Thanks to the ubiquity of mobile phones and digital infrastructure, it is now possible to achieve direct democracy at the global scale. We are already seeing inklings of its emergence in the rise of Arab Spring, the Occupy Movement, and more recent activities in Egypt, Brazil, and Turkey. Yet there is a cultural force at play that may keep us from breaking away from centralized political power — the surveillance meme and its capacity to evoke fear and paranoia about open data systems.
The rise of global democracy is at risk of being thwarted by a toxic meme!
A meme is any idea, story, or behavior that spreads from one person to another. It is the fundamental unit of culture that replicates, mutates, and spreads as people learn from one another. Our capacity to generate and propagate memes is what sets humans apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. We have a unique cognitive ability to create concepts that make sense of our world — concepts that arise as neural patterns of information in our massive neocortex in the frontal lobes of our brains. And it has recently been discovered that humans have what scientists call “mirror neurons” that enable us to see the world through each others’ eyes. This is why we can express empathy for others and learn through imitation in ways no other animal is wired to do.
(As a side note, other mammals have mirror neurons too. It is our capacity for symbolic reasoning expressed through human conceptual systems that makes us distinct.)
And so the spread of memes is vitally important. Those memes that achieve widespread adoption become the social norms and standard practices for a society. Thus the concern I have about the surveillance meme. It came to my attention this morning when I shared this article about some fascinating research on the social networks of strangers using the same transportation system in Singapore. Many of my friends read it and thought it was fascinating to ponder the emergent patterns of human behavior that can now be tracked by open data (in this case, swipe cards used to enter buses and trains). Yet others I know responded with paranoia about the power of centralized surveillance states to “track our every move” and target each of us in a truly frightening manner.
As a meme researcher who studies the dynamic evolution of cultural systems, this was a clear sign of a tension between positive and negative feedbacks in the discourse. In the language of dynamic systems, a positive feedback is when a change in the system is amplified (an example being when a microphone is too close to the speaker –a small sound goes through many rounds of amplification until it becomes a very loud screech). A negative feedback is when a change in the system is met by a response that dampens it out (think of the thermostat in your house that turns the heat off when it reaches the desired temperature).
The tendency for people to become excited by the possibilities of open data acts as a positive feedback, encouraging more data to be made public and accessible for integration into new technologies. By contrast, the tendency for people to become fearful of the abuse of power makes them more inclined to resist the opening of personal user data to research projects that mine them for patterns of behavior with predictive qualities.
I want to see us get to a place where centralized political and economic power no longer has a monopoly on the control of societies. So I am ever mindful about the cultural responses to social change that reinforce ideologies based in fear and insecurity.
By framing the opening of data as a pathway to centralized surveillance state power, we presume the world that we seek to avoid. This is a positive feedback loop of its own, making it more likely that centralized power systems will be preserved because the leveling of hierarchies that come through decentralized open networks gets thwarted by these fearful responses. Also, there is a ‘framing effect’ that arises when a particular meme gets expressed. Every time the situation is framed as surveillance, the neural circuitry in our brains that represent this understanding gets strengthened (psychologists would say that it has been primed to activate more readily). And so the positive feedback operates directly at the neurological and psychological level as well.
It is these dynamic tensions that encourage the adoption of new practices — in this case, the opening of data — or set up barriers of resistance that hinder adoption. Those of us who want to see people-centered democracies arise to replace centralized systems of power will need to be vigilant in our studies of these cultural feedbacks. We will need to carefully study the ecosystems of memes that comprise our discourse on open collaboration, interaction, and participation if we want to get beyond the real threat of surveillance states.
I would love to hear your thoughts. What can we do to better understand the dynamics at play here? How might this become a robust research study in its own right? What are the risks of letting the discourse unfold without having the insights that come from meme studies that map out the systemic drivers of cultural change? Please share your thoughts in the comment thread below.