These Horses Must Be Dead by Now

Three years ago I wrote the following about my experience at Socrate’s Cafe here in Minnesota.

I stopped attending for three reasons: 1. every conversation started

revolving around politics, which became tiring after the first month

and 2. the conversations lacked philosophical sophistication (granted

I studied philosophy in college so my standards might be higher than

just anyone off the street)…

What became more and more frustrating to me was that each conversation

seemed to take place in a vacuum, separated from the previous weeks’

discussion. No one seemed to be connecting the dots that showed how

often we returned to politics or the tensions between individual and

community. Other topics would recur and no one seemed to notice,

except me. But I wasn’t able to convey my frustration at the time and

gradually drifted away. There were some other interesting characters

in the group. People well worth meeting.

Last night I went back for another taste and discovered that nothing much has changed. The majority of the conversations still center around politics and the level of political discussion still feels stifling.

The topic for last night’s conversation was “How should we choose our leaders?” Most of the comments expressed frustration with the current American political system, veering back and forth between casting poxes upon all houses and generic distrust of politicians.

I tried to steer the conversation to a critique of the media because it seemed like most of the complaints were based on a perceived lack of information or inability to filter the information. I asked if anyone had read the position papers posted on the candidates web sites, only 2 out of a dozen raised their hands. I myself haven’t read the candidates positions so I cast no stones on those who don’t have the time for the issue. But saying that we aren’t getting the information through the media is a different complaint than generic griping about politicians.

Another potentially interesting issue was raised later in the evening regarding how we choose leaders in areas outside of politics but the question quickly sank into oblivion. And this is what frustrates me about these fora. The core of the problems seem to sink beneath the froth way too quickly.

Choosing leaders in our businesses and our community is much closer to our daily experiences. Yet these are the discussions we studiously avoid, in favor of the abstractions of a mediated politics broadcast through media.

I’m reminded of another conversation I tried to start in an SI class. We were talking about the power of corporate CEOs over technology and information policy. I tried to argue that our “leaders” are as constrained as ourselves in what they can do in the world. Sometimes, and I suspect it’s more often than not, they are forced to make decisions based on circumstances instead of principle. That conversation, too, was met with blank stares.

And yet I keep trying to beat this concept of “leadership” back into the ground. Our leaders, if they ever really had any significant power, have lost much of it in the morass of complex systems that compose our modern world. All of it is based on trust, a la Anthony Giddens. We are left with our own spirit of experimentation. We need to accept the reality of not being an employee.

Questions thrown into the well: Has the public sphere ever been really been different, less politicized? How can I intervene to remove the politics?

Todd Suomela
Associate Director for Digital Pedagogy & Scholarship Department

My interests include digital scholarship, citizen science, leadership, and communications.