I performed two acts of anti-anti-social behaviour in quick succession this morning around Old Street. Neither could strictly be described as 'pro-social', to borrow Matthew Taylor's expression (the first involved berating a man who chucked his litter away from a nearby litter bin, and ignored me; the second involved berating a woman who pushed past a blind person on an escalator, who then also ignored me), thereby contradicting that old mathematical wives' tale that a double negative is a positive. So anyway, here I am publicly patting myself on the back.
This got me thinking about how civic software, web2.0-type, mySociety-ish stuff might be reoriented to incentivise gallant (though admittedly pointless) acts of this nature: what's needed is a cross between Twitter and Habermas. Bear with me.
Habermas, following on from Kant, defines modernity in terms of the schism between the True, the Good and the Beautiful. These correspond to Kant's three Critiques (of Pure Reason, Practical Reason and Judgement). The first engages with the question 'what can I know?', the second with the question 'what should I do?' and the third with the question 'what do I like?'
Now, imagine a version of Twitter (or any other social software) in which the user had to explicitly categorise which of these three domains their announcement fell into. A cursory glance at how social software is currently used (at least in my networks) might suggest that it is in the second of these, the moral domain, where there is most room for improvement. Currently, these three domains are represented on Twitter and Facebook mostly as follows:
- What can I know? The first time anyone ever convinced me that Twitter might be anything less than excessive was when Bill Thompson explained to me that he'd once been lost in some American city, unable to find his conference venue, and he'd simply announced this on his Twitter feed. Within a few minutes, information had been sent to him by the hive mind of his various Twittering friends. This domain seems to be all working quite satisfactorily. There are endless other examples of effective social software in action, such as fixmystreet, Google's new flu scanning service etc, which employ networked technology to cognitive ends, as a supplement to bureaucratic organisational forms.
- What should I do? Consider cases when someone updates their Facebook status or Twitter feed around purely practical content. What would be a typical example? The most common genre is exemplified by "John is at home with the family", "Susan is tucking into a lovely dinner in front of the television" or "Chris is relaxing on a beach". Fine, but this is scarcely the stuff of Blue Peter Badges. Now what would happen if the following suddenly popped up: "Will has just berated a woman on an escalator for pushing past a blind person". I imagine the reaction might be one of 'stop showing off, you self-righteous bastard'. Indeed. Stop showing off. Except...
- What do I like? "Peter is in Tate Modern loving the Mark Rothko!" "Jennifer can't wait to go to the opera!" "Graham enjoyed the latest Coen Brothers movie". We all do this. I do this. Here's a dreadful, dreadful confession: I have some Coldplay on my ipod, but sometimes when it comes on, it occurs to me that it will show up in my lastfm profile, and I experience a momentary shudder of lost kudos. I wouldn't be surprised if I've subconsciously skipped it for this very reason. So I'm a narcissistic freak, but you get my point. Just as we display a deficit of moral pride, we display a surplus of aesthetic pride. On dating sites, people queue up to declare their cultural passions, but would fear looking evangelical if they sold themselves in terms of their charitable activities. And we wonder about anti-social behaviour...
Lets leave aside cognitive issues ('what do I know?'). My question is - why are we so comfortable reporting on the aesthetic peaks we scale, yet so conservative in reporting on our practical, moral decisions? To which the answer is - because we don't reflect on it in quite this way, and see it as all just reputational stuff. But codifying behaviour invariably alters it, once we come to view it differently.
With the reworked, Habermasian Twitter programme, people are forced to reflect on their public image in a three-fold way. What do (or don't) I know that I'm prepared to form a cognitive reputation on? What should I do, that I'm prepared to form a moral reputation on? What do I like, that I'm prepared to form an aesthetic reputation on?
The Nietzschean rebuke to this would be 'aha, but you're forgetting how Christianity polluted ethics with a self-destructive veneration of humility! It is far more acceptable in our self-loathing, Pauline world to declare that one is making mashed potatoes than that one is battling a mugger!'
Except, consider political spin in 2008. As far as we are led to believe by Downing Street, Gordon Brown's answer to the moral question 'what should I do?' is 'save Africa, be courageous, and help the poor'. But as far as we are led to believe by Downing Street, Gordon Brown's answer to the aesthetic question 'what do I like?' is 'X Factor and Raith Rovers'. Bizarrely enough, the spin politicians apply to their own lives is the direct inverse of the spin we apply to our own lives; while they play up their moral heroism and play down their aesthetic taste, we do quite the opposite.
If there were greater potential reputational currency connected to the moral sphere, perhaps we would be more inclined - out of sheer vanity, but so what? - to go about performing extroverted ethical acts. Don't knock spin: people who choose to project a positive image of some form are typically obliged to at least partially live up to it (this is the same reason why Corporate Social Responsibility should not be dismissed too lightly).
The truth is that I don't go around berating people in the street very often. The sun was shining, and I was mildly hungover. But if we all came to view ourselves as distinctly moral agents in the public eye, a la Gordon Brown, who knows what competitive reputational incentives this would then create?