Wednesday 27 November 2013

Effectiveness Case Study: Idle No More

This is the fifth post in my attempt to hierarchize media uses according to a utilitarian rubric. My first four posts dealt with James Cameron’s Avatar, Marcel Duchamp’s The Fountain, Homer’s The Odyssey, and Ludovico Einaudi’s Primavera. In this post, I examine the Idle No More movement.

Idle No More is a recent movement started by the First Peoples of Canada in protest against offenses by the Canadian government against the indigenous. Some core values promoted by the movement are equality, indigenous rights, and the preservation of the environment.

The movement was launched toward mainstream media attention when Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence went on a liquid diet hunger strike as a reaction against legislative abuses of indigenous treaty rights by the Canadian government. Idle No More relied heavily on social media to coordinate stunts such as flash mobs in various cities around Canada.

The most obvious criticism of using Idle No More as an example of a media use is that it is unfair to compare a movement to an individual work. I disagree. The point of these case studies is not to determine which 2-hour experience will help your life more. It’s to determine how a media producer ought to spend one’s time. James Cameron began working on Avatar 15 years before the film was released and the film was his major focus from 2005 to 2009. The creators of Idle No More likely had to invest far less total hours and money into their product than the producers of Avatar invested into theirs. This is what makes the two comparable.

Comparisons should not be limited to works with matching Strength of Impact. Nor should comparisons be made only after adjusting SoI so that both products are equal – that defeats the purpose of making comparisons. My goal is to answer the question: if a media producer is to choose a project to invest years of effort into, which project will provide the greatest good for the lowest cost?

Strength of Impact:
  1. How many people does the project reach?
  2. How significantly does it impact the people it reaches?
  3. How likely are the people it impacts to spread this impact?
  4. How long lasting is its impact?
  5. How grave was the issue pre-impact?

My answers:
  1. High
  2. Medium
  3. High
  4. Medium
  5. Medium


Idle No More has by far the greatest SoI I’ve looked at so far despite sharing the usual SoI-1 rating. There are three main reasons for its superior SoI:
  1. It impacts people’s beliefs and values
  2. It motivates people to mobilize themselves politically and convert others
  3. It targets a marginalized, rather than a privileged, group of people

Similarly to The Fountain, a social movement like Idle No More attempts to change people’s minds about a subject. But unlike The Fountain, Idle No More is very explicit about what it stands for and what it wants to accomplish. It also demands that those who agree take action and contribute to the cause. These people are then highly motivated to convince those around them to support Idle No More’s values or to get involved in the movement. None of this can be said for any of the works of art and entertainment I’ve formally looked at thus far.

Further, Idle No More is not a movement that provides middle class Westerners with a fun experience. It specifically targets a marginalized group of people that actually has something valuable at stake. While I do not think the answer to SoI-5 is morally relevant, I have found that it is a good heuristic for identifying causes likely to make a big difference in the world. This is a position Toby Ord labels Weak Practically-Negative Utilitarianism.

Quality of Impact:
  1. How much does it increase the accuracy of people's models of reality?
  2. How much does it improve people's quality of life?
  3. How much more likely does it make people to act altruistically toward others?

My answers:
  1. 0
  2. +2
  3. +1


Idle No More is similarly the media use I’ve evaluated with the highest QoI.

This is for some of the same reasons that make the movement high-impact. It targets rights violations that threaten to hurt people’s standards of wellbeing and it motivates people to act so as to prevent those violations and promote some good values.

I didn’t give the movement any credit for QoI-1 as I think the movement’s merits lie primarily in its ability to mobilize people toward solving a social issue, rather than in its ability to educate people or make them much wiser. I also do not accept all of Idle No More’s values. For instance, fetishizing the preservation of the environment is inconsistent with my ethical views. There are many hypothetical instances in which hurting the environment would be preferable for human and animal flourishing.

Idle No More is by far the most effective media use I’ve looked at thus far. In the future, I’m going to continue relying on my heuristic of choosing projects to score high on SoI-5. I expect future case studies to confirm my intuition that that question is a good indicator of media effectiveness. I’m also looking for projects that score low on SoI-1 as I haven’t taken a look at any yet.

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