The Internet Landfill
Communications in modern society have reached a breaking point. The primary cause of this breakdown is the inability of human brains, refined by evolution for survival in a primitive natural environment, to deal with the complexity of modern technological culture. Humans essentially still have Stone Age Brains. (This is discussed at length in my article Complexity and Stone Age Brains. )
The breakdown is far more serious than most people recognize. When addressing complex issues, such as science or public policy, modern society’s ability to investigate and resolve issues has essentially come to a standstill. In world government, for example, it is now referred to as Gridlock. Yet we still hear claims that complex issues are being “debated” all the time on TV and the internet. The major problem is the use of time-organized “stream of consciousness, post and comment” formats, that are used ubiquitously. Most people take this format for granted. They think it is the only way it can be done. The result is one of the Internet’s major disasters.
This document is introducing a new approach that will hopefully improve the outcome of discussions that use it.
Reasons for a new approach
Why do “stream of consciousness, post and comment” discussions fail? To deal with a complex issue, the following interaction elements are typically needed:
1. Many subtopics and details need to be included and addressed.
2. The subtopics and details often interrelate in complex, overlapping ways.
3. It takes a lot of time to review all the details.
4. Understanding the details requires involved thinking.
5. Understanding and interpreting the details requires specialized backgrounds.
6. Verifying the accuracy of details often requires references to external sources.
7. Recognizing novel interrelationships among many details requires creative skills.
8. Judging the logical interrelationships of details requires philosophical skills.
9. Recognizing hidden questions or mistakes requires critical thinking skills.
10. Organizing the flow of discussion information requires system skills.
11. Organizing the process of discussion requires management skills.
What tools does the internet provide to address all of these issues during communications? Current formats include: email, chat sites, articles and blogs with comments, forum discussions, and bulletin boards. In short, none of these formats address the elements listed above. All of the formats are designed to provide time-oriented, stream-of-consciousness response interactions, which perform poorly for all of the elements listed.
Now, add into the process the wide range of human variability. The internet is aimed at a very wide audience. That brings many different personalities and logistics issues into the discussion. Because of the large audience, all of these issues can be expected to be present, simultaneously, most the time. These issues include:
Most participants will not be available all the time. This includes discussion moderators. They can enter and leave the discussion at any time. Some may check in a few minutes a day. Others only once a week. Most users will be pulled away at times for trips, events or to do in-depth research. This means few, if any, will see and follow the full discussion. So, when they reenter the discussion, they will have missed issues, comments, conclusions reached and the give-and-take of the process.
Complex issues often require a lot of reading and research outside of dialog writing time. Participants vary extensively in the amount of time they have or are willing to contribute.
Participants will have extremely different backgrounds. For each subtopic or detail, they will range from expert, to novice, to clueless. They will have a widely varying range of experience, knowledge, and vocabulary about each detail. This means they will each also interpret the dialog differently and contribute in very different ways.
Personal discussion style
Personal styles vary widely in a number of dimensions. For example:
Overview: Some can understand and envision broad issues. They can quickly grasp interactions between proposed point and aim related discussion towards the target issue. They want the discussion to stay focused and avoid issues that detract from the stated objective. Others are driven to deal with narrow elements of any issue put in front of them. They only want to react to the last statements made. They are easily diverted to side issues and comfortable leaving issues incomplete.
Preparation: Some are willing to review previous comments to understand the larger issue. They are willing to do extensive outside research. Others won’t commit the time to review past information or do external reading. For very complex issues, discussions may include hundreds or thousands of comments, thereby making it impractical for any participants to review the entire discussion.
Social style: Some are supportive and try to contribute ideas to make another person’s view work. Others are critical and like to poke holes in what others say. Some like to resolve debates; others like to stir up debates.
Writing style: Some tend to write long discussions; some write with sound bytes. Some write prolifically based on memory and intuition, even through it may lack adequate research and thought, or overly generalizing issues. Others focus whole articles on very narrow issues, providing bibliographies that exceed the length of the article.
Purpose: Some focus on discussion as group knowledge gathering of vetted content. They believe that statements they make should convey established knowledge. Others see discussion as group exploration; as a way to explore options and alternatives, or to voice intuitive personal opinions. Still others see discussion as a personal growth activity, and purposely attack issues as a way of indirectly learning the deeper meanings of the issue.
Sense of time: The range of patience and tolerance of people varies widely.
Personal issues are further complicated by process issues:
Error handling: When misinformation enters the discussion, either intentionally or accidently, it can cause serious problems. Identifying and correcting misinformation is very difficult, especially when an individual internalizes the correction with their personal esteem.
Supposition handling: When new concepts are being investigated, participants may have to propose hypothetical or “straw man” models for debate or discussion. These require participants to create complex visualizations in their minds of what the models look like, how the parts interrelate, and how implementation of the model might affect external environments. Not many people can do this well without support tools like graphics or reference documents.
In most discussions, while the number of users who have stated an interest in the discussion can be large, only a handful of people will be active at any time. Depending on the current participants, all of the discussion variables will change continuously going from one extreme to the other. When extremes of style are involved simultaneously, and the styles are not clearly acknowledged, the discussion can easily ramble and get tangled in personal disputes with users just focused on the latest posts.
The result is that, for complex issues, these formats essentially result in what communications specialists call the “Internet knowledge landfill”. The landfill analogy applies because most discussions fail to reach new conclusions with significant new knowledge. Eventually, the discussion is forgotten and joins the huge pile of earlier posts filling up Iron Mountain’s archive computers that contain so many posts they are almost impossible to access in any practical way. Any gems of wisdom in the posts are essentially lost.
For the discussion of complex issues, all of the problems listed above directly apply. There are few examples of any process on the internet that handles complex topics well. The only format that appears even moderately successful is Wikipedia. But Wiki’s moderate success is still a failure for moving major issues forward because it fails completely to address the many strong disagreements that can arise and the errors and misinterpretations that are enforced through mainstream doctrine.
(This justification for needing a new approach for group discussions is expanded further in a presentation given at the 2016 Chappell Natural Philosophy Society conference. That presentation was captured on video and can be found on the society’s Facebook page dated July 20.)
The A3 Discussion Structure for email discussions
The A3 Discussion Structure applies to post and comment or email discussions. The approach attempts to overcome most of the problems listed above. The term A3 refers to a much larger communications model of which discussions are just one small element. (More information can be found at the A3 Society website.) Here are the main elements of the discussion structure:
The goals for an A3 structured discussion for complex issues are:
1. Present knowledge related to a specific topic through emails or comment strings.
2. Capture and organize the knowledge to eliminate the limitations of time sequenced discussion.
3. Add wisdom to the knowledge by applying intuitive or expert analysis using structured models.
4. Draw new conclusions that advance the state of knowledge in the world.
5. Capture the knowledge, wisdom and flow of the discussion for future use.
B. Brief overview of the discussion structure
The new discussion structure consists of the following elements:
1. Q&A: These are the email posts or the comments made for a specific topic post.
2. Tracking and Summarizing: With discussion strings that can exceed 100 comments, and include dozens of sub topics, we need a way to continuously capture significant observations. This will allow new people to enter discussions without having to read through all the previous posts. It will allow active members to easily catch up on missed postings or switch from one subtopic to another.
3. Organizing: The tracked information needs to be organized in a way that the organization can be easily understood and the discussion reviewed.
4. References: Participants come into the discussion at all levels of experience. To bring novices about each topic up the learning curve quickly, we need a veritable encyclopedia of static references that can be referred to. These references are also needed by experts to assure that the discussion is being true to factual material. The references will also include a section for participants to contribute graphics or other support material.
5. Knowledge and Wisdom Retention: To prevent the wisdom of the discussion from being lost, the “lessons learned” during the discussion process need to be identified and then saved in a structured place.
6. Coordination: What makes a society greater than the sum of its members is the ability of members to work together. Coordination is information that turns individuals into a SYSTEM.
7. Moderation: Is defined as the “avoidance of excess or extreme”. The problem with conventional moderation is that it is subject to interpretation and authoritarianism. A new approach to moderation is used in the A3 Discussion Structure.
C. Details of the A3 Discussion Structure elements
The comment format of posts and emails currently used for discussion will continue. However, the following new structure will be applied:
a. The discussion will be started by an identified author with a statement of a specific topic and the objective the author is seeking. The author should select and get agreement of a person to be the moderator of the discussion. The author may also be the moderator if they have experience with the A3 method. Both the author and the moderator may participate in the discussion.
b. The title of the discussion should be short and descriptive of the topic. The title should also include a suffix with the following format: -A3:<author last name / moderator last name>. “A3:” tells the reader that this discussion is being conducted using the A3 method.
c. A post soon after the initial author post will be made by the moderator. It will affirm the moderator’s acceptance and that the discussion is being conducted using the A3 Discussion Structure. In that post, instructions will be provided that describe how participants can find guidance to use the A3 method. It will include things like: a link to this overview document, the Deliberatorium discussion MAP URL, the Deliberatorium User Guide and the discussion REFERENCES. (Deliberatorium will be explained below)
d. Participants will begin the discussion in the conventional way.
e. The moderator or moderators will capture significant contributions made in each comment and load them into the Deliberatorium software.
f. The captured material will be ORGANIZED by the discussion moderator using the Deliberatorium structure.
g. Participants will be encouraged, and coached by the moderator if needed, to construct each new comment to achieve the following goals:
1. To respond to a currently posted question or statement, or to start a relevant new thought
2. To fit within the structure of the Deliberatorium tracking MAP
3. To respect the knowledge already in the Deliberatorium tracking MAP
4. To make a significant contribution to the knowledge of the discussion topic
2. Tracking and Summarizing
One major change to the discussion process is the addition of an experimental support tool called the Deliberatorium. The tool was developed by professor Mark Klein at MIT. A short overview of the Deliberatorium is provided here. Further explanation is included in a separate Deliberatorium User Guide.
Briefly, the Deliberatorium is an on-line software tool, that all participants can access for interactive read-only through a web browser. It captures all significant information posted in the email discussion, and reformats that information as an OUTLINE, which is referred to as a topic MAP. The organization of the outline is directed by the moderator. A screen shot of a section of an earlier MAP is shown here.
This MAP was developed to capture a discussion about Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. The discussion had a special focus on a paradox in the theory that was later called the Twin Paradox. To understand what was discussed, a participant would click on any heading of interest. That will expand that branch of the discussion and show comments made in relation to the heading. The Deliberatorium software tracks where each comment in the outline came from. The original source comments can be accessed through a separate viewing panel.
As a short intro, consider an example where a comment referred to the Twin Paradox, and made a statement that the phrase “Twin Paradox was first stated in Einstein’s 1905 Special Relativity (SR) paper.” For someone who knows the SR paper well, they might want to jump in and point out that, in fact, Einstein, himself, never actually used the term “Twin Paradox” in his paper. What they would do is open the MAP for the discussion, find the section on the “Twin Paradox” and expand that section to see if anyone presented this fact earlier. If so, there is no reason to bring it up again. If no comment was found in the MAP related to this point, then a new comment could be posted with the details. That comment would reference the general location in the MAP where the comment should be placed as a guide to the moderator. For example, “Please add the following to the section on the Twin Paradox: Einstein discussed an example of a traveling clock in section 4 of his Special Theory related to ‘Moving Clocks’. But a search of the entire paper does not find either the term “twin” or “paradox”. A Wikipedia article on the “Twin Paradox” states that the term had come into use by 1911, quoting a paper by Paul Langevin. A good history of the term is not presented.”
This comment would be entered into the MAP as an alternate view to the earlier claim. In the MAP graphic above, under the heading “Twin Paradox Problem Definition”, a subheading was added titled “Twin Paradox term first used”. Under that heading, a “claim” was entered, “The term “Twin Paradox” was first used by Einstein”. If this MAP was live, clicking on the heading would show the full comment that was posted. At the end of the heading there is an icon showing two hands with a thumb up and thumb down. That means there may be supporting or disagreeing views on this statement. Clicking the thumbs icon opens the dispute box. In this case, the original comment stating the term was first used in SR is shown in green with a thumb up symbol (pro) and a “+” sign. Clicking that gives the full comment. When the person with more in-depth knowledge of SR posted the comment stating “Twin Paradox” did not occur in SR, it was added as a disagreement (con) with a “-“ sign and red lettering. If the person who posted the earlier comment accepted this explanation as more accurate, they would be expected to post a retraction of their claim through a clarification comment. The MAP would capture the entire interaction and show any “resolutions” reached.
What is still missing is a quick access discussion DASHBOARD. This is currently handled manually by the moderator. In the top section of the sample MAP there is a main heading titled, “CNPS Theory Discussions — Process”. Under that would be a subheading titled, “Action Tracking — DASHBOARD”. The “Dashboard” would have the following subparts:
a. Status Indicators — these summarize the status of various discussions.
b. Problem and Solutions board — this is a list of open topic questions (problems) and recently resolved questions (solutions) for issues that haven’t been reduced to specific narrow questions.
c. Question board — this is a list of open narrow questions asked (problems) and recently resolved questions (solutions)
Since the goal of the MAP is organization for clarity and easy indexing, if any person believes an alternate location for information would be better than where it is, they can send a private message to the moderator with an explanation. If the moderator accepts the suggestion, the MAP would be updated and a post to that effect added to the discussion for all to read.
Participants come into discussions at all levels of experience. To bring novices to each topic up the learning curve quickly, we need a veritable encyclopedia of static references that they can be referred to. These references are also needed by experts to assure that the discussion is being true to factual material and that primary references are being used. Here are some types of references that need to be addressed:
a. Primary references to both current and historic documents.
b. Original research data where available.
c. Encyclopedia summaries like Wikipedia.
d. Websites with articles.
e. Summary works that discuss major historical transitions in the topic — like how “science” dropped alchemy.
f. Original papers by discussion participants.
g. Graphic material related to models being discussed.
It’s obvious that small groups can’t possess all of this material directly. So, a lot of intermediate annotated indexes are needed. Note again, at the top of the sample MAP above, the section titled, “CNPS Theory Discussions — Process”. If that section is opened, there would be a subheading titled “Reference“. People submitting comments should base those comments on documents that are traceable through the reference section. If the reference isn’t already traceable through the Reference heading, the comment should include a path that makes it traceable.
5. Knowledge and Wisdom Retention
To prevent the wisdom of the discussion from being lost, the MAP will automatically capture the contributed knowledge and the wisdom of new conclusions reached. What may not be obvious is the large benefit a society with a common interest, like physics, will gain the reuse of portions of MAPs created earlier for similar discussions. The sample MAP is a good example. It is part of a much larger MAP that was originally started to discuss relativity broadly. The Twin Paradox discussion will directly draw on things already discussed, and provide good examples to challenge prior conclusions.
One of the goals of this effort is to establish a worldwide collection of specialized “Knowledge Encyclopedias” for complex issues. These encyclopedias would have 2 parts:
a. Short summaries of most of the critical terms used in discussions. Included with the summaries would be URL’s that reference more complete explanations.
b. Since most of the mainstream reference material ignores the critical thinking that forms the basis of current discussions, along with the general summaries would be a short discussion of any disagreements with the mainstream material.
What makes a society greater than the sum of its members is the ability of members to work together. Coordination is information that turns individuals into a SYSTEM. With the MAP acting as a “roadmap” for discussions, a good moderator can turn into a good facilitator by pointing out loose ends or special opportunities for action. This guidance would be placed in the “Theory Discussions — Process” section under the subheading “Coordination and Planning”.
Moderation has often been a difficult and controversial issue for discussions. A3 research into the root causes of these communications problems found major flaws in the foundation beliefs underlying modern society’s most cherished democratic processes. By applying this knowledge to the model underlying the A3 Discussion Structure, important changes should eliminate most of the problems. Let me be specific.
Moderation has traditionally been founded on an authoritarian model. The moderator’s role was to pass judgment on what participants could and could not do. But with an authoritarian model, conventional moderation is subject to personal bias and intolerance, just as it is in society at large. Society doesn’t like it, but believes there is no other way to handle it.
In this new A3 approach, the authoritarian link in moderation is broken. The participants will now conduct discussions in one context — the email or comment string — while the substantive information flow is handled in a second context — the information MAP. The results are:
a. While conduct guidelines will still be offered, it is up to the individuals to police their own interactions, not the moderator.
b. People who post with abusive or disruptive language will find, however, that it has no bearing on the content that enters the MAP. Their abuse will essentially be ignored, thereby giving them no satisfaction doing it.
c. When differences of opinion occur, in the new approach, it is the moderator’s task to capture all opinions in a neutral way. Each opinion would be clearly traced to its source, and scrutinized for traceability to primary references. Again, there will NO LONGER be any benefit for interpersonal conflict. All that remains is each person’s personal integrity for their statements in the face of what they can expect would be much future scrutiny.
d. While the email string will still appear to be a stream of discussion, that becomes only a small focus of the new process. With the new process, the primary discussion is between people with knowledge and the MAP.
A familiar example for this is the Olympics. If runners are competing under rules where the fastest gets a gold medal, attempting, even through deceit, to slow other runners down seems like a good strategy. This is called PREDATORY COMPETITION. But, what if the rules are changed. What if only runners who break the existing world record get a gold medal? What if, every runner that breaks the existing world record gets a gold medal? If runners don’t break the old record, they just get “honorable mention” awards. Now what happens? Deceit no longer has much value. In fact, supporting others to high performance becomes the new goal because that kind of “competition” has been shown to produce better results for all participants. This is call COOPERATIVE COMPETITION. Using the A3 approach, winning interpersonal challenges no longer has any benefit. The only “gold medals” come from moving knowledge forward.
e. Because the MAP is essentially a self-existing list of questions and challenges, participants can address comments directly to the MAP. If another participant replies in a way that a member feels is abusive, they can simply ignore it and continue posting to the MAP. If other participants reply constructively, however, they can start working as a group on the new focus issue, and all ignore any abusive disruption.
f. Because the moderator is always, and only, viewing the posts as information to grow or reorganize the MAP, it will now be possible to handle multiple subtopics simultaneously. This resolves one of the biggest problems with internet discussions — leap-frog dialog.
So participants can direct their posts specifically to specific subtopics, and also to other participants that they feel are cooperating with them, forming small subgroups.
NOTE, “cooperating” does not mean agreeing! With no disagreement, there won’t be any progress. But, again, “winning” only means knowledge breakthrough. So, finding other participants that a person can work with is the key.
It would be the task of the moderator to steer subtopic discussion back to the main topic. It would also be the job of the moderator to guide participants to sections of the MAP that their subtopic should draw from if they haven’t already figured that out.
g. The skills of the moderator will, of course, be a big factor in how much progress is made. So far, we only have human moderators. Mistakes will get made. If any member believes a comment was misplaced or its header does not accurately represent it, etc. here’s what they would do:
1. Send a private message to the moderator explaining the problem.
2. The moderator is expected to reply with a proposed solution.
3. If the proposed action is not satisfactory, a follow-up message to that effect would be sent to the moderator. The moderator would then privately contact 3 of the most prolific commenters for that topic focus and ask them for their input.
4. A new action would be proposed based on the new input.
5. If the new action is still not satisfactory to the initiator, a summary of the process would be posted to a section of the MAP called, “Unresolved Process Issues”. The initiator would then be able to create content for that item that the moderator would apply minimal editing to.
For additional information about this method, contact me through Medium or the contact information on the A3Society website.
What is the Deliberatorium and why is it needed
The Deliberatorium is a software application, developed by Professor Mark Klein at the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence. It is aimed at enabling more effective discussion and deliberation about complex problems.