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Confab in Silicon Valley: How to move from 'dumb mob' to 'smart mob'

In early March, leading thinkers in the private and public sectors gathered in the epicenter of California's Silicon Valley – Palo Alto –  to take in a bird's eye view of how social media is affecting governance. Social media can empower people, but turning a 'dumb mob' into a 'smart mob' is another matter.

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If deliberative polling requires a certain "depoliticized space," deliberative institutions require a certain opacity to shield their decisions from popular pressure and “tyranny of the majority.” This is why the Supreme Court and the Federal Reserve are not “transparent” institutions. Opacity allows the breathing space for reasoned deliberation not subject to popular opinion.

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However, to ensure that deliberative institutions don’t become hidebound, they must be linked to robust feedback loops and replenished or “aerated” periodically by rotations of personnel.

4. Neutral media vs. monetizing attention

Neutral, objective, quality information is the basis for solid deliberation.

Yet here, we face the same politicization and polarization as in political life. Just as primaries drive politics in democratic societies to polarized positions, the imperative of “monetizing attention” for niche markets contaminates the objective quality of information, which is edited to sell. Bloggers talk only to their own tribe. People find only the information they are looking for. Information becomes noncommunication.

What social scientists predicted has come to pass: Greater bandwidth has meant more compartmentalized information.

Curating information – sorting out intellectual quality and truth claims or communicating across boundaries – is akin to governance through deliberation.

Perhaps “the value of curation” may one day be priced accordingly by the market. But today, objective, neutral, quality information must be provided as a “public good” and thus subject to the problem of “free riders.”

5. Below the nation state

Much of the discussion has been focused on the relationship of social media to the nation-state. Yet we’ve known, and it’s been said, for a long time that the nation state is too small for global problems and too big for local problems.

In a networked world of distributed power it would make more sense to seek change from the bottom up, from the city to the subnational level, than from the nation-state or the level of global summitry.

This is especially so as the world has become mostly urbanized with an archipelago of megacity regions with 20-million-plus inhabitants each, especially in Asia. Megacities are the network nodes where people live and work (or are unemployed), where they play and pollute.

Already dense with feedback because of physical proximity, the intensified feedback loops of social networks can make cities even more intelligent.

Nathan Gardels is editor-in-chief of NPQ and the Global Viewpoint Network of Tribune Media Services. He is also a senior advisor to the Berggruen Institute.

© 2011 Global Viewpoint Network/Tribune Media Services. Hosted online by The Christian Science Monitor.

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