Saturday, 17 September 2016

An Agenda for social transparency: making sense of big data

Brexit and the American elections this November provide examples of the art of lies in advanced democracies. It can be argued that we encounter this problem with referenda and elections in all democracies; effective interactions between citizens, experts and policy-makers are a major challenge.  Representative and participative democracies need further development to be effective. We find that there is a significant distinction between the “emotional truth” emerging in citizens minds and the “real truth” as constructed by solid debates supported by experts, think tanks and political parties and also by the serious press.  This distinction touches key aspects of communications in a complex world, today dominated by big data, which in practice implies data overload for citizens and politicians. For both it is increasingly difficult to distinguish lies from truths. For the former big data may support conflating aggregated trends, such as inequality and zero hour contracts with deciding whether or not being part of the European Union in the UK.  Politicians, also overwhelmed by data -in an uncertain world- may construct and impose their truths influenced by ideology, weak expert advice and short term political interests. The challenge is reducing the gap between sound evidences and emotional constructions. It may be argued that it is a social responsibility, similar to having a Justice System, to create aiding procedures to contextualize fairly that that is heard through the media and social networks. In advanced democracies, for social issues whether of global or local relevance, it is irresponsible not to challenge the arguments advanced by those forming public opinion with the sieve of authenticity, legitimacy and truthfulness (Habermas, 1979).

But, it may be argued that the huge complexity of social processes make impossible dealing with this challenge. However, this is not necessarily the case. Complexity management tools, such as variety engineering (Beer, 1979, 1985, Espejo & Reyes, 2011),  should expose in daily conversations the damage produced by those charismatic demagogues that give evidences lacking in authenticity, legitimacy and truthfulness. Not only it is necessary to keep open checks and balances between multiple viewpoints to bridge gaps between emotional and real truths, but also it is necessary to count with the moral guidance of experts regulating on-going dialogues, offering judgements about precisely the authenticity, legitimacy and truthfulness of those constructing social opinions. These judgements of the dialogues constructing “real truths” -enmeshed in moral mazes- should be distributed throughout society; they are necessary at multiple levels from the local to the global. This proposal may appear as a utopia; however I propose that its realisation is necessary for mature democracies. This proposed utopia is an invitation to move in the direction of more transparent societies (Wene & Espejo, 1999). 


S. Beer, (1979) The Heart of Enterprise, Chichester: Wiley

S. Beer, (1985)  Diagnosing the System for Organizations, Chichester: Wiley

R.Espejo & A. Reyes (2011) Organizational Systems: Managing Complexity with the Viable System Model. Springer Heidelberger

Habermas, J. (1979). Communication and the Evolution of Society. Boston, Beacon Press.

Wene C. and Espejo R. (1999). A Meaning for Transparency in Decision Processes, in Proceeding of Conference on Values in Decisions on Risk (ed. Kjell Andersson), Sponsored by European Commission/DGXI, Swedish Nuclear Power Inspectorate and Swedish Radiation Protection Institute, Stockholm, 13-17 June 1999



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