New techniques for new technologies

I want to believe (X-Files classic)Modern digital methods of communication have become highly diverse, paradoxically making the exchange of information both easier and more complex.  Critically, there is no longer a single canonical format for conveying written information or engaging in direct spoken communication.  Handwritten or standard typeface letters have been replaced by instant, informal streams of data; often broadcast not to a single recipient but to multiple family members simultaneously, groups of friends, or simply any of the billions of people out there.  Fonts, colours, layout and accompanying images can all carry meta-linguistic connotations, altering how words are perceived and understood.  Choice and style are much more pervasive.  Phones are no longer limited to simple speech and inhibited by physical wires; instead, they are mobile, multisensory devices with integrated cameras and a range of sensors generating constant data about the user, details of which can be automatically incorporated as an additional communication channel.  Semiotics has become much more explicit, exaggerated and directly visual in nature.  Accessible technology is now a global reality that transcends cultural boundaries.  Semantics and context have to be established in 140 characters or less.  All these fast-moving changes permit a rich and exponentially growing complexity in human interaction.  However, this rapid shift in communication behaviour, both in terms of production and comprehension, means there is still little understanding of how the different modalities interact to deliver an intended, or unintended, message.  This is particularly true when information has to be evaluated in terms of unknown or ambiguous provenance and authenticity.  In other words, do you believe it? Do you trust it? Do you agree with it?  What combination of factors will make you re-read, re-post, re-Tweet, or even just reply/comment rather than ignore?  The Art of Persuasion has become a highly scientific pursuit with significant social and political impact.  Why are we apparently living in a post-fact world?  Is this trend just a natural and inevitable consequence of current attitudes and beliefs?  Not only are some facts more equal than others, but some may not be facts at all. Robert Proctor (Stanford University) has spent many years investigating the spread of ignorance and created the wonderful word “agnotology”.  This is typically defined along the lines of “culturally constructed ignorance, purposefully created by special interest groups working hard to create confusion and suppress the truth”.  Of course this term in itself could be construed to have a certain negative sentiment and over-critical discourse bias.  Fortunately, the subtitle of his co-edited book on the matter does emphasis the unmaking as well as making of ignorance, but the technologies and tools to make or break agnotology have already changed dramatically in the few years since it was published.

Investigating the process of how trust is established, examining the reliability and uptake of information, and determining the level of data quality is (I considered “lies”) at the heart of our neuropolitics research.  This covers more implicit and subtle manipulations as well as direct, explicit presentation.  Faith in evidence is required, even if faith is not commonly associated with science.  Similarly, the change in the types of data being analysed means that new techniques have to be developed, applied and constantly reviewed, requiring a fully agile approach.  Testing and validating a methodology is more important than any single dataset.  Outside of academia, data journalism has emerged as a term associated with objective and unbiased data transparency.  This includes a global growth in fact-checking websites, with examples such as in the UK.  Whether this represents a return swing away from current anti-expert attitudes to a more evidence-based approach remains to be seen.

[Proctor, R., & Schiebinger, L. L. (Eds.). (2008). Agnotology: The making and unmaking of ignorance. Stanford University Press.]

Everything is Up for Grabs in Brexit Process

Just as with the other existing models – Norway, Switzerland, Canada, Greenland – the new British relationship with the EU will have to be purpose built. If Scotland is to maximise its advantage in that process, says Laura Cram, it will need to be out of the blocks before the Article 50 starting pistol is fired. 

No-one knows precisely when the Article 50 process, formally notifying the intention of the UK to leave the EU, will be triggered. But being prepared is essential not just to respond swiftly but to shape the direction the subsequent negotiations take. We know only that the clock is ticking but not when the alarm is set to go off. The challenge for Michael Russell, as the Scottish Government’s new Brexit Minister, will be to re-shape the boundaries of the possible in Scottish-UK-EU relations before the Article 50 process begins.

As every returning Olympian will testify, responding to the sound of the starter’s gun comes at the end of an intense and lengthy process of physical and psychological preparation, scenario planning, sizing up the opposition and understanding the nature of the terrain. Not everything is within an athlete’s control, but a successful Olympian will have prepared for what they can and will be aware of where the uncontrollable might surface. They will have thought through what action to take and how to both create and to seize opportunities. Carefully constructed teams of experts support their efforts. Control of the race is key and preparation is key to control. To fail to prepare, in high stake games, is to prepare to fail.

Writing in the 1970s Ernst Haas, one of the earliest scholars of European integration, described the scenario in which a very large number of organisational actors find themselves with confused and clashing perceptions of the optimal solutions to the problems they face as a “turbulent policy field”. Actors pursue mutually incompatible objectives and are unsure of the trade-offs between these objectives. At the same time these actors need to cooperate with each other as they are tied into a network of interdependencies. Haas describes this scenario as being like a “giant simultaneous chess match over which the judges have lost control”. Confusion and uncertainty are dominant in a turbulent decision field and this confusion can be sub-national, national, supra-national and global all at the same time.

The Brexit process is just such a turbulent field. Beyond the formalities of the legal process, laid out but as yet untested in Article 50, we have no precedent to draw on. It is even controversial at EU level which EU institution will lead the negotiations. Within the UK, different territorial perspectives prevail. Uncertainty creates a suboptimal decision environment. Uncertainty produces a tendency to cling to the status quo, and when there is no status quo to cling to – a tendency towards delay and indecision. This is a tendency to be resisted at all costs.

Talk of existing models – Norway, Swiss, Canadian, Greenland – as templates for Brexit are examples of such status quo bias. Until these models were developed none of them existed. There is no UK model or rUK model for non-member state relations with the EU only because it has not yet been imagined or constructed. None of the existing templates were created for departing member states or for non-departing territories within departing member states. The flip side of a turbulent policy field, according to Haas, is that “everything is up for grabs”. A turbulent field is also an optimal environment for creative thinking and bold policy entrepreneurship. The trick is to be the one shaping the options and framing the ensuing debate.

Policy studies consistently show that the most effective moment for agenda-setting is when an idea is not yet a spark in policy-makers’ eyes. The persuasive power of solid policy analysis and clear scenario planning has the potential to frame the debates that ensue. The earlier that clear alternative scenarios are developed, the more time there is to normalize these ideas with other decision-makers within the UK and across the EU. Softening up the decision environment by exposing new scenarios to decision partners, until they don’t seem so new, radical or threatening is key. Pro-actively framing the debate and shaping the negotiations, in a time-sensitive environment, is crucial. Clear scenarios for what Scotland wants in relation to EU and UK membership in the case of a hard or soft UK-wide Brexit, or in the case of an independent relationship with the EU, need to be developed, disseminated and normalized in the debate without delay.

It is the UK Government that will fire the starter’s gun at what is considered to be an optimal time for them. That may not coincide with Scotland’s preference or interests. Jumping the gun will be an Olympian effort but the Scottish Government is no stranger to this.

This article was written by Laura Cram of the Neuropolitics Research Lab from the University of Edinburgh. It is re-blogged from the the Centre for Constitutional Change’s blog. It was originally co-published with the Herald