Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ category

Systemic Escape & Negotiation

August 28, 2011

I had an interesting exchange with Michael Turner, a free-lance software developer, author, and social entrepreneur living in Tokyo. I mentioned that our current world financial systems are strange beasts, people can go from wealthy and poor, and vice versa, from one moment to the next, even though our resources and skills and dedication haven’t changed one bit. I mused that there’s got to be a better way. His response was the following:

I’m sure there is one. Maybe more than one. It’s the old problem of systemic escape, though. You can see it everywhere. Take Keynes’ ICU (“bancor”) concept. Lots of good features. Nothing obviously wrong with it. But … at the time, it apparently (and perhaps only temporarily) disadvantaged the “last man standing” after WW II: the U.S.

“Systemic escape” is probably the most challenging problem in enabling social change: every system, no matter how destructive, generally accretes vested interests that individually resist change even if it eventually will be better for all of them. It’s not enough to have a better end point, you also have to have a way of transitioning there that everyone can live with, step-by-step (unless change occurs because of crisis, economic breakdown or revolution or war). I have found this to be a discouraging truth, but I have taken heart from a conversation I had several months ago with Lawrence Susskind, an MIT/Harvard professor who specializes in facilitating big high-stakes negotiations like the climate change talks, Arab-Israeli peace talks, and so on. He said that the reason these system change negotiations are so log-jammed is *not* because of inherently opposed nature of the participant’s interests, it’s because of dysfunctions in the negotiation processes they use. We may have more systemic escape opportunities than we realize, if only we could improve the way people negotiate their way through the escape hatches. This insight has provided inspiration and direction for my own work on supporting collaborative decision-making.


The Deliberatorium and Open Source Democracy

February 12, 2009

I received a questionnaire from Vasilis Kostakis who is conducting research towards an article on open source democracy and wikipolitics. He contacted me to ask about how my work on the Deliberatorium relates to these concepts. I include my responses below.

1) What are the results and your conclusions so far? What are the next steps and what do you aspire to?

Our initial evaluations have focused on whether large numbers of people, without special training, can effectively use our tool to create large deliberation maps on complex topics. Our results to date (from 3 evaluations: 200 people in Naples, 300 people in Zurich, and 100 people at Intel) seem positive in that regard. Our next steps include other evaluations (for example with the US Bureau of Reclamation) as well as the development of new functionalities aimed at:

  • making it easier to find/enter content in large maps
  • collecting metrics on the progress and problems in a deliberation
  • integrating deliberation maps with social media (such as chat, email, and wikis) that are based on narratives and conversations

2) What effects do you believe that the Deliberatorium could have on the production of politics i.e. decision making processes and problem solving?

My hope is that the Deliberatorium will make it possible for large numbers of people to much more effectively and systematically collect and evaluate a wide range of ideas concerning how to solve complex problems. I believe it can help in two ways:

  • Take better advantage of the cognitive diversity our societies offer to increase the range of solutions being considered. In current social computing systems, all too often only a tiny fraction of the possible solution ideas see the light of day, because of problems such as redundancy and dysfunctional collaboration dynamics.
  • Foster decision-making based on evidence and logic rather than bias and emotional manipulation. The deliberatorium is designed to encourage people to explain why they support given ideas, and uses a community rating scheme that rewards coherent, well-supported arguments.

3) In our paper we cite the Deliberatorium platform as one of the existing means towards open source democracy. Do you see it in that way too? If not, why?

Open source democracy has different meanings to different people. I think many see it as being about giving everyone an equal voice in making decisions that effect them. While I appreciate that value, my focus is more on finding ways to use our collective intelligence to identify the best possible responses to pressing problems. Since I am exploring the use of reputation and proxy voting systems, you might even say that the Deliberatorium embodies meritocratic, rather than democratic, principles. But I think it is compatible with open source democracy, since my work aims to help people identify possible solutions and is agnostic about the process by which people eventually decide which of these solutions is adopted.

4) What are the main strengthens and weaknesses of the Deliberatorium?

I think it’s main strength is that it allows us to tap, in ways not previously possible, the skills and knowledge of large numbers of people in the service of solving complex multi-disciplinary problems. I think it’s main weakness is that it is currently based on a style of interaction that is somewhat formal and artificial. Our goal is to integrate the strengths of a deliberation map with the narrative conversational modes of interaction that people find natural.

Open For Questions – A Critique of Idea Sharing Sites

January 6, 2009

President-elect Obama’s web site had a site (“open for questions” ), in the early weeks of his adminstration,  where people can submit and vote on questions, and where he promised to answer the top 5 questions in each category. Apparently a journalist encouraged readers to vote for one of the questions (on appointing a special prosecutor to look at Bush’s actions), which resulting in the question going for #6 to #1 in the foreign policy category. seemed pretty successful in some ways. It’s a nice example of the Internet allowing a whole new set of players to deeply influence the political debate at a national level. The special prosecutor question was dead in the mainstream media. The questions that rose to the top seem substantive and important and have substantial legitimacy because of how active the voting was (100,000 voters, 70,000 questions, 4 million votes). One can argue that spreading power through society, more broadly than was possible before the Internet, is a great thing. It seems clear that excessive concentration of power in a few individuals and institutions (corporations, executive branch) has been at the root of some pretty serious problems in the States. Idea sharing sites have also been used, with apparent success, in other contexts. The Dell ideastorm site, for example, includes over 11,000 ideas (for Dell products and services) that have received a total of over 680,000 ratings and 84,000 comments. A more recent White House initiative (Open Government Dialogue) has gathered thousands of ideas and tens of thousands of votes. And the google 10 to the 100th project generated over 150,000 submissions on innovations to make the world better.

There are some important problems, however, with such sites. One is redundancy. In all these site, a large proportion of the questions are minor variants of each other. Often, when some kind of political action is in play, such sites can attract many submissions that make the same point (see, for example, Obama, Inviting Ideas Online, Finds a Few on the Fringe – NY Times). The many redundant posts has the effect of “crowding out” the diverse range of ideas the sites hope to gain, making it harder to identify the best ideas.  When there are thousands of posts submitted, manually pruning this list to consolidate equivalent posts is a massive undertaking. The 10 to the 100th project, for example, handled that problem by recruiting 3,000 google employees to filter and consolidate the 150,000 ideas generated in a process that but them 9 months behind their intended schedule. Finally, most people are only likely to look at the most highly rated posts. The result is that the vast majority of the submitted ideas are lost to obscurity.

Another issue involves dysfunctional ranking outcomes. The Better World Campaign used an idea sharing system with user  to come up with a proposal for Obama’s first actions upon entering office. After a year of debate, over 5,000 ideas submitted, and close to one hundred thousand votes, the result was the proposal that Obama plant an organic garden at the White House. That vast investment of collective effort resulted in selecting a tiny, purely symbolic, gesture. Or look at the ideas list collected at Is legalizing marijuana and other drugs really the top priority for this apparently serious and highly diverse (judging from the list of sponsoring organizations) set of voters? One possible explanation for these effects is self-reinforcing ratings. When people are asked to rate a very long list of items sorted by their current average rating, one can expect that the system will quickly “lock” into a fairly static, and arbitrary, ranking. People are more likely to vote for ideas that are already higher in the list, since if there are thousands of ideas, people will in all likelihood stop looking after the first few. So the first few winners take all, even if they are inferior to many other ideas in the list. Duncan Watts observed this property in looking at music rankings (Matthew J. Salganik, Peter Sheridan Dodds, Duncan J. Watt (2006). “Experimental Study of Inequality and Unpredictability in an Artificial Cultural Market” Science 311:5762, pps 854-856): when people could see each other’s rankings before rating, much of the ranking results were essentially random. Another possible effect is that a post with focused voting may beat out a more important post that had it’s votes spread over many redundant instantiations.

A final issue is depth vs breadth. These idea-sharing sites tended to come up with many fairly simple ideas. The ideas generated by the google project, for example, (e.g. make government more transparent, help social entrepreneurs, support public transport, create user-generated news services) are pretty generic and unsurprising and are already being actively pursued in many contexts. While  just getting people to participate has its own value, no doubt, was it really worth all that massive effort to come up with ideas that a few experts could have brainstormed in a few minutes? Surely that amount of effort could have been used to compose a smaller number of more deeply-considered ideas, rather than many shallow ones. Idea-sharing sites, however, provide little or no support (and incentive) for this.

These weaknesses with current idea sharing techniques suggest that there is an important need for better methods and tools. A scheme to consolidate redundant questions should help. The problem is probably less technical than social, since computers aren’t very good at detecting this kind of semantic redundancy. The challenge is to evolve rules that govern human filtering that work as well as the rules that govern editing practices on Wikipedia. A argumentation system, especially if we include a rating/aggregation scheme for arguments, could tend to encourage rankings that are based in reason rather than just being “popularity contests” driven by a few influential bloggers. It should also allow people to collaboratively develop more elaborated ideas, since an idea can be linked to issues that ask how to refine some part of the idea, which can in turn be linked to other ideas. Another possible approach is to make sure people are not be able to see rankings until *after* they vote. One trick, proposed by MIT Prof. David Karger is that people be given a randomly selected set of ideas to rank, so each has an equal opportunity to get attention. This will probably only work, however, if the set of ideas is small enough relative to the number of viewers. Otherwise, most ideas will get too few viewings, and ratings, to represent a good picture of the “wisdom of the crowds”. If we had 4 million votes spread randomly over the 70,000 questions submitted to, for example, then each question an average of only about 60 views. That hardly seems adequate to get a good sense of what a nation’s priorities are.

The Magical Geography of the Web

January 3, 2009

The web has an odd magical kind of geography. There is no such thing as “location”, so everything is an equal distance from you. A whole universe of knowledge is available, instantaneously accessible no matter where you are, but until you make the right invocation, it is invisible and might just as well not be there. And because there is no proper notion of location, there is no such thing as truly useful maps. There is no country called “PTSD and blood sugar – istan”, where all the information on that topic is co-located. So we have to rely on explorers, either dumb but persistent mechanical ones like google, or smarter (but less persistent) human ones, to explore this uncharted vastness and come back with useful tidbits that they deposit in a centralized depository. Which itself is no more or less visible than anything else in the web. So what makes people good at finding stuff on the web is collecting a large mental library of useful invocations, having the smartest avatars (though none of them are very smart, yet), and getting the most out of the avatars you do have. It’s striking that we have unwittingly created, in digital form, the topography first imagined to apply to the world of magic, where invocations are the essence of power.

The Subversive Power of Satire

January 3, 2009

I’m listening to a Fresh Air interview of Stephen Colbert and it’s interesting to get a sense of the thought process underlying his work. He seems thoughtful and genial and astute, not especially manic or goofy, and not a culture warrior either. I think that is why he is able to do such excellent satire around such potentially explosive topics. He’s not trying to make a statement, he’s just trying to do good comedy. Paradoxically, it makes his work all the more effective because he can then give voice to important truths that would otherwise be rejected as just another salvo in the culture wars. Satire may be one of the most powerful forms of social critique out there, because it comes to us in a subversive way.

Body swapping

December 2, 2008

I found this to be really interesting:

Standing in Someone Else’s Shoes, Almost for Real

New York Times, Dec. 1, 2008

Neuroscientists have presented evidence that they can create a “body swapping” illusion by using VR helmets, showing that the brain, when tricked by optical and sensory illusions, can quickly adopt any other human form, no matter how different, as its own. 

Based on virtual-reality experiments, the technique could have a profound effect on a range of therapeutic techniques. In these studies, researchers create avatars that mimic a person’s every movement. After watching their “reflection” in a virtual mirror, people mentally inhabit this avatar at some level, regardless of its sex, race or appearance. 

In several studies, for instance, researchers have shown that white people who spend time interacting virtually as black avatars become less anxious about racial differences.

The researchers say that those who seek help for relationship problems  often begin to moderate their behavior only after they have worked to see the encounters in their daily life from others’ point of view, and this is especially true for adolescents, who are so self-involved, and also for people who come in with anger problems and are more interested in changing everyone else in their life than themselves.

People’s brains are amazingly plastic in how they create a sense of “self”. It has been shown many times that if some object moves in synchrony with your intent, you begin to experience it as being part of your body, even to the extent of unconsciously cringing if someone pokes it. But this virtual reality “body-swapping” takes it to another level. It reminds me of Ramona, the female avatar Ray Kurzweil created (see, that moved and sang synchronized with his body movements.


When he was using the system, did he feel like a woman? Are today’s video game players experiencing that effect? And what is it doing for us? One could imagine that, depending on the kind of avatar and what it does, it could make us more empathic, or more belligerent, more self-confident, or more disoriented and isolated.


Software and the Volitional Bias

October 30, 2008

Software often is designed in a way that treats the computer as a machine, while people increasingly are expecting, in fact are encouraged to expect, that their computers will act like volitional agents that are trying to help. With a machine, for example, if you are recording a quiet conversation, you want the amplifier to have a high gain, so you would set the input volume to “high”. With an assistant who is trying to record your voice clearly, you might tell him/her that the input volume will be “low”, relying on the fact that the computer “wants” to record the conversation and thus will decide, on its own, to increase the gain. This is a source of genuine confusion for many people: we are prone, as an explanatory style, to assign volition to things that have none. Hence, god(s).