Innovation Monitor: Complex adaptive systems, climate change, and disinformation

Innovation Monitor: Complex adaptive systems, climate change, and disinformation

View this email in your browser

Welcome to this week’s Innovation Monitor.

The weather this week in New York City was alarming. Many of us awoke on Monday morning to a smoky sky and a glowing red sun peering through the haze. News broke that smoke from the forest fires on the West Coast and Canada had travelled all the way to Brooklyn and beyond.

Climate change is here, and it’s impossible to ignore or deny. This week’s edition explores how climate-changed related disinformation has evolved. We’ll cover the digital (bot networks) and the analog (lobbyists). What was equally fascinating to me was how similar disinformation dynamics on algorithmic platforms and climate change itself can be. They are complex adaptive systems driven by infinite feedback loops generating often unknowable outcomes. When you combine the two it is doubly troubling.

Thankfully climate change denialism is slowly fading away. But, slowing climate change will require a coordinated global effort that addresses nuanced policy tradeoffs — asomething uniquely unsuited for a social media age. Thank you for reading, and as always, if you were forwarded this email, you can easily sign up here!

All best,
Erica Matsumoto Complexity theory In the age of algorithmically-curated media, even the most well-meaning, educational content (ex. 3Blue1Brown’s videos) is flanked by surface-level explainers that focus more on mile-a-minute editing than deep research.

Complexity is difficult to convey in this environment, with so many tiny, interconnected things happening that we often don’t know the full scope until it’s too late. As Bloomberg’s sustainability editor Eric Roston notes, a minimally healthy flow of information is required for healthy decision-making.

Stewardship of global collective behavior, written by 17 researchers specializing in fields as diverse as climate science and philosophy, argues that “our lack of understanding about the collective behavioral effects of new technology is a danger to democracy and scientific progress.” Lead author Joe Bak-Coleman told Roston in an interview that our current digital behavior reminds him of fish:

“Individual fish swimming in a school intuit each other so rapidly and clearly that they can instantaneously and in unison pivot away from whatever dangers they encounter…. ‘Animal groups are highly tuned to do these really fantastic feats of behavior. But it’s all quite fragile,’ [said Bak-Coleman].”

Bak-Coleman says digital communications have chipped away our natural community protections. Combined with rapid mis- and disinformation, this presents us with “one of the larger threats to human well-being.”

In fact, the authors of the Stewardship paper suggest the issue is so complex — and is spreading so quickly — that it requires a new crisis discipline, just as “physiology has medicine and climate science has emissions-mitigation and adaptation.”

It’s not just social networks that are at fault. The digital landscape is inherently incompatible with “20th-century science communication approaches.” Roston gives the example of the upcoming UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, which “comprise multiple volumes, each hundreds or thousands of pages long.”

Comparison to the current COVID-19 crisis — the misinformation pandemic — goes deeper than the contagious nature of digital hearsay. As FT’s life and arts columnist Simon Kuper writes, “one day, rich countries will emerge from Covid-19 while poor countries remain stuck in it…. It is probably also a preview of the climate crisis.”

“Expert advice bounces off harried, ignorant national leaders who worry about today’s headlines. Meanwhile, disinformation narratives… continue to ensnare a large minority even as the crisis hits.” Bot armies and filter bubbles On the opposite end of the information-groking spectrum — with IPCC’s thousand-page reports at one extreme — are misinformation bots. In January’s Bots and online climate discourses, co-authored by Thomas Marlow, a postdoctoral researcher at the NYU Abu Dhabi campus, researchers analyzed 6.8M tweets between May and June 2017, when Trump made the decision to leave the climate accord.

From a random sample of 184k users, Marlow and his team found that 9.5% were likely bots, accounting for 25% of total tweets about climate change. The researchers suggest the likely fake accounts were created by “fossil-fuel companies, petro-states or their surrogates” that have a vested interest in the matter.

In April this year, when Texas was engulfed in extreme storms, conservative and conspiracy sites published disinformation that “Biden’s energy policies somehow prevented Texas plants from generating the power the state needed.” A similar Infowars story was shared 70k times on Facebook and Twitter, according to the AP.

Antiquated science reports aren’t just thwarted by bot armies or filter bubbles, but a handful of individuals in high places. In January, The NY Times reported that two Trump administration officials have been reassigned after posting debunked papers “that questioned the scientific consensus on climate change.”

“The officials, David Legates, who served as the head of the United States Global Change Research Program, and Ryan Maue, a senior official at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy…. worked together to post the reports on a climate denial website without the knowledge of the director of the White House science office.” The cracks in denialism Despite denial actors’ prowess in propagating mis- and disinformation online, cracks are showing, and groups are fighting back.

A Greenpeace UK sting last month shed further light on Exxon’s war on climate action. In the video below, Keith McCoy, a senior director of federal relations at Exxon Mobil, became the first Exxon exec to openly claim that the company has “aggressively fought climate science using front organizations to maximize shareholder profit.” That’s pretty easy to grok and share. Definitely give it a watch.

Since the 80s, fossil fuel giants have been aware that their processes were altering the climate. But it’s getting difficult to continue pretending with mounting evidence (the weather in the US, investigative journalism).

In response, climate disinformation tactics have “shifted from outright denial to distraction and delay,” according to Science News. Though it’s largely part of the problem, Facebook revealed a UK project in February this year that adds warning labels and information about climate change myths.

Cognitive scientist John Cook noted in the Science News piece: “[The nature of cliamte change denialism] is shifting. For example, we fed 21 years of [climate change] denial blog posts from the U.K. into a machine learning program. We found that the science denialism misinformation is gradually going down — and solution misinformation [targeting climate policy and renewable energy] is on the rise.” This Week in Innovation History

July 21st, 1999: Apple’s first consumer laptop, the iBook is launched

The iBook, designed in the visual style of the iMac, was launched. The product exemplified Steve Jobs’ vision of “saying no to 1000 things” simplifying or eliminating products to drive innovation:

When Steve Jobs returned to the company, he famously drew a four-box grid on a whiteboard to show how he wanted to simplify Apple’s messy product line-up. On the left was Desktop and Portable; across the top was Consumer and Pro. Steve wanted one product for each box. Filling the consumer portable box took some time, but the eventual result was the iBook.

The device not only looked like the future, it was the first device to deliver built in WiFi, helping turn the technology into an industry standard. It was one of Jobs’ very memorable demonstrations as he used a hula hoop to show the audience the power of no connected wires!

This email was sent to <<Email Address>>
why did I get this? unsubscribe from this list update subscription preferences
NYC Media Lab · 370 Jay Street, 3rd floor · Brooklyn, New York 11201 · USA