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Making Discourse Manifest--- A method for promoting efficient communication
(Concept/revision history)

Part 1: Public Arguments

I started thinking about this when I noticed that discussions (and especially discussions that we might call "arguments") on a given subject seemed to be similar to each other. This brought to mind the picture of millions of people all over the world having more or less the same argument. I had a mixed reaction to this image. On one hand, I saw the entire human race as contributing to a single, giant mind, pondering a single problem -- an uplifting thought. However, it bothered me that the "neurons" were mostly separate, and that sharing the insights gained in any individual discussion was inefficient.

It's possible that my feeling that there is a problem comes from assuming that all the separate discussions are in fact about the same subject. A thorough discussion of this could get pretty philosophical; for now, let's assume that they are on the same subject. What would it be like if the same-ness of all these subjects were made more tangibly manifest? For example, if a subject being discussed were like a statue in a park, and you threw a tomato at it, people walking by later would notice.

That's the first form this idea took: that we invent some method for making an argument tangible (so that you could see what you were doing to it), and communal (so that you could see what other people had done to it).

The question then became: what is the structure of an argument (and how could that structure be visualized)?

I don't have a complete answer to that question. It may be that there is no answer, or that there is no answer that's humanly comprehensible, or that there is no answer that we could make and use of. But I rather doubt the last of these possibilities, and I'm pretty sure there is at least a partial answer which could be useful.

In fact, you might say that Usenet discussions are a partial answer: the structure of an argument is a bunch of sentences and paragraphs, interconnected with "leads To-->" and "<--came From" references. Usenet discussions of a given subject are somewhat hard to find, and once found, hard to navigate, but it's a start. How could this be improved upon? Some possibilities:

  • establish a single, known web location for each subject (this would be the external view, anyway -- internally, it could be organized however was most practical),
  • develop a syntax (ideally: a visual syntax) for the organization of arguments, so that, for example, a refutation to a given point would be found in a single, obvious place,
  • develop a method for people to contribute to the subject.

    The last of these led me into the nitty-gritty of administrative details.

    My first hope was that the structure of the argument would be automatically self-organizing -- that contributions would be analyzed by some wonderful AI engine, compared to the existing structure of the argument (discarded if redundant), and intelligently incorporated (with alterations of the structure if necessary).

    When I awoke from that dream, I recognized that for now, the only way to maintain order in a public manifestation of an argument would be for it to have caretakers, who would try to make sense of people's contributions and edit the structure of the argument accordingly. In other words, the manifestation of an argument would be public, and might well have public contributions, but it would be a single person's (or group's) view of the content.

    I started to consider what tools would facilitate the maintenance of a public argument. For the user: a method for examining the argument, searching it, making contributions, etc. For the owner: a method for editing, maintaining a history of the structure and the contribution correspondence.

    This blue-sky idea, at more as less the point I've described it so far, took a seat at the back of my mind, and stayed there for several months.

    Part 2: Online Documentation

    Then, one day, I was thinking about computer documentation. I've always been irritated by the low quality of computer documentation. Things have improved over the years (computerized documentation that's searchable, online documentation that's more up-to-date, etc.), but the basic problem remains: if you can't get an answer from the documentation, you're stuck. If you're lucky, you have access to technical support, and you can eventually get an answer. But this is very expensive, at both ends of the tech support line (as anybody who's used Microsoft's support line can tell you), and the expense is repeated each time a given question comes up.

    Wouldn't it be great, I thought, if the activity of getting product support resulted in the online documentation getting updated? These features suggested themselves:

  • the online documentation would reorganize itself to make the path to the most common problems the shortest,
  • the system would track the user's path; if this led to a "get more info" node, the support staff would be able to study the path and tweak the organization of the documentation to make the desired information easier to find,
  • documentation path usage statistics would be available to support staff (so they'd know what the common problems are) and designers (who could redesign the system so that the questions wouldn't be asked in the first place).

    Eventually, I recognized that the administration of such documentation would require the same kinds of tools as the public argument idea. The fact that I'd arrived at the same type of solution to two very different types of problem made me suspect that such tools might be more than an ad hoc fix for a specific problem -- they might be more broadly useful.

    by Stephen Malinowski

    Concept/revision history:

  • 1996jun20 email mentioning "structure of argument project"
  • 1997jan05 email to Douglas George, about arguments, abstraction, evidence
  • 1998jan18 sent as email to Fred Davis (et cc.s), at Greg Jalbert's suggestion
  • 1998feb01 made more generic, converted to HTML, put online