by Julius WiedemannNov 23, 2021
Politics is a dirty game. Most of us don’t want to play it. But we have no option but to be part of the solution. Technology didn’t change our nature but empowered it with different tools. It's the same in politics, and we should be aware of it. The art of politics, for me, is the art of managing manipulating expectations. It arises from two main aspects. One is communication, and the other information. If you are into politics, you know you cannot escape from those things. The psychology involved in politics is probably the deepest we experience in practical life. We experience it in our families, our jobs, and everywhere else. Since the homo politicus from Aristotle, we are bound to be defined as political beings, and in that, as political agents, and political instruments, as far as I understand.
To build relationships, communication skills are the source of good human connection. There is more to it, but it is primordial. Relationships evolve to a great extent between conflict and confrontation. After our most apish feelings arise, we look around and try to use our pre-frontal cortex to take pondered decisions. And managing those instincts and insights are at the heart of conscious decision making. Our tools to communicate represent, maybe the most radical change we have seen in the history of humanity, in terms of both the connectiveness and the impact of how information reaches us, let alone the speed with which we communicate. But communication is about the messenger and the perception that is filtered by the receptor. And digital technology has never been so instrumental in conducting people’s opinions through confirmation bias and other self-indulgent psychological mechanisms.
On the other side, there is information. It might be misleading, it might be convincing, might be vague, objective-truth-oriented, might be appealing, seductive, it could be anything you want, but information is the cell that carries the “what” we objectively enter a conversation for. Most of the information that comes to us does so deliberately. From advertising to news, from packages to push notifications, the amount of planning that goes into delivering every bite of message is part of a complex trillion-dollar industry. Information can be defined in many ways, but one definition I enjoy is the notion that it is “the roadmap between two points". When built to our practical use, it becomes knowledge. The contemporary tools with which we must process information into knowledge have become increasingly sophisticated. But also, so complex, to the point that we swallow content without reflecting how it was build and how it was selected to be displayed on our mobile phones, the device you are probably using to read this article.
We thought naively that Wikipedia, years ago, was a misleading tool. So serious was it that the portal started monitoring politicians’ pages to avoid misleading changes by the competition. We have beam adding tools to access profiles to understand both realities and possibilities. Twitter became the choice for headline-like articles that in a sense simulate in text what 30-second TV spots have done in advertising for a long time. In the day and age when videos seem to offer the most efficient means of putting across a message, text has resisted as a fundamental tool. Audio, that used to come in radio form, has had its use transformed and now come packaged in podcasts and audio messages. But the combination of text, image and video that pops up on our screens through push notifications, selected headlines, and cherry-picked pieces of search results, are the ones we should care about these days. With the current tools, they reflect many-a-times a sinister self-indulgent combination of beliefs and desires, which can induce the extraction of self-criticism from the process, by consistently leaving us in the comfort zone.
The Greeks might have been the ones who made politics popular in the West, but Confucius was a genius in China, and popularised the idea of meritocracy, for instance, as a public servant. We have consistently built an idea that our political process is the key to our development. But we need to question all the time how it is done, and why we take the decisions we take. The vision to look forward, whether progressive or conservative, is now subject to massive manipulation. Gerrymandering has been there for decades, but digital micro-targeting has taken it to another level. We are all biased and reluctant to expose ourselves to uncomfortable information, which could make us change the decisions we are about to take. From search engines to social networking platforms, we need to question the notion of “free will” now, as we are bombarded with wilful bullets of messages aimed at us with designed choices.
The art of politics is still the art that changes the world. And only transparency will allow us to keep navigating the world knowing the consequences of what lies ahead. Our politicians need to be valued for the mammoth work they do. But they should also be accountable for the immense responsibility they carry. Treaties, accords, laws, and other legislative pieces can define the future of millions of people with a signature, for the good and for the bad. And we need to make sure that the digital tools we have at our disposal become a constructive force for a healthy dialogue between society, politicians, and the enforcements needed to shift our lives and improve the world.
Read more from the series Digital Legacies where our columnist Julius Wiedemann investigates the many aspects of digital life.