Make Discussions Great Again

There is one upside to the recent election of president Donald Trump (yes, the title of this post is a pun) and the earlier withdrawal from the European Union by the UK: it has become a whole lot easier for me to pitch an idea which I’ve been advocating (with some opposition) for nearly a decade now. It is my hope that the project I’m announcing in this post will help fight fake news—possibly the main driving force behind these events.

Given the growing body of knowledge accumulated by mankind, most professions require an extreme degree of specialization. Nowadays, you can be the most knowledgeable person on one topic while simultaneously being the most ignorant when it comes to another. Yet, society seems to expect us to have an opinion on everything impacting our daily life, from climate change to immigration issues, regardless of whether or not we have a comprehensive understanding of the topic at hand. This is where media comes in, which is supposed to keep us up to date and well-informed.

However, there is a problem with modern media. Although today we can access more information, faster than ever before, we are still left to our own devices when it comes to judging how relevant or valid this constant stream of data is. Finding information is easy (and even hard to ignore), but evaluating it is more difficult than ever. Consequently, most of us rely on whatever sources we deem authoritative and form our opinions based on that. The current prevalence of misinformation and fake news indicates this poses a risk, but as I will argue here, is merely symptomatic of a larger underlying problem.

The different media we use today to share knowledge and host discussions unnecessarily segregate opposing views. For example, this blog post makes the case for an alternative medium for discourse, but the only way to contest parts of the containing argumentation (although overall you might agree) is by writing a reply in the comments section (separated from the main article). Only through a fair amount of clarification (e.g., by referring to certain sentences within the article) will it be made clear how your comments relate to the overall blog post and might we be able to carry forward a fruitful discussion. As you have likely experienced, similar discussions can easily turn into stressful conflicts (both online and in real life discussions). But why should this be so?

Debaters on comprehensive scientific problems are … like lawyers who have to take a side. Each of them intends to strengthen his own arguments and to weaken the arguments of the aggressor—but no judge is in the chair. … Finally we find ourselves all together in the same ship and are co-operating even when we think we are fighting one another.

— Otto Neurath (1940), “Universal jargon and terminology.”

Discussions are inherently collaborative. As opposed to lectures, during which information is handed to you on a platter, discussions encourage you to share your own world views. Naturally, this gives rise to disagreement; if we were all like-minded, conversations would be rather dull (in fact, there would be no discussion at all). However, disagreement should not be seen as conflict but rather as an opportunity to learn; a chance to explore and understand perspectives different from yours. Unfortunately, it is all too common to fall into the trap of turning a discussion into a lecture; to start preaching your own world views without seeking to understand those of others. But if your goal is truly to convince someone, it is all the more important to seek out common ground first. The ideal argument is tailored to the person you are talking to, not merely an elaborate summary of what you know. In short, a conducive discussion should be as much about listening as it is about talking.

As such, having a one-on-one discussion is difficult enough as is, but trying to do the same online (a medium everyone has access to) is near impossible. Unless the medium is designed with large-scale discussion in mind! A linear format is incapable of expressing the underlying complex structure of argumentation with multiple opposing views. It is up to the reader to mentally connect the different statements which make up a discussion, to find out how they contribute to a larger topic, and to understand which conclusions can be drawn from them.

For the past few years I have had a vision on how to improve discussions and argumentation on the internet (based on my experience with the extremely successful network of Q&A sites: Stack Exchange). Countless brainstorming sessions and reading on the side later have eventually culminated into the design of a social network website, Socratrees, currently under active development.

Introducing Socratrees: The Socratic Tree of Knowledge

Complex interrelations between different statements which make up an argument are often hard to follow, or hard to contribute to, when forced into a linear format. This is an unfortunate characteristic of essentially all modern media used to present arguments and host discussions. Socratrees offers an alternative by outlining arguments into intuitive hierarchies of supporting and opposing statements. This design is loosely based on argumentation theory. However, we do not expect you to be familiar with theory in order to start using Socratrees.

Over the next couple of months I will start announcing specifics and open up parts of the project to the public. When interested, you can already sign up for private beta which gives you an exclusive opportunity to help shape this project from the very beginning! Until then, we welcome any questions, ideas, or feedback on our dedicated subreddit.

Author: Steven Jeuris

I have a PhD in Human-Computer Interaction and am currently working both as a software engineer at iMotions and as a postdoc at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU). This blend of research and development is the type of work which motivates and excites me the most. Currently, I am working on a distributed platform which enables researchers to conduct biometric research 'in the wild' (outside of the lab environment). I have almost 10 years of professional software development experience. Prior to academia, I worked for several years as a professional full-stack software developer at a game development company in Belgium: AIM Productions. I liked the work and colleagues at the company too much to give up entirely for further studies, so I decided to combine the two. In 2009 I started studying for my master in Game and Media Technology at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, from which I graduated in 2012.

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