Weekend Reading: Signaling, Busyness, and Magic Ink
This is from 2007, but is still a very astute observation in how politicians and activists use rhetoric to signal rather than recommend a real, actionable way forward on issues:
The substance of a democracy is the specific mechanism that resolves policy conflicts. If all groups had the same preferred policies, there would be no need for democracy—we would automatically cooperate. The resolution process can be a direct majority vote, or an elected legislature, or even a voter-sensitive behavior of an artificial intelligence, but it has to be something. What does it mean to call for a “democratic” solution if you don’t have a conflict-resolution mechanism in mind?
I think it means that you have said the word “democracy,” so the audience is supposed to cheer. It’s not so much a propositional statement or belief, as the equivalent of the “Applause” light that tells a studio audience when to clap.
We’ve all seen this in the workplace — when email, chat, meetings, et cetera transform into signaling channels for looking busy. Cal Newport’s Deep Work (quoted in this post) has a fantastic section on this:
If you send and answer e-mails at all hours, if you schedule and attend meetings constantly, if you weigh in on instant message systems… all of these behaviors make you seem busy in a public manner. If you’re using busyness as a proxy for productivity, then these behaviors can seem crucial for convincing yourself and others that you’re doing your job well.
Knowledge work is not an assembly line, and extracting value from information is an activity that’s often at odds with busyness, not supported by it.
One of those fantastic online papers from Bret Victor.