My idea of the perfect birthday present is an gift card for books. My wife thinks that is boring, and I guess I understand that. But she is willing to indulge my tedious nature out of love, and my 73rd birthday this last month has already brought a bunch of new ideas which I am just beginning to explore.
Two economists wrote this book to try to explain the very large number of unanticipated globally important awful events that have occurred in the last few decades. Their point is that we use risk assessment for decisions where risk can’t actually be assessed, because real uncertainty is not the same as risk.
Early in the work, they describe an anecdote from Pesident Obama’s term of office in which he and his advisors were trying to decide whether to go ahead with the SEAL raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. The discussion was around the probability that Osama was actually in the compound. The advisor assessments ranged from roughly 40 to 80%.
Now, Osama was either in the compound or he wasn’t. And there was no way for any of them to know which was true.
President Obama recognized that the discussion of probabilities couldn’t provide an answer to this basic question. He also recognized that the probabilities he was hearing actually represented the fear that his advisors had over the political consequences of a wrong decision, not whether Bin Laden was in the compound. He understood that the real question that needed answering is, “What is going on here?”.
This is the right question because it is a always a strategic error to use a risk assessment as a cover to hide the realities of a truly uncertain situation.
This confusion of risk and uncertainty happens all the time and in every part of human life. We all try to use a meaningless assessment to reduce our fear about the consequences of our decisions. And we all suffer as a result.
I had read this book when it was only available in paperback. Now I can use the highlighting and note capabilities of Kindle to reinforce and deepen my understanding of the idea of Obfuscation.
Obfuscation is like the techniques that magicians use to get one over on us. Our brain is distracted by something “so important” that we must pay attention to it, and the performer slips something through of which we are simply unaware.
Obfuscation is a very useful advocacy technique, much more useful than deceit. Ambiguity and misdirection can dramatically increase the seriousness with which the advocacy target takes your actions. It does so by forcing them to pay attention to what you are doing.
But what they see when they do pay attention is the ambiguity and misdirection of your obfuscation.
The book focuses on digital obfuscation, but the parallels with advocacy are obvious and immediately useful.
This book is an unexpected orchid for my mental greenhouse. It is a real gem, and has the added value of discussing organizations and social justice initiatives in Southeast Michigan, especially in Detroit. It focuses on the actual way that technology produces structural oppression of devalued communities, including the disability community.
Oppression at root is the denial of agency to people because of their personal characteristics, their gender identification, their membership in a culture, community, or other social group, or their systematic devaluing by the oppressive construction of “universal” social institutions that are supposed to support all of us.
Early in the book, there is a masterful description of the way that the ordinary operation of scanning by TSA agents results in the public shaming of a person because of life choices. I won’t ruin the depth of the example by trying to describe it here.
I know that over the last half-century, the examples of such devaluing that have taught me the deepest lessons about the oppression of my community have been those where the ableist denial of agency to a person with a disability was entirely personal in its impact, entirely thoughtless in the mind of the perpetrator. Deliberate ableism is a true horror, but it is also more obvious, and the day-to-day chipping away at a person’s life possibilities is the much harder and darker oppression to eliminate.
Design Justice makes a real effort to reflect what we have learned from the embracing of intersectionality, not at the abstract or academic level, but in the way it suffuses every level and every part of our lives and the lives of all of us together. The personal is never separate from the universal and everything in between inside the Complex Adaptive System in which we all swim.
So-there are my first forays into the marvelous worlds that my wife’s present has given me. I look forward to many more insights on this conceptual adventure. I may even share them!