Tuesday, July 27, 2010

List of non-traditional conference methods (aka unconferences)

I recently queried my Facebook friends to get their counsel on the following question:

Can anyone point me to examples of non-traditional conference methods? The old model of 'expert-in-the-front, everyone-else-just-listen-and-clap,' seems played out. Are there conferences that invert the pyramid to involve and engage everyone in participation, expertness, and action?

And the stuff they came back with is amazing. Check it out:

Appreciative Inquiry
Birds of a Feather
Fishbowl (conversation) -- love this idea!
Knowledge Cafe
Lightning Talks
Nominal Group Technique
Open Space Technology
Pecha Kucha
Speed Geeking
World Café

So it turns out that there is a whole world of non-traditional conference possibilities.  I'm surprised that many progressive groups continue stick with the old format -- because 'expert-up-front, everyone-else-listen-and-clap'' is not consistent with our democratic philosophy and worldview. If we believe that the people have the best answers (which I think we do), then I believe we need to find ways of tapping into that wisdom.

Monday, July 26, 2010

some reflections from Netroots Nation 2010 -- the progressive blogosphere is a living, growing, learning organism

Here is what conservatives have going for them:


The entire conservative worldview and the structure of their political machine (messages, think tanks, and organizational structure) is built on hierarchy.  The benefits that come from hierarchy are unity, message discipline, and focus. 

Here is what progressive have going for us:


As James Surowiecki shows in The Wisdom of Crowds, the benefits of diversity are extraordinary.  The more diverse, decentralized, and independent the group is, the more likely it is to come to the correct answer.  Hierarchical groups all move in the same direction (which is nice) but they tend to repeat the same mistakes over and over.  All of the diversity within the progressive movement leads to conflict within the group -- but over time, by engaging in the constant battle of ideas, progressives tend to arrive at the correct answer to the various challenges facing society.  So for example, in the last two hundred years, progressives have figured out abolitionism, universal suffrage, and how to win two world wars, while conservatives have figured out some greeting card platitudes about personal responsibility. 

The internet in general, and blogging is particular, is really built for a progressive way of thinking.  It's diverse, decentralized, and wildly independent.  Progressive blogs -- most notably sites like DailyKos, Pam's House Blend, Calitics -- have figured out how to create smart groups that harness the wisdom of the crowd.  These sites solicit diversity by allowing diaries so that anyone can participate.  But then these site harvest the wisdom of the crowd by moving the best diaries (based on the reaction of the crowd in the comments) up to the recommended list or onto the front page.  As a result, the progressive blogosphere has become an ideas factory that is consistently spitting out the best answers on the major issues of the day.  Through intense debate over the course of many months, the progressive blogosphere came up with the best answer for health care (Medicare for all), process (end the filibuster), and financial regulatory reform (consumer financial protection agency, regulate derivatives, relief for homeowners instead of Wall Street). 

What really impressed me about Netroots Nation 2010 (that I just returned from) is that the progressive blogosphere continues to grow and learn and change in pretty profound ways. It seems to me that the progressive blogosphere is like a single living organism (with a million little individuals cells) that is developing increasing complexity and sophistication. So for example, lots of progressive bloggers are now making connections between race and class and economics and labor and the environment -- really starting to see their single issues within the large systemic frameworks that create oppression. Martin Luther King, Jr., late in his career, started making the connections between race and class and the Vietnam war. So too, progressive bloggers are starting to get that racism, laissez-faire capitalism, militarism, homophobia, and sexism, all stem from the same system of domination.

To see what I'm talking about, check out the following videos from the conference:

Van Jones' keynote

Tim Wise on the links between racism and economic crisis -- starts at the 26:30 mark (you can just move the video slider to cue it up to that spot)

Rev. Lennox Yearwood (starts at 36:50)

Majora Carter (starts at 41:45)

As people start to connect the dots, it also creates the possibilities for lasting systemic change.  In spite of the daily challenges, it seems to me that this is a really exciting time to be a progressive.

Update #1:  Ian Welsh has a great post up on his site about the tensions in the room at Netroots Nation 2010. I think this is the best summary I've seen of the mood of, and divisions in, the audience at the event.  Where I differ with Welsh's analysis is that I think that the programming at NN was kinda genius.  Van Jones, Tim Wise, Lennox Yearwood, and Majora Carter all connected the dots in really profound ways that I think set the stage for a much deeper systemic shift in the movement in the years to come.  At least that's my hope.

Casinos make the case for high levels of taxation

I spent the last four days in the air conditioned wonderland of a casino (the Rio) in Las Vegas at the annual Netroots Nation convention. Many people love casinos, myself included.  But I never gamble (as they guy in the elevator said to me yesterday, "The only way to win is not to play.")  I love casinos because they are freaking nice -- gorgeous innovative architecture, air conditioned, pretty lights, good music, and extra oxygen pumped in to make everyone feel better.

Washing my hands one afternoon in the casino's restroom -- complete with high ceilings, granite countertops and a dedicated employee to keep it clean, I got to thinking... it seems to me that casinos make the case for much higher levels of taxation in society. 

Because the REASON that casinos are so nice is that they tax the hell out of people. Going to Vegas is like putting your money into a mutual fund that is guaranteed to lose at least .2% of your money (blackjack) and may cost you as much as 29% of your money (Keno).  But people LOVE Las Vegas -- in part because all of our losing then leads to great works of architecture (replicas of Paris, New York, and Egypt for example) and cheap breakfast buffets (as one side note -- the Rio now offers an ALL YOU CAN EAT ALL DAY buffet at 7 different casinos for the one low price of $39.99). 

In fact that's the reason that palaces in France are so nice and the reason why so many people want to visit France as a tourist destination -- because a former French government taxed its people at a high rate and built great public works that have lasted for centuries.

Interestingly, Vegas casinos also tax the rich at a very high rate.  The whales (like Tiger Woods or Jerry Buss) with their private jets, limos, and secret entrances to the casinos end up leaving much more cash behind than the average gambler.  

The strangest thing about Las Vegas is that people actually seem to enjoy losing.  It's like the purifying ritual of risk and loss taps into some deep limbic desire of Thanatos, for loss and rebirth. 

So I guess all the IRS needs to do in order to become more popular is to making paying taxes more fun and exciting!  Perhaps they could add scantily clad go-go girls dancing on the customer service desks at the various IRS offices while pumping in extra oxygen and 1990s dance hits?  Also, the IRS could merge with various state lotteries (which after all are just voluntary tax systems structured as games) -- such that once a year someone's name is pulled out of a hat and his/her entire tax bill is forgiven!

But all kidding aside, the fact is, casinos show that under some conditions, people voluntarily embrace high levels of taxation.  Las Vegas involves something of a trade -- casinos give inexpensive food, inexpensive accommodations, and lovely public works in return for high levels of taxation (gambling).  I think the same is true for the public sector in a way -- if people feel that they are getting a high level of service -- health care (not just health insurance), education, and well-designed public works projects, they will be much more willing to pay taxes at a higher rate.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality in 4 sentences or less

For those put off by the prodigious length (851 pages) of Ken Wilber's seminal work, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, here's the whole book in 4 sentences:

Why is there something rather than nothing?
(Um, we really don't know.)
But there is something and that is pretty cool.
And evolution seems to involve increasing layers of complexity so maybe evolution points us toward God.

There, I just saved you $23 and 200 hours of reading time.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Ya gotta read this

Errol Morris' recent 5-part series on the Anosognosic’s Dilemma (published in the NY Times) is one of the most mind-blowing things I've read in a long time.  From the article:

Wheeler had walked into two Pittsburgh banks and attempted to rob them in broad daylight.  What made the case peculiar is that he made no visible attempt at disguise.  The surveillance tapes were key to his arrest.  There he is with a gun, standing in front of a teller demanding money.  Yet, when arrested, Wheeler was completely disbelieving.  “But I wore the juice,” he said.  Apparently, he was under the deeply misguided impression that rubbing one’s face with lemon juice rendered it invisible to video cameras.

What Morris does so brilliantly in the series is to explore the ways in which we ALL engage in acts of self deception -- in effect convincing ourselves that we are 'wearing the juice' -- even when no one else is buying our acts of self deception.  Turns out there is an entire name for this phenomenon: The Dunning-Kruger Effect.

As Dunning read through the article, a thought washed over him, an epiphany.  If Wheeler was too stupid to be a bank robber, perhaps he was also too stupid to know that he was too stupid to be a bank robber — that is, his stupidity protected him from an awareness of his own stupidity.

Dunning wondered whether it was possible to measure one’s self-assessed level of competence against something a little more objective — say, actual competence.  Within weeks, he and his graduate student, Justin Kruger, had organized a program of research.  Their paper, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties of Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-assessments,” was published in 1999.[3]

Dunning and Kruger argued in their paper, “When people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.  Instead, like Mr. Wheeler, they are left with the erroneous impression they are doing just fine.”

It became known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect — our incompetence masks our ability to recognize our incompetence. 

I highly recommend reading the whole series.  I think it has the potential to change how we look at the world, ourselves, and each other.