Reflections on Who Owns Our Secrets? Panel

"Privacy" by Rob Pongsajapan
"Privacy" by Rob Pongsajapan

After the Who Owns Our Secrets panel that was  the opening Spur event,  I got a chance to chat with Ray Boisvert. He is handsome, personable, forceful, and was formerly the Assistant Director of Intelligence at CSIS. He was also one of the panellists at the event, and was the main defender of the use of government surveillance on its own citizens. I asked him about the process through which he weighs the benefits of actions that could “neutralize” threats against the less tangible costs of ill-will, eroding faith in government, and misuse of sensitive information. In his answer, it was clear that he was narrowly focused on his job, which was preventing imminent acts of terror. From my perspective as a researcher in organizational behaviour, this was unsurprising: his job is designed such that this focus on immediate threats is inevitable.

Earlier in the day on Thursday, I finally got a my hands on a book that I have been looking forward to reading for a while. The book is Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir. It has exceeded my expectations. The big idea in Scarcity is an exemplar of social science theories: it is simple, but powerful. The book argues that scarcity captures the mind. The authors define scarcity as “having less than you feel you need.” There are many types of scarcity: the impoverished experience a scarcity of money, the busy experience a scarcity of time; the lonely experience a scarcity of social connection; and dieters experience a scarcity of calories. The surprising finding is that, although these are wildly different domains, creating scarcity for very different types of people, the effects of scarcity are surprisingly similar.

Scarcity increases focus in the domain of scarcity, which yields a “focus dividend.” For example, I know that I work harder under time scarcity as a deadline approaches. Poverty also provides a focus dividend. Mullainathan and Shafir demonstrate that the poor have little or no inclination toward many of the decision making biases that afflict the affluent. In other words, poor people appear to make more rational choices with money. But the focus dividend comes at a cost. Mullainathan and Shafir call this “tunneling.” Scarcity directs focus to the here-and-now and away from the future and from unrelated domains. In a wildly complex, information dense society such as ours, this causes problems*. Scarcity changes what we perceive as “signal” and what we perceive as “noise.”

I thought about this throughout the festival. Certainly intelligence agencies, and the people who work within them, perceive scarcity: there is an abundance of potential threats and a scarcity of time and resources. The science of scarcity may also inform the process of building support for climate change initiatives: current scarcity (of time, money or anything else) makes it very hard for citizens and policy makers to focus on the real challenges of climate change that we will face years down the road. Nudging interventions may be able to help to deal with these problems. These interventions change the way that choices are framed so that we can see the best option, even through a mindset tied up with scarcity.

What else can we do to deal with the problems, and opportunities, of a scarcity mindset? What if we changed how we think about structuring society and organizations, so that instead of concentrating only on designing the best division of labour, we also think about designing the best division of focus? Societies and organizations face many different types of scarcity; as a result, people working under different conditions of scarcity focus on different things. We need to design collaborative efforts in ways that take these differences into consideration. It is fine if one person is focused on one narrow domain, as long as another person is focused on the other important narrow domain; but this focus must be actively managed.

There is a second step too, that needs to be managed. Focus cannot be divided forever. I think we will make the most progress by managing both the division of focus, as well as it’s reintegration into coherent, overarching goals. This is a major challenge, but I think that by understanding these problems through the lens of scarcity, and the division of focus, we drastically improve our chances of overcoming the challenges of discerning signal from noise.

*Scarcity also has many detrimental effects on the poor. The book provides extensive evidence for this and indicates that we need to completely rethink how we think about poverty. I’m not going to get into that here; this deeper understanding of poverty is arguably the most important contribution of the book, but Mullainathan and Shafir articulate that contribution better than I could, so I encourage anyone interested in this to get their hands on a copy of the book.

Geordie is currently a 4th year PhD student at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management where he studies organizational behaviour. Geordie’s research balances on the intersection point of psychology, economics and sociology. One project examines whether individuals who take on new financial debts (mortgages, student loans, etc.) experience changes in their focus, goals, and attention, potentially reducing their civic and social engagement.

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