E-Town Hall: Beyond the hype

The response to the discovery of fake names by the head of the company that sold Encinitas the E-Town Hall program was familiar, dismissing objections by asserting his expertise.

When I first watched the video of Michael Alverez Cohen’s presentation to the city council ten months ago, it was disturbing on many levels.

The council had not even been notified before the meeting that this most fundamental function of government, interfacing with city residents, had actually already been contracted out by the city manager.

And when two members were disturbed that the contract had been signed without their approval, the City Manager failed to inform them that it is revocable at any time, which it still is.

I decided to research the company, Peak Democracy, with the advantage of having developed commercial software and extensive use of on-line feedback modalities such as comment threads and polls.

Writing articles for comments made me acutely aware of how minor changes in the text changes degree of support for a concept.

While there is now academic research on this area, it is mostly an art, where the trump hand is always held by the entity that composes the originating essay or question.

Two members of the council shared enough of my doubts that they voted to place a reconsideration of this contract on a future agenda.

I welcomed the challenge, knowing that my allotted nine minutes would allow me to refute some assumptions and answer rebuttals by Peak Democracy.

Even though the reconsideration had been on the list of pending discussions for months, it never took place as the “discussion” had been transformed into a progress report without being placed on the posted agenda. I was miffed, but those on the council who had voted for this reconsideration didn’t have my certainty of just how dangerous a tool this was, how easy it is to disguise a partisan position as a question, a variation of what are known as push-polls.  This is especially disturbing since the writing of descriptions of issues is not an open procedure.

After the first two trivial surveys on dog walk areas and public art preferences E-Town Hall was used to tackle a major issue, which while never stated, could reverse the height restrictions voted into law by a recent citywide referendum.  This public outreach goes under the title of “The Housing Element” that through skillful word-craft by special interests over the years has been falsely presented as providing housing for the poor.  Promotion of such public misconceptions, while not originating with this company, can be facilitated by their methods.

This leads to the deeper aspects of the Peak Democracy approach; the shaping of a technological revolution on the order of the invention of the printing press. This is the confluence of universal wireless access to the Internet and of popularity of social media, that has allowed opinions to congeal at the speed of a flock of seagulls swarming along the beach.  “Trending,” while a meaningless word to those of my generation, indicates a topic that is becoming all the talk on Tweeter and Facebook that leads to a common mindset. This happens without the need to understand the issue in any depth, only what friends were feeling about it. This was the finding of the respected Pew Research Institute when evaluating the effect of this media on political views.

“The Medium is the Message” was a phrase of an earlier mass media era that applies ever more so to the immediacy of internet technology now always at our fingertips.  As a city and as a people, at the very least we should take responsibility for shaping this message that will define our political culture in unknown ways.

Al Rodbell is an Encinitas resident. His commentaries can be read on FocusOnEncinitas.com 

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