Perspectives on Dialogue: What Matters?

In Why the Crowd Has No Wisdom I pushed several issues with the “wisdom of the crowd” idea:

1. What is distributed wisdom? Wisdom can be considered an emergent pattern of meaning from participants in a dedicated search for meaning and guidance.Collective wisdom emerges from a dialogic engagement among observers that have actually pondered a situation. Is Wikipedia “wise” or just really a helpful set of editors sharing what they consider factual and informative?

2. Can the crowd help me with a problem? What is the intention of the group from which we expect to find wisdom or even knowledge? Where knowledge is the entry fee we pay to generate wisdom from the group, it is not the outcome of the group. More knowledge is not what we need, we usually need some sort of contextual direction based on understanding of a situation.

3. Are large groups effective? When generating distributed knowledge from a large, generally unknown group – like a prediction market – can we achieve anything better than a measure of popularity or sentiment? Do we have any evidence that large groups have any better sense of the future, or any consensus toward solving difficult problems facing us? Maybe an individual in the group has a killer idea, but won’t that idea be washed out by too many uniformed participants? If the crowd was right, wouldn’t everyone in stock markets be buying the same stocks?

Margaret Mead and Peter Block hold the small group as the best working unit of wisdom generation. While dialogue circles can scale to large sizes, their effectiveness to make group decisions based on a group understanding diminishes in correlation to size.

There are several demographic studies that compel attention toward a less-informed populace, not more, Internet be damned. Even the French (friends of the intellectual life) have weighed in on their cultural decline – consumer caprice!

School Faced With Consumerist Barbarism

By Philippe Meirieu, Le Monde,Thursday 22 March 2007

In France, debates concerning education are too often reduced to debates about school. Our history certainly invites that: no other country is built through and around its school system more than ours. And if we don’t restore hope in an institution that today has been broadly reduced to a triage center, we will have to face both the explosion of youth and the depression of teachers. When fatalism triumphs and disappointment is the rule among those who incarnate the future, we have something to worry about…. In consequence, let’s celebrate the way the electoral campaign has made a place for scholastic problems.

We are faced with a completely unheard-of phenomenon: caprice – which used to be only a stage in the individual child’s development – has become the organizing principle of our collective development. We, in fact, know that the child always goes through a phase in which he believes he can boss beings and things around. Whether one talks about initial narcissism or infantile egocentrism, one always emphasizes the same phenomenon: the child, enmeshed in desires that he cannot yet either name or register in an encounter with someone else, is tempted to move to action. The educator should therefore accompany the child; teach him not to react immediately with violence, not to rush headlong into a collision…. To take the time to question himself, anticipate, reflect, metabolize his impulses, construct his will. That’s the business of pedagogy.

The bolded sentence advises self-dialogue, an interesting orientation to pedagogy. While not directly supporting a case that crowds are less wise than we may hope, it suggests the selection of population sample (or stakeholders) is very important.

My colleagues have responded with some compelling distinctions.

Dr. Liss Jeffrey of the eCommons/Agora and New Democracy Workshop (see the Netizen News) makes an impressive case:

I would say that I take a more conventionally grassroots democratic view ( as in demos or perhaps ‘demosophy’) as crowd sourcing seems to me an interesting and worthwhile if never infallible or even reliable ‘ bottom up’ approach.Nor do I share your disdain for “the mean” ( this used to be the mass I guess, an equally flawed concept of some kind of abstraction of a person quantified. I have a lot of respect for the common sense of Canadians.I refuse to blame Americans en masse as this position lacks nuance and suffers from obvious contradictions).

I think part of the point is to inform people and provide opportunities for them to inform themselves and others on a given question and topic. I do not always know what matters, (who does?), and anyway it may change.

Dialogue is powerful, but creating the conditions for dialogue so it seems to me takes education, information, lots of hope and many other tactics .That’s where I think the real struggle is situated, nurturing those conditions and building platforms and practices for the dialogue engagement.

Restricting the dialogue to an ‘intentional small crowd’ while this may be practically useful (maybe the room only holds 30) seems to me on principle objectionable.

I do not know on a given day with whom I may need to or may find myself in dialogue, as I make my way through the public part of my life, however surely that readiness for dialogue is part of what we are trying to achieve – those of us who make dialogue part of our practice …

Dr. Peter Pennefather of the University of Toronto suggests a middle way, that we frame any dialogue (online or F2F) well enough so that multiple perspectives are encouraged and accommodated.

Peter Jones responds to some articles cited earlier in this dialogue about blogging and the possible outputs of a million monkeys typing <as well as the above article by Meirieu complaining about the capriciousness of crowds and more specifically of millennials.) This article reflects a common complaint about the capriciousness youth and their lack of commitment to a defined doctrine or a consistent worldview. This seems to have a parallel in a longing for the good old days of insurgency when the battle was over running the nation state in contrast to the fuzzy foes of today’s Brave New Wars who just want to exert influence over a bit of turf they can call their own and will stop at nothing to drive away competitors who compete for that influence.

Unless there is a framing of the dialogue it is difficult to recognize the points of view or perspective that drive elements of the discourse. This is what I think is most important about all the blogging that is going on. Not only are opinions being recorded, but it is now possible to interpret those opinions in terms of the writer’s identity and perspective that can be deduced from other information on the web, often nicely arranged and summarized on their home page.

It’s not the collective knowledge of crowds that is emerging but rather an ability to recognize the collective diversity of perspectives. It is this multi-perspectival view that helps locate information artifacts and to characterizes their nature more completely.

Perspective is developed and usually enabled by “standing on the shoulders of giants” (or monsters). An ability to consider things from multiple perspectives leads to perceptiveness. Perceptiveness is a property generally associated with the culture of ideas. One quality that makes a written text literature is that it is widely recognized as having the quality of perceptiveness. Intellectuals and scholars train themselves to be perceptive and to have the capacity to provide a sophisticated analysis of events. Thus, for focused questions it is efficient to establish a dialogue amongst key informants.

However, in my opinion, all dialogue is useful and increases the overall perceptiveness of the participants. The consensus that can sometimes emerge from dialogue is not a homogenized mean but rather an appreciation of different points of view and a better appreciation of where the uncertainties lies or the level of facticity of the observations bandied about. I agree with Liss that assessing a situation and responding to that situation invokes different cognitive and neurological systems. However, I would not like to separate dialogue from action. It is the coordination of information input and action outputs (including dialogical inquiry to obtain more information) that increases our ability to adapt to what the world throws at us.

The democratic and dialogical principles that should be brought into at play during a staged discourse on a limited platform of ideas aimed at providing long term guidance for the operations of government (e.g. during election campaigns) are different from democratic and dialogical principles that should be applied during a focussed dialogical inquiry aimed at assessing the value of possible solutions to a specific focused but difficult problem. Nevertheless, in both situations there will be common forms of knowledge, skills, attitudes, and beliefs that will favour participant satisfaction with the process. The skill of being able to inspire imagination in others and the belief in widely dispersed wisdom to be found in the most unlikely places are two such useful elements. These common elements can be developed (taught) through various exercises and must be maintained through continuous use

Is this a middle way between amusing sophisticated discourse by insiders and mindless mass mouthings (typing) of platitudes?

These are all principles of structured dialogue: Demosophia (Wisdom of the People), Framing the Dialogue, Embracing and including multiple perspectives. Thank you for contributing to our shared collective wisdom!

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Explore posts in the same categories: Dialogic Design, Human Values, Participatory Democracy, Systems thinking, Wicked complexity

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