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 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.
– 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!
(Thorbjørn Mann overhearing a conversation in The Fog Island Tavern)
– What in three twisters’ names is wrong with you today, Bog-Hubert? How many times have I told you that reading those papers from the mainland in the morning will just ruin your attitude for an otherwise glorious foggy day on the island? And furiously stirring your weird habitual dose of crushed red peppers your coffee with nothing in it except will n o t improve its taste! At least let the grounds and the peppers settle to the bottom where they belong!
– Ah Vodçek, quit your nagging. But you’re right, I should have left reading the paper to the evening when a dose of guilt for imbibing too much of your Zin would balance out the outrage this so-called news creates in any righteously reading man’s mind. Well, too late now: What is wrong with these people?
– All right then, I’ll let you vent yer spleen this time. Let’s get this out of your system before the others come in so you won’t ruin their moods too. What dismal news gets your temper up today?
– Well, it’s not really news. It’s that they can’t come up with some useful new ideas. I was just reading this column, some right-wing think tank guy, pontificating about the stupidity of the leftists who want to overturn the capitalist system of free enterprise and replace it with socialism, big government and taxes for free welfare for everyone.
– Right, sounds like the old battle cries: capitalism versus socialism, less government, more government, old hat slogans, but they still work, getting people worked up, right? So can you really blame the politicians to use them? If they don’t have any better ideas?
– You’re putting the finger on the sore spot: better ideas. Or the lack of any.
– Well, if you are worried about the size and power of government, and the issue hasn’t been resolved yet – which I agree it doesn’t look like they have, yet – what’s wrong with hammering away on the question to get some better answers about it? Or are you finally deciding which side you are going to root for now? Which side you’re on?
– Vodçek, you know me better than that. There are well-intentioned ism-ists on both sides, equally exasperating. Isn’t the problem that they all, right and left, each blinded by the alleged flaws and misdeeds of the other side, are missing the real problems? Capitalism-socialism, big government – small government: all
w r o n g q u e s t i o n!?
– I see. I have some ideas about that myself. But please enlighten me: what, in your mind, is the right question?
– Or questions – there is never just one. The first problem – before getting to the better questions — is the way those issues are framed in the first place – both deliberately misrepresenting the other. Needless polarization. Nobody on the right really wants a regime with a government so feeble that it can’t effectively deal with any common problems we can’t address as the rugged individualists we are supposed to be; nobody on the left really wants a big government so big that it would tyrannical control every aspect of our lives, along the lines of older feudal, monarchist, soviet-style communist, fascist, maoist, militarist let alone mono-religious and other dictatorial regimes. So the first step would be to quit that misrepresentation and begin to focus on the underlying and shared problems.
– Shared problems? Ad several of those? Explain.
The control of power
– Just a few, for starters, should be enough. One main feature that truly bugs me is that none of those regime models have yet found a good way to deal with the problem of power.
– You don’t think the provisions of western really democratic constitutions are adequate?
– Yes and no. – Yes, I think it can’t be said too often that those provisions – based on the separation and balance of powers in the political governance system – are important and impressive achievements of civilization; the best we have seen in history. When they work properly.
– And you are saying they don’t?
– Yes. Compared to some regimes that emulated these trappings but ended up turning autocratic, the mechanics of which remain to be fully understood, I think you can argue they are still valid. But —
– I agree. The assumption of some revolutionary regimes that it would be enough to wrest the power away from the current powers and just proclaim that thereby power has been returned to ‘the people’, it is rather childish if not deliberately deceptive.
– Yes: they ignore that in whatever regime that needs positions of power – which every society does need, regardless of its policy-decision-making process: any ship at sea suddenly encountering an iceberg must have a captain who decides whether to pass it on starboard or port, the decision can’t wait for a lengthy deliberative process – such power becomes addictive and self-serving. And therefore must be controlled.
– But, you were going to say?
– Yes: Even in so-called democratic systems, the traditional power control provisions in the governance system are losing their effectiveness, because the military and private enterprise sector that has morphed into huge near–monopolistic, transnational corporate monsters, and financial entities, as well as the media conglomerates, where the governance system controls do not apply, have intruded and overwhelmed the governance control systems. To the point where legislatures can now without constraint pass laws that ignore and contradict even explicit popular opinion and referendum results. Do I have to give you more detailed examples?
– I get the idea. How did this happen?
– That is one of the questions that need to be asked and explored. But even the governance system based on the parliamentary principle of deliberation before deciding – remember, the old civilized gentlemen’s agreement of “let’s leave our weapons outside, sit down and talk, each side listen to the other, and then decide”, is fatally incomplete and flawed in one crucial respect.
– Ah, I see. Majority voting.
Voting as a decision criterion
– Yes. Majority voting; where votes are determined less by reasoning, communication and deliberation than by propaganda, partisan news reporting of the media, if not outright censorship, and ignorance. When voters are led by government and media misinformation and lack of adequate news reporting, to vote for going to wars in faraway countries they can’t even find on a map, let alone explain what threat those countries pose to our national interests, what is the value or merit of those votes? But that is what we get decisions based on the count of votes where there’s no distinction between the votes of well-informed people who have been listening to each other, getting the supporting evidence before making their judgment, and votes by totally uninformed folks who may just have been getting one side of the issues, if any.
– You’re getting yourself on thin ice there, my friend.
– I know, I know. As if all this global warming will even get us any ice on which to get ourselves in trouble. Yes, the last thing we should aim for is a system that denies any person the right to make their opinion count, however ill-or well-informed. But that does not mean that we should stop looking for better ways to inform each other, to get people involved in the discourse, to get a better overview of all the opinions on each side, to eventually get decisions better influenced by the merit of all entries into the discussion? To even refrain from looking for better ways?
– Calm down, Bog-Hubert. I applaud your exasperation. Yes, it’s curious that we don’t hear more about such improvement efforts.
– Yes, Vodçek – all we hear about is the constant battle-cry of ‘getting the vote out’ and the controversies about gerrymandering and other obstacles to people’s voting rights. But isn’t there another aspect to this that deserves attention and suggests looking for alternative measures of merit of discussion entries that should influence decisions?
– What’s that, besides the issue of finding out who can be trusted to make the decisions we don’t have time to even discuss?
Issues transcending traditional governance boundaries
– Well, think about it. The challenges we are facing, increasingly, are not neatly confined to the geographical governance boundaries where we can (if we really want to, which is another question) count voters and determine majorities. Where law-makers like those I heard about in North Carolina can make fools of themselves (and apparently even get voter support) for proposed legislation such as denying state funding for research on global warming and rising sea levels that might result in predictions of more that three or four feet of sea level rise. Which well illustrates your point about who to trust with such decisions…
– Yes, they may have very powerful legislators there? Or governors? That can stop global warming single-handedly?
– Don’t you wish? For one, that gets back to our power issue. But more importantly: when problems like global warming, or ocean pollution, transcend the borders of our arbitrary governance entities and their governing institutions – what are you going to do to get decisions based on citizen participation, with the majority voting system? Whose information – concerns, fears, ideas, votes or judgments — are going to be invited to contribute to the discussion, to the formation of decisions?
– I see. How do you determine who will or should have the voting rights, or even legitimate polling credentials, to calculate majorities. So you are saying that for such issues, there should be different decision criteria?
– Right. For example, criteria such as the plausibility measures we could derive from the systematic assessment of the pro and con arguments people raise in planning discussions, in policy-making discussions. As I said, for example: the abbeboulistic ideas we have discussed in this very tavern should be seen as challenges to all the better funded think tanks to come up with better ideas, if they don’t think these proposals are worth trying out?
– Hmm. I see. So what do you think should be done about all this? That you are so disappointed not seeing in your morning paper?
– Good question. Well, even with my fortifications, your coffee isn’t powerful enough to make me conjure up all the answers by my lil’ ol’ self, I’m sorry. But didn’t we discuss some ideas here in this very Tavern, that should be considered as first step items on a better agenda than trying to figure out how to get candidates elected to ensure party majorities – majorities by party discipline, by Abbé Boulah’s drooping mustache!! — in the bought and paid-for institutions that we have determined to be systemically incapable of dealing with the problems?
– Agenda? Let me guess. The development of the better discourse for planning and political decision-making would be right on the top of that one, if I know you.
Assessment of contribution merit
– Right. A platform that includes meaningful incentives for participating, and at least the possibility for a more systematic assessment of the pro and con arguments and their supporting evidence.
– Is that complication really necessary? I’d have thought that a good, concise display of all the pertinent aspects and opinions would be the more important addition to current practice to inform participants?
Development of measures of proposal merit to guide decisions
– I agree – it’s an important item – but the key to develop different measures of merit of the information to guide the overall decisions is the combination of the incentive provisions with the assessment results. And …
Control of power
– I see where you are headed with this: These provisions are part of your Abbeboulistic schemes of having people in power p a y for the privilege of making power decisions?
– Right. At least that is one partial idea for getting at the problems. I don’t know if the fact that these provisions are all interrelated tools serving different purposes, if that is a problem or an advantage. But as I said before, isn’t it at least a challenge to come up with better ideas if you don’t like these suggestions? O buckle down and engage with this agenda, discuss them, work out the details, do some experiments?
– Bog-Hubert, I don’t know if I should congratulate or feel sorry for you guys who keep harping on this. Well, here’s a shot of Fundador to fortify your coffee. And give you the strength to do what needs to be done, as they say in Minnesota. Okay if I don’t light it first?
– By all means, if you join me. Cheers.
A Fog Island Tavern Discussion. Thorbjoern Mann 2019
– Bog-Hubert: Got a minute? I want to ask you something…
– Hi Sophie — sure — if it’s not too complex and involving long-term memory this early in the morning…
– Coffee hasn’t taken yet?
– Well, It’s the third cup, so there’s a chance…. What’s the question?
– Planning discourse contribution credit points. Remember the other day, there was a lively discussion here about the credit points in that planning discourse platform you guys — I mean Abbé Boulah and his buddy up in town have been cooking up — and I’ve been telling my email friend over in Europe about it. He is politely asking to get to know more about it, but I have a feeling he’s, well, not outright against it, but very skeptical about the idea.
– Well, I wouldn’t blame him; it is a bit involved, if you’d try to apply all parts of what it might be used for. Any feelings about what specifically is bothering him?
-It could be that I haven’t been able to explain it well enough; the discussion was mainly about the use of those credits outside of the planning discussions itself. The idea of those credits replacing the rile of money in the political process. I got the impression he sees it as elitist. So he may have lost sight of their basic purpose in the planning discourse itself, that as I understand it establishes their value in the first place. So maybe you can help me go through the basic benefits or uses of those points from the very beginning of the process? What they are for, again?
– Well, I’m glad you’re asking, because since that discussion, I’ve gotten kind of confused about it myself: it can get kind of complicated, and there are some questions that aren’t quite worked out yet, as far as I can see. So it gives me the chance to clarify things in my mind as well, I hope. As that old German professor said that Abbé Boulah keeps invoking: If you are not quite certain about something, it helps to give a lecture about it. Or better, a discussion, so you can interrupt and ask questions any time it’s getting derailed.
– Hmm. Let’s see. So we assume somebody has raised an issue, started a discussion about some problem or plan that needs attention; asking that something needs to be done about it, because it’s an an issue that affects, bothers, hurts many people in different ways. A community problem, perhaps even in a community that isn’t clearly defined — in that people in several different governance entities — state, countries — are affected and not at all clear what can be done about it and who is supposed to do it. And we optimistically assume that there is something like that discourse platform where all that can be discussed, eh?
-If you say so.
Participation: getting all pertinent information
– Well, there’s got to be some talk about it, whether it’s properly public and organized is a different question. Now the first thing that needs to happen is to get the information about that issue. What’s going on, who is getting affected, and how? And who has the knowledge, — call it expertise or just common sense — about what could be done about it — and then how that in turn would affect people. The common cry and demand is for public ‘participation’. The principle is that all the concerns of all the affected and interested parties must be brought into the discussion so that that can be given ‘due consideration’ in making plans and decisions, right?
– Right. Shouldn’t that be a matter of course, by now?
Credit points as incentives to contribute
– Sure. Well, governments don’t seem to like it much. But it’s also a bit of a problem for the public. You can make all kinds of provisions for citizen participation, but the fact is that that requires time and effort on the part of those citizens, time and effort that the ordinary citizen doesn’t always can afford and doesn’t get paid for, right? And some folks may have their suspicions about whether and how their concerns will actually make much if any difference in the decision. So shouldn’t there be some incentives — for everybody who has something meaningful to contribute to the issue, to contribute that information?
– Hmm. I see the problem: you can’t do it with money, it isn’t in anybody’s budget yet. So you are saying that it should be done with those credit points?
– Yes. At the very least, there should be some form of public recognition, appreciation for bringing in pertinent information. So you’d reward any such contribution with a ‘civic credit’ unit. And that credit should actually be ‘worth’ something, not just an empty and useless gesture. We’ll get to that later.
– Oh boy. That looks like more of a problem than a solution to me — now everybody comes in with all kinds of silly information, all the same ‘concerns’ or demands — what a mess.
Avoiding duplication, repetition
– You are quite right. That’s why full credit should be given only to the first entry of the same essential content — not to repetitions of the same point. This provision, incidentally, serves another purpose besides keeping the mass of incoming information manageable: it encourages people to enter the information fast, not to wait and let the discussion go around in circles missing a vital item of information.
– Okay, that makes sense. But is it a problem that some people who have made an effort to enter information but don’t get it in fast enough, will be annoyed at having their effort ignored?
Getting the information ‘fast’
– Good point. This makes it supremely important to have a good public display of information entered, updated as fast as possible, ideally of course, in ’real time’ so that a new item is instantly seen the moment it’s posted. The technology for doing that is available today, but if you want to allow information to get entered by different means — letters, phone calls, email etc. there will necessarily be some delay in getting it posted. So if there’s such a delay, you may want to have people who enter the same point before it gets posted for everybody to see, share that reward.
– Uh. Okay, but…
Decisions based on the merit of contributions
– Ah, I think I see what bothers you. It looks like something like restricting people’s ‘voting rights’ or ‘rights to free speech, does it? Yes. That impression would be bad, not necessarily justified. There must be a clear distinction between entering an information item, and making it ‘count’ in the decision. As long as decisions are made on the basis of vote counts, that impression is understandable, sure. But what we are after, is to reach decisions based on the merit of the information, not just on the number of votes — votes that may be un-informed , ill-informed, or deliberately ignoring the concerns of many other parties — the losing minority of the voting process. And to determine the merit of a piece of information or argument pro or con a plan, it only needs to the stated once. But now we have to deal with the issue of the method by which the merit of a piece of information can be determined.
– Yes. Just another question, before we get into that: what about intentionally ‘bad’ information? Wrong or unintentionally ill-informed claims, as you said — even deliberately false, misleading, confusing information? Trolls? Obscene language? Shouldn’t there be some boundaries on that in public discourse? — You agree, Vodçek?
– Well, Sophie, my responsibility as the keeper of this establishment is a little different than what’s going on in a public discourse. See, I am very much in favor of freedom of speech, in principle. But I also have a great interest in keeping this tavern somewhat civilized. So here, I feel entitled to ask people who start that kind of thing to please shut up or leave, before it degenerates into physical brawls. And I’m using my personal judgment on drawing the boundary, such as it may be, and I’m okay with some people thinking it’s not strict enough, and others steamed up about my stuffy old-timer attitude. Now in a public discussion, I’m not sure my standards should be imposed on everybody. So who’s entitled to set those standards? In fact, shouldn’t everybody have the right to publicly make fools or buffoons out of themselves?
– Huh. Never looked at it that way. Some people seem to get a kick out of doing that. A right to offend?
‘Empty’ acknowledgement points and later judgments
– I think Vodçek has a point there, Sophie. Whether you want to call it a right or not. But the platform process is actually dealing with that in a different way. It doesn’t try to finagle the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable entries — by language or content. So it accepts all entries as they come, stores them and makes them accessible in what it calls the ‘Verbatim’ file. And it acknowledges an entry as a contribution with a ‘point’ that is not much more than that: an acknowledgement: You participated. But then it gives all the other participants the opportunity to respond to it, either by making another verbal entry, or by assigning the original — offending — entry a judgment score. One on a scale of, say, minus 3 (for totally offensive, unacceptable, useless) to plus 3 for totally valuable and proper content. So if there is an actual ‘account’ for those contributions, that contribution point will add to — or diminish — a person’s public credit account, as judged by the public, by all participants in that discourse.
– Well, how will that be done? Are you saying that everybody gives every such contribution a judgments score?
– That would be one way, or a first step towards such a credit point account. Sure, it’s a little more involved that the current practice of ‘liking’ or adding another kind of emoticon to a person’s comment. But some such evaluation, actually a somewhat more specific evaluation, will be necessary further on in the process if the participants are going to be serious about getting a decision based on the merit of all contributions. Then the adjustment of a person’s initial entry will just be result of that systematic deliberation.
– Sounds good, but you’ll have to give me some more detail about that, Bog-Hubert.
Plausibility and importance judgments of argument premises
– Patience, Sophie. First let me ask you, were you here to listen to Abbé Boulah about his buddy’s method for evaluation planning arguments?
– You mean that story about looking at all the premises of those arguments and giving them plausibility scores?
– Right. Plausibility scores, on a scale of -1 (for ‘totally implausible’) to +1 (for ‘totally plausible, virtually certain) and the midpoint of zero (for ‘don’t know, can’t judge without more evidence…). But also weights of relative importance of all the ‘ought’ premises in the entire set of arguments pro and con a plan proposal. That one would be on a scale of zero (for totally unimportant) to +1 (for totally important) such that all the weights of all the ought-premises in that set of arguments will add up to 1.
– Right, I got that part. I remember there was some math involved in getting from that bunch of scores to an overall measure of plausibility of the plan being discussed — I’m not sure I really understand that.
– We can go over that part separately some other time. Can you have some faith, for now, that some such equations can be developed that explain how your overall plan assessment should depend on those scores for the argument premises?
– Well… I’m not sure I’m ready for buying that cat in a bag, but let’s hear the rest of the story about the credit points.
– Okay. Remember, a person’s comments to the planning discourse, that is, to a discussion about whether a proposed plan should be adopted for implementation, can be roughly distinguished as three kinds of claims, premises, of arguments: One that claims that the plan A (or some plan detail) will lead to some outcome, result, consequence. B, given some conditions C. Another claim is about whether B ought to be aimed for or not; and the third is about whether the conditions C under which A will produce B are actually present or will be present when the plan is implemented.
Premise plausibility and importance scores are merit judgments
– Yes I remember now. And the plausibility and importance scores actually are judgments about the merit of those claims — is that what you are saying?
– Bravo! That is precisely it: those assessment scores are another way of saying how much someone’s comment providing those claims is worth, in that planning discussion. So if we now get some overall statistic of the whole group’s assessment scores of those contribution items, we are not only getting a measure of that item’s merit or weight towards the group’s plan decision, which is also a measure of that entry’s merit in the entire discourse. And the original ‘credit point’ acknowledgement can now be adjusted up or down according to those scores. If the scores as plausible, truthful, supported by evidence, and the ought-premise is important, the entry credit will shift from just ‘present’ upwards to a positive value, but if the claims are less credible, untrustworthy, the entry credit will become negative.
– I see, It’s beginning to sound interesting. But won’t everything now depend on the math shenanigans you’ll use to add up or whatever you are doing to the scores?
– True. But as we said, let’s assume for now that this can be made to work. Because then, there are more interesting things that can be done with these credits.
– Well, go on.
Calculation of overall plan plausibility
Calculation of group’s judgment of premise merit
– Fine. Where were we? Okay. With a little help from our computers, we have calculated the overall judgment scores for the proposed plan, from all the personal scores of discourse participants. And along the way, the computer has stored and used all the judgment scores for the set of argument premises that the participants have made. So we can also calculate the group scores for each premise judgment, don’t you see? And that would be one way to express the value, the merit of that piece of information in the opinion of that group. So now the original contribution credit can be adjusted up or down according to that score.
Negative credit scores discouraging poor or unsupported contributions
– Ah, I see. So that will become part of the contributor’s credit point account. And you think that will be some kind of encouragement to make valuable, constructive comments?
– Yes. And discouraging information that is misleading, false, unsupported by evidence or further plausible arguments, that will reduce your credit account.
– So why should people care about that? Is that account made public?
– Good question. I guess that needs to be discussed, or left to each participant to decide, whether to make it public or not. But the real question is how that account can be really useful to a person, other than giving them the personal satisfaction of having made useful contributions. Can you think of ways that could happen?
– Credit points influence on overall decision?
– Well, now that you mention it: would it make any difference in how the decision is made for the plan?
– Hmm. I guess it could. It depends on how each decision has to be made, legitimately, in each case. You could argue, for example, that the total public score for a plan should determine the decision. In the sense that if that final score is positive (somewhere between zero and plus one, or above a threshold that must be agreed upon, the plan is approved. If it falls below that, it’s rejected? Then, of course an individual’s contribution merit will be part of that final score.
– But that’s not very visible, right? I remember those equations or ‘aggregation functions’, I think you called them, to somehow add up all the individual judgments to some overall score and then to a group score?
– Yes, that part needs discussion, sure. For now, let’s say that this overall score is just a recommendation to guide an official’s decision or elected committee’s final, traditional yes/no vote (that may be mandated by law or constitution), then somebody might suggest that the vote of each member of the voting entity could be ‘weighted’ according to that person’s credit score: If you have a high contribution credit score, your vote could be ‘worth’ more than the vote of somebody whose credit account is low or negative because of a lot of bad contributions to public discourse. Okay, okay, don’t hit me. That calls for a lot more discussion, and perhaps agreements in each case. But it offers some interesting possibilities that do need discussion, don’t you agree?
– Interesting, yes. I’m not sure I see how it would really improve things, perhaps I need to look at some actual examples. By the way, isn’t this why my friend was worrying about this scheme being, wait, what did he call it: some kind of meritocracy? Is that bad?
– Well, it’s a valid concern if in a society power and income is going mainly to people who have been declared as ‘meriting’, at the expense of all the other folks who never evened a chance to build up a merit for anything. Where ‘merit’ is mainly measures in financial terms. The kind of measure we are talking about here is a very different thing, isn’t it? Actually moving away from the power of money, wouldn’t you say? But I’ d say there is an issue of balancing the concern for getting decisions based on the merit — value, truth, plausibility, appeal, quality — of information brought into the discussion about plans, and making sure that the concerns of people who don’t have the time or opportunity to earn those credits aren’t being neglected.
– Yes, Bog-hubert: balancing is the problems sounds like the key. I agree that this open planning discourse platform seems to aim at making that easier. The concerns may be articulated and entered into the record to be considered by representatives of people who can’t do that for themselves for one reason or another — children, people too worn out by their work to get as well-informed as the democratic ideals want us to assume. But maybe there should be more robust safeguards to ensure that the meritocracy aspect doesn’t get out if line?
– I agree. As I said, there are many aspects that need more detail work and discussion, or better ideas…
Credit account use ‘outside of project discourse
– Now, those issues were all potential uses ‘within’ the discourse about a specific plan. Perhaps looking at how your contribution credits might be used ‘outside’ the particular project, in general, might be more useful?
– What do you mean?
– Well, think about it. Your financial credit score makes a difference in your ability to get a mortgage or a business loan. Could your public discourse contribution credit score make a difference in landing a job, say, or a public office? As part of your qualification for such offices? Sort of indicating how much you can be trusted to use sound judgment in decisions that can’t wait for a lengthy public discussion? A more quantitative indicator of your reputation?
– I see, yes. People are looking at a candidate’s voting record in previous positions, already — but that can be misleading, not very clear information. So yes, such a contribution credit record may be useful.
– Hey, I’m not so sure about that. One way of looking at it is how single incidents can destroy years of apparently trustworthy behavior and judgments: Like your famous Zinfandel: One glass of Zin poured into a sinkful of dishwater doesn’t do much to the essence of dishwater — but what do you get if you pour one glass of dishwater into a bottle of Zin, eh? One big case of defrauding Medicare by millions of dollars should make you ineligible for any job in the government’s health departments, shouldn’t it?
– You’d think.
– Well. Those details must be ironed out, but I’d say that’s one way your credit account can be come ‘fungible’ — worth something, in everyday social life. Can you think of other ways?
– I think I need more coffee to cope with all these unusual issues. Vodçek, can you help with that? Too early for Zin, anyway, after that story of yours.
– Sure, Sophie, here you go. I remember hearing Abbé Boulah mention some real unusual ways to apply that credit account — something about making officials pay for their privilege to make decisions?
Contribution credits versus money and power in public governance:
PAYING for power decisions?
– Right, I heard that too. I thought he and his buddy were really going out in utopia-land with those ideas. But it’s sticking in my mind: If you really are looking for ways to get some better control of the role of money and the temptations for less than beneficial public use of its power in public governance: do you see many promising innovative ideas out there? Better ideas than the traditional venerable ‘balance of power’, term limits, re-election, and in the extreme: impeachment tools? That all are more and more losing their effectiveness to the power of money from the private sector that is undermining those provisions? Because they don’t cover the relations between private sector money and public controls well enough?
– Well, how could ‘paying for decisions’ make a dent in that? You are making me curious.
– Okay. See, It’s really based on a different understanding of power. It’s not only the ability to make important decisions about your own life — where we call it ‘empowerment’, as a good thing, right? — but also about projects that involve others, that are too big for just one person to decide for themselves. So what if we look at the desire for power as a human kind of need, just like the need for food and shelter? Getting those are considered close to human rights — but we make folks pay for them. So why should we treat power differently from those needs? But we also need to find better ways of preventing power from becoming addictive and abusive. Now, can we say that the general social concern regarding needs is to first make sure that people will be able to earn the means to satisfy those needs, that is, to p a y for them, and then actually make them pay. So why not apply that pattern to the power issue?
– But, uh. But…
– But but. Yes, I hear you: Pay? But with money, no: that would just dig our hole deeper? Well, perhaps we can use a different currency? Now that we have one: what about paying for public power decisions with your discourse contribution credit points? The more important a decision, the more points you need as an office holder, to make it. And you use up your credits with each decision. There might be a way to treat it like a kind of investment by providing a way to earn credits back with the public appreciation of successful, beneficial decisions, which means that if it was a poor decision, you lost your credit investment and some of your power to make more decisions. If it’s all gone: time to step down from the power office, hmm?
– What about decisions that require more credit points than a single person can ever come up with?
– Good question! But doesn’t the very question contain the core of the answer? See, if you are a faithful supporter of an office holder, meaning that you’re confident that this person will make good judgments in power decisions, you can transfer some of your own hard-earned judgment credits to that person, to enable them to make those big decisions on your behalf. Not money: judgment credits. Instead of all the election financing ending up in the advertising media coffers…
– Hey, great idea! Perhaps I could even specify the kind of programs and decisions my points should be used for?
– Power to your kind of people! Yes! There might be a way to build that into the system — with the possibility of your taking your credits back if the person makes decisions you don’t approve of, huh?
– Bog-Hubert, Sophie, do I have to point out to you that this devious scheme will make you, the supplier of credit point power, just as a c c o u n t a b l e for the decisions you support? Because you too, would lose your points for poor decisions? With the possibility that you too might lose your credit investment in an incompetent power holder?
– Trying to scare us now, Vodçek? Yes, it makes sense: I guess it will make people more careful with their credit point contributions, besides being able to ‘punish’ politicians who win elections with promises like ‘no more taxes’ but then go ahead and raise taxes anyway once they are in office. If you can withdraw your credit points, that is.
Power and accountability
– Yes: If your glorious leader has squandered all his own and your points on lousy decisions, there may be nothing to get back. Unless we can make those fellows go back to regular status to earn more points to pay back their credit point debts… I guess the point is: all the talk about power and accountability is rather meaningless without an account whose wealth you could lose is you use your power unwisely or irresponsibly.
– This is getting way too futuristic to have a chance to be realized any time soon, Bog-Hubert, don’t you think?
– Well, that’s what they said about those crazy fools who said let’s build flying machines… Abbé Boulah says that the technology for doing these things is already available, so now it’s just about working out the details, getting the system programmed and set up, and getting public support for putting it into practice. But perhaps there are better ways to do those things — public planning discourse, better control of power, — could better ideas be triggered into the open by the very outrageous nature of these proposals?
The discourse platform as a first needed step
– Sounds like what we need as a first step is that planning discourse platform itself, to run the public discussion needed to reach agreement about what to do. And to work out the details?
– Couldn’t have said it better myself, Sophie.
There is much discussion about flaws of ‘democratic’ governance systems, supposedly leading to increasingly threatening crises. Calls for ‘fixing’ these challenges tend to focus on single problems, urging single ‘solutions’. Even recommendations for application of ‘systems thinking’ tools seem to be fixated on the phase of ‘problem understanding’ of the process; while promotions of AI (artificial / augmented intelligence) sound like solutions are likely to be found by improved collection and analysis of data, of information in existing ‘knowledge bases’. Little effort seems devoted to actually ‘connecting the dots’ – linking the different aspects and problems, making key improvements that serve multiple purposes. The following attempt is an example of such an effort to develop comprehensive ‘connecting the dots’ remedies – one that itself arguably would help realize the ambitious dream of democracy, proposed for discussion. A selection (not a comprehensive account) of some often invoked problems, briefly:
“Voter apathy” The problem of diminishing participation in current citizen participation in political discourse and decisions / elections, leading to unequal representation of all citizens’ interests;
“Getting all needed information”
The problem of eliciting and assembling all pertinent ‘documented’ information (‘data’) but also critical ‘distributed’ information especially for ‘wicked problems’, – but:
“Avoiding information overload”
The phenomenon of ‘too much information’, much of which may be repetitive, overly rhetorical, judgmental, misleading (untruthful) or irrelevant;
“Obstacles to citizens’ ability to voice concerns”
The constraints to citizens’ awareness of problems, plans, overview of discourse, ability to voice concerns;
“Understanding the problem”
Social problems are increasingly complex, interconnected, ill-structured, explained in different, often contradicting ways, without ‘true’ (‘correct) or ‘false’ answers, and thus hard to understand, leading to solution proposals which may result in unexpected consequences that can even make the situation worse;
“Developing better solutions”
The problem of effectively utilizing all available tools to the development of better (innovative) solutions;
The problem of conducting meaningful (less ‘partisan’ and vitriolic, more cooperative, constructive) discussion of proposed plans and their pros and cons;
“Better evaluation of proposed plans”
The task of meaningful evaluation of proposed plans;
“Developing decisions based on the merit of discourse contributions”
Current decision methods do not guarantee ‘due consideration’ of all citizens’ concerns but tend to ignore and override as much as the contributions and concerns of half of the population (voting minority);
“The lack of meaningful measures of merit of discourse contributions”
Lack of convincing measures of the merit of discourse contributions: ideas, information, strength of evidence, weight of arguments and judgments;
“Appointing qualified people to positions of power”
Finding qualified people for positions of power to make decisions that cannot be determined by lengthy public discourse — especially those charged with ensuring
“Adherence to decisions / laws / agreements”
The problem of ‘sanctions’ ensuring adherence to decisions reached or issued by governance agencies: ‘enforcement’ – (requiring government ‘force’ greater than potential violators leading to ‘force’ escalation;
“Control of power”
To prevent people in positions of power from falling victim to temptations of abusing their power, better controls of power must be developed.
Some connections and responses:
Details of possible remedies / responses to problems, using information technology, aiming at having specific provisions (‘contribution credits’) work together with new methodological tools (argument and quality evaluation) to serve multiple purposes:
Participation and contribution incentives: for example, offering ‘credit points’ for contributions to the planning discourse, saved in participants’ ‘contribution credit account’ as mere ‘contribution’ or participation markers, (to be evaluated for merit later.)
“Getting all needed information”
A public projects ‘bulletin board’ announcing proposed projects / plans, inviting interested and affected parties to contribute comments, information, not only from knowledge bases of ‘documented’ information (supported by technology) but also ‘distributed, not yet documented information from parties affected by the problem and proposed plans.
“Avoiding information overload”
Points given only for ‘first’ entries of the same content and relevance to the topic
(This also contributes to speedy contributions and assembling information)
“Obstacles to citizens’ ability to voice concerns”
The public planning discourse platform accepts entries in all media, with entries displayed on public easily accessible and regularly (ideally real-time) updated media, non-partisan
“Understanding the problem”
The platform encourages representation of the project’s problem, intent and ‘explanation’ from different perspectives. Systems models contribute visual representation of relationships between the various aspects, causes and consequences, agents, intents and variables, supported by translation not only between different languages but also from discipline ‘jargon’ to natural conversational language.
“Developing better solutions”
Techniques of creative problem analysis and solution development, (carried out by ‘special techniques’ teams reporting results to the pain platform) as well as information about precedents and scientific and technology knowledge support the development of solutions for discussion
While all entries are stored for reference in the ‘Verbatim’ repository, the discussion process will be structured according to topics and issues, with contributions condensed to ‘essential content’, separating information claims from judgmental characterization (evaluation to be added separately, below) and rhetoric, for overview display (‘IBIS’ format, issue maps) and facilitating systematic assessment.
“Better evaluation of proposed plans”
Systematic evaluation procedures facilitate assessment of plan plausibility (argument evaluation) and quality (formal evaluation to mutually explain participants’ basis of judgment) or combined plausibility-weighted quality assessment.
“Meaningful measures of merit”
The evaluation procedures produce ‘judgment based’ measures of plan proposal merit that guide individual and collective decision judgments. The assessment results also are used to add merit judgments (veracity, significance, plausibility, quality of proposal) to individuals’ first ‘contribution credit’ points, added to their ‘public credit accounts’.
“Decision based on merit”
For large public (at the extreme, global) planning projects, new decision modes and criteria are developed to replace traditional tools (e.g. majority voting)
“Qualified people to positions of power”
Not all public governance decisions need to or can wait for the result of lengthy discourse, thus, people will have to be appointed (elected) to positions of power to make such decisions. The ‘public contribution credits’ of candidates are used as additional qualification indicators for such positions.
“Control of power”
Better controls of power can be developed using the results of procedures proposed above: Having decision makers ‘pay’ for the privilege of making power decisions using their contribution credits as the currency for ‘investments’ in their decision: Good decision will ‘earn’ future credits based on public assessment of outcomes; poor decisions will reduce the credit accounts of officials, forcing their resignation if depleted. ‘Supporters’ of officials can transfer credits from their own accounts to the official’s account to support the official’s ability to make important decisions requiring credits exceeding their own account. They can also withdraw such contributions if the official’s performance has disappointed the supporter.
This provision may help reduce the detrimental influence of money in governance, and corresponding corruption.
“Adherence to decisions / laws / agreements”
One of the duties of public governance is ‘enforcement’ of laws and decisions. The very word indicates the narrow view of tools for this: force, coercion. Since government force must necessarily exceed that of any would-be violator to be effective, this contributes both to the temptation of corruption, — to abuse their power because there is no greater power to prevent it, and to the escalation of enforcement means (weaponry) by enforces and violators alike. For the problem of global conflicts, treaties, and agreements, this becomes a danger of use of weapons of mass destruction if not defused. The possibility of using provisions of ‘credit accounts’ to develop ‘sanctions’ that do not have to be ‘enforced’ but triggered automatically by the very attempt of violation, might help this important task.
A tavern discussion looking at the idea of an artificial planning discourse participant from the perspectives of the argumentative model and the systems thinking perspectives, expanding both (or mutually patching up their shortcomings), and inadvertently stumbling upon potential improvements upon the concept of democracy.
Customers and patron of a fogged-in island tavern with nothing better to do,
awaiting news on progress on the development of a better planning discourse
begin an idly speculative exploration of the idea of an artificial planner:
would such a creature be a better planning discourse participant?
– Hey Bog-Hubert: Early up and testing Vodçeks latest incarnation of café cataluñia forte forte? The Fog Island Tavern mental alarm clock for the difficult-to-wakeup?
– Good morning, professor. Well, have you tried it? Or do you want to walk around in a fogged-in-morning daze for just a while longer?
– Whou-ahmm, sorry. Depends.
– Depends? On what?
– Whether this morning needs my full un-dazed attention yet.
– Makes sense. Okay. Let me ask you a question. I hear you’ve been up in town. Did you run into Abbé Boulah, by any chance? He’s been up there for a while, sorely neglecting his Fog Island Tavern duties here, ostensibly to help his buddy at the university with the work on his proposals for a better planning discourse system. Hey, Sophie: care to join us?
– Okay, good morning to you too. What’s this about a planning system?
– I’m not sure if it’s a ‘system’. I was asking the professor if he has heard whether Abbé Boulah and his buddy have made any progress on that. It’s more like a discourse platform than a ‘system’ – if by ‘system’ you mean something like an artificial planning machine – a robot planner.
– Oh, I’m relieved to hear that.
– Why, Sophie?
– Why? Having a machine make our plans for our future? That would be soo out of touch. Really. Just when we are just beginning to understand that WE have to take charge, to redesign the current ‘MeE’ system, from a new Awareness of the Whole, of our common place on the planet, in the universe, our very survival as a species? That WE have to get out from under that authoritarian, ME-centered linear machine systems thinking, to emerge into a sustainable, regenerative NEW SYSTEM?
– Wow. Sounds like we are in more trouble than I thought. So who’s doing that, how will we get to that New System?
– Hold on, my friends. Lets not get into that New System issue again – haven’t we settled that some time ago here – that we simply don’t know yet what it should be like, and should try to learn more about what works and what doesn’t, before starting another ambitious grand experiment with another flawed theory?
– Okay, Vodçek, good point. But coming to think about it – to get there, — I mean to a better system with a better theory — wouldn’t that require some smart planning? You can’t just rely on everybody coming to that great awareness Sophie is taking about, for everything just to fall into place? So wouldn’t it be interesting to just speculate a bit about what your, I mean Abbé Boulah’s buddy’s planning machine, would have to do to make decent plans?
– You mean the machine he doesn’t, or, according to Sophie, emphatically shouldn’t even think about developing?
– That’s the one.
– Glad we have that cleared up… Well, since we haven’t heard anything new about the latest scandals up in town yet, it might be an interesting way to pass the time.
– I hear no real objections, just an indecisive Hmm. And no, I don’t have any news from Abbé Boulah either – didn’t see him. He tends to stay out of public view. So it’s agreed. Where do we start?
– Well: how about at the beginning? What triggers a planning project? How does it start?
Initializing triggers for planning?
– Good idea, Sophie. Somebody having a problem – meaning something in the way things are, that are perceived as unsatisfactory, hurtful, ugly, whatever: not the way they ought to be?
– Or: somebody just has a bright idea for doing something new and interesting?
– Or there’s a routine habit or institutional obligation to make preparations for the future – to lay in provisions for a trip, or heating material for the winter?
– Right: there are many different things that could trigger a call for ‘doing something about it’ – a plan. So what would the machine do about that?
– You are assuming that somebody – a human being – is telling the machine to do something? Or are you saying that it could come up with a planning project on its own?
– It would have to be programmed to recognize a discrepancy between what IS and what OUGHT to be, about a problem or need, wouldn’t it? And some human would have had to tell him that. Because it’s never the machine (or the human planner working on behalf of people) hurting if there’s a problem; its only people who have problems.
– So it’s a Him already?
– Easy, Sophie. Okay: A She? You decide. Give her, him, it a name. So we can get on with it.
– Okay. I’d call it the APT – Abominable Planning Thing. And it’s an IT, a neuter.
– APT it is. Nicely ambiguous… For a moment I thought you meant Argumentative Planning Tool. Or Template.
– Let’s assume, for now, that somebody told it about a problem or a bright idea. So what would that APT do?
Ground rules, Principles?
Due consideration of all available information;
Whole system understanding guiding decisions
towards better (or at least not worse) outcomes
for all affected parties
– Wait: Shouldn’t we first find out some ground rules about how it’s going to work? For example, it wouldn’t do to just come up with some random idea and say ‘this is it’?
– Good point. You have any such ground rules in mind, professor?
– Sure. I think one principle is that it should try to gather and ‘duly consider’ ALL pertinent information that is available about the problem situation. Ideally. Don’t you agree, Sophie? Get the WHOLE picture? Wasn’t that part of the agenda you mentioned?
– Sounds good, professor. But is it enough to just ‘have’ all the information? Didn’t someone give a good description of the difference between ‘data’ (just givens, messages, numbers etc) and ‘information’ – the process of data changing someone’s stat of knowledge, insight, understanding?
– No, you are right. There must be adequate UNDERSTANDING – of what it means and how it all is related.
– I see a hot discussion coming up about what that really means: ‘understanding’… But go on.
– Well, next: wouldn’t we expect that there needs to be a process of developing or drawing a SOLUTION or a proposed PLAN – or several – from that understanding? Not just from the stupid data?
– Det er da svœrt så fordringfull du er idag, Sophie: Now you are getting astoundingly demanding here. Solutions based on understanding?
– Oh, quit your Norwegian bickering. I’ll do even more demanding: Mustn’t there be a way to CONNECT all that understanding, all the concerns, data, facts, arguments, with any proposed DECISION, especially the final one that leads to action, implementation. If we ever get to that?
– Are you considering that all the affected folks will expect that the decision should end up making things BETTER for them? Or at least not WORSE than before? Would that be one of your ground rules?
– Don’t get greedy here, Vodçek. The good old conservative way is to ask some poor slobs to make some heroic Sacrifices for the Common Good. “mourir pour des idées, d’accord, mais de mort lente…” as George Brassens complains. But you are right: ideally, that would be a good way to put the purpose of the effort.
– All right, we have some first principles or expectations. We’ll probably add some more of those along the way, but I’d say it’s enough for a start. So what would our APT gizmo do to get things moving?
– I’d say it would start to inquire and assemble information about the problem’s IS state, first. Where is the problem, who’s hurting and how, etc. What caused it? Are there any ideas for how to fix it? What would be the OUGHT part — of the problem as well as a bright idea as the starting point?
– Sounds good, Bog-Hubert. Get the data. I guess there will be cases where the process actually starts with somebody having a bright idea for a solution. But that’s a piece of data too, put it in the pile. Where would it get all that information?
– Many sources, I guess. First: from whoever is hurting or affected in any way.
– By the problem, Vodçek? Or the solutions?
– Uh, I guess both. But what if there aren’t any solutions proposed yet?
– It means that the APT will have to check and re-check that whenever someone proposes a solution — throughout the whole process, doesn’t it? It’s not enough to run a single first survey of citizen preferences, like they usually do to piously meet the mandate for ‘citizen participation’. Information gathering, research, re-research, analysis will accompany the whole process.
– Okay. It’s a machine, it won’t get tired of repeated tasks.
– Ever heard of devices overheating, eh? But to go on, there will be experts on the particular kind of problem. There’ll be documented research, case studies from similar events, the textbooks, newspapers, letters to the editor, petitions, the internet. The APT would have to go through everything. And I guess there might have to be some actual ‘observation’, data gathering, measurements.
– So now it has a bunch of stuff in its memory. Doesn’t it have to sort it somehow, so it can begin to do some real work on it?
– You don’t think gathering that information is work, Sophie?
– Sure, but just a bunch of megabytes of stuff… what would it do with it? Don’t tell me it can magically pull the solution from that pile of data!
– Right. Some seem to think they can… But you’ll have to admit that having all the information is part of the answer to our first expectation: to consider ALL available information. The WHOLE thing, remember? The venerable Systems Thinking idea?
– Okay. If you say so. So what to you mean by ‘consider’ – or ‘due consideration’? Just staring at the pile of data until understanding blossoms in your minds and the solution jumps out at you like the bikini-clad girl out of the convention cake? Or Aphrodite rising out of the data ocean?
– You are right. You need to make some distinctions, sort out things. What you have now, at best, are a bunch of concepts, vague, undefined ideas. The kind of ‘tags’ you use to google stuff.
– Yeah. Your argumentation buddy would say you’d have to ask for explanations of those tags – making sure it’s clear what they mean, right?
– Yes. Now he’d also make the distinction that some of the data are actual claims about the situation. Of different types: ‘fact’-claims about the current situation; ‘ought’ claims about what people feel the solution should be. Claims of ‘instrumental’ knowledge about what caused things to become what they are, and thus what will happen when we do this or that: connecting some action on a concept x with another concept ‘y’ – an effect. Useful when we are looking for x’s to achieve desired ‘y’s that we want – the ‘ought’ ideas – or avoid the proverbial ‘unexpected / undesirable’ side-and after-effect surprises of our grand plans: ‘How’ to do things.
– You’re getting there. But some of the information will also consist of several claims arranged into arguments. Like: “Yes, we should do ‘x’ (as part of the plan) because it will lead to ‘y’, and ‘y’ ought to be…” And counterarguments: “No, we shouldn’t do ‘x’ because x will cause ‘z’ which ought not to be.”
– Right. You’ve been listening to Abbé Boulah’s buddy’s argumentative stories, I can tell. Or even reading Rittel? Yes, there will be differences of opinion – not only about what ought to be, but about what we should do to get what we want, about what causes what, even about what Is the case. Is there an old sinkhole on the proposed construction site? And if so, where? That kind of issue. And different opinions about those, too. So the data pile will contain a lot of contradictory claims of all kinds. Which means, for one thing, that we, –even Spock’s relative APT — can’t draw any deductively valid conclusions from contradictory items in the data. ‘Ex contradictio sequitur quodlibet’, remember – from a contradiction you can conclude anything whatever. So APT can’t be a reliable ‘artificial intelligence’ or ‘expert system’ that gives you answers you can trust to be correct. We discussed that too once, didn’t we – there was an old conference paper from the 1990s about it. Remember?
– But don’t we argue about contradictory opinions all the time – and draw conclusions about them too?
– Sure. Living recklessly, eh? All the time, and especially in planning and policy-making. But it means that we can’t expect to draw ‘valid’ conclusions that are ‘true or false’, from our planning arguments. Just more or less plausible. Or ‘probable’ – for claims that are appropriately labeled that way.
Systems Thinking perspective
Versus Argumentative Model of Planning?
– Wait. What about the ‘Systems Thinking’ perspective — systems modeling and simulation? Isn’t that a better way to meet the expectation of ‘due consideration’ of the ‘whole system’? So should the APT develop a systems model from the information it collected?
– Glad you brought that up, Vodçek. Yes, it’s claimed to be the best available foundation for dealing with our challenges. So what would that mean for our APT? Is it going to have a split robopersonality between Systems and the Argumentative Model?
– Let’s look at both and see? There are several levels we can distinguish there. The main tenets of the systems approach have to do with the relationships between the different parts of a system – a system is a set of parts or entities, components, that are related in different ways – some say that ‘everything is connected / related to everything else’ – but a systems modeler will focus on the most significant relationships, and try to identify the ‘loops’ in that network of relationships. Those are the ones that will cause the system to behave in ways that can’t be predicted from the relationships between any of the individual pairs of entities in the network. Complexity; nonlinearity. Emergence.
– Wow. You’re throwing a lot of fancy words around there!
– Sorry, Renfroe; good morning, I didn’t see you come in. Doing okay?
– Yeah, thanks. Didn’t get hit by a nonlinearity, so far. This a dangerous place now, for that kind of thing?
– Not if you don’t put too much brandy in that café cataluñia Vodçek is brewing here.
– Hey, lets’ get back to your systems model. Can you explain it in less nonlinear terms?
– Sure, Sophie. Basically, you take all the significant concepts you’ve found, put them into a diagram, a map, and draw the relationships between them. For example, cause-effect relationships; meaning increasing ‘x’ will cause an increase in ‘y’. Many people think that fixing a system can best be done by identifying the causes that brought the state of affairs about that we now see as a problem. This will add a number or new variables to the diagram, to the ‘understanding’ of the problem.
– They also look for the presence of ‘loops’ in the diagram, don’t they? – Where cause-effect chains come back to previous variables.
– Right, Vodçek. This is an improvement over a simple listing of all the pro and con arguments, for example – they also talk about relationships x – y, but only one at a time, so you don’t easily see the whole network, and the loops, in the network. So if you are after ‘understanding the system’, seeing the network of relationships will be helpful. To get a sense of its complexity and nonlinearity.
– I think I understand: you understand a system when you recognize that it’s so loopy and complex and nonlinear that its behavior can’t be predicted so it can’t be understood?
– Renfroe… Professor, can you straighten him out?
– Sounds to me like he’s got it right on, Sophie. Going on: Of course, to be really helpful, the systems modeler will tell you that you should find a way to measure each concept, that is, find a variable – a property of the system that can be measures with precise units.
– What’s the purpose of that, other than making it look more scientific?
– Well, Renfroe, remember the starting point, the problem situation. Oh, wait, you weren’t here yet. Okay; say there’s a problem. We described it as a discrepancy between what somebody feels Is the case and what Ought to be. Somebody complains about it being too hot in here. Now just saying: ‘it’s too hot; it ought to be cooler’, is a starting point, but in order to become useful, you need to be able to say just what you mean by ‘cooler’. See, you are stating the Is/Ought problem in terms of the same variable ‘temperature’. So too even see the difference between Is and Ought, you have to point to the levels of each. 85 degrees F? Too hot. Better: cool it to 72. Different degrees or numbers on the temperature scale.
– Get it. So now we have numbers, math in the system. Great. Just what we need. This early in the morning, too.
– I was afraid of that too. It’s bound to get worse…nonlinear. So in the argumentative approach – the arguments don’t show that? Is that good or bad?
– Good question. Of course you can get to that level, if you bug them enough. Just keep asking more specific questions.
– Aren’t there issues where degrees of variables are not important, or where variables have only two values: Present or not present? Remember that the argumentative model came out of architectural and environmental design, where the main concerns were whether or not to provide some feature: ‘should the entrance to the building be from the east, yes or no?’ or ‘Should the building structure be of steel or concrete?’ Those ‘conceptual’ planning decisions could often be handled without getting into degrees of variables. The decision to go with steel could be reached just with the argument that steel would be faster and cheaper than concrete, even before knowing just by how much. The arguments and the decision were then mainly yes or no decisions.
– Good points, Vodçek. Fine-tuning, or what they call ‘parametric’ planning comes later, and could of course cause much bickering, but doesn’t usually change the nature of the main design that much. Just its quality and cost…
Simulation of systems behavior
– Right. And they also didn’t have to worry too much about the development of systems over time. A building, once finished, will usually stay that way for a good while. But for policies that would guide societal developments or economies, the variables people were concerned about will change considerably over time, so more prediction is called for, trying to beat complexity.
– I knew it, I knew it: time’s the culprit, the snake in the woodpile. I never could keep track of time…
– Renfroe… You just forget winding up your old alarm clock. Now, where were we? Okay: In order to use the model to make predictions about what will happen, you have to allocate each relationship step to some small time unit: x to y during the first time unit; y to z in the second, and so on. This will allow you to track the behavior of the variables of the system over time, give some initial setting, and make predictions about the likely effects of your plans. The APT computer can quickly calculate predictions for a variety of planning options.
– I’ve seen some such simulation predictions, yes. Amazing. But I’ve always wondered how they can make such precise forecasts – those fine crisp lines over several decades: how do they do that, when for example our meteorologists can only make forecasts of hurricane tracks of a few days only, tracks that get wider like a fat trumpet in just a few days? Are those guys pulling a fast one?
– Good point. The answer is that each simulation only shows the calculated result of one specific set of initial conditions and settings of relationships equations. If you make many forecasts with different numbers, and put them all on the same graph, you’d get the same kind of trumpet track. Or even a wild spaghetti plate of tracks.
– I am beginning to see why those ‘free market’ economists had such an advantage over people who wanted to gain some control of the economy. They just said: the market is unpredictable. It’s pointless to make big government plans and laws and regulations. Just get rid of all the regulations, let the free market play it out. It will control and adapt and balance itself by supply and demand and competition and creativity.
– Yeah, and if something goes wrong, blame it on the remaining regulations of big bad government. Diabolically smart and devious.
– But they do appreciate government research grants, don’t they? Wait. They get them from the companies that just want to get rid of some more regulations. Or from think tanks financed by those companies.
– Hey, this is irresponsibly interesting but way off our topic, wouldn’t you say?
– Right, Vodçek. Are you worried about some government regulation – say, about the fireworks involved in your café catastrofia? But okay. Back to the issue.
– So, to at least try to be less irresponsible, our APT thing would have systems models and be able to run simulations. A simulation, if I understand what you were saying, would show how the different variables in the system would change over time, for some assumed initial setting of those variables. That initial setting would be different from the ‘current’ situation, though, wouldn’t it? So where does the proposed solution in the systems model come from? Where are the arguments? Does the model diagram show what we want to achieve? Or just the ‘current state’?
Representation of plan proposals
and arguments in the systems model?
– Good questions, all. They touch on some critical problems with the systems perspective. Let’s take one at a time. You are right: the usual systems model does not show a picture of a proposed solution. To do that, I think we’ll have to expand a little upon our description of a plan: Would you agree that a plan involves some actions by some actors, using some resources acting upon specific variables in the system? Usually not just one variable but several. So a plan would be described by those variables, and the additional concepts of actions, actor, resources etc. Besides the usual sources of plans, — somebody’s ‘brilliant idea’, some result of a team brainstorming session, or just an adaptation of a precedent, a ‘tried and true’ known solution with a little new twist, — the systems modeler may have played around with his model and identified some ‘leverage points’ in the system – variables where modest and easy-to-do changes can bring about significant improvement elsewhere in the system: those are suggested starting points for solution ideas.
– So you are saying that the systems tinkerer should get with it and add all the additional solution description to the diagram?
– Yes. And that would raise some new questions. What are those resources needed for the solution? Where would they come from, are they available? What will they cost? And more: wouldn’t just getting all that together cause some new effects, consequences, that weren’t in the original data collection, and that some other people than those who originally voiced their concerns about the problem would now be worried about? So your data collection component will have to go back to do some more collecting. Each new solution idea will need its own new set of information.
– There goes your orderly systematic procedure all right. That may go on for quite some time, eh?
– Right. Back and forth, if you want to be thorough. ‘Parallel processing’. And it will generate more arguments that will have to be considered, with questions about how plausible the relationship links are, how plausible the concerns about the effects – the desirable / undesirable outcomes. More work. So it will often be shouted down with the usual cries of ‘analysis paralysis’.
Intelligent analysis of data:
Generating ‘new’ arguments?
– Coming to think of it: if our APT has stored all the different claims it has found – in the literature, the textbooks, previous cases, and in the ongoing discussions, would it be able to construct ‘new’ arguments from those? Arguments the actual participants haven’t thought about?
– Interesting idea, Bog-Hubert. – It’s not even too difficult. I actually heard our friend Dexter explain that recently. It would take the common argument patterns – like the ones we looked at – and put claim after claim into them, to see how they fit: all the if-then connections to a proposal claim would generate more arguments for and against the proposal. Start looking at an ‘x’ claim of the proposal. Then search for (‘google’) ‘x→ ?’: any ‘y’s in the data that have been cited as ‘caused by x’. If a ‘y’ you found was expressed somewhere else as ‘desirable or undesirable’ – as a deontic claim, — it makes an instant ‘new’ potential argument. Of course, whether it would work as a ‘pro’ or a ‘con’ argument in some participant’s mind would depend on how that participant feels about the various premises.
– What are you saying, professor? This doesn’t make sense. A ‘pro’ argument is a ‘pro’ argument, and ‘con’ argument is a ‘con’ argument. Now you’re saying it depends on the listener?
– Precisely. I know some people don’t like this. But consider an example. People are discussing a plan P; somebody A makes what he thinks is a ‘pro’ argument: “Let’s do P because P will produce Q; and Q is desirable, isn’t it?” Okay, for A it is a pro argument, no question. Positive plausibility, he assumes, for P→Q as well as for Q; so it would get positive plausibility pl for P. Now for curmudgeon B, who would also like to achieve Q but is adamant that P→Q won’t work, (getting a negative pl) that set of premises would produce a negative pl for P, wouldn’t it? Similarly, for his neighbor C, who would hate for Q to become true, but thinks that P→Q will do just that, that same set of premises also is a ‘con’ argument.
– So what you’re saying is that all the programs out there, that show ‘dialogue maps’ identifying all arguments as pro or con, as they were intended by their authors, are patently ignoring the real nature and effects of arguments?
– I know some people have been shocked – shocked — by these heretical opinions – they have been written up. But I haven’t seen any serious rebuttals; those companies, if they have heard of them have chosen to ignore them. Haven’t changed their evil ways though…
– So our devious APT could be programmed to produce new arguments. More arguments. Just what we need. The arguments can be added to the argument list, but I was going to ask you before: how would the deontic claims, the ‘oughts’, be shown in the model?
– You’d have to add another bubble to each variable bubble, right? Now, we have the variable itself, the value of each variable in the current IS condition, the value of the variable if it’s part of a plan intervention, and the desired value – hey: at what time?
– You had to put the finger on the sore spot, Vodçek. Bad boy. Not only does this make the diagram a lot less clean, simple, and legible. Harder to understand. And showing what somebody means by saying what the solution ought to achieve, when all the variables are changing over time, now becomes a real challenge. Can you realistically expect that a desired variable should stay ‘stable’ at one desired value all the time, after the solution is implemented? Or would people settle for something like: remaining within a range of acceptable values? Or, if a disturbance has occurred, return to a desired value after some reasonably short specified time?
– I see the problem here. Couldn’t the diagram at least show the central desired value, and then let people judge whether a given solution comes close enough to be acceptable?
– Remember that we might be talking about a large number of variables that represent measures of how well all the different concerns have been met by a proposed solution. But if you don’t mind complex diagrams, you could add anything to the systems model. Or you can use several diagrams. Understanding can require some work, not just sudden ‘aha!’ enlightenment.
Certainty about arguments and predictions
Truth, probability, plausibility and relative importance of claims
– And we haven’t even talked about the question of how sure we can be that a solution will actually achieve a desired result.
– I remember our argumentative friends at least claimed to have a way to calculate the plausibility of a plan proposal based on the plausibility of each argument and the weight of relative importance of each deontic, each ought concern. Would that help?
– Wait, Bog-hubert: how does that work, again? Can you give us the short explanation? I know you guys talked about that before, but…
– Okay, Sophie: The idea is this: a person would express how plausible she thinks each of the premises of an argument are. On some plausibility scale of, say +1 which means ‘totally plausible’, to -1 which means ‘totally implausible; with a midpoint zero meaning ‘don’t know, can’t tell’. These plausibility values together will then give you an ‘argument plausibility’ – on the same scale, either by multiplying them or taking the lowest score as the overall result. The weakest link in the chain, remember. Then: multiplying that plausibility with the weight of relative importance of the ought- premise in the argument, which is a value between zero and +1 such that all the weights of all the ‘oughts’ in all the arguments about the proposal will add up to +1. That will give you the ‘argument weight’ of each argument; and all the argument weights together will give you the proposal plausibility – again, on the same scale of +1 to -1, so you’d know what the score means. A value higher than zero means it’s somewhat plausible; a value lower than zero and close to -1 means it’ so implausible that it should not be implemented. But we aren’t saying that this plausibility could be used as the final decision measure.
– Yeah, I remember now. So that would have to be added to the systems model as well?
– Yes, of course – but I have never seen one that does that yet.
‘Goodness’ of solutions
not just plausibility?
– But is that all? I mean: ‘plausibility’ is fine. If there are several proposals to compare: is plausibility the appropriate measure? It doesn’t really tell me how good the plan outcome will be? Even comparing a proposed solution to the current situation: wouldn’t the current situation come up with a higher plausibility — simply because it’s already there?
– You’ve got a point there. Hmm. Let me think. You have just pointed out that both these illustrious approaches – the argumentative model, at last as we have discussed it so far, as well as the systems perspective, for all its glory, have both grievously sidestepped the question of what makes a solution, a systems intervention ‘good’ or bad’. The argument assessment work, because it was just focused on the plausibility of arguments; as the first necessary step that had not been looked at yet. And the systems modeling focusing on the intricacies of the model relations and simulation, leaving the decision and its preparatory evaluation, if any, to the ‘client.’ Fair enough; they are both meritorious efforts, but it leaves both approaches rather incomplete. Not really justifying the claims of being THE ultimate tools to crack the wicked problems of the world. It makes you wonder: why didn’t anybody call the various authors on this?
– But haven’t there long been methods, procedures for people to evaluate to the presumed ‘goodness’ of plans? Why wouldn’t they have been added to either approach?
– They have, just as separate, detached and not really integrated extra techniques. Added, cumbersome complications, because they represent additional effort and preparation, even for small groups. And never even envisaged for large public discussions.
– So would you say there are ways to add the ‘goodness’ evaluation into the mix? We’ve already brought systems and arguments closer together? You say there are already tools for doing that?
– Yes, there are. For example, as part of a ‘formal’ evaluation procedure, you can ask people to explain the basis of their ‘goodness’ judgment about a proposed solution by specifying a ‘criterion function’ that shows how that judgment depends on the values of a system variable. The graph of it looks like this: On one axis it would have positive (‘like’, ‘good’, desirable’) judgment values on the positive side, and ‘dislike’, ‘bad’, ‘undesirable ‘ values on the negative one, with a midpoint of ‘neither good nor bad’ or ‘can’t decide’. And the specific system variable on the other axis, for example that temperature scale from our example a while ago. So by drawing a line in the graph that touches the ‘best possible’ judgment score at the person’s most comfortable temperature, and curves down towards ‘so-so, and down to ‘very bad’ and ultimately ‘intolerable’, couldn’t get worse’, a person could ‘explain’ the ‘objective’, measurable basis of her subjective goodness.
– But that’s just one judgment out of many others she’d have to make about all the other system variables that have been declared ‘deontic’ targets? How would you get to an overall judgment about the whole plan proposal?
– There are ways to ‘aggregate’ all those partial judgments into an overall deliberated judgment. All worked out in the old papers describing the procedure. I can show you that if you want. But that’s not the real problem here – you don’t see it?
The problem of ‘aggregation’
of many different personal, subjective judgments
into group or collective decision guides
– Well, tell me this, professor: would our APTamajig have the APTitude to make all those judgments?
– Sorry, Bog-Hubert: No. Those judgments would be judgments of real persons. The APT machine would have to get those judgments from all the people involved.
– That’s just too complicated. Forget it.
– Well, commissioner, — you’ve been too quiet here all this time – remember: the expectation was to make the decision based on ‘due consideration’ of all concerns. Of everybody affected?
– Yes, of course. Everybody has the right to have his or her concerns considered.
– So wouldn’t ‘knowing and understanding the whole system’ include knowing how everybody affected feels about those concerns? Wasn’t that, in a sense, part of your oath of office, to serve all members of the public to the best of your knowledge and abilities? So now we have a way to express that, you don’t want to know about that because it’s ‘too complicated?
– Cut the poor commissioner some slack: the systems displays would get extremely crowded trying to show all that. And adding all that detail will not really convey much insight.
– It would, professor, if the way that it’s being sidestepped wasn’t actually a little more tricky, almost deceptive. Commissioner, you guys have some systems experts on your staff, don’t you? So where do they get those pristine performance track printouts of their simulation models?
– Ah. Huh. Well, that question never came up.
– But you are very concerned about public opinion, aren’t you? The polls, your user preference surveys?
– Oh, yeah: that’s a different department – the PR staff. Yes, they get the Big Data about public opinions. Doing a terrific job at it too, and we do pay close attention to that.
– But – judging just from the few incidents in which I have been contacted by folks with such surveys – those are just asking general questions, like ‘How important is it to attract new businesses to the city?’ Nobody has ever asked me to do anything like those criterion functions the professor was talking about. So if you’re not getting that: what’s the basis for your staff recommendations about which new plan you should vote for?
– Best current practice: we have those general criteria, like growth rate, local or regional product, the usual economic indicators.
– Well, isn’t that the big problem with those systems models? They have to assume some performance measure to make a recommendation. And that is usually one very general aggregate measure – like the quarterly profit for companies. Or your Gross National Product, for countries. The one all the critics now are attacking, for good reasons, I’d say, — but then they just suggest another big aggregate measure that nobody really can be against – like Gross National Happiness or similar well-intentioned measures. Sustainability. Systemicity. Whatever that means.
– Well, what’s wrong with those? Are you fixin’ to join the climate change denier crowd?
– No, Renfroe. The problem with those measures is that they assume that all issues have been settled, all arguments resolved. But the reality is that people still do have differences of opinions, there will still be costs as well as benefits for all plans, and those are all too often not fairly distributed. The big single measure, whatever it is, only hides the disagreements and the concerns of those who have to bear more of the costs. Getting shafted in the name of overall social benefits.
Alternative criteria to guide decisions?
– So what do you think should be done about that? And what about our poor APT? It sounds like most of the really important stuff is about judgments it isn’t allowed or able to make? Would even a professional planner named APT – ‘Jonathan Beaujardin APT, Ph.D M.WQ, IDC’ — with the same smarts as the machine, not be allowed to make such judgments?
– As a person, an affected and concerned citizen, he’d have the same right as everybody else to express his opinions, and bring them into the process. As a planner, no. Not claiming to judge ‘on behalf’ of citizens – unless they have explicitly directed him to do that, and told him how… But now the good Commissioner says he wouldn’t even need to understand his own basis of judgment, much less make it count in the decision?
– Gee. That really explains a lot.
– Putting it differently: Any machine – or any human planner, for that matter, however much they try to be ‘perfect’ – trying to make those judgments ‘on behalf’ of other people, is not only imperfect but wrong, unless it has somehow obtained knowledge about those feelings about good or bad of others, and has found an acceptable way of reconciling the differences into some overall common ‘goodness’ measure. Some people will argue that there isn’t any such thing: judgments about ‘good or ‘bad’ are individual, subjective judgments; they will differ, there’s no method by which those individual judgments can be aggregated into a ‘group’ judgment that wouldn’t end up taking sides, one way or the other.
– You are a miserable spoilsport, Bog-Hubert. Worse than Abbé Boulah! He probably would say that coming to know good and bad, or rather thinking that you can make meaningful judgments about good or bad IS the original SIN.
– I thought he’s been excommunicated, Vodçek? So does he have any business saying anything like that? Don’t put words in his mouth when he’s not here to spit them back at you. Still, even if Bog-Hubert is right: if that APT is a machine that can process all kinds of information faster and more accurate than humans, isn’t there anything it can do to actually help the planning process?
– Yes, Sophie, I can see a number of things that can be done, and might help.
– Let’s hear it.
– Okay. We were assuming that APT is a kind of half-breed argumentative-systems creature, except we have seen that it can’t make up either new claims nor plausibility nor goodness judgments on its own. It must get them from humans; only then can it use them for things like making new arguments. If it does that, — it may take some bribery to get everybody to make and give those judgments, mind you – it can of course store them, analyze them, and come up with all kinds of statistics about them.
One kind of information I’d find useful would be to find out exactly where people disagree, and how much, and for what reasons. I mean, people argue against a policy for different reasons – one because he doesn’t believe that the policy will be effective in achieving the desired goal – the deontic premise that he agrees with – and the other because she disagrees with the goal.
– I see: Some people disagree with the US health plan they call ‘Obamacare’ because they genuinely think it has some flaws that need correcting, and perhaps with good reasons. But others can’t even name any such flaws and just rail against it, calling it a disaster or a trainwreck etc. because, when you strip away all the reasons they can’t substantiate, simply because it’s Obama’s.
– Are you saying Obama should have called it Romneycare, since it was alleged to be very similar to what Romney did in Massachusetts when he was governor there? Might have gotten some GOP support?
– Let’s not get into that quarrgument here, guys. Not healthy. Stay with the topic. So our APT would be able to identify those differences, and other discourse features that might help decide what to do next – get more information, do some more discussion, another analysis, whatever. But so far, its systems alter ego hasn’t been able to show any of that in the systems model diagram, to make that part of holistic information visible to the other participants in the discourse.
– Wouldn’t that require that it become fully conscious of its own calculations, first?
– Interesting question, Sophie. Conscious. Hmm. Yes: my old car wouldn’t show me a lot of things on the dashboard that were potential problems – whether a tire was slowly going flat or the left rear turn indicator was out – so you could say it wasn’t aware enough, — even ‘conscious?’ — of those things to let me know. The Commissioner’s new car does some of that, I think. Of course my old one could be very much aware but just ornery enough to leave me in the dark about them; we’ll never know, eh?
– Who was complaining about running off the topic road here just a while ago?
– You’re right, Vodçek: sorry. The issue is whether and how the system could produce a useful display of those findings. I don’t think it’s a fundamental problem, just work to do. My guess is that all that would need several different maps or diagrams.
Discourse –based criteria guiding collective decisions?
– So let’s assume that not only all those judgments could be gathered, stored, analyzed and the results displayed in a useful manner. All those individual judgments, the many plausibility and judgment scores and the resulting overall plan plausibility and ‘goodness’ judgments. What’s still open is this: how should those determine or at least guide the overall group’s decision? In a way that makes it visible that all aspects, all concerns were ‘duly considered’, and ending up in a result that does not make some participants feel that their concerns were neglected or ignored, and that the result is – if not ‘the very best we could come up with’ then at least somewhat better than the current situation and not worse for anybody?
– Your list of aspects there already throws out a number of familiar decision-making procedures, my friend. Leaving the decision to authority, which is what the systems folks have cowardly done, working for some corporate client, (who also determines the overall ‘common good’ priorities for a project, that will be understood to rank higher than any individual concerns) – that’s out. Not even pretending to be transparent or connected to the concerns expressed in the elaborate process. Even traditional voting, that has been accepted as the most ‘democratic’ method, for all its flaws. Out. And don’t even mention ‘consensus’ or the facile ‘no objection?‘ version. What could our APT possibly produce that can replace those tools? Do we have any candidate tools?
– If you already concede that ‘optimal’ solutions are unrealistic and we have to make do with ‘not worse – would it make sense to examine possible adaptations to one of the familiar techniques?
– It may come to that if we don’t find anything better – but I’d say let’s look at the possibilities for alternatives in the ideas we just discussed, first? I don’t feel like going through the pros and cons about our current tools. It’s been done.
– Okay, professor: Could our APT develop a performance measure made up of the final scores of the measures we have developed? Say, the overall goodness score modified by the overall plausibility score a plan proposal achieved?
– Sounds promising.
– Hold your horses, folks. It sounds good for individual judgment scores – may even tell a person whether she ought to vote yes or no on a plan – but how would you concoct a group measure from all that – especially in the kind of public asynchronous discourse we have in mind? Where we don’t even know what segment of the whole population is represented by the participants in the discourse and its cumbersome exercises, and how they relate to the whole public populations for the issue at hand?
– Hmm. You got some more of that café catawhatnot, Vodçek?
– Sure – question got you flummoxed?
– Well, looks like we’ll have to think for a while. Think it might help?
– What an extraordinary concept!
– Light your Fundador already, Vodçek, and quit being obnoxious!
– Okay, you guys. Lets examine the options. The idea you mentioned, Bog-Hubert, was to combine the goodness score and the plausibility score for a plan. We could do that for any number of competing plan alternatives, too.
– It was actually an idea I got from Abbé Boulah some time ago. At the time I just didn’t get its significance.
– Abbé Boulah? Let’s drink to his health. So we have the individual scores: the problem is to get some kind of group score from them. The mean – the average – of those scores is one; we discussed the problems with the mean many times here, didn’t we? It obscures the way the scores are distributed on the scale: you get the same result from a bunch of scores tightly grouped around that average as you’d get from two groups of extreme scores at opposite ends of the scale. Can’t see the differences of opinion.
– That can be somewhat improved upon if you calculate the variance – it measures the extent of disagreement among the scores. So if you get two alternatives with the same mean, the one with the lower variance will be the less controversial one. The range is a crude version of the same idea – just take the difference between the highest and the lowest score; the better solution is the one with a smaller range.
– What if there’s only one proposal?
– Well, hmm; I guess you’d have to look at the scores and decide if it’s good enough.
– Let’s go back to what we tried to do – the criteria for the whole effort: wasn’t there something about making sure that nobody ends up in worse shape in the end?
– Brilliant, Sophie – I see what you are suggesting. Look at the lowest scores in the result and check whether they are lower or higher than, than …
– Than what, Bog-Hubert?
– Let me think, let me think. If we had a score for the assessment of the initial condition for everybody (or for the outcome that would occur if the problem isn’t taken care of) then an acceptable solution would simply have to show a higher score than that initial assessment, for everybody. Right? The higher the difference, even something like the average, the better.
– Unusual idea. But if we don’t have the initial score?
– I guess we’d have to set some target threshold for any lowest score – no lower than zero (not good, not bad) or at least a + 0.5 on a +2/-2 goodness scale, for the worst-off participant score? That would be one way to take care of the worst-off affected folks. The better-off people couldn’t complain, because they are doing better, according to their own judgment. And we’d have made sure that the worst-off outcomes aren’t all that bad.
– You’re talking as if ‘we’ or that APT thing is already set up and doing all that. The old Norwegian farmer’s rule says: Don’t sell the hide before the bear is shot! It isn’t that easy though, is it? Wouldn’t we need a whole new department, office, or institution to run those processes for all the plans in a society?
– You have a point there, Vodçek. A new branch of government? Well now that you open that Pandora’s box: yes, there’s something missing in the balance.
– What in three twisters name are you talking about, Bog-Hubert?
– Well, Sophie. We’ve been talking about the pros and cons of plans. In government, I mean the legislative branch that makes the laws, that’s what the parties do, right? Now look at the judicial branch. There, too, they are arguing – prosecutor versus defense attorney – like the parties in the House and Senate. But then there’s a judge and the jury: they are looking at the pros and cons of both sides, and they make the decision. Where is that jury or judge ‘institution’ in the legislature? Both ‘chambers’ are made up of parties, who too often look like they are concerned about gaining or keeping their power, their majority, their seats, more than the quality of their laws. Where’s the jury? The judge? And to top that off: even the Executive is decided by the party, in a roundabout process that looks perfectly designed to blow the thinking cap off every citizen. A spectacle! Plenty of circenses but not enough panem. Worse than old Rome…
– Calm down, Bog-Hubert. Aren’t they going to the judiciary to resolve quarrels about their laws, though?
– Yes, good point. But you realize that the courts can only make decisions based on whether a law complies with the Constitution or prior laws – issues of fact, of legality. Not about the quality, the goodness of the law. What’s missing is just what Vodçek said: another entity that looks at the quality and goodness of the proposed plans and policies, and makes the decisions.
– What would the basis of judgment of such an entity be?
– Well, didn’t we just draw up some possibilities? The concerns are those that have been discussed, by all parties. The criteria that are drawn from all the contributions of the discourse. The party ‘in power’ would only use the criteria of its own arguments, wouldn’t it? Just like they do now… Of course the idea will have to be discussed, thought through, refined. But I say that’s the key missing element in the so-called ‘democratic’ system.
– Abbé Boulah would be proud of you, Bog-Hubert. Perhaps a little concerned, too? Though I’m still not sure how it all would work, for example considering that the humans in the entity or ‘goodness panel’ are also citizens, and thus likely ‘party’. But that applies to the judge and jury system in the judicial as well. Work to do.
– And whatever decision they come up with, that worst-off guy could still complain that it isn’t fair, though?
– Better that 49% of the population peeved and feeling taken advantage of? Commissioner: what do you say?
– Hmmm. That one guy might be easier to buy off than the 49%, yes. But I’m not sure I’d get enough financing for my re-election campaign with these ideas. The money doesn’t come from the worst-off folks, you know…
– Houston, we have a problem …
A Fog Island Tavern Discussion
– Hey Bog-Hubert – got over your post-election excitement yet?
– Not exactly, Vodçek.
– Not exactly – what does that mean, exactly? Or, well, approximately, if you don’t do exactly?
– Well, right now I’m just wondering about all the blogs and sites that are oh so urgently proposing this or that ‘new system’ that should be adopted instead…
– Haven’t they been doing that for a while?
– True. Maybe I’m just starting to pay more attention.
– And I’m getting more and more confused and aggravated.
– Why is that? Well, the confusion part I understand: there’s just too much of all that floating around. But what’s aggravating you? Isn’t it encouraging that people are starting to think about these issues some more?
– Sure, if they just were the right issues.
– So you think they aren’t? Hmm. I could use some explanation…
– Okay: I know you’ve been looking at things like that too. Briefly, what are the main groups of controversies you see?
– Main groups? You mean the political parties?
– No, Vodçek. Sorry, my question wasn’t clear. I’m talking about the groups that are basically saying those parties, and the system they’re a part of, need to be replaced with something new.
– Not all of them are suggesting something new; aren’t many of them claiming to be ‘conservative’?
– Right: but they don’t mean conserving things as they are, more like going back to some mythical previous better state of affairs, aren’t they?
– I see what you mean. Even if it’s something traditional, inherited, it wouldn’t be just like that old system, but something new based on old principles? Well, I see many ‘New System’ groups calling for a more or less radical re-thinking of how society should be organized. Ditch the current ones, all parts and subsystems. I don’t see much specific detail in those, of the New Systems, that one could examine and discuss. And then there are all those groups that are doing very specific ‘alternative’ things: the commons projects, alternative currencies, sustainable agriculture or permaculture communities, alternative energy technologies, etc. Many good ideas, but hard to see how they’d fit into an overall picture.
– I agree with your impressions there. Any of those well-intentioned causes you would want to join, become a part of to create the new society, saving the human race?
– Oh man, I have enough trouble keeping my humble tavern going from day to day. But you are right. I can’t say I share the enthusiasm some of those people seem to have.
– And do you think about why that might be? Other than that some of those guys are just trying to make you feel guilty by accusing you of laziness, apathy, stinginess for not giving them money, or worse?
– Well, do you have a good explanation? You aren’t doing much of that enthusiasm-activism yourself, am I right? Other than scribbling in your little notebook there when there’s nobody else here you can shoot the breeze with?
– Touché, my friend. But hey, there are some ideas in this little notebook, some thinking about those issues, that explain why I am not out there ‘doing’ things. Well, as long as there’s nobody else keeping you distracted here, perhaps we can discuss some of it?
– Okay. Starting with why I don’t think the world is ready for THE BIG NEW SYSTEM yet? Apart from the fact that those websites and flyers mostly consist of complaints about how bad things are and how those current ‘isms’ – capitalism, industrialism, neo-liberalism, globalism etc. – need to be ditched. As I said, few convincing specifics about what the new system should look like.
– I agree, we aren’t ready for another big system. Not sure I agree with your ‘yet’ – whether we should go for one big ‘unified’ system again. The record on the few experiments we had with those grand schemes hasn’t been too encouraging, would you agree?
– I really don’t know, Bog-Hubert. Human societies today, — technology, trade, travel, politics, communications — have developed too far to really ignore the calls for some global agreements and order. We can’t really go back to a state where we fumbled around in small isolated tribes, assuming the things we do have no effect across the globe. But I don’t think we really have any good ideas yet about what a better system should be.
– ‘Yet’, yet again – we need to get back to that. For now, I agree: Even among the people who think they have the key to the design of THE NEW system, there is precious little agreement about what it should look like. So I’d say the chances for consensus about that unified vision they all call for are pretty slim. We — if you talk about humanity as a whole – still do not know and can’t agree on what that better new system should be. We don’t really know what provisions in such a system would work and what wouldn’t.
– So we should take a closer look at those alternative initiatives, experiments. Right now, I have come across estimates of such efforts already counting in the millions. No idea if it’s true, or what the bases for those numbers are. Most seem to be small, local, and struggling with limited resources. I think we can say that most of them are working in isolation, many trying to stay under the radar of ‘official’ systems that tend to see tem as subversive or worse. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t see that they communicate well either with the outside world or among themselves. If they do, it’s mainly promotion pieces focusing on their ideas and hopes and successes, if any. Not a good basis for accumulating systematic, valid information about what works and what doesn’t.
– Don’t some of them see their main focus as the very key to making the BIG system work, and ask the entire world to awaken and accept it? And give them all more money?
– True. But okay, they are entitled to their faith. What I’m saying is that we need those experiments – many more, and as different and diverse as possible.
– I agree; that’s why I list that as a high priority. There should be a concerted effort to encourage and support those – on the condition that they are voluntary, not forcing people to participate, don’t get in each other’s or the existing systems’ ways in disruptive or aggressive manner, and most importantly that they agree to share their experiences in some coordinated and systematic fashion that allows others, the world, to learn from what they are doing.
– Hmm. Sounds good – but hey, doesn’t that already require some kind of global system?
– You are right. But that is, first off, not a BIG BROTHER governance and decision-making system, only a documentation, evaluation and discussion platform. You could say that the development of such a platform itself is an experiment. Starting small and local, but yes, aiming at involving many or all such initiatives, so global.
– The agreements of that system, or platform, as you call it, will require some decisions though. Beyond local, so: global, after all?
– Right again. But the decisions are not all-embracing whole system design decisions. Not even excluding alternative forms of communication or interaction, or replacing other institutions. So to the extent decisions – yes, ‘global’ decisions – are aimed at, they are sufficiently innocuous to serve as the basis for experiments about how to develop better decision-making modes? Because the current decision-making modes are part of the problem, aren’t they?
– Getting into treacherous territory there, Bog-Hubert.
– Perhaps. But isn’t it getting more obvious every day that Voting – the crucial element and crux of democracy — it’s more of a crutch? Simple and straightforward, sure. But I don’t think you can say it guarantees that the democratic principles of self-determination or that all concerns people may have about common plans will actually be heard nor given ‘due consideration’. Majority voting by definition permits ignoring the concerns of the minority…
– Okay, okay. So what you are saying is that thee will be a need to design such a platform, and that one of its features will have to be better decision-making methods. Well, I agree, that is an agenda that we don’t hear much about in the public media and political platforms: Can you draw a diagram of all that while I get some more coffee going?
– Sure. Got a napkin?
– Ok, looks good. I see you added some issues down there — getting carried away already?
– Well, think about it. So far, we agreed that what’s needed are
• The ‘alternative’ experiments
• A forum and provisions for sharing and evaluating their experiences
• A ‘discourse’ platform for working out the global ‘road rules’ agreements
But since those agreements are not within any governance jurisdiction, wouldn’t there be a need for
• Some provisions for ensuring that those agreements are actually adhered to ?
Because they can’t be ‘enforced’ by any of the usual government policing and jurisdiction systems, they would have to be a different kind of arrangements. So that will need some innovative work. And I think that there will be a need for a better way of
• Selecting and appointing ‘leaders’ – people in positions to make decisions that can’t wait for the outcome of lengthy discussions.
And to the extent these people will wield power, won’t we have to rethink the problem of how to prevent that power from becoming addictive, leading to the temptations to abuse their power? I seriously feel that some better
• Tools for controlling power should be on the agenda. We don’t say anything about their order yet.
– Good grief, that is quite a package of work you’ve lined up there. No wonder our fearless leaders and candidates are a bit, shall we say, reluctant to even mention some of those. Hard to make meaningful campaign promises about those, eh?
– Sure. Quite controversial – which is precisely why they should be on the agenda.
– Okay, Bog-Hubert: at least there should be some meaningful discussion about those issues.
– More meaningful than their current treatment in the media, is that what you are saying? Because at least for some of the issues that are being talked about, the flood of opinions and rhetoric is already unmanageable. Almost meaningless for guiding sensible decisions.
– I agree. But…
– But — what’s bothering you?
– Well: those headings in the diagram, they are still so general that they don’t say much more than the usual complaints about problems with this and that. Calls for something to be done, but no specific details yet that one can get behind, don’t you agree? So you’d face the same kind of lack of engagement on the part of the public I think you’d want to enlist for that discussion?
– You are right. In the current form, the diagram doesn’t convey much substance yet. We’ll have to discuss some details: explaining why some new ideas and agreements are needed, sketching out what each of those components would do.
– And indicate why you think they can be made to work. We may need some help from our friends there. Let’s think about it for a while, until some of our usual suspects turn up.
– Hi guys, what’s that napkin doodle you are poring over there?
– Hello Commissioner, welcome to our little team. We are trying to figure out what the agenda really should be that you folks in government ought to be working on. Priorities…
Alternative Initiatives and Experiments
– Hmm. What’s this thing about ‘alternative experiments at the top here? Sounds subversive.
– We should have known that would look odd to you, what with all your calls for unified vision and purpose?
– Well, isn’t that what we need these days, come together to work on the urgent, common project of a more viable system to get us out of the mess we’re in, and the bigger mess we’re going to be in if we keep working at cross-purposes?
– Hear, hear, Commissioner. Yes, we need a unified vision we can all work on. It’s just what I have been saying for a long time, too.
– Hi Sophie, good morning. Amazing: you agree with our politician for a change? Well, can you tell us what that great, unified vision is going to be?
– Wrong question, Bog-Hubert: it will emerge once we get everybody to become aware of the whole system and acquire a consciousness of all of us being part of that whole together with the entire ecosystem. A new ethic…
– Oh yeah, that will take care of the economy, solve unemployment, inequality, and crime, eh?
– Whoa, Commissioner, is that a trace of sarcasm I hear, already? Suggesting a profound disagreement about the kind of unified vision we are supposed to embrace?
– Well, Bog-Hubert, it’s not the same thing. Sorry, Sophie, but that consciousness thing is just wishful thinking. Not a sound practical basis for reorganizing society. It needs negotiated compromise. Don’t hit me…
– Hey people, cool it, okay? Let’s not get into a brawl about specific Unified System Visions here. You are actually making the argument here, about why we need all those alternative experiments.
– How so? You’ll have to explain that, Vodçek.
– Okay, in principle, I’d agree: it would be great if we found that unified vision of the new and better system so many groups out there are talking about. But look at our first attempt to describe what it would be or should be like: big disagreement erupting before we even got started, about what it means and how to get there.. And I don’t’ think it’s just the two of you. Too much disagreement about it out there, all over. Doesn’t that tell us something: we – I mean humanity in general – don’t really know what that system, that vision should look like? Even if somebody really knows, too many others have different ideas about it. Too many to expect a unified consensus about the common effort we should start to get there any time soon. So… I think what Bog-Hubert is trying to say here is…
– Yes. We should just acknowledge that we don’t know. We’ve been through that before you guys came in, but it can’t be said often enough. Especially about the big, global system many think is needed. We have tried a few big systems, and so far none of them have met with universal approval, in spite of the intense propaganda from their promoters that flooded the media. Can’t we admit: we don’t really know what works and what doesn’t work for the big challenges we are facing? And spending all our chips on another big system without better evidence looks like an even worse idea than the muddling through we are doing now.
– Hmm. You’ve got a point there – and that’s why you’d let all those alternative crazies work on their separate blueprints to save the world?
– Right. I’d try to avoid the kind of name-calling though; many of those initiatives are run by very intelligent and well-intentioned people. Some of their ideas actually make a lot of sense, and I think we need to learn how they work out. The people doing that are often just working on a volunteer basis, — much cheaper and often more effective than big government contracts to big think tanks. Though to be fair, I’m sure some useful work is done there too. Most of them are small, local projects, and many are unquestionably improving matters – take the sustainability, organic and permaculture food projects – and do no harm, which can’t be said of all the big corporate activities. So they should be encouraged and supported rather than treated with suspicion and bureaucratic obstacles. The more diverse, the better. We need to learn from their experiences. But…
Sharing and evaluating experiences
– I knew it; there’s a but butting in.
– Yes, Sophie. As far as I can see, most of those initiatives and projects don’t really communicate well – not with the society and media in general, not even among themselves. So there’s little valid information available about their real experiences – what works and what does not work. Not much systematic evaluation. Much of the information they put out is just promotion — focused on the promises and whatever success they claim to have. Nothing about their obstacles and problems, other than that they really really need your donation.
– Yeah, and many of them actually are trying to sell the premises of their initiatives as THE basis for the next BIG system, for all to adopt.
– True. They should be given the opportunity to show some actual evidence for their claims, and a forum for fair but critical assessment. So the overall strategy should include encouragement and support. But on condition of sharing their experience in some organized and useful manner.
– ‘Organized’? That sounds like it will require some big system after all, Bog-Hubert? If those numbers you mentioned are real?
– Yes, that’s true. You’ll need some common format not only for compiling and documenting all that information, but also for the criteria and method for assessing the successes and failures. Big task. But there’s a significant difference: this ‘system’ can be designed and developed by those projects and initiatives themselves – not just ‘participation’ but actual decision-making, based on the interests and concerns of all the players involved.
– So there will be a ‘data base’ or documentation system for all the project information, and an ‘evaluation’ component with some common criteria and measures of performance based on what those initiatives are aiming at achieving, and a process for developing and displaying the results?
– Yes. And because that is not an all-powerful Big Brother Government system imposing its will upon all aspects of society, it will be a much less ideological and controversial process, don’t you think?
– Ah: if you are right – which remains to be seen though – it will be a good exercise project in itself – a testing ground for developing a better ‘self-governance’ system with all the aspects further down in your priority list. Sneaky.
– It was Abbé Boulah’s idea, that one, yes. He’s the sneaky one.
– So let’s look at those other parts of your list.
– Okay: which one?
– The process you are talking about – developing the data base and evaluation system – already requires some common forum or platform where development ideas can be brought in, discussed, and decided upon, doesn’t it? Is that what that ‘discourse platform’ is supposed to be?
– Yes, Dexter. Glad you could join us, this gets into IT territory. And it will not just be like some of the social network platforms we know, nor a ‘knowledge base’ compilation of data, a data bank or encyclopedia-like system, but a ‘planning discourse support system’ aimed at developing, proposing and displaying, and discussing designs for the system itself, and then helping participants to make decisions based on the merit of those contributions – ideas, proposals and arguments pro and con. So that discussion must be accessible to all the participant entities.
– I see. It sounds plausible. But apart from the integration of the different programs, — feasible, but will take some work — won’t there be big practical implementation problems to do that? Just think of all the different languages all over the world, in which those contributions will be brought in. You can’t expect people will agree to one global language for that anymore – not in this post-colonial age. So there will have to be a massive translation effort to translate that discourse into all the different participant languages?
– True. And not only that. Much of the needed information will actually be in the form of scientific research, statistics, systems projects from many different disciplines? Each with their own vocabulary — disciplinary jargon, — replete with acronyms and greek letters and math equations. For a viable discussion, the content messages of those contributions must be translated into conversational language that ordinary citizens can understand. So yes, it will be a major project to coordinate that, and not an overnight process.
– And you’ll have to deal with all the problems we already know from the current scene of collaborative projects under various political systems.
– Such as?
– Well you have the ‘voter apathy’ syndrome – even in projects open to and relying on public participation. Many people just don’t participate or vote because they don’t really have the feeling that their input will count in any significant way. Then you have the ‘information overload’ problem – how can anybody digest all the information that’s flooding the media and social networks? You have the ‘trolls’ that just try to derail any meaningful discussion with irrelevant posts; personal attacks and insults and erroneous information – not even to talk about the problem of deliberately ‘false news’ – lies and distortions. And last not least the fact that the decisions — by so-called leaders or by referendum-type voting – can blatantly ignore even the most significant information and concerns of large parts of society.
New decision methods
– Yes, you are getting into the details of what’s needed to make any such planning platform work properly – in the best interest of all affected parties, in a really democratic way. So first, the system should provide some real participation incentives. And it should be organized so as to eliminate or at least reduce repetitious, irrelevant, erroneous and maliciously distractive and misleading content, and give people a good informative overview of the state of the discourse, don’t you think? Those are major design challenges – but we do have some ideas for improving things. Better decision modes for such planning systems remain a major issue.
– Hey, Bog-Hubert: all that doesn’t sound like a small local project anymore. You keep calling it a ‘planning discourse platform’ as if it were only a minor item on the agenda – but it is really a blueprint for the Big Global Discourse System, isn’t it?
– You are right in that any global governance system – as well as any local governance system if it wants to be really ‘democratic’ – will have to deal with the same issues and find acceptable solutions for them. The difference is that this is not a proposal for a ‘revolutionary’ upheaval replacing all the ‘evil’ current systems with another BIG System overnight.
– Or just a ‘get rid of the crooks’ effort that ends up just replacing the old crooks with different ones who will become just as bad and corrupted because the new systems hasn’t solved those problems you are pointing out here.
– So it looks like the ‘new decision models’ item on the priority list is really a high priority one. And that whatever the solution may be will look somewhat different from the ‘voting’ methods that are now considered as the key principle and guarantee of democracy? Can you give us some more details about what might make such methods work?
– Hey, putting a problem on the agenda doesn’t mean that we already have a solution, does it? Just that there is a problem and that we feel it is possible to fix it. But a key aspect, I think, is this: there must be a closer, more visible and recognizable connection between the merit of the information and arguments brought into the discourse, and the decision. That link is currently just a sanctimonious ideal: ‘let’s talk and then decide’.
– Sure, but a vote can, and too often does, ignore all the talk. So there’s work to do on that. But some of your Abbeboulahist ideas also justify hope – for example: if we can get a meaningful measurement tool for the merit of contributions, that measure can become a more decisive factor in the decision. And we have some ideas for that, too.
Few main ‘global’ agreements to facilitate ‘diverse’ aims
– True, Vodçek. So this system will be developed and emerge as a ‘parallel’ structure within the existing system, at first only dealing with the kinds of common agreements needed to draw useful lessons from the experiences of all those ‘local’ efforts. And aiming only at few decisions needed to facilitate the process – decisions like the ‘global, unified’ rules of the road – which side of the road to drive on to let everybody get to their ‘diverse’ destinations; or like the international rules for air or ocean traffic.
– Yeah, with all the translation and communication problems of such a global discourse, there won’t be that many decisions being agreed upon by that process, if you ask me. But I agree that some such common ‘road rule’ agreements will be needed, in this partial system as well as in the overall global system or non-system, if the Big Brother World Government is too scary a prospect.
Provisions for ensuring adherence to agreements:
– Hey, none of that is talking about any kind of World Government, I hope. Is it?
– Well, Sophie, think about it: Any kind of agreement or treaty or law – different names for essentially the same concept – will need some provisions for making sure that the agreement is kept, the rule is followed, and about what to do if it is violated. Deliberately or inadvertently.
– If all such agreements are reached by consensus by all the well-intentioned folks in a well-informed, spiritually conscious and aware community, and with more adequate decision procedures giving each participant’s concerns due considerations, will there still be such violations? Or at least not as many?
– Wouldn’t that be nice, Sophie. Won’t there always be people who feel that they aren’t getting as much of a benefit from a common decision as others, that they even get ‘the short end’ of it even if they couldn’t come up with sufficiently persuasive arguments to persuade the community or to justify a ‘no’ vote preventing the precious consensus decision? Peer pressure to agree resulting in a temptation to just bend the rules a little bit…? And then a little more?…
– I see where you are going here, Bog-Hubert, you cynic. You didn’t even mention all those sheer ornery or even pure evil folks. The problem isn’t just that there will still be such violations, but also that we – society – have not gotten past the traditional ways of dealing with them that we inherited from times when rules and laws were imposed by rulers who didn’t give a hoot about whether people were really adhering voluntarily to the rules because they agreed to them…
– What are you talking about, Vodçek?
– Law enforcement, of course, Sophie. The traditional approach is that laws have to be ‘enforced’ – that violators have to be punished so that they wouldn’t do it again, and to deter everybody else from even trying. And what Bog-Hubert is aiming at, — I have heard him talk about it with Abbé Boulah before – is that enforcement, prevention and application of force – requires that the enforcer must have more force, be more powerful, than any would-be violator. Otherwise, it’s not effective. So he is saying there should be different tools for ensuring that agreements and laws are adhered to – ‘sanctions’ that do not require ‘enforcement’. Am I right, Bog-Hubert?
– Couldn’t have said it better myself, Vodçek. One alternative would be something like sanctions that are triggered ‘automatically’ by the very attempt at violating a rule. Like the car ignition key that can sense if you are drunk and just won’t turn on if you are.
– Like that kind of thing can really fight crime and corruption. But what’s wrong with the ‘enforcement’ approach?
– Two things, Commissioner. One is escalation of enforcement tools. If criminals are getting better weapons than the police, the police must get better weapons, eh? Then the bad guys get even better gins, and so on… Not supportable, in the short or long run.
– Hmm. There oughta be a law…And the other reason?
– Power. You see it already at the local level, but it becomes critical on the level of international relations. It’s the reason people are very uncomfortable with the idea of World Government.
– I don’t get it.
– Well, you’ve heard the quip about power corrupting, and absolute power corrupting absolutely, haven’t you? Now if you have an enforcement agent or agency which does have better weapons, more powerful tools, than any would-be violator, what’s keeping that agent or agency from becoming tempted, ever so slightly, to bend the rules a little for itself? If the theory is true that it would take an enforcer with more power…
– Well, we have the balance of power of the different branches of government, and term limits, and impeachment rules, and so on, to constrain such power abuses, don’t we?
– True, and the claim is that they have been working adequately for quite a while. But many people are saying that those tools are getting to the limits of their effectiveness even al the local, regional and state levels. And seeing how often and how cleverly they have become ineffective, allowing power-holders to become evermore worried about the infringement of their power and their little abuses, and therefore seeking more power, and more clever, even ‘legal’ ways to circumvent their balance-of-power constraints. At the extreme, having to convince themselves that they really have the inviolate power by engaging in reckless activities – the Caligula syndrome.
– But those guys have always been brought down in the end, haven’t they? Well, most of them?
– Have they? At what cost of their own impoverished, murdered and ‘disappeared’ or otherwise oppressed citizens before they are stopped? Or that of other countries’ forces trying to bring them down? But think: if we have a World Government – one whose legitimate role is to ensure that agreements and treaties are adhered to, as we discussed – but whose tools for that are only ‘enforcement’ tools: weapons? And so-called ‘’security’ and ‘anti-terrorism’ systems that have to constrain the liberty of all citizens in order to be effective: With the kinds of weaponry we have nowadays, what could keep such a ‘government’ from falling victim to the temptations of power if there’s no more powerful agent to keep it in line?
– Right. So the concerns of people who oppose such governments are, shall we say, not entirely unfounded? And the governments who are supposed to ensure their citizens that they are not, — ‘trust me, trust me’ – in any way tempted to take some additional advantage of their power, are naturally and inevitably hesitant of divulging all the safeguards they have, so they won’t fall into the wrong hands: the secret service must be secret, after all. Mustn’t it?
Control of Power
– Okay. You’ve got us all worried, happy now? So the first conclusion is that we need some sanctions that don’t rely on enforcement, to ensure adherence to agreements. Keep it on the agenda. But what do we do about the issue of control of power itself, apart from the law enforcement aspect? Do we have any new ideas about that, or even grounds for optimism that better solutions can be found? Because I see that just the right of citizens to keep arms is not a solution, given the escalation problem and the other means of exerting power.
– No, Sophie, nobody has a brilliant solution up his or her sleeve yet. Just perhaps some different principles to bring to bear on the problem.
– Such as?
– Well, look at the concept of power itself, for starters. For the poor, the ‘disempowered’, the recurring slogan is always ‘empowerment’ – as if power were a universal human right, which we could argue is a good way of looking at it. Just like life and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness we always invoke. But we expect people to pursue, to work for, or pay for those things, not just to be ‘given’. At best, what’s ‘given’ or ‘endowed by the creator’ – or what a society agrees to grant all its members — is the right to pursue, not the right to get it without one’s own effort.
– That’s a concept that would need some discussion, my friend.
– Yes, we can discuss that, and what it means in detail. But to explore its implications here: what if we apply it to the power issue – specifically to the power to make decisions and take action on behalf of others, or that affect others in one way or the other. What if, say we’d ask people with such power to ‘pay’ for the decisions they make? Just like we expect the poorest fellows to pay for their loaf of bread they are allowed to buy at Wal-Mart to survive? By ‘paying’ we probably would need a different kind of currency than money.
– We might also look at some older forms of power control – patterns that have come to be despised lately, such as the hierarchical organization of societies.
– How did that control power? Wasn’t that the ultimate form of power abuse?
– Not always, Vodçek. See, in a hierarchy, the person at each level had a certain amount of power – the power to control and direct the activities of the subordinates, within certain limits set by their superiors. The unresolved issue was of course always the lowest and the top positions: the lowest ones had little or no power until they ‘earned it’ by whatever degrading means, and the top position had no one else to answer to – except supernatural ones in the afterlife.
– But there were some useful provisions in the form of controls by parallel boards with members from lower levels of the hierarchy, term limits and the like. They also tended to be older folks who weren’t as much tempted to certain distracting abuse as younger people. But again, the traditional controls seem to break down again and again, so the issue of meaningful and effective control for governance folks on the global level is still up for grabs. So I agree: the issue of control of power should be a high priority item.
Choosing the people for power positions
– All that sounds like you want to do away with all kinds of leadership positions. I’m not sure I can go along with that.
– You are quite right feeling uneasy about that, Sophie. But that’s not the intention at all. We do need people in positions of leadership and power.
– After all you went through show how they will be corrupted by power? I say kick the big shots out!
– Whoa, Renfroe. I understand how you can get impatient with some of their shenanigans. And how you might get the impression that with a better functioning ‘democratic’ decision-making system, we don’t need those bigwigs anymore.
– I’d say!
– But not all decisions need to run through such a process, and some can’t wait, they need a quick decision to deal with new situations. Think of a ship that finds itself suddenly on a course towards an iceberg. There has to be someone – the captain – who will have to make a quick decision: pass it on the port or starboard side? You can’t have a lengthy palaver to reach a decision: it must be done fast. And the problem is to have a process to appoint people to such positions, yes, power positions – whose expertise, skills, experience and judgment you can trust. And what safeguards have to be in place to prevent such people from getting tempted to abuse that power for purposes of his own that are contrary to the well-being of the ship and its crews and passengers.
– Okay, I see what you are saying. So do you have any trick up your sleeve for that problem? It’s what you’d call a dilemma, isn’t it? Giving a guy – or a gal – the power to make big decisions, but keeping them from making the wrong ones when they have all that power, and by definition, as you explained, no greater power to keep them in line?
– Well, can you see how that problem should have some better solutions for people in such positions in ‘global’ institutions, in world governments?
– Okay, it belongs on the list of priorities too, I agree.
– I still would like to know what gives you the idea that there are better solutions in sight for these problems. If a problem doesn’t have any solutions – like a genuine paradox or dilemma, why waste our time, money, and energy trying to find one?
– Good question, Commissioner. But for some of these issues, there actually seem to be some improvements in sight that should at least be explored and discussed.
– Explain that, please. I’m getting curious.
– I’ll leave it to Bog-Hubert – I think the way he drew that diagram shows how some answers to simpler questions in the list can help suggest solutions for others. Bog-Hubert?
– I’ll try to keep it simple. Take the idea we have discussed here before, of awarding contribution rewards to people who contribute ideas and arguments to the planning discourse we sketched out before. Basic credit points that simply will be an incentive for participation and providing information.
– That’s trying to get at the voter apathy issue, right?
– At least part of it. Now, the rule that only the first entry of an information item will get the credit, but not repetitions, will speed up the process. The assume we can put a process of evaluation in place, for the assessment of merit of each such entry – is it plausible, important, is there evidence or adequate support for the claims, do the arguments have weight. Then the original credits can be adjusted, upward for good merit items, downward for erroneous or unsupported, implausible claims and arguments. That will all help making better decisions, as a first effect. But in the process, participants are actually building up a ‘record’ of their contribution merit points.
– Ah, I see: and that record can be made part of the ‘qualification’ criteria for appointing people to positions of power? If they have made consistently meritorious contributions to the policy discourse for important issues, they can be considered better qualified than others whose entries have been shown to be unsupported and implausible?
– Right. Better judgment. But that’s not all. Those merit points can become a kind of alternate ‘currency’ for various purposes. One is the sanctions issue for violating agreements and ‘laws’. The penalties can be in the form of subtracting credit points from their accounts. Especially if some means can be found to identify attempts at violating agreements and laws as the attempt is started or going on, so that penalty points can be applied immediately, without having to involve heavy-duty law enforcement. So the size and extent of enforcement forces could be reduced, as well as the worry about enforcement by force and associated escalation, would you agree?
– I think that would take some fine-tuning, but yes, it’s an idea that should be explored. What about the power issue itself – didn’t you mention something about that as well?
– Yes indeed. The idea is to make people in positions of power ‘accountable’ for the decisions they make by having to ‘pay’ for each decision – again, with their merit credit points. If the decision is a flop, they lose the points – if it’s a good one, they earn them back, and perhaps more. ‘Profit’, eh?
– What about decisions that are so important, and therefore so ‘costly’, that officials can’t afford to make such decisions with their own points?
– Well, if you feel that such a decision should be made, that is, you support the leader who has to make it, how about transferring some of your own credits to his account? In that way, you are also ‘accountable’ for the decision – and perhaps less likely to let a populist loose cannon go around making disastrous decisions? If the decision is a good one, your ‘investment’ can ‘pay off’ in that you get your points back, perhaps with some ‘interest’? And if not, you lost your points just like the leader who made that dumb decision with your support…
– Oh man, you are getting way out there with these wild schemes.
– Well. It’s all up for discussion. Do you have any better ideas to deal with these challenges?
A dirty dozen world-wide wicked problems related to the global sustainability crisis – and some solutions?Posted: May 7, 2012
O V E R V I E W
1 The global sustainability crisis
2 The dreaded big brother top-down imposed solution problem
3 The fox in the henhouse problem
4 The babylonic confusion problem
5 The problem of information overload in the unfinished global forum
6 The perplexing participation paradox
7 The problem of the missing link between discussion and decision
8 The neglected planning argument (‘weighing the pros & cons’) problem
9 The virtues to vices problem (the vicious cycle of virtue to vice)
10 The problem of the control of power
11 The problem of ensuring adherence to agreed-upon solutions: sanctions
12 The problem of nonperforming measures of performance
P R O B L E M D E T A I L S
1 The global sustainability crisis
This is the problem that led UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to issue his call for ‘revolutionary thinking and action to ensure an economic model for survival’ at the 2011 Wold Economic Forum in Davos: itself a nest of related problems:
– dwindling resources, food, water, energy
for a growing world population;
– climate change, environmental degradation
– hunger, poverty, inequality; human rights
– corruption, government mismanagement
The following problems are a subset of problem facets related to the global sustainability crisis. The list is not an exhaustive account of all problems that make up the global crisis; they are selected because they are seen as key interconnected factors, and to show how some solution ideas can address this network of problems.
2 The dreaded ‘big brother’ top-down imposed solution problem
The intent or mere perception that such a ‘model for survival’ might be a one-size-fits all overall solution imposed top-down by some global authority, ignoring local, regional, cultural conditions — and therefore causing new problems, conflicts, and resistance. There are both social and logical reasons for the position that global solutions must instead emerge from a global discourse with wide and easily accessible participation. This is also true with respite to the next issue:
3 The ‘fox in the henhouse’ problem
The problem (reinforced by the very nature of the audience to which the Secretary General addressed his call) that the entities called upon and commanding the resources for developing and implementing any global solutions might be the very ones responsible
for generating many of the problems — and therefore being justly or unjustly suspected of pursuing their agenda more than the common good.
4 The babylonic confusion problem
There are already many impressive efforts underway to address these problems — mostly at the small and local level. But coordination and communication between these efforts is severely hampered by the differences not only between natural languages, but also between different cultural mindsets, ‘ways of talking’ about problems, approaches and solutions, between the specialized vocabulary of different disciplines (even between different schools of thought within the same fields) and their arcane acronyms.
5 The problem of information overload in the unfinished global forum
While it might seem that new information technology is in the process of vastly improving global communication, it can be argued that it has led to an almost insurmountable overload of disorganized information. This is making it difficult to keep adequate overview of developments even about very specific issues, establish and maintain a constructive discourse leading to meaningful agreements and decisions: The development of an adequate forum and platform for the global participatory discourse is still a very much unfinished project.
6 The perplexing participation paradox
In the face of the call for more participation in planning, policy-making, and political decisions is the evidence that public participation even in the form of voting in elections, let alone true constructive discourse and dialog, deplored as lacking: ‘voter apathy’. This is true even in societies where technological infrastructure, education and information would seem sufficiently advanced. Already Bertrand Russell (in his 1938 book on Power) observed that participation decreases as the social unit increases in size because in larger units, the impact of individual votes and contributions is perceived as so negligible as to render the individual vote or participation utterly insignificant and not worth the effort: participation is related to perceived possibility of ‘making a difference’.
7 The problem of the missing link between discussion and decision
Part of the participation problem is the fact that the decision-making method even in advanced ‘democratic’ systems, majority voting, has little or no perceptible (‘transparent’) connection between the value and merit of discussion contributions and the decision outcome. Phenomena such as ‘party discipline’ or the fact that filibusters can delay decisions but not influence them (because nobody is listening) are proof of this missing link: votes can entirely disregard or even go against the result of deliberative discourse.
8 The neglected planning argument (‘weighing the pros & cons’) problem
In spite of the tremendous amount of work done in logic and, increasingly, in ‘critical thinking’, the kinds of arguments we use in design, planning, policy-making — the ‘pros and cons’ for or against proposals — have not been given enough attention; coherent approaches for their systematic and transparent evaluation have not been developed.
9 The virtues to vices problem (the vicious cycle of virtue to vice)
Discussions about how to overcome the problems and crises are full of recriminations about human vices that are held to be responsible for the problems: greed, pursuit of power, the ‘win-lose’ attitudes in economic and political matters, the lack of empathy with ‘losing’ groups, the preoccupation with profit and growth. The result is an increasing polarization between groups that have achieved success with such attitudes, and their critics. The latter tend to forget or downplay the fact that these attitudes have often been taught to children as virtues. Now demonizing the people and groups who have learned these lessons well — as compliant learners, following societal concepts of virtue — can hardly be a successful strategy for a more cooperative, win-win- oriented, compassionate form of socio-economic society.
10 The problem of the control of power
Significant efforts have been made to establish reliable arrangements for the control of power in government. It is not clear whether these controls are inherently sufficient, and just have not been applied properly in the many instances in past and recent history where government powers have turned abusive and destructive. But it is evident that similar controls have not been developed and applied in the private sector. As a result, certain forces in the private sector have become so powerful that they have significant — and largely uncontrolled — influence over governments. This problem calls for increased attention, study and creative solutions.
The problem of control of power becomes critical at the level of global relationships: the issue of ‘world government’. The concern of a global, more powerful that any other entity is a serious concern if its power cannot be effectively controlled. This problem is related to the following ‘sanctions’ problem:
11 The problem of ensuring adherence to agreed-upon solutions: sanctions
Even if governance systems could be developed in which societal arrangements, laws, treaties etc. were negotiated and refined until they become acceptable to all affected parties (ideally: by consensus); the question remains of how to ensure adherence to the agreement s and laws: how to deal with instances of noncompliance or violation. Traditionally, compliance has been ‘enforced’ through the threat of imposing sanctions, penalties, by an enforcement agency that necessarily must be stronger, more powerful, than any potential violator. Inevitably, this raises the question of how to control such power: how to prevent that enforcement agency from violating the very laws it is supposed to enforce? The means of enforcement through sanctions of the same kind is logically impossible, if there is no ‘bigger’, more powerful agency. Again, this problem becomes critical at the global level: how can a ‘world enforcement agency’ more powerful than any other entity be effectively kept from abusing its power?
12 The problem of nonperforming measures of performance
Control and effective management of any complex process requires adequate measures of performance. Many social and economic problems are blamed on the use of measures of performance that are counterproductive to sustainability, social equity, fairness, and responsive stewardship of the environment; such as gross domestic product, profit, or growth. While this problem has been widely recognized and has led to calls for alternative measures, no convincing solutions have been proposed that are both widely acceptable and also can be smoothly introduced into economic systems operating on traditional principles: the transition problem to a system operating on different assumptions has not been adequately discussed nor solved.
Wicked problems of the global sustainability crisis
S O M E P R O P O S A L S T O A D D R E S S T H E S E P RO B L E M S
These ideas are selected not because they solve all problem areas of the global sustainability crisis, but to highlight how solutions can aim at several issues.
a. A global framework for coordination of projects, participatory discourse and negotiation, research support, education and information
b. The discourse framework based on the argumentative model of planning
c. Evaluation of planning arguments and discussion contributions
d. Rewards for discourse participation
e. The argumentative planning game
f. ‘Civic credit points’
g. Automatically triggered sanctions
h. Innovation zones in areas damaged by disasters
i. Quality of life measures based on the value of occasions (experiences) and image
a. A global framework for coordination of projects, participatory discourse and negotiation, research support, education and information
A global communication framework is needed for the coordination of many diverse, small local action projects and initiatives that should be encouraged and supported both as innovation laboratories for experiments with new approaches in all areas of societal organization and opportunities for people to pursue their visions, within a global framework of agreements for cooperation and conflict resolution. Its main components, besides the various action projects, are the coordination component, the discourse component, the research support component, and the education / information component.
b. The discourse framework based on the argumentative model of planning
A key innovative feature of the proposal is the structure of the discourse component, which is based on the argumentative model of planning and policy-making (spearheaded by H. Rittel). The elements of the information support system for the discourse are issues (controversial questions) and the answers and argument to those issues.
c. Evaluation of planning arguments and discussion contributions
The argumentative model of the discourse component is enhanced by the provisions for systematic evaluation of the planning arguments (and other discussion contributions). The aim of this feature is to develop a measure of support for plan or policy proposals based on the merit of arguments: a measure of the merit of the discourse. The resulting measures can then provide the missing link between discourse merit and to decisions to be made — a link not adequately ensured by the current majority voting method.
d. Rewards for discourse participation
The measures of merit of discourse contributions can be used to provide meaningful ‘rewards’ for participation, countering the problem of voter apathy even for large projects and constituencies.
e. The argumentative planning game
To familiarize citizens with the tools of the argumentative discourse — faster than would be possible through the current system of public education — it is proposed to develop an ‘argumentative planning game (including the evaluation component discussed in items c and d above). The game aims at promoting (and rewarding) cooperation (rewarding win-win outcomes), critical thinking and evaluation; and should be developed both for ‘live’ applications and for wide participation in large planning discussions via videogame, cellphone and internet technology.
f. ‘Civic credit points’
The measures of discussion contribution merit creates the possibility of establishing ‘civic credit point’ accounts for citizens, which provide legitimation / authorization for public decision-making (i.e. power) positions. Decisions require a ‘performance bond’ or ‘investment’ of credit points, used up with each decision, but with the possibility of earning further credit with successful decisions. This can provide a form of control of power: Power decisions can only be activated with adequate credit.
g. Automatically triggered sanctions
Instead of traditional sanctions to ensure adherence to agreements and laws that have to be enforced by ‘enforcement’ agencies with greater power than any potential violator, forms of sanctions should be developed that are automatically triggered by the attempt at violation. Such provisions — perhaps involving the ‘civic credit points’ idea outlined in item f — would help solve the problem of controlling / constraining the power of global ‘enforcement’ entities.
h. Innovation zones in areas damaged by disasters
Innovation efforts (and funding for these) are often resisted by existing structures that see these as competition and unwarranted ‘unfair’ expenditures. The proposal to encourage the establishment of ‘innovation zones’ for experiments with alternative organization of social and economic practices in areas damaged or destroyed by disasters sidesteps this problem. Emergency aid that will be spent in such areas might be devoted to innovative infrastructure and organization instead of mere re-construction of traditional structures. Successful experiments will encourage adjacent areas to adopt new practices and solutions; less successful efforts will gradually be replaced by improved traditional solutions — but will have produced valuable information about what works and what does not work.
i. Quality of life measures based on value of occasions (human experiences) and image
While governments everywhere are beginning to follow the initiative of the kingdom of Bhutan in introducing quality of life or citizen happiness measures, to complement and perhaps eventually replace traditional economic measures such as growth or Gross Domestic Product, the indices adopted are usually quite general and therefore not very helpful in developing policies for improvement. An approach growing out of work to develop better measures of the value of built environment suggests an alternative set of measures of the quality of human experiences (‘occasions’) and the imagery evoked by the settings for these experiences. The resulting measures would be much more detailed, allow pinpointing the specific features of the environment or life conditions influencing citizens’ value assessments, and would therefore be more helpful in suggesting projects and policies for improvement.
Some solutions for the global sustainability problems