Monday, April 25, 2011

Supporting Debate

Democracy, rule by the people, is a challenging goal. It's not practical above the village level to have an entire population gather to discuss a topic. Even at the village level… even at the individual level, gathering and analyzing evidence and tracing out the most likely consequences can push one's resources to the limits. Group dynamics tends to overwhelm any attempt at rational dispassionate consideration. Nowadays on the various internet discussion groups it has become all too obvious how quickly noise can swamp information.

Over the centuries, societies have worked out methods to filter out noise and bring information to the surface, to enable better decision making. Various forms of representative democracy and rules to structure debate yield decisions that surely remain imperfect but still in general vastly superior to mob or dictatorial rule. Representatives can be chosen by popular vote, as is usual for legislatures, or chosen more randomly, as with jury selection. I've read that some ancient Greek cities chose their legislators at random.

What interests me here are the new possibilities opened up by the internet. Certainly the internet already supports group decision making in many ways. Many retail sites give customers the space to offer and read ratings and opinions about products. Political discussion boards are of course filled with debates. The discussion behind Wikipedia articles is also fascinating: somehow that discussion needs to come to a conclusion, at least for the moment. I would like to sketch out here a rough idea for a system to support on-going debate on the internet.

The skeleton of the system is a set of propositions. These propositions should be statements about community affairs that might plausibly be true or false. The propositions themselves should be kept separate from the various arguments for or against them. However, a proposition might assert something about an argument or about a relationship between arguments, or about other propositions. A proposition should not, however, merely assert the truth of another proposition or the validity of some argument: such propositions would be redundant.

The flesh of the system is then the set of arguments. Each argument must support or oppose a proposition. Arguments can refer to various other proposition, some of which might be used as support, while others might be dismissed as invalid or irrelevant.

Users can then vote on propositions, supporting them or opposing them. These votes can be retracted or reversed at any time. Users can also maintain lists of the arguments for and against a proposition that they find most persuasive. A user can maintain such lists even without a current vote on the proposition.

Along with tallying votes, the system can track changes and inconsistencies in the relationship between propositions. For example, a popular argument in support of one proposition might rely on a second proposition as support. If the popularity of that second proposition declines significantly, then users could be alerted to review their support of the first proposition.

Similarly, if a widely accepted proposition asserts a logical relationship amongst the truth values of a set of other propositions, and the voting for those propositions is becoming less consistent with that logical relationship, then users could be alerted to that inconsistency.

The system would also maintain relationships between users. Users might frequently be found on the same side of the same propositions, or on opposite sides. They might find similar arguments convincing, even if they ultimately reach different conclusions on the propositions themselves. These relationships between users can then be used to cluster users along various dimensions, using methods such as principal component analysis.

Once users have been classified, then the voting on various propositions can be analyzed on the basis of that classification. More primitive analysis is also possible; for example, users who vote for this proposition tend also to vote against that proposition, etc.

The group decision making mechanisms supported by the system could also be used to maintain the system. For example, redundant propositions could be combined, complex propositions could be split into simpler components, and frivolous or abusive propositions could be deleted. Each of these operations could be suggested as a proposition which then could be argued. Judgment would generally be required to move from voting results to action: for example, users with a long record of involvement should generally be given more consideration than a flood of new users who have yet to establish trustworthiness. The goal of this system is not to automate judgment, but to support it.

The idea here is to establish a system something like Wikipedia. Wikipedia attempts to present a consensus picture of the way things are. This system, in contrast, has the goal of presenting the best arguments for and against the various alternative descriptions of how things are. The goal here is not to settle debates, but to filter out the noise and to highlight the key issues.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Networks of Correspondence

My friend David sent me this link to a video on the Transition Town movement. How communities can prepare for a radical decline in energy availability is surely a question that deserves great attention. There are many types of communities, though: not all are constrained to a small geographical region.

Advances in communications technology have been at the core of the transformation of community during the industrial revolution, from the telegraph through radio and telephone to the internet. But long distance communication goes back to ancient times: the famous post office motto is a description of ancient Persian letter carriers by the ancient Greek, Herodotus. It is quite conceivable that our modern person-to-person media of telephones and internet could well collapse as the resources required to maintain their infrastructure become increasingly scarce. A worthy challenge and opportunity is to find a way to use our present infrastructure as a scaffold to reconstruct the more robust system where ideas are exchanged via the physical exchange of ink on paper, via the post office, via snail mail.

There are many reasons to exchange letters and many general types of relationships with the people whom one might write to. The primary sort of exchange relationship is with people one knows primarily face to face. Perhaps a family member has moved away, or perhaps one maintains communication with people one has met while traveling. At the other extreme, one might exchange letters with representatives of various widely known institutions such as departments of the national government.

Between these extremes are networks of people with some common interest. e.g. scientific or artistic. Modern science was born with the rise of published printed journals that could broadcast ideas across large international communities. These journals grew out of networks of exchanged letters, which continued to thrive alongside and as a foundation for the printed journals up until the era of email. A beautiful vestige of this practice is the archive of Edsger Dijkstra.

Another recent technology that may well not long survive the resource peak is the photocopier. Nowadays there is a quite smooth spectrum of printing technologies, tailored for print runs of every size. Simple printing technology is good for large numbers of copies where the large set-up time can be effectively amortized, so that may well continue, as it has, for centuries. The real ferment of fresh thinking doesn't happen at that large scale, though. Vital culture can happen on a limited budget, but only with effective structures in place to make the best use of those resources.

Three practices necessary to an effective percolation of ideas through a network of correspondents are: a distributed set of address books, sufficiently cross-linked; a regular practice of letters being forwarded so that a single letter has multiple readers; and a regular practice of copying letters or extensive parts of them.

Keeping track of the locations of people has some challenges. People move from place to place at various time scales and it is not efficient to broadcast each move to every possible correspondent. There are also safety issues with broadcasting addresses too widely. To send a letter will generally involve several steps of forwarding, each step facilitated by a correspondent incrementally more intimate with the addressee. Some system is needed whereby copied and forwarded letters include enough network tracking data so responses can be sent back to the original author.

In the best of worlds, such a network of ideas being exchanged would already be up and running as internet and telephone systems crumple. Bits and pieces of such older systems still exist, e.g. telephone trees as an earlier form of an email distribution list. While our advanced technologies continue to function, these more primitive and resilient systems will have the form of a Creative Anachronism or some similar entertainment. But, like amateur radio or backyard gardening or bicycling, snail mail networks could very well take over as a core cultural practice, and on an almost unforeseeable time table, as resource constraints make it difficult or impossible to recover from the various inevitable failures of the more advanced technologies. Resilient technologies have failures too, but recovery is less expensive.