Discussions, debates, particularly those that involve a need for some sort of formal result (a decision for instance) – all involve an interaction between parties and a system of rules. This interaction is mediated by an interface, that is some sort of embodiment of the elements of the interaction in a design. The “face” of this interaction may be a person (the chair for instance), or the design of a computer screen. It may be a physical space, a room, or a table, or a mobile phone interface.
It is hard to overemphasise the importance of the design of this space, in determining who takes part, and the quality of the discussions that take place. Woody Allen said “the world is run by people who can be bothered to turn up”, and the people who are bothered to turn up, as we know, are those that feel at home with committees, bureaucracy and the written word. If we want new people to engage, then we need to design new forms of decision making space, that are inviting, human, and above all not dull.
There is no more effective way of discouraging the participation of imaginative, creative and disruptive forces than to make the style of the engagement as boring as possible. While we need a certain amount of stability in our processes, this is best achieved by making binding decisions efficiently, and not by excluding new and disruptive ideas and participants.
I’ve been doing some thinking about books, and libraries, and slow rooms, and came across this video from Susan Cain about introverts:
In a culture where being social and outgoing are prized above all else, it can be difficult, even shameful, to be an introvert.
The thought here is that a decision-making space needs to be slow, quiet and introverted, and that there is a danger, or at least a perceived danger of everything becoming loud, glitzy, technical, instant and superficial.
Democracy and the Slow Room
It is a common concern that while the wisdom of crowds and using television or the internet to make it easier to vote, they also make it less considered. If (the thinking goes), all you have to do is send in an SMS, “like” or click +1 here, to “answer” some television poll – what chance is there for a more contemplative response? Surely this is a dreadful way to express a democratic opinion?
This is an unfortunate assumption, and certainly not what is being aimed for, when we discuss democracy and debate in the Parliament of Things. Indeed it is precisely the superficial forms of public debate encouraged by television, and current political systems that inspire the project to look for richer forms of deliberation.
In particular, for many decisions we need to be able to construct slow rooms, and long tables. A slow room is a place in parliament where thoughtful, and considered processes are required before the decision can be made, while a long room is a space which is designed to debate and decide on issues that only make sense to discuss when considering very long time scales (such as environmental impact).
How such a space is designed is an art that involves the design of physical and virtual space (what we call interface design), as well a social process of creating the right culture around the decisions backed up by the technical and legal structures that embody the decision-making framework.
Liquid Democracy and Thoughtfulness
It may well be the case that what most people currently experience on the internet, is a trivialization of debate, and a chaotic over-exposure to information and opinion, but it would be a mistake to judge the future of online decision support tools on this basis. Rather the current poor state of online deliberation, should be viewed in terms of a natural historical progression: from simple self publishing tools and mass platforms, to specialised and sophisticated spaces that are designed to support decision-making in specific niche fields and communities.
We now have had secure digital tools for online payments, and are beginning to see these on mobile platforms, and it is only when the low hanging fruit of mass engagement platforms have been fully ceded to platforms like FaceBook, Google Plus and Twitter, that we can see developers and investors taking the time and money required to create more sophisticated tools. At the same time, we as users of these systems will begin to become more demanding.
Voting is thought at the moment as a process of putting a cross on a piece of paper, or clicking a button on an online poll – but it need not be like this. There are many ways an individual can express their preference, using richer forms of democracy voters can:
express their support for individuals they trust, based on dialogue, long-term acquaintance, and extended conversation.
express their support for various positions, through learning and study, and in so doing gather the support of others
they can abstain on issues they are not interested in, and act directly on those that they are knowledgable about or passionate.
In a time where the collection of votes, and the distribution of rich documentation around a debate (let’s call this documentary), is effectively free and substantially more universal than ever before (via the internet and mobile phones), the problem can shift from the practical task of collecting trivial democratic input, to enabling individuals to express their democratic preference in richer and more engaging ways.
Doing this every 4 years used to make economic sense, but no longer: now it is just a forced distortion on the ability of individuals to express their knowledge and political preferences with regard to how society should develop. We’ll take a look at the sort of mechanisms that we could use, and how these enable and encourage a higher quality of debate, and not just a greater quantity of button pushing – in a later post.
I once had a friend that was a little clumsy socially – he was a bright, motivated and interesting young man, and yet something bothered me about him. There was something wrong with the way he seemed to relate to people. One day (in a discussion about problems in the shared house in Bonnington Square London), someone put their finger on it:
He’s a “counter”
This story gets to the heart, of something I’ve been struggling with for years in terms of groups, society and alternative systems of cooperation. The perceived problem was that every time this young man engaged in some sort of social interaction he made a mental note of what he did for whom and when, only for this to come back months or years later. He was “counting” rather than giving freely, and this caused resentment and distrust.
Today, during an email conversation about reputation and trust in online communities, the topic cam up again – TJ put it well:
Im still struggling with the concept of grading or valuing individuals — I think its counterproductive in certain ways. The goal of fostering innovation and better social dynamics — specifically trust — is the goal… does ranking individuals help that happen? still not sure I believe thats the case… knowing that your peers are grading you doesn’t instill more trust – it may actually have a polarizing effect on individuals….and in a world where smart teams are hard to find — you don’t want that to happen – you want people to be inspired and motivated — it doesn’t mean you have to coddle them… but it does mean that you understand the delicate nature of team / community structure and you create a framework that creates benefits to the power of people working together = Then you will get more people wanting to USE this system.
This mirrors my long held concern that any form of point, vote, or quantified incentive (the token), devalues the ethic of human action. People start counting points instead of instinctively, and naturally acting in accordance to deep rooted moral values. There are for instance, a number of people in the currency field that go over the top on the use of currencies, without any understating of the effects that monetising human value can have on ethical behaviour.
The Effectiveness of Informal Rules
Jimmy Wales gives a nice description of the social techniques used by Wikipedia editors to come to agreement over controversial topics. In the TED Talk below, he argues for allowing natural social structures to emerge based on transparency, dialogue and a core ethos – supported by software tools, but not using tools to replace the human factor. This is a sublte and indirect argument against the use of tokens or points systems to reward appropriate behaviour.
The Logical Sceptic
Dr Spock may object, and say that as long as the desired and appropriate behavior is in fact augmented, then the social objectives have been reached, and all the rest is nostalgic whining! This is actually quite a good argument – perhaps the real benefits of solving painful social problems, thoroughly outweighs our sentimental longing for a past that never really existed in the way we picture. In time the culture will adapt to the new rules, and begin to appreciate them for their benefits.
Reasons to be cheerful
However, despite all these good arguments, I believe that as long as we are thoughtful, it is possible to combine the best of these worlds. That is it is possible to combine the power and scaleability of token based incentives, and the richness and flexibility of social narrative.
What we need to do is take real care with regard to developing the culture of a group of players, and in the design of the interface they use. Here are some of the factors that I would argue we should use in designing alternative collective decision making forums:
Time – give your systems time to evolve social norms
Keep it physical – real space meetings help
Ethos, branding, legal structure – you can do a lot with soft structures
Interface Design – think of how people interact with the system. Tokens do not need to look like tokens.
The combination of the above is synergistic and really effective – I’d call this combination theatre. That is you can create rich narratives out of elements that may involve hard maths and structure, but this structure need not be a conscious part of the interaction of the users with the system. Lets take a closer look at each of these elements.
Time heals, and in the case of token games, time can remove the awkward and mechanical nature of the interaction. It’s like riding a bicycle or any new activity involving the mastery of a complex series of physical or mental acts – the initial practice is artificial and mechanical, but through practice it becomes second nature allowing an entirely different form of conscious experience for the user.
In the case of token games, it can take years, but eventually a culture will begin to develop around the game. The way the interactions take place can be softened by a set of mannerisms, and ways of expressing the transactions involved. We can take as an example (and as a warning), the way in which business is conducted in various cultures. The rules may be the same, but the conscious experience and practice can vary greatly – an English gentleman does business according to set of values very different from a modern trader. The warning here is that just as time can allow the creation of such cultural norms, the game can also decay over time according to the logic of efficiency or “effective play”.
Keeping it Physical
My experience of working with real groups, and physical space, shows me that when people meet face-to-face – repeatedly – the nature of the interaction is shaped by far more than the pure rules of the game. You can see this also in some online communities, but it appears that the effect may be less here. Keeping a good solid chunk of real space physical interaction in the network can help keep things real.
In the context of democratic debate, creating a system which is based around a structure of small real space meetings or gatherings in physical space, and not one which is first and foremost an online debating chamber, is of importance here. There are many advantages to this, but one of the main ones is that it allows most of the actual human interaction to be playful, social, and rich in values which are harder to capture online or with any abstract points or token based systems.
These latter systems are useful to scale and network the values captured in face-to-face physical space interactions, but we should not confuse the network with the interface. First and foremost we need to base the information system on rich empathetic debate – if we don’t we are processing noise, and trying to approximate value using statistics. We have the technology now to allow richer input into the political system.
Ethos, branding, legal structure
It is possible to go a long way by ensuring a radical ethos is embedded in the legal structure and communicated via effective “branding”. The culture surrounding a currency, or symbol system can strongly shape the values associated with it and the way it is used – Time Banks are a good example of this.
The legal structure may seem to sit uneasily here, but there is no reason why we cannot encode the living values of the practice of the organisation in written constitution, especially if we link this to the technical management of day-to-day tasks. Indeed it is this more creative use of law that we can use to immunise the workings of the organisation against the tendency towards corruption of the organisations ethos.
The logic may be dark: but the interface is beautiful
The internal workings of a system (its internal logic), may well be based on cold hard math, but that is not the only way for human beings to experience the whole. Organisms, including human beings, may in a deep sense be programmed by their DNA, but in our day-to-day interactions with them, we can still usefully use metaphor and narrative.
Similarly in game design there may be points, or some sort of symbolic logic that is behind a given game feature (Honour for instance in a given domain in World of Warcraft), after all the software needs to do the maths – but the interface can present it in a way in which the perceived value is experiential and instinctive – no counting involved. The same principles can be used to craft the way in which an institution or organisation works – maths behind the scenes, but rich interaction as the experience.
Obfuscation does not mean corrupt
Creating rich social interfaces to an underlying game logic, may be served by direct or indirect obfuscation of the underlying logic. It may in some circumstances be of value to make the underlying game mechanics unknowable to the participants. Usually transparency is the rule of the day, however there are times (as with a secret ballot), in which there is real moral value in not revealing too much. What counts (no pun intended), is that the control of the rules of the system lie with the users of the system, in a process which we can call bottom-up.
Essentially, there is a very rich set of techniques that we are only beginning to explore which allow us to interact with systems using higher and higher level languages – the range of these languages is infinite, and it is not too hard for us to see that it is within our means to craft them in terms that we find intuitive, rich in human values, and creative. Most of us have had bad experiences, in our dealings with bureaucracies, the law, and badly designed interfaces to systems of one kind or another, but we now have tools that enable us to fix this. We can consider this a problem of bad user experience design, not an inherent problem of using logic, incentives or tokens.
In a previous post, I argued for why it is important to look at the quality of the transactions that lead to the forces of preferential attachment and hence scale free networks. In this post I want to look at the opposite, that is what you can say about the human quality of a social network, by considering it’s form. This should I believe be an entire research discipline, one I’m actively looking for, but not yet found.
Let’s call this discipline: social anatomy, or network aesthetics, or some such snappy title. Whatever we call it, it would be the study of emergent values, of network topologies. There would be a body of longitudinal studies, in which different topologies were compared, randomly allocated to different groups and the quality of the emergent behaviour at an individual and social level compared. Studies would take place within the same domain, comparing different topologies, and then compared across domains to see if general lessons could be learned regarding the role such topologies have on abstract qualities, such as creativity, or empathy, or aggression for instance.
This research would have a practical focus. It would help us design online communities, social media tools, social institutions and legal frameworks. But to keep things simple, let’s take a look at social media, and (for the purpose of illustration), the media reporting of the current Libyan protests. @techsoc relates:
Traditional media puts things in a sterile, manageable place. Here are dead children. A crush of people. Btw, don’t you want a bigger car?
Even when they tell you, they tell you in a way that distances you. The anchor & the correspondent are distant, so you remain distant.
On the other hand, there are billions of people & many tragedies. Not possible to live w/ it all, all the time. No answers, just reflecting.
Is this not an emergent property, of the topologies of the two network structures – television and twitter? What substance can we give to the observation that the professional behaviour encouraged by hierarchical institutions tends towards the well – bland, and the cold? What sort of structures could preserve a wider range of qualities within the diversity of reporting?
It is also surely the case that the potential of social networks does not stop with the direct reporting of individual incidents in all their emotive intensity. We have a network, and are beginning to see social editorial structures emerge, both technical, and cultural. It is certainly possible to imagine, and indeed occasionally experience mediated representations of events that combine the two – direct and emotionally intense on the ground accounts, with objective, impartial or statistical analysis.
Networks can serve to address some of the shortcomings of professional reporting, by giving a richer structure and typology to the objective representations, while retaining the immediate presence of direct visceral experience. This can be technically mediated by showing an image, or raw video footage, but is also socially mediated by the fact of knowing that the reporter is not professional, is not being paid, but is perhaps being motivated directly and simply by the need or impulse to tell a story.
Tweets are based on a format designed by engineers to exchange technical data over a cellphone network – their social and emotive impact comes not from the format, as much as from the topology of the communications network. Tweets are able to capture the emotional context of news stories, in a way in which a television news studio and network of reporters is unable to. A community and culture of reporting can then grow around this network. Is it not the case that we may be able to look at the topology of such networks and map classes of these topologies to a range of social qualities.
It would seem to me that there are a number of qualities; authenticity, empathy, humour fairness to take a few, that appear to suffer in any conventional process of institutionalisation. It is no coincidence that the social sciences, lack good theoretical frameworks to understand these qualities, and that research in these areas is poorly funded. Nor is it a coincidence that these areas are of genuine human importance. The important things are hard, and we have not had ethically viable research tools to investigate these core qualities of human society.
Fairness may be related to an appropriate use of reputation in a network, but studies like this are only just scratching the surface. We need longitudinal studies, in order to move an academic discipline towards a real science of social institutions in a networked world, not one stuck in an analysis of historical structures, but an experimental science that enables us to look at appropriate designs for qualities that we seek, not simple side effects of historical happen-stance.
In medicine we have a range of instruments that allow us to look at the structure of the human body, and detect signs of structural disease, or signs of healing and good health. When will we have these for the social structures of our institutions?