The future of meaning-making

Sep 20, 2021

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The construction of meaning determines what people think they know, how they make decisions and how they behave. It is at the heart of the challenges of communicating information in ways that reach Canadians. It also plays a key role in overall trust in government, with long-term implications for Canadians’ views of democratic institutions and science.

How we got here remains a puzzle. Is the problem technology? Weak regulatory frameworks? The business models of sprawling social media platforms? Or the influence of malicious actors?

How we got here remains a puzzle. Is the problem technology? Weak regulatory frameworks? The business models of sprawling social media platforms? Or the influence of malicious actors?

Each of these factors comes to mind for good reason. Yet if the analysis stops there, it reinforces a problematic assumption: the problem is supply rather than demand. We assume that people want rational, objective, evidence-based content. However, current signals suggest that misinformation and conspiracy theories serve powerful internal needs that are not entirely rational and are not being met.

In a future where supply and demand make misinformation and conspiracy theories more prevalent and attractive, it may be beneficial for Canadians’ meaning-making activities to consider both supply and demand.

Misinformation is only one aspect of the emerging information environment that relates to meaning-making. Policy Horizons explores the broader question of how the search for meaning among Canadians will evolve in the future. We define meaning-making as the way people gather and interpret information to make sense of their lives and the world. Meaning-making determines what people think they know, how they make decisions and how they behave. Foresight on meaning-making could help government decision-makers. For example, changes in the way Canadians make sense of information could affect how they engage with government institutions. These changes could also affect the effectiveness of government programs and policies. Changes in the construction of meaning could influence how the government creates and organizes its own information and decision-making, and communicates with Canadians and the world.

Policy Horizons explores the future of meaning-making as part of its broader social futures work. Like all of Policy Horizons’ work, this project aims to help the Government of Canada design policies and programs that are resilient in the face of disruptive change and robust under a range of plausible futures. The objective of this study is to contribute to strategy and policy development, build anticipatory capacity, test planning assumptions, and support informed collaborative networks on horizontal issues.

This paper helps government decision-makers understand how changes in meaning-making might affect their specific policy contexts. To this end, the paper begins by explaining what we mean by sense-making, then presents some sources and areas of change in the sense-making system. It concludes with questions aimed at establishing potential connections between these changes and the broader political landscape.

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