Accountability in the Data-driven, Geo-located, Real-time, Uber-Connected Age

Heading downtown in a zooming cab last night, with arms fastened to the side handle and eyes widened as the cab driver nearly pummeled nearby bicyclist and baby, the topic of speed became increasingly palpable. The speed of the NY cab, when wielded with cosmic force, often defies the laws of nature. The speed of our population growth, when eerily mapped along a chart of time, is surely fast. The speed of data being created and counted is enough to induce a feeling of drowning  (one count says that more data was created in 2009 than in the entire history of mankind through 2008). And on a more tragic note, when disasters strike with such speed-fire precision — Haiti and now Chile — the rapid complexity of our times can submerge our sympathies and priorities into blurred shock.

With every generation that has emerged since the Middle Ages (aka more aware and / or informed than its predecessors), the social, political and economic problems of the times can seem increasingly complex. In part, this can be attributed to a increased interconnectedness of our global systems. Another reason is the inability to fully erase former blunders from history’s memories (take slavery), so instead we leave the residue for the next generations to scrub clean, and they in turn do the same. What’s left are smudges and streaks, the remnants of each former malady blended together. Or perhaps complexity is a matter of perspective, namely that as we age and accumulate more life experiences, we can’t help but notice how our world is in dire need of a serious fixer-upper.

To compound things further, not only are problems often viewed as more complex, today more people are viewing them unfold in real-time. Unlimited access to information in many parts of the world (hint, hint, nudge, nudge…China) has enabled victims, perpetrators and bystanders to account for the crimes of the day. Whether someone tweets it, takes a picture, sends a text, or just reads the news online, information sure does travel fast.

As we are informed in real-time, results are also expected in real-time. Our leaders are accountable to a transparent system of engaged viewers, which in many respects has enabled social change in some of our darkest corners. However, our leaders can also be paralyzed by the fish-bowl their constituents erect around them. The current paralysis of the American legislative system is unfortunately a perfect representation of one side effect of this new accountability. As political paralysis and inaction hinder any semblance of progress, the walls of the fishbowl only get stronger with louder  murmurs and buzzes and tweets and shouts.

Before being exiled off the digital island for social media blasphemy, let me confirm my resolute belief that increased access to information and increased plurality of voice has by far caused more good than harm. That said, we are caught in somewhat of a conundrum regarding how we prioritize what really matters, and what we do about it:

  1. More people are engaged in social change, which means there are more issues brought to forefront
  2. Given that we are all witness to these issues, or at least have access to information about them, we have a moral obligation to solve them (lest we be accomplices to the crimes)
  3. Government is faced with a higher volume of competing national priorities, and individual members of government are held increasingly accountable to  millions of people and causes competing for a larger share of voice
  4. The increased complexity and increased accountability thwarts lucid decision-making — via budgeting, planning, law-making, etc — or decision-making at all for that matter (a la health care 2009)
  5. Inaction breeds contempt, which breeds polarization and further inaction…

In a time of sensationalized and commoditized priorities, we are in dire need of leadership that can funnel the chatter into action. Moreover, we are in need of leadership that can reset our expectations regarding the speed of change, to remind us that baby steps actually make a difference, particularly in complex times.

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