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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Rob Ford, Political Addiction and the Open Data Cure

Not gonna lie - I keep an eye out for stories framed this way.

Addicts.  Destructive.  Communities revolving around behaviour of an individual. 

We have a poor understanding of what addiction is and what it does.  Largely, this is because we like to think of ourselves as rational actors, in control of the choices we make.  Addiction is therefore a weakness of character, not a reflection of something more hard-wired than that.

Here are a couple points on addiction from HelpGuide.Org:

The title of the article these points come from is How Addiction Hijacks the Brain.  As in, shifts control to an external party.

It's not the best frame, because it's not actually what happens.  Addiction is more a rewiring of the brain, like a cognitive cancer.  Addiction harnesses your brain against you.  Just as an allergen causes increased histamine (which is why anti-histamines reduce allergy symptoms), substances like booze or crack cocaine increase dopamine production.

Some people are more allergic to some substances than others.  Some people are more prone to addiction than others.  Environment play a role, as does personal history.

The more exposure you have to an addictive substance, for example, the greater an impact it has on your cognition.  This is why people who are addicted to a substance over a prolonged period of time will see behaviour changes.

Also from the HelpGuide.Org article: The reward circuit in the brain includes areas involved with motivation and memory as well as with pleasure.  Addictive substances and behaviors stimulate the same circuit - and then overload it.

Has Rob Ford engaged in socially-damaging behaviour?  Yes he has.  Is he fixated on getting his fixes? That's clearly the case.  But is Ford also in an environment detrimental to his overall mental state?  

This is obviously the case - he's constantly combating someone, wading into issues that are over his head and getting stuck looking foolish on an increasingly global stage.  

Addicts become dependent on the reward trigger, but there's evidence that suggests relying on the reward trigger is also a form of escapism from a negative environment.  If you've ever wanted to have a drink after a tough day at the office, you'll know what that's like - just imagine you were living in a slum, surrounded by violence and saw no way out.  Reward hits become a form of escapism.

Let's go back to those points from earlier:

 - craving, control, dismissing negative consequences.

 - changes your brain, corrupts normal drives

Tell me if you've heard this one before - power corrupts.

Does power feel good?  Of course it does - being in charge boosts your confidence, makes you feel special, puts a smile on your face.  It's easier to make snap decisions when you feel empowered; it's easier to stay the course when you hold the reigns.

That feeling you get from power, from being the boss, from holding sway, being history's actor?

Think dopamine has anything to do with it?

Power isn't a substance, but it's a state that equally impacts dopamine production.  Dopamine, remember, is a reward system - it exists to catalyze action.  When you're in a competitive situation, dopamine (or a craving for dopamine) helps you focus, push harder, beat your opponent, score a win - and get that yummy fix again.

The longer you're in power, the longer dopamine has to structurally impact how you think.  The longer you're in a competitive situation - say, partisan politics - the more dopamine you get over long periods of time.  

Power corrupts - absolute power corrupts absolutely.  When you've had it, but feel it slipping away, but you know you can get there again, you just feel it - you tend to do what it takes to get that hit, don't you?

Our partisan political system is becoming increasingly competitive, increasingly disengaged from the social body it governs.  Partisans, especially those boys in short pants, are starting off more aggressive and narrow-minded, getting worse over time.

And those campaign fighters - well, they are always up for an election, aren't they?

Power increases dopamine production, changes the way people think and changes their resulting behaviour.  The win (hit) becomes more important than anything else - the body is left to starve, relationships are allowed to rot so long as victory is in hand or at least, on the horizon.

How do you know if you're an addict?

Well, you might be abusing the thing you're addicted to for selfish gains.

You might get testy when your access to the thing you're addicted to is challenged.

Oh - and you might find yourself lying about your behaviour.

Here's a theory - partisan politics is an addiction-driving environment that attracts people with predilections for addiction (like Rob Ford) because they already want that hit.  Even those who get into politics for other reasons face a greater risk of getting hooked on access to power than people in other environments.

The scandals, lies, self-serving tactic, completely insane posturing and overall democratic deficit we're facing is because our governance is literally addicted to power and losing its was.  The people grow weary of living with an addict.  

We're in a downward spiral, the lot of us, but there is hope - addiction can be cured.

The Peaceable Revolution is, at its core, an intervention.  While Open Government might not always be a euphoric experience, it does provide diversity, meaning, engagement, the ability to think big - and a path towards a healthy society.

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