Sunday, June 20, 2010

Libertarian Leadership Theory and the Flow of Information, Misinformation, and Disinformation

So far, I've been arguing that we have a biological and cultural bias that over-values "leaders," and therefore, we tend to grant them too much authority over our lives and over-pay them relative to what they actually contribute to human organizations. If I'm right, the obvious question is: "How did this tradition become entrenched in Western culture?" My answer is that it has a lot to do with the nature of information and how it flows (or does not flow) within and between organizations.

All evolutionary systems exchange energy and/or information. The precise nature of the relationship between energy (or matter) and information is puzzling. DNA is matter that conveys information. And all information is processed by our brains. Does that mean that all information is "really" matter? Does materialism win out. Let's not talk about that right now. Let's just assume that it makes sense to talk about information apart from its material substrate. One thing we do know is that the concept of information is front-loaded; that is, we use the word "information" only in contexts where we believe that a statement is true. Hence, we have other words that we employ in different contexts. For example, misinformation is information we once believed to be true, but subsequently turned out to be false under evolutionary pressure. Call it the process of "creative destruction." Evolutionary epistemologists argue that this process of falsification is endless and that we get closer to the "Truth" over the long run, but never really arrive at absolute truth. Species never reach their final evolutionary state either. Why? Because physical and cultural systems constantly change under pressure from internal sub-systems and external systems. So far, we've looked at the concepts of information and misinformation. Although there are a few epistemic puzzles, they seem pretty straightforward. The real problem for cultural evolution is "disinformation" (sometimes called propaganda or ideology). Disinformation emerges out of the exercise of power within hierarchical social structures. Plato called it the "Noble Lie," where the Philosopher King deliberately tell lies to followers (populace) in order to provide a "greater good." Plato was no dummy, he also recognized that leaders often lie out of self interest.

So here's the rub. When followers allow leaders to control the the flow of information, what is to prevent those leaders from telling "ignoble lies, to benefit themselves at the expense of everyone else? Plato argued that leaders must be virtuous (good, wise, temperate, and courageous etc.) and that the capacity for virtue is mostly inherited, and can be undermined by dysfunctional social structure. Hence, for Plato "good leaders" are more likely to arise in "republics," and less likely to emerge in military governments, oligarchies, democracies, or under tyranny. Today, we believe that we can teach our future leaders these virtues (at least to a greater extent). My thesis is that when leaders have the power to control the flow of information in order to advance the public good, three problems arise: they wrongfully mistake information for misinformation. No problem there, we all make mistakes. Even President Obama! A second problem is that they make a mistake in identifying the public good, or mistake private good for public good. That's more serious. The most serious problem arises when leaders take either information or misinformation and transform it into disinformation in pursuit of either self-interest or the interests of their friends and relatives. In the private sector we call it "crony capitalism." It's a serious disease that infects all complex modern societies.

My hypothesis is that most human organizations are knee deep in disinformation promulgated by self-interested leaders. Let's call it the "Enron Effect," where leaders skillfully manipulate the flow of information within their organizations and between organizations. As a result, leaders can attract and maintain a critical mass of followers by skillfully controlling the flow of information. The more complex an organizations internal institutions and the more complex the legal structure, the easier it is for leaders to manufacture Truth. Even when we catch them in the act of lying, we rarely hold them responsible. Why? Because of our biologically and culturally based reverence for leaders. In the modern world we really have to be more critical followers and abandon bad leaders; or better yet, let's just refuse to engage in most followership.

My libertarian theory of leadership suggests that leaders that operate within hierarchical social structures take advantage of the increasing complexity of human organizational life by generating disinformation that protects themselves from competition, increases their power, and ultimately the size of their wallets. In other words, the complexity of modern life has undermined the liklihood of virtuous leadership and that before we can advance as a modern society, we have to abandon our unbridled faith in heroic leaders and move more toward self-organized social structures that allow for the free flow of information within and between organizations. Of course, that means I'll have to explain what I mean by a leaderless, self-organized social system. I'll try to do that in my next blog.


writewriterandtutor said...

There is another part to this, I think. I just read an article on what it means to be literate, and the hypothesis proposed was that while people need to know how to decode and they need to know certain skills to deconstruct meaning from texts--the most important thing literate people need is broad based knowledge of liberal arts including history, civics, math, problem solving, and English. E.D. Hirsch, Jr. asserts that literacy is a function of broad-based content knowledge and not testable reading strategies. For instance, one can be highly literate in some subjects, and illiterate in others depended on their prior-knowledge and experience in the subject. I say all of this in the context of Ron's blog because I believe emphasis on testing deliberately focuses on short term strategies that allow one to pass a test at the expense of long-term broad-based, content knowledge because of an intentional effort at dumbing down people so that they will not question their leaders.

Freedom's Philosopher said...

National testing standards assume that that government "leaders" in Washington know more than we do. Literacy is community specific. There is no hyper-literacy that trumps the literacy of other communities. That's one reason why I prefer self-organized communities over communities set up by leaders. I'll talk about self-organized, leaderless, voluntary communities next.