The old fellow in the corner of the Fog Island Tavern had been sitting there, quietly, for several hours. At first, the regulars at the bar had been looking at him, saying a few words signaling that he’d be welcome at the counter; they were curious: A new neighbor on the island, having bought a house from one of the just-weekend-owners who had given up on the demands of island life? Or just another visitor? But he hadn’t responded, just ordered another glass of wine, off-and-on scribbling in a little notebook in-between periods of merely looking around with a kind of vacant far-away stare. Thinking? Hmm.
But suddenly he came up to the bar, eyes blazing, arms held wide in a gesture of exasperation, calling out from ten feet away: “What are you doing!?”
“Huh? What are we doing?” One of the fellows asked. “Just sitting here shooting the breeze. What’s it to you?”
“I heard it!” He gasped. “And you guys just shrugged and went back to bitching about the weather and how bad things are and how corrupt the government is and how the president, or his predecessor are the worst president ever, and…”
“Heard what?” Vodçek asked, the tavern owner behind the counter. “Well, don’t you agree that things are not as they ought to be?”
“Heard what? Didn’t this gentleman here –” he pointed at Renfroe, who seemed taken aback for having said something significant enough to evoke such attention — “just tell you about this thirteen-point plan or agenda that could change everything? And pooh-poohed it as just another of the crazy schemes of this Abbe something he was ridiculing?”
“Well, I guess you haven’t met or heard about Abbé Boulah and his overactive imagination and inventiveness. But the story ol’ Renfroe here was relating, he had just heard it from Abbé Boulah, not sure who came up with it originally. What about it?” Bog-Hubert tried to calm both of them down.
“And you guys didn’t recognize it for the ray of hope it is, finally, and went right back to blah-blah about the weather and the mess we’re in?!”
“Well, yeah, I guess we did. Out here, weather is kind’a the first thing we worry about getting up in the morning, and we don’t have any big hopes about being able to change the course of history any more than the weather, you know what I mean? But what’s so important about that thirteen-point scheme?”
“It’s the way we should go about meeting all those crises everybody keeps talking about. But I guess the way it sounded was still too dry, not inspiring enough to get people to get off their lazy butts… I guess it didn’t tell you what you actually can do – even out here!”
“Oh, I guess that calls for some explanation, my friend. Why don’t you join us – Vodçek, what’s he drinking? Could you get him a glass, on me? Thanks — And try to enlighten us some?”
“Enlighten: I’m not sure I’m the one for that job. But – thanks for the wine – where do you get that great Zinfandel out here? – that pamphlet or whatever it was, don’t you see how it opens up a great opportunity? For you, for all of us, for the world?”
“Opportunity? How so? Opportunity for what?”
“Okay, good question. Let me backtrack a little. You realize, don’t you, that this country and many others, all of us, are not only facing all these big problems we got ourselves into, out of idealism and greed and over-eagerness and foolishness. But for the first time in history, we also have these terrific new tools — technology for communication, for collecting and making the history and experiences and wisdom and errors of all the people in the world accessible – to learn from it, — learn, you hear me? learn! — and to work together to develop better ways of living together on this planet?”
“If you put it that way…”
“Right. Most of the time, it isn’t put that way, but perceived and presented as tools for the old ‘survival of the fittest’ attitude, meaning the strongest, biggest, richest, the ones with the faster guns’ game, beating out all the weaker ones. Greatness of a nation, whatever than means, beyond the residents of a plot of earth surface within some arbitrary borders, seen as the ability to tell other nations what to do and not to do, and if they don’t, bomb-em back to the stone age… – Heavens, what a narrow kind of perspective!”
“So what should that perspective be, in your opinion? If greatness is what it’s about? Some of us just want to be left in peace and go fishing…”
“Well, start with that idea in your declaration of independence and in most modern constitutions, in one form or another: people’s right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Is it enough for a ‘great’ community to make sure that all its members ‘have’ that right? Like: You ‘have’ the right to become the greatest race-car driver, the greatest opera singer or the funniest circus clown? Even just reputable amateur fishermen? But what do you do if there are no race tracks, no races, no operas being performed, no circus? And no teachers to help you get those skills? No fish in the ocean? Your ‘right’ doesn’t count for much then, eh?
“Hmm. I see. But…”
“What you need to acknowledge is this: For all your individual responsibility, there are some conditions for taking advantage of your ‘rights’ that don’t depend on the individual: they must be present in a person’s environment.”
“So how does that apply to a nation, a community?”
“I assume you’d say that a society, through its government, should make sure that a person can go about such pursuits in peace, free to do so, as long as it doesn’t interfere with other people’s right to go about their pursuits?”
“Sure Sound about right.”
“But wouldn’t you also say a society that can offer more appealing opportunities for such pursuits, more interesting, noble, challenging as well as enjoyable opportunities, would be better – even ‘greater’ if you prefer that word – than one that just declares that you have all kinds of rights that you can’t take advantage of because the conditions for pursuing them aren’t there?”
“I get it: you say that a great society is one that offers great opportunities – and the right as well as conditions enabling all its members to pursue them?”
“Yes. And the opportunity to create new opportunities, new and more interesting ways to live.”
“Okay. So what does that have to do with that thirteen-point statement Renfroe was talking about? Wasn’t it aimed at how we might deal with all the crises and challenges that are beginning to threaten humanity’s survival? What got you all excited about that?”
“Good question – getting back to that one. See, the traditional assumption about threats and challenges to a society was that its government should be set up to organize its ‘defenses’ — that is, it would maintain some institutions made up of people willing and able to use force against any ‘enemy’ threatening it. Military and police ‘forces’. Remember that notion: ‘enemy’: it was an assumption that an ‘enemy’ was some other society or group of people.”
“Right. Interior or exterior. Like it says in the pledge of allegiance.”
“Yes. I’ll come back to that enemy notion in a minute. Now, these institutions were organized, we have to assume with good reason, according to rigid hierarchical principles. The top guys, the generals, the commander-in-chief giving commands and the lower ranks carrying them out.”
“Of course: don’t you have to make sure that the regiments and platoons are all following a coherent defense plan (or attack, if they adhered to the idea that the best defense is an attack) and aren’t marching in the wrong direction ending up attacking each other?”
“Sure: it made sense to the people. If they had a say in the matter. So much so that the other governance institutions were organized according to similar hierarchical principles and command structures. Yes, yes, I know what you are going to say: we have elections that determine who the folks in our governance systems are going to be, to make sure they are ‘defending’ our interests and not their own. Which history teaches us is a real temptation if you give people too much power. Wasn’t that what you were going to say?”
“Something like that, yes.”
“Well. That pamphlet said something about the voting systems – that it didn’t exactly ensure that all of our interests and concerns would be ‘defended’, just those of the ‘majority’. So that seems to be one of the issues that we need to look into.”
“Are you questioning the idea of our democratic system? Do you have anything better up your sleeve?”
“Don’t get excited. You’re reading the papers about how it’s working, are you? Can we do better than that? I sure hope so. But we are getting ahead of things here. The crises and emergencies we are starting to worry about more these days: who’s the enemy?”
“Okay, are you going to try to defeat Nature with your drones and smart bombs and aircraft carriers? But isn’t it rather that Nature is starting to react against what WE are doing to it, out of ignorance and greed and foolishness? And what WE are doing to each other and ourselves? You’ve heard it as a joke, but the joke really is on us: the enemy is US. What we are beginning to discover is that the way we are doing things – in business, in governance, defense against crises and ‘enemies’ and in our private lives – doesn’t quite work the way it’s supposed to work anymore: we need to start thinking about doing all that differently.”
“Oh yeah: A ‘new system’, eh? We keep hearing that, yes. To tell you the truth: I’m beginning to get tired of all that talk: It seems that all they want is just power to do things ‘their’ way. Not for all of us…”
“I don’t blame you: I often feel the same way. Now, doesn’t it seem that WE – humanity — don’t have a really good idea about what that ‘new system’ should be? Do you, do WE know what works and what doesn’t work? I don’t. Look at all the different ideas about that out there: many of them are so different that people are beginning to fight each other over their preferred new system visions. We are all becoming ‘interior enemies’ to each other. So as far as I can see, there’s not much hope that we can come to meaningful agreements about that unified great new system – whether it is for a city, a nation, of the global human community.”
“You are becoming a bit of a depressing spoilsport yourself here, with all these dismal issues getting in the way of enjoying our drinks and conversation.”
“So sorry. But that isn’t my point at all: The ideas and points in that pamphlet: weren’t they actually beginning to provide some encouraging answers, if you think about it? But from my point there in the corner, it looked like you didn’t see that, or didn’t want to think about it – or knew things I don’t see why it wouldn’t work, and had some better ideas already.”
“So you think those thirteen points are some kind of solution? Come on…”
“I think that the first meaningful step is that they acknowledge that none of us have THE answer, THE solution. We don’t know enough. We need to examine different ideas, — not only the new ideas but older traditions in various human cultures: what did they know that we have forgotten? Human societies have tried many different ‘systems’: What went wrong, what worked? We tried a few major ones, they didn’t work too well, it seems. So we need experiments and analysis — all those ideas and initiatives at small scale that many people see as nuisance: we need to support them and get them to share their experience, for comparison and discussion, the results to be fed into a shared common discourse and evaluation framework.”
“I was a bit worried about that grand framework or platform: Sounded like that might just be another Big Brother kind of system?”
“Sure, if it were run as a traditional top-down hierarchical structure with insufficient controls of power. Power that would be likely to overrule legitimate concerns of how decisions would affect different people in the community; we have good reason to be suspicious of such a system especially if it gets to global scale. But didn’t that platform have some ideas for different ways of avoiding those problems? For one, it would only aim at a few overall agreements to ensure that all those small initiatives – and of course existing entities such as nations – wouldn’t get in each other’s way. And if it’s done right, with the new technology and media, it should be open to everybody’s input and participation. Isn’t that a totally new and glorious opportunity for humanity – one that we are just beginning to take advantage of?”
“Yes – and not all in very promising ways…”
“I think I see what you mean: the chaotic avalanche of opinions, repetitions, fake news, rumors and meaningless or malicious chatter on social media – it all looks like a new disaster more than a solution to you? Yes. But we haven’t worked out the needed procedures for the use of these tools in a planning and policy-making platform yet. A process that tries to ensure a better, transparent connection between the value and merit of people’s contributions to the discourse and the eventual decisions. That was what the proposal in that pamphlet was promising, wasn’t it? So shouldn’t that be something to talk about, discuss, evaluate, to try out, to see if it works?”
“Well, from the way Renfroe talked about it, I didn’t really get the idea that there were actual solutions worked out, that it was more than just wishful thinking. You agree, Vodçek?”
“No, Sophie, sorry. Coming to think about it, didn’t we actually discuss a number of what I’d call some missing pieces for that big platform, here in this lowly Tavern? Remember the stories about assessing the merit of planning arguments, about evaluation, about incentive points for contributions, and how they could be used for various purposes, even to control power with different, nonviolent tools?”
“Are you saying that those discussions had anything to do with that pamphlet and its platform proposals and issues? Is there a conspiracy afoot?”
“It looks that way. Where did you say Abbé Boulah got that pamphlet, Renfroe?”
“He didn’t really say, Bog-Hubert: now that I think about it. It could just be something he cooked up with his buddy up in town… So you think we’ve all been working on that stuff all along? And they just wrote it up?”
“Well, wherever you got it: It sure sounds like a great opportunity. Think about it: As a way to deal with all the problems, let’s use people’s need and desire to do their own thing, to make a difference in their lives, let them work on may different ideas, support them, preferably in places and ways that doesn’t put them in direct competition with the existing systems right away. Let’s use our technology to get them talking to each other in more productive ways, to learn, to evaluate the different approaches to find out what ideas we should adopt and which ones we shouldn’t. All the while contributing our insights to reach some needed global decisions that we can all support because we all were contributing to them and working them out? Is that something to support and work for? What are you guys doing with all the interesting ideas you’ve been working on?”
“So what do you think we ought to do?”
“At least keep talking about it, connect the different parts. To begin with.
“Let’s see that pamphlet again. Do you still have it, Renfroe?”
‘Here it is, a bit crumpled, sorry.”
The following notes are a response to various requests to join efforts to develop and implement a ‘new system’ or a new platform for assembling knowledge about the best practices and techniques for such a new system.
From the huge LinkedIn discussion of Systems Thinking World (STW) participants trying to come up with an answer to Ban Ki Moon’s 2011 Davos call for ‘revolutionary thinking and action to ensure an economic model for survival’, some things could be learned and summarized, briefly, that can serve as a kind of guideline or agenda for the needed efforts:
1. There are already countless initiatives for alternative ways to do things underway, or proposed.
2.To the extent these initiatives communicate with others and the public, they tend to advertise successes and articles of faith for their ideas, less on obstacles and errors.
3. There is widespread sentiment that ‘something should be done’, but no agreement about a common ‘global’ model, and considerable resistance against calls to join this or that cause. As a global community, we do not yet know enough about what works and what does not work, to embark on a cooperative global course or action or model.
4. Therefore, it seems that the many partial (i.e. ‘non-global’ or ‘local’) initiatives and experiments should be encouraged and supported rather than merged into one overall model. This should be accepted as a ‘global’ policy. To draw not only on human desire for cooperation but also on the human desire (of many among us) to ‘make a difference’ in our communities.
5. For such initiatives, support could take the form of devoting part of the usual humanitarian aid for recovery from natural or human-caused disasters to the establishment of ‘innovation zones’ in areas where ‘old’ infrastructure and governance systems have been destroyed. Support should be contingent upon honest reporting of successes and failure into a global forum for evaluation.
6. There is a need for discussion and negotiation of global agreements and decisions (conventions to permit the various initiatives but ensuring that they don’t get in each others’ way or endanger the whole).
7. Decisions should based on the merit of the best of available knowledge and information (much of which is ‘distributed’ and different according to local context conditions), rather than on majority voting which is not applicable to populations extending across conventional governance borders, and explicitly allows disregard of the concerns of the losing minority.
8. There is currently no coherent set of procedures for such discourse and negotiation that includes explicit determination of the merit of discourse contributions, though ideas and proposals have been made.
9. There would be a need for both bringing ‘existing’ (documented and past) knowledge and research as well as ad-hoc investigation to bear on such a better orchestrated discourse, through appropriate information systems structured according to appropriate models of planning and policy-making processes.
10. There is currently no platform for a truly cooperative and coherent platform to support such a discourse.
11. There are currently no sufficient incentives for many citizens to participate in such public discourse — overcoming the perceived ‘cost’ and effort of participating and the sense that their contributions ‘do not really count’.
12. There would be a great need for educating a global public in the practice of participation on a better orchestrated discourse.
13. There is currently no effective set of ‘sanctions’ to ensure adherence to agreements, other than ‘enforcement’ measures implying coercion violence, by ‘enforcement’ powers which human history tells us are vulnerable to the temptation to abuse that power, and that arguably exacerbate problems and conflicts rather than solving them to mutual satisfaction. New tools for the control of power are needed.
These insights together indicate at least a significant part of the immense agenda for a meaningful global effort to ensure a ‘model for survival’, which however may not be the ‘unified’ global model many envision. The specific technological innovation needs as well as the part of ‘education’ that aim at engendering the change in ‘awareness’ and ethics needed to support such a movement: (parts of item 4?) have been left out as already widely propagated.
The well-intended effort to develop a repository of human memory as an important support of the discourse is part of item 9 of that agenda. Given the many already existing repositories, the focus should be on the issue of how to channel their content on the specific aspects of the discourse, e.g. with information systems or search instruments organized by the discourse elements (issues) rather than knowledge domains.
There has been work on the concept as well as the missing parts of the overall discourse support system, item 10, specifically on items 7, 8, looking at aspects of item 11 and 13 that could be improved by ‘collateral’ information from item 7 (merit of arguments). Some thoughts on a discourse game as one possible tool for item 12 have been put forward. A main ‘systems thinking’ task in all this, is that of tying the various parts of the agenda into a mutually supporting whole network. The systems thinking efforts we currently see are not addressing the ‘argumentative’ aspect of the planning discourse; efforts have been made to bring the argumentative aspect into systems modeling and/ or vice versa. There is a danger in the well-intended temptation of bringing more AI tools to bear on the planning discourse (part of item 9) — the need to rely on ‘consistent’ information to reach valid inference seems to be somewhat at odds with the essence of the ‘contradictory’ pros and cons of planning arguments.
Work is needed on some of these aspects; different provisions should be tried out in smaller experiments; but the main and immediate need for even carrying the development work forward is that of development of the programming integrating the several functions of a fully supportive platform for the planning and policy-making discourse.
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?
Morning in the Fog Island Tavern. Tavern keeper Vodçek getting worried about one of his usual customers.
– Hey Bog-Hubert, what’s eating you? All morning you’ve been sitting there shaking your head over your tablet, even letting your coffee get cold? Am I going to have to start a no-internet rule in this lowly bistro? Here’s a warm-up. Care to share your gripes?
– Thanks Vodçek. Yes, it’s frustrating. All this unsocial talk by social networks do-gooders and holistrolls, systems Sthinkers and BigDataMongers, about how to save the world…
– Huh? Holistrolls? Sthinkers?
– Sorry, Renfroe. I’m talking about those fervent advocates of holistic thinking — Holist-rollers — morphing into trolls that obfuscate discussions by calling every idea they don’t like ‘linear’ or ‘reductionist’ …
– Good grief, are you giving us an explanation or an example of that kind of talk?
– Good point, Renfroe. Bog-Hubert, is your creative spirit morphing you into the very kind of name-calling troll we have heard you ranting about before?
– Name-calling, Abbé Boulah? Well, I call it calling a spade a spade. But yes, I guess it’s not any more conducive to constructive dialogue than their rehashing their principles and mantras without really getting off the starting plate.
– Well, what’s the race about, then, perhaps we can get moving?
– Short story, it’s about the strategy for tackling the big crises and challenges we are facing. By ‘we’, they are referring to humanity as a whole. And all those groups calling for a ‘new system’ to replace the old one, to fix things.
– Wait, Bog-Hubert: what ‘system’ are they talking about?
– Oh, it’s just about everything, — the economy, politics and governance, education, justice, religion, morality, production and consumption, information, trade, sustainability, research, climate change…
– Well, don’t they have a point saying that those systems don’t seem to work anymore, if they ever really did, and something needs to be done about that? At least thinking and talking about what a different order of things should be like?
– Sure, Vodçek. Talking, discussing it would be good — if the discussion could be organized in a more constructive fashion. But I am getting tired and suspicious of all those calls for a ‘new system’ to replace the ‘old one’ — calls for adopting this or that mantra wholesale as a guiding principle, but not getting into details about what kind of destruction and upheaval would be needed to ‘replace’ the old system, and how to deal with all the competing ideas out there about what that new system should be like. Let alone how to go about achieving it. Blindly proposing tactics, tools that simply don’t fit the nature of the problems involved.
– If you would explain that so we can understand what you are talking about, I’ll buy you another coffee…
– Okay: Take the lack of distinction between the nature of the problems we are facing. For some people, they — or some of them –are seen as problems we have dealt with before, for which there are precedents, tried-and-true tools, methods and approaches, laws — both natural and man-made, regulations, data about people’s habits, expectations and needs. Experts who know about all that. So the task is — plausibly enough — to bring the relevant knowledge together, perhaps making needed adjustments and refinements to the tools and methods, eliminate errors, mistakes, corruption etc. in the present system. Science and systems thinking, bless heir hearts, working hard to contribute to better understanding of the situations and systems. Then of course, leadership is needed to implement the ‘correct’ solutions generated by all this data.
– Sure, as long as the leaders are advised by the systems consultants, eh? But okay, sounds reasonable enough. So?
– The other view is that these social planning problems are ‘wicked’ problems — as Rittel taught us — unprecedented, understood very differently by different people. The information about how the problems and proposed solutions affect different parties is ‘distributed’, that is, not in the experts’ textbooks. There are no ‘correct or ‘false’ solutions that can be tested — just good or bad, better or worse, perhaps even evil — and people’s judgments are very different about that. It’s worth studying the properties of these problems. And so on. Go back and read the old 1970’s article about the ten or so properties of wicked problems. It would keep those folks who are pushing yet another approach to ‘solve WP’s’ to be more careful with their promises. But even the lists of those properties in many publications have been watered down to sound more benign and manageable. Anybody promising tools to ‘solve’ wicked problems either doesn’t understand their wickedness, or is selling snake oil.
– So what do we need to cope with those nasty problems?
– Would I be sitting here shaking my head and letting my coffee get cold if I knew, Renfroe? There are a few major but different attitudes I see out there. Besides the snake oil promoters, that is. I see one cluster of groups who seem to believe that the main missing remedy is a fundamental change in people’s awareness, attitudes, understanding of the ‘whole system’ — moral principles, empathy, beliefs.
– ‘Unifying’ beliefs — the ones that are supposed to prevent conflicts, wars, corruption, inequality and injustice, once everybody has come to accept those same principles and unified mindset — wouldn’t you add those?
– Ah Vodçek: I think I see what you are worried about — and isn’t that your concern as well, Bog-Hubert? The danger of falling into the trap of generating a mindset approaching totalitarian dominance? Not by brute force but by social, psychological pressure…but equally deadening.
– It’s difficult to argue with all the goodness faith articles of those movements, yes. Isn’t it reasonable to assume that the responses to the crises must be somewhat coherent, consistent and, yes, have a common unified basis? Otherwise, there’s a danger that inconsistent, incompatible actions will make things even worse. And it feels unfair to disparage their good intentions as ‘totalitarian’ or ‘fascist’ — which is a different way of saying ‘unified’. But I agree, as far as I can see, they don’t usually provide enough information about how a ‘new system’ would deal with people who are not entirely converted to the faith.
– Yes: or people who even attempt to give meaning to their lives by ‘making a difference’ that includes differences with the prevailing unifying principles?
– We’ll have to discuss that problem in some more detail, I guess: put it on the list. But what was the other attitude you mentioned, Abbé Boulah?
– Ah. Thanks for reminding me, Vodçek. Well, in order to develop and then convince people about plans for collective responses to challenges — crises, or desires for new and better system — that meet the criterion of being sufficiently acceptable to all affected parties —
– Why does it have to be acceptable to all — isn’t the democratic principle that we discuss a plan but then vote on it, letting the majority decide what’s to be done? Not sure ‘decided by majority vote is really equivalent to ‘acceptable by all? Or are you going to toss that principle too in your new plan? Sorry for interrupting…
– You’re forgiven this time, my friend, because the point you are making is an important one. The much touted democratic principle, the core of democracy and freedom: ‘free elections’ but decided on the majority rule — isn’t that just ensuring that the ‘losing’ parties will harbor resentments, arguably insist that the problems the plan was supposed to solve haven’t been solved at all, just shifted around, to be suffered by different folks?
– Why is that?
– Because, Renfroe, the majority rule decision principle may assume that the arguments of the losing minority aren’t plausible or convincing enough to persuade the winning majority — but says nothing about the majority’s arguments having convinced and persuaded the minority. Or about giving ‘due consideration’ to their concerns. The issues may not have been resolved at all, just wiped off the table. The concerns and arguments that the democratic discourse is supposed to bring out for ‘due consideration’, for ‘weighing the pros and cons’, may be totally ignored by that decision rule. Leaving the problems to fester and grow. But isn’t that one of the issues we have to take up later, Bog-Hubert? You think the current forms of discourse wouldn’t be up to the task even if people were willing to do better?
– Yes, I think the first task we have to face is the organization of the discourse. It is supposed to facilitate wide participation, to bring in the arguments. To include the careful evaluation of their merit. Does it do that? And most importantly, to connect the decisions transparently and responsibly to the merit of the arguments and concerns?
– Why discourse? If we recognize dangers, shouldn’t we focus on doing something? Actions?
– You’d be right if we knew and agreed on what the right actions are. But what we see is that we don’t agree, and I think it’s fair to say that ‘we’, the humanity overall, just don’t yet know what we ought to do? So we may need more research, more experiments, and bring the results into a discourse designed for leading to better decisions?
– And you are saying that current forms and formats of discourse don’t do that properly? Are you going to tell people how to discuss and argue their issues?
– Good heavens, Vodçek, no. Sure, given all the recipes of the disciplines that tell us how to think right, the ‘rules of order’, the textbooks about how to persuade people, your suspicion is justified. I’d add to that concern the various efforts to introduce different forms of expressing the concerns — languages, codes — perhaps to make it easier for machines to document and analyze the discourse. As if the discussions weren’t already full of different disciplinary jargons that make the content difficult to understand for lay folks. I don’t think that’s what is needed. Isn’t it more a matter of displaying the essence of the different contributions? For overview, comparison, and evaluation? In common conversational terms?
– All right. So the problem is the design of the discourse platform and its support system. Aren’t there already a lot of programs and systems and social networks on the market that do exactly that? Using the new communication technology devices and the internet, that allow virtually everybody to talk to everybody else? I can’t keep up with them all — aren’t they making progress?
– Yes. They are amazing, interesting, fascinating, some people even say: addictive. But have you tried to find out which one you’d use to actually carry out a real public discourse about an important issue? Tried to follow one of those discussions to help you make up your mind about what side you are going to support, maybe even to contribute your efforts to?
– You mean sending in the donations they are all asking for isn’t enough, Vodçek?
– Phht. Do those groups ask you about your opinion or ideas? I’m not talking about the mere ‘discussion’ networks that make their money by selling ads, where people go for endless exchanges of mostly posts that immediately divert from the questions asked, but where there is never any real effort to reach a conclusion or decision. The groups that are actually trying to do something have pretty much made up their minds, their proposals, and just want your money to help promoting them. Don’t confuse them with any questions or different ideas…
– You’re right, that scene is good evidence that we need a more effective public discourse platform. One where people can bring in their ideas, concerns, their arguments, but don’t need a lot of money for spreading their message, for advertising, and lobbying the folks who really make the decisions. One where people can bring up their different views about those issues, look at others’ ideas, think about them, maybe contribute to modifying plan proposals in response to others’ concerns.
– What about those people who are claiming that instead of throwing their views, their thinking about what we ought to do at each other, everybody should just do the ‘right thing’, not what they think is the right thing? Focus on what actually is the case, not what they think is the case?
– Oh, Sophie, you mean that fellow on the internet you were so annoyed about, what was his name? I know those types. Are they just trying to tell everybody else they are wrong, stupid or tied up and blinded by their ideologies (which are also wrong, of course) — trying to get everybody to accept their version of what is happening and what ought to be done? Or do they actually have a better access to the right thing?
– Hard to tell. I mean, of course we should base our thinking on the actual facts — on reality — and our proposals about what to do on what is the right thing to do. Can’t argue with that; it’s barging in open doors. No, I get confused about that thinking part: Say I have actually found out what is really happening, after having changed my initial flawed assumptions, doing some investigation, which in part consisted of listening to what other folks were thinking (but who were of course wrong because they were just thinking, not knowing, according to that fellow) — am I not still just thinking that I know, and therefore still wrong?
– Could be that they were just hoping you’d accept some story from some authority or holy book — on faith, not thinking, mind you? But then: what if there are several wise guys or holy books around, that tell you different stories…
– Well, Sophie, I’d say forget those disruptions. Ignore them. Look, we are all trying to engage in a discourse where different views about what is the case, and what ought to be done, are put forward for examination — the discourse ought to report and be tied in with actual observation, measurement, experiments. So aren’t we actually already doing that: finding out, to be best of our current information and data — what the real facts are, what is the right thing we ought to do? Or has this guy you mentioned suggested something better?
– Good point, Bog-Hubert. But don’t offend them by too obviously ignoring them; They’ll just go around claiming you refuse to accept reality and the right thing to do.
– ‘The right thing to do’, Vodçek — isn’t that just another way of saying ‘what we ought to do’? Repeating a proposed position — by without giving a reason why something is or isn’t the right thing?
– All right, you are getting to the core of problems here. I’d say we should be more careful and humble with those terms: ‘reality’ and ‘the right thing to do’. Do we really ever know reality? I think Karl Popper’s warning about the ‘symmetry of ignorance’ is a good thing to keep in mind: (I forgot the exact place) — What I know — a — about reality (even about the situation involving a problem we are facing, and all its relations with the rest of the world) and what you know — b — amounts to precious little compared with the infinity of what there is to know: a/∞ = b/∞ = 0. Zero.
– You are not inspiring a particularly optimistic outlook here today, my friend. What are we to make of that, eh? Chastise you for spreading views not conducive to increasing the self-confidence of would-be world saviors? Bad boy. Almost as evil as using the term ‘argument’ in polite discourse?
– So sorry. Yes, your statement ‘to the best of our current information’ is more appropriate to keep us more modest: We find that we have to do something, but we know that our big data information is limited, our knowledge imperfect; we can’t be completely certain about anything.
– So we can’t do anything? Give up?
– No, Renfroe: we have to take a chance, assume the risk of possibly being wrong. And if we can’t assume that responsibility by ourselves — even those of us who are making plans and decisions on behalf of others and the public — we need to find people who are willing to share that responsibility, share the risks.
– That’s what Rittel called the ‘complicity model of planning’, didn’t he?
– Right, Bog-Hubert.
– So now we have to deal with the issue of responsibility and accountability as well. What does that actually mean — other than pompous words by leaders who are always letting others suffer the consequences of their irresponsible actions?
– Put that one on the list too, for now. We haven’t gotten very far with the design of the discourse and its support system yet. Shouldn’t we get some more detail on that first?
– Okay. The insight about the missing reasons why, in those exhortations about doing the right thing, that was the next step there: the arguments, pros and cons about plan proposals.
– Oh, great. Are you going to dump the entire literature on argumentation, from Aristotle on through two thousand years of logic and critical thinking fat books on us here?
– We’d deplete Vodçek’s supplies of coffee and other inspiring lubrications if we tried; no. I don’t think the discourse framework has any business telling people how to think and argue — that’s somebody else’s job description. Education? Regular columns in the newspapers? Fact-and fallacy-checking internet sites? Interesting possibilities there, whole new industries? No: the first task of the discourse platform is simply to alert people about what plans and policies are being proposed, to then encourage and invite comments, arguments, ideas, and to record them for reference.
– I’d say we have achieved that step already. And it isn’t a pretty picture, if you ask me. Or don’t you suffer from that information overload like the rest of us, Abbé Boulah?
– Oh, I do, sure. The avalanche of so-called information, data, opinions, arguments that aren’t really coherent arguments but rants and quarrels replete with repetitions and name-calling — quarrgument would be a better name — that our glorious information technology has let loose upon humanity. It’s like one of the curses of ol’ Pandora’s lacquered box. Enough to make one lose faith in the species. That’s where the next task of the discourse platform is so desperately needed: to extract the essential core of all the discourse contributions, — especially the essential argument core of all those pros and cons — and to display those in a concise, condensed form so people can keep a clear overview of the key subject matter. And also to make it easy for them to form reasonable judgments to support or reject the plan proposals. That’s where a lot of work is needed.
– I thought your buddy up at the university has done some useful work on that part?
– Well, yes, but it’s work in progress, and he’s retired, and doesn’t have the means nor the institutional support to conduct substantial case studies, experiments and tests of his ideas any more. So it’s slow going.
– Why, aren’t there other researchers to take up that work?
– Looks like he’s not doing enough to spread the work, to get others interested and involved, to market his ideas. He seems to think it’s enough to have thought them up and written some books and papers about them.
– Lazy, eh?
– Well, Sophie, he probably wouldn’t argue with that uncharitable assessment. But he does keep working on all this — he’s actually written more since he retired than he ever did while teaching. So is that really a fair assessment? And there’s the problem that those ideas are crossing several academic discipline borders, each of which is saying that the questions are too far out of their domain, or if they aren’t, what does that guy from the other department know about their science? Besides: why does somebody who can think up useful ideas and methods also have to be the slick salesman to sell them to the world? But perhaps we have to be patient, and wait for other people to come up with better ideas… For now, I’d say we do have some basic concepts that could be put to good use for that second step.
– So what more do we need?
– The next task may be even more important. All the contributions to the discourse, even in some cleaned-up, organized and concise display, don’t yet make it clear how they support the decisions we have to make. Especially because — by definition — the ‘pros’ are contradicting the ‘con’s, and not all arguments supporting the same position carry the same weight. That needs to be sorted out and clarified: evaluation.
– What’s the purpose of that? I mean, people are usually voting their preconceived positions anyway. Or the managers, leaders, governors or presidents are making their decisions whether or not they have really ‘carefully weighed the pros and cons’ like they promised in their campaigns…
– Well, isn’t that precisely the problem? Actually, I thought you were going to bring up the argument that if we follow the steps of some approved approach — something like the Pattern Language, the fact of having followed those rules guarantee a good, valid solution: no evaluation needed, case closed. Which of course doesn’t apply to wicked, unprecedented problems for which there aren’t any established rule systems. But you are actually making the case for more careful assessment here, aren’t you?
– Next thing, you’re going to accuse me of speaking prose. But I still don’t see just what the benefit of such evaluation procedures is going to be.
– Actually, there are two different purposes a more systematic evaluation would serve. And I guess I should make it clear that it should be done by all the folks participating in the discourse, not by some separate panel of experts. And it should be detailed enough to address the individual premises or items of information in the discourse contributions, and their supporting evidence, if needed.
– Sounds like a lot of extra trouble. But go on…
– Yeah, You may have to decide in each case whether its’ worth preventing bad decisions. Then the first benefit is that the assessments can help us see where the actual disagreements are, so that the discussion can focus on clarifying the basis of those disagreements — misunderstanding, inadequate factual information, different goals and concerns? And doing so, help modify, improve the proposed plan to make them more acceptable to all parties.
– What do you mean — aren’t the disagreements obvious?
– Not always: You can be against somebody’s argument for a plan A that claims that A will lead to effect B (given conditions C), that B ought to be, and that conditions C are present. You may doubt the first premise that A will cause B. Or you may not agree that we ought to pursue B as a goal. Or you may agree with both of those, but don’t believe all the conditions C are in place to make it work. So just saying that you disagree might induce the proponent to cite all kinds of evidence and big data to support the claim that A will cause B, when it’s actually consequence B you disagree with…
– Okay, get it. And your second aspect?
– Right, getting to that: the benefit a more thorough evaluation could produce is a more specific measure of support of the proposed plans or policies, after all the talk has run its course.
– What good would that do? If people vote their preconceived solutions anyway?
– It could serve to introduce a greater degree of accountability into the decision process, don’t you see? It would make it more difficult for the decision-makers, whoever they are in each situation, to decide to adopt a plan that has achieved a very low or even negative approval rating from the discourse participants. Or conversely, reject a plan that has gotten a high degree of approval from the group.
– Would that be needed if the decision is based directly on that measure of approval, — if you can develop a reasonable measure for that, which remains to be clarified, because I’m not sure I can see it yet.
– Good question, Vodçek. Actually, several questions. Your main one: why not use the support measure as the decision criterion, like the outcome of a yes-or-no vote? It has to do with the question whether we can be sure all the information that should be given ‘due consideration’ is actually brought up and made explicit in the discussion, so that it can be included in the evaluation? Next: even for all the points that have been raised explicitly: how is that measure of support made up of all the judgments about individual answers, arguments and their premises, first for each individual participant? And finally: how would we construct a meaningful ‘group measure’ of support from all the individual judgments?
– A veritable nest of wicked questions in themselves — and you don’t have good, final answers yet?
– Right, sadly. To the best of our current view: we can’t guarantee that the explicit contributions actually represent all pertinent considerations that legitimately should influence decisions. Like some issues that are important but ‘taken for granted’ so nobody bothered to bring them up. Or somebody not disclosing information that could be detrimental to other groups. And for the other questions, there are several plausible answers or approaches to each of them; for example, how to construct group support measures from the individual judgments. And since we don’t have any experience with how they would be used in a real situation yet, none of them is a clear-cut solution for all situations. Those different situations, finally, may involve institutional traditions, constitutional constraints, the different ‘accountability’ status of the people making a recommendation versus those who have been appointed to make decisions and whose jobs depend on how they do that, etc. So in many situations, the actual decision may have to be made by traditional means and rules, and our support measures should be no more than guiding support information.
– I see. But if the consultants get hold of this, they’d mash it into some new ‘brand’ and sell it as the ultimate decision rules anyway…
– Now, now. Don’t throw all the consultants in the bathwater… The managers do need somebody to come in and tell the troops that the boss is right…
– Well who’s the cynic now? But aren’t we getting away from the main issue here, Bog-Hubert?
– Oh yes, I realize that: consulting for a company that is locked in fierce competition with other firms is somewhat different from calling for the grand new system for all mankind, where conflict and competition is supposed to be replaced by universal awareness, goodwill and cooperation. So the consultant’s systems work has to be different from the grand public system discourse, because they still have to accommodate competition as the essential business issue — but the stories for getting the team inside the company to work more productively are using the same kinds of mantras that apply to the grand system. Somebody might want to take a look at that discrepancy. Vodçek, you have some ideas about that?
– Yeah I have often wondered why they all have to come up with their own different ‘brand’ of systems thinking tools until I realized that they can’t really sell the same approach to different, competing companies: if they all used the same approach, they can’t claim that the differences in profitability is due to the approach they were selling…
– Abbé Boulah, getting back to the question about decisions for a minute: I know we left the decision modes up for adaptation to the situation, — so as to not fall into the trap of designing a grand unified system for this discourse project, perhaps? But Isn’t that leaving the door open for another big problem — one of those grand challenges all humanity must come to grips with?
– What challenges are you talking about, again?
– Sorry Renfroe. Bog-Hubert was worrying about all the global crises threatening humanity, for which the do-gooder grand systems folks are trying to develop their ultimate system remedy. You know: Climate change, dwindling resources like food, energy, water to sustain a growing world population, conflicts and wars fought with evermore destructive weapons that threaten the survival even of the winners, the financial system booms and busts, inequality of wealth and income, health care and education.
– Oh okay. So which one of those were you talking about — for which the discourse decision provisions were leaving the door open?
– Sorry, I didn’t list that one in my examples. It’s the question of power, and how to control it. It’s one of those problems for which we need the discourse platform; and of course the way we will deal with it will affect the design of the discourse system itself.
– Yeah, yeah, the old systems rule, everything is related to and affects everything else. So? We can’t design the discourse before we solve the power problem? Sounds like a dinosaur-size chicken-and-egg problem.
– Right, Sophie: it just goes to show how wicked these issues are. But let me explain why the design of the discourse system may have some interesting ‘collateral benefit’ for the power conundrum.
– What’s the problem with power, anyway, specifically? We all want some, the communities at all sizes need power to get things done, it’s like anything, getting too much of a good thing is going to be bad for you… It’s reality, no?
– Well, let me try to explain. Yes, you are right: we all want power. To pursue our happiness — at our lowly common folks’ level we call it ’empowerment’ when we don’t have enough of it. You might consider it a kind of human right. We also need power in society: even in an ideal hypothetical society where all community decisions lead to agreements we all supported in that glorious collective discourse platform we are designing — and all are supposed to adhere to. Even there, some people might want to do things for their own greater benefit, in violation of those agreements. Deliberately or inadvertently. So societies have provisions to try to prevent the potential violators from doing that — and it’s mostly done by pursuing and imposing penalties and sanctions on the bad guys who did it. The predominant tool for that has been the set of institutions we call law enforcement and judicial. In order to do its job effectively, it must have more power that any would-be violator, right?
– Now that you point it out, oh boy; you’re right.
– Yes. It explains the escalation in arsenals and budgets on all sides. Now we know that power itself is, to put it bluntly, addictive. The powerful want more and more of it. Maybe that’s because many forms of power involve getting others to do what the powerful want them to do, but those others don’t, because they don’t get to do what they want to do, and there’s resistance, resentment. Which must be controlled by more power. And there’s a powerful temptation to break the rules, because do you really have power if you have to abide by laws and rules — even if you made those rules yourself? The Caligula syndrome. You’re not really ‘free’ unless you can do things that violate all society’s rules and laws, even laws of logic and reason? Let’s see who has power: I’ll make my horse a consul, so there.
– Okay, but haven’t we — human societies — developed some viable means of controlling power? Time limits for power-wielding office holders, elections, impeachment, balance of legislature, executive, and judicial branches of government, corruption laws…?
– Right. And some have been reasonably effective. But there are worrisome signs that those provisions are reaching the limits of their effectiveness. We can suspect some of the reasons for that — for example, that non-government entities — to which those governmental power constraints do not apply — are using their economic power to control governments.
– You mean: buying governments?
– I don’t want to speculate here — but doesn’t it sometimes look like it’s possible…? Or that it’s actually happening? But that aside: now that we are reaching a global situation where many are talking about some world government — what if that government were to be taken over by non-government entities? Already, huge corporations are operating across national borders almost as if they didn’t exist; international crime syndicates have always done that, as well as religions. It took a long time in the western world to get governments separated from the church. But the real danger is — whoever is holding the global power — that by the logic of having to be more powerful than any would-be violator of its agreements, treaties, laws — there can be no more powerful entity to keep a global government or power from playing a little loosely with this duty of adhering to the laws. Or to any agreement we may have laboriously argued our way to adopt in our global discourse forum. Will the global government be immune to the temptations of power?
– Your contribution to this discourse is getting kind of depressing here, Abbé Boulah. Any ideas what to do about that?
– You mean shut up? Sure, let’s all join the global ostrich community. Or do you actually expect lil’ ol’ me to have the answer to this conundrum that nobody really wants to discuss, as far as I can see?
– Well, I was hoping you’d have some answers…
– Coming to think of it: Haven’t we, with the help of Vodçek’s lubrications in this great Fog Island Tavern, developed some tentative, crazy ideas that may at least trigger some discussion and shake up better solutions? You may have forgotten or lost them out of sight in that fog that gave it its name.
– Come on. Quit beating around the bush and remind us!
– Okay, okay. One concept was the notion of sanctions for agreement violations that don’t require an ‘enforcement’ agency equipped with the ever-growing and ever-escalating force armament, requiring impressive ‘prosecution’ first in catching the perps and then to run them through the judicial system, resulting in high costs and then enforced penalties and punishment. Instead, to develop provisions for ‘sanctions’ that are automatically triggered by the very attempt of violation, and thereby prevent the violation before it begins.
– I remember now. We didn’t get very far with specific implementation ideas though.
– Right: though we have some promising technologies for low-grade violations, it is an idea that needs discussion, research and development. Is anybody doing that in a systematic, sustained way? Put it on the list: it’s one of the topics that should be on the discourse agenda.
– Wasn’t there also something about making power holders pay for decisions? And using some kind of credit points from the discourse and argument evaluation as the currency for that?
– Good point, Vodçek! Are you keeping a record of all the great ideas we are tossing about at your counter?
– No, it might be a good idea. But that one just stuck in my mind because it sounded so crazy.
– What in three twisters name are you guys talking about?
– Ah Sophie, you must have missed some episodes of this embryonic global tavern discourse.
– Come on, lose the fancy obscurantist talk, just explain that crazy idea Vodçek was mentioning.
– Ouch, ‘obscurantist’ — that hurts, I’ll have to treat my wounds with some Zinfandel, if Vodçek has some at hand. Bog-Hubert, do you have a clearer memory about that crazy idea?
– Well, we talked about contributions to the discourse. We wanted to encourage, invite people to contribute their ideas and concerns, on the one hand, but keep that flow of posts from getting overwhelmed by repetition. So what if there was a system giving every contributor some ‘civic credit’ points for every idea, every argument. But only the first one with the substantially same content — even if expressed in different words. That also would have the effect of getting those contributions fast — since only the first one would get the credit.
– Good idea — that would cut down of some of the volume … But what does it have to do with the power problem?
– Hold on a minute, Sophie — there’s an intermediate step we have to fill in first. It’s the argument evaluation. Some of those are very plausible, others turn out to be just blah or mistaken, or even distracting. Since these information bits and arguments are evaluated by the participants in order to develop the decision support ‘plausibility’ measure, we could use those assessments to adjust the basic contribution credit points. Upward for plausible, good and significant items, downward for worthless ones. Those revised credit points could be recorded in a ‘civic credit account’ for each participant. Now that credit can be an added criterion for electing or assigning people to power positions — you know, people who have to make fast decisions for matters that can’t wait for the outcome of lengthy and thorough discussions. They will still be needed, right? We didn’t mention those when we were talking about controlling power a while ago.
– Shucks, and here I started dreaming that we could get rid of those in our grand new system, and all go fishing… or celebrating her in the tavern?
– So sorry. But the connection to the power problem was the idea we had here some long November night, that we’d have people pay for each of those power decisions. If power is something like a human need, it’s like food and shelter and movies — we are expected to pay for it — why not for the power to make power decisions? And the credit account would be the currency for doing that. If you’ve used up your credits, guv, and there aren’t any folks willing to transfer some of their hard-earned credits to you for making those decisions on our behalf, the jig is up, back to the discussion earning more credits. Like the automatically triggered sanctions for agreement violations, it’s another partial approach for controlling power. If we are going to have any serious global agreements or ‘system’, — a kind of global government — aren’t these some really urgent issues we need to start talking about? Eh, Bog-hubert?
– Yes, that was why I wasn’t so happy about all those grand new systems proposals — there isn’t much about such issues in those glorious schemes, as far as I can see.
– So have we learned anything from this palaver, are we ready for some conclusions, however preliminary?
– Well there are a few things we could throw out as ‘best of current misconceptions’ Like:
* The ‘grand new unified system’ idea is a rather questionable one;
* Even if we thought it was needed — and arguably, some aspects are; — but we don’t really know enough to do it right yet; and there is not enough agreement about that; so
* We need more research and experiments with different ideas — small local initiatives to gain experience with what works and what doesn’t work; and feed the results into
* A global discourse for which we first need a much improved platform with an integrated support system including extracting the essential core of contributions; better display and mapping, argument evaluation, and a mechanism for linking decisions to the merit of those arguments and contributions. And
* Using some of our collateral discourse ideas for better control of power, especially the control of the power that will have to ensure adherence to global unified decisions and agreements.
* So the first global agreement we need is the design of the global discourse platform in which we can discuss whether a grand new system is needed and what it should be like.
– Well — how do we get people to start thinking and talking about those things?
– Put it on the list…
– Hey: what list? Did you forget where you are? And that this entire discussion is as fictional and hypothetical as the entire mythical Fog Island Tavern and its suspicious customers?