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

A Fog Island Tavern discussion
Thorbjørn Mann 2019

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

The aggravating spectacle of humanity’s response to its challenges

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

What would Abbé Boulah do?

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

Acknowledge: there are crises, problems, challenges.

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

Many ‘alternative’ efforts already proposed or underway

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

So again: what to do?

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

A New Agenda?

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

Issues and possible answers

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

Acknowledge, embrace, support the different initiatives

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

Developing a Planning / Policy-Making Discourse Platform

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

Getting the information: participation: incentives?

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

Measures of merit of discourse contributions to guide decisions

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

Decision modes and procedures

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

Measures of contribution merit and the role of Artificial Intelligence Tools

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

Displays: concise overview

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

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

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

Power and Accountability for Decisions

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

Paying for power decisions?

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

Too complex solutions? Response options?

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

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

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

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

 

–o–

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WRONG QUESTION?

(Thorbjørn Mann overhearing a conversation in The Fog Island Tavern)

– What in three twisters’ names is wrong with you today, Bog-Hubert? How many times have I told you that reading those papers from the mainland in the morning will just ruin your attitude for an otherwise glorious foggy day on the island? And furiously stirring your weird habitual dose of crushed red peppers your coffee with nothing in it except will n o t improve its taste! At least let the grounds and the peppers settle to the bottom where they belong!

– Ah Vodçek, quit your nagging. But you’re right, I should have left reading the paper to the evening when a dose of guilt for imbibing too much of your Zin would balance out the outrage this so-called news creates in any righteously reading man’s mind. Well, too late now: What is wrong with these people?

– All right then, I’ll let you vent yer spleen this time. Let’s get this out of your system before the others come in so you won’t ruin their moods too. What dismal news gets your temper up today?

– Well, it’s not really news. It’s that they can’t come up with some useful new ideas. I was just reading this column, some right-wing think tank guy, pontificating about the stupidity of the leftists who want to overturn the capitalist system of free enterprise and replace it with socialism, big government and taxes for free welfare for everyone.

– Right, sounds like the old battle cries: capitalism versus socialism, less government, more government, old hat slogans, but they still work, getting people worked up, right? So can you really blame the politicians to use them? If they don’t have any better ideas?

– You’re putting the finger on the sore spot: better ideas. Or the lack of any.

– Well, if you are worried about the size and power of government, and the issue hasn’t been resolved yet – which I agree it doesn’t look like they have, yet – what’s wrong with hammering away on the question to get some better answers about it? Or are you finally deciding which side you are going to root for now? Which side you’re on?

– Vodçek, you know me better than that. There are well-intentioned ism-ists on both sides, equally exasperating. Isn’t the problem that they all, right and left, each blinded by the alleged flaws and misdeeds of the other side, are missing the real problems? Capitalism-socialism, big government – small government:  all

w r o n g   q u e s t i o n!?

– I see. I have some ideas about that myself. But please enlighten me: what, in your mind, is the right question?

Misrepresentation, polarization

– Or questions – there is never just one. The first problem – before getting to the better questions — is the way those issues are framed in the first place – both deliberately misrepresenting the other. Needless polarization. Nobody on the right really wants a regime with a government so feeble that it can’t effectively deal with any common problems we can’t address as the rugged individualists we are supposed to be; nobody on the left really wants a big government so big that it would tyrannical control every aspect of our lives, along the lines of older feudal, monarchist, soviet-style communist, fascist, maoist, militarist let alone mono-religious and other dictatorial regimes. So the first step would be to quit that misrepresentation and begin to focus on the underlying and shared problems.

– Shared problems? Ad several of those? Explain.

The control of power

– Just a few, for starters, should be enough. One main feature that truly bugs me is that none of those regime models have yet found a good way to deal with the problem of power.

– You don’t think the provisions of western really democratic constitutions are adequate?

– Yes and no. – Yes, I think it can’t be said too often that those provisions – based on the separation and balance of powers in the political governance system – are important and impressive achievements of civilization; the best we have seen in history. When they work properly.

– And you are saying they don’t?

– Yes. Compared to some regimes that emulated these trappings but ended up turning autocratic, the mechanics of which remain to be fully understood, I think you can argue they are still valid. But —

– I agree. The assumption of some revolutionary regimes that it would be enough to wrest the power away from the current powers and just proclaim that thereby power has been returned to ‘the people’, it is rather childish if not deliberately deceptive.

– Yes: they ignore that in whatever regime that needs positions of power – which every society does need, regardless of its policy-decision-making process: any ship at sea suddenly encountering an iceberg must have a captain who decides whether to pass it on starboard or port, the decision can’t wait for a lengthy deliberative process – such power becomes addictive and self-serving. And therefore must be controlled.

– But, you were going to say?

– Yes: Even in so-called democratic systems, the traditional power control provisions in the governance system are losing their effectiveness, because the military and private enterprise sector that has morphed into huge near–monopolistic, transnational corporate monsters, and financial entities, as well as the media conglomerates, where the governance system controls do not apply, have intruded and overwhelmed the governance control systems. To the point where legislatures can now without constraint pass laws that ignore and contradict even explicit popular opinion and referendum results. Do I have to give you more detailed examples?

– I get the idea. How did this happen?

– That is one of the questions that need to be asked and explored. But even the governance system based on the parliamentary principle of deliberation before deciding – remember, the old civilized gentlemen’s agreement of “let’s leave our weapons outside, sit down and talk, each side listen to the other, and then decide”, is fatally incomplete and flawed in one crucial respect.

– Ah, I see. Majority voting.

Voting as a decision criterion

– Yes. Majority voting; where votes are determined less by reasoning, communication and deliberation than by propaganda, partisan news reporting of the media, if not outright censorship, and ignorance. When voters are led by government and media misinformation and lack of adequate news reporting, to vote for going to wars in faraway countries they can’t even find on a map, let alone explain what threat those countries pose to our national interests, what is the value or merit of those votes? But that is what we get decisions based on the count of votes where there’s no distinction between the votes of well-informed people who have been listening to each other, getting the supporting evidence before making their judgment, and votes by totally uninformed folks who may just have been getting one side of the issues, if any.

– You’re getting yourself on thin ice there, my friend.

– I know, I know. As if all this global warming will even get us any ice on which to get ourselves in trouble. Yes, the last thing we should aim for is a system that denies any person the right to make their opinion count, however ill-or well-informed. But that does not mean that we should stop looking for better ways to inform each other, to get people involved in the discourse, to get a better overview of all the opinions on each side, to eventually get decisions better influenced by the merit of all entries into the discussion? To even refrain from looking for better ways?

– Calm down, Bog-Hubert. I applaud your exasperation. Yes, it’s curious that we don’t hear more about such improvement efforts.

– Yes, Vodçek – all we hear about is the constant battle-cry of ‘getting the vote out’ and the controversies about gerrymandering and other obstacles to people’s voting rights. But isn’t there another aspect to this that deserves attention and suggests looking for alternative measures of merit of discussion entries that should influence decisions?

– What’s that, besides the issue of finding out who can be trusted to make the decisions we don’t have time to even discuss?

Issues transcending traditional governance boundaries

– Well, think about it. The challenges we are facing, increasingly, are not neatly confined to the geographical governance boundaries where we can (if we really want to, which is another question) count voters and determine majorities. Where law-makers like those I heard about in North Carolina can make fools of themselves (and apparently even get voter support) for proposed legislation such as denying state funding for research on global warming and rising sea levels that might result in predictions of more that three or four feet of sea level rise. Which well illustrates your point about who to trust with such decisions…

– Yes, they may have very powerful legislators there? Or governors? That can stop global warming single-handedly?

– Don’t you wish? For one, that gets back to our power issue. But more importantly: when problems like global warming, or ocean pollution, transcend the borders of our arbitrary governance entities and their governing institutions – what are you going to do to get decisions based on citizen participation, with the majority voting system? Whose information – concerns, fears, ideas, votes or judgments — are going to be invited to contribute to the discussion, to the formation of decisions?

– I see. How do you determine who will or should have the voting rights, or even legitimate polling credentials, to calculate majorities. So you are saying that for such issues, there should be different decision criteria?

– Right. For example, criteria such as the plausibility measures we could derive from the systematic assessment of the pro and con arguments people raise in planning discussions, in policy-making discussions. As I said, for example: the abbeboulistic ideas we have discussed in this very tavern should be seen as challenges to all the better funded think tanks to come up with better ideas, if they don’t think these proposals are worth trying out?

– Hmm. I see. So what do you think should be done about all this? That you are so disappointed not seeing in your morning paper?

– Good question. Well, even with my fortifications, your coffee isn’t powerful enough to make me conjure up all the answers by my lil’ ol’ self, I’m sorry. But didn’t we discuss some ideas here in this very Tavern, that should be considered as first step items on a better agenda than trying to figure out how to get candidates elected to ensure party majorities – majorities by party discipline, by Abbé Boulah’s drooping mustache!! — in the bought and paid-for institutions that we have determined to be systemically incapable of dealing with the problems?

Agenda?
Discourse platform

– Agenda? Let me guess. The development of the better discourse for planning and political decision-making would be right on the top of that one, if I know you.

Participation incentives
Assessment of contribution merit

– Right. A platform that includes meaningful incentives for participating, and at least the possibility for a more systematic assessment of the pro and con arguments and their supporting evidence.

Overview display

– Is that complication really necessary? I’d have thought that a good, concise display of all the pertinent aspects and opinions would be the more important addition to current practice to inform participants?

Development of measures of proposal merit to guide decisions

– I agree – it’s an important item – but the key to develop different measures of merit of the information to guide the overall decisions is the combination of the incentive provisions with the assessment results. And …

Control of power

– I see where you are headed with this: These provisions are part of your Abbeboulistic schemes of having people in power p a y for the privilege of making power decisions?

– Right. At least that is one partial idea for getting at the problems. I don’t know if the fact that these provisions are all interrelated tools serving different purposes, if that is a problem or an advantage. But as I said before, isn’t it at least a challenge to come up with better ideas if you don’t like these suggestions? O buckle down and engage with this agenda, discuss them, work out the details, do some experiments?

– Bog-Hubert, I don’t know if I should congratulate or feel sorry for you guys who keep harping on this. Well, here’s a shot of Fundador to fortify your coffee. And give you the strength to do what needs to be done, as they say in Minnesota. Okay if I don’t light it first?

– By all means, if you join me. Cheers.

–0–


Unimpeachable Wall-Speak in the Fog Island Tavern

– Hello Vodçek; what’s going on? You look unusually worried today?
– Hi Bog-Hubert. Yes, you could say I’m a bit worried. Somebody must have snuck something weird into my coffee machine.
– What makes you say that? People complaining about it?
– No, it’s not that. It doesn’t taste any different. But listen to them! They’ve been ranting and raving about the wall and whether the president should be impeached, like they’ve been hyperstoned!
– Well, it’s a common affliction these days, isn’t it? I mean, the topics, not the state of mind you suspect. Well, on second thought…
– Bog-Hubert, go listen to them. You haven’t heard nothing like it.
– Oh, the news is full of stuff like that, every day… And you should have heard things before in here that even the news can’t even think of.. So what are they saying? About impeachment? That’ll never fly.
– Never? Why? Now you are starting to amaze me too.. I wouldn’t even want to ignore talk of such topics in here, if I had my druthers.
– Well, look at what he promised when he took the oath of office…
– You mean about protecting the Constitution and all that?
– You’re leaving out the important stuff. The crossed finger qualification.
– Huh? Have you heard something his lawyers will pull out of their hats if it comes to that? Aren’t people saying that he violated that oath?
– No, it’s right there in plain sight, It says “… to the best of my ability”, doesn’t it?
– So?
– Well, think about it. If he says, I did what I did, to the best of my ability, can you prove that he could have done better, according to his ability? If you can’t see that, does it raise questions about your ability?
– You’re getting into dangerous territory there, my friend. Better watch it all the time. But what they are talking about over there is different.
– Oh? What are they saying?
– Well, one argument I’ve heard from over here is that He’s just not letting all his tricks out of his sleeve, or his hat, yet.
– Never seen him wear a hat. Would it muss up his hair? So sleeve it is. Now: For example?
– Well, about the wall…
– Do they have suspicions about what tricks that might be?
– Yeah, they do. In fact one of the things is an idea that actually came out of this tavern a while ago, somebody put it into a ‘Zing’ in the paper, but nobody seemed to pick up on it, so they think it’s being kept secret for now.
– You’re killing me with suspense. Let me have a cup of that fortified coffee, the Café Cataluña, with Fundador, eh? To kill whatever somebody might have put in it, will you? So what’s the idea?
– Okay. It’s that they should put solar panels on top of the wall, to generate power.
– That’s actually a great idea, isn’t it? Brings that whole wall thing into the 21st century. Because just the wall won’t work, we know that. Even that big one in China from thousands of years ago didn’t work so well, even back then.
– Right. Like all the walls in history since then — where are those now? Today, a wall just doesn’t keep anybody or anything from going over, under, or around it.
– Wait, I remember now: did’t Renfroe there come up with the idea to then sell that solar power to Mexico?
– Right, I had forgotten that. Now Renfroe says — I don’t know where he gets that kind of information out here, not even Fox News is coming up with that stuff — that’s how he’s going to keep his promise to make Mexico pay for it. But that they’re waiting until the re-election campaign gets into critical territory to throw that out of the hat. But they are going off on all kinds of tangents expanding on that idea.
– I can imagine. For example, aren’t there possibilities to make it work without the actual wall underneath, if you make clever, sneaky use of some of the power.
– By Abbé Boulah’s twisted mustache, here you too are going on with that craziness! And you haven’t even had a taste of the fortified coffee yet, I just finished it; here!
– Thanks. It isn’t all that crazy, but I have been wondering why all the folks in this great innovative country have been so stuck on that antiquated, obsolete wall idea, — both sides. No ideas! No imagination!
– Well, they are at it, over there. Yes, they found out that if you just were to put a kind of advanced electrical fence out there, powered by the solar panels, — one that would just taze anybody that tried to get across, you wouldn’t need the wall itself. You’d just stun the intruders to immobilize them until the border guards could get there on their electrical ATV’s to take them in.
– Electrical ATV’s, I get it: powered by the energy produced by the solar panels overhead! And if you put charging stations on the other side, for Mexicans to buy power for their hybrids and electrical cars, that would be the way the Mexicans would pay for the non-wall-wall. Not the Mexican government, but the people using the vehicles.
– And backing off the wall idea itself, I mean the concrete or steel versions of it, will be the negotiating carrot he’d use to pull the rug out from under the wall opposition. Saving lots of the money that’s already appropriated, after spending enough on the competition-demo versions they’ve been building so far, to pacify those companies. Ol’ Renfroe, again — the others seem to be too stuck on the notion of just one side winning and the other losing to even image old-fashioned negotiating and getting ahead on the offers? You think the president will hire Renfroe?
– No, even Renfroe has heard about how everybody he’s hired gets fired before they even finished redecorating their new home in DC. He just wants a new outboard for his boat, so he can get out to Rigatopia for a fun vacation… I taught them how to make Eau D’Hole, some of the folks out there are getting better at it than the Slovenians…and Renfroe can’t wait to check it out.
– Well, over there it sounds like they have been tasting a smuggled-in sample already. There oughtabe a law…

***


Poking holes in the timespace remembrane of the Fog Island Tavern regulars

— Hi guys — what’s with all the thoughtful faces?

— Hello Sophie — well, don’t you look thoughtlessly happy today!

— Yeah, I feel like celebrating: solved my solitaire three times in a row, yippee! But you didn’t answer my question — You guys are looking, well, kind of —

– You’re right. Indeterminate. Thing is, we’re not quite sure whether to congratulate or commiserate with our friend here, the esteemed professor Balthus, who is equally indeterminate. Right now, he’s on what seems to be the other side of an emotional Möbius strip.

– You’re not making sense. Even lil’ ol’ me knows that a Möbius strip has only one side. It’s just twisted into joining both sides into one, so they, wait…

– Ah, you’re inadvertently stumbling on the very conundrum we’re facing here. Let me explain the momentous situation that transcends the flat-world simplicity of the Möbius-stripped-down topological imagination we have gotten used to. While your friends here are recovering from their conundruminations that stunned them into silence for, lets see, more than three minutes already. Unheard of!

– Your speech is getting darker by the minute. KInd of spaced out?

– Okay. Let me see if I can summarize it for you. See, our dear professor has applied a series of analogical reasoning inferences to the phenomenon of the Möbius strip flatness, a flatness persisting even into the curved ‘ring’ figure of the familiar Möbius strip armband we know. A device he once suggested as a campaign device for a friend who was running for some public office — with the inscription ‘we are all on the same side’. Sadly, the friend’s political advisors did not think much of it, so it wasn’t used. But the friend lost the election; what can I say.

– Is that the reason for the long-face aspect of the current mood here?

– No. Sorry, that was long ago.  We’ll get to the two-faced mood later. Now, the professor suddenly encountered a reminder of ol’ Einstein’s edict that space is curved. Cleverly putting things together, he embarked on the following line of reasoning:
* A Möbius strip, for all its ‘global’ one-sidedness, does have the ‘local’ property of being two-sided. In any short-sighted locality, it patently does have two sides.
* So, could it not follow, when we extend our imagination to the third dimension, that space has an analogous property of being two-sided, or should we say ‘two-spaced’? So that we, in our old Cartesian habit, ‘locally’ describe our location with the three coordinates, blindly find ourselves on just one ‘side’, I mean space, of the location? That there might be, as it were, ‘another ‘space-side’ to where we are?

– I get it. And that our ‘location’ is just on the other ‘side-space’ of the location of the place just on the other ‘side’ of space? Like any point on the Möbius strip has that close neighbor on the other side of the paper, that is really on the same side? Close by?

– You got it. I think. As close as the thickness of the space-membrane separating the two sides, but separated from it by the distance you’d have to travel if you were to stay on ‘your’ side to get there. This has, of course, profound implications — even practical ones, — that haven’t even been explored for the Möbius strip itself, surprisingly.

– Explain, please. I’m getting a touch of space travel sickness already…

– Well, look at all those network and systems diagrams. Say, communication networks. They are all flat, representations smashed flat against a two-dimensional environment whose other side isn’t ever even entering the oft-invoked superior whole-system awareness of the systems thinking analyst. The flatness of paper on your ‘desktop’, so unthinkingly adopted by the computer folks onto the monitor screen, does not make it easy to visualize and explore this amazing möbiousness. Even if they did, the flat-screen diagrams would have to extend half the distance around the round of the Möbius ‘band’ to reach that point on the other side of the paper. When the point is just ‘on the other side’ — so if we could find a way to punch a hole in the strip — we’d be right there!

– Well: that’s weird enough for the strip — what about space?

– Ah Sophie, yes: Now remember: If space is curved, as Einstein proved: could it be that space itself is a kind of Möbius space? That has ‘another side’ — but being quite spacious, you’d come back to the ‘point’ on the other space-side’ only after a long journey around the universe? Impossible? No — if it’s a Möbius-space, we’d still be on the same ‘space-side’, wouldn’t we? And if there’s such a thing, wouldn’t you want to know what’s there — what it looks like, on the others side?

– So?

– So? Oh ye of little curiosity! Now think: That point on the ‘other side’ — it’s right there, so close, on the other side of space! And what if we could find a way to ‘poke a hole’ in that wall, we’d be right there? Might that not be easier than trying to travel light-years around ‘our side’ of space?

– Sure, if you put it like that. But how?

– Well, Sophie: that would take some research, wouldn’t it? A whole new domain of scientific investigation, think about all the new university departments and independent think tanks: The new Science of Möbius-Curved Space Membrane-Drilling? A whole new meaning to the old ‘Drill, Baby, Drill’? Or ‘Poke, Baby, Poke’?

– You’re getting too excited, Vodçek Poke-man. You’re rousing our friends from their temporary stupor. Hi, Professor: Congratulations to your discovery! So you think you’ll land a new job as Director of the Department of Curved Space-Membrane Research?

– Oh Sophie, no, sadly: I am getting too old for that, some young whipper-snapper will be hired to research all my notebooks on the matter and getting all the glory. But Vodçek, I think you have been feeding Sophie only half of the story.

– How so, Professor?

– By Abbé Boulah’s Untimely Curved Straight-edge Ruler! You’ve forgotten what Einstein said about space — it’s not just space — its space-time! So the other space-side of your möbius membrane — if you were to travel to it the ‘long way’, properly staying on ‘your’ space-time-side of the thing: what time would you be getting there? And what time do you think you’d be if you just ‘poked a hole’ in the space-time membrane? That hole, my friend, is a black time-hole, if I ever saw one. I’m not sure I’d want to be poking holes in that.

– But if you say that the ‘next-door’ point is ‘right there’ on the other space-side — would the black hole open up only when you start poking? Is it there all the time?

– Beats me, Vodçek. Pour me some Zinfandel, will you? But don’t use that Klein bottle we gave you for your birthday — Im not sure it’ll hold any wine? What’s the matter, Renfroe? Some Zin?

– No thanks, I think I need some of that Bog-Huber’ts Spatial, I mean Special, dammit, you’ve got me talking that funny talk too. The one without the label in the corner.

– Here you go. Go easy though. So what were you trying to say?

– Well, Jus’ thinking’, man. If’n you could poke holes in that thingamabrane, yeah, I don’t believe anybody can do it from this side yet — and that may be a good thing for all I know — but what if somebody has figured out how to do it — from the other side? Wouldn’t that explain it?

– Explain what, Renfroe?

– Well, all them alien sighting’s! It’s them aliens! What if they been poking holes in the screen to come see what’s on our side?

– Interesting idea. So why don’t they come in here, have a drink and communicate? Why do they just pop in for a sec up in the air and then disappear again?

– Good question. Mebbe its ’cause of the time being bent too, like the professor said — they’re just zipping by in a time window, like? From the future, or the past?

– Yeah, And maybe they just take a look at what’s going on here and get so scared they get the hell out again as fast as they can?

– I’m cutting y’all off, guys. This is getting out of hand.

– See? that kinda thing? Even scaring the bleepin’ timespace outta them aliens!



NOTES  ON A DIFFERENT ‘PATTERN THAT CONNECTS’

The Design or Planning Argument that connects claims of Meaning, Science, Know-How, Needs, Desires, Ethics Morals, Justice and Aesthetics…

 Thorbjørn Mann

There is much discussion these days about the relationship between different domains of knowledge; relationships that easily turn into divisive  and unproductive controversies. Borrowing a phrase from the  community of research of C. Alexander’s ‘Pattern Language’, an examination of the different kinds of knowledge making up the arguments used in planning, design, policy-making shows how this argument ‘pattern’ connects the reasoning patterns of the different domains. 

THE “STANDARD PLANNING ARGUMENT 

The  common structure of ‘pros and cons’ exchanged in discussions about whether a plan should be adopted for implementation  I call the ‘standard design /planning argument’ can be described as follows:  (The letters D, F, I, E in the following stand for ‘deontic’ (ought) claims, fact-claims, instrumental claim, explanatory claim, respectively.)

Proposal:  D  (X)  (Plan X ought to be  adopted / implemented)

    because

Instrumental premise 1:    FI ((X —> Y) | C) (Plan X will have effect / result/consequence Y given conditions C

    and 

Deontic premise  2:              D (Y) Outcome Y ought to be pursued / aimed for

   and 

Factual premise 3:               F (C) Conditions C are (or will be) given 

These premises (which in practice aren’t always all made explicit, assuming some premises  as ‘taken for granted’) draw on and are supported by very different kinds of ‘knowledge’.  To fully appreciate — understand and giving it due consideration — such arguments in the process of reaching a decision about a proposed plan, a person must understand, and if necessary raise questions to clarify their meaning, content, and forms of supporting ‘evidence’:  

MEANING, DISTINCTION, DEFINITION:  CONCEPTUAL KNOWLEDGE

‘X’, ‘Y’, ‘C’:  and relationship  R —-> Understanding , meaning of the terms / words (as understood by proponent and audience to be persuaded):  Explanation, description, definition;  Relationship of concepts;

‘Plan X’:          Idea, vision, desirable outcome,  state of affairs, solution to a problem:  description in context;

‘Effect’ or ‘consequence  ’Y’: State of affairs, Result, Meaning,/implication)

Relationship R of ‘X —> Y’.    E.g. cause – effect, implication, part-whole relation;

Condition ‘C’:           Data:  about state of affairs (‘now’);  Others’ intentions, desires, needs, plans. (Actually, a systematic description of the conditions C would amount to a complete ‘systems model’ showing all the factors in the ‘whole system’ and their relationships…)

Argument pattern:  D(X) <—( FI ((X—>Y)|C) & D(Y) & F(C):  the reasoning ‘rule’ (among other standard  argument patterns)

WHAT THE WORLD ‘IS’ LIKE:   ‘DATA’, fact-claims, descriptions

F (C) Descriptions about current  and past states of affairs, basis and EVIDENCE for claims about such ‘facts’;

HOW THE WORLD ‘WORKS’: 

 FI (X —> Y) Or  FI (X —>REL—>Y)|C     The instrumental premise, expressing a ‘law’ (natural, logical, or man-made agreement’) ( also expressing a belief in causality) that makes it possible to achieve some proposed change with a specific plan of action. Technical  ‘know-how’ engineering, management skills.

WHAT ‘OUGHT’ TO BE DONE OR AIMED FOR:

D (X) and (D (Y):    ‘Deontic’ premises and claims:  The proposed plan or action, and the desired or undesirable effects it will bring about (or avoid).  Also:  ‘It’s the law’ (regulation);  or.  Command: “Authority A said so”.  

EACH TYPE OF KNOWLEDGE IS SUPPORTED BY DIFFERENT ARGUMENT PATTERNS 

The ‘standard planning argument’ above has many ‘pattern’ variations,  depending on the distribution of assertion or negation signs for each of the premises, and of the nature of the relationship claims in the instrumental premise. Not all of those are equally plausible as argumentation patterns in themselves; some are outright counterproductive or self-contradictory. So the reasoning pattern of each argument must itself be assessed — even the explicit use (stating all parts) of such an argument does  not guarantee overall plausibility. 

Things are even getting more complicated when we realize that the pattern and its plausibility as intended by a proponent of the argument  may be different from the pattern actually assessed by an evaluator:  if one or several premise elements are assigned a different assertion or negation sign by the person judging, it is thereby becoming a different pattern in that person’s mind. 

The extent to which this complication may affect the evaluation of the arguments supporting the other knowledge type claims involved here — for example, the ‘evidence’ supporting fact-claims, the reasoning supporting scientific hypothesis-testing, such as the inductive pattern of  a hypothesis H corroboration by evidence E : ((H —->  E) & E ) —> H (inconclusive) or refutation:  ((H—> E ( & ~E) —> ~H;  (conclusive);   the explanations of the meaning of terms — may have to be examined in different ways than the usual textbook treatment that study the conclusiveness of arguments, mainly as intended by the proponent.  This task still calls for more attention. 

The aim of this little inquiry, to start with, is to point out that each of the types of knowledge is supported by a set off different argument types. This includes all the argument types and patterns discussed in standard textbooks (where planning argument and arguments including ‘ought’ premises have not been given adequate attention). Serious but unnecessary — controversies often arise from lack of attention to this fact: attempts to justify plans resting on only one such set of patterns, or inappropriately applying the rules of one domain to the others.

For example: from time to time, prevalent ‘approaches’ or methods for doing things in society seem to focus on one of these types of premises with something like faith of their exclusive significance:  F —> D:  What we ought to do follows ‘DATA’ — the fallacy of ‘OUGHT following ‘IS’: the constraint of ‘the facts’:  FI —> D. “ We can do this, therefore we should do it’;  D —> D   ‘Wishful thinking’:  we ought to aim for it because we want it;   or:  We ought to do it (X) because it follows the goal or principle (Y); even: “Do X because it’s right”.

A different way of stating this is that the exclusive reliance on one of these premise types represent different (‘philosophical’?) attitudes about the dominant type of knowledge to guide design and planning:  Science (Facts, Laws of nature), Technology (Engineering: the things we can do); Management skills (Social things we can do: ‘leadership’ and psychology); Religion and ethics, morality principles, societal laws, Political Ideologies. 

All of these are fallacious ‘reasons’ for doing or not doing things— because they ignore the other kinds of premises of the planning argument and the many other arguments, about a proposed plan. We must consider all the pros and cons, and all the premises they rest on, even if they aren’t all made explicit. 

It is also necessary to look at some of the different types of judgments we use to assess these different claims. 

THE DIFFERENT TYPES  OF JUDGMENTS  NEEDED FOR EACH PREMISE TYPE:

Each of these premises must be evaluated, judged, in order to arrive at a judgment about the merit of the argument as a whole. Much has been made and written about the criterion of TRUTH or its absence FALSITY about claims; and the notion that a claim about some state of affairs in the real world must be either true or false — that it corresponds to the actual state of affairs out there. This leads to the careless jump to express our judgments on the binary scale of ‘true’ and ‘false’. 

But we must keep in mind not only that we actually do not make our judgments about the real states of affairs but according to how sure, how certain we are about whether a claim corresponds to reality:  Most thing we do not know ‘for sure’, and even some factual issues are not true (or false all the time under all conditions but with some degree of PROBABILITY. This calls for a different scale upon which we should talk about and explain our judgments:  the common probability scale is one of zero to one  or zero to 100 ‘percent’. 

 For all its common acceptance, the probability scale does not allow us to express a different kind of judgment:  that we simply ‘don’t know’, cannot judge whether a claim is true. false, probable. To express this admission of inability to judge ‘judgment’ by assigning the claim a 50% probability is misleading, it sound like a confident assessment that it will be true about 50%  of the time. So a better scale, one with a midpoint of zero ‘Don’t know’ and for example, a  +1  score for the judgment ‘completely confident that a claim is true, 100% probable, i.e . certain, and a -1 score expressing the same complete confidence that it is not.  

Even the criterion of ‘probability’ does not adequately express what our judgments about the meaning, the adequacy of a description of something (describing a car as ‘having four wheels’ may be true as far as the number of wheels in concerned, but useless when the description intends to help us find the car in the large parking lot…) or — most importantly, assess the deontic premise, the ‘ought’ claims. We argue about those claims precisely because they are neither true nor probable yet — by definition:  we try to decide whether we should attempt to make them come true or not. For all these judgments, something like PLAUSIBILITY, expressed on the  continuous +1/-1 scale, with the zero ‘don’t know’ midpoint, will be better.

One more judgment criterion is needed for the assessment of plans. The usual concern that has been the focus of argumentation has been the question whether an argument — a single ‘clinching’ argument — supports the conclusion:  If all men are mortal and  Socrates is a man, it follows inescapably that Socrates is mortal;  no further argumentation is needed.  But the assessment of plans does NOT rest on single arguments (except possibly the convincing proof that a plan simply is impossible because it contradicts laws of natural (or human laws we do not wish or dare to violate). Plans are assessed by ‘weighing the pros and cons’. They don’t all carry the same ‘weight’. Systems Thinking urges us to find out ALL potential consequences of actions and plans  (including the nasty ’unforeseen consequences’ that result from the nonlinear behavior caused from the interacting relationships and relationship loops in the ‘whole system’ network). We must form arguments (of the above kind for each of those consequences) and assess their merit. This ‘weighing’ requires a judgment about the importance or better:  WEIGHT OF RELATIVE IMPORTANCE of an argument —  how much weight does one pro or con carry in comparison with all the other pros and cons?   

The way we examine and construct overall opinions about the proposed plan from all the partial judgments (which has been the focus of my studies on planning arguments) still needs considerable work. 

IN SUMMARY:  

Thorough, systematic deliberation about proposed plan will require us to make all these judgments about the different kinds of premises, of all pro and con arguments, and how they relate to each other. The planning argument contains and connects all the different forms of knowledge; planning decisions are not adequately supported ONLY by either the FACTS (DATA), the possibility of doing something just because we have the tools, the INSTRUMENTAL knowledge, or just because we feel or WISH (or CONSCIOUSNESS/ AWARENESS) that some outcome OUGHT to be realized.  Promoting plans and policies on the sole merit of one of these kinds of judgment types is not likely to be persuasive let alone constructive — especially when the different participants in a discourse are adherents of different types of judgments:  TRUTH does not apply to all claims, and just DATA aren’t supporting what our plans should be like. Looking more carefully at the patterns  of planning arguments might help us to understand these differences, and how the planning argument connects them.

 


A Five-story parking garage for Midtown Tallahassee?

A garage building is proposed in the ‘MIdtown’ area of Tallahassee. For many years, this area had not been touched by the more forceful development of downtown and other areas. More recently it has has seen a much-appreciated growth — relatively small redevelopment and re-use of older, one-or two-story buildings, generating a lively pedestrian-friendly ambience, in spite of the fact that the main streets in the area are arteries carrying heavy through traffic; for which there are no plausible alternative routes.

For the newer businesses in the area, looking for more customers than the residents of nearby neighborhoods — mainly Lafayette Park neighborhood, to the east, and perhaps some residential areas west of North Monroe streets — there is a perceived need for more parking, which has led to the proposed project. This proposal envisions a five-story building on the corner of Thomasville Rd. and Fifth Ave. on a lot where there currently is only a small one-story building.

The project — announced as a city-private partnership venture, has generated considerable opposition from residents of the area — most likely due to its size, which is visually quite out of scale with other nearby buildings, and the concern about attracting more traffic to the already strained streets.

The Tallahassee Democrat’s coverage of a public meeting about the proposed project suggests that there was more opposition than support for it. This is understandable, given its size and the dubious experience with some large projects e.g. in the downtown area. There were plausible suggestions to provide any needed additional parking on Monroe streets, or on the site of the Tallahassee Police Headquarters that will soon move away from its current location on 7th Ave. However: some development must be expected on the arguably underutilized site of the proposed project; which will generate the same concerns. So a public discussion about what developments in this area should look like is very much needed — now, before any new proposals are developed, or the current one being driven forward based on the assumptions and agreements with the city. Does the public/private partnership offer opportunity to guide this or other projects towards better results? The city might reconsider it apparent tentative approval, and perhaps insist on a few important features in return for some developer concessions.

The pictures I have seen suggest that the design already includes some general rules of thumb for more pedestrian-friendly environments — for example, the provision of commercial use along the streets. Encouragement for more improvements might be better than mere opposition, to ensure that these features don’t get lost in the further development.

A few general rules of thumb for more pedestrian-friendly environments might include the following:

* The public sidewalk should have ‘layers’ or zones separating the main pedestrian zones from the traffic. This might require some setback of the building to provide a wider sidewalk to allow for trees and other items in the outer zone. A matter for ciity investment?

* The sidewalk: Rather than cute isolated ‘awnings’ over selected openings, (like we see in the picture and in other projects around town, there should be a continuous arcade or awning for part of the sidewalk, for real pedestrian protection from sun and rain.

* The floor area at the sidewalk level: The project to its credit already provides for commercial  space along Thomasville and Fifth street. This is beneficial only if that space — specifically, the area next to the sidewalk — actually is of interest to pedestrians: banks, law or insurance offices, associations are not. Incentives should be considered to ensure that this space will house pedestrian destinations with high visitor frequency. Small stores, possibly movable vending kiosks or carts that can be exchanged to provide destinations appropriate fore different times of day. Public amenities: Restrooms, information waiting areas for bus stops, taxi stops that won’t stop through traffic.

* These destinations should form a continuous chain of friendly experience opportunities with easy transition between them. Even a few dozen feet of un-interesting frontage can disrupt the pedestrian flow.

* The building: Rather than five uninterrupted stories rising from the property edge, it would be better to provide the building with an ‘earthy’ base of two or at most three floors, with upper floors set back by about five feet and designed for a lighter, airier appearance. This would preserve a ‘small town’ comfortable street profile even if the building above were allowed more above (to compensate for the ‘loss’ of profitable square footage at those levels). The sketches below show this principle that perhaps should be adopted as a city regulation, without imposing any specific architectural design constraints:

Not this:                                but this!

Even such large projects that at first sight may seem scary and a threat to the lively, friendly ambience of Midtown can be designed to complement and improve it. But the concerns of nearby residents and businesses, and how they might be addressed, should be worked out in a continuing constructive public discourse.

 


The Fog Island Tavern Quarrgument Symposium, second night:

– So friends, did we settle the weather for today? No hurricanes on the horizon? Are we ready to tackle the second part of Abbé Boulah’s agenda? Do you have any questions or suggestions about it?

————————————————————————-

2 Needed provisions / agreements for
   a) ‘Social’ Communication, Conversation?
   b) Decision-oriented ‘Planning’ Platform?
­————————————————————————-

– Let me try to restate my understanding of this in my own terms, Vodçek, correct me if I’m wrong: The distinction between the two separate questions is now based on the different kinds of talk intentions we found last night: simple friendly conversations without any particular aim or focus on the one hand, and discussions aiming at a goal, a solution to a problem, a decision, on the other? And the question is about how to prevent either one to degrade into a ‘quarrgument’?

– Close enough, for the first kind.

– Only for the first kind? Why?

– Well, for the second kind, shouldn’t we also worry about how well that aim or focus can be achieved — of reaching a decision? A meaningful, reasonable one, a good plan?

– You are jumping right into the thick of it, Sophie. Would it be useful to first see how far the agreements for the conversation of the dialogue kind can get us?

– You are talking about what they call ‘general netiquette’, essentially, aren’t you? The rules for polite conversation in decent company, now extended to online discussions on a social forum?

– That would be a good place to start, yes. And suspect it’s more difficult than it looks at first sight — given all the quarrgument-like exchanges we see on the internet, in spite of the well-intentioned policy statements and rules of all those platforms?

– Is there a simple comprehensive summary of those rules?

– Well, the main rules for common polite conversation would be to abstain from crude, obscene language, from ALL- CAPS entries which is understood as the equivalent of yelling and shouting in face-to-face conversation, to stick to the general topic, and above all, not engaging in personal attacks on other participants — the various forms of ad-hominem fallacies; no name-calling, ‘strawmanning’, and so on. Many forum leaders try to forestall problems by listing a number of rules or advice for ‘positive’, constructive, friendly, ‘comfortable’ language and content, for participants to promise to strive for. Hoping that the focus on the positive will keep people too busy to engage in the negative?

– Hmm. I wonder if calling exclusive positive thinking wishful thinking would be a negative term? Those aims are fine and generally accepted, even if not always adhered to. So many moderators feel compelled to simply ‘ban’ — which means just not accept for posting — entries that violate those.

– Yes: Already you can write simple algorithms to do the same thing: scan all entries, given an accepted list of unacceptable words and phrases that automatically blocks the offending entry that contains one of those words. But the issue gets sticky when it comes to the question of offending the beliefs or standards of certain groups in society. Heresy — involving disparaging comment about religious beliefs — has been extended to many other domains, gender, race, politics and philosophy. And the boundaries and the ‘coded’ disguises of objectionable positions can become so fuzzy that many platforms have instead adopted the practice of asking participants to complain about offending posts, and then deciding what to do about them, the complaint becoming the criterion for banning.

– Looks like a slippery slope towards the abyss of political correctness censorship. But also: can the same offending content be blocked in some groups but accepted in others? And isn’t the problem then, that they will be posted and the damage, e.g. of a personal attack, is done; the genie can’t be put back in the bottle. There ought to be a better way.

– Yes, Sophie. It has led group ‘leaders’ or originators to involve several moderators to ‘intervene’ or ‘resolve’ such incidents by asking the offending participant to change the wording of potentially offending comments, either before they are made public, or after somebody complained. The jury is still out about how that will work out in the long run — there will always be complaints by some offenders, of undue ‘censorship’, illegal constraints on ‘free speech’ and so on.

– Yeah, and there will always be ‘administrators’, moderators, who get their jollies out of doing some undue censorshipping, exerting their power by ‘keeping the discourse clean’…

– Are we straying from the topic a tad here, folks? I agree the power issue is one we might want to look at, but is it part of the agenda we agreed on?

– Spoken like a good social media moderator, Vodçek: to compound the offense with an ad-censorum while we’re at it.

– Yeah, I may have to cut some of you off… How about looking at the relationship between the ‘do’s’ of such discourse, not only the ‘don’t rules?

– Is there a difference between responses to ‘don’ts and responses to failure to do ‘do’s?

– To do or not to do, dobedobedo…

– Renfroe…

– Hey Vodçek: think you could get me another glass before you cut me off this dobedialogue?

– It seems that the mere suggestion of straying off the topic has, how are they saying these days, gone viral? So there should be a rule against such suggestions?

– Right, Professor. They are themselves straying off the topic. The only recourse is to not even ignoring them, as the Bavarians say.

– Holy Ignoraminous the Third, of Yerehwon in Lower Lugubria, pray for us!

– Okay, enough of this. Where were we? Sophie, do you remember?

– I’m not sure we were anywhere worth remembering, Vodçek. It seems that there were no really hard and fast rules or guidelines even for keeping conversation-style civilized, if there happen to be less civilized participants involved, who weren’t brought up to properly participate in civilized conversations. Other than with the help of moderators. Who must be granted some power to intervene, at the expense of slightly bending the rule of free speech.

– A balancing act, yes. I’m glad you mention he upbringing part — is it the responsibility of education to instill proper polite conversation behavior habits? That would lessen the problem a bit, wouldn’t it? Supported by silent glacial schoolmarm stares by the community in case of inadvertent violation? Poignantly ignoring the offending remark and returning to the topic? Laughing the poor impolite boor out of the room would already be too much of acknowledgement?

– Remember, we are talking about online conversations here. Those old remedies won’t work there — is there a need for icy-stare ‘nomoticons’ (no-emotion, no rising to the bait, but silently conveying the message?) — to replace those? Making the offenders’ i-screens freeze? Put the designers to work!

– Let’s see, Vodçek: Are you saying that the traditional standards for civilized conversations still apply to online friendly conversations without specific aims, but the tools for ensuring their adherence on online forums need to be improved or invented? Or can equivalent tools be developed for online discourse that would serve the same purpose?

– I’d say that we could leave that to some evolutionary process for the ‘friendly conversations’, as you called them. The types of forums, participants, issues and even purposes that can be discussed are too different to imagine a one-size-fits all set of rules to be used for all of them. ‘Self-governance’ responding to problems as they occur may be the best strategy for that first question.

– I agree, Professor — even though the question of what to delegate to education to prepare people for such interactions might require some common core definition of those basic standards? As long as there are no serious decisions at stake — or inquiries with significant implications for our lives, — let’s leave it to evolution and self-governance. But when we are faced with planning or policy-making decisions that impact the well-being of our human communities, will we not need better methods for the discourse leading to those decisions? Even for traditional ‘live’ events such as town meetings or debates in parliamentary decision-making bodies — but decidedly more so for online discourse?

– So it seems that there is some overlap between the two kinds of processes or discourse types when they are done online — but the question of online standards becomes critical for decision-making settings? Which means that we are now moving to question (b) of our second phase agenda. Okay?

– I agree, Vodçek. Especially because it is becoming increasingly obvious that even the traditional practices for what we may call governance decision-making are still falling short of some basic expectations. So even for those, better tools are urgently needed.

– That’s a serious complaint, Bog-Hubert. Some might say even bordering on the unconstitutional, eh? Can you be more specific about those expectations and shortcomings?

– I guess we can make a list of such problems, and use them to look for ways to meet the corresponding expectations. Let me start with the connection between the discourse and the decision. The great parliamentary principle and tradition of ‘let’s leave our weapons outside and sit down to talk before making a decision’ — don’t laugh, Renfroe, I am serious, I know you like to call all that talk and filibustering pretentious BS or worse — it was a great civilized improvement on prior practice of going straight to violence and war, to ‘resolve’ differences of opinion.

– Hmm. So what’s wrong with it, if it’s so great?

– Oh, Sophie: Look at the improvement side first, to see where things go wrong: ‘Let’s talk’ means that we are willing — agree — to listen to all sides’ points of views, concerns, intentions, learn abbot their ideas of a good plan and decision, and try to tell each other about what we see as the pros and cons of the proposals made. Ideally, that could and sometimes even does result in improvement, redesign of the originally proposed plans. And that is the basic beneficial principle: the decision about the plan or action should be the result of due consideration of all those pros and cons, all the ideas and concerns that have been brought up during the talks.

– I see what you are getting at, Bog-Hubert. Abbé Boulah did talk about that as well. And about the problem: all too often, in the end, the decisions are made by methods that can ignore or override many if not all those ideas and concerns.

– What in three twisters names are you talking about?

– Voting, Renfroe. Majority voting, or the single vote decision by some leader or chairman or president. And voting that allows people who haven’t even listened to any of the talk and don’t really know what the issues are about.

– You want to do away with free elections and majority vote, you’re cruising for trouble, I’d say.

– We’re not talking about doing away with that: the problem is about making a better link, a better connection between the concerns, the content and merit of the contributions to the discussion and the decision. All of the contributions. A more transparent and, if you like, accountable connection.

– Okay. So that’s a first or primary criterion that you think should be provided in online planning discourse?

– Right. One such consideration — didn’t we already mention some? But yes, a key one. And of course that makes sense only if all pertinent considerations, all the expected benefits as well as all the costs, the potential ‘unexpected side-and-after-effects’ have actually been brought up to be given due consideration, wouldn’t you say?

– I see. So the platform or forum must allow all such considerations to be voiced — and even invite, encourage people to bring them up.

– In practice, doesn’t that run into what some call ‘voter apathy’, people don’t care enough about the issues to participate?

– Yes — or they are convinced (possibly based on actual experience?) that their concerns won’t make a difference in the decision, won’t be given due consideration? So should there be provisions for overcoming those obstacles? Some form of incentives?

– You’re talking about something like paying folks to vote? Old hat. And not a good one. No better than the dirty efforts to keep some people from voting, wether by ‘cleaning up the voter registration rolls’ or gerrymandering, or making the trip to the voting stations so difficult that some folks can’t make it…

– Right, Sophie. I think we aren’t talking about the vote, though, but about incentives for contributing good information, whether pro or con, that should inform decisions. Incentives in a currency other than money, of course.

– Won’t the discourse be overwhelmed with all the comments, if you succeed in making such provisions? Can you expect everybody to express their concerns in succinct arguments — pro or con — that are the essence of the talk? How can anybody digest all that material?

– Indeed, good points. You’ll have to expect, and allow, all kinds of expressions, rhetoric, bombast, and even what in ‘polite’ friendly conversations would be objectionable forms of contributions. That’s why there should be provisions to sort things out in displays that give everybody some concise overview of the concerns — no repetitions, for one, and the core content, the key claims of the ideas and arguments stripped of rhetorical bombast and characterization.

– What do you mean, characterization?

– Well, if you bring in a ‘con’ argument against some plan provision, calling it ‘stupid’ or ‘shortsighted’ or ‘brilliant’ or some form of ‘ism’ is already a form of evaluation — an assessment of the claim, that really should be done by every participant at a separate stage. For example, say I’m asked to give ‘due consideration’ to a comment that sounds like this: “That stupid, ill-advised proposed legislation to reduce the use of fossil fuels to stop the hoax of global warming should be opposed because it won’t work”, I may have an opinion about whether the legislation will work to reduce fossil fuel use, another about whether it will help to reduce the effects of global warming. Or whether the global warming predictions are a hoax, in which case any legislation would be moot or have other beneficial or detrimental effects. Or whether calling the legislation stupid and ill-advised is inappropriate whether I believe it will be effective or not.

– So any judgment — e. g. ‘not true’ or ‘good point’ about the comment as a whole does not really help me or others to understand my real opinion of the various claims or premises the comment makes. To be properly evaluated, they should be stated as separate, basic assertions: “The legislation should be opposed”; “The legislation will not reduce the use of fossil fuels”; “Reducing the use of fossil fuels will not reduce global warming”; “There is no global warming”; and /or “Something should be done to slow or stop global warming”, etc. And shouldn’t there be a rule that people who make such claims should be prepared to offer explanations, evidence, support for them: required to respond the the question ‘Because…’? For which ‘explanations’ like “because the opponent of the claim is a moron” or an ‘…ist’ of some kind, are not acceptable — not related to the claim.

– I see: Everybody can have different assessments about each of these or about the entire statement; and resulting ‘conclusions’ about the wisdom of the proposed legislation will differ accordingly.

– Right. So besides appropriate provisions to display the essential claims — for overview, and for some in-depth, systematic evaluation, — there should also be incentives to provide support, evidence, for the claims, at least upon request from people who are not yet ready to accept the claim as stated?

– That could be trouble. The thing about evidence is a bottomless pit, isn’t it? Ultimately, aren’t all our judgments based on beliefs we think are so ‘self-evident’ that there’s no need, nor even possibility, of further evidence? And the folks who are convinced to ‘have’ the truth, because it’s self-evident, or revealed from up high, will resent the request for evidence more than the fact that there are miserable doubters who just don’t see it.

– So in practice, how should that be dealt with?

– Good question, no easy answer, because any answer would rest on ultimate premises that another party doesn’t share. The best I can think of is another basic agreement — one that relates to the aim of each party in such argumentation, which is to nudge the other party to adopt other’s conclusions. The agreement is this: If you propose an ultimate ‘self-evident’ premise that your argument, your reasoning is resting upon, but you can’t offer any more reasons that can nudge me to accept it, you can’t expect me to change my position to yours, and more that I can expect my ultimate premises to change your mind if I can’t give you more reasons to accept them. So when those arguments of both sides lead to contradictory or incompatible conclusions (or plans), it’s time to look for a different, better plan, or some compromise.

– Interesting. Think people will actually go for that? Like Georges Brassens whose friendship with a bishop rested on the agreement “Il me laisses dire merde, je lui laisse dire amen”? (He lets me say shit, I let him say Amen) But this can become a lengthy and cumbersome affair, Bog-Hubert. Especially when you are going to add whatever evaluation techniques needed to determine the ‘merit’ of all the contributions.

– Talking about that merit, and the special techniques, Bog-Hubert: wouldn’t that involve a whole slew of additional agreements and rules and calculations?

– Why, Vodçek?

– Well, Sophie: Wouldn’t the participants have to agree on what their judgments — about the truth or plausibility, and the importance, significance, of each claim — letters like A,B, C, D, F or numbers zero to ten, or minus 3 to plus 3, or smiley-faces etc. ‘mean’ and how they will be assembled into some overall measure of support for or against the proposed decision? Like we now agree, with some reservation, that 51% of a vote will mean approval of a decision? We’ve been talking about those issues before here, haven’t we?

– Oh. I see. So we’ll need some discussion about all those agreements even before we start the discussion? How do we ever get started? ‘Cause we’d need some agreements about how to get started, and those will have to be discussed…

– Yes: That’s what constitutions and by-laws are for. if you wait to agree on those rules until you run into disagreements in mid-process, you’re asking for trouble. That applies especially to the tasks of evaluation or assessment we haven’t talked about yet: developing some measure of that ‘merit’ of discourse contributions we wanted to connect to the decision.

– I remember, we had a long discussion about the tools for that some time ago. Once you decide that voting isn’t doing a very good job of either due consideration or accountability for why the vote seemed to ignore all the assembled evidence, you are opening a Pandora’s box about evaluation approaches. I’m afraid that we won’t get through all of that tonight, much less arrive at a generally acceptable recommendation for that problem. I know our buddy up at the university had some ideas about that, — there are some of those in the appendix of the paper — but whether they will be easily and generally accepted for such discourse is another question.

– So what do you suggest we do about that now, Vodçek? Because it sounds like that would be a very necessary component of any meaningful discourse platform?

– How about putting the task of development of better approaches, doing some experiments on how they work, developing easy-to-understand manuals or worksheets and supporting calculation programs on the agenda as work to do, maybe devote another weekend to that, later. And perhaps see what ideas our buddy’s proposed Planning Discourse Support Platform has to deal with that?

– I agree, Bog-Hubert. It’s getting late; we don’t have to solve all the world’s problems in one night. So let’s summarize the expectations of decision-oriented online discourse that we have touched upon tonight, and look at what that PDSS has to say about them tomorrow night. Here’s a list of the main issues or expectations we have come across so far:

————————————————————————-
* Standard ‘netiquette’
* Education for proper discourse participation?
* Response to violations?
* “Inviting, even providing incentives to voice ALL concerns”
* Evolution of self-governance for responses to violation
* Parliamentary principle — but
* Decision based on merit of all contributions
    Link between discourse contribution merit and decisions:
    transparency, accountability
* Inviting, even incentives to voice ALL concerns
* Ensuring ‘due consideration’ of all concerns
* Displays of essential ‘core’ content
* Separating claims and evaluation
* Identifying all ‘premises’ for assessment
* Emphasis on evidence, support for claims
* Up front procedural agreements
* Needed: R&D on evaluation of discourse contributions
————————————————————————-

There are probably more, and they may have to be put into a slightly different order, but it may be enough for a start and to give them some thought while you’re trying to catch some flounder from the pier tomorrow morning. Don’t get lost in the fog on your way home…

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