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Creating a web-based format for debate and deliberation: discuss?

Friday, December 12th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — Talmud, hypertext, spider webs, Indra’s net, noosphere, rosaries, renga, the bead game, Xanadu, hooks-and-eyes, onward! ]
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Let me firmly anchor this post and its comments, which will no doubt shift and turn as the wind wishes, in discussion of the possibility of improving on current affordances for online deliberation.

Let’s begin here:

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There are a variety of precursor streams to this discussion: I have listed a few that appeal to me in the sub-head of this post and believe we will reach each and all of them in some form and forum if this discussion takes off. And I would like to offer the immediate hospitality of this Zenpundit post and comment section to make a beginning.

Greg’s tweet shows us a page of the Talmud, which is interesting to me for two reasons:

  • it presents many voices debating a central topic
  • it does so using an intricate graphical format
  • The script of a play or movie also records multiple voices in discourse, as does an orchestral score — but the format of the Talmudic score is more intricate, allowing the notation of counterpoint that extends across centuries, and provoking in turn centuries of further commentary and debate.

    What can we devise by way of a format, given the constraints of screen space and the affordances of software and interface design, that maximizes the possibility of debate with respect, on the highly charged topics of the day.

    We know from the Talmud that such an arrangement is possible in retrospect (when emotion can be recollected in tranquility): I am asking how we can come closest to it in real time. The topics are typically hotly contested, patience and tolerance may not always be in sufficient supply, and moderation by humans with powers of summary and editing should probably not be ruled out of our consdierations. But how do we create a platform that is truly polyphonic, that sustains the voices of all participants without one shouting down or crowding out another, that indeed may embody a practic of listening..?

    Carl Rogers has shown us that the ability to express one’s interlocutor’s ideas clearly enough that they acknowledge one has understood them is a significant skill in navigating conversational rapids.

    The Talmud should be an inspiration but not a constraint for us. The question is not how to build a Talmud, but how to build a format that can host civil discussion which refines itself as it grows — so that, to use a gardening metaphor, it is neither overgrown nor too harshly manicured, but manages a carefully curated profusion of insights and —

    actual interactions between the emotions and ideas in participating or observing individuals’ minds and hearts

    **

    Because polyphony is not many voices talking past one another, but together — sometimes discordant, but attempting to resolve those discords as they arrive, and with a figured bass of our common humanity underwriting the lot of them.

    And I have said it before: here JS Bach is the master. What he manages with a multitude of musical voices in counterpoint is, in my opinion, what we need in terms of verbal voices in debate.

    I am particularly hoping to hear from some of those who participated in tweeted comments arising from my previous post here titled Some thoughts for Marc Andreessen & Adam Elkus, including also Greg Loyd, Callum Flack, Belinda Barnet, Ken (chumulu) — Jon Lebkowsky if he’s around — and friends, and friends of friends.

    What say you?

    Some thoughts for Marc Andreessen & Adam Elkus

    Thursday, December 11th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron — proposing a simple tweak for Twitter as a “difference that might make a difference” ]
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    Marc Andreessen gave us the first web browser, NCSA Mosaic. Without it, we’d be in an alternate universe. Much gratitude.

    **

    A few days back, Andreessen tweeted:

    Behold, two ideas, each one commonly voiced and easily taken or granted, which move in opposite directions.

    Andreessen has a nose for these things. Sometimes he uses two tweets to point up this kind of paradox, sometimes just the one. But he’s intrigued, presumably, by the fact that two such contradictory attitudes can both persist in the same cloud of discussion without drawing much attention to their discord — and that when they are isolated and juxtaposed in this way, the discord jumps out at us, and with any luck we begin to question assumptions and actually think our way to a more nuanced understanding of the topic in question.

    He’s using form to sharpen insight.

    **

    More than that, conceptual juxtaposition is the form he’s using, and that’s a form I’ve been exploring myself here on Zenpundit and elsewhere under the name DoubleQuotes for a while.

    I use conceptual juxtaposition myself for a variety of purposes, not least because it’s the seed form of creative activity — the intersection between different ideas is the “seam” where Koestler finds the origins of humor, tragedy and discovery:

    koestler-model

    **

    My own DoubleQuotes format is a means of capturing those intersections, whether they be verbal, visual, aural or even numerical, as shown in these two examples:

    SPEC Baghdad 450

    and:

    SPEC Karman Gogh 450

    **

    A while back, Adam Elkus took note of what Andreessen was up to with his juxtapositions, and thought they merited comment in their own right:

    Adam also noted the similarity between our respective thought processes, and followed up by tweeting, “In fact, one wonders if @pmarca and @hipbonegamer could team up for a double quote post.” I invited @pmarca to play a round or two of DoubleQuotes with me, there was a hiatus of a couple of weeks..

    ..and then Adam retweeted an inquiry along similar lines:

    and responded:

    to which I replied, “Let me think on it.”

    **

    I have been thinking..

    Twitter already features a line connecting two tweets when one is a direct response to the other:

    DoubleTweet

    That’s a minimalist version of what I’d like to see — but I’d like to be able to lock two tweets, or retweets, together at the time of posting. I don’t know if this is app territory or something Twitter might want to create itself, but I ran across the two tweets that follow…

    within a few minutes of one another on my feed, but with fifteen or so intervening tweets…

    and I wanted to RT them together as a pair — not one followed by the other, with who knows how many tweets from other people in between them as they appear in my tweeps’ feeds.

    In those two n\tweets together, eccentric mechanical beauty meets eccentric natural beauty, I like both, but more than that, I like the contrast, and the underlying similarity — in this case, a similarity that is found in the eye of this beholder, and which I hope might catch the eye of like-minded others.

    **

    So: what I’d like to see is an affordance for posting two tweets or RTs as a connected whole.

    This might be for the purpose of an Andreessen paradox, or a HipBone DoubleQuote, for raising a question or pointing up an irony, for illustrating parallelisms or oppositions in the editing of a film … the possibilities are endless.

    That single minimalist line tying the two tweets together would be a starting point, but very simple graphics could be devised for signaling identity (the line features a small equals sign at its mid-point), inequality (“does not equal”), parallelism (double line), directionality or causality (an arrow), paradox (two arrows in opposite directions), question (a question mark), or recursion (an arrow chasing its tail), etc..

    Lines with ah! oy! hu! and eureka! at their midpoints would also be neat:

    double tweet links

    **

    Whether with or without these graphical niceties, the capacity to DoubleTweet would put us in play mode, insight mode, aha! mode.

    We could use more exercise in that mode of being and thinking, no?

    Now, about taklif, and about parawar?

    Tuesday, October 15th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — two learnings about Hezbollah, in process and with one question each ]
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    The trouble with this internet thing is that it offers nonstop opportunities for learning.

    I hope my readers here at Zenpundit know by now that I’m an amateur (a lover) of the topics that I write about, learning as I go. I have long thought fard ‘ayn or individual obligation was the key phrase in religious recruitment to the jihad, conveying as it does divine sanction for the deeds properly committed under that license. I believe I first encountered the phrase in the context of Muhammad Abd al-Salam Faraj and his book, The Neglected Duty. It’s my (strictly amateur) hunch that the neglected (pun intended) Faraj should be the object of as much of our study as the far better known Sayyid Qutb.

    **

    Just yesterday Phillip Smyth posted an extended piece on the Brown Moses blog, Hizballah Executing Syrian Prisoners? – Analyzing the Video, which in turn introduced me to the concept of taklif al-sharii. The key paras read:

    In a June USA Today article which covered Hizballah’s involvement in Syria, a Hizballah fighter noted, “Everyone who is sent to fight in Syria has received a ‘Taklif Sharii'”. USA Today added the taklif sharii is “a religious command that means he will go to heaven if killed.” Nevertheless, the taklif sharii is more than just a religious edict which guarantees a martyred fighter’s spot in heavenly paradise. It is a religious obligation put forth by a cleric and must be followed. In fact, it is a form of religious ruling which underpins the Khomeinist ideology guiding Iran, Hizballah, and all of the main Iraqi Shia organizations sending militiamen to Syria.

    Augustus Richard Norton noted that Hizballah’s adherence to taklif sharii is a theological legal ruling, “as though commanded by Allah”. According to Mohammed Sherri, an Al-Manar (Hizballah’s official TV channel) commentator, “once a taklif is issued, violating it is similar to any sin, like murder or adultery, or not praying or fasting.” In traditional Shi’ism, the taklif sharii was rarely issued and normally did not deal with political issues. The concept was actually revived as an important Shia idea by the father of Iran’s Revolution, Grand Ayatollah Khomeini and as an important support for his form of clerical rule, Wilayat al-Faqih (in Persian it’s known as Velayat e-Faqih). In effect, the issuing of a taklif sharii by a high ranking Shia cleric, in this case Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei—The “Spiritual leader” of Hizballah and the other Iraqi Shia groups, is a direct order coming from Allah.

    So — here are my amateur — still learning — questions: does taklif sharii serve the same function among Shia jihadists as fard ‘ayn does among Sunnis? Are both terms used in both communities? The parallel between the two terms, and the differences between the kinds of authorities who control Sunni and Shiite discourses in matters such as these, would make for an interesting exploration I think.

    Okay, that’s the “About taklif” section of this post.

    **

    As you might imagine, though, Smyth’s post set me reading Augustus Richard Norton‘s piece, and there I discovered another interesting snippet, on another topic entirely:

    From the Israeli withdrawal of May 2000 until the eruption of war in July 2006, there was aggressive patrolling, heated rhetoric and periodic episodes of violence by both sides. Most of the armed attacks were in the disputed Shebaa farms. By historical standards, however, this was a relatively quiet period. In general, clashes respected “rules of the game”, which had been codified in writing in 1996 and specified that Israel would not attack civilians in Lebanon and Hezbollah would not attack Israel. As Daniel Sobelman notes, the rules were so well established that officials were sometimes quoted as saying that such and such skirmish was ‘‘within the rules’’.

    The Sobelman reference points us to:

    Sobelman, D. New Rules of the Game: Israel and Hizballah after the Withdrawal from Lebanon. Tel Aviv: Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Tel Aviv University, 2004, pp. 67–82.

    Okay, here’s second my question, the one about “parawar”. What’s the Clausewitzian term for something of this kind, far beyond politics, “within the rules” yet still not quite war — parawar? The duel comes to mind, too.

    So: is there a word for such things?

    It’s been a while since anyone last used a nuclear bomb, right?

    Monday, September 9th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — keeping you in the “loopy” loop ]
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    There’s more ridiculous sloshing around on the web than I can hope to monitor, but my personal collection hit a couple of high points recently that I thought I should share with you. Did you know, for instance, that Israel recently exploded a nuclear bomb in Syria? How could you consider yourself informed, and be unaware of such a thing? It was on YouTube…

    But pshaw, that’s secular nonsense, and as you know, my tastes run to the religious. So did you know the emeritus Pope Benedict had a demonic advisor by his side while he was making a major speech?

    That sure as hell beats out the namby-pamby 10 Weirdest Fundamentalist Christian Conspiracy Theories an Alternet writer came up with, eh?

    In any case, please watch both the above videos: I trust you will then realize that the world is in far worse shape than you thought it was before reading this post.

    After all, it’s on YouTube.

    **

    How about this?

    Hang on a moment, Sayyida Zaynab is the shrine dear to Shiites that Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada is defending, as this graphic suggests:

    And last but not least, consider this, from a US Senator:

    Coincidence!?!? — or just a clumsy creative leap?

    _________________________________________________________________________________________________

    NB: Updated to replace “Hezbollah” with “Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada” above — h/t Phillip Smyth.

    AQ Conference Call, 2: what a difference a week makes

    Thursday, August 15th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — all the AQ leaders teleported into this one cave for their annual conference, see, and spoke to reporters as they were leaving for “near” and “far” – no wardrobe malfunctions, though ]
    .

    Following up on my post, AQ Conference Call, 1

    .

    When Eli Lake and Josh Rogin broke the story it was huge, wardrobe-malfunction huge, although AQ doesn’t really do wardrobe malfunctions the way we do at the Superbowl:

    It wasn’t just any terrorist message that triggered U.S. terror alerts and embassy closures—but a conference call of more than 20 far-flung al Qaeda operatives, Eli Lake and Josh Rogin report.

    Okay, conference call, I’ve been on some of those. Phones, right?

    Ah — Skype, maybe, or Google+?

    Nope.

    Semantic? Okay… but anyway, “The crucial intercept that prompted the U.S. government to close embassies in 22 countries was a conference call between al Qaeda’s senior leaders and representatives of several of the group’s affiliates throughout the region” — right?

    Um, no.

    Here’s the more recent piece by Lara Jakes and Adam Goldman for AP to which JM Berger’s quote (lower panel, above) was pointing:

    Al-Qaida fighters have been using secretive chat rooms and encrypted Internet message boards for planning and coordinating attacks — including the threatened if vague plot that U.S. officials say closed 19 diplomatic posts across Africa and the Middle East for more than a week.

    It’s highly unlikely that al-Qaida’s top leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, or his chief lieutenant in Yemen, Nasser al-Wahishi, were personally part of the Internet chatter or, given the intense manhunt for both by U.S. spy agencies, that they ever go online or pick up the phone to discuss terror plots, experts say.

    More specifically:

    A U.S. intelligence official said the unspecified threat was discussed in an online forum joined by so many jihadist groups that it included a representative from Boko Haram, the Nigerian insurgency that has loose and informal ties to al-Qaida. Two other intelligence officials characterized the threat as more of an alert to get ready to launch potential attacks than a discussion of specific targets.

    One of the officials said the threat began with a message from al-Wahishi, head of the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, to al-Zawahri, who replaced Osama bin Laden as the core al-Qaida leader. The message essentially sought out al-Zawahri’s blessing to launch attacks. Al-Zawahri, in turn, sent out a response that was shared on the secretive online jihadi forum.

    So the jihadis have a web-forum, and messages from Zawahiri get quoted there?

    A stunning new development!

    **

    DoubleTweet Sources:

  • Eli Lake
  • JM Berger
  • Articles pointed to:

  • Eli Lake
  • JM Berger
  • **

    Edited to add:

    FYI, there’s an extended treatment of the whole affair by Ken Silverstein now up at Harper’s, Anatomy of an Al Qaeda “Conference Call” — h/t Joshua Foust.


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