Alternative Editorial: Spheres of Influence

By Indra Adnan, Co-initiator of The Alternative UK

Let’s talk about bubbles. Once a favourite gift to find in your party bag, today an accusation of narrow-mindedness against anyone who appears to have a settled view point very different from your own.

Thanks to social media, the process by which we come to our opinions has become more obvious. We talk to people we like – our best thousand friends – and use the same terms of reference and bits of evidence they do. And so we come to believe that this is the objective truth.

Until we hear about the ‘others’ on the news, or rudely interrupting our Twitter feed on purpose. Our instinct then is to call them out, point out the ‘fake news’ they have bought into and angst about the worrying trend of people living in bubbles.

Another version of the same concern, is around the power of algorithms and how we are increasingly subject to a logic constructed by machine learning. Algorithms – literally a set of guidelines on how to perform a task – are programmed into machines by humans so that they can do work for us we find too voluminous or simply tedious.

The machines learn as they go along, to use the results of their actions as guides to the next set of actions. But sometimes this narrows down their spheres of reference – similar to the bubbles on Facebook – and causes alarming distortions of the truth.

We look at personal bubbles as the vehicles of individualism – one person, overly fixated on their own needs and choices, often becomes selfish when the needs of others intrudes upon their narcissistic gaze. The motivational call of I, Me, Mine is exacerbated by consumerism, feeding our emotionally driven needs.

Social bubbles of course, are not in themselves a bad thing. They can act as wombs, offering a safe, nurturing space for the vulnerable to develop some strength. Or incubators for fledgling projects to grow.

So are bubbles good or bad? It’s a question that comes straight out of one bubble we are constantly pointing at – the party politics bubble. Built by the 2% of the voting public who are members of political parties, this bubble has a tendency to construct reality through binary opposites. Left or Right, In or Out, Us or Them. And the mainstream media who feed entirely on this source of information, like to amplify and polarise the binaries for effect. It’s a business model.

This is not a recent phenomenon: it has always been the business of government to control, or at best manage, the people they have been appointed to satisfy. Whether they use overt propaganda or more subtle news briefings, those in power have traditionally used the media to convey its messages. While the media itself likes to imagine itself as the 4th Estate, speaking truth to power, it cannot disentangle itself from the culture and values set by the elected. They co-create the language and the frames within the 2% bubble.

Does it automatically mean that the 98% of people outside the bubble don’t resonate with that reality? The answer has to be yes and no – because complex questions never, in reality, have simple answers. It’s yes, because if they did share the same perspectives and adopt the same agendas, then surely, they would be more involved in the bubble?

But no, because, as the recipients of the media narratives, they – which is most of us – have been persuaded that this is the objective (while not subjective) reality. This is one of the reasons, as Common Cause recently demonstrated, that while most people understand themselves to be compassionate, they believe most other people lack compassion.

A familiar example would be how the newspapers like to report the majority of people as against immigration, but social media is always throwing up reports of groups of people helping immigrants – especially refugees who find themselves in dire situations. Conversely, those who voted for Brexit are often characterised as nationalist to the point of racism. But many Leavers were immigrants themselves, voting for a more active relationship to the globe.

One of the most disabling aspects of the dominant 2% media narratives, is the notion that we are and should be constantly fearful, linked to the idea that we are essentially powerless. The result is that we’re in a distorted mental environment. We are constantly being required to step up our efforts – don’t be a slacker, go for growth – at the same time as being told our efforts lead to nothing. The young are particularly vulnerable to this narrative that says their generation has been sold down the river by their parents and there is nothing to look forward to.

We started The Daily Alternative specifically to counter these narratives. When we stepped outside the bubble and deliberately curated our blogs from alternative sources, it was nothing less than neurological re-programming! Every day a new socio-political initiative that offered genuinely different perspectives. More importantly, we curated new methods, tools and practices to reclaim not only politics, but community itself, for the people living there.

All of us working in this way will testify that you feel different about life as a result: it’s a waking up to human potential.

Once we (as the Alternative UK) were in this new world of possibility, we saw the urgent need to get on with re-building. It’s not enough to know what must be done better – now is the time to begin doing it better. Which is why we have started our community collaboratories. We’ve begun by bringing together those across the socio-political divides (our opening “Friendly”). Those we’ve gathered then move into a local “Inquiry”, exploring how the community does and doesn’t work.

But the most important part is when the outcome of these stages – a newly constituted citizen’s network - decides what "Action" they are going to take together, to build a future they can all look forward to. That’s the point where the value of making things together, is itself revealed as the answer to the problems we identified.

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Some details about this process are in the presentation called Breaking Our Bubbles: Comparing Strategies from Poland and the UK, for the recent Innocracy conference in Berlin (click on the image to the left, or here for PDF). The presentation also has interesting slides from Piotr Trzaskowski, demonstrating how the battle to prevent the trade agreement CETA became a joint campaign of opposing political parties.

You would be right to say we bang on about his week after week – but we still find that most of the people we meet and talk politics with are in denial. They continue to talk about the need for the people to be educated, for their capacity to be built—but rarely talk about the need to step outside their own bubble and relinquish at least some of their control to the people on the ground - who may know better what they need for themselves.       

At the same time, we know we are not winning with our current formula: the planet burns, the people turn away. And then they rise up, in forms we cannot relate to.

What is radical is also logical and also just. Top down, bureaucratic governance cannot deliver for the people on the ground. In their towns and cities, people already have the capacity – the ability to create relationship and networks that build community – that answers our social needs. It’s largely the work of women that has not been recognised or properly funded. And without which we cannot thrive.

It’s not for political parties to decide the what and how: it’s for parties to re-form their own bubbles to be able to better hear and receive, facilitate and fund. To ensure some parity between regions and enable sharing of best practice. And on a national level, to bring together the best efforts of our collective endeavours in a way that best serves the wider world we depend on for our survival.