The World Is Not As It Ought To Be — And What To Do About It

A Fog Island Tavern discussion
Thorbjørn Mann 2019

About: The aggravating spectacle of humanity’s inadequate response to challenges;
And countless confusing ideas and proposals and calls for a ‘New System’ — without convincing remedies for some key flaws of current systems such as poor communication, coordination, decision modes leading to agreements based on merit of discourse contributions and the adequate control of power; suggestions for a discourse platform with participation incentives, evaluation of contribution merit, new decision modes and provisions that serve as new tools for the control of power: following the principle of making key system provisions serve multiple purposes.

The aggravating spectacle of humanity’s response to its challenges

– Arrgh! I give up!
– Again, Sophie? What is it this time? Soft drinks? Men? GMO’s? Meditation? Politics?
– Oh stuff it, Vodçek. Make all the fun you want of it. But this is getting serious.
– I’m sure I’d agree. But it would help to know specifically what it is about? I have a feeling you’ve been doing too much surfing on the social networks…
– Guilty as charged. But where can we find out what’s really going on and what people are doing about it? And what really should be done about it?
– By ‘it’, I assume you mean the avalanche of crises and emergencies and disasters that the people on those networks are predicting will do us all in? Not even to mention the impending critical shortage of Sonoma Zinfandel if the folks over there don’t get the wildfires under control?
– Just keep it up, you zinical zinpusher. But it’s also the other guys, the ones that are getting all worked up about those predictions and just deny all of them, except the unpatriotic if not outright treasonous growing phenomenon of the doomsayers of course — who just spout foul language and curses all over the networks.
– Not that they have done any serious studies or investigations of their own, just projecting their own desire for taking over the government or keeping power and telling everybody what to do onto the other side…
– Now don’t you get started down that road too, Stephan. Isn’t it that kind of mutual mudslinging that’s making the problems worse rather than getting solutions?
– Well, you may be right, Sophie, but somebody has to point out the reasoning flaws and rhetorical dirty tricks and contradictions, to clear the way for finding better answers?
– Yes, I’m just as fed up about the contradictions and dirty rhetoric as you are, but when it just deteriorates into mutual accusations and name-calling, it isn’t helping, it’s making things worse.
– I agree, Sophie. But I’m curious: what are those contradictions you are worried about?
– Hi Bog-Hubert, glad you got here. Well: take the folks who are going on and on about participation and empowerment of the citizens. Power to the people, the downtrodden, the poor and disadvantaged. All good and justified — but in the next sentence, those same folks — or people in their networks — are complaining of lack of leadership on those issues. Leadership — the very thing they were railing against! Or the people on the other side — dismissing all the proposals and initiatives to cope with impending emergencies as just power grabs for big government that will take freedom away from the people — and relying on the most authoritarian bullies to run ‘their’ government and putting the progressives in their place… As if history isn’t full of examples of ‘free’ people electing themselves the most dictatorial and oppressive governments?
– Okay, Sophie, I think we share your worries. So what do you think ought to be done about all that?
– That’s what I came here to find out — are there any better ideas, some real solutions around? You guys have been talking and talking about things like this — have you got any answers? Where is Abbé Boulah now that we need him?

What would Abbé Boulah do?

– Ah Sophie — you’re beginning to sound like the folks who keep ranting ‘What would Reagan do’? And inadvertently admitting that they don’t have any ideas of their own about what to do… So now you’re asking ‘What would Abbé Boulah do’? I agree: it’s a better question, but…
– What you’re saying is: we should sit down and figure this out on our own, Bog-Hubert?
– I have a feeling that’s exactly what Abbé Boulah would say… Know anything better to do in this fog?
– All right. Let’s try to get started on it, at least. What’s the first step?
– Well, I’d say: have Vodçek get the air out of these glasses, for starters.
– Here you go, Bog-Hubert.
– Thanks, Vodçek. Okay, Let’s see. I’m not sure there’s a good rule about the sequence of steps we should follow. Discussions about plans, or problems can start anywhere: raising the issues about some problem, proposing some solution, etc. Anything can trigger the effort. So we can start anywhere we want.

Acknowledge: there are crises, problems, challenges.

– Sophie: You were talking about problems we face. Can we assume that there’s some agreement about that, as a starting point?
– Well, some people keep saying we should use different words. ‘Problem’: soo negative. And then there are those folks who say they’re just fear-mongering figments of power-hungry Big Government fans?
– Right, Dexter. So, avoiding that useless quarrgument: can we just acknowledge and describe those things as issues people get worried, annoyed, aggravated about? Getting hurt? Whatever those language purists want to call them instead?
– Sounds right. Whatever they want to call them: problems, challenges, emergencies, crises, ‘situations’ — when somebody feels that something ought to be done about them.
– I like that: Even for the folks who don’t think those worries are real — the fact that there are people who say there are problems aggravates them, for them that makes just one such item, even is they don’t agree on what they are and what they should be called. Aggravations?
– Makes my head spin already, but yes: Even whether something should be done about people who say something should be done that they call problems. So it’s a very inclusive concept. Everybody agrees that something should be done about something. Even visions of a better future that isn’t here yet but should be…
– Good. And Sophie was getting confused — is that the right word? — about all the things people already propose ought to be done:

Many ‘alternative’ efforts already proposed or underway

– Right. I don’t blame her. I was surprised to learn about all those groups that are already doing interesting and important things — alternative initiatives, theories about what to do and how to do it, experiments, projects. All over the globe, even in places you wouldn’t expect much alternative creativity.
– So what’s wrong with that, Bog-Hubert? Isn’t that grounds for hope? What’s confusing you, Sophie?
– Well, you’d think it’s an encouraging sign and trend. But if you look at them in more closely, say to decide which of those projects you should join to do your part, it becomes confusing. They all claim that they are working on THE answers, THE ‘New System’, THE collective future for the planet and humanity that everybody should join, calling for ‘unified’ teams, movements, efforts ….
– Or selling their brand of ‘approach’…
– Bog-Hubert, you cynic… Well, I guess many of them are, trying to make a living from their latest New Thing. But they are all so different, based on beliefs and prime principles that are so ‘unique’ and different, and, well, ‘competitive’ rather than unifying and cooperative. Didn’t I mention that a while ago — the curious fact that many are calling for participation, emancipation, empowerment, self-organizing governance systems, but either call for or claim ‘leadership’ for those efforts?
– I agree, Sophie. But what I am worrying about is less their diversity but their lack of mutual constructive communication. Yes, you mentioned competition. So what you see on their websites and other promotional material is all positive, success stories. What’s missing is critical information, not just successes but also shortcomings and failures.
– Stands to reason though, doesn’t it, Bog-Hubert: why would any such group boast about their failures?
– Ah Vodçek. How can we learn anything from just glorifying ads and videos? How can we ever get to common agreements about the ‘New System’ they are calling for, if we can’t learn what works and what doesn’t work? If we can’t reach a stage where acceptance of new ways of doing things is not achieved by force or coercion or brainwashing, against the conviction of those who are convinced of different ideas? The old ways of ‘revolution’, ‘throwing out the old corrupt systems’, ‘regime change’ by smart or stupid bombing and ballistic missiles or mass demonstrations don’t work anymore: To often they just result in putting new faces into old organizational structures with the same fundamental shortcomings, for all their different party flags and logos and acronyms.
– Good point, about learning from all those experiments. But I’m not sure I understand the thing about replacing corrupt or oppressive governments with new systems that have the same problems. Isn’t it better to establish democracy — or reinstating it where it has gone awry?
– Even at the cost of another bloody revolution or war? Well, sure, it depends on how bad the old regime has gotten. But the problem is really with democracy too, isn’t it? Hold on, Sophie, I’m not gone over to the Dark Side of authoritarian governments of any stripe. Let me explain.
– That better be a good explanation.
– Or else? Okay. There are two main issues with democracy now, in my mind. The first one is that for all its meritorious principle of ‘lets leave our weapons outside, let’s talk and listen to each other, and then decide’: — the great parliamentarian idea to replace conflict resolution by force with persuasion and reason. The way decisions are made now, when the talking stops, is still a crutch, a shortcut. One that you might even say betrays that very principle.
– What in Tate’s Hell are you talking about, Bog-hubert?
– Well, voting, of course, Sophie. Voting. Yes: the great democratic principle and human right. It’s only a crutch, a shortcut to decision. What is it really doing? The usual majority vote — 50 plus a tiny fraction percent — in effect is allowing the ‘winning’ party to say: Okay, you had your say and your vote, but the vote means that you can forget all your concerns and reasons: we the majority have the say now. It means that the real concerns and ideas of as much as nearly half the population can now be ignored. And the upshot of that is that when we are sure to win the majority vote, — perhaps because we have more money to buy campaign ads — we don’t even have to listen to your reasons and your speeches. If that is the best democracy can do, some people will feel very justified looking for other systems.
– You’ll have to tell us what other, better systems are on the market to fix that problem   – the alternatives I know of that have been tried don’t make me eager for giving them another chance. But first tell us that second main flaw you mentioned?
– Sure. Now remember: I think the mature, well-designed democratic governance constitutions have the best provisions in human history against the abuse of power — the power of incumbent rulers installed by the voting rule. The election for limited time periods, the balance of powers of the different branches, the tools of impeachment or vote of no confidence, the role of the free press, the independent judicial branch, of freedom of information etc. The problem is that these provisions have increasingly been undermined by the power of money in the industrial and finance sectors of society, and often by these forces in combination with the military. That’s no news, no secret: elections are determined by campaign financing. Even candidates who have promised to restrain that influence — “Take on Wall Street”, “Rein in the big corporations” — are subtly or unsubtly pushed to toe the line when elected.
– I see: so any regime change where the ‘new system’ still leaves those two factors in play, is liable to become as bad as the previous one — is that what you are saying?
– Yes, as two major factors in the game. So whatever the current majority / minority constellation, it has become very difficult for any society governed by those forces to reach agreements even for issues that all parties agree should be fixed. Meaningful decisions that have been proposed by one party must be opposed by the other, even if it’s an idea than benefits everybody. Decisions based on the merit of the information contributed to the discourse? Impossible.
– If there is a meaningful discourse, which also seems to be in short supply these days: It’s all about power.
– Right: dIscussion is meaningless and just wasting time.
– I assume you are referring to the fact that while there is more information twittered and advertised about than ever before, with the new so-called information technology, the discourse seems to consist mainly of the parties talking to themselves, on their preferred channels or social media sites and followers. Talk show hosts blatantly refusing to allow callers critical to their positions to ask questions and engage in discussions on their shows?
– Right. We can go on and on about flaws of the current democracy systems, there are many issues contributing to these problems. But what I was getting to is this: While there is justified criticism of the current systems, what I don’t see in all the material about ‘new system’ and ‘throw out the old system’ groups are convincing ideas for addressing those two problems in our governance systems.

So again: what to do?

– You are making a convincingly depressing case here, Bog-Hubert. So do you have any better ideas for all this up your sleeve? Or do I have to cut you off and throw you out for making my customers miserable?
– More miserable than the daily news, Vodçek — if they even have the stomach for watching it before heading over here for distracting convivial comfort and conversation?
– Speak for yourself, my friend. But back to the issue. So what should be done, in your opinion?
– Well, we have talked about some interesting ideas here before. But maybe it’s useful to pull them together into a coherent, what do they call it in politics — ‘platform’? or ‘agenda’?
– That would be useful. ‘Story’ might be even more desirable, but maybe you could give us the main headings of it first?
– Wait, Vodçek. I know the commissioner was planning to come over, I’d like for him to hear this. Could we use a little break? Maybe you could refresh the life support stuff in our glasses and tend to your Grunt Bucket Stew or Fårikål, — pardon me, your ‘pot-au-feu’ or whatever you’ve got slow-simmering over in the corner?
– Sophie, watch your language, my dear. Okay, break it is. Give Bog-Hubert a chance to gather and diagram his confabulations. Here are some napkins for making notes, Bogmeister.
– Thanks, Vodçek. I’m touched to tears by your kind concern, may have to blow my nose. Where are you going, Sophie?
– Out on the terrace to see if the fog is lifting ’till the commissioner is showing up. Fresh air and all that…

A New Agenda?

– Welcome, Commissioner: we’ve been waiting for you. The usual?
– Good evening. Yes, thanks. Looks like you folks are in the middle of something important here?
– We’ll see; the middle or stuck in the muddle? Okay, Bog-Hubert: What have you got there on your napkin?
– Well, you asked for the main headings. It was a good idea — the important part is to see the connections between the different issues.
– Could you pass it around?
– Sure. You should really get a big screen for sharing napkin ideas here, Vodçek. Or at least a pink or greenboard. Blackboards are soo 19th century, and white soo 20th…, don’t you think? Well: The first items are the topics we have actually covered already here, that triggered this diabolical assignment: Your concerns about the sorry state of the world. The crises, conflicts, problems, disasters, emergencies you are afraid will spell the end of human civilization as we know it and ruin the oyster harvest in the bay if nothing is done about them.
– Yes; in short, like Rittel said: there is really only ONE Wicked Problem: the world is not as it ought to be.
– And you were waiting for lil’ ol me for this? That’s way above my local responsibilities: you should have called in some national or global fat cats for that!
– Well, we have to start somewhere, Commissioner. And the problems and what should be done about them are present at all scales, local to global, aren’t they?
– Okay, I guess. Go on, Bog-Hubert.

Issues and possible answers

– Well, what was expressed here was a a feeling that the current system of governance — at all levels — is not going to tackle those issues properly. So many hotheads out there, — so sorry, concerned citizens — are calling for throwing it out together with the swamp creatures who run it, and establish a new system.
– That’s nothing new: it’s the bread and butter of daily news and history book re-writers everywhere.
– Right, Commissioner. Now these folks here don’t seem to have much faith in all those ‘new system’ ideas.
– That’s not really what we were saying, is it? It’s that there are too many of them, and their are so different that it’s quite unlikely that there will be any commonsense agreement about just which kind of system we should adopt, in time to face the emergencies.
– Different way to put it, okay. And it seems that while there are innumerable well-intentioned ideas, efforts, projects, initiatives out there already, we — concerned humanity in general — do not know enough to agree on a global new system. And that was bringing up the question of what to do given that sorry state of affairs. Is that a good way to describe where we are?
– Sounds about right. But you seemed to think that some of the ideas we discussed here over several fogged-in sessions might be spun together into some kind of coherent agenda that folks like the revered Commissioner here should take a look at? And those bubbles on the napkin are your main steps of that agenda?
– I’m afraid so, yes. But ‘steps’ is not the right word. They should not be seen as a sequence of steps in a kind of systematic process but as issues to be addressed more or less simultaneously.

Acknowledge, embrace, support the different initiatives

– The first suggestion is that we should simply acknowledge all the different ideas and initiatives and accept the differences as a positive aspect. Not in spite but precisely because of their differences.
– Why? Isn’t that the problem? Isn’t it essential to work towards some kind of unified process?
– Good point. But if we do that by dismissing, denying the differences, but don’t have an adequate understanding and agreement of what the unified answer should be, we’d make at least two serious mistakes — again.
– Only two?
– Well — two main ones. There may be more. sure. One is that if we don’t know what the unified system really should be like, — do we? — but are jumping to premature conclusions based on some commonalities, we’d shut off what we could learn from the different experiments. So we should embrace, encourage, even actively support those experiments and ideas.
– Even if they are denouncing each other as the devils work? And support that?
– Even so. And yes, support them, on some conditions. A first condition would be an agreement to not get in each others’ way: to at least suspend the sentence to eternal damnation and destruction until we learn enough about what works and what doesn’t work from each. Part of that would be to abstain from labeling the ideas as the devils work and their proponents as his followers. Or idiots. Even if they are sure that it would be some superior being’s pleasure to see them destroyed, to leave sentence and punishment up to that almighty entity in the hereafter. Meanwhile, secondly: to agree to honestly share not only the superior aspects but all experiences of their efforts, successes as well as failures and obstacles. Don’t we urgently need that information?
– Okay, There’ll be much discussion about the details of those agreements. But that’s for later, I guess. What about the other mistake you mentioned, Bog-Hubert?
– Thanks for reminding me. It’s an important one. For all the hue and cry about unification, aren’t we all interested — to some degree or other — to ‘make a difference’ in our lives, to give it meaning? To become ‘better’ at something, that will define us as distinct individuals, — or groups? So shouldn’t perhaps part of our unified effort be to create many opportunities for everybody to make their differences in their lives? Not just becoming happy but indistinguishable cogs in the unified big machine, the big system?
– What you are saying is that there should be a deliberate balance in the collective aim, between the need for common projects such as remedies or responses to crises, and opportunities for individual differences?
– Yes, Sophie. Balance. Not one or the other. And that balance must be carefully negotiated and maintained. I’m not sure that there are general rules that apply to all situations — much as we might wish for a general ‘constitution’ that clearly governs all projects and conflicts.
– So we’d be seeing a lot of negotiation and haggling to achieve that balance, not even to speak of developing the solutions for projects or crisis response masers. How in the world… ?

Developing a Planning / Policy-Making Discourse Platform

– You are right, Sophie. How will that be done? If these assumptions are anywhere close to plausible, what we’ll need, as a priority, is a better platform that facilitates the various tasks:
o better communication between all the different initiatives and projects;
o developing and negotiating the common ‘road rule’ agreements;
o sharing the ideas and experiences;
o developing common solutions;
o evaluating the information and proposals;
o reaching better decisions, based on the merit of discourse contributions;
o and perhaps contributing to a better control of power…
– How would that platform be different from all the information systems, networks, platforms, data bases and ‘expert systems’ we have already?
– Good question. I guess its easiest to look at the specific tasks we want to improve, to see how much of that the current systems can provide, and what new provisions must be developed to tie them together.

Getting the information: participation: incentives?

– Consider a proposed project to prevent or mitigate some problem, undesirable trend or disaster: one that will affect many people in different countries or jurisdictions. The traditional information systems aim at supplying the data, the scientific and technical information that can be brought to bear on the issue. Simulation programs can help predicting future effects of past or current processes, for which we know the underlying ‘laws’ and forces. But for a project dealing with unprecedented features, that information is not in your textbooks or data bases — information must be obtained by observation in the situation and from the people affected by the consequences of the plan.
– Okay. That has become accepted theory if not always done right in practice. Opinion surveys, participation lip service. Many people don’t take advantage of their rights to participate.
– Why is that?
– Many reasons. An important one is that they don’t see how their contributions will be heard; don’t feel the expected outcome will be worth the needed effort — if the bigwigs and experts end up doing what they want to do anyway. Like ‘Voter apathy’, the sense that it won’t make a difference.
– So the missing ingredient is to provide better incentives (making it worth the effort) and better transparency of how everybody’s contributions affect the outcome?

Measures of merit of discourse contributions to guide decisions

– Right. Part of that task is to build a process into the platform that shows how the merit of contributions — ideas, arguments — will determine the decision.
– What’s the problem with that now? If the free press and free speech are guaranteed and working, won’t the discussion, the surveys and the votes bring out the merit of what’s being said?
– In theory, yes. Let everybody have their say, then decide. In practice: why do you think all election campaigns — as well as campaigns for or against some proposed legislation — are clamoring for contributions — but not meritorious information or arguments, but — you guessed it — money. And what’s the money for? Repeating and spreading the message. Emphasis on repeating. More ads and posters. But it’s always just messages cooked down into slogans, pretty pictures, 30-second visuals.
– Coming to think of it: I’ve seen TV ads for senate candidates — or was it the incumbent one himself? — just showing the candidate walking into his office and sitting down — no message or argument at all. As if they’re saying: you know what he’ll do. But he doesn’t even bother to say it. So he can’t be held to what he said?
– And all the yard signs — just the name, the logo.
– Yes: The message that so many of your neighbors support candidate x or policy y: is that an argument whose validity and merit can be measured? At best, the assumption is that the merit has come across in the ads and speeches — full of empty slogans, motherhood issue affirmations and promises that sound good but whose likelihood of being fulfilled is not even to be mentioned; Read my lips… The much touted ‘swarms’ in nature and humanity include lemmings and frenzied masses deluded by big audacious lies. No: what we need ia a better way to get a measure of the merit of discourse contributions. And we’ve made a start on that before, haven’t we, with the plausibility measures of planning arguments? And the suggestions for combining those with assessments of plan quality to form measures of plausibility-modified quality judgments?
– That’s a still a big task, to develop procedures for deriving those measures, that people will actually go through.
– Yes, but there are tools for improving that. And it can be done in such a way that the role of big money swaying voters just by buying more TV ads can be reduced.
– You need to describe that in some more detail, Bog-Hubert.
– Sure, Vodçek, but let’s go through the remaining provisions we want for the platform first.
– All right: what’s next?

Decision modes and procedures

– Okay, where were we? Let’s assume that we’ll be able to develop tools and methods for determining the merit of discourse contributions and derive overall measures of support for plans or policies or candidates from them. We’ve talked about some of those ideas. Now those measures must be either included in actual new decision-making modes or — in situations where traditional decision modes like majority voting must be used — to compare, confront those decision results with the merit measures.
– What do you mean, confront?
– Sophie, let’s assume that there is a decision-making body constitutionally charged with making a decision on a plan, and doing so by majority voting. All the talking heads on TV will predict the outcome based on the ratio of members from the competing parties in that body: party discipline — which does not relate to the merit of arguments in any way. It’s just about power. Now assume there is a parallel process of developing a measure of plan plausibility or quality based on assessment of plan quality and argument (pro and con) plausibility. If that result shows that the plan is questionable or implausible, should that group get away with a decision to approve the plan, without some explanations, or additional efforts to make the plan more acceptable? Or — the other way around: If the contribution merit measures show that plan as being meaningful, plausible, beneficial: should they be allowed to just turn the proposal down?
– Wait a minute. All this talk about measures of merit: how is that measured? And who does the measuring? If it’s just a kind of Benefit-Cost Ratio in disguise, with the benefits expressed in dollars by a bunch of experts who aren’t even affected by the consequences of a plan, forget it.
– Good question, Dexter. No, the plausibility and quality measures will be derived from the judgments made by participants in the public discourse. The participants should include members of the public who have seen/read/heard the contributions even if they haven’t made any themselves — their comments may have just been repeating arguments that have already been made — but the assessments should be given contribution rewards as well.
– There’s usually much reliance on teams of experts for such projects, or small ‘focus groups’ led or ‘moderated’ by experts — won’t that be enough?
– That’s a serious issue all by itself, Dexter. Yes, in this scenario, there will be experts, but their judgments will be assessed by everybody. The plausibility of a plan does not depend on just the support or probabilities of the factual and technical information — for which they will produce evidence judged by what you might call ‘scientific’ methods — but also on the meaning and importance assigned by everybody to the ‘ought’ – premises of arguments: what is felt to be good or bad about the consequences.
– And that will be judged by people’s concerns, fears, desires and principles about what’s good, bad, fair or moral? Subjective judgments all, of course. Though I guess there could be some AI-type check on consistency, on the extent of evidence or support for the claims involved.
– Yes, Vodçek: if you disagree with somebody’s take on a plan, you — or the ‘system’ — can ask for explanations of judgments, the reasoning behind it, the factual, technical, scientific evidence and other principles. But we have to realize and accept that some people will like and be in favor of what they see as ‘beneficial’ features of the plan, that to others appear as ‘costs’ and disadvantages. We have discussed those issues as well here, haven’t we? The efforts to declare something as ‘common good’ that everybody must accept, are often just attempts of one group to get everybody to accept their interests without question. There are new and better answers up for discussion than what is being done now. They just need to be discussed, tried out and fine-tuned. [ ] But yes, to develop better decision modes based on the merit of discourse contributions, we need some better measures of that merit? Do we have the tools for that?

Measures of contribution merit and the role of Artificial Intelligence Tools

– I remember some discussions we had here, about how discourse contributions might be more carefully evaluated to arrive at a kind of measure of plausibility and expected quality of plan proposals. Has there been more progress on that? I think there are people out there selling ‘AI’ — ‘Artificial Intelligence’ — for that?
– Good question. And a serious controversy, if you ask me.
– Controversy? Why is that?
– Well, Commissioner: I know you are one of the people wanting to enlist the power of new tools in artificial intelligence and information technology to support your governmental decision procedures. And you’re worried about people’s suspicions about that — the fear of machines taking over, not knowing how they work, and what they really are trying to do.
– Yes, I’m aware of that.
– Remember the comment just a while ago, about all this assessment on the merit of discourse contributions being ‘subjective’?
– Yes… We didn’t follow up on that, perhaps we should have done that right there.
– I understand. To your credit, I’d say, you’re worried about being accountable for your decisions, and would like to be able to point out that your judgments are based on objective facts and data. Not just your or others’ ‘subjective’ opinions, isn’t that right? Though your election campaign was stressing that you are a person of sound common sense and moral convictions, whose judgment could be trusted — even on decisions that stray into the area of intuitive subjective judgments?
– What are you trying to say?
– Nothing personal, Commissioner, sorry if you get any such impression. Just that there is another issue of balance involved here, that has a bearing on how we think about policy and plan proposals — and how AI tools can support us in those decisions.
– Explain: what’s the problem?
– Okay. Let’s put it this way: The folks who are trying to sell you their data, their data analysis tools, their AI programs, are banking on your sincere concern about basing your decisions on factually correct, complete, objectively ‘true’ information. And that is what expert systems, as they were called a generation ago, and Ai tools as they are promoted now, are offering: data, with programs based on scientific analysis and logic, to be reliably and objectively true.
– Yes: is there something wrong with that? I’d be irresponsible if I didn’t try to have data, a sound factual basis of truth for our decisions,wouldn’t I?
– Of course, Commissioner. But — as we also discussed: that’s only part of the judgment task. The planning arguments rest on premises — the ‘ought’-premises — that are not evaluated in terms of true or false, or even ‘probability’ (the basis of ‘risk’ assessment they also would want your to do), before deciding. The ‘ought’ claims about what we should try to achieve are not objective ‘true or false’ — no matter how much factual or probability evidence the algorithms are offering you about the likelihood of your proposals to succeed, and the desired or undesired consequences to occur. Whether we ought to pursue those goals, or avoid the possible side-effects, isn’t just a matter of objective measurement facts, but subjective, personal, intuitive judgments. So even if we could trust the big computers to give you all the necessary evidence and factual data for the factual and instrumental premises of planning arguments, — I’m not sure we should uncritically trust them to do even that — those judgments about what we ought to do are what we are worried about: what we will have to trust you with.
– So?
– So any measure of plausibility support of plans, policy proposals, common actions we can develop must be based on the individual judgments of those participating in the discussion and decision process. AI can perhaps help sorting things out, checking consistency and logic of supporting evidence, the specific sources of disagreements, relationships between claims in the discourse, keeping track. But any decision-guiding measures, as well as the decisions themselves, must be made by people, individuals.
– But there are proposed tools out there that claim to have ‘objective’ measures e.g. of depth and breadth of policy statements, aren’t there?
– Yes, Of course they all have to claim to be trustworthy and objective. But as long as they are just based on simple counts of topics mentioned and claims of relationships between them, they are not really evaluating true merit of the support. So an elaborate package of false, implausible, inconsistent claims might get a high ‘support’ score which you’d have to agree is meaningless. The cynical demagogues even rely on making their lies bold enough and repeating them often and loudly enough to get people to believe them…
– I understand that you have better techniques, methods for having participants make and evaluate arguments, and derive overall indicators for proposal support?
– Yes. They need to be tested and discussed, but they are ready for application as soon as the programming — for compilation, keeping track, displaying interim and final results etc. can be developed. Financing is what’s missing for that.

Displays: concise overview

– You mention ‘display’ — what’s the issue with that?
– Good question. See: planning decisions do not rest on single ‘clinching’ arguments like the deductive syllogisms you study in the logic books: If an argument has a valid ‘deductive’ structure, and you believe all its premises, you must accept the conclusion. That doesn’t apply to planning: planning decisions depend on many ‘pro’ ad ‘con’ arguments; their structure is not deductively valid, and the premises — as we have seen — are not properly labeled ‘true’ or ‘false’ but more or less plausible and important. So any ‘due consideration’ of all those pros and cons, — and the relationships between them — really must take that entire network of reasoning into account. That should be assisted by visual displays: diagrams’ or ‘maps’ of the evolving discourse. Showing ‘the whole system’ rather than just one aspect or the last word in a debate. We can make such maps, — it takes a bit more effort than just listing the comments as they are posted. And it would be nice if the AI support could help constructing those maps to accompany the evolving discussion, and if it could show precisely where people have disagreements or misunderstandings that could be alleviated with more explanation, better evidence, or improving the plan.
– Sounds good. If you can get people to understand the tools and agree on using them to make decisions.
– Yes, I was going to ask about that aspect: how would those support indicators be used to get an agreement, a decision? What did you call it in your list decision modes?

Tools and rules for the use of decision guides based on merit

– You are right: just taking a vote doesn’t work anymore: In fact, just voting really could be disregarding all the evidence and pros and cons. Party discipline: any proposal of the other party gets voted down, regardless of its merit, — that’s the reality today. And for decisions that affect many people across existing governance borders, the issues of who’s entitled to vote, and what constitutes a majority etc. are going to be critical. So we must develop decision modes that give those measures an appropriate role in the decision process. And learn to use them properly.
– Something like what you mentioned earlier: Even if a decision-making body has to decide by voting (according to its constitution) — if that body has developed an overall positive plausibility score in favor of the plan, should it be allowed to vote it down?

Power and Accountability for Decisions

– Right. That has to do with accountability.
– Huh?
– Yes, Commissioner. Look — so far, it may look as if we’re saying that all important decisions should be made by a kind of ‘referendum’. Preceded by a more thorough deliberation and haggling process resulting in a measure that will determine the decision in some form. That’s unrealistic, of course. For one thing: In any kind of organization and community, society, there will always be situations calling for decisions that can’t wait for lengthy deliberations. Or just have to be made quickly according to prior agreements or rules and judgments about whether or which rules apply to the given situation. By people ’empowered’ to make those decisions, and have the training and experience to make those judgments.
– Oh. Of course: ‘Leaders’. Tell you the truth, I never really understood why there’s such a cry for better leadership, all the leadership improvement programs and seminars — even by folks who’ve just been to seminars touting ‘self-organizing’ teams and societies, or out demonstrating for more ‘power to the people’.
– Right. The balance problem, again. We need both. The problem is that leaders often become obsessed more with the power to make such decisions than with the quality of the results for the community. The old power problem. The observation that power becomes addictive and a goal in itself, to the point of insanity. The Romans knew that; their crazy emperor Caligula drove that point home. Sure, in the governance systems for most nations there are now provisions to control that power, make the power holders ‘accountable’ for what they are doing, to contain the addictiveness of power.
– Yes: you mentioned elections for limited time periods, the balance of powers between the different branches of governments — is that what you have in mind? Are you saying that’s not enough? We just want those things to be applied properly!
– Calm down, Commissioner. Didn’t we agree that it looks like all too often, they don’t work too well anymore? At least all the folks calling for ‘tossing out the system’, ‘revolution’, ‘New Systems’ seem to think so.
– ‘Regime change’?
– Hush, Sophie — that’s troublesome concept and a different power gang. But either way: what they are offering instead doesn’t really solve the power problem: Just getting different folks into power doesn’t get rid of its addictiveness. And pretty soon we see the same patterns of power abuse again, with even worse consequences if the ‘new system’ does not have better power control provisions. If they relied on the assumption that those valiant freedom fighters and revolutionaries just can’t become as corrupt as they folks they kicked out…

Paying for power decisions?

– So what’s the suggestion for dealing with that power issue, and what does it have to do with the discourse platform?
– Important questions. Hold on: This needs a bit of background. The first thing is to acknowledge that the desire for power is a common human trait. And as such, not illegitimate. At the low end, we call it ‘empowerment‘ for the disempowered; at the higher end we justify it by calling for ‘leaders‘. Isn’t that a little like other ‘human needs’ — like the need for food, water, shelter, security — which even the most ‘disempowered’ folks have to ‘pay’ for in one way or another? So why not having the powerful ‘pay’ for the power decisions they’ll make — instead of the people paying them to lord it over us?
– Good grief. Who’d they pay — with money somebody already gave them to get into their power positions, to help those donors to get even more money?
– Calm down, Sophie. Yes, you put your finger on the sore spot all right: money. The problem that the governance power control systems today have been overrun by the power of money from the industrial and financial systems — where power control is obviously not working as well, and not according to the governance controls.
– Until the money runs out…
– Right: So we agree the ‘currency’ for ‘paying for power decisions’ can’t be money. But what would be an ‘account’ that secures ‘accountability’? Here’s the idea: If the discourse process produces measures the merit of people’s contributions to the discourse, couldn’t we add up those merit measures — as assessed for plausibility and significance by the entire community — into contributors’ ‘merit’ accounts?
– You are talking about a kind of quantified reputation system? That people have to ‘earn’?
– You might call it that. If people contribute good ideas, well-thought out, plausible and well-supported arguments that indicate good judgment, they will ‘earn’ a reputation account that might be part of the assessment of their qualification for positions where they have to use that judgment for important decisions. People whose contributions are assessed as unsupported untruthful, will not accumulate enough merit points.
– I see: Now decision-makers will have to ‘invest’ their merit points with each decision that has to be ‘paid for’.
– Yes. I like the idea of ‘investing’ their merit points — into plans and projects, that would earn them future points — the closer the outcome turns out to be to the promised results. Or lose those points if it doesn’t turn out that well… And that depletes a decision-maker’s power over time. An automatic regulator of power? Well, at least an additional tool to combat the addictive feature and temptation to abuse power. And a challenge to revive and engage in that discussion and develop better tools.
– Couldn’t we — regular citizens — transfer some of our own merit points to leaders, to endorse their ability to make needed big policy decisions we’d like to see?
– Great idea, Sophie! Yes: some decisions are so important that no single person will have accumulated enough merit points to pay for them. So this feature of merit points that have to be earned by demonstrating sound and valuable judgments could be used to ’empower’ leaders to make those decisions on our behalf but also to control them. We — citizens — could specify what kinds of decisions or policies we endorse. And most importantly: if we see that officials are not doing what they promised — we could withdraw our supporting merit points before they have been wasted on decisions contrary to our interests.
– Once the decisions are made though, our points would be gone, used up, too — right?
– Yes: that’s the idea.
– That’s an interesting twist: It makes supporters as ‘accountable’ as the leaders? Sounds like a good thing: would it make them more responsible?
– It’s something to be explored. Too many related issues: will only people who have built up some account of merit points have the right to influence policy this way? Or should there be something like a ‘basic’ amount of points for every citizen, like the election vote, without any such conditions? And could merit points be ‘earned’ back as a result of the outcome of the decisions for which they were ‘invested’? Yes: let’s explore and discuss it!

Too complex solutions? Response options?

– I don’t know, you visionaries. This is all getting a bit too much for me to swallow in one sitting. Does it all have to be so complicated? Do we have time to experiment with this kind of esoteric schemes to face the emergencies and crises?
– I agree with your concern there, Commissioner. But let me ask you this: Do you have any better ideas for making the current systems work better? Because what you are saying is, in essence: Among the few options we have for dealing with unprecedented challenges, you seem to propose the one that has gotten us into the trouble: doing nothing? Business as usual, just according to the rules?
– That’s not a fair description of what I’m suggesting, Bog-Hubert: I’m saying let’s go back and fix and properly apply the tools we have and know how to use. Find the root cause of the problems we have and make the inherited system work as it was meant to — that you yourself have described as the best we’ve had in history, didn’t you, a while ago?
– Right. What the Commissioner is saying isn’t exactly ‘doing nothing’, is it, Bog-Hubert? What are the other options you said we have besides ‘doing nothing’? Isn’t what he’s suggesting one of those other options?
– Good point, Vodçek. The crude options I had in mind besides ‘doing nothing’ were, either to join the ‘New System’ proponents: Those who are clamoring to ditch the current system, but don’t have a good description of their new system that remedies the basic flaws we discussed that marred both the current system and the disastrous alternatives humanity has tried out, to make it appealing enough to justify the costs involved in ‘ditching’ the system. Or, to engage in developing, discussing and applying some new ideas. The ones we discussed here aren’t the only ones we can think of — we are simply saying: We don’t know enough to adopt a Big New System yet: so let’s encourage as many different small experiments as we can, try to learn from them, but put in place an addition to the system(s) we have that consists of provisions, processes for agreements to not get in each others’ ways and address the main ’causes’ of trouble with the current system.
– So is that not a ‘New System’?
– No, Sophie: it’s a strategy for getting there, not the vision of the New System. Yes, in a sense, it’s similar to the Commissioner’s ‘fix-it’ version of ‘doing nothing’, but more open to new and creative solutions. Solutions that really aim at realizing, for example, what the parliamentary principle promised but couldn’t deliver with the current decision modes: decisions truly based on the merit of our contributions to the discourse. And doing something about the problem of power.
– But why does it have to become so complicated? Your merit points ideas quickly became such a convoluted tangle of steps and calculations…
– We may be too used to the current system to realize how complex that current system really is. And therefore, vulnerable to manipulation.

– I agree. The innovations don’t have to be introduced all at once, and certainly not by violent wholesale ‘regime change’ or revolutionary overthrow of existing provisions. But looking at the whole network of interrelated features and uses is important for a different reason, I think. See, the Commissioner’s suggestion of ‘fix the root cause’ of a problem is a well intentioned example of a traditional way of looking at things, that try to sidestep the complexity of problems or problems networks that some wise systems people called ‘messes’ and ‘wicked problems’. The idea of a ‘root cause’ is a desperate, even delusional device to simplify a problem situation by imagining a simple problem source, so that a simple solution — one that can be provided by a short teamwork session led by some systems thinking consultant — will be seen as acceptable.
– A delusion? You’re not going to make many friends in the Systems Thinking World, my friend.

The principle of ‘multitasking’: making single provisions serve multiple purposes

– We are aware of that. But see: If we seem to begin to understand that some problems or emergencies are really quite complex, is it not a reasonable suspicion that simple isolated ‘fixes’ — hardware answers such as border walls for immigration issues, more and ‘smarter’ bombs for international conflicts, more and bigger weaponry for police to fight violent crime, to name but a few, — aren’t going to do the job: the solutions’ also will exhibit the same degree of complexity?
– You are talking about the old Ashby principle of ‘requisite variety’, right? That a control system of a complex problem must have the same degree of variety of response options as the problem? Lots of complex questions to think about.
– I agree. And the example of the merit point idea is really also an example of a kind of strategy we should consider: The principle of looking for initially single devices that can serve many different purposes in the affected system. Which will begin to look a bit more complex, sure. The merit points idea is an example of such s provision. But if such improvement to the discourse system could help alleviate the power problem in our societies, would it be worth a bit of complex effort?
– Even more to think about.
– Right, Commissioner: And if one such idea seems to be a little too complicated: the fact that it might work indicates that the problem can be dealt with better than we are doing now, so perhaps it might trigger and encourage efforts to conceive of and develop better answers?
– That’s a policy issue if I ever saw one. It really should be discussed and thoroughly evaluated.
– I’ll drink to that, Vodçek.
– Last call!

 

–o–

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