Proposal for a structured agreement tool

by DilGreen3 min read30th Sep 201012 comments

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I hope this is a good place for this - comments/suggestions welcome - offers of collaboration more than welcome!

I envisage a kind of structured wiki, centred around the creation of propositions, which can be linked to allow communities of interest to rapidly come to fairly sophisticated levels of mutual understanding; the aim being to foster the development of strong groups with confidence in shared, conscious positions. This should allow significant confidence in collaboration.

Some aspects, in no particular order;

  • Propositions are made by users, and are editable by users - as in a wiki
  • Each proposition could be  templated - the inspiration for the template being the form adopted by Chris. Alexander et al in 'A Pattern Language', namely;
    1. TITLE (referenced)(confidence level)
    2. picture
    3. context - including links to other propositions within whose sphere this one might operate
    4. STATEMENT OF PROBLEM/PURPOSE OF PROPOSITION
    5. Discussion
    6. CONCLUSION - couched in parametric/generic/process based terms
    7. links to other propositions for which this proposition is the context
  • Some mechanism for users to make public their degree of acceptance of each proposition
  • Some mechanism for construction by individuals/groups of networks of propositions specific to particular users/groups  (in other words, the links referred to in 3. and 7. above might be different for different users/groups) These networks can work like Pattern Languages that address particular fields / ethical approaches / political or philosophical positions / projects
  • Some mechanism for assignment by users/groups of tiered structure to proposition networks (to allow for distinctions to be made between fundamental, large scale propositions and more detailed, peripheral ones)
  • Some mechanism for individual users to form associations with other users/established groups who are subscribing to the same propositions
  • Some mechanism for community voting/karma to promote individuals to assume stewardship of groups

Enough of these for now. Some imagined interactions might be more helpful;

  1. I stumble across the site (as I stumbled across LessWrong), and browse proposition titles. I come across one called 'Other people are real, just like me'. It contains some version of the argument for accepting that other humans are to be assumed to have roughly the same motivations, needs et al, as me, and the suggestion that this is a useful founding block for a rational morality. I decide to subscribe, fairly strongly. I am offered a tailored selection of related propositions, as identified by the groups that have included this proposition in their networks (without identification of said groups, I rather think) - I investigate these, and at some point, the system feels that my developing profile is beginning to match that of some group or groups - and offers me the chance to look at their 'mission statement' pages. I decide to come back another day and look at other propositions included in these groups' networks, before going any further. I decline to have my profile made public, so that the groups don't contact me.
  2. I come across some half-baked, but interesting proposition. As a registered user, but not the originator of the proposition, I have some choices;  I can comment on the proposition, hoping to engage in dialogue with the proposer that could be fruitful, or I can 'clone' (or 'fork') the proposition, and seek to improve it myself. Ultimately, the interest of other users will determine the influence and relevance of the proposition.
  3. I am a fundamentalist christian (!). I come across the site, and am appalled at its secular, materialist tone. I make a new proposition; 'The Bible is revealed truth, in all its glory' (or some such twaddle. Of course, I omit to specify which edition, and don't even consider the option of a language other than english - but hey, what do you expect?). Within days, I have assembled a wonderful active group of woolly minded people happily discussing the capacity of Noah's Ark, or whatever. The point here is that the platform is just that - a platform. Human community is a Good Thing.

  4. I am pushed upward by the group I am part of to some sort of moderator role. The system shows various other groups who agree more or less strongly with most of the propositions our group deems fundamental. I contact my opposite number in one of those, and we together make a new proposition which we believe could be a vehicle for discussions that could lead to a merger.
  5. I wish to write a business plan that is not a pile of dead tree gathering dust 6 weeks after it was presented to the board. I attempt to set out the aims of the business as fundamental propositions, and advertise this network to my colleagues, who suggest refinements. On this basis, we work up a description of the important policies and 'business rules' which define the enterprise. These remain accessible and editable , so that they can evolve along with the business.
  6. I am considering an open-source project. I set out the fundamental aims and characteristics of the tool I am proposing, and link them together. The system allows me to set myself up as a group. I sit back and wait for others to comment. Based on these comments, the propositions are refined, others added, relationships built with potential collaborators. At some point, we form a group, and the project gets under way. Throughout its life, the propositions are continually refined and added to. The propositions are a useful form of marketing, and save us a great deal of bother talking to people who want to know what/why/how.

Enough... Point 6 is almost recursive.......

 

There is more discursive (and older) material, here.

Thanks for reading, and please do comment.

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12 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 6:55 PM
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Awesome idea but incredibly ambitious. How do you plan on profiting enough to pay for hosting and maintaining the site?

A concern: what sorts of propositions do you have in mind? You mention "fairly sophisticated levels of mutual understanding", but smart people are way too good at finding nits to pick, and for most propositions you need a lot of precision before people are willing to identify 'x/10' with them. This might need to needless forking and version of the same proposition with varying amounts of complexity, making the site ugly and difficult to navigate.

That said, concerns like that are premature, and we don't need solutions for them now. It's still a good idea to get started on development.

How do you plan on profiting enough to pay for hosting and maintaining the site?

For reference, hosting a lightly-used site is really freakin' cheap.

Thanks for the comments. I will try to address them.

I am less concerned about hosting/maintenance than I am about development costs. If it is not successful, then it won't be large, or need large bandwidth - costs will be low. If it is successful, then some sort of freemium, ad-supported model may be possible. Of course, the territory between these two extremes might be awkward. Joel Spolsky [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joel_Spolsky] has taken his Stack_Overflow engine [http://stackoverflow.com/] and gotten VC funding for an attempt to roll it out as a social network platform [http://stackexchange.com/].

All sorts of propositions are acceptable, as I tried to make clear - although I do think that it will be important to seed the site with 'good' models - perhaps some of the 'sequences' here at LW, for instance. It doesn't matter to me if the system is used by a cult who think that John Lennon was the second coming of the Messiah.

On the 'nit-picking' point, there is a characteristic of the model offered by 'A Pattern Language' which might help - the Conclusion section of the proposition is stated deliberately in open terms, rather than attempting to be rigourously prescriptive. So, instead of 'Thou shalt not kill', one might conclude that killing people is almost never justifiable, and offer links to other propositions on, say 'self-defence', and 'assisted suicide'. One need not aim for a structure that would satisfy a formal logic analysis (although there is no reason not to attempt such). My own propositions would be a set which describe my own web of beliefs, in a way that is cloudy enough to admit nuanced interpretation, but clear enough to be useful. I would hope that this would make it possible;1 for others to register interest in them, and 2 for me to accept refinements suggested by others. I think that many of EY's posts conclude in the same way - offering tools and strategies, rather than hard-and-fast rules.

I think you are right about forking. However, I would contrast this with the status quo. I have been trying to locate my own 'community of interest' on the web for over a decade - I believed that the internet would allow like-minded people - particularly ones with minority interests that could be adequately communicated in words - to find each other. Sites like LW are the poor best that I have found. Why poor best? Well, while there is much of interest here, I am already concerned that certain ideas I hold dear may prove to be anathema here. EY set the site up, and it has a clear and strong thrust. It would be foolish/rude/ineffectual to push ideas which are antithetical to that thrust here. So, sites like this are too rigid - forking is not allowed. More general forums are too loose for the concept of forking to even have a meaning. You see, I would be happy to work with even 5 people at a very high level of agreement. I imagine that there would be many sets of groups which would share broad foundations of shared propositions, but grow increasingly fragmented as the propositions began to operate at more detailed levels. Perhaps it will be important to allow associations of groups,

Precisely these sort of considerations are what I hoped for. Even if this remains a thought experiment, I will find it immensely valuable.

Related: knugs. Forkable ideas with dependencies.

Has anyone encountered a formal version of this? I.e. a site for the creation of formal logical arguments. Users can create axioms, assign their confidence to them and structure arguments using them. Users can then see the logical consequences of their beliefs. I think it would make a very interesting format for turning debate into a competitive game, whose results are rigorous, machine readable, arguments.

While I am certainly not against the idea of a tool that can be used to create formal arguments, the proposal has a subtle but radical difference.

DISCLAIMER: I am not a mathematician, and do not fully understand the concepts I attempt to explain in the following.

In his work published as 'Notes on the Synthesis of Form', Chris. Alexander developed an algorithm for converting a matrix of relationship strengths between analysed sub-elements of a design problem into a 'tree-like' structure. In other words, a hierarchical diagram in which each node can have one connection only, to a higher status node. The number of nodes in each level decreases as one moves upwards, culminating in a single 'master' or 'root' node.

Following the success the publication of 'Notes...' brought, Alexander was employed to work on the development of the metro rail system in San Francisco (the BART), and put his method to work. As a rationalist, he was concerned to find that the results of his work appeared to be failing to fully address the realities of the design problems involved.

His conclusion was that the necessary function of his transformative algorithm which selected the least significant relationship linkages to be broken in order to derive the tree-like diagram was the cause of the problem; some identified real-world relationships were being ignored. And even though these might be ranked lowly, omitting them altogether was destructive.

The essay which captures this understanding is published as 'A City is not a Tree' - read it here: http://www.rudi.net/pages/8755.

In it, Alexander contrasts the tree-like diagram with another; the semi-lattice diagram, which, although still hierarchical, allows for connections across branches, as it were, so that overlapping sets of relationships are legal. Semi-lattices, I believe, are not susceptible to formal logical analysis, but nevertheless can be better mapping tools for complex, real-world systems.

My proposal would deliberately allow for semi-lattice linkages. This would allow, to come up with a quick example, a proposition that called for more cycling to link both to a proposition for less carbon emissions and a proposition for congestion reducing transport initiatives.

Tree diagrams are fairly useless in addressing real-world conditions, as these are usually formally complex, with elements occurring in overlapping sets more often than not. As a result, policy documents are not structured like tree diagrams, and do adduce all sorts of linkages, but do this in a totally unstructured manner, and are often functionally weak, while appearing to address everything. As EY says (everywhere); "A theory that can explain everything, prohibits nothing, and so gives us no advice about what to expect."

My hope for the proposal is that it could bring structured, coherent agreement on sets of principles without the need for total agreement on every aspect of every point.

http://canonizer.com/ already has most of the features you just described.

  • Propositions are made by users, and are editable by users. Not exactly like a wiki, but with a voting mechanism for proposed changes to existing propositions.
  • the propositions are templated, but currently don't include a picture. They include an "Agreement Statement", a list of supporters, and a tree of subcamps.
  • there is a crude mechanism for indicating your degree of acceptance in each proposition. You don't specify an exact number for your support, instead you list the propositions in order of most supported to least supported, and numbers are automatically chosen based on this ordering. and you can choose to support other users, not just specific propositions.
  • yes, there is a tiered structure to the proposition networks. A tree structure, actually.
  • yes, there is a mechanism to form groups. These are called "camps"
  • there are some experimental methods to promote individuals, but currently these don't really work well.

  • 1.there is already a node for "other people experience qualia, just like me", but I haven't found any existing node yet for "other people are real, just like me". And yes, you can set your contact details to be private

  • 2.yes, you can comment on, edit, or fork any existing proposition, even if you're not a supporter of that proposition. But the other supporters have to approve your change before it becomes official.
  • 3."What is God?" is the most active node on the site.
  • 4.There is currently no special "moderator" role. Any user can submit a proposal for a change to a proposition, but all current supporters of the proposition must agree to the change before it becomes official. But there is a "Mind Expert" role, which is basically a user whose opinions count for more points than regular users, in the fields that they're an expert on.
  • 5.yes, you can use canonizer to do stuff like this. You can also set up a private canonizer account on your own website.
  • 6.Currently there's only one person working on this project, and he hasn't set up hosting for the source code anywhere yet. Contact Brent Allsop if you want to help with the coding. If you just want to take a look at the current source code, you can download it from these two zip files.

This looks very interesting - I will have a more thorough look and report back.

I agree that this is an interesting idea. The first point especially seems very ambitious to me--it seems like your system of recommendations would be taking up a lot of the system's time.

On the fourth point, I would be careful not to assume that a given participant, even a talented and qualified one, is willing to assume a moderation role. Also, I don't quite understand what a "group" consists of in this context. Can you give a couple examples of the kinds of groups that might exist and what they might accomplish on the site?

The business plan seems like it would need to be on a private and/or heavily moderated section of wiki, more so than the open-source example. I do really like the open-source project use of this, though; basically, it's an interactive prose design document.

I don't feel I have the time or skill to donate to this project at the moment, but I'll be curious to see where it goes.

It's good to have positive responses!

Recommendations: I have a feeling that this will turn out to be relatively trivial - as I see it, it is essentially a parallel problem to the one that google solved, but with a data set many orders of magnitude smaller. The system surveys the relationships between propositions that have been supplied by users (I don't think it need/should infer connections for itself), and determines a relevance score.

Moderators: I am sure you are right, and that this could easily be a fraught area. Ideally, the system would be flexible enough to allow for groups to self-identify and self-manage in a variety of ways - unlike wikipedia, where a single ecosystem is the be-all and end-all, there is space here for a wide range of ecosystems - groups would certainly rise and fall, fail, feud, coalesce; but no propositions will disappear when a group associated with it collapses - the propositions remain for other users to find and work with. The system should be set up as an evolutionary playground, with mechanisms that are rigged to marginally favour groups that coalesce more, flame less.some sort of ranking system would allow neglected propositions/networks to fall to the bottom.

Groups: I believe that as humans are a social species, human communities are essential structures and the necessary (but not sufficient) locus for creative responses to problems (even if the responses are associated with individuals, those individuals will generally be more effective within a supportive community). However, the communities of the past generally used restrictive and non-rational codes as social glue (variously, religion/tribal culture/geographic isolation/economic dependence/political domination etc) People who wish to use their consciousness to improve their lives have often had a hard time in relation to these codes, and at an accelerating pace in the last century, have abandoned traditional communities - leaving these dominated by the happily or cynically non-rational. Secular cities with weak communities, fundamentalist rural areas with strong but misguided communities. I am interested in developing tools and mechanisms which can allow people to form communities on the basis of conscious assent. I am enough of a darwinist not to want to attempt to say what I think those communities should aspire to.

I would use such a tool to attempt to set out my own web of beliefs and interests, in the hope of connecting with like minded individuals. My hope is, that with a large subset of the 'ground rules' clearly communicated and the relationships between them identified, that highly effective development of new/difficult/ill defined areas could be worked on. I would also use such a platform to make proposals like the one we are discussing here. I would expect certain groups to turn up quickly; cults; obsessives and the like - but I fondly hope that these will either remain tiny or will disintegrate or, most likely, find that the structural characteristics of the tool tends to expose inconsistencies in their thinking, and leave of their own accord. I would expect that political groups might follow the same trajectory, albeit more slowly and with less fireworks. I would hope that purposeful individuals with positive and constructive intentions will find it a more congenial arena that wider forums or more narrow blogs.

A concrete example: as a founder of a small school, I attempted to establish the principal policies of the school as a network of 'patterns', ranging from fundamentals (Support the developing child; Learning is part of living; Self-governance; Family involvement is fundamental; Ethical consciousness and action) to intermediates (Relationship with the state) to specifics ( In the absence of a tool like the one proposed, collaboration with other people involved was impractical, and we retreated to the standard solution of sets of prose policies, which no-one ever reads, and which are inaccessible and becoming less relevant to actual practice with every passing week.

As to what groups might accomplish, I can say this very succinctly; they might well succeed in expanding the range of metaphysics available to humanity. By which I mean, expanding the number of ways in which we can usefully communicate about phenomena. As this seems to me to be the only reliable yardstick by which to measure 'progress', I modestly suggest that this might be a Good Thing.

Business Plans: given some sort of 'freemium' model, than yes, users/groups wanting privacy / security would be able to pay for various levels of same, or presumably for implementation of stand-alone installations on their own servers. Open-source software offers successful models for this (Drupal is one example).

"basically, it's an interactive prose design document" - I hope not. The structured and templated nature of the Pattern Language approach has a higher order than prose, and should increase both the information content and the utility of the resulting collection of propositions. The book 'A Pattern Language' , which was published in 1977, and conceived years previously, works exactly like a hypertext document, with directed but essentially free-form navigation the implied mode of use. The requirement that all content is directed towards the resolution of the particular problem/proposition at hand is rather powerful in practice, and the requirement that each proposition should be assigned larger scale propositions which it helps to refine, and needs smaller scale propositions to flesh it out in turn imposes a need for clarity of thought about the outcome of the system as a whole.

Engagement with the project: at this stage, comment and discussion is what is needed.

"basically, it's an interactive prose design document" - I hope not.

Sorry, I can see how that didn't mean the same thing outside my head as in it. I didn't mean prose as opposed to hypertext, but prose as opposed to flowcharts. I was reading recently about the way grown-ups write design docs, and immediately made a face and went back to my habit of putting prioritized feature lists in text files.

I will make some comments myself. As a newcomer to LessWrong, looking around, I have found some 'prior art' - unsurprising, as it was thinking about this proposition that led me here. so some LessWrong links: Web of Beliefs/A rational Identity: http://lesswrong.com/lw/2g0/a_rational_identity/ Navigating IdentitySpace: http://lesswrong.com/r/discussion/lw/2rm/request_for_rough_draft_review_navigating/