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A machine to help us communicate…

dd_blueRedThe last time I had free nights and weekends, 2011, our country was growing predictably chipper over the coming election election, so I spent some of that free time considering debaterdebator.

The idea was simple: build a machine to help us communicate. I wondered whether personal relationships could be leveraged to draw friends into better discussions on political things, whether that discussion might benefit from ready access to conversation aides, and if the participants could be encouraged beyond the cable news/talk radio and red/blue strawmen. Fundamentally, I thought (and think), that people desire increased good for their selves, family, friends, and broader culture, that they would find it disconcerting to disagree with people they already trust and interact with, and that these relationships would have the best chance of drawing people together, into some greater understanding of and respect for our mutual interests and individual concerns.

Now, this idea struck some friends as obviously bad; that once you start down the partisan debate path, forever will it taint the relationship. I think that’s both wrong and unfortunate.  It’s unfortunate because it is the willful maintenance of a veneer, a retreat from true, honest conversation and, actually, a diminution of the friendship.  That’s Facebook, that’s the echo chamber we have today.  Instead, the (benevolent!) platform could strategically choose topics for conversation and then support the users in the formulation and conduct of a discussion. 

So, in the case that uncle Jimbo had posted/tweeted articles and messages critical of the latest IPCC report on climate change, and nephew Jimmy the converse, our platform would begin with their relationship and detect that the article content and audience graph between these two relatives only minimally overlapped.  From there it would have prompted each person to review the other’s endorsements and encourage them to pose questions to each other.  Since neither participant is an expert in climate change, the platform would use the same article graph to find and suggest bridge articles that appeared to span the difference in perspective and might serve as a basis for shared knowledge and increased accord.  By encouraging each person to question the other (filtering, at least crudely, against attacks) within the context of a shared set of information, I hoped that they would come to a better understanding of each other’s perspective, their own, their culture, and their world.  And this would be valuable to them, to our society, and to the many interested parties.

I believed this interaction was enabled by reasoning over social platforms and the simple encouraging of people to seek explanations for their positions and, in citing them, attempt to defend their sources and arguments against those mustered charitably by their friend.  So, the platform should be a quest to discover truth, at first between two friends and likely reaching a trivial depth, but it had the potential to stoke something other than partisan, tribal cynicism, which we have far too much of.

I believed a this system was technologically possible 5 years ago (2011); it is even more the case today, and this is slowly being realized in a predictably breathless manner:

Those all referred to Facebook, and indeed their seat high atop Mt. Data enables them to rain benefits and harms on those below according to, essentially, their Ferengi whim.

While there are rational fears about the power of big-data (with the right analysis Facebook can create knowledge, and hence powers, that no other entity save the NSA can approach), it need not be exercised so insidiously.  I very much believe technological advances are tools that we can choose to apply for our benefit; so the contrast between what Facebook is doing and what I wanted to do is the user’s choice.  Facebook wants to drive greater engagement to expose their users to more ads, to encourage consumerism.  The problem is that Facebook is not helping people; it seeks to capitalize on their preferences, fears, and weaknesses, rather than aid their discovery, growth, and participation in the world.  It and many other platforms today provide a useful service, but they could do so much more.

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