Computational Models of Cultural Systems

Computational approaches to studying the broader social context can be found in work on the emergence and diffusion of communities in cultural system. Spicer makes an anthropological appeal for the study of such systems, arguing that cultural change can only be properly considered in relation to more stable elements of culture. These persistent cultural elements, he argues, can best be understood as ‘identity systems,’ in which individuals bestow meaning to symbols. Spicer notes that there are collective identity systems (i.e., culture) as well as individual systems, and chooses to focus his attention on the former. Spicer talks about these systems in implicitly network terms: identity systems capture “relationships between human beings and their cultural products” (Spicer, 1971). To the extent that individuals share the same relationships with the same cultural products, they are united under a common culture; they are, as Spicer says, “a people.”

Axelrod presents a more robust mathematical model for studying these cultural systems. Similar to Schelling’s dynamic models of segregation, Axelrod imagines individuals interacting through processes of social influence and social selection (Axelrod, 1997). Agents are described with n-length vectors, with each element initialized to a value between 0 and m. The elements of the vector represent cultural dimensions (features), and the value of each element represents an individual’s state along that dimension (traits). Two individuals with the exact same vector are said to share a culture, while, in general, agents are considered culturally similar to the extent to which they hold the same trait for the same feature. Agents on a grid are then allowed to interact: two neighboring agents are selected at random. With a probability equal to their cultural similarity, the agents interact. An interaction consists of selecting a random feature on which the agents differ (if there is one), and updating one agent’s trait on this feature to its neighbor’s trait on that feature. This simple model captures both the process of choice homophily, as agents are more likely to interact with similar agents, and the process of social influence, as interacting agents become more similar over time. Perhaps the most surprising finding of Axelrod’s approach is just how complex this cultural system turns out to be. Despite the model’s simple rules, he finds that it is difficult to predict the ultimate number of stable cultural regions based on the system’s n and m parameters.

This concept of modeling cultural convergence through simple social processes has maintained a foothold in the literature and has been slowly gaining more widespread attention. Bednar and Page take a game theoretic approach, imagining agents who must play multiple cognitively taxing games simultaneously. Their finding that in these scenarios “culturally distinct behavior is likely and in many cases unavoidable” (Bednar & Page, 2007) is notable because classic game-theoretic models fail to explain the emergence of culture at all: rather rational agents simply maximize their utility and move on. In their simultaneous game scenarios, however, cognitively limited agents adopt the strategies that can best be applied across the tasks they face. Cultures, then, emerge as “agents evolve behaviors in strategic environments.” This finding underscores Granovetter’s argument of embeddedness (M. Granovetter, 1985): distinctive cultures emerge because regional contexts influence adaptive choices, which in turn influence an agent’s environment.

Moving beyond Axelrod’s grid implementation, Flache and Macy (Flache & Macy, 2011) consider agent interaction on the small world network proposed by Watts and Strogatz (Watts & Strogatz, 1998). This model randomly rewires a grid with select long-distance ties. Following Granovetter’s strength of weak ties theory (M. S. Granovetter, 1973), the rewired edges in the Watts-Strogatz model should bridge clusters and promote cultural diffusion. Flache and Macy also introduce the notion of the valiance of interaction, considering social influence along dimensions of assimilation and differentiation, and taking social selection to consist of either attraction or xenophobia. In systems with only positively-valenced interaction (assimilation and attraction), they find that the ‘weak’ ties have the expected result: cultural signals diffuse and the system tends towards cultural integration. However, introduction of negatively valenced interactions (differentiation and xenophobia), leads to cultural polarization; resulting in deep disagreement between communities which themselves have high internal consensus.


Defining Deliberation

While there are many definitions of deliberation – and many substantive debates about what constitutes ‘good’ deliberation (or perhaps it must be good to count as deliberation) – I like Jane Mansbridge’s ‘minimalist definition’ as a good starting point for understanding the term.

Deliberation, she writes, is “mutual communication that involves weighing and reflecting on preferences, values and interests regarding matters of common concern.”

While there is much that may be missing from this definition, I do think that it captures the core of what deliberation is all about. It is, fundamentally, a form of communication which engages reason and normative beliefs about shared concerns.

But the simplicity of this definition, perhaps under-states the value of deliberation; the power people can have in shaping their own communities.

Dewey writes that:

Democracy is much broader than a special political form, a method of conducting government, of making laws and carrying on governmental administration by means of popular suffrage and elected officers. It is that, of course. But it is something broader and deeper than that…It is, as we often say, though perhaps without appreciating all that is involved in the saying, a way of life, social and individual. The key-note of democracy as a way of life may be expressed, it seems to me, as the necessity for the participation of every mature human being in formation of the values that regulate the living of men together: which is necessary from the standpoint of both the general social welfare and the full development of human beings as individuals.

When Dewey writes that ‘democracy is a way of life’ he means that the ideal of democracy can only be achieved when we co-create our values and institutions together; when we deliberate to answer the question, what should we do?

But more fundamentally, the Deweyian invocation to democracy as a way of life, tells us that deliberation is democracy. It is not “just talk” or isolated blather. Deliberation is the very stuff of democracy itself – and when we live our lives as good citizens, engaging regularly and rationally in conversation with all members of our community; when we treat every conversation as a chance to improve ourselves and co-create our world; when we take democracy as a way of life –

Then we are indeed creating democracy itself.


Public Opinion and Social Influence

The presence of homophily is frequently found as a core feature of social networks. The principle that “similarity breeds connection” results in personal networks skewed towards homogeneity along numerous demographic and interpersonal lines (McPherson, Smith-Lovin, & Cook, 2001).

Festinger argues that homophily is a direct result of social influence: beliefs are only coherent through a process of social comparison and therefore people “tend to move into groups which, in their own judgment, hold opinions which agree with their own” (Festinger, 1954). The problem of embeddedness  – that people’s attempts at purposive action are embedded in concrete, ongoing systems of social relations – is inherent in this argument.

Reviewing the literature on social comparison, Festinger finds that individuals’ beliefs are malleable to social influence because the beliefs of others serve as guideposts in forming one’s own opinion. Foreshadowing Sunstein’s ‘law of group polarization’ (Sunstein, 1999), Festinger argues that this process of forming beliefs through social comparison is a primary driver of what he calls “social quiescence” (Festinger, 1954). This in turn serves as a driver for homophily, as people self-select out of groups unable to reach social quiescence, instead selecting into groups that more appropriately “satisfy their drive for self evaluation.”

Within the political domain, Lazarsfeld pioneered an understanding of public opinion as a process of social influence: a process driven significantly by personal conversations and everyday talk. While earlier understandings took media to be the primary source of political information and influence (Lippmann, 1922), Lazarsfeld suggests a “two-step flow” of communication: ideas and opinions may originate in media, but they flow first to opinion leaders.

What we call public opinion is then formed in a second step when these leaders disseminate information along lines of social influence. Importantly, opinion leaders generally exert greater social power than media, due to the many “psychological advantages” personal contacts have in exerting political influence (Lazarsfeld, Berelson, & Gaudet, 1948). These advantages include trust, conflict avoidance, and “persuasion without conviction,” e.g., the ability to actually take someone to the polls.

Perhaps most interesting for deliberative theory, however, is Lazarsfeld’s argument that “the weight of personal contacts upon opinion lies, paradoxically, in their greater casualness and non-purposiveness in political matters” (Lazarsfeld et al., 1948). In purposive political talk, individuals engage critically and intentionally, mentally prepared with “armor against influence.” Everyday talk, on the hand, catches us unprepared.

The passive exposure that comes from casual conversations presents a pervasive opportunity for powerful personal influence. We again see this argument manifest in Mutz and Mondak’s study of the workplace as a site for cross-cutting political dialogue. Workplaces may have a smaller proportion of political conversations than other settings, but the sheer volume of casual conversations makes workplaces as a key setting for political contact (Mutz, 2002).

Such public-minded talk ceased to be the sole purview of the Greek agorá long ago: when democracy is a way of living, as Dewey writes, even the most seemingly mundane sites of human interaction become critical elements of the deliberative system.


Invention as Knowledge Production

In Kenneth Arrow’s “Economic Welfare and the Allocation of Resources for Intervention,” he begins with what may seem like a bold statement: Invention here is broadly interpreted as the production of knowledge.

From this perspective, “invention” isn’t inherently about creating things, it is fundamentally about generating new knowledge. That knowledge may or may not result in new technologies or devices; knowledge itself is the creation.

Arrow uses this definition to point to a core need for the “knowledge economy.” Invention – knowledge creation – is an inherently risky business decision. As Arrow writes, “By the very definition of information, invention must be a risky process, in that the output (information obtained) can never be predicted perfectly from the inputs.”

This inherent risk multiplies. If I can’t guarantee to produce a certain knowledge you can’t guarantee to pay me for it. If you do make such a guarantee, if you agree to pay me regardless of what knowledge I create, then – under the classic economic models of utility – I no longer have motivation to generate that knowledge.

Furthermore, once and idea is generated, it is, in some respects, free. If I undertake the risk of producing knowledge and everyone profits equally from my labor, then – again, under classic economic models of utility – I no longer have motivation to generate knowledge. I’d rather free-ride off your knowledge creation.

This is, in fact, the underlying logic of the patent system: potential inventors will only have motivation to invent under a system that guarantees benefits from successful invention.

What I find particularly interesting about the “knowledge production” definition of invention, though, is that it assumes, in a certain sense, that knowledge is perfectly replicable. What’s missing from this framing is an idea that knowledge I generate can only be generated, uniquely, by me.

That’s not so say that once I generate an idea, you can’t interpret it and use it to generate your own idea. Indeed, one might say such a process is the very essence of science; as thought percolates across time and disciplines, through interpretation by human inventors. That is the very nature of progress.

Arrow’s definitions remind me of Lauren Klein’s work on Elizabeth Peabody: the transcendental scholar and educator who created impossibly complex mural charts. These charts were intentionally difficult to interpret, not as a tactic of frustration but to invite the viewer into a process of knowledge co-creation.

The interpretation of art is not the sole property of the artist; and an understanding of knowledge does not belong solely to the person who had the idea. That isn’t just an economic challenge to be overcome: it is a declaration of the very essence of knowledge. Knowledge doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it doesn’t just spring to life within one person’s brain. Knowledge only comes to be as a process of co-creation; as a slow accumulation of fuzzy recollections. It is humanity’s ultimate collective endeavor. We only make progress together.


Deliberation in a Homophilous Network

The social context of a society is both an input and an output of the deliberative system. As Granovetter argued, “actors do not behave or decide as atoms outside a social context, nor do they adhere slavishly to a script written for them by the particular intersection of social categories that they happen to occupy. Their attempts at purposive action are instead embedded in concrete, ongoing systems of social relations” (Granovetter, 1985). This “problem of embeddedness” manifests in a scholarly tension between studying the role of individual agency and the structures that shape available actions.

Consider, for example, the presence of homophily in social networks. A priori, there is no reason to attribute such a feature to a single mechanism. Perhaps homophily results from individual preference for being with ‘like’ people, or perhaps it results primarily from the structural realities within which agents are embedded: we should not be surprised that high school students spend a great deal of time with each other.

From a deliberative perspective, widespread homophily is deeply disconcerting. Networks with predominately homophilous relationships may indicate disparate spheres of association, even while maintaining a global balance on the whole. The linking patterns between an equal number of liberal and conservative blogs, for example, reveals distinctively separate communities rather than a more robust, crosscutting public sphere (Adamic & Glance, 2005).

Such homophily is particularly troubling as diversity of thought is arguably one of the most fundamental requirements for deliberation to proceed. Indeed, the vision of democratic legitimacy emerging from deliberation rests on the idea that all people, regardless of ideology, actively and equally participate (Cohen, 1989; Habermas, 1984; Mansbridge, 2003; Young, 1997). A commitment to this ideal has enshrined two standards – respect and the absence of power – as the only elements of deliberation which go undisputed within the broader field (Mansbridge, 2015). Furthermore, if we are concerned with the quality of deliberative output, then we ought to prefer deliberation amongst diverse groups, which typically identify better solutions than more homogenous groups (Hong, Page, & Baumol, 2004). Most pragmatically, homophily narrows the scope of potential topics for deliberation. Indeed, if deliberation is to be considered as an “ongoing process of mutual justification” (Gutmann & Thompson, 1999) or as a “game of giving and asking for reasons” (Neblo, 2015), then deliberation can only properly take place between participants who, in some respects, disagree. In a thought experiment of perfect homophily, where agents are exactly identical to their neighbors, then deliberation does not take place – simply because there is nothing for agents to deliberate about.


Make America Bowl Again

American civil society has really gone downhill since the 1950s. People used to belong to unions, fraternal societies, PTAs, bowling leagues. Now, self-absorbed and disconnected, they instead go bowling alone. Robert Putnam argues that these metrics of social capital – group membership, trust – even informal sociability – are deeply important to the civic health of a society. He presents a reasonable case that there is some correlation between group membership and civic health, finding that the latter correlates to a wide range of educational outcomes (Putnam, 2002) and that, more broadly, “the quality of public life and the performance of social institutions…are indeed powerfully influenced by norms and networks of civic engagement” (Putnam, 1995). This is a deeply important topic and Putnam is right to give it careful attention, yet his analysis continually glosses over questions of what qualifies as civic health and who gets to participate in the creation of social capital.

Perhaps most notably, Putnam’s definition of civic health places a heavy emphasis on social and institutional trust. As Putnam argues, social trust is a deeply beneficial good which is strongly correlated with civic engagement. Intuitively, this correlation makes sense – there’s no reason to participate in a process if you don’t trust the outcome, and you probably don’t want to spend your social time with people you don’t trust. Furthermore, potential eroders of social capital may be ameliorated by trust: both adults in a two-parent household cannot possibly be fully civically engaged if they do not periodically entrust someone with caring for their children.

Putnam, however, brings his faith in ‘trust’ as a positive social determinant too far. He takes for granted that social trust is intrinsically good, that it always serves to build better societies. A Burkean, however, would quickly find a critical flaw in this argument. As Cass Sunstein explains, Edmund Burke, the great conservative traditionalist, objects to “passionate movements that start political or social life from the ground up,” arguing that the “spirit of innovation” is the result of “a selfish temper and confined views” (Sunstein, 2009). In other words, Burke trusts past wisdom at expense of current knowledge. While Putnam values trust in current social institutions, Burke warns that these institutions may become corrupt. Trust in a good government may be good; but trust in a bad government can be devastating. Consider also Shanker Satyanath’s work on the rise of the Nazi party in pre-war Germany. It wasn’t a weak civil society which allowed fascism to flourish, rather it was the very traits Putnam praises. Indeed, as Satyanath et al. argue, it was “Germany’s vibrant ‘civic society,’ its dense network of social clubs and associations” which “facilitated the rise of Hitler by bringing more people into contact with his party’s message” (Satyanath, Voigtlaender, & Voth, 2013).

Furthermore, despite his protestations to the contrary, Putnam’s grim picture of the United States as a once-great civic utopia is deeply misaligned with realities of race, class, and gender. While tracing the tragic decline of civic engagement, Putnam pays little attention to inequities in access to engagement. He should be deeply alarmed to find that people without college experience – nearly half the population, in which people of color are strongly over-represented – are virtually shut out from civic life (Godsay, Kawashima-Ginsberg, Kiesa, & and Levine, 2012), a disparity which likely indicates structural barriers rather than apathy or narcissism. This oversight may affect Putnam’s analysis in two dimensions. First, standard survey measures of “civic engagement” do not always capture the many ways in which poor people support their communities (Godsay et al., 2012). While Putnam sees a decline in positive responses to the General Social Survey question of “How often do you spend a social evening with a neighbor?” (Putnam, 1995), Godsay et al. find that acts of “neighboring,” such as sheltering and feeding other community members, were common among non-college youth. Such civic acts may not register as “social evenings,” and therefore may artificially deflate survey responses. But perhaps the most striking finding of Godsay et al. is that non-college youth did engage in civic life when given the opportunity (Godsay et al., 2012). It was not the case, as Putnam fears, that “deep-seated technological trends are radically ‘privatizing’ or ‘individualizing’ our use of leisure time” (Putnam, 1995). Indeed, the greatest barrier to the civic engagement of this segment of the population was something Putnam hadn’t even considered: they had never even been given opportunities to engage.

Putnam takes for granted that engagement in civil society is a right which all residents have the full capability to exercise. ‘Capability’ here can be understood in Martha Nussbaum’s sense of ‘substantial freedoms;’ capabilities “are not just abilities residing inside a person but also the freedoms or opportunities created by a combination of personal abilities and the political, social, and economic environment” (Nussbaum, 2011). A person may have the ability to eat, but they don’t have the capability unless they have food. Similarly, civic scholars may agree that all people have the ability to engage as productive and valued members of civil society – but all people do not have this capability until they are all equally welcomed, encouraged, and celebrated for their contributions. In other words, what Putnam sees as a decline in civil society may have more to do with the broader context; rather than a problem of apathy, the increasing professionalization of civil society may undermine some citizen’s capabilities – may rob them of the knowledge that they, too, can contribute to the shared task of governing. This effect can be seen in people’s doubt of their own civic ability. In one survey, for example, Michael Neblo finds that 42% of Americans felt they “didn’t know enough to participate” in a deliberative session (Neblo, 2015).

None of this is to say that Putnam doesn’t make good points. Whether due to poor survey measures, disparities in civic capabilities, or even changes in mobility, family structure, or technology we should all be concerned with continually building a strong civil society. But Putnam is too quick to bemoan the past, to turn back the clock to a time when women stayed in the home and we all ate at segregated lunch counters. The Elks Lodge may have once been a great bastion of society, but now it’s a dingy reminder of a time when white men smoked cigars and congratulated themselves for saving the world. Perhaps, like Burke, we should put some trust in the wisdom of the past, but we would be blind to follow Putnam in putting that trust in the present. We shouldn’t be shaming people for not participating in survey-ready forms of engagement; we should be reminding them that governance is a shared activity; that we have a right and responsibility to engage; and that resistance is a worthy civic undertaking. But most of all, we need to convince people – perhaps, even, to convince ourselves – that our perspectives, actions, and voices matter. Our engagement matters.

Godsay, S., Kawashima-Ginsberg, K., Kiesa, A., & and Levine, P. (2012). “That’s not democracy,” How Out-of-School Youth Engage in Civic Life.

Neblo, M. A. (2015). Deliberative Democracy Between Theory and Practice: Cambridge University Press.

Nussbaum, M. C. (2011). Creating capabilities: Harvard University Press.

Putnam, R. D. (1995). Bowling alone: America’s declining social capital. Journal of democracy, 6(1), 65-78.

Putnam, R. D. (2002). Community-based social capital and educational performance. Making good citizens: Education and civil society.

Satyanath, S., Voigtlaender, N., & Voth, H.-J. (2013). Bowling for fascism: social capital and the rise of the Nazi Party. Retrieved from

Sunstein, C. R. (2009). Going to extremes: How like minds unite and divide: Oxford University Press.



You’re Probably Wrong: Group Polarization and Going to Extremes

In Going to Extremes, Cass Sunstein paints a grim picture. Men are prone to a variety of serious failings, and those failings only intensify through the processes of groups. Bolstering his argument, Sunstein points to numerous studies that have revealed humanity’s flaws. Stanley Milgram, for example, demonstrated that a majority of recruited participants could be convinced to administer what they thought were dangerously high shocks to an actor who responded with increasingly dramatic expressions of pain. “What Milgram revealed,” Sunstein writes, “is that the heuristic – in favor of obedience of apparently trusted authorities – does not always work well. In real-world cases, it leads to terrible moral errors” (Sunstein, 2009).

Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment similarly seems to reveal humanity’s darkness. Healthy, average participants were randomly assigned to serve as ‘prison guards’ or ‘inmates.’ Within days, the guards displayed “growing cruelty, aggression, and dehumanization,” while the prisoners – after an initial attempt at uprising – were crushed; becoming “subdued and ‘zombie-like’” (Sunstein, 2009). The simulation had grown so dire and grotesque that the experiment had to be ended early. After just 5 days. Sunstein summarizes the lessons learned from this dark look into human nature:

In pointing to the apparent normality of those involved in Nazi war crimes, Zimbardo gives a social science twist to Hannah Arendt’s claims about the ‘banality of evil.’ And in explaining what makes atrocities possible, Zimbardo places a large emphasis on deindividualization – a process by which both perpetrators and victims become essentially anonymous and are thereby transformed into a type or a role. (Sunstein, 2009)

For Sunstein, these studies highlight a deeper challenge. Human beings are embedded in a social context, and that context serves as a significant driver of individual actions and opinions. Hearing friends express a view makes a person socially inclined to express the same view. Deliberating groups tend towards extremism in the direction of the pre-deliberation median because nobody wants to take the social risk of expressing an unpopular view. College students playing prison guards give each other permission – or may even encourage each other – to act in increasingly horrific ways. We each take our cues from the social context we’re embedded in; a problematic heuristic because the signals we receive are so often morally or factually wrong.

This presents a potentially paralyzing conundrum: if your own perceptions and opinions are merely a product of your social environment, how can you ever know what is truly good or right? Sunstein offers a small prescription of hope, arguing that “many human beings are able to resist situational pressures and to engage in forms of heroism. Even when group polarization is under way, some people, some of the time, will hold fast to their convictions and stay where they are, especially if group members go in destructive or violent directions” (Sunstein, 2009). Sunstein further argues that the policy prescription of ‘checks and balances’ serves as a bulwark against polarization. Indeed, “the institutions of our Constitution reflect an implicit fear of polarization, creating a range of checks on potentially ill-considered judgments.” For example, the constitution explicitly denies the president’s power to declare war, thus ensuring that a single person can not “do so without sufficient deliberation and debate among diverse people” (Sunstein, 2009).

It is reasonable to think that checks and balances provides some protection against polarization, yet the idea of deliberation “among diverse people” is laughable coming from an era when ‘diversity’ consisted entirely of the diversity between straight, white, property-owning men in cities and straight, white, property-owning men in rural areas. This narrow notion of diversity points to a significant oversight in Sunstein’s work: he puts a lot of attention on political diversity while giving very little thought to other forms of diversity. For example, Sunstein notes that “confident people are more prone to polarization” but he gives little attention to the constant social admonishment women receive for not being confident enough (Kay & Shipman, 2014). Perhaps, then, it should not be surprising that groups with higher numbers of women perform better at a range of tasks than equal or male-dominated groups (Woolley, Chabris, Pentland, Hashmi, & Malone, 2010). This isn’t because women are smarter or better, but because women are more likely to be socialized for group problem-solving. Indeed, Woolley et al. find their result to be “largely mediated by social sensitivity,” a skill which the women in their study displayed more strongly than men. Woolley et al. further argue that “groups, like individuals, do have characteristic levels of intelligence.” People socialized for group processes, then, tend to make groups smarter while individuals socialized with the destructive features of toxic masculinity – such as over confidence in their individual perspective and brash confrontation with any form of dissent – make for less productive groups. We don’t need individualistic heroes who “hold fast to their convictions” no matter what; we need thoughtful collaborators ensure that a variety of voices are heard.

Rather than reveal the risks of deliberation, these anecdotes highlight exactly why group deliberation is needed. Sunstein argues that the Stanford Prison Experiment exposes the ‘banality of evil,’ but Arendt didn’t mean this phrase the way Sunstein interprets it: that humanity’s evil is mundane. Rather, as Arendt writes, evil “possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface. It is ‘thought-defying,’ as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its ‘banality’ (Arendt, 1963).” Evil, in its empty banality, cannot survive the rigors of reasoned thought and debate; it thrives when these habits are suppressed, when there is mere lip service hollowly lauding diversity. This is exactly why Bernard Manin argues for the normalization of debate as an essential feature of deliberation (Manin, 2005). As a political ideal, debate, isn’t about finding out whether you and I agree; it is about considering all possible reasons, all possible perspectives, and then co-creating solutions which none of us could have accomplished on our own. That is, as Dewey calls it (Dewey & Rogers, 2012), the essence of democracy as a way of living.


Thanks to Joshua Miller for the Arendt quote
Arendt, H. (July 24, 1963). [Letter to Gershom Scholem].

Dewey, J., & Rogers, M. L. (2012). The public and its problems: An essay in political inquiry: Penn State Press.

Kay, K., & Shipman, C. (2014). The confidence gap. The Atlantic, 14, 1-18.

Manin, B. (2005). Democratic Deliberation: Why We Should Promote Debate Rather Than Discussion. Paper presented at the Program in Ethics and Public Affairs Seminar, Princeton University.

Sunstein, C. R. (2009). Going to extremes: How like minds unite and divide: Oxford University Press.

Woolley, A. W., Chabris, C. F., Pentland, A., Hashmi, N., & Malone, T. W. (2010). Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups. Science, 330(6004), 686-688. doi:10.1126/science.1193147



Action Civics Survey

Heli Mishael, a student at Harvard’s Kennedy School, is doing some investigatory research around action civics and what teachers need to effectively implement an action civics approach in their classroom. This is definitely a question we here at FJCC would be interested in getting an answer to, so if you have some time, please take this survey!

Questions on this survey may be directed to Heli Mishael  Thanks for taking the survey and hopefully contributing to the body of knowledge about what might be needed!

The Slow Work of Co-Creation

For my Social Network class, I’ve been reading a lot about processes of homophily and group polarization. A lot of the literature is discouraging.

People tend to self-sort into like-minded groups, groups tend to gravitate towards the pre-deliberation mean, and people tend to disregard or deride information they see as coming from a different group. It’s all a whole lot less idyllic than one might hope.

More generally, the problem is that people, on average don’t do what is best for them or for society at large. It makes it extremely difficult to develop and implement policy solutions when those solutions – while potentially addressing some problems – cascaded into other problems you hadn’t quite anticipated.

Consider a fundamental challenge of urban planning: there is currently deep inequity between communities which is realized, in part, through unequal resources and disparate access. One way to ameliorate this rift to to provide services to communities which didn’t previously enjoy that service. For example, building public transportation in these communities should be to their benefit.

And it is, except –

Public transportation leads to gentrification and rising home prices – the people who should have benefited from the public transportation move out of the community and do not then benefit from the transportation. In the best case scenario, a home owner can profit from the rising housing costs – cashing out to settle elsewhere. Renters, unfortunately, don’t have such luxury and may simply be forced out of their property owners convert to condos sell the land.

Either scenarios is not particularly satisfying; particularly considering that the pre-transport residents – home owners or note – were probably exposed to toxic near-highway pollutants and may just have moved to a different location where their health exposures were equally bad.

These frustratingly inter-connected problems seem nearly impossible to solve. It’s like policy wack-a-mole; if you build public transportation you then need a condo-conversion ordinance, and each potential solution reveals new and challenging needs.

But I think this is okay.

In The Task of Utopia, Erin McKenna argues that it’s damaging to think of utopia as this fixed, static thing: gather enough knowledge, enact enough policy solutions, and we can figure out how to solve the problem forever.

But life is not really as easy as all that – nor should it be. Utopia isn’t an end-state, it’s a process. A slow, tiresome, frustratingly complex process.

There are no easy solutions, but that doesn’t mean we’re left with nothing but to throw our hands up in despair. It means we have to talk together, work together, and search together – slowly, continually co-creating the world around us.


What is a Civic Game?

This past weekend, I joined my civic collaborators Joshua Miller and Daniel Levine in launching the first (hopefully annual) Civic Games Contest. This is something we have been talking about for a long time – trying to tap into the inherently civic nature of games to reach something beyond a mere ‘gamification’ of civics.

Promoting the contest has proven to be an interesting challenge, though, because in my head gaming and civics are so indelibly interrelated that a ‘civics games contest’ seems obvious – indeed, it’s almost surprising there hasn’t been one already. Yet, I struggle to articulate this connection to others.

In our call for submissions we call out three specific ways in which a game’s themes might be civic:

  • Personal: having moral integrity, taking responsibility for one’s actions, reflecting on one’s personal morality
  • Communal: openness to dialogue, communal service (e.g., charitable work, helping neighbors), involvement in community organizations (e.g., religious institutions, social clubs)
  • Political: engagement with or challenge to formal political structures (e.g., advocacy, protest, running for office, voting, revolution)

While all three of those are certainly civic themes, the connection between gaming and civics goes deeper than these examples. In his own blog post, Miller writes, “civics is fundamentally about finding ways for people [to take] an ownership-stake in their shared world.”

I am inclined to agree with that framing. Dewey writes that democracy is a way of living; a way of engaging deeply in the shared endeavor of living together. That is what civics is all about.

In theory, the task of designing effective, positive institutions could be left to experts. There are good reasons for such an approach: experts certainly have, well, expertise, and – as Walter Lippmann strongly points out – people only have so much bandwidth and interest. We can’t all be an expert in everything.

But to turn everything over to mere experts, divorced from the knowledge and experience of the people, invites catastrophic failure. James C. Scott has some of the strongest arguments against the dangers of a totalitarian state fixated on regulating everything and unrelentingly shutting out the public voice – but perhaps that framing is enough to give you an idea of the risks.

Our society is fundamentally just that – our society. It is our role and our duty as citizens to continually co-create it; together. It will not always be easy; in fact it will always be hard. But that’s what it means to live democratically.

You may ask, however, what does this all have to do with games?


While any type of game could be civic, the connection is perhaps most clearly seen with roleplaying games (RPGs and LARPs). These games are fundamentally about co-creating a shared world. Whether characters are cooperative or antagonistic, players work together to tell and discover the story. The experience is emergent – something is created which didn’t exist before; the unique product of a shared endeavor.

These games remind us of our collective power and our individual agency. They teach us how to be citizens.

Of, course, for the contest, we’re looking for something more than a game which is civic in the way that all games are civic – but rather, a game which is self-conscious in it’s civic-ness. A game that not only builds the capacity of players to fulfill their role of citizen, but one which overtly brings this preparation to the surface.

Too often, we neglect our agency in the realm of civic engagement. We genuinely prefer to put our power into the hands of experts because we doubt our ability to see, understand, or solve our collective challenges.

A civic game, then, is one which actively seeks to support citizen players with relevant facts, values, or strategies – helping them to see or experience an injustice they hadn’t fully recognized before or empowering them as citizens: actors fully capable of having a collective impact on the world around them.