Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The notion of disputation arenas

Over in the closed discussion group of the Lifeboat Foundation, there's been discussion of the concept of "Disputation Arenas."  Or the notion that the art of argument badly needs an upgrade for modern times.

 Back during the middle ages, there were occasional attempts to bring together the wisest members of disparate, bickering factions in order to hear out both sides.  The most famous of these disputations involved Catholic prelates vs prominent Rabbis and they were anything but fair - always aimed at a foregone conclusion.  Yet, the rabbis came, nonetheless.  Why?  Because a little bit of light, in the darkness, is better than none at all.

And so, as the fellow who coined the term "Disputation Arenas," I have decided to post my response to the Lifeboat group here, for public tasting...

(For detailed background, see the lead article in the American Bar Association' s Journal on Dispute Resolution (Ohio State University), v.15, N.3, pp 597-618, Aug. 2000, "Disputation Arenas: Harnessing Conflict and Competition for Society's Benefit."


Regarding the basic notion behind Disputation Arenas...

...I never envisioned a single forum where "truth" would be decided. rather, the notion was simply to empower Already-existing enlightenment processes to do better at their task of pragmatic problem-solving. One of the core elements of the Enlightenment, after all, is argument... the harnessing of inter-human competition toward the discovery of both errors and increasingly more effective models of the world.

An aside -- while I deeply respect my pal Robin Hanson for his lively mind and far-reaching intellect, I never did understand his argument (with which I disagree) that disagreement, in itself, is inherently flawed and not solvable by argument. (Alliteration is intentional. )

Rather, what seems inherent is our human propensity -- nay, genius -- at self-delusion. It is the core human quandary and one that puts the kiabosh on all platonic notions of rule by simple reason. The very best of us fall for delusions -- and moreover, we have no clear way of determining which of us is "the best of us." The one method by which human beings can reliably be made aware of their delusions is through interaction with others -- (a crucial point that we need to make clear to burgeoning artificial intelligences! )

YOU are capable of noticing the delusions that I am too in-love-with to spot or correct. In pointing them out, you do me the service of reciprocal accountability (RA) -- or criticism -- a great boon, allowing self-improvement, and a boon which I'll be only too happy to serve back to you, in plenty. As a favor, of course.

The irony -- that competition thus overcomes our resistance to criticism, and thus fosters a form of (involuntary) cooperation -- is rich and thick and delicious as cake.

(As ironic as the fact that the most vociferous "defenders of competitive markets" are all-too often those who do not get it, and strive always to harm the core process.  And yes, Cato Institute, I am talking about you.)

(See how all this fits into the Big Picture .  Those with immense patience and stamina might even try my way-over-caffienated (but entertaining) talk at Google about "Discourse and Problem Solving in the 21st Century!"

Am I suggesting that Twitter and Second Life and Facebook are helping to lobotomize us, at a time when we really need technologies that might help bring out our best and most mature problem-solving skills?  Well, yes, though I am not invested in pessimism, like Bill Joy or Nicholas Carr.  I feel that these "attention spreading" systems might have some positive effects (perhaps even 1% as much as zealots like Clay Shirky envision!)  But only if they are augmented by other methodologies - mostly not invented yet - that also help us to rediscover focus.

 The crux point is that current fads and trends DO enhance self-expression, vastly, but they also make it trivial to avoid criticism... or, rather, to avoid having to note or notice or respond to or perform self-modification as a result of criticism.  Those who praise ONLY vastly-enhanced self-expression, while ignoring the other half of the Creative Cycle, may be very bright, but they are being zealous fools.

Parse this carefully.  The pessimist curmugeons urge us to step back from the cliff of lobotomization-by-technology, by renouncing some of them and restoring older ways -- a method that never, ever worked in the past. 

Meanwhile, the fervid optimists cry out hossanahs to Twitter. 

Both sides are silly.  To guys like me, who are skeptical of every broad-brush generalization, who love technology but want it to empower pragmatic problem-solvers, it is clear what's missing. And, yes, the solution is more technology...  only much better balanced technology.

 Hence - getting back on-topic - the key features of any Disputation Area system must not only include excellent tools for argument-management , position-parsing, analytic tools and all that. It must also address to problem of how to get people (or advocacy groups) to come! And how to encourage an environment where ALL participants have to grudgingly acknowledge "Hm... I guess I need to take that into account."

Note that that is PRECISELY what happens in the four existing "accountability arenas"... markets, democracy, courts, and especially science. In the first two, it is filthy and inefficient, but also glorious, compared to all past, delusion-drenched civilizations. So, what I am asking for is not impossible.

It would, however, require some focus... and money... to implement. I can think of no more valuable thing for a billionaire to sponsor. But, then, I am not a billionaire and the delusion that I can tell billionaires what to do is... well, a rich one that's been subject to the criticism of life experience.

david brin

(Join a discussion of this issue.)


See a fascinating appraisal of the way that Amazon recently sent fingers into every Kindle device that had George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four" on it, removed the book and refunded the purchase price, without notification -- an act with ironic resonance in many ways. 

The author goes on to offer some interesting comparisons of Kindle to the eReader.  What fascinates me is the extent to which we have allowed the new media to eliminate the freedoms that we had, in the time of videotape, audio cassettes and early computer disks.  True, copyright piracy is (generally) bad.  But the bloody inconvenience and blithering incomprehensibility of simply using a modern DVD player to watch a film that you already own - let alone record an episode of NOVA - it is why I keep three VCRs in the house, still.

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