Seminar: further thoughts
Meet with me over Zoom
I continue trying to plan a seminar that you can join over Zoom. I am still in the “mulling” stage about this project, and I appreciate your comments. My current thinking goes like this:
The theme of the seminar will be Institutional Irrationality. Maybe with a nod to Steven Pinker, the subtitle should be “what institutional rationality is, why it seems scarce, and why it matters.”
It matters because there are good reasons to be unhappy with the intellectual climate in journalism, academia, social media, and government. There is a shortage of constructive discourse and a surplus of vituperation. Meanwhile, we face a world of knotty problems, such as what to do about surveillance technology or social media content moderation. (Hence, my first pass at a title for this seminar was “Modern Problems.”)
I agree with Julia Galef that what she calls Scout Mindset is better than Soldier Mindset. But I want to explore this issue from the perspective of institutions. In theory, an institution can exhibit rationality (scout mindset) even better than any individual. But in practice, an organization made up of seemingly rational individuals can nonetheless behave irrationally. Note, however, that “institution” is hard to define, “rationality” is hard to define, and “institutional rationality” might not be considered a valid concept.
Institutional function and malfunction have interested me for a long time. The Vietnam War was notable in that decisions were made by men who were supposedly The Best and the Brightest. My own experiences with the Federal Reserve Board, Freddie Mac, and my own start-up further gave me insights into organizational behavior. Then the financial crisis of 2008 provided another glaring example of supposedly great minds, in this case in finance and regulatory agencies making horrendous blunders. Back when there were bookstores, they had many shelves filled with management books that supposedly divulged the secrets to running successful organizations. I infer that the challenge of institutional rationality is too difficult for anyone to solve.
I think that if we are going to adapt to our current technological environment, we will need institutions that are new, or at least radically improved. Some people think that crypto will provide the answers. Others promote prediction markets. I have some ideas of my own. We can discuss all of these toward the end of the seminar.
The seminar will meet weekly for eight weeks over Zoom, and admission will be by paid subscription only. There will be two tiers of attendees: participants; and audience. I will conduct the seminar and I will speak often, but participants also will be speaking. The audience will be muted. They might use the chat feature among themselves, but I doubt that the participants and I will need to pay attention to one another, and I imagine we will ignore the audience chat.
I am thinking that each subscription will cost $40 (one time, annual fee). Based on earlier comments, this should draw many more than six subscribers. If you subscribe and want to be a participant, you should:
want to participate during seminar meetings. That means giving your reactions to ideas in the suggested readings and ideas offered by others.
be willing to use your camera and microphone, keeping in mind that there will be an audience. I don’t mind if in the interest of privacy you use a false name on Zoom, point your camera at a blank wall, or even disguise your voice (as long as it can be understood). But if you don’t want to appear in public, why not just join the audience?
be selected by me on the basis of your written answers to some questions that I will pose once I finalize the syllabus. Once I post the syllabus here, you will have a week or two to submit your answers (obviously, if you just want to be in the audience you do not have to submit anything). Possible questions might be
Finish the sentence “A rational institution is one in which. . .”
Consider the books The Best and the Brightest, The Transparent Society, The Secret of Our Success, and The Revolt of the Public. From each book, extract one lesson about human behavior relative to communication. You need not read the books to answer this question—you can probably search through reviews and come up with an answer.
The idea is to ration the participation slots on the basis of answers to these or other questions.
Before any of this, I need to ask a serious question. How do you define "rational"?
Are you referring to "Using reason over emotion"? If so, you might be heading down a dead end path. Emotional reasoning is not a bad thing. I've encountered the term "Wise Minded" in talking to psychologists and it refers to using a balance of emotion and logic in your reasoning. The idea is that you can't ignore either.
Or are you referring to the belief that some people don't act in their best interests and are therefore "irrational"? I know Julia Galef is a proponent of the idea, but I'm not convinced of her ability to see "best interests" as subjective. I tend to believe that everyone always acts in their best interests, in whatever way they define "best interests". I expect institutions operate much the same way.
Or are you thinking of something else?
It seems to me that most people assume that everyone uses the term "rational" in the same way. My experience is that this is not true.
Three brief comments:
1. The seminar is a great idea; I wish I had more time on my hands to commit to pariticipating actively, but I have to be realistic about my schedule.
2. Viz your comment "there are good reasons to be unhappy with the intellectual climate in journalism, academia, social media, and government," I would add business to the list of dysfunctional organizations. As you mentioned, businesses are about as adept as the others to committing obvious blunders - real estate in 2008, fiber optic infrastructure in 1999-2001, Enron, the AOL-Time-Warner merger, and for that matter, most mergers and acquisitions (the winner's curse), as well as many other well know examples.
3. $40 seems generous for an annual subscription. I was guessing you'd charge $40 per session, and I'd bet you could and still attract half a dozen active, diligent participants.