The Fog Island Tavern ‘Quarrgument’ Symposium, third and final night.

The Fog Island Tavern ‘Quarrgument’ Symposium, third and (so far) final night.

– Ah, there you are, guys. I was afraid you were going to chicken out on the last part of our symposium.

– Why, Vodçek, is there any other place on the island to go to for a bit of lubricated conversation? We were just delayed watching our friend trying to run his boat into the harbor — he got a new fancy radar system, and apparently was so busy watching it going into the channel that he ran aground on the sandbank at the third pole.

– Huh? That’s a course he’s been doing for fifty years now, he could do it blindfolded in a moonless pea-soup-fog night?

– Just goes to show. Maybe the radar was made in one of those countries we slapped the new tariffs on?

– Don’t be silly. Even I know the radar doesn’t show stuff under water. He just got distractified with the new gizmo, is all.

– You’re right, Renfroe. Hope the boat is okay. Anyway, are we going to try for the last part of Abbé Boulah’s agenda?

– Haven’t got anything more interesting to do, Vodçek — your desolate Tavern still hasn’t got TV…

– I won’t even bother to ignore that remark, Bog-hubert. Okay then: The idea was to see whether and how our buddy’s proposed Planning Discourse Platform meets the expectations we drew up last night. Bog-Hubert — I believe you are the most familiar guy here, with that proposal — where should we start? You want to give us a rundown on its basic features?

– Hmm. I thought we’d go by the list we set up last night, maybe in a slightly different order. Haven’t we all have heard enough about the basic idea to fit things into the overall scheme? If there are questions, I can always fill in more detail. Keep in mind that this ‘platform’ is meant to facilitate planning or policy-making discourse about issues or problems that cut across the borders of established jurisdictions — municipalities, counties, states, nations. Even more so for global crises and challenges. Problems of the ‘wicked’ kind, where it is not clear who is affected by either the problem or by proposed solutions, where ‘voting’ decision-making practices aren’t applicable because there are no clear boundaries that define who’s eligible to vote, so decisions will have to be based on some other measure, like the merit of the information provided in the discourse. Much of which is not known already, stored in textbooks and data bases, but will mainly be established precisely by means of discourse contributions: the folks concerned talking about what should be done. So the first question probably should be how to get at all that information.

– That’s the question we put up in that list last night as “Inviting, even offer incentives to voice ALL concerns”, isn’t it?

– Yes.

So what does the proposal say about that?

– Several steps.The assumption is that there will be some organization providing that platform, an online website for discussing plans and policies. Which remains to be determined, by the way. It first puts up issues, projects or problems that somebody feels should be dealt with by some collective response, on a kind of ‘bulletin board’, where people can indicate whether it should become a project discussion.

– Makes sense: first people have to become aware of what needs to be discussed and acted upon. The kind and number of responses will determine whether it will be taken up, I assume?

– Yes. For projects that receive a sufficient number of replies indicating the need for public discussion, a kind of website will be set up, that invites everybody who has a concern or pertinent information to send in messages expressing that concern. So it’s open for any input, to respond to part of the question. To offer incentives to do so, the proposal is suggesting to reward every entry with some basic ‘contribution credit points’ — provided that the content of the entry is pertinent to the project and hasn’t already been made. No repetition. But all entries will be stored for reference.

– This already brings up the problem of moderation — keeping the discourse ‘civil’: the issues of ensuring “General ‘netiquette’ ” and responding to violations. General ‘netiquette’ also applied to decision-making discourse: How is that being dealt with?

– That question is dealt with in several ways, Sophie. There is a ‘standard’ set of ‘procedural agreements’ covering the entire platform — expressed mostly as desirable ‘do’, more than ‘don’t do’ recommendations. All comments are accepted into that unconstrained ‘verbatim’ file, as written. But to be entered into the concise overview and assessment displays and worksheets, the ‘core content’ will be translated into the basic question, claim and argument format that omits qualification, repetition, characterization and anything that isn’t connected to the subject being discussed in a distinct ‘if-then’ or similar relationship.

– How is that translation into the condensed format done?

– Good question. Ideally, participants should do that themselves, but that’s something traditional education hasn’t taught us yet. So initially, in small projects, this may have to be done by trained support staff.

– Couldn’t the AI folks write algorithms for that? Dexter?

– Down the road, perhaps, Vodçek. Once they see if they can make money on it? Meanwhile, there could be templates for expressing arguments, for example, — the ‘planning argument’ forms we have identified as key to the planning discourse haven’t been acknowledged by the traditional literature of argumentation yet nor gotten into the textbooks. So those templates would serve to familiarize participants with the approach.

– No suggestions on ‘consequences’ for violating the basic rules — of decency, truthfulness, personal attacks, etc.? The ‘Response to violations’ item on our list?

– One kind of response for that would be through the provisions for contribution credits. Remember the incentive points given to all entries — basic acknowledgements for contributions, at first. Set up to build a kind of ‘civic merit’ account for people, that could be valuable for other things, say like qualification for office or jobs. Those points might be adjusted up or down by the community, depending on their plausibility, they way they are backed up by reliable evidence, an so on. If there is a formal evaluation of contribution items, e.g. arguments, the resulting evaluation scores will be used to do that adjustment up or down in a systematic manner. Otherwise, the community could just enter adjustment judgments.

– You think that might be effective as a preventive strategy, to keep trolls and fake truth posters from entering garbage?

– Well, it’s an idea that should be tried out sometime, at least — better than all the likes and emojis that are kind of useless for any other purpose than saving others from explaining their objection…

– Talking about the AI possibilities: an algorithm might automatically subtract penalty points from a participant’s credit point account for objectionable vocabulary or personal attacks in a post…

– Okay: it looks like that issue is part of the proposal, with room for different expansion ideas, including ‘Evolution of self-governance for responses to violation’ for keeping the discourse constructive. What about the issue of balancing the parliamentary principle of free speech and getting all concerns, but linking them more effectively with the decisions? The goal of getting Decisions based on merit of all contributions?

– This is the part that’s addressed in the ‘special techniques’ appendix of the PDSS paper, offering several techniques both older and new, innovative, for the goal of developing some performance measure based on the merit of discourse contributions, that can guide decisions. It contains the whole set of provisions for evaluation that we decided last night to put on the list for more research and development. But the entire proposal is aimed at making such techniques part of the process.They all aim at ‘Ensuring ‘due consideration’ of all concerns’ — nudging participants to address all aspects, all pros and cons in their assessment and judgments. Encouraging Emphasis on evidence, support for claims that receive opposing judgments from different parties. And displaying arguments with all ‘premises’ explicitly identified for assessment — including the ones that are often left unstated as ‘taken for granted’ but also need scrutiny and evaluation.

– How so, Bog-Hubert?

– Not sure what you are asking, Dexter — details of the evaluation? Or the ‘unstated premises’?

– Well, actually both. But thinking about it now, I think I understand the one about the premises taken for granted. It’s about the ones we often sluff off saying things like ‘all else being equal’, if at all?

– Yes, our planning arguments — the pattern, “Yes, we ought to do A [conclusion, proposal] because A will result in B, given conditions C [the factual-instrumental premise] and we ought to pursue B [deontic or ought-premise] and conditions C are present (or will be when we do A) [factual premise]” are almost never completely stated like that — we use any two of those, ‘taking the third ‘for granted’ as needing no further discussion, and people mostly understand the argument. But to assess the plausibility of the whole argument, all three premises need to be evaluated. Was that the other part of your question?

– Yes. And your explanation cleared that up as well, thanks. It’s a bit unusual, though?

– Just at first sight; it’s really the conceptual framework for organizing the discussion based on everyday talk — identifying topics, issues, answers and arguments with their component parts — and for displaying the overall picture of the evolving discourse in maps and model diagrams. The Displays of essential ‘core’ content. And explicitly Separating claims and evaluation. But then, that basis serves to prepare the material for more systematic evaluation: the assessment of argument premise plausibility, the weighing of goals and objectives, together forming a measure of argument weight, and all the argument weights forming a measure of proposal plausibility.

– I get it, all the plausibility scores and weights of the pros and cons tilting the overall proposal plausibility scale towards approval or rejection?

– Wait. Yes, I get that, too, Renfroe. But Bog-Hubert: Just making sure I understand: Are you saying that the decision should be determined by such a plausibility measure?

– No, Vodçek. The proposal warns explicitly against that kind of shortcut. ‘Guiding decisions’ is seen more as using the plausibility assessments by different parties as indications for how a proposal might be improved to lessen the concerns of some participants and improve their evaluation scores. ‘Back to the Drawing Board’ — but now with more specific hints about what aspects need revision, better ideas, more creativity, perhaps even compromises. And even if the final decision is done by vote — according to traditional practices or constitutional rules — to make it less likely that decisions to approve a plan go in the face of very negative assessment results, — or vice versa. Preventing decisions that would ignore significant concerns of the voting minority.

– You keep talking about measures based on plausibility — of proposals, and argument premises. Is that the same as what we might call the quality or goodness of a plan? We didn’t talk about that yesterday, so it isn’t on the list — but isn’t that important?

– Good question, Sophie. Of course, some of the comments and arguments — pros, cons, benefits, costs, may aim at what you are after with the term ‘quality’ or ‘goodness’. But it is also possible to use an evaluation technique that focuses more explicitly on ‘goodness’ — and to combine that with the ‘plausibility’ assessment, if the discussion hasn’t covered that sufficiently well. Again, room and opportunity for creative evolution.

– Yes: I remember, we talked about this too: part of this vision of participatory community planning is the insight that the process must allow participants to not only engage in the creative cooperation towards the solutions, the outcomes, the visions of the activity, but to also shape the process of getting there — as ‘their’ creation, as part of the overall solution?

– Right. The process and platform must remain open to adaptation, refinement, innovation.

– Getting back to our list for a moment, Bog-Hubert: we talked about the procedural agreements that will be needed, and how that could be a problem. How does the proposal deal with that?

– It has several levels of provisions. There are some overall ‘standard’ netiquette-like agreements, that you are assumed to agree to by engaging in a discourse. Like most such rules we are used to, even if few people actually read them before signing. That allows the organization to do the basic moderating, and even to kick you out if you break them in a serious way. Nothing radically new there. Then when a new project is set up, the question will be raised whether the circumstances for that project will call for more specific agreements; those may have to be briefly discussed, and added to the general ‘rules’. Third, when the participants in a project discussion decide to use one of the ‘special techniques’, the vocabulary and assumptions for that technique may have to be explained and agreed upon. Finally, the procedure of the discourse has a Next Step? ‘phase’. That’s where the group decides whether it is ready for a decision, or needs more discussion, or the input from a special technique team etc. And there, participants can suggest to make changes in the initial agreements, if the discussion brings up conditions that make this necessary.

– Okay. Its a bit complex, but flexible — lets people get started by accepting some basic agreements, but change them if really necessary. Puts a few safety nets into that bottomless pit nightmare we conjured up last night.

– So the more people get involved in this kind of approach, the less of a problem it will be, don’t you think? The less need for cumbersome discussions about the rules that distract and hold up the real project discussion?

– Yes, I think so. The alternative would be the last point in that list: Training for proper discourse participation. These procedures and agreements should ideally be part of everybody’s education.

– So what do you do until that is achieved? If ever? Can we wait to use such tools until everybody knows the rules?

– Of course not, Vodçek. There will be a need for training courses, manuals, familiarization exercises to get people ready for effective participation. So the development of those things will have to be priority preparation tasks for the implementation of the concept.

– I remember some papers about that, where the suggestion was to develop online games, for kids and others who want to familiarize themselves with the idea to ‘play’ — online, on their computers, tablets, cellphones. With these tools becoming more and more common all over the world even among poor people, the process of getting folks familiar with the tool would be much faster than waiting for all the world’s school systems to add this to their curricula, training teachers and developing textbooks to be approved by the school boards and government education departments, eh?

– Sounds good, Dexter — the development of such games would actually be the stepping stones, the prototype and test versions of the eventual programming package for the platform. Might be a job for you to program that?

– Hey folks. This interesting speculation is straying far beyond our initial agenda. If we want to continue this, would it be prudent to spend some time on setting up an extended agenda, before we get lost in all the details of actual implementation and variations of the outcome?

– Definitely, Vodçek. But I think it would be useful to take a moment to consider what, if anything, we have learned from this little experiment. We jumped ahead at least once to skip some details of our initial agenda: can we say that we achieved what we set out to do?

– Well, looking at the initial question — dialogue versus argumentation — I think our decision that it was an inadequate question, a ‘wrong problem’, was appropriate. The distinction between ‘argument’, argumentative discourse and ‘quarrguments’ took the wind out of the sail of the opposition to argumentation, didn’t it? While we found that even in discourse that is not aiming at decisions, questions that generate arguments will occur, there is also nothing in the vision of the planning and policy-making discourse that excludes or discourages the ingredients that were used to justify ‘dialogue’ from also be part of a constructive planning discourse. Did that meet the intent of the first night’s agenda?

– There will always be people who will disagree and insist of different interpretations of terms and concepts, theories. But it may be enough — was enough last night — to clear the way out of the endless disagreement about the meaning of words, to proceed with the next agenda item, to set up some specific goals or expectations for a meaningful planning discourse. What can we say about that one?

– Impatient wench, Sophie. Yes, I think we made some good inroads on that one too — but do you agree that there are many more considerations we might have identified, with more time and thought? Even some very important ones?

– Well, can you think about a major issue we have missed, Professor?

– Oh, there are several conundrums that are part of a wider discourse, beyond the initial dialogue – argument issue, that we should keep in mind. There is, for example, the fundamentally different perspective of approaches like Alexander’s Pattern Language. The Discourse perspective can be described as one of generating solution proposals from the examination of information we gather about a problem or ‘situation’, and then examine proposals for their merit, all via discourse, discussion, exchange of information, evaluation. But the Pattern Language suggests, in essence, that solutions should be ‘generated’ from patterns that in themselves embody truth and validity, the ‘quality without a name” — so that the outcome will also have that quality and does not need any more evaluation. How would a discourse deal with proposals and proponents based on such different fundamental principles?

– On the list with it! Now that you mention such issues that go beyond our little agenda: Is the distinction between plans and policies that should be developed in such discourse, and actions in response to emergencies, that can’t wait for the outcome of a lengthy public discourse a significant problem? The traditional arrangement for this is the appointment or election (or acceptance of pretenders) of leaders, empowered to make such decisions on behalf of the community. We know this generates the problem of how to control power, control being needed because power is addictive and fraught with temptations to abuse: How does this question relate to the design of the discourse and its provisions?

– Good points; yes, there may be more such issues that should be discussed and given ‘due consideration’. The existence of such issues itself makes the case for the development of a better platform for in-depth discourse, doesn’t it?

– Which brings us to the third agenda item: How well does the PDSS proposal meet the expectations and requirements we were able to list — and the ones we just added? What do you think, Sophie?

– Oh, I’d say that I was somewhat surprised at how many of those aspects were a least acknowledged and addressed in the provisions of the proposal. How well they will actually work, I can’t possibly tell. It will take experiments and the experience and outcome of actual application to judge that, don’t you agree? I’m not an expert on these things, but I haven’t heard about anything else I’d recognize as ‘better ideas’ yet. We should probably investigate that, but keep working on this concept. I think that work on the development of implementation plans, on the missing programming, on the development of teaching materials or games to familiarize people with this approach is urgently needed. Needed resources, funding? Who will run such platforms? Looks like there’s work to do?

– Your are right, But not tonight, Sophie. Last call.

– Ominous phrase, Vodçek, at the end of such a discussion.

– Ominous abominous. It could drive a fellow to drink? Sophie? Still just apple juice?

– Thanks. We need a clear head for tomorrow. Work to do…

– Last call!

== o ==

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