Saturday, December 30, 2006

Today's "centrifugal" net is NOT an "arena" or commons.

There is a lot of fuss going on about Time Magazine's decision to put a mirror (framed by a computer screen) on its latest cover and announcing tat the 2006 Person of the Year is... "you." Which translates as Joe and Jane Public -- millions of us -- who are starting to flex our cyber-empowered wings and express ourselves as never before.

Yes, of course, I believe in all of that. I very early touted the citizen-empowering aspects of this new era, in preference over the solipsistic approach taken by cyberpunk tales, which kept portraying the electronic age as filled with bleating (though wired) sheep. If we are about to enter an era of "smart mobs" and rapidly coalescing, agile communities of ad hoc expertise, it will not be too soon. Both Vernor Vinge and I have relentlessly portrayed this possibility in fiction... as I did in nonfiction (e.g. The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?)

Indeed, my own punditry on this matter goes back to 1985 and as recent as last Monday.

AgeOfAmateursHere's a radio interview I gave on NPR this week, about the coming "Age of Amateurs." And a video interview on The Age of Amateurs, as well.

And yet, I have to tell you (in full blown contrarian mode) that sanguine paeans to the wired age - like those tooted this week by Time - are in many ways no better than the growling-snipings of cynics who dislike everything new. Both groups deeply oversimplify. And the enthusiasts are in some ways more harmful! Because they seem to think (and spread the notion) that all of the pieces for utopian cyber-democracy are already in place!

That the benefits of super-empowered citizenship are already before us, on the table, and the feast is ready to begin.

But the miracle of the Enlightenment has never been like that, and it never will be. We need to look, again and again, at the things that brought about our present day feast of expanded knowledge, freedom and wealth. These things did not arise simply out of human nature, or the sudden arrival of tools like printing.

They emerged from processes like democracy and science and law and commerce, that have been refined with countless fine-tuning regulations, in order to maximize benefits and minimize the unpleasant effects of nasty human habits, like mutual repression and cheating.

We need to remember that nearly all previous human societies actively repressed innovation, freedom and individuality, because these traits will always threaten those who are comfortably ensconced on top. Modernity and the Enlightenment did not just happen. If we want them to continue and thrive, we have to understand what earlier generations of passionate and practical people did, in order to get us here.

DisputationArenasArrowCoverSome of you have read my extensive essay: Disputation Arenas: Harnessing Conflict and Competition for Society's Benefit - written for the American Bar Association - about the underlying common traits of markets, science, courts and democracy -- the "accountability arenas" that have empowered free individuals to compete and create without tumbling quickly into repression and outrage.... for the first time, ever. Alas, over the years since, I have found that people have trouble perceiving some of what the paper describes... or why today's internet just does not yet have what it takes to empower us with a "fifth arena."

Here is one of the key difficult concepts. I describe how markets, science, courts and democracy each have "centripetal vs centrifugal" social phases.

I see these opposite trends having much the same effect for accountability arenas that INHALING and EXHALING have in living mammals. You need both for the system to thrive.

In science, markets, courts and democracy, the CENTRIFUGAL PHASE is when each individual participant may disperse, find allies/collaborators, and safely organize with others under some degree of protection, in a zone where product can be refined and readied for competitive testing.

In science, this zone is your tenured professorship or lab etc: in markets the safe zone is the company/corporation: in courts it is attorney-client privilege and the power of coerced deposition; and democracy has parties.

That's the centrifugal phase and it took civilization thousands of years to realize how necessary it is, in order for these four arenas to function.

Note that this is the phase that exists now, copiously, in the nascent "fifth arena" of the internet!

ALL OF THE TRAITS THAT TIME MAGAZINE CELEBRATES IN ITS LATEST ISSUE HAVE TO DO WITH THIS PHASE. What could be more “centrfugal” than the creation of a zillion self-expressing blogs. Not one of which is subject to any process of accountability.

What the cybersphere does NOT have is anything even remotely resembling the CENTRIPETAL phase that also empowers the four older, more mature "arenas."

What is the centripetal phase? This is where in all of the disparate and dispersed participants in an arena are summoned together by a ritual CALL TO COMBAT. What ensues is a battle - competition - that has transformed ancient human bloody-mindedness into something much more like a game. One in which rules have been laid down to ensure that the outcome of competition correlates at least somewhat with quality of product, and much less with power or influence or other means of cheating.

In science the centripetal competition phase compels researchers to publish papers and present them for criticism. In markets the ritual battleground is retail sales - where customers compare goods and services. In democracy the role is filled by elections, and courts have trials. The STYLE of competition varies wildly among these arenas! So much that (I believe) nobody has ever thought to compare their commonalities as explicitly as I have.


(Take courts. Since the "product" is justice - and possibly life or death - courts cannot afford a high error rate, and hence the centripetal arena phase is costly, meticulous, whereas markets can afford huge inefficiencies in exchange for total fecundity and freedom to innovate.)

Indeed, all of this correlates with the Creative Process inside human minds, where the so-called Preconscious boils up a zillion proto-ideas that are then sifted and culled, till only the "good ones" even rise to consciousness... where the culling process continues. Centrifugal idea-generation, followed by competitive culling. Um... doesn't this ALSO describe the titanic creative process of Darwinian evolution?

You can see where I am going with this.

Presently, on the internet, THERE IS NO EQUIVALENT CENTRIPETAL PHASE that allows us to test ideas, opinions, arguments against each other, using competitive processes to cull wheat from the chaff.

Pearls are said to float upward in shit. But so MUCH of the ranting online today is BS, how can anyone hope for good ideas to actually coalesce and for bad ones to finally die, as they eventually deserve?

For decades I have been trying to come up with innovations that might introduce some competitive power to this new arena. Sometimes, it seems hopeless. As when the clueless editors at Time Magazine blithely announce that we are already in the promised age of empowered citizenship... when half -- fully half of the needed tools are absolutely missing.

Oh, our would-be masters want it this way. Those who would return us to a style of feudalism. They would let us wrangle and spume and EXPRESS ourselves, endlessly online...

...without ever finding ways to turn all of that self-expression into the relentless and joyfully innovative mass creation of a new kind product.

 A new kind of sapiency that is based upon a massively empowered us.

===  ==== ===

See: More articles on Creating the Future


David Brin
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38 comments:

iridescent cuttlefish said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
David Brin said...

I hated to do this, but I had to delete the astonishingly long commentary post that was made here by iridescent cuttlefish. At least 5-10 pages long, it would have utterly demolished any chance of general discussion of the posted topic.

Moreover, Cuttlefish was using this posting to wage polemical response apropos to the comment thread on the PREVIOUS posting.

Look, IC is welcome back here. But if he wants to post lengthy manifestos, he is more than welcome to create his own blog and post SMALLER SUMMARIES here, referring people to those longer screeds.

IC, you are welcome to come back here with something shorter than a page. An alternative. re-post your screed under comments in the PREVIOUS posting, where they belong.

Reminder. This is my blog. My rules. You are bright and welcome here. But learn the rules.

Rob Perkins said...

Almost as an experiment in market demand and how much an online community will tolerate, I posted "Will trade Nintendo Wii for a used XBox 360 and $250," to see if anyone would bite, on CraigsList.

(Some context: The products in question are game consoles. The Wii in particular was in tickle-me-elmo territory over the holiday season and still can't be found on store shelves. But you could get them on eBay for a bit over $450 each, which included some extras.

My kids convinced me to keep the Wii, tho, so it's not for sale anymore!)

Within hours, I'd received a note from CraigsList that "the community has cancelled your posting". There is a button on every posting which permits anyone to vote against it.

Is that an example of a centripetal force?

Also, Google uses a complex algorithm or three to rank relevance of Internet pages, citing the most popular ones first based on a set of criteria.

Is that an example of a centripetal force?

Third, Wikipedia has both a central authority, a rudimentary form of due process, and a way for smart mobs to edit content, all of which are critical to its operation. It also asks for money.

Are any of those examples of centripetal force?

Woozle said...

Possible mechanisms for centripitality (?):

1. Official recognition of at least some internet venues, e.g. a city or state's official web page could have links to independently-operated fora for discussing items of relevance to inhabitants of that city or state. (Some drawbacks to this, but worth further examination.)

2. The idea of volunteering time for discussing "real world" issues in online venues could become "part of the culture", as valid as volunteering for the soup kitchen, the neighborhood watch, the polling station, the VFD, etc. (Main drawback: it isn't yet; what can we do to change this?)

Those are the ones I've come up with. Any others?

Naum said...

The tools are still evolving.

The very proliferation of blogs is almost entirely due to the F/OSS (Free/Open Source Software) that put push button publishing tools into the hands of all, not just the technologically savvy. Were it not for it's existence and spread, we'd still be mired in 1996ish style home pages created by even a smaller minority.

Just like Google advanced the state of search engines beyond AltaVista and Yahoo (though Yahoo has done fairly well at playing catchup), new sites are supplanting blog aggregators and news feed replicators -- sites like digg.com, reddit.com, del.icio.us are illustrating how collective judgment > algorithmic determination of significance.

David Brin said...

Rob asks: “Are any of those examples of centripetal force?” and cites crude reputation-based systems. And yes, such systems do provide a very very coarse and primitive quality feedback methodology...

...roughly equivalent to “democratic elections” based on screaming matches or court trials by public lynching. Worse, of course, because there is simply no way for bad opinions to lose so much standing that they simply wither up and blow away. Freedom of speech is great, but that right was established in part in ORDER to secure, forever, the benefits of the centrifugal phase. CRITICISM is the centripetal tool that corresponds, and for it to work at the pragmatic goal of providing us all with improved human solutions it must be applied in sophisticated and effective ways!

I tried to explain all this at Googles, a few weeks ago. Very smart guys. I think maybe two of them sort of dimly got it. It is HARD, apparently.

I figure one of the best commercial uses of my holocene patent will be to truly engage the attention of millions of individuals in ways that allow them to smoothly interact with reputation systems. Many, many companies yearn for better ways to rate credibility and to test public opinion about products, companies etc. The methods that they are currently using suck. No proposed method that I’ve seen on the horizon comes even close to closing this gap.

Because they do not understand the problem.

iridescent cuttlefish said...

Not that it matters, Mr. Brin, but it was actually 4 pages long, which isn't quite as long as some of the other comments I posted last time around, but I get your point. Not about the length of my comments, but rather about the contents. I was responding to this post of yours, and I was addressing the same issues you addressed--I just had a different take on it.

The strangest thing about our exchanges is that we agree on the need for a transparent society. It's in the little details of how we get there and what the result looks like that our differences begin. I do have blogs and I do write on a number of others--I was just attempting to construct bridges between different camps with similar goals. So it goes, sometimes. I wonder what my failure to connect with your crowd says about the possibility of groups with dissimilar goals achieving any meaningful approachment? (Other than the need to respect the court etiquette of one's "opposition"...)

Cedric Morrison said...

One bright spot about the Internet that hasn't yet been mentioned here is that it is encouraging more people to cite their references. For instance, have you been in or witnessed a Web argument in which one disputant asks the other to back up his assertion, and the hyperlinks start to fly?

Woozle said...

to Cuttlefish: I wouldn't say you aren't connecting with this crowd. Your posts have been so long and involved, however, that it's often difficult to know which part to respond to. Perhaps wikify it?

to Our Esteemed Host: I hope I'm "getting it". I made the assumption in my previous post that I was, in fact, getting it – but if only one or two people at Google (a place world-renowned for "getting" a lot of things quickly) are maybe getting it, somewhat dimly, after having it explained to them in person... well, maybe what I think I'm getting isn't the message you're trying to convey.

What I get is this (and I may not be explaining it well enough to demonstrate that I'm actually getting it, but I'll try):

In a nutshell: The Internet gives us the tools necessary to establish truly sophisticated disputation arenas, but doesn't populate the arenas with the people who need to be there – i.e. the citizens and policymakers who ultimately make all the decisions.

We have the arenas (at least, the crude beginnings of them), but nobody is showing up for the circus. (They're all hanging out in the sideshows and missing the real event.)

So instead of big ideas being thrashed out with mass participation, and intelligent rational results being achieved with a large number of people "getting on board" with the results (because they participated in creating those results, or at least truly had every opportunity to object if they didn't like the way it was going), we have big ideas being thrashed out in a lot of small groups, without much cross-fertilization and with only a very few people becoming convinced of anything as a result because most of the country is still watching Fox "News".

Am I on target? Missing anything? Way off in the south forty?

Meanwhile, I thought of a third model for promoting centripitality (assuming, of course, that I actually am getting what you're talking about): commercialization, i.e. paid promotion of existing venues, backed by some combination of donations, merchandising, Google ads, or whatever other ethical and non-conflicting means can be found. (The same way we get people to watch TV, listen to the radio, etc. For that matter, add multimedia outlets: podcasts discussing this week's discussions... I feel certain that this cand be made interesting, in spite of how dry it sounds. Think Weekend Edition, The McLaughlin Group, or Louis Rukeyser.)

I've avoided inserting any possible kind of profit angle into Issuepedia because I was afraid it would make people leery of participating ("profit = agenda", or something like that)... but perhaps it's actually a legitimate thing to do; certainly participation has been almost nil as it is.

So, what do you think – should I start selling "Issuepedia.org: No More Sound Bites!" t-shirts and bumper-stickers? ;-)

(Stop me if I'm being too relentless in my self-promotion here. Or if I'm in danger of matching Cuttlefish's posting-length... (-; )

Rocky said...

Interesting article from the TCS Daily on Confronting the Wahhabis, or in other words, Muslims seeking to eradicate the extremist, Saudi-funded elements from their societies.

David Brin said...

Woozle, you show the maturity of perspective that is needed -- and shown -- by truly modern minds when they say “I THINK I get it but it is possible that I do not; therefore I will try to paraphrase.”

Indeed, in my disputations paper, I show that Paraphrasing is possibly THE most important stage that is missing in nearly all modern argument, especially online. Without it, folks simply shout past each other at convenient strawmen that they erected in their own minds.

(I do this too!)

Alas, what often happens when one paraphrases is that you DO find that your interpretation was wrong. As happened in this case.

You said: “In a nutshell: The Internet gives us the tools necessary to establish truly sophisticated disputation arenas, but doesn't populate the arenas with the people who need to be there...”

Well... I don’t agree that the tools are there, at all. In fact, this appears to have been the obsession that has pulled me away from science fiction for many years. My holocene invention, reputation management, attention management, transparency, indignation addiction, prediction registries... I have been probing at a wide variety of tools that are desperately needed -- and that currently are languishing for lack of serious attention out there. All of them are pieces to a puzzle that could bring us a mature, fifth accountability arena...

...and nearly all of them are simply missing.

Yes, you appear to get the fact that most of the discussion today is also too scattered and dispersed. The centrifugal phase is VERY effective. People diverge into like-minded groups to perform little circle-jerks -- little Nuremberg rallies -- of co-believers. (Like us “modernists”? Oh but at least we welcome irritants like Don & (when he learns the ropes) cuttlefish.) No “arena” will be useful unless it centripetally compels gun rights and gun control theoreticians into the very same forum at the same time and forces them to answer fierce cross examination.

Seriously, my article at http://www.davidbrin.com/disputationarticle1.html
is a bit of a heavy tome. Sometimes I wonder if anybody ever read it. For the Bar Association of all groups. Not that it made a lot of difference.


----Rocky thanks for the article you cited just above. I urge anybody to link to it and ponder the phrase “follow the money.” Alas, I believe the article falls, yet again, for the notion that there are “liberals” over in the r’oil house. That there is division and weakness of commitment over there. A layer of perception that is likely to be mere deception.

Cheney is blatantly summoned on the carpet to explain the recent US election losses... and excuses are made that deflect from that obvious interpretation, claiming instead that the choice is only between two interpretations: Cheney was ordered to attack Iran (absurd) or that he was there to demand that the King quell Saudi radicals (also absurd.) The evidence that is given for the latter? That Cheney is strong and would not cozen to bullying. Har. When you are suborned, you are suborned. Cash, cronyism and blackmail are the three main tools and the world’s richest conspirators can heap all three upon anybody they want.

The last five years, our “war on terror” has been so weird. Imagine that, during the Cold War, we would tangle with Soviet surrogates, now and then, but it was absolutely forbidden to ever mention or blame the KGB, for anything, ever! Are our intelligence services so blind that they cannot follow the cash that supports the killing of US servicemen back to an enemy that wants our civilization to be dead? Are they THAT cowed by a few layers of nasty political bosses, who have been appointed over their heads?

Are they completely unable to contemplate the word “subornation?” Or patterns of influence that are more thorough and blatant than any that would have rung alarm bells during the Cold War? The Intelligence Community is supposed to be staffed by bright heroes. I am wondering if it is time to re-evaluate that cliche and consider the opposite image, instead.

Having said that, I still recommend the article. Again and again, “follow the money.”

---Finally, Cuttlefish, I did read your screed. And I have to tell you that articulate armwaving all boils down to distraction. You and the other lefty romantics feel impelled to deny that previous liberal efforts have accomplished anything, then you deny preaching hopelessness. All it will take is a sudden leap in “awareness” - you preach - and suddenly the world will transform!

In other words, all the world needs is to listen to you. And where Martin Luther King and JFK and all the labor organizers and environmentalists and feminists utterly failed before, YOU will rouse us all to a sudden, transcendent and beautiful transformation! And you haven’t a clue how ARROGANT that sounds? That you are somehow far better than all of those heroes... and that it will happen in a moment of glorious revelation. Just like the revelations of your fellow (religious) mystics.

Again... FEH! Again, cynicism is the very same thing as laziness! You don’t want to admit that earlier heroes advanced civilization through their hard work, clearing swamps and digging foundations and laying bricks for a rising civilization that is gradually, grindingly getting better.... because then you would know your duty to GET TO WORK and build another story onto the edifice. Where’s the romantic glory in that?????

Pish and twaddle. Dig it. Either I am right, and we have the successes of the past to build upon... or else it just AIN’T GOONA HAPPEN.

Woozle said...

My use of the word "tools" was nonspecific, and open to misinterpretation. I was thinking of "tools" analogous to hammer and saw; as I see it, we are in the phase of cutting timber and slapping together the most basic structures (wikis and the current generation of forum-style discussion), and still sketching out ideas for the really useful ones.

There's also an awful lot of research (not necessarily formal) to be done in order to figure out what is really necessary in order to make a Disputation Arena work. For instance, it used to be thought that you couldn't possibly maintain quality on a site without some kind of reputation management; Wikipedia proved that, at least for some kinds of content, reputation management can be very primitive on the software level and mostly depend on social networking rather than software-based rule enforcement.

Perhaps I/we need to start looking at some of the ideas in Holocene from a costs-and-benefits POV, to get a better idea of how to prioritize the feature list for a truly modern Disputation Arena.

Don Quijote said...

It's now official.

3000 Dead Americans. Good job George.

And it'll be 4000 next year if we stay in Iraq.

David Brin said...

And you expect disagreement here, Don?

The area of controversy here is whether the destruction of our military, our readiness, our morale, our social cohesion, our science, our alliances, our world popularity and countless lives are the result of monumental incompetence...

...or a pattern that our paid, professional pattern analysts should have figured out and countered years ago. I do not know the answer to that issue. I pose the paranoid side of it largely out of habitual contrariness... because almost nobody else seems willing to take the step and talk about the possibility.

Don Quijote said...

And you expect disagreement here, Don?

Just ending the year on an appropriately cheerful note.

The area of controversy here is whether the destruction of our military, our readiness, our morale, our social cohesion, our science, our alliances, our world popularity and countless lives are the result of monumental incompetence...

Just first class incompetence...

As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron. H.L. Mencken

David Brin said...

Ah, the high priest of cynics. But here's the irony. Genuine cynics don't "get" Mencken at all. Typically, they are just too lazy.

Anonymous said...

From Rocky' article:
The pro-Wahhabi clique is led by three individuals: Prince Sultan Ibn Abd al-Aziz, minister of defense; Prince Bandar, predecessor of Turki as ambassador to Washington; and Sultan's brother, Prince Naye.

Thats Bandar "Bush" who is funding and supporting the most anti-american movement in the world. The minister of defense and his brother are interesting because they control the spending for the Saudi military (28 billion per year).
Something interesting to note The Carlyle Group was founded to pay off top american intelligence, military and executive officials for helping procure weapon systems for Saudi Arabia. Look at the membership of the Carlyle group its very eye opening. (Hint its not just Bush family and the Bin Ladin family)

TwinBeam said...

Happy New Year!

Is it settled that the Internet is an arena in the same sense as democracy, markets, science and courts?

The Internet has elements that extend the above 4 arenas. The Blogosphere seems more like an amateur extension of old media punditry. The Internet doesn't seem to address any new dimension that justifies considering it a completely separate arena.

And if it is just an extension of other arenas, to at least some degree the centripetal forces needed already exist. The courts rein in law-breaking that occurs on the Internet. Political debates in Blogs get decided in elections. Science is made rather more visible, but I don't think takes internet debates of science seriously. Market forces apply to the Internet - as the bubble burst proved.

Also, I'd be leery of getting new centripetal mechanisms too soon. Some areas of the world are only now starting to benefit from the centrifugal effects, countering severe (and biased in favor of those in power) pre-existing centripetal forces.

Finally, it seems like what you really want is a centripetal force in the sphere of ideas. The centripetal forces that already exist there seem rather crude, but operational.

E.g. the debate over global warming seems to be over for many, and even those who are still holding out appear to be slowly retreating. E.g. it now seems more common to accept that it is happening than to deny it, but to blame it on non-anthropogenic causes, and declare that Earth has gone through warm periods before).

PS: Focusing on centripetal vs centrifugal neglects that centripetal forces can be to the wrong center. E.g. censorship is a centripetal force. Peer pressure and political correctness (the type that denies that a problem exists in hopes that it will go away) are centripetal forces. Democracy can often be mobocracy, and a government of laws tends to accumlate laws to the point that only a fraction can be enforced - allowing those in power to choose to enforce laws in a way that enhances their power.

Anonymous said...

>>In other words, all the world needs is to listen to you.

This from David "If only they'd read my paper!" Brin.

>>And you haven’t a clue how ARROGANT that sounds?

About as arrogant as not seeing that when you tell your anecdote about the "smart guys" at Google "not getting" you -- even when you were personally explaining your ideas -- that all the world sees is a guy who is bad at explaining himself.

Shades of "Why Johnny Can't Code" eh? If it takes you three tries to explain what you meant, and _still_ no-one gets it, then the problem is with you or your idea, padre.

Perhaps that breathtakingly original "there's lots of BS on the internet" idea of yours needs to fractionally expand.

Don Quijote said...

Why Johnny Can't Code
BASIC - 256

Free as Beer And Free as Speech...

Blake Stacey said...

Shades of "Why Johnny Can't Code" eh? If it takes you three tries to explain what you meant, and _still_ no-one gets it, then the problem is with you or your idea, padre.

Democritus and Lucretius both said many of the things Richard Dawkins has had to say again, over twenty centuries later. Your point?

I dunno about anybody else, but I followed "Why Johnny Can't Code" without trouble. Perhaps this was only because I had actually mulled over similar thoughts a few times in the past several years, though nobody ever paid me for writing about them. And really, a big part of "Why Johnny Can't Code" comes back to the centripetal versus centrifugal problem. (I'm sure there's a better terminology for it, but until I can think of such jargon, I'll use the words already established here.) All our wonderful new and shiny programming languages, almost all of which trump BASIC in technical respects, are centrifugal phenomena. Just as we can each create a blog to fume and scream and dream, we can each pick a programming language of our choice or, in principle, develop a new one of our own.

However, the blogosphere lacks mechanisms for bringing bloggers together in debate and deliberation. Blog "carnivals" are retrospective affairs; the people who assemble them are more like secretaries recording the minutes than presidents leading a meeting. Our language is revealing: we speak of "blog wars" but have no terms which cast inter-blog disputes in the same light as, for example, Supreme Court cases. (I am normally suspicious of arguments from etymology, but I think that here one can make the case that the language reflects our habits of thought, though not perhaps shaping those habits.)

We need a court system, but all we've got is trial by fire. While Time magazine tells us that we have built the digital reincarnation of the Athenian Agora, it's really more like a Viking feast house, with Beowulf's soldiers wearing mead-stained blankets and pretending to be philosopher-kings.

Likewise, the Net-based proliferation of programming languages lacks the one thing which we had in the Dark Ages of line-number BASIC: that quality which DB has termed centripetal force. Think about it. With a thousand dialects to choose among, will any textbook publisher include sample code in their math books? The Web can make room for an indefinitely large family of languages, but no student is ever motivated to speak them. Whether our shiny new toys are free as in speech, free as in beer or both is irrelevant if they languish in obscurity.

This is progress?

As a programmer who has worked with a healthy sampling of modern languages, I happen to feel that we'd be better using our brainpower if we stopped inventing new dialects "for the kids" and started writing books which made students and teachers alike realize how useful the currently extant ones can be. I actually went to the Boston Public Library a few weekends ago to see if they had any "obsolete" high-school algebra books with BASIC samples in them. Unfortunately, the books I turned up were not obsolete enough: they had graphing-calculator exercises, but nothing like the program samples I remembered from tenth grade. An actual school library might be a better place to find such older books and see how far they were able to carry the concept. Come on, aren't you even curious to see what youngsters were expected to do ten years ago?

I have elsewhere waxed rhapsodic about our modern possibilities for discussion. Right now, I would like to emphasize that we haven't built the Agora yet. I suspect that many people who recognize deficiencies in our current systems shrug them off with a combination of the following thoughts: it's not my responsibility to fix them; I can see problems, but I'm not a computer programmer; starting the next MySpace or GooTube requires time and money; these things can take care of themselves.

However, we can't all stand around waiting for the "centripetal force" to bring itself about.

Blake Stacey said...

In other news, can anyone make sense of these two articles? One is entitled "AP poll: Americans optimistic for 2007" and the other is "Poll: Americans see gloom, doom in 2007". As far as I can tell, they refer to the same "AP-AOL News poll of 1,000 adults", conducted over telephone "from Dec. 12-14 by Ipsos, an international public opinion research company."

It may be worth noting that the optimistic article is the one with fewer numbers. . . .

Michael "Sotek" Ralston said...

The two articles seem reasonably consistant, although I've only really skimmed them.

The "gloom and doom" one is talking about the country, Iraq, and suchlike.

The "optimism" one is talking about people's family lives, and explicitly contrasts that to the state of the country.


Certainly it's plausible to say "Well, the country's going down the toilet, but it's not affecting me right now!". At least, that's what it looks like those are saying.

Rob Perkins said...

DQ gets props for this last one, in my opinion. It appears to be a tool akin to the one David lamented was gone from computers.

In terms of the "johnny can't code" arguments, it just occurred to me, though, that every Mac, at least, comes with a program called "grapher", which can visualize complex algebraic and basic calculus concepts, including solving integrals through several computational methods.

It makes a fine substitute and improvement for the graphing calculator. That, combined with textbooks I've seen which invite kids to try stuff in LOGO (which, apropos nothing, is a variant and subset of LISP), and one can still approach using computers to visualize and learn about math and physics, and also even computers.

There's hope for all that.

I intend to download and examine DQ's cite and see if it could be of use to my enigmatic second daughter.

brian t said...

> You can see where I am going with this.

I hate to say this, but: no, I couldn't. The only answer I could think of would be considered insulting...

David Brin said...

Twin Beam raises a good point. Must we ask the Net to become a fifth arena? Does it not serve when it helps to extend and empower the already-existing four arenas that have given us all of civilization's great advances, so far?

eBay and consumer product research and corporate service sites are all examples of Web-based activities that have profoundly affected the function of markets, as has Google-style targeted advertising. Science has been invigorated by ever-faster access to information and the liberation of amateur practitioners... though net-publication of results has created a challenge to traditional peer-review. There is much talk of web-empowered democracy... and I am dubious but hopeful...

And yet, I am convinced that we need a fifth arena. Because each of the first four arenas concentrates on a particular style of PRODUCT. Markets offer goods and services, Democracy- policies. Science - models of truth. Courts - justice.

I believe we need an arena that competitively tests and culls and refines human OPINION. And the web ought to empower us to do that, gradually purging ourselves, through free citokate, of the worst and most-insipid delusions and helping the pearls rise through the surrounding shit more rapidly than before.

You say that there are centripetal effects on the web already? I'd like to know what they are? Where is the competitive arena that has refined rules of interaction that effectively and efficiently separate unsupported blather from cogent ideas that are backed by evidence? Where is the arena that all sides MUST enter, rather than staying behind their castle walls, howling the same nonsense, over and over?

Yes, democracy can be mobocracy. But you are missing the big picture. Good and wise men and women have striven for 4 centuries to refine the four existing arenas. It has entailed excruciating hard work and relentless innovation, in the face of basic human nature, which drives some of the smartest and most canny individuals and groups to conspire and cheat. Every generation, new flaws in democracy and courts and markets are discovered by clever, feral predators and these flaws must be patched.

Have you studied law, or business? The centripetal systems for ritual combat are vast and ornate and sometimes foolish. And incredibly imperfect. And vastly more sophisticated than their correlates on the Web.

---Anonymous said...
>>In other words, all the world needs is to listen to you. 
This from David "If only they'd read my paper!" Brin.
At one level I have to say "you got me!" Citokate. I confess I may have sounded whiney and I shall try to improve.

At another level, you are committing a logical fallacy that is truly egregious. When I accused Cuttlefish and DQ and other cynics of demanding that the world suddenly pay them attention, it was in a special way that you ignore. They claim that no previous reforms have ever worked but that their preachings may suddenly and transcendently transform the world. That is a far cry from my own grumblings, which mutter: "Great ones like Edison and Marshall and Brandeis have achieved wonders. I sure would like to join their ranks with a few contributions of my own."

If you cannot see the difference between my version of raging "why won't anybody listen to me" egotism and the far different egomania of idealist cynics, then you simply aren't paying any attention.

Blake has proved that he "gets" centripetal vs centrifugal by using the Basic Imbroglio as a good example (that I had not thought-of). Yes, a universal lingua franca computer language that is resident on all machines IS centripetal and draws millions together, into a competitive/creative realm, even if it is only a few trivial homework assignments. That tiny in-draw has vanished, leaving us LESS connected than we were before.

Shrubageddon said...

If you seek true, genuine, meaningful paradigmatic change, you must eschew the notion of heroes, if for no other reason than it is disempowering.

Naum said...

Likewise, the Net-based proliferation of programming languages lacks the one thing which we had in the Dark Ages of line-number BASIC: that quality which DB has termed centripetal force. Think about it. With a thousand dialects to choose among, will any textbook publisher include sample code in their math books? The Web can make room for an indefinitely large family of languages, but no student is ever motivated to speak them. Whether our shiny new toys are free as in speech, free as in beer or both is irrelevant if they languish in obscurity.

Totally incorrect. More students "speak them" than previously ever. And speaking as a professional programmer with a degree in computer science, the "tying down" of "thinking in algorithms" to a specific language is absolutely a horrid approach. Pseudo-code, charting, etc... are superior methods over the rigid adherence to syntax and semantics that prevent grasping of the concepts which once mastered, can be applied to any language.

And the point is, if they are free (as in "speech"), they will proliferate and the web circa 2006 is a vivid illustration -- that their are only really two routes to ubiquity -- either the software comes bundled with the box (i.e., 70%+ users still use IE even though Firefox is the superior and more secure product -- non technically savvy in my office still use IE despite my showing them that the contents of their C&P clipboard are easily readable using IE) or it's F/OSS deployment made easy.

I suspect that many people who recognize deficiencies in our current systems shrug them off with a combination of the following thoughts: it's not my responsibility to fix them; I can see problems, but I'm not a computer programmer; starting the next MySpace or GooTube requires time and money; these things can take care of themselves.


It takes time, but not a lot of money -- anybody with a cheap laptop and an internet connection can craft the next great software. Indeed, much of the F/OSS blogging tools in widespread usage were created by unemployed programmers. Look at the ultimate web server + OS platform - written by a college student trying to connect his PC to the university network and thus embarked on a quest to have Unix on the desktop. And most of the websites run on Apache, a F/OSS so familiar that it's taken for granted.

Yes, a universal lingua franca computer language that is resident on all machines IS centripetal and draws millions together, into a competitive/creative realm, even if it is only a few trivial homework assignments. That tiny in-draw has vanished, leaving us LESS connected than we were before.

Totally disagree… …more than ever, millions have been drawn together, far exceeding the tiny bitty segment of geeks that could afford to come to the party in the nostalgia you wane for.

Anonymous said...

Brin asks "Where is the competitive arena [online] that has refined rules of interaction that effectively and efficiently separate unsupported blather from cogent ideas that are backed by evidence?"

Try http://www.wikipedia.org -- if that for some reason hasn't been resolving for you, complain to your service provider.

:)

(OK, there is the matter that disputants aren't forced to edit Wikipedia, but as more and more people go there to get a neutral and factual perspective on an issue it may become increasingly important for one's ideas to be represented there as a jumping-off point of sorts.)

Shrubageddon said...

Where is the competitive arena [online] that has refined rules of interaction that effectively and efficiently separate unsupported blather from cogent ideas that are backed by evidence?

I would posit that ideas are incongruent with the notion of competition. Sure, you can do your damdest to contain them, but ideas best flourish when they are given latitude to germinate and grow without being thoroughly stomped and smothered by the incumbent, foolhardy establishment.

Your comment reeks of arrogance, elitism and, worse of all, censorship.

Blake Stacey said...

Does all modern science reek of elitism and censorship?

Some ideas are nonsense, unsupported or even directly contradicted by the facts. Often, people cling to them anyway. If you're trying to understand human nature, that makes these counterfactual ideas meaningful indeed: no history of human development would be complete without a chapter on astrology, for example.

None of which implies that astrology or the divine right of kings are objective truths about the Universe or necessary ingredients in a prosperous, progressive future.

Sure, ideas need time to germinate. Hypotheses do not have fixed gestation periods. It can take years for scientists, working singly or in concert, to work out the consequences of a postulated premise, and years more to compare those consequences to experiment and gauge the theory against reality. Since we can never tell in advance how long this process will take, whatever systems we build to hasten scientific progress — what James Burke would call the "institutions of change" — have to be flexible. Peter Woit has the right to kvetch about string theory not going anywhere, just as a whole farrago of physicists have been perfectly within their rights to challenge his assertions and roll the wheel of CITOKATE one more turn forward.

In the legal system, we have standards of evidence and proscriptions governing the behavior of the participants (lawyers, judges, jurors, etc.). We have principles like "innocent until proven guilty". These proscriptions and principles are analogous to the "ground rules" we see operating in the scientific enterprise. A good many physicists, for example, appear to be willing to consider a theory "promising until proven worthless". They like experimental verification more than anything else, but in default of that, they appreciate mathematical subtlety and the spin-off of new, useful-in-the-abstract theorems. These are part of the community standards which keep the science moving forward.

Ideas which do not meet the test of experiment get downgraded, either thrown out entirely (phlogiston) or relegated to special cases and realms of limited validity (Newtonian mechanics). Furthermore, ideas which are not amenable to criticism are typically bypassed as below serious consideration. This may result when the proposal is so vague that it cannot even in principle be falsified: "All is as it is because Zeus wills it so." Arguments which rest only on the authority of the speaker meet with similar derision.

CITOKATE.

Science is an effort to extract needles of provisionally acceptable truth from a haystack of claims, many of which are straws pretending to be needles. To accomplish this task, even in the most grasping and inelegant way, is not easy. Humans can only do it by living by a code of scientific integrity.

Few places on the Web have standards of integrity. The best example of the precious few which come to mind is Wikipedia's Featured Article selection process (and, to a lesser extent, its Articles for deletion section). Here, we do find rules of behavior, enforced by community forbearance, diverse discussions flowing through a common channel, and an almost ritualized call to debate. It should not escape notice that the goal of this process is, in a word, progress, and that the materials under discussion often include writing on substantial, highly intellectual topics.

Sadly, few people are looking at the Featured Article selection process to see how it works and whether its lessons can be applied elsewhere. Perhaps they will. After all, the process which produces the best of the most visible "Web 2.0" community could hardly be overlooked for long!

Blake Stacey said...

An afterthought:

Nobody is forced to edit the Wikipedia. (Many of us started and then got addicted, but that's a different matter.) However, once one is in the business of creating content, one is largely forced to follow various community standards. To keep your pet article from being deleted, you must ensure that it meets various criteria: is the content derived from verifiable outside sources, does it represent the claims of those sources accurately, and so forth. Failure to meet these criteria is greeted with deletion, and failure to follow the community's standards of conduct is met with counseling, chastisement or excommunication.

Getting your work approved by the Featured Article Candidate process is not a necessary part of being a Wikipedian, but it is a pleasant and desirable one. Participation in the project's most intense crucible is not mandatory but frequently sought out.

David Brin said...

Naum, Shrubageddon and anonymous have all (in the most recent posts) displayed that they simply do not understand the concepts that are on the table. I say this in friendliness, but you truly - and I mean this - do NOT understand what you are objecting to.

Shrubageddon has not bothered to paraphrase or show that he knows that the centrifugal phase in all of the current arenas is the phase that protects against repression and censorship... a phase that now exists in plenitude on the Net. Hence, censorship and repression are not at issue. The issue is whether anything remotely like "product" can emerge from a nascent fifth arena. What S is whining against is not censorship, but the accountability that would arise from genuine competition.

Naum, you simply do... not... get... it... You vastly exaggerate the fraction of youths who now engage in those neo languages. They are niches for elites today. Meanwhile, the 99% have no exposure to programming whatsoever. None... at... all. When it would be trivial to show how an algorithm can control pixels on a screen, with tiny twenty line classroom assignments in Jr High School. Assignemnts that used to be routine, and that drew many times more students toward an eclectic range of languages.

Shrubageddon said...

Shrubageddon has not bothered to paraphrase or show that he knows that the centrifugal phase in all of the current arenas is the phase that protects against repression and censorship... a phase that now exists in plenitude on the Net. Hence, censorship and repression are not at issue.

I understood the above just as you described. The focus of my comment was on the inevitable Centripital Phase, and its inevitable attending establishment inertia.


The issue is whether anything remotely like "product" can emerge from a nascent fifth arena.

Why must we force it to produce a product and/or deliverable of our own conscious making or choosing? Why not allow it to produce its own unconscious (or conscious, if you wish) deliverables, if any?


What S is whining against is not censorship, but the accountability that would arise from genuine competition.

I didn't realize I was whining...merely stating an opinion without any supporting evidence...as if any could be provided considering the topic is speculative.

Interestingly enough, I don't necessarily disagree with you. For example, I agree with you and Blake that nonsensical ideas, or what appear to be, at least, abound, and the Net exacerbates the proliferation of such, but the unfettered preponderance of that bullshit may well provide the fertile ground for the germination of destiny-shaking, establishment antiquating profundities.

Obviously, the above is not an absolute outcome, but one of many potential permutations. Another potential permutation is for the Net to progress and evolve no further than its current state, which is nothing more than an idealized, self-styled form of debilitating containment, of which the PTBs are most pleased, no doubt. As long as folks are addicted to the Net, no real meaningful change will take place on the street. So it goes.

Naum said...

David, with fear of hijacking the thread, let me simply state that you don't get it... ...and when I challenge your assessment and ask for empirical evidence that would further strengthen your argument, you wave your hand and prattle how those who disagree "don't get it". And that is precisely the same mannerisms displayed by those ideological beasts like right wing talk hosts whose names will go unmentioned.

You vastly exaggerate the fraction of youths who now engage in those neo languages. They are niches for elites today.

They're not "neo-languages", they're ways to make the computer come to life. And today, unlike yesterday, anybody can step up to the plate, the only cost being an internet connection (computer ownership not even necessary, as some incredible software has been written by aspiring developers hunched over a library computer). In the infancy days of the PC, this opportunity was only available to a tiny, weenie minority financially endowed to be so fortunate to plop thousands of dollars down on a machine (a machine, I may add, that had no/limited networking capability and certainly no "goto Google and find out about X" capability)

Suffice to say, that my point is that when the tools become ubiquitous enough, we use them without even thinking, and until that point, there is no critical mass.

David, coming from someone that mostly, 90% of the time agrees with your sentiments, it seems that instead of blindly repeating "you don't get it", you might want to refine the argument (no, not for me, but the next revision or when that theme makes an appearance in another of your writings) so that someone that's "in your corner" can "get it", even if he disagrees.

Final note on paraphrasing -- while there exists great benefit in the practice, there also is a tendency (and this is what I witness more of than productive usage) to recast an argument to stress an entirely different point, to the point of putting words into a person's mouth that were never said.

Happy new year, and blessings for 2007...

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised nobody's suggested this already - couldn't services like Technorati, Digg, etc. that let users rank Internet resources be considered a rudimentary centripetal system? They're hardly as developed as any of the other centripetal systems and they don't do nearly a good enough job of sorting the wheat from the crap, but they certainly represent a centralized process of competition between ideas.

TwinBeam said...

DB:"You say that there are centripetal effects on the web already?"

No, I don't think I said that. I did say that centripetal forces from outside the web (courts, laws, patient pushing of scientific evidence, etc) - i.e. from the conventional arenas - have had some centripetal impact on the web.

I'd say that what you have seen is that a centripetal "force" is pretty much lacking in the realm of general ideas - including the Web, and the Web amplifies that lack, and maybe has potential to begin to remedy it.

However, I also made the point that there are negative centripetal forces in the arena of ideas - censorship, superstition, peer pressure, political correctness, and mobocracy are examples.

It doesn't seem valid to define "centripetal" as only the positive-value-producing forces.


DB: "Where is the arena that all sides MUST enter, rather than staying behind their castle walls, howling the same nonsense, over and over?"

The force must be moral/social pressure, which may make starting such an arena difficult.

Someone could set up a debating site cleverly designed to help isolate key differences and pin disputants down on their fundamental premises. They could issue public challenges to well known blow-hards on opposite sides of some issue.

But in order to be effective, the audiences of those blow-hards have to see refusal to accept the duel as evidence of weakness in the blow-hard's position, rather than dismissing the challenge as inconsequential.

Hank Roberts said...

An example of trying to do this right:

"... My idea is that since we're discussing science here, if you disagree with some point I make, or have a point to add yourself, then it is a good idea to include a link or full reference to a good source. One of the things about doing science is that you don't take people's reporting as gospel. Scientists are people, and people make mistakes. So it's a good idea to make it easy for people to check out the full original source. When you've described something well, they can be thankful for your much better description. Or maybe they can learn more about the topic. Wins all around...."

http://moregrumbinescience.blogspot.com/

See also his older page:

Robert Grumbine: Science FAQs, Books, Weather and Science Links
http://www.radix.net/~bobg/