Monthly Archives: November 2007

Human networks in Iraq trump technology: a view from the ground

Some weeks back, I wrote about an article discussing the difficulty of creating social capital centrally in Iraq.

The current issue of Wired Magazine has a story about how soliders in Iraq and analysts are learning that the human networks in Iraq (what we call ‘social capital‘) are much more important to our longer-term goals than technological networks.

It notes how Iraq has challenged the supremacy of the view that a technologically ‘networked army’ could be overpowering:

Navy captain Arthur Cebrowski and Air Force captain John Garstka published “Network-Centric Warfare: Its Origin and Future,” a technology-laced military strategey that appealed to magazines like Wired.

“Their model was Wal-Mart… a sprawling, bureaucratic monster of an organization…that still managed to automatically order a new lightbulb every time it sold one. Warehouses were networked, but so were individual cash registers. So were the guys who sold Wal-Mart the bulbs. If that company could wire everyone together and become more efficient, then US forces could, too. ‘

“The US military could use battlefield sensors to swiftly identify targets and bomb them. Tens of thousands of warfighters would act as a single, self-aware, coordinated organism. Better communications would let troops act swiftly and with accurate intelligence, skirting creaky hierarchies” and enabling them to get the job done with fewer troops.
While it is ludicrous to ever think of wars as being moral in the slightest, they argued that network-centric wars would be more moral by identifying ‘enemies’ quicker and killing fewer civilians.

Iraq, and the experience of Falluja is showing all the flaws in their theory and how human networks are far more powerful than these technological ones. What they failed to realize is that killing counter-insurgents more quickly does nothing to bolster the civic and social fabric that ultimately determines the independent success of a newly freed Iraq.

Wired author Noah Shachtman “scored a rare opportunity to spend time with a U.S. psychological operations team, getting into the heads of the people of Fallujah; hung out with an Army colonel who worked his tribal connections to bring stability to one of Iraq’s roughest towns; spent time with the heads of a controversial program to embed anthropologists into combat units; and interviewed General David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq.”

Read story here.

Governor Deval Patrick Signs Law Creating Commonwealth Corps

Governor Deval Patrick signed a bill on Nov. 27, 2007 creating the Commonwealth Corps, a program that creates a state youth service corps permitting Massachusetts citizens to work on improving and rebuilding their communities through service.  This was the first bill submitted by Gov. Patrick when he took office in January, 2007.  Civic Engagement is one of three priority areas for the Patrick Administration that was ushered into power on one of the largest grassroots political campaigns ever mounted in Massachusetts.

“Massachusetts has a strong history of community service, volunteerism, and civic action and I am proud that the Commonwealth Corps will become a new chapter in that history,” said Governor Patrick. “Through volunteerism, citizens have the ability to alter lives and communities while also experiencing the pride that comes with such service. I am excited about this new opportunity and look forward to the work ahead.”

The Commonwealth Corps will start with 250 corps members and aims to rise to 1,000 corps members within the first 5 years. Corps “[me]mbers will dedicate at least one year of service to a nonprofit organization, civic initiative, or public entity, providing direct service to people or communities in need….Members of the Commonwealth Corps will provide direct service including but not limited to teaching in after-school programs, mentoring underprivileged youth, assisting the elderly and cleaning up parks and beaches. Members will also recruit and organize additional volunteers to meet urgent community needs. ”  The projects will be locally managed and led.

“In a time of constrained resources, the Commonwealth Corps will tap a deep reservoir of talent and idealism to tackle pressing priorities in our communities,” said Eric Schwarz, president and CEO of Citizen Schools, a Boston-based national non-profit focused on afterschool programs. “One of the best things about the Commonwealth Corps will be its ability to mobilize tens of thousands of additional citizen volunteers to support student learning and solve other pressing problems.”

‘[T]he legislation also creates a pilot Commonwealth Student Corps, a program developed to expand opportunities for students interested in service learning opportunities’ in order to build on the research that shows how service learning (learning through curricular-tied service) improves student learning. The program will match students at up to 5 public colleges or universities with service opportunities dovetailing with their educational area of concentration.

The Corps will consist of members from diverse backgrounds who are 18 years or older, from high school-age students, to mid-career workers to retirees. Corps members will serve in a part-time or full-time capacity.   The Commonwealth Corps will be overseen by a newly-created Commonwealth Corps Commission.

Massachusetts has middling civic engagement levels that are disappointing given the levels of education in Massachusetts, and Governor Patrick and Lieutenant Governor Murray aim to try to change that which they announced recently at the Massachusetts Civic Engagement Summit.

See press release here.

Want to be happy? Get connected.

A New York Times Editorial Observer column by Eduardo Porter (11/12/07) highlights how important happiness is (one of the three prime virtues elaborated in the Declaration of Independence) but notes how poor Americans have been at increasing happiness.

Porter trumps something that we at Saguaro have been urging for some time — the import of social capital as a happiness-enhancing strategy.  Porter writes:  “While the extra happiness derived from a raise or a winning lottery ticket might be fleeting, studies have found that the happiness people derive from free time or social interaction is less susceptible to comparisons with other people around them. Nonmonetary rewards ­ like more vacations, or more time with friends or family ­ are likely to produce more lasting changes in satisfaction. … [I]f the object of public policy is to maximize society’s well-being, more attention should be placed on fostering social interactions and less on accumulating wealth.”

See full article “All They Are Saying Is Give Happiness A Chance“.  See earlier post about the connection between social capital and happiness.

Excellent talks on happiness and choice

I highly recommend Barry Schwartz’s talk about how increased choice does not lead to increased happiness because of disappointed expectations, choice paralysis and individuals blaiming themselves for not achieving perfection.

In addition, Daniel Gilbert, has an excellent talk on happiness and how humans have an amazing ability to create synthetic happiness that is just as real as happiness supplied from external circumstances and how we over-emphasize the happiness we will get from changes in our life (a promotion, winning the lottery, a new house, etc.). Once you hear the TED talk by Daniel Gilbert, you should read the comments below the talk. [Also good interview with Daniel Gilbert in NYT, 4/22/08 called “The Smiling Professor“.]

And for a very different approach, listen to Buddhist monk and photographer Matthieu Ricard’s talk on how to train our minds in the habits of happiness.

Tell people voter turnout will be high and it will increase

Todd Rogers, Ph.D. student at Harvard, is working on an interesting dissertation on the importance of messages in voter turnout.  They randomly assigned voters in California (before the 2006 primary election) and New Jersey (before the 2005 general election) to receive a message that either emphasized low voter turnout (LTO) or high voter turnout (HTO) and saw what influence it had on whether voters actually voted.

 They found that the HTO message actually produced higher turnout among those who heard the message and the LTO message reduced voter turnout.  This is contrary to the *rational choice* model that would assume that voters who expected lower turnout would vote more, since they would perceive that their vote should matter more (as a percentage of all votes cast).

Interestingly, they found that the LTO vs. HTO message did not much affect the frequent voters who were likely to vote regardless of the message, but the HTO message was more likely to mobilize the infrequent voters.   (It should be noted that the message — heard one time by those in the experiement – while it did change the intention to vote statistically significantly, did not produce an enormous effect — the HTO message roughly made voters 3% more likely to turnout and the LTO message surpessed voter intention by a smiliar amount.)

The researchers weren’t constrained by having to deliver truthful messages, but Todd pointed out to me that in any given year, for example with increasing population, you could emphasize high turnout messages such as “more people voted in the last election than ever before”, even if the percentage voting had decreased,  and make it more likely that one would achieve the high turnout result desired.

The paper is consistent with a whole body of “social norms” research (summarized in the Rogers paper) that shows that people are more likely to conform to what they believe are social norms: for example, drinking less in college when low rates of alcohol abuse are publicized, stealing petrified wood more from forests when told that others do, reusing towels more in hotel rooms when told that others reuse towels at high rates, etc.

Note:  The Rogers and Gerber paper unfortunately could only focus on “intention to vote” as a dependent outcome varaible, not actual vote turnout, so they will need to do further work to make sure that the follow-through on “intention to vote” is actually high on these more marginalized voters.

One wonders whether this applies to other forms of civic participation. Presumably it is helpful only in a tipping point sort of behavior where a fairly large number of people do this already and thus others can be encouraged to do likewise, and presumably the benefit would be greatest when there is the greatest discrepancy between people’s guesses about how often a civic action occurs and how often it really does. If some behavior is relatively infrequent (say going to a political rally in the last year), one runs the risk that disclosing how frequent this is could have the adverse affect (at the margin persuading those who do the behavior currently to quit). But some manipulation of the norms could be used, to for example, emphasize how many millions of people went to rallies in the last year rather than focusing on the fact that it was only, say, 15% of the population.

This research will be forthcoming in “Descriptive Social Norms and Voter Turnout: The Importance of Accentuating the Positive” (The Journal of Politics, forthcoming) with Alan Gerber (of Yale Univ.).  Earlier version of this paper available here.