true potential (unlikely to be achieved at this point) of the Internet if managed in keeping with the original Constitutional understanding of the role of education and free speech); the absurdity of the notion of free speech as an absolute [on this see my review of Roger Shattuck's Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography, St. Martin's Press, 1996]; the importance of thoughtful regulation; and the destructive effects of market pressures on both culture and government.

This is important helpful legal opinion that is clearly “tuned in” to modern information technology and all its dangers as well as its potential. This book is designed for the citizen-reader worried about the future of the Republic. It is both easy to read and necessary to read–a very articulate and comprehensive starting point for devising new law appropriate to the 21st century. I recall Mike Nelson, the author assistant to then Senator Gore in the crafting of the National Information Infrastructure legislature, talking about the frustration of trying to manage 1990's technology with 1950's law. This book, and its author, represent the first decent intelligent brief I have seen connecting the first principles of our Constitution and our Supreme Court interpretations, with the realities of this century's information technology and the threat of chaos in cyberspace.

Gems abound. From the author's deep understanding of the dangers of undocumented computer code that contains pre-planned censorship and routing and privacy violation hooks, to his understanding of the need for diversity filters that expose one to contrasting viewpoints, to his discussion of emerging solutions from deliberative opinion polling (includes intelligence) to constructive URL linkages to the dangers of .coms over-whelming .orgs and .edus, this book is the best single lecture in the literature I have read in the past ten years–certainly important to the future of democracy in an electronic age.

The author concludes with a discussion of six reform possibilities, including deliberative domains; required disclosure by communications firms; voluntary self-regulation; economic subsidies for democracy-beneficial content and websites; “must carry” rules on *popular* websites (one might include pornographic websites) in the form of links designed to nurture exposure to substantive questions; and “must carry” rules on divisive highly-partisan websites in the form of links to contrasting views.

The book includes excellent biographical notes suggesting other readings, has strong and interesting footnotes, and a good index. This is an intelligent, moral, civic book.

The author renders us all a major service in bringing forth our foundational thinking–Mill on the importance of humans being exposed to the diversity of the human experience; Dewey on the infantile state of social knowledge, Brandeis on how public discussion is a political duty and that the greatest menace to liberty is an inert people–examining the current and projected legal and moral and social Internet and information trends–and suggesting how good law might yet lead to good results.

At 202 pages, pocketbook size despite its hard cover, this is a well-developed contribution to the great conversation that should be owned and read by anyone who cares to speculate on the future of the Republic. Seriously powerful stuff–and an ideal gift to include when you write a check to your elected representatives.

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