Disrupt Despair

I had to go back to check when the idea for Disrupt Despair came to me. It feels on the one hand as if I have been wrestling with this topic for years. On the other hand, When I threw out the dates for the Disrupt Despair summit, late January 2020 seemed safely far away. It definitely is not. So here is the update:

Since May 7, I have squeezed in research at every opportunity – literature reviews, web searches, academic and first-person books, phone and email conversations with national experts. The process has helped me refine my framing of the concept and, for the most part, underscored the validity of the case I’ve wanted to make. It also, I think, has helped me lay out what the need for a summit might be.

There are, in essence, 4 points to Disrupt Despair:

  1. Despair. At the root of many of the social problems we face as a culture – violent extremism, gang violence, mass shootings, suicide, some drug abuse, some mental illness – is a common experience of loneliness and purposelessness. I call that experience “despair,” the different social problems I call “paths of despair,” and the point at which people are vulnerable to these paths of despair “the crossroads of despair.” Academic experts, professionals working with people who have followed these paths of despair, and first-person accounts of “formers” – people who have been down one of these paths and left it – all corroborate the thesis that loneliness and purposelessness are root causes.
  2. Alternatives. There are evidence-based interventions – programs and policies – that offer alternatives to despair. Programs generally focus on children, teens and young adults, and include interventions to help families, schools and communities become better at promoting the healthy relationships and pro-social purposes that are alternatives to despair.
  3. Data. With all that is knowable about us – what we search for online, what we purchase, what we watch, where we go, etc. – there should be a way to identify the behaviors that correlate with being at the crossroads of despair so that organizations with healthy alternatives to despair can prioritize those who most need them. If you have only 100 slots for, say, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, how can we use technology to be sure you’re inviting those who would most benefit from the program? There are a few examples of this kind of thinking; UK-based Moonshot CVE (which works with US partner Life After Hate to intervene with potential violent extremist recruits) is the best I could find, but their model is to use social media marketing techniques; in conversations with one of their team, they readily admitted that better data that would allow their efforts to move farther “upstream” from the paths of despair to reach people just at the crossroads would be extremely valuable. A number of organizations follow similar strategies to Moonshot CVE in structured efforts to intervene with those contemplating suicide. Dr. Matthew Nock, a researcher at Harvard, has used smartphone location data to predict those at immediate risk of committing suicide with significant success in a limited test.
  4. Governance. As with any attempts to use personal data, there is a significant ethical discussion to be had about how to avoid misuse. Framing a model or algorithm to find those at the crossroads of despair as a crime prevention strategy smacks of the sci-if movie Minority Report and risks exacerbating the problem of stigma that those at risk of despair already face. Using “big data” carries with it the inevitable limits of bias – in the datasets, in the model itself, in the interpretation and management of the model – that must be countered thoughtfully.

What would a Disrupt Despair Summit achieve? The goals would be straightforward:

  1. Raise awareness among policy leaders and the public about the role of despair in our social ills and the depth of evidence-based options to reduce the occurrence of despair, with the intent of increasing support fo such options through volunteerism, donations, policy adoption and ongoing funding.
  2. Gather experts and formers with technologists to develop theories about what knowable behaviors might provide “upstream” indicators of who might be at the crossroads of despair.
  3. Develop a method of governance to ensure that models created properly manage bias, promote truly helpful intervention rather than feeding stigma, and are not exploited for negative purposes.

How realistic is this?

  • I have spoken with and continue to network with experts in each of the four points – Despair, Alternatives, Data and Governance, and I am reasonably confident that a Summit could convene representatives of all of those perspectives.
  • Our biggest opportunity to make progress would likely require representation from the largest internet platforms that control the deepest wells of data – Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple; I have not made direct connections there. Without them, technologists like those at Moonshot CVE, paired with formers and experts, would still be likely to make headway in developing initial models.
  • There is a local expert in governance of big data who has expressed interest in this project. Outreach to national experts in the field of data and ethics would strengthen this element of the summit, but the foundation is there.

Broadening the vision: In my initial vision, this summit would incorporate not only the voices outlined here, but also creative thinkers from faith communities, artists’ groups, “moneyball” sports executives – basically people who, like me, haven’t spent their lives focused on this issue but (maybe less like me) bring a different lens to the discussion that could help jar loose better solutions. I believe this is still worth pursuing, but I am farther behind in making that outreach.

It would help me immensely to know what questions you have about this – where you’d like more background information, what doesn’t sound right to you, what counterpoints you have heard, how I could make this tighter. And, as always, I would welcome partners in turning this into reality 🙂

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