One Damned Thing

“Life is just one damned thing after another.” Elbert Hubbard

You notice a new story on your newsfeed—another school shooting. Too early for details, and it’s not like it’s the first one you’ve ever seen. Throughout the day the story updates, getting worse each time. Number dead estimated over 20, with many of them young children.

By the next morning the story dominates all media. Everyone is appalled, including you. Facebook is filled with expressions of grief. And a number of people calling for gun control laws. If not now, when? Some of your contacts point to online petitions they’ve signed. A few comments of the “not now” and “guns don’t kill people…” type appear, but really not many, given how difficult it is to argue for the status quo in such circumstances. The 2nd Amendment advocates keep their heads down by and large.

By day 3 the calls for legislation ramp up significantly.

What happens next? In situations like this we can expect lots of news stories about gun control, lots of pundits weighing in with why it’s a bad idea, why it’s failed in the past, why it misses the real problem, and other pundits arguing the opposite. Show hosts break in to steer the argument to the horserace—what’s the chances that any real action will arise, what do the polls say, and why the President is failing to lead/leading the wrong way. Later the following week something else occurs—a natural disaster, a terrorist attack, a deal on the fiscal cliff, a banking scandal, an oil price spike—and the news cycle moves on.

Let’s restart the narrative the morning after the tragedy. You’re shocked and saddened by the event and want to make sure you don’t lose sight of its significance. You click on the “Priorities” browser add-in, which captures the current URL and any selected text and displays a box for you to enter an open-ended question, “What should we do about…?” Completing the question requires you to dig for the real concern. “What should we do about protecting our children from mass murderers?” Certainly a good question, but maybe you’d like to avoid mass murderers shooting up movie theaters as well. And shopping malls. “What should we do about decreasing the number and scale of mass murders?” Not perfect, but a starting point.

You decide to focus on getting your thoughts on the topic together for a bit. You start by listing some criteria you’d use to evaluate proposed actions. Two are implicit in your framing of the question: fewer events, and smaller events. There are others: implementability (you’d prefer solutions that don’t require adopting a new amendment to the constitution), affordability (all things equal cheaper is better), minimizing government intrusion into our personal lives, and speed of impact (the sooner there’s a positive impact the better). Not all of these concerns are equal, so you assign each a weight. Next you start gathering relevant facts. What’s the history of these events? Wherever possible you favor time series data so you can understand trends. You look for comparative data—how does the US compare with other countries? How does this compare with other types of murder? Other causes of death? You look for both absolute numbers and per capita. The Priorities solution collects and organizes data sources you discover and proposes others. It also provides provenance information and characterizes confidence in the data, yours and that of third parties.

With a few minutes of organizing done, you go back to reading news stories and keeping up with Facebook. As you encounter relevant data you flag it. You read a post recommending limiting clips to 10 bullets. You mark it as an Idea. The post provides some justifications, which you capture as arguments for the idea. A Facebook page suggests taxing gun ownership. A pundit claims the problem is separation of church and state, so you add “Put God back in schools” as an idea. Improved coordination of mental health professionals. Arming teachers and school administrators. Background checks and mandatory training. You add arguments for and against these ideas as you go. The system seeded the ideas list with “Do Nothing” to emphasize that inaction is a decision not to act, with consequences.

You share the link. Others can suggest more ideas and arguments, and can create their own weighted criteria. Their scoring of ideas are available in aggregate and individually based on their sharing setting. You prioritize the ideas that bubble up against ideas related to other questions. How important is action related to this concern compared to other solutions to other problems? How much of your energy and resources will you apply here?

As the news cycle changes you add more questions, more criteria, consider more ideas, and reassess your priorities with confidence that you, not a never ending stream of events, control your priorities.