The design of institutions & the design of the mind
What is the public sphere and how should it be organised? The question is ancient but it has been given new life and urgency by the internet and, in particular, the rise of social media, which (supposedly) provides everybody with a potential public platform unhindered by traditional, ‘elite’ gatekeepers. Yet, according to a recent paper by Kai Speikermann, Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics, the opposite may be true. That is, social media in its present form might actually undermine the functions of the public sphere. “A well-working public sphere allows citizens to learn that there are genuine disagreements among citizens that are held in good faith. Social media makes it harder to gain this insight, opening the door for populist ideology” (2020, p.50, italics added). If Speikermann is right about this, it might help to explain the widespread feeling that polarisation is growing despite the supposed openness and freedom of expression provided by digital technology.
Speikermann presents six ‘principles’ for a well-functioning public sphere. Each is elaborated in the paper, but in brief:
- The Principle of Open Access. Each individual can enter and leave the public sphere as they choose.
- The Principle of Free Participation. Each individual can, at suitable times, start to speak to any person present in the public sphere. At the same time, no one is forced to speak.
- The Principle of Listener Choice. Each person can choose to listen to any speaker and, at suitable times, change the person they listen to (and cannot normally listen to several speakers at the same time).
- The Principle of Exposure. Each person present in the public sphere may have to hear the messages of any others until, at a suitable time, they can choose to speak themselves or listen to someone else.
- The Principle of Transparency. Everybody is permitted to observe who talks to whom and can easily establish the relevant speaker-listener relations.
- The Principle of Public Sphere Scrutiny. Policies, laws, executive acts, the conduct of officials, and other matters of public interest must be available for scrutiny in the public sphere.
Speikermann intends these principles to, in turn, serve four core functions: they expose citizens to diverse information; they promote equality of deliberative opportunity; they create deliberative transparency; and they produce common knowledge. The idea, then, is that these four functions can collectively defend against closed and populist thinking. “Perhaps the most dangerous political situation for the populist occurs when voters come together, realise that they have genuinely different views, in good faith, without being misled, and without being able to plausibly dismiss dissenters as being captured by elites” (p.54). Speikermann believes that social media as currently instantiated does not fulfil these goals; or at least, not nearly as well as it could.
What I could not help but notice is that Speikermann’s six principles, which he presents as desiderata for the public sphere and which some might view as utopian, are actually plain empirical facts about interaction in small and ordinary human groups. In the social context of recurrent meetings with the same individuals, people can come and go, they can talk and they can listen, they can see who is talking to who, and, thanks to reputations and gossip, the social consequences of misbehaviour are potentially serious.
And what I could not further avoid noticing — and the reason I wanted to mention this on the ICCI blog — is that these social conditions are those in which our species’ distinctive cognitive capacities actually evolved. Arguably the most distinctive feature of the human cognitive niche is it comprises social groups that are loosely-defined but long-lasting, with regular, repeated interaction with both kin and non-kin. As such, human social ecologies involve an especially delicate balance of cooperation and competition, with substantial evolutionary pressure for behaviours that make the most of this mix. Moreover, contemporary evolutionary approaches to cognition have shown how many of the most distinctive aspects of human cognition and behaviour appear to be adaptations to this ecology. These include, for instance, moral dispositions; a social vigilance that identifies potential partners and opportunities for mutually beneficial interaction; an awareness of potential opportunities to exploit others; a strong sensitivity to changes in one’s reputation; emotions that help defend against social exploitation and otherwise regulate our interactions; distinctive forms of communication, argumentation and deliberation; and many others.
The findings of field anthropology are also relevant. One of most intriguing things anthropologists have learned is that small and isolated communities tend to have levels and forms of egalitarianism that surprise modern eyes. There is, commonly, collective decision-making; a relative absence of resource inequality; little coercive political authority; widespread intolerance of unkindness; an absence of dominance based on strength and other physical characteristics; and other such qualities. Moreover, we formally accord greater influence to some over others only when technology advances, resources become surplus, groups become larger and cohesion becomes more difficult (the story is of course not quite as simple as that, but this is true to a first approximation; see e.g. von Rueden, 2020 for a short summary).
These findings lead some to conclude that humans are somehow ‘naturally’ or ‘innately’ egalitarian, and that modern society has corrupted us (one recent example of this trend is Bregman, 2020): but that is too quick, too easy. The more astute deduction is that fairness and egalitarianism can be stable, to some positive extent, when they overlap with self-interest. In particular, when groups are small and everybody knows your name, then the greatest individual rewards tend to come from attending to local norms of how to behave, maintaining your reputation, and valuing group harmony above all. Good behaviour becomes wise. Reflecting on this, I am reminded of, for instance, Elenor Ostrom’s Nobel prize-winning work on the principles that best guide governance of the commons: practices such as open discussion and deliberation, defined space for reflection, collective choice, graduated sanctions, and so on, all of which can inform institutional design even at large scales (e.g. Ostrom, 1990).
I wonder, then, about the extent to which institutional design in the modern world might operate especially well when it recapitulates the ‘natural’, evolutionary conditions of human social interaction. Speikermann is, in effect, suggesting that this is true in the case of social media discourse and the public sphere. Might it be true more generally? Is it true that the basic conditions of ordinary human social interaction, in small-ish groups characterised by repeated interactions and the value of a good reputation, are especially well-suited to harnessing human cognitive dispositions for the benefit of all? If so, should modern institutional design aim to recapitulate this, to some extent at least?
Bregman, R. (2020) Human Kind: A hopeful history. Bloomsbury
Ostrom, E. (1990). Governing The Commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. CUP.
Spiekermann, K. (2020). Why populists do well on social media. Global Justice: Theory Practice Rhetoric, 12(2), 50-71.
von Rueden, C. (2020). Making and unmaking egalitarianism in small-scale human societies. Current Opinion in Psychology, 33, 167-171.