Design policy: viral generations and best interests
April 17, 2008
Yesterday, I had lunch with one of my favorite people, Randy Mark. We had a very interesting discussion about the underlying assumptions of those trained in economics and generation differences in how we approach problem solving. So he started with the statement that most economists are trained to believe that people understand best their own self interests and thus make decisions that seek to optimize their interests. This in some ways is contrasted to some Marxist positions that imply that people's consciousnesses need to be raised so that they can understand what their true interests are.
As an anthropologist, I always believe that people understand best their own self interests. This is why you seek to understand and represent their experiences on their own terms through an ethnographic perspective. Yet, I also believe that people's decision-making is (1) constrained by the circumstances under which they can make choices and (2) not always rational because there are often conflicts amongst the various "best" interests that one holds. So what the Marxist position addresses is the conditions of the constrained circumstances and mitigating conflicts among best interests. The latter it does but telling you to prioritize your class interests over those of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, nationalism, etc. I tend to waiver on the Marxist thing because of the whole "false consciousness" thing. I tend to be more Gramscian, in that you can have contradictory consciousness but not false consciousness. Note: Antonio Gramsci was a philosopher who gave us the terms hegemony and contradictory consciousness. His Prison Notebooks was required reading in almost all of my classes as Stanford in Anthropology and Modern Thought and Literature.
But assuming that you assume people know their bests interests although they may be constrained in acting on them, how do big problems, such as those of policy, get solved? What Randy stated is for his generation (the Baby Boomers), you get a bunch of smart people in the room and have them come up with the solution. This approach made since before the ubiquity of the Internet made access to information more widely available. One could assume that only a few "experts" had access to the right information located in Academies and Think Tanks and thus could be informed to make important decisions.
For my generation, the approach is much more distributed, localized, and viral. You get a bunch of people all over the world with deep knowledge of their local conditions, have them post information in a digital format (YouTube, listserve, email, etc.), and through nodal to nodal sharing inform themselves of similarities and differences in how they should approach policy decisions. This is the basis of the proposal I want to put together for the IFG Ulm designing politics competition. A kit-o-parts for DIY Design Policy that creates a global common framework for capturing, communicating, and comparing design policy issues that respects the local conditions and local knowledge.
Anyway, it was really great discussion, which I hope to be able to have more often.