Category Archives: social dynamics

Your attention, please!

Recent history can be told as the story of a struggle for people’s attention. Propagandists and advertisers play leading roles.

Attention can be focused or fickle. You can be reading a blog (what else?) but perhaps you are thinking of something else or tempted to click on another story. This much is obvious. It is the way most people live their lives: their attention shifts from one thing to another, sometime lingering and focused, sometimes distracted.

It’s possible to say that life, at a psychological or perception level, is what we pay attention to. Most people would like to make their attention choices themselves, but many groups would like to influence these choices.

It may sound strange to write history in terms of attention, but this is just what Tim Wu has done in his stimulating book The Attention Merchants. Histories are usually written in terms of empires and wars, or perhaps the dynamics of class struggle, or in terms of oppression and democratisation, or the rise of agriculture and industry, or any of a number of frameworks that look at social processes. Each approach provides its own insights but also its own limitations. Wu offers a different approach, and it is illuminating.

            In essence, during the past two centuries there has been an evolving struggle to capture people’s attention via various forms of media and content, with governments and advertisers the key drivers and various forms of media their tools. Luckily, it’s possible for people, the targets of attention management, to resist.

It’s hard to imagine life before media. Try to think of a life without screens, even without any printed material. This would be a life of interacting with other people face-to-face, or engaging in hunting or farming or rituals. This is still the way of life for some people today, but in industrialised parts of the world it is rare. Instead, most people spend hours each day with one or more forms of media, most commonly involving a screen of some size.

Enter mass media

The earliest important mass medium was print. Wu recounts the experiences of US entrepreneur Benjamin Day who in 1833 pioneered a formula for increasing sales of newspapers: report on scandalous or amazing events, titillating the audience, sell at a low price, and make money by selling advertisements. It was an early indication of the commercial advantage of aiming low.

Skip forward to World War I. In Britain, government planners sought to increase recruitment into the army and came up with an effective method: saturate all media with patriotic messages. This meant billboards, leaflets, newspapers and magazines. It was hard to escape the messages, and recruitment soared. This was the first major use of mass propaganda and it was an outstanding success.

            Fifteen years later, the Nazis came to power in Germany and copied the British and US war propaganda techniques. By this time more technologies were available, notably radio. Hitler perfected the technique of mass rallies to muster patriotic fervour. However, rallies involved only a small fraction of the population. To take the message to others in the country, radio was the preferred medium; the Nazis controlled the broadcasts.

Saturation propaganda requires a near-monopoly over communication. It is easiest to implement when governments control media. Traditional government propaganda efforts remain important today, especially in countries with repressive governments like China, Iran and Russia.

Most of Wu’s story about attention merchants, though, is about efforts to capture attention for commercial purposes. He recounts the early days of television in the US when the small black-and-white screen was a novelty — and incredibly influential. Some early programmes were high-brow, but broadcasters soon learned that audiences could be drawn more effectively to entertainment such as the show “I love Lucy.” During the 1950s, significant proportions of the US population were watching the very same shows at the same time. It was truly a mass audience. It thus had elements of propaganda, except that the audiences were sold to advertisers.

The story of early television illustrates one of Wu’s key themes: a new medium can capture attention, but then competition begins a process of lowering costs and degrading the product.

One of the costs of producing television programmes is paying the actors. Is there a way to produce shows with the “talent” appearing voluntarily or at low cost? The answer is yes: so-called reality TV, which could draw in audiences. The stations could sell the audiences to advertisers while reducing their overheads.

To capture attention, media proprietors discovered, it is effective to lure people with stories of scandal and gore. This was true of the earliest newssheets and remains true in the age of social media. Rather than appeal to the rational mind and a concern for knowledge and enlightenment, media producers have found it more effective to appeal to the intuitive mind with what is now called “click-bait”: online stories seemingly so intriguing that it is hard to avoid clicking on them. Many of these stories are false or misleading and most are trivial, for example dealing with the peccadilloes of minor celebrities.

The same processes of degradation and cost-reduction have been played out with each new generation of media technology, including print, film, radio, television, desktop computers, and smartphones. Along the way, Wu describes how various other developments, for example video games and Google, fit into the picture.

Media enter private life

As new media technologies emerged, they made an amazing assault on traditional barriers between public and private. In the years before radio, people believed home life was inviolate. There might be posters in public places, but it was unthinkable for advertising to enter the home. Along came radio, initially in a public interest form. But then commercial stations figured out how to entice audiences while including ads as part of broadcasts.

Media infiltration into people’s personal lives has largely been voluntary: for most individuals, the immediate benefits seem to outweigh the costs. So today many people carry their smartphones everywhere, even into bed, allowing click-bait into nearly every personal situation. Smartphones are the fourth screen in the evolution of media entrants into people’s lives, following the big screen (film), the little screen (TV) and the desktop computer screen. Each screen initially had amazing success in capturing attention with high-quality fare, then entered a decline: a degradation of quality and an increase in commercial exploitation.

Wu’s story would be unrelentingly negative except that audiences usually rebel, eventually. An overload of advertising and trivial content triggers a cultural shift towards consumer choice in a different direction. The latest iteration of this rebellion is the massive uptake of ad blockers on smartphones and the popularity of Netflix, with many viewers bingeing on episodes or even entire series.

Tim Wu

Learning about struggles over attention

The Attention Merchants is engaging to read. Wu tells about successive developments through the lives and strategies of key players in each era, making the book an enjoyable way to learn about media. It might be said that the book serves as an antidote to the media degradation described in it.

Much of the story centres on the US, especially in the previous century. Wu does not recount the history of media in diverse countries or under different political systems (aside from Nazi Germany). Compared to most other countries, the US is very high in individualism and commercialism. So whether a similar narrative involving the struggle for attention, with advertising playing a key role, applies elsewhere remains to be determined.

That Wu’s analysis is US-centric need not detract from its potential value. Decades ago, I taught a course titled “Information and communication theories” and introduced students to a series of theories, for example signal transmission theory and semiotics. Today, if I were teaching the same course, I would add attention theory to the syllabus and add extracts from The Attention Merchants to the reading list. My guess is that Wu’s approach to understanding media dynamics via a struggle over attention would speak to students’ experience far more meaningfully than most other theories.

Later, Wendy Varney and I wrote a book, Nonviolence Speaks: Communicating Against Repression. In one chapter, we canvassed a variety of communication theories for their potential relevance to nonviolent struggles: transmission theory, media effects theory, semiotics, medium theory, political economy and organisational theory. Attention theory, Wu style, definitely needs to be added to this list. Nonviolent activists live in a world saturated with media in different forms, and to get their message out and to build support for campaigns, they must deal with communication systems and attention merchants with other agendas. This is an issue for another time.

Wu’s story to me highlights a great imbalance in efforts to attract attention. Media companies and advertisers have enormous financial and political resources. They hire the best and brightest of skilled workers, many of whom devote their creativity and energy to trying to entice people’s attention, often in ways difficult to resist. In the face of this attention-harvesting juggernaut, opposing forces are unorganised. For example, school teachers aim to encourage learning but have to compete with attention-grabbers that are highly sophisticated. Meanwhile, commercialism is increasingly entering classrooms. When teachers use digital devices in the classroom for educational purposes, almost inevitably they open another portal to advertising and attention capture. Where are the educational planning research centres with researchers developing strategies that will appeal to young people and build habits of attention control to counter the merchants?

            No doubt it would be possible to identify quite a range of initiatives that provide alternatives to the efforts of attention merchants, for example movements against public advertising, designers of ad blockers, promoters of mindfulness and a host of others. These efforts are worthy but for the most part are a limited challenge to the likes of video games, Facebook, Google and other corporate behemoths that push advertising out along with their services. There is much to be done to regain personal and collective control of attention.

“The attending public were first captured reading daily newspapers, then listening to evening broadcasts, before they were entranced into sitting glued to the television at key intervals, and finally, over the 1990s, into surrendering some more of their waking time, opening their eyes and minds to computers – the third screen – in dens and offices around the world. … By 2015, the fourth screen would be in the hands of virtually everyone, seizing nearly three of the average American’s waking hours. And so it would become the undisputed new frontier of attention harvesting in the twenty-first century, the attention merchants’ manifest destiny. From now on, whither thou goest, your smartphone goes, too, and of course the ads.” (pp. 309-310)

Brian Martin

Mathematical models: the toxic variety

Job applications, credit ratings and the likelihood of being arrested can be affected by mathematical models. Some of the models have damaging effects.


In 1983, U.S. News & World Report – then a weekly newsmagazine in competition with Time and Newsweek – published a ranking of US universities. For U.S. News, this was a way to increase sales. Its ranking system initially relied on opinions of university presidents, but later diversified by using a variety of criteria. As years passed, the U.S. News ranking became more influential, stimulating university administrators to seek to improve rankings by hiring academics, raising money, building facilities and, in some cases, trying to game the system.

One of the criteria used in the U.S. News ranking system was undergraduate admission acceptance rates. A low acceptance rate was assumed to mean the university was more exclusive: a higher percentage of applicants to Harvard are rejected than at Idaho State.

US high school students planning further study are commonly advised to apply to at least three prospective colleges. Consider the hypothetical case of Sarah, an excellent student. She applies to Stanford, a top-flight university where she would have to be lucky to get in, to Michigan State, a very good university where she expects to be admitted, and to Countryside Tech, which offers a good education despite its ease of admission.

Sarah missed out at Stanford, as expected, and unfortunately was also rejected at Michigan State. So she anticipated going to Countryside Tech, but was devastated to be rejected there too. What happened?

The president of Countryside Tech was determined to raise his institution’s ranking. One part of this effort was a devious admissions policy. Sarah’s application looked really strong, so admissions officers assumed she would end up going somewhere else. So they rejected her in order to improve Tech’s admissions percentage, making Tech seem more exclusive. Sarah was an unfortunate casualty of a competition between universities based on the formula used by U.S. News. 


            In Australia, the U.S. News rankings are little known, but other systems, ranking universities across the globe, are influential. In order to boost their rankings, some universities hire academic stars whose publications receive numerous citations. A higher ranking leads to positive publicity that attracts more students, bringing in more income. Many students mistakenly believe a higher ranking university will provide a better education, not realising that the academic stars hired to increase scholarly productivity are not necessarily good teachers. Indeed, many of them do no teaching at all. Putting a priority on hiring them means superb teachers are passed over and money is removed from teaching budgets.


The story of U.S. News university rankings comes from an important new book by Cathy O’Neil, Weapons of Math Destruction. O’Neil started off as a pure mathematician teaching in a US university, then decided to enter the private sector where she could do something more practical as a “data scientist.” Working for a hedge fund and then some start-ups, she soon discovered that the practical uses of data analysis and mathematical models were damaging to many ordinary people, especially those who are disadvantaged. She wrote Weapons of Math Destruction to expose the misuses of mathematical modelling in a range of sectors, including education, personal finance, policing, health and voting.

A model is just a representation of a bigger reality, and a mathematical model is one that uses numbers and equations to represent relationships. For example, a map is a representation of a territory, and usually there’s nothing wrong with a map unless it’s inaccurate or gives a misleading impression.


            The models that O’Neil is concerned about deal with people and affect their lives, often in damaging ways. The model used by U.S. News, because it was taken so seriously by so many people, has distorted decisions by university administrators and harmed some students.

“Our own values and desires influence our choices, from the data we choose to collect to the questions we ask. Models are opinions embedded in mathematics.” (p. 21)

Another example is a model used to allocate police to different parts of a city. By collecting data about past crimes and other factors supposedly correlated with crime, the model identifies areas deemed to be at risk and therefore appropriate for more intensive policing.


This sounds plausible in the abstract, but in practice in the US the result is racially discriminatory even if the police are themselves unprejudiced. Historically, there have been more crimes in disadvantaged areas heavily populated by racial minorities. Putting more police in those areas means even more transgressions are discovered – everything from possession of illegal drugs to malfunctioning cars – and this leads to more arrests of people in these areas, perpetuating their disadvantage. Meanwhile, crimes that are not geographically located are ignored, including financial crimes of the rich and powerful.


Not every mathematical model is harmful. O’Neil says there are three characteristics of weapons of math destruction or WMDs: opacity, damage and scale. Opacity refers to how transparent the model is. If you can see how the model operates – its inputs, its algorithms, its outputs – then it can be subject to inspection and corrected if necessary. O’Neil cites models used by professional baseball clubs to recruit players and make tactical choices during games. These models are based on publicly available data: they are transparent.

In contrast, models used in many parts of the US to judge the performance of school teachers are opaque: the data on which they are based (student test scores) are not public, the algorithm is secret, and decisions made on the basis of the models (including dismissing teachers who are allegedly poor performers) are not used to improve the model.

The second feature of WMDs is damage. Baseball models are used to improve a team’s performance, so there’s little damage. Teacher performance models harm the careers and motivation of excellent teachers.

The third feature is scale. A model used in a household to decide on when to spend money can, at the worst, hurt the members of the household. If scaled up to the whole economy, it could have drastic effects.

Cathy O’Neil

O’Neil’s book is engaging. She describes her own trajectory from pure mathematician to disillusioned data scientist, and then has chapters on several types of WMDs, in education, advertising, criminal justice, employment, workplaces, credit ratings, insurance and voting. Without a single formula, she tells about WMDs and their consequences.

The problems are likely to become worse, because data companies are collecting ever more information about individuals, everything from purchasing habits to opinions expressed on social media. Models are used because they seem to be efficient. Rather than reading 200 job applications, it is more efficient to use a computer program to read them and eliminate all but 50, which can then be read by humans. Rather than examining lots of data about a university, it is more efficient to look at its ranking. Rather than getting to know every applicant for a loan, it is more efficient to use an algorithm to assess each applicant’s credit-worthiness. But efficiency can come at a cost, including discrimination and misplaced priorities.

My experience

Earlier in my career, I did lots of mathematical modelling. My PhD in theoretical physics at the University of Sydney was about a numerical method for solving the diffusion equation, applied to the movement of nitrogen oxides introduced into the stratosphere. I also wrote computer programmes for ozone photochemistry in the stratosphere, among related topics. My initial PhD supervisor, Bob May, was at the time entering the field of mathematical ecology, and I helped with some of his calculations. Bob made me co-author of a paper on a model showing the effect of interactions between voters.

During this time, I started a critical analysis of models for calculating the effect of nitrogen oxides, from either supersonic transport aircraft or nuclear explosions, on stratospheric ozone, looking in particular at the models used by the authors of two key scientific papers. This study led eventually to my first book, The Bias of Science, in which I documented various assumptions and techniques used by the authors of these two papers, and more generally in scientific research.

While doing my PhD, some other students and I studied the mathematical theory of games – used for studies in economics, international relations and other topics – and ran an informal course on the topic. This enabled me to later write a paper about the social assumptions underpinning game theory.

In the following decade, as an applied mathematician at the Australian National University, I worked on models in astrophysics and for incorporating wind power in electricity grids. Meanwhile, I read about biases in models used in energy policy.

I had an idea. Why not write a book or manual about mathematical modelling, showing in detail how assumptions influenced everything from choices of research topics to results? My plan was to include a range of case studies. To show how assumptions affected results, I could program some of the models and then modify parameters and algorithms, showing how results could be influenced by the way the model was constructed and used.

However, other projects took priority, and all I could accomplish was writing a single article, without any detailed examples. For years I regretted not having written a full critique of mathematical modelling. After obtaining a job in social science at the University of Wollongong, I soon discontinued my programming work and before long was too out of touch to undertake the critique I had in mind.

I still think such a critique would be worthwhile, but it would have quite a limited audience. Few readers want to delve into the technical details of a mathematical model on a topic they know little about. If I were starting today, it would be more illuminating to develop several interactive models, with the user being able to alter parameters and algorithms and see outcomes. What I had in mind, decades ago, would have been static and less effective.

What Cathy O’Neil has done in Weapons of Math Destruction is far more useful. Rather than provide mathematical details, she writes for a general audience by focusing on the uses of models. Rather than looking at models that are the subject of technical disputes in scientific fields, she examines models affecting people in their daily lives.

Weapons of Math Destruction is itself an exemplar – a model of the sort to be emulated – of engaged critique. It shows the importance of people with specialist skills and insider knowledge sharing their insights with wider audiences. Her story is vitally important, and so is her example in showing how to tell it.

“That’s a problem, because scientists need this error feedback – in this case the presence of false negatives – to delve into forensic analysis and figure out what went wrong, what was misread, what data was ignored. It’s how systems learn and get smarter. Yet as we’ve seen, loads of WMDs, from recidivism models to teacher scores, blithely generate their own reality. Managers assume that the scores are true enough to be useful, and the algorithm makes tough decisions easy. They can fire employees and cut costs and blame their decisions on an objective number, whether it’s accurate or not.” (p. 133)


Cathy O’Neil, Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy (London: Allen Lane, 2016)

Brian Martin

Learning from failure


Imagine you are a teacher and you decide to try an innovative teaching technique. However, it goes horribly wrong. The technique didn’t work the way you expected, and furthermore numerous students make complaints to your supervisor. Luckily, your supervisor is sympathetic to your efforts and your job is secure.

What do you do next?

  1. Avoid innovative techniques: they’re too risky.
  2. Keep innovating, but be much more careful.
  3. Tell a few close colleagues so they can learn from your experience.
  4. Write an article for other teachers telling what went wrong, so they can learn from your experience.
  5. Invite some independent investigators to analyse what went wrong and to write a report for others to learn from.

The scenario of innovative teaching gone wrong has happened to me several times in my decades of teaching undergraduates. Each time, through no particular fault of my own, what I attempted ended up disastrously. It even happened one time when I designed a course that worked brilliantly one year but failed miserably the next.


So what did I do? Mainly options 2 and 3: I kept innovating, more carefully, and told a few colleagues. I never imagined writing about these teaching disasters, even using a pseudonym, much less inviting others to investigate and publish a report. It would be humiliating, might invite additional unwanted scrutiny, and might even make innovation more difficult in the future.

Aviation: a learning culture

These thoughts came to mind as a result of reading Matthew Syed’s new book Black Box Thinking. The title refers to the flight recorders in commercial aircraft, called black boxes, that record data about the flight, including conversations among the pilots. When there is a crash or a near miss, these boxes are vital for learning from the failure. Rather than automatically blaming the pilots, an independent team of experts investigates accidents and incidents and publishes its findings so the whole industry can learn from what happened.


Some of the greatest improvements in aircraft safety have resulted from studies of disasters. The improvement might be redesigning instruments so confusion is less likely or changing protocols for interactions between pilots. One important lesson from disasters is that the flight engineer and co-pilot need to be more assertive to prevent the pilot from losing perspective during tense situations. The investigations using black-box information occasionally end up blaming pilots, for example when they are drunk, but usually the cause of errors is not solely individual failure, but a combination of human, procedural and technical factors.

Cover-up cultures: medicine and criminal justice

Syed contrasts this learning culture in aviation with a culture of cover-up in medicine. There is a high rate of failure in hospitals, and indeed medical error is responsible for a huge number of injuries and deaths. But, as the saying goes, surgeons bury their mistakes. Errors are seldom treated as opportunities for learning. In a blame culture, everyone seeks to protect their jobs and reputations, so the same sorts of errors recur.

Syed tells about some hospitals in which efforts are made to change the culture so that errors are routinely reported, without blame attached. This can quickly lead to fixing sources of error, for example by differently labelling drugs or by using checklists. In these hospitals, reported error rates greatly increase because cover-up is reduced, while actual harm due to errors drops dramatically: fewer patients are harmed. Furthermore, costs due to patient legal actions also drop, saving money.


So why don’t more hospitals follow the same path? And why don’t more occupations follow the example of aviation? Syed addresses several factors: cultures of blame, excess power at the top of organisations, and belief systems resistant to testing.

In the criminal justice system, one of the most egregious errors is convicting an innocent person of a crime. Police and prosecutors sometimes decide that a particular suspect is the guilty party and ignore evidence to the contrary, or don’t bother to find any additional evidence. Miscarriages of justice are all too common, yet police, prosecutors and judges are reluctant to admit it.

In some cases, after a person has been convicted and spent years in jail, DNA evidence emerges showing the person’s innocence. Yet in quite a few cases, the police involved in the original investigation refuse to change their minds, going through incredible intellectual contortions to explain how the person they charged could actually be guilty. Syed comments, “DNA evidence is indeed strong, but not as strong as the desire to protect one’s self-esteem.” (p. 89)

Black boxes

When I heard about Black Box Thinking, I decided to buy it because I had read Matthew Syed’s previous book Bounce, about which I wrote a comment. Syed was the British table tennis champion for many years and became a media commentator. Bounce is a popularisation of work on expert performance, and is highly engaging. In Black Box Thinking, Syed has tackled a related and broader subject: how to achieve high performance in collective endeavours.

Matthew Syed

The title had me confused at first, because in other disciplines a black box refers to a system whose internal mechanisms are hidden: only inputs and outputs can be observed. In contrast, flight recorders in aircraft, which actually are coloured orange, not black, are sources of information.

Syed’s book might have been titled “Learning from failure,” because this is the theme throughout his book. He presents stories from medicine, aviation, business, criminal justice, sport and social policy, all to make the point that failures should be treated as opportunities for learning rather than assigning blame. Individuals can heed Syed’s important message, but bringing about change in systems is another matter.

Another theme in the book is the importance of seeking marginal gains, namely small improvements. Syed tells about Formula One racing in which tiny changes here and there led to superior performance. Another example is when the company Unilever was manufacturing soap powder – laundry detergent – and wanted to make the powder come out of the nozzle more consistently.

Unilever’s initial nozzle

Unilever hired a group of mathematicians, experts in fluid dynamics and high pressure systems, to come up with an answer, but they failed. Unilever then hired a group of biologists – yes, biologists – who used a process modelled on evolution. They tried a variety of designs and determined which one worked best. Then they took the best performing design and tested slight modifications of it. Applying this iterative process repeatedly led to a design that worked well but never could have been imagined in advance.

Unilever’s final nozzle, after 45 trial-and-error iterations

Learning from mistakes in science

Syed presents science as a model for learning from error, seeing the experimental method as a great advance over adherence to dogma. Science certainly has led to revolutionary changes to human understanding and, in tandem with technology, to dramatic improvements in human welfare, as well as to unprecedented threats to human life (nuclear weapons and climate change). However, Syed notes that science students mainly study the latest ideas, with little or no time examining “failed” theories such as aether or astrology: “By looking only at the theories that have survived, we don’t notice the failures that made them possible.” (p. 52).

Even so, overall Syed’s view of science is an idealistic image of how research is supposed to work by continually trying to falsify hypotheses. Historian-of-science Thomas Kuhn argued in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that most research is problem-solving within a framework of unquestioned assumptions called a paradigm. Rather than trying to falsify fundamental assumptions, scientists treat them as dogma. Sociologist Robert Merton proposed that science is governed by a set of norms, one of which is “organised scepticism.” However, the relevance of these norms has been challenged. Ian Mitroff, based on his studies, proposed that science is equally well described by a corresponding set of counter-norms, one of which is “organised dogmatism.”


Although science is incredibly dynamic due to theoretical innovation and experimental testing, it is also resistant to change in some ways, and can be shaped by various interests, including corporate funding, government imperatives and the self-interest of elite scientists.

Therefore, while there is much to learn from the power of the scientific method, there is also quite a bit that scientists can learn from aviation and other fields that learn systematically from error. It would be possible to examine occasions when scientists were resistant to new ideas that were later accepted as correct, for example continental drift, mad cow disease or the cause of ulcers, and spell out the lessons for researchers. But it is hard to find any analyses of these apparent collective failures that are well known to scientists. Similarly, there are many cases in which dissident scientists have had great difficulty in challenging views backed by commercial interests, for example the scandals involving the pharmaceutical drugs thalidomide and Vioxx. There is much to learn from these failures, but again the lessons, whatever they may be, have not led to any systematic changes in the way science is carried out. If anything, the subordination of science to powerful groups with vested interests is increasing, so there is little incentive to institutionalise learning from disasters.


Failure: still a dirty word

Although Syed is enthusiastic about the prospects of learning from failure, he is very aware of the obstacles. Although he lauds aviation for its safety culture, in one chapter he describes how the drive to attribute blame took over and a conscientious pilot was pilloried. Blaming seems to be the default mode in most walks of life. In politics, assigning blame has become an art form: opposition politicians and vulnerable groups are regularly blamed for society’s problems, and it is a brave politician indeed who would own up to mistakes as a tool for collective learning. In fact, political dynamics seem to operate with a different form of learning, namely on how to be ever more effective in blaming others for problems.


I regularly hear from whistleblowers in all sorts of occupations: teachers, police, public servants, corporate employees and others. In nearly every case, there is something going wrong in a workplace, a failure if you want to call it that, and hence a potential opportunity to learn. However, organisational learning seems to be the least likely thing going on. Instead, many whistleblowers are subject to reprisals, sending a message to their co-workers that speaking out about problems is career suicide. Opportunities for learning are regularly squandered. Of course, I’m seeing a one-sided perspective: in workplaces where failure does not automatically lead to blame or cover-up, there is little need for whistleblowing. When those who speak out about problems are encouraged or even rewarded, no one is likely to contact me for advice. Even so, it would seem that such workplaces are the exception rather than the rule.

The more controversial the issue, the more difficult it can be to escape blaming as a mode of operation. On issues such as abortion, climate change, fluoridation and vaccination, partisans on either side of the debate are reluctant to admit any weakness in their views because opponents will seize on it as an avenue for attack. Each side becomes defensive, never admitting error while continually seeking to expose the other side’s shortcomings, including pathologies in reasoning and links to groups with vested interests. These sorts of confrontations seem designed to prevent learning from failure. Therefore it is predictable that such debates will continue largely unchanged.

Although the obstacles to learning from failures might seem insurmountable, there is hope. Black Box Thinking is a powerful antidote to complacency, showing what is possible and identifying the key obstacles to change. The book deserves to be read and its lessons taken to heart. A few courageous readers may decide to take a risk and attempt to resist the stampede to blame and instead foster a learning culture.


“The basic proposition of this book is that we have an allergic attitude to failure. We try to avoid it, cover it up and airbrush it from our lives. We have looked at cognitive dissonance, the careful use of euphemisms, anything to divorce us from the pain we feel when we are confronted with the realisation that we have underperformed.” (p. 196)

Brian Martin

Preventing catastrophe

Floods, fires, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis: can the worst consequences be prevented?

Wollongong, 1998. Photo: John Larkin

On 17 August 1998, there was sudden downpour in Wollongong, with over 300mm of rain in a few hours. There was flash flooding; coal wash from a colliery swept through suburbs.

Some homeowners were insured; others were not. There was uproar over whether the damage was caused by storm or flood, because some companies covered only storm damage. After being shamed in the local media, some companies paid up – but not all.

The controversy over insurance coverage overshadowed a bigger issue. Should something be done to prevent damage and loss of life from such heavy rain? Wollongong is built on the edge of the ocean, in a narrow strip next to a steep rise called the Illawarra escarpment, and rain runs in torrents down the incline to the sea.

View of Wollongong from the Illawarra escarpment

When houses are built at higher elevations, displacing the tree cover, there is more runoff to the areas below, creating a greater risk of inundation. Perhaps the local government should impose stricter controls over development, or homeowners at higher elevations should pay a premium land tax to compensate for contributing to increased risk of damage to other properties.

The bigger picture

The Wollongong storm story is a small example of a much bigger problem: what should be done about so-called natural disasters? In 2011, a huge earthquake off the coast of Japan created a tsunami that killed over 15,000 people and damaged nuclear power plants. Japan sits on or near a major fault line for earthquakes.

If you want to learn more about the history of fires, floods, earthquakes and tsunamis, then check out the engaging book The Cure for Catastrophe: How We Can Stop Manufacturing Natural Disasters. The author, Robert Muir-Wood, has decades of experience in investigating disasters, often visiting sites immediately afterwards, observing destruction of buildings and noticing which construction types survived, assessing responsibility for the human deaths and casualties and seeing what reduce the impact of natural forces.

obert Muir-Wood

Much of the book is historical, telling about many of the most prominent disasters, such as the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. In earlier centuries, before the theory of plate tectonics, Aristotle was the authority, and he believed earthquakes were due to great underground hollows that opened and swallowed up buildings and people. In popular understandings, in Europe at least, disasters were seen as divine retribution. However, the Lisbon earthquake did not fit the pattern, as the city was one of the most religious at the time.

An artist’s portrayal of the Lisbon earthquake

Gradually, more empirical approaches gained support. However, the scientific study of disasters faced several obstacles. One was vested interests. After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, local merchants excised mention of earthquake and opposed funding studies of earthquake hazards, because acknowledging the risk might discourage commercial development. The disaster was named a fire and regulations were set up so buildings could withstand fire, but they remained susceptible to collapse due to fierce shaking.

Unnatural disasters

Muir-Wood says that natural disasters are not purely “natural” but always involve a social dimension. Indeed, most of the damage from disasters, physical and human, is due to human choices. Today, there is sufficient knowledge to know what to do to minimise death and damage, but often insufficient political and social will.

Fewer people died in building collapses in the Magnitude 8.8 central Chile earthquake than in the 1,000 times smaller 2009 L’Aquila earthquake in central Italy. After fifty years of investment in world-class schools of engineering, and by strictly enforcing tough building codes, Chile today has some of the safest earthquake-resistant building stock in the world. (p. 172)

In some locations, disasters are frequent enough that people should stay away. It makes no sense to rebuild in a floodplain unless there are ways to prevent flooding. But after a few decades, people forget the previous disaster and profit-seeking developers carry the day.

The Netherlands offers the best example of effective disaster prevention. With much of the land below sea level, the country relies on dykes to prevent inundation. In case the dykes are breached, there are plans for secondary defence of life and property. What is especially significant in the Netherlands is that the potential for disaster had a profound effect on the political system, with all involved in a cooperative effort to protect the country. The potential for disaster in this case generated a special form of political cooperation.

Flood control in the Netherlands

Muir-Wood describes the rise of insurance systems. Initially, competition between insurance companies was ruinous: some would gain business by offering low premiums and then go bankrupt when a disaster required large payouts. Gradually, insurance companies adopted scientific approaches, calculating premiums in a realistic way. They also led to the emergence of reinsurance, insurance for insurance companies. Reinsurers have a special interest in disaster planning, and can apply pressure to adopt policies that reduce damage in a disaster.

Muir-Wood says that, ultimately, affluence is a cure for catastrophe, because people are willing to pay to reduce risks. Just as important, though, is corruption prevention. In many countries, there are laws governing housing construction to reduce the risk of collapse in an earthquake, but the laws are routinely ignored: bribery enables dangerous construction to continue. In such circumstances, campaigns against corruption have the potential to save many lives.

Construction codes and suitable technologies can greatly reduce vulnerability to disasters. So can warning systems. Yet another vital step is to stop contributing to the likelihood of disasters. The most significant item here is global warming, which is increasing the sea level and the likelihood of damaging storms. There are sophisticated models to calculate the contribution of climate change to natural disasters. Disaster mitigation includes campaigning to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.

When insurance companies refuse to cover certain hazards, this can have an impact, for example reducing the value of houses in areas subject to flooding. Whether insurance is available, and how much it costs, thus can be a signal about the need for disaster planning.

The 2010 Haiti earthquake: more than 200,000 people died

Unnatural disasters, take two

Muir-Wood does not address disasters primarily created by technology. A good example is nuclear power. There is no private insurance available for nuclear reactor accidents. In the 1950s, the US government passed the Price-Anderson Act exempting electricity utilities from full and immediate liability for reactor accidents. This served as a financial prop for the nuclear industry: prices would have increased if commercially calculated rates had to be paid to cover the exceedingly rare but exceedingly expensive costs of a major nuclear accident. Some analysts have recommended that nuclear power plants be built underground to reduce the damage from a meltdown accident. This has not been done, indicating that governments are subsidising nuclear power, with people and the environment occasionally paying the price, as at Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Across the world, there is another catastrophe that is unnatural, yet all too familiar: war. Many of the world’s top scientists and engineers toil away to produce deadly weapons, and arms factories pump out everything from small arms to missiles. Although popular concern about nuclear war faded after the 1980s and the end of the cold war, there remain over 10,000 nuclear weapons with the potential to kill hundreds of millions of people. The cure for catastrophe in this case is not more weapons or more treaties, but rather disarmament. The most important tool against war is peace activism, but it receives little funding compared to the war system.

One of the important messages from The Cure for Catastrophe is that most of the consequences of natural disasters are not “natural” but rather depend on human choices, for example about where and how to build housing. The same applies to unnatural hazards of nuclear, chemical, biological and other creations. It is an interesting thought experiment to apply the principles of disaster planning and insurance to the risk of war.


Bad outcomes were determined, researchers were discovering, not so much by the earthquake or hurricane itself as by the nature of the society affected – its inequalities, poverty, education, and preparedness. Disasters were “manifestations of unresolved development problems,” and the flood or cyclone was a trigger. The problem of disasters would not be solved by focusing on the hazards alone. (p. 212)

Brian Martin

The rise and decline of Illawarra Citizen Advocacy

Illawarra Citizen Advocacy was a world leader in recruiting and supporting citizens to advocate on behalf of people with intellectual disabilities. The decline of the programme provides some cautionary lessons.

Ken and Joanne, Illawarra Citizen Advocacy

Imagine someone arranges a meeting with you and says, “There’s a young man named Fred who lives in your neighbourhood. He has a serious intellectual disability and he is vulnerable to abuse. He needs someone who will ensure that he is safe — someone who will protect him as much as a relative or close friend. And he needs this person to stand by him for the indefinite future, maybe the rest of his life. I think you’re ideal to fill this role. Would you agree to be this person — to be Fred’s advocate?”

This is a very big request. It’s a huge request. Who would possibly agree?

I learned the answer to this question in 1996. The coordinators of Illawarra Citizen Advocacy, Julie Clarke and Joanne North, talked to me about their work and then asked whether I would be an advocate. For my own reasons, I declined. But I did agree to join the board of the programme, and then a year later became chair of the board for the next decade.

In the 1980s, in the Illawarra — the region including the city of Wollongong — a number of parents and others supporting people with intellectual disabilities had a dream. They shared stories, held meetings and lobbied to obtain funding for a programme practising citizen advocacy.

Jo and Kirsten, Illawarra Citizen Advocacy


To understand citizen advocacy, it’s first useful to describe advocacy, which can come in various types. A lawyer is an advocate for clients and environmentalists are advocates for nature. People with skills and connections can advocate on their own behalf, called self-advocacy. For example, people who cannot see can speak, write and campaign for better services and facilities to cater for the sight-impaired.

However, some people have little or no capacity to advocate, and this includes many with intellectual disabilities, sometimes combined with physical, mental health or other disabilities. The advocacy of concern here is on behalf of people with disabilities who have significant unmet needs. They might be neglected, at risk of abuse, friendless, homeless or not being given opportunities.

Several of the Illawarra residents who met in the 1980s were parents of children with intellectual disabilities. These parents were worried what would happen to their children after they, the parents, died or became incapacitated. Other parents needed help to be able to cope with the needs of their children.

One type of advocacy is called systems advocacy. This involves paid advocates — who might better be called organisers — helping to change systems that prevent full development. Education systems or transport systems may need different policies or technologies or understandings so they can cater for people with disabilities. Systems advocates often work with others to foster change, for example working with parents to open up education systems to serve their children. Systems advocacy has a multiplier effect, because a change in a system today benefits some individuals immediately and many more later on.

Another type of advocacy is called individual advocacy. A paid staff member advocates on behalf of various individuals, taking on clients one after the other, sometimes just for a single item of need, sometimes for repeated expression of voice for the same person.

Then there is citizen advocacy. The paid staff members, called coordinators, do not do advocacy themselves. Instead, they search for people with disabilities with significant unmet needs who might benefit from advocacy. When someone suitable is found, this person is recruited into the programme and called a protégé. Then the coordinator searches for a member of the community — an ordinary citizen like you or me — who would be willing to be an advocate for this protégé, usually for the indefinite future. It is an extraordinary thing to ask. I said no myself, but as a member of the board of Illawarra Citizen Advocacy, I discovered there are many who say yes.

Citizen advocacy relies on people — the advocates — who have no special training. The advocates can obtain advice and encouragement from the coordinator, but need to do the advocacy themselves. What they lack in training they make up for in learning about their protégé. Over the course of weeks and months, the advocate learns about the protégé’s life and needs and discovers what can be done to protect and enhance the protégé. In a sense, a citizen advocate is like a family member, developing the same sorts of insight and commitment that parents, siblings or children can develop about others in their families.

Sometimes the most important contribution of a citizen advocate is simply to be there. Some protégés are so isolated that there is no single person who stays in their life. Various service workers — some of them highly caring and skilled — may help the protégé, but often the workers come and go, not maintaining an ongoing relationship. The advocate comes into the protégé’s life and is there because they want to be there, not because of being paid to be there.

Peter and Rae, Citizen Advocacy South Australia,

Activities in Illawarra Citizen Advocacy

I attended monthly board meetings of Illawarra Citizen Advocacy. At each meeting Julie, the coordinator, told about what she and Joanne had been doing.

One key activity was recruiting protégés according to an agreed recruitment plan for the year. Julie and Joanne searched for people with intellectual disabilities, visiting schools, homeless shelters, homes for the aged and a range of other places and networks, looking especially for people in need who might not be known to or well served by welfare or other agencies. The stories of their searches, and of the individuals they recruited, showed the importance to seeking to find those who are most disadvantaged and in need of advocacy.

Another key activity was recruiting advocates. After a protégé had been recruited into the programme, Julie and Joanne assessed the protégé’s needs and built up a profile of the sort of person who would be most suited to be an advocate for this particular protégé. Then they started asking, via their networks and through cold calling. They took into account age, sex, location of residence and especially the sort of advocacy needed. Some protégés needed, most of all, a friend. Others needed a door-opener, who would expose them to new experiences. Others needed a protector, against abuse or destitution. Julie and Joanne were matchmakers, putting together two people who would be suited for each other.

Recruiting advocates was often very difficult. After all, not that many people are willing to make a strong commitment to protect and defend someone they have not even met. Julie would sometimes find an advocate on her first try, but more commonly she talked to a dozen people, or even several dozen, before finding the right person who was willing to be an advocate.

Next, the protégé and advocate were each prepared for their roles, and then the first meeting was arranged. A match was made. Every new match was a cause for celebration. On the board, we were buoyed by these heart-warming stories.

At the board meetings, Julie told about recruiting protégés and advocates and about making matches. She also told about ongoing relationships between protégés and advocates. Each month she or Joanne tried to contact each advocate, a process called follow-along, to see how the relationship was going, sometimes giving advice concerning challenges and sometimes encouraging advocates to be more vigorous in their efforts. The stories Julie told were both tragic and inspiring. They were tragic in revealing the despair and difficulties in the lives of many protégés and inspiring in telling of the efforts of the advocates. Sometimes advocates made a tremendous difference.

As I spent more time on the board, and took on some new roles, I learned more about citizen advocacy in Australia and elsewhere. There were perhaps a dozen active citizen advocacy programmes in Australia, most of them funded by the federal government via the Department of Family and Community Services (now the Department of Social Services). The programmes supported each other in various ways, and banded together in an association. I became the Illawarra programme’s representative on the Citizen Advocacy Association.

Michelle and Winnie, Citizen Advocacy Perth West,

Achievements of the programme

Gradually I came to realise that Illawarra Citizen Advocacy (ICA) was an outstanding programme. Julie and Joanne’s passion for helping those in need, and their description of how the programme operated, had been enough to get me to join the board. I soon discovered that their passion and commitment were having impressive results. ICA was creating matches at an impressive rate, more than a dozen each year. Some relationships didn’t last all that long, but others continued for years or even decades. Julie and Joanne were supporting more than 70 relationships, requiring a huge amount of follow-along and support in addition to their challenges in finding new protégés and advocates.

Not only did ICA support a large number of relationships, but many of these were ones that involved vigorous advocacy, in which advocates had to challenge services to act. Before I joined the board, three advocates, whose protégés resided in Cram House, a facility for severely disabled children, made a complaint to the relevant government department, leading to a major investigation that led to Cram House being closed down. Vigorous advocacy can be needed when problems are serious, and citizen advocates are well placed to undertake it, because they are independent citizens who are not paid or receiving benefits from their roles as advocates. Paid advocates, on the other hand, have to be careful because their jobs might be in jeopardy if they offend powerful service providers.

Every year, the ICA coordinators would plan their activities for the year. I joined some of these all-day meetings, which were carried out following a careful protocol. One of the priorities was seeking protégés who were either quite young or quite old. These age groups are often overlooked because the individuals lack the capacity to seek assistance themselves and they are less likely to be seen as an advocate’s friend. It is a useful reminder that the roles advocates are supposed to play depend on the needs of the protégé, not the expectations of the advocates.

A certain proportion of protégés were sought who were unable to communicate. Such individuals are often highly vulnerable because they cannot tell anyone about their needs. When communication is difficult or impossible, the relationship is even less likely to be one of friendship, which normally involves mutual interaction.

This brings up another distinction, between expressive and instrumental relationships. Expressive relationships involve emotional needs of the protégé, for example for companionship, advice and role modelling. Instrumental relationships, on the other hand, involve ensuring things are done for protégés, such as finding a suitable home, avoiding prison or being protected from abuse or neglect. No personal connection is needed, yet the advocacy is vitally important.

I discovered that ICA was doing outstanding work in some of the toughest challenges: recruiting protégés who were especially vulnerable, especially in the young and old age groups; recruiting protégés who were unable to reciprocate in a relationship; and, related to this, recruiting protégés who needed only instrumental advocacy. Julie and Joanne were being successful in finding such protégés and in finding individuals who could take on the incredible challenges of being their advocates.

In 2002, I embarked on a little research project, with Julie’s assistance. In her regular follow-along discussions with advocates, she asked how many hours they had spent during the previous month on behalf of their protégés. With this information, I was able to compare citizen advocacy and paid advocacy. A paid advocate, doing what is called individual advocacy, has only a limited number of hours per week to take actions on behalf of various clients. A citizen advocacy programme, by recruiting advocates, gradually creates a network of ongoing advocacy in the community, with the different citizen advocates spending far more hours in total than any individual could do.

There are other differences too. Paid advocates are trained and often quite skilled due to their ongoing work for different clients. Citizen advocates, in contrast, develop a deep understanding of their protégés over a period of months and years, and thus, despite lack of formal training, may be able to respond to their needs in a way impossible by any paid worker.

My conclusion in the small study was that a well-functioning citizen advocacy programme can compare favourably to paid advocacy in cost effectiveness as well as the quality of advocacy.

Heather and Lyn, Citizen Advocacy Sunbury & Districts,


My study was part of our efforts to defend citizen advocacy from hostile attitudes among some of the staff in funding bodies, who looked at just the number of advocacy actions by paid staff. So they looked at paid staff doing individual advocacy and saw figures of maybe three to five actions per working day: the paid advocate was seeing several clients daily, perhaps going to a meeting with them or visiting to ensure they are being looked after. The funders then looked at citizen advocacy programmes and said, well, you made twelve matches last year. That’s not very many actions. The funders did not take into account all the actions by the citizen advocates, who are unpaid.

This sort of bias in measurement seemed ridiculous to me, and I suspected there was something deeper, namely that funding bodies want to maintain control through close monitoring of the operations they fund. When they fund paid advocates, the monitoring is easier than with systems advocacy or citizen advocacy, in which members of the public are empowered. Who knows what they might do?

The Department of Family and Community Services organised a review of advocacy across Australia. The department’s lack of understanding of advocacy was apparent in the very title of the review, which referred to advocacy “services.” Advocacy is not a service like housing or education, but rather a voice on behalf of vulnerable people with unmet needs.

The review provided the pretext for the department’s agenda, which turned out to put the squeeze on systems advocacy and citizen advocacy, applying pressure on programmes to convert to paid advocacy. Some citizen advocacy programmes closed rather than switch. Illawarra Citizen Advocacy changed its name to Illawarra Advocacy and diverted one quarter of its funding to maintaining its citizen advocacy operations.

This was a hard choice. The alternative might have been to cease funding of citizen advocacy altogether. On the other hand, an effort might have been made to find an alternative way of maintaining support for the dozens of relationships that still existed.

Over the following few years, the parlous state of citizen advocacy in the Illawarra continued. The crunch came in 2014, when a decision was made in Illawarra Advocacy to remove the one quarter of its funding directed to citizen advocacy and use it instead for paid advocacy. A letter went out to advocates informing them of this development. The letter displayed a lack of understanding and respect for citizen advocacy in saying that protégés could seek help from the paid staff. This failed to grasp that the relationships between protégés and advocates are freely given and not an arrangement that can be transferred at someone else’s invitation. It would be like writing to family members who had stood by their children or siblings with disabilities and saying that now they could turn instead to paid staff.

Michelle and Zak, Citizen Advocacy of Atlanta and DeKalb, USA,


Illawarra Citizen Advocacy, when it was most active, was one of the world’s leading programmes, creating and supporting many dozens of relationships, including ones with vigorous advocacy on behalf of highly vulnerable people. Yet in the space of a few years, the understandings and commitment that had made this success possible dissipated. A combination of resistance to citizen advocacy by government bureaucrats and lack of understanding by newer staff and board members led to the drastic actions that undermined the programme.

The options for the future are not promising. Wolf Wolfensberger, whose ideas led to the initial setting up of citizen advocacy programmes in the US in the 1970s, recognised the way human services — hospitals, prisons, welfare — started out as idealistic attempts to improve people’s lives but then degenerated into operations to control people and serve the interests of the staff in the services.

Wolfensberger’s model for citizen advocacy was built on the insight that advocacy needed to be freely given: it was not paid or given course credit. This meant the advocates had the independence to speak out and challenge services that were failing to do the right thing. The advocates did not need to worry about losing jobs or connections: they were concerned only about the protégés.

Wolfensberger thought that finding protégés and advocates and making relationships between them needed to be done by paid staff, in order to attract and maintain people with suitable skills. But obtaining the money to support programmes was a challenge. Wolfensberger saw that funding needed to be diversified, so that if an advocate challenged a funding body, and the body withdrew funding in reprisal, the programme could continue. In the US, where citizen advocacy began, obtaining funding from several different sources has always been a challenging task, and citizen advocacy has never expanded to meet the huge level of unmet needs.

In Australia, obtaining funding from several different bodies turned out to be almost impossible: private funding is far less common than in the US. Australian citizen advocacy programmes were able to obtain government funding, and for a time there was a golden age of citizen advocacy (though it seemed difficult enough at the time). When attitudes within government departments hardened against systems and citizen advocacy, the programmes were highly vulnerable, and many of them made the switch to paid advocacy at the government’s behest.

Wolfensberger recognised that advocates needed to be unpaid, but did not foresee that having paid coordinates introduced a serious weakness in the model, one that would limit the expansion of citizen advocacy and eventually undermine most citizen advocacy in Australia. Perhaps it is time to consider a modification of the model, running all the operations of citizen advocacy on an unpaid basis. Not easy, but neither are the alternatives.

Brian Martin

Acknowledgements I thank numerous individuals involved with Illawarra Citizen Advocacy for valuable comments and inspiration,.