Internet Lacks Centripetal Processes That Would Make It a Efficient Accountability and Disputation Arena

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David Brin:

“Here's my key point: I think the Net has potential for creating a fifth great arena, equal to the others. Many of the traits it would need are already there, online. Vast troves of information. The freedom to make, break and reform associations. Relatively low cost-and-skill barriers to access. A potential for every fallible idea to face relentless scrutiny.

But something is also missing. Take a closer look at how science, courts, democracy and markets actually work. In each arena, the process has two phases. First, centrifugal structures help participants go off on their own, to organize and prepare in safety. Scientists have their labs, lawyers and their clients get confidentiality, politicians rally their parties, and businessfolk lead companies. People need secure enclaves to gather allies, make plans, and prepare for coming battles.

The Net has already proved magnificent at emulating this phase! On Usenet and the Web, interests groups coalesce around any topic imaginable. Minority and fringe groups take shelter behind password-protected walls where members may organize safely, even separated by oceans. My 1980's novel, Earth, foresaw something like this, though the overwhelming fecundity of it all goes beyond what I imagined.

Alas, centrifugal effects, are only half of the process. All by themselves, they guarantee only dispersal, isolation, mutual-suspicion and eventually war. Nowadays we see the Web fostering miniature rallies of the faithful. Insular tribes where commitment to dogma is paramount, and our ancient nemesis — self-deception — reigns supreme. Within these perfect sanctums, true-believers grow used to demonizing their opponents, replacing their true identities and arguments with easily despised caricatures.

What each of the older accountability arenas has — and today's Internet lacks — is centripetal focus. A counterbalancing inward pull. Something that acts to draw foes together for fair confrontation, after making their preparations in safe seclusion.

No, I'm not talking about goody-goody communitarianism and "getting along." Far from it. Elections, courtrooms, retail stores and scientific conferences all provide fierce testing grounds, where adversaries come together to have it out... and where civilization ultimately profits from their passion and hard work.

This process may not be entirely nice. But it is the best way we ever found to learn, through fair competition, who may be right and who is wrong. Yes, counter to the fashion of postmodernism, I posit the existence and pertinence of "true and false" — better and worse — needing no more justification than the pragmatic value these concepts have long provided. In science you compare theory to nature's laws. In democracy you try policies until one works. Markets test products and services that entrepreneurs proclaim "best," while catering to varied tastes. In a myriad fields, this process slowly results in better theories, notions, laws and products. Again, it is murky and inefficient... and it works. My point is that today's Internet currently lacks good processes for drawing interest groups — many of them bitterly adversarial — out of those passworded castles to arenas where their champions can have it out, where ideas may be tested and useful notions get absorbed into an amorphous-but-growing general wisdom.

Some claim that such arenas do exist on the Net — in a million chat rooms and Usenet discussion groups — but I find these venues lacking in dozens of ways. Many wonderful and eloquent arguments are raised, only to float away like ghosts, seldom to join any coalescing model. Rabid statements that are decisively refuted simply bounce off the ground, springing back like the undead. Reputations only glancingly correlate with proof or ability. Imagine anything good coming out of science, law, or markets if the old arenas ran that way!

Opinions rage and spume with utter freedom and abandon — a good thing, I suppose. But down at rock bottom I am selfish and practical. I want something more out of all the noise.

Eventually, I want good ideas to win. Foolish ones should gradually fade, making room for lots of new ideas — both good and bad — to test all over again. No king or sage or jury is qualified to decide such things... but we are. Over time. That is, if we hope to keep growing better.

a parallel with nature

There is a parallel for the process we just described — one that may be much more than a metaphor: Evolution.

As a mechanism for drawing order out of chaos, evolution has no known peer. This natural process produced the vivid and wonderful creatures we see around us, as well as bringing into existence beings like us, capable of contemplating the universe and ourselves. True, the concept of evolution draws little warmth from the heart, even from those who appreciate its copious creativity, because of the inevitable image it evokes — relentless competition by tooth and claw. But recent studies have shown that the general principle goes far beyond mere "survival of the fittest."

Even some of the benign processes that take place within our own bodies seem to utilize or emulate evolution, as cells compete with other cells while differentiating into a myriad sub-types, such as muscle or nerve tissue. Countless minuscule contests take place under prim rules that keep things from getting out of hand. The upshot of all this micro-opposition somehow benefits the whole. Overall cooperative synergy seems to arise out of jostling rivalry on the cellular level, resulting in something that is both robust and potent.

In any event, evolution is how species on Earth became complex, adept and adaptable over time, arriving somehow at solutions that are 'correct' for a given ecological time and place. So it should not be surprising that civilization stumbled into problem-solving techniques that emulate nature's.

Biologists know that evolution operates in two steps:

FIRST: A rich variety of organisms is generated, most often through dispersal and separation of genetically different subgroups. While they are apart, unable to interbreed, their genetic uniqueness grows until each group becomes new species.

THEN: Nature selects. Often this happens when new species come back into contact with each other. The better-adapted flourish. Others fail. Many millions more species have appeared on Earth than ever managed to thrive.

Isn't the same thing true of commercial products, policies, theories... and ideas?

You can see the parallel between evolution and our civilization's four great testing grounds — our accountability arenas — science, democracy, courts and markets. In each case, the centrifugal phase allows groups to consolidate and prepare in relative safety, much like the variety-generating step that nature provides through isolation and speciation.

A centripetal phase then draws together adversarial groups, pitting them against each other, in a manner much like natural selection. This parallel offers a somewhat bloody image. But the evolution metaphor does focus attention on the class of thing that's evolving. What is evolving in our four accountability arenas?

In the market system, clearly, it is saleable goods and services. In science it is models that enhance our understanding of the world around us. In democracy — policies and practical ways to balance individual needs and living as a member of a community. In the justice system, beyond winners and losers, it is also the law itself that evolves.

What might a fifth accountability arena test? What type of thing should it be good at both generating and winnowing at the same time? Judging from what already fills the Internet today, it might be opinions, memes, schemes... ideas themselves.

an arena for a new millenium

How would you design a new accountability arena? One that utilizes the raw information-handling power of the Net, its capacity for memory and relentlessness. One that's worthy of a rambunctious civilization filled with joyfully argumentative individualists.

How might we draw a myriad adversaries together, to face-off under rules that foster fair competition without squelching any of their righteous passion? Into arenas that compare opinions just as well as science, markets and the law handle their own fractious debates? Into realms where the ultimate punishment for being proved wrong would be to lose our attention, as we turn away from dull rants toward the next riveting argument?

Sound like wishful thinking? Like aiming to both have your cake and eat it too?

Well, as a child of this culture, I expect to have, eat, and share the cake... and to see it grow!

Why not?

It's called "positive-sum" thinking. And yes, that very concept is another emergent property of this new society we're forging, even as we shake off countless old tradeoffs and limitations that our ancestors thought intrinsic to the world.

Like the notion that individualism and accountability don't go together. A notion that our descendants will chortle at, like maps of a flat Earth. It's said that we are plunging toward a future beyond all our powers to predict. That may be. And yet, perhaps it doesn't matter. What counts is whether we create conditions that work with our natures — that make cheating futile while encouraging diversity, harnessing the vast human potential to solve problems and discover errors before they explode in our faces.

The way to do this will not, and cannot, resemble top-down hierarchies or hoary old ideologies, because no human brain can model or encompass the complexity of our problems, or our true potential to address them.

But the systems that do emerge — if we foster them — may engender wisdom and civilization far greater than any of us individually deserves.” (