Building a City of Debaters

Martin Rezny
Words of Tomorrow


Or one stop on the road to a more perfect polis


What is the biggest, longest debate that you have ever seen? If you only ever saw debates on some kind of screen, perhaps they involved a dozen people for a couple of hours. If you ever visited a debating tournament or some kind of symposium, you could have seen over a thousand people debating on and off for the better part of a couple of days, couple of weeks maybe.

What if I told you that you could get millions debating without end?

Because there is a way, and there are reasons why it should be done. Luke, Nova, and I had another ProCon meeting and this is what we decided to aim for, ultimately. Not in physical space, of course, although that would be a sight to see — imagine a city the size of some capitals, with debaters filling every room in every building, keeping debates alive in shifts.

While that would make for a very fun fantasy role-playing scenario or philosophical thought experiment, it might be a tad impractical. What we intend to attempt instead is creating an infinitely scalable virtual space in which any number of people could participate in the same debate at the same time, without being overwhelmed and with their voices heard.

It will undoubtedly require some creative rhetorical architecture, but the hypothetical physical city of debaters is a fairly close analogue to what a virtual one should be like. At first, everyone would be heard at short range only, by an equivalent of a room of adjacent people. Whatever each “room” decides is the most worthy of being shared will be relayed to an equivalent of a building, the best from each building to a “neighborhood”, and so on.

In a way, it’s a riff on ideas like cellular democracy or tiered democratic governance, only this type of communication platform could serve academic or creative functions in addition to political or economic ones. This city of debaters could certainly be a kind of a long-form debating competition, but also an infinite company, writers’ room, or convention.

Which brings me to our reasons as to why we believe we should build these types of spaces. I have already written on this blog about how this style of communication architecture may significantly curtail personal attacks, so I won’t dwell on that here, but that’s just one benefit. I believe it isn’t an accident that regardless of your background, statistically, you’re unlikely to have any experience with real debating or know any of its principles.

When I was over a decade younger and more directly involved in debating competitions, one of the things I tried (and utterly failed) to do was to popularize debating. To make it more widely known, to get more people involved, perhaps even make it economically self-sustaining as some kind of business. Since you still know very little about it, almost whoever you are almost anywhere in the world, nobody else has succeeded at that either.

With debating as it currently is, it appears that it takes a certain kind of person to want to get involved in it. A person who’s first of all not afraid of public speaking, which is rare, or perhaps someone unreasonably brave, optimistic, or narcissistic to compensate for that; and at the same time someone who’s already fond of intellectual pursuits, or very social. In short, someone naturally interested in debating for the sake of it.

That may be romantic in a charming sort of way, but it’s also a problem. It’s a bit like doing a sport for the game itself and no other reason. In that context, the only alternative is bad — doing the sport for money or status. But that’s because today, you’re never going to literally save the world by running faster or throwing a javelin a bit farther away. In the ancient world, athletics did win wars. Under such conditions, you do need athletes.

In a world where best athletes win you wars, it wouldn’t matter that much why anyone becomes a great athlete, as long as you get as many of those as possible and they do end up defending your city state. In our world, debating for the sake of debating is a waste of a war-winning, world-saving potential. Even if every great debater in the world right now started applying their skills to help, which many of them do not, they are too few.

At this point in my (debating) life, it seems to me that only hobbyists get into debating because debates don’t affect real life or the real world. No problem can be solved by debating it for an hour, a typical length of a competitive debate, and then moving on. A thousand unrelated hour-long debates on the same issue, each starting from scratch and without follow-up, also does nothing. At best, a judge or a debater that sticks around for a whole debating season gets to see several versions of the same debate.

If debating really well, or teaching debating or hosting debate events, could at least make someone some money, the number of people who learn the art in the world would be exponentially larger. If debates actually mattered, had real-life, real-world results, the world would be undoubtedly filled with debaters. Much like it was the case in ancient democracies and republics, in terms of both athletics and rhetoric. Personally, I benefited from my debating experience greatly. But did my polis? Not really, I don’t think.

If my polis had a lot more people debating real issues at the level of objectivity and skill common in the debating world, without restarting every debate every hour and with everybody adopting the best ideas going forward, I bet that just the high schoolers of a single country could outthink and outargue any institution in a couple of months. I base that bet on knowing what just three teenagers can come up with in an hour.

In IT, there’s a lot of talk about singularity and intelligence explosion. Since tech people tend to know and focus on tech, the typical version of these ideas is that a machine will one day be created that will be able to think so fast and so well that within moments, its intelligence will exceed our own, making it able to improve and perfect itself at an ever-accelerating rate. Well, get enough people, and you get 500 hours of video uploaded every minute. With more than one person working on each hour for days.

Following the same principles, if you manage to scale up debating to millions of people debating simultaneously, you also get an exploding superintelligence, just made of people. The scientific community already is a version of that, in its own way. It still takes it decades to accomplish progress, so even a supercomputer that produces as much thinking per hour as a billion people would probably take centuries to make major advances. But since our current social media are already designed to be exponential intelligence implosion machines, the opposite is very needed.

In short, I argue that good thinking being limited to an elite pastime is a really dumb idea. Much like everyone getting out of shape would be at a time when weapons of war were force multipliers of physical strength and agility. I mean, we should probably also get into shape for other reasons, but that’s just yet another good idea that someone apparently needs to find much better arguments for to actually persuade the rest of us to do it.

So, what do you think? Is there an upper limit to how many people can hold a debate or to how long one can be sustained, even with the help of the best tech? Is my analysis of our current predicament incorrect in any way? Is there something else we should be doing to solve the same problem? What do you think would happen if a million people debated these questions for a year, inside of a day, with noone being rewarded for the best insults?

Do let me know. And if you want to get on board early, here’s ProCon page: