A Social Intelligence Network

Social Intelligence Could a social medium be designed for leveraging collective intelligence, rather than entertainment and advertising?

We currently have social networking media, but we do not yet have social intelligence media. Existing social media is effective at building networks based upon familiarity or common interests to deliver simple diversions (for the users) or paid, targeted promotions (for the sponsors). Conversely, that other staple of digital culture, the Wikipedia, is neither social nor intelligent, and is apt to represent the collective trivia of the internet and the prejudice of nerds. I dream, perhaps idly, of something more than this – an online communication and knowledge aggregation tool that could not be ideologically dominated, and that might allow our intellectual resources to be effectively pooled.

How would we go about designing a social networking tool for leveraging intelligence? We would first have to avoid the obvious pitfalls. My purpose here is to suggest what these might be, and to propose possible solutions that could allow for the creation of something like a social intelligence network (SIN).


Pitfall 1: The Tyranny of the Lowest Common Denominator

Pictures of cute animals spread easily on Facebook but challenging ideas do not and cannot. Similarly, among the most commonly propagated materials on Google+ you will find a great many pictures from the Hubble space telescope. Because these systems are based on Like or +1 (i.e. “I agree!” or “Interesting...”) tallies and motivated reshares, social networks thrive on the concurrence of interests at the lowest common denominator. This is precisely what you want for entertainment and petty diversions – not to mention advertising. But it is not a way to leverage intelligence in problem solving, nor to aggregate knowledge.


Solution 1: Aggregate and Iterate

If problems are identifiable nodes linked to conceptual labels, solutions can aggregate around these nodes for discussion and refinement. Let's suppose that one of the databases at the root of a social intelligence network is a wiki-esque keyword tree. Each keyword has linked to it clusters of related thematic discussions, perhaps grouped as questions. Some machine curation is possible with such a system, but it might also rely on users being willing to connect their posts into the existing knowledge infrastructure.

However, they would be motivated to do so by the requirements of discoverability – if you don't link well, nobody could find what you wrote!
Related to this, the system should be set up to iterate on the material, so content can become refined through successive stages. The Wikipedia does a reasonable job with this, but it may be better for a SIN to actively encourage iteration by asking users if they would like to issue a revision – or put out a community call to revise and synthesize discussion on a given topic or problem.

Such an aggregation and iteration system needs more that a one dimensional response mechanic if it is to make the best value from user contributions. Users need to be able to tag content as (say) “Agree” or “Disagree”, as well as marking some content as “Interesting”, to show desire for further engagement. The robot curation system would need to process agreement and disagreement in respect of claims in order to tackle the next pitfall.


Pitfall 2: Singular Truth

The Wikipedia runs aground on Platonic metaphysics: there is one truth, we must discover what it is and enforce it. This, as I observed in The Mythology of Evolution, is precisely the mistake medieval Christianity made – and today it can just as often be found among those who have a non-religious commitment to Science. Similar fault lines occur around moral and political positions, as I outline in Chaos Ethics – such problems are widespread within contemporary culture precisely because it is not a unified culture at all, but rather a ‘multiverse’ of competing worldviews. We cannot eliminate this issue and we must therefore plan a way around it if we are going to avoid fostering the empty argumentation that occurs between those with opposing worldviews. How could we prevent time and information from being wasted by irresolvable disputants conversing with each other?


Solution 2: Situated Perspective

Rather than fight over singular claims, an alternative is to collect competing or related claims in their own network nodes, which would be crosslinked. Thus wherever there is substantial disagreement, the competing claims would form their own cluster under the relevant concept. Undisputed information can then filter through into a bridging node, with the alternative perspectives clustered around it. In effect, ‘rival’ clusters around a node represent shared worldviews (or at least, elements of shared worldviews), and thanks to the “agree/disagree” tagging can offer insights into these worldviews. This is more promising than self-identifying a ‘faction’ since only religious individuals have any skill at doing so.

Consider the age of the Earth as one example of a topic that is contentious. The main positions within scientific orthodoxy will likely fall out as a dispute within the same worldview (one likely to agree with 'measurement is a reliable route to truth' or some such claim or cluster of claims). Conversely, Young Earth Creationist claims will be united in agreement with ‘the Bible is true’, while more moderate positions can be subsumed into the orthodox clusters on this topic, while deviating on specific claims concerning evolutionary theory. It will be possible to see from such a system that disputes within orthodox scientific positions (e.g. over group selection) are more varied than contesting views from other sources. However, all knowledge claims would be collated in such a system – as indeed they should be. Even if you are dedicated to scientific process and are absolutely convinced all forms of Creationism are wrong, Creationist knowledge claims are still a part of human information as a whole: it would be perfectly plausible, for instance, for an anthropologist to study Creationism.

Suppression of disagreement is suppression of knowledge, and the ideological assumptions that are deployed to do so always assume the worth of a claim is to be judged against some conception of knowledge as a single coherent whole. Yet you could not, for instance, study Palestine without examining the framework behind the competing positions on this national claim. The same is correct of all disputed knowledge. Only by avoiding premature conclusions about what might be potentially of interest, irrespective of context, can you be sure to record everything of possible value to any hypothetical individual. “Disagree” yet “Interesting” is a whole category of discourse suppressed in conventional internet media.


Technical vs. Popular

The above discussion makes it sound as if the primary role of situated perspective is to separate out religious and non-religious background contexts. But actually, it would be just as useful for dividing up content via its technical content since not everyone is equipped to read every piece of written material. To put this another way, the idea that everyone speaking (say) English is using the same language is woefully misleading since each specialisation has its own special language.

Nothing could be easier for a robot than distinguishing popular and technical discussions, and this could be fantastically useful in SIN. It would allow users to be differentiated into subcultures just on the basis of the words used. As before, everything is cross-linked and accessible – but content tagged Technical can be ignored by those without the requisite lexicon, and content tagged Popular ignored by those more interested in the more complex discussions. This also suggests a role for those ambassadors capable of bridging between the two.


Pitfall 3: Forum Cock Fights

When nerds accumulate in a sealed ‘room’,  they get into arguments that devolve into flame wars and noise. This was the blight of the old Usenet forums and it persists wherever the forum or mailing list model of internet discussion is dominant (e.g. Google+ Communities). The essential problem is that there is no way out in such a dispute: both parties claim membership in the shared space, and no third parties are as able (or, for that matter, willing) to intercede in such fights as they would be had it occurred 'in the flesh'. The result is unpleasant for everyone involved.


Solution 3: Reduce Gain on Flames

If the automatic curation system sidelines arguments between two parties so they are less prominent, this problem could be lessoned. It could even enforce a 'cooldown' period on willing users to prevent 'posting in anger' – and allow users to mute flames from users with no cooldown, as well as branching content by worldview by default (e.g. few want to read about a theology or atheology they do not hold!). Some experimentation would be required, but a comfortable balance is possible, and all the information would be accessible to anyone by voluntarily defining conditions for exploration.

I am confident this problem is manageable because during the height of the blogosphere, before the social networks drove it to the point of extinction, it was far more possible to avoid flame wars than in the Usenet era. The reason was that your violent disagreements occurred on someone else’s blog, and returning to writing at your own blog was far less likely to escalate conflict than pushing on with the same vehement dispute. Similar techniques could make SIN arguments more civil – or at least, less volatile! – and they could do this without automatically closing down discussions. Two disputants can keep at it - if they want - and the results of their argument could be resurfaced if they managed to reach an accord. In the meantime, they can fight in private since anyone not interested will not be shown the most heated exchanges.


Pitfall 4: TLDR

Some online discussions are too long to be widely read (blogs), and some are too short to have substance (Twitter). Is there a way to get the best of both worlds?


Solution 4: Variable Spaces

The benefits of a word limit on Twitter are that it shapes content for quick and easy consumption – to do it well requires careful construction, but either way it's quick. Setting limits like this control the depth and complexity of discussion – so why not explore this phenomena further by striating discussions into (say) Essays (2,000 words – about 10 minutes reading), Discussion (500 words – 3 minutes reading), Thoughts (100 words – a minute to read), and Blips (25 words – about the length of a tweet).

Now because of machine curation you could choose to launch discussion at any point in this scale, and equally choose to examine any problem or topic node at any scale. And of course, each scale is independently tagged – so you could go to look at “Rainforest preservation” (say) and find the best Discussion-length piece for someone with your approximate worldview based solely on the most valued Blips about it. Indeed, you could monitor Blip-feeds, or Essay-feeds, on any topic you liked, according to whatever filter criteria you liked.

As an additional suggestion to enhance this experience, replies to posts into the SIN can default to one step down. If you wrote an Essay (2,000 words), people's replies would be co-or donated as Discussions (500 words) by default. Nothing stops someone writing their own Essay in reply and linking to you (the equivalent of blog Trackbacks), but the system can make it easier to support shorter replies to help discourse remain fluid.


Pitfall 5: Money Buys Attention

We live in a world where large organisations can literally buy attention and, ironically, already possess a share of our collective attention by being well-known. This is a benefit (of a certain kind) in conventional social media, since wealthy organisations bankroll free usage through paid advertising. But this might not be so desirable in a social intelligence  network – you would not want a tobacco conglomerate dominating discourse on smoking, for instance.


Solution 5: Individuals Only

The solution here must be to permit access solely to individuals. Large organisations will still get in by sending representatives, but could not plausibly buy attention in such a set up. However, this does not solve the question of how a SIN would be funded. The brutal truth is that every social network depends upon corporate involvement for its funding, and it might be difficult to pursue a project of this kind without such involvement. Even the Wikipedia doesn't get by without advertising – admittedly, the PBS-style ‘begging’ adverts rather than anything from the commercial marketplace. Perhaps the codebase could come about through open source means, although I doubt it. This problem is one I shall have to leave open.


Virtuous Networking

The above assumes a social intelligence network that is a combination of distributed human intelligence and robotic automation – a cross between social networks and the Wikipedia. But to end this blue sky discussion, I want to look at an entirely different way of leveraging collective intelligence.

What I shall call a virtuous social network (VSN) is predicated on the idea of communities, linked only by common interests. These communities would be capped at a certain number of participants – something between 20 and 50 – so that anyone involved might plausibly get to know the others in their cluster. Each individual would be encouraged to belong to several clusters, thus allowing the collective intelligence present in each community to be leveraged on a grander scale, should it be appropriate. This is a much simpler idea than the SIN fantasy described above – but that makes it radically easier to implement, since at its core is only the idea of linking individuals into potentially productive clusters.

The pitfalls described above – and perhaps some of the solutions, too – would still apply to a VSN, but such an approach would have the added value of being more than just an abstract space within the depths of the internet. It would be a path to creating transnational communities on any topic imaginable. I wistfully like to think that this could be even more valuable than the techno-utopian vision that motivates my description above of a hypothetical network for social intelligence.

Do you think a Social Intelligence Network is plausible and desirable? Do you think Virtuous Networking is something we need? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Defecting from Google Drive

After Google Drive decided I could choose between having duplicates of all of my folders or deleting all of my files, I decided to defect. I plan to be free of Google for productivity software in three years, if I can.

My new choice for cloud storage is Copy.com, which starts with 15 GB (+5 GB if you sign up with a referral link). Two features I really like:

  1. Backup Shortcuts: you can drop shortcuts/symbolic links into the folder to automatically arrange for the originals to be copied onto the cloud as a backup.
  2. Human Service: you can email the support desk and eventually summon a human. This beats Google’s method of “compete to see if we care!” approach to support.

If you fancy trying Copy.com for yourself, here’s my referral link.

After the Volcano

Part of the July Blogs of the Round Table.

After the Volcano Over at Critical Distance, it seems that the bloot on the extinction of blogs struck a chord and pushed the conversation further into the corners of the internet. Their BoRT for July, “Blogception”, is a continuation of the themes that began with “The Extinction of Blogs” and that I summarised in “Bloot Me If You Need Me”. You can find the contributed pieces with the recently-revived drop down box, below (hurrah!).

I particularly enjoyed the tmblr post by rumirumirumirumi that suggests that there probably isn’t actually a problem, since the talking is still going on. Yet I found it rather odd and amusing that I couldn’t actually comment to this post, because tumblr (a format I only discovered this month) doesn’t support it. It drives home for me that while the conversations still occur on the new media platforms, what is actually in danger of extinction is ‘just’ the old form of blogging. But of course, it was this form of blogging (and not just on the topic of games, as others have assumed!) that I suggested was in danger of extinction – and that I don’t want to lose.

Random throwaway conversations may survive, but the blog clusters are dying – and as far as I can tell new formats like tumblr and G+ do not and cannot maintain community in anything like this way. G+, I can now honestly report, reverts to the usenet/forum format for community – with all the disastrous problems this entails. But then Oscar drew my attention to First Person Scholar via a post entitled “Feed-Forward Scholarship” that feels very much like another shot at a Terra Nova-like scholarly outreach community. A definite sense of circles and roundabouts hangs in the air – transformation is certainly afoot, yet there is also a sense of recurrence, of things coming back around.

You won’t care about the extinction of the blog clusters if – like Corvus and others – you are getting your conversational fixes elsewhere. Probably the only people who do care are those of us who benefited from the experimental era roughly a decade hence when the blog clusters dominated digital discourse. These current discussions have left me in no doubt that dialogue does still take place on the internet, but they have not yet convinced me that those of us in the ‘old guard’ have nothing to lose by giving up what we once had. On the contrary, I am more certain than ever that we have already lost what we had. But perhaps this is not as great a cause for alarm as I originally suggested.

Every extinction is an opportunity for that which survives: after the volcano, new life flourishes in the fecundity of its desolation. So it seems to be on the internet. If I cannot keep my blog clusters alive, I must be mindful of how my blogs, survivors of this catastrophic transition, can blossom in some as-yet undiscovered niche.

Social Media Ecology



Oscar suggested that a schematic might help put this discussion into context. What am I missing in this diagram?

Note: the 'G+ blog' mentioned here means a blog where the comments are handled directly by Google+, as is the case with Corvus' Zakelro blog. Check it out if you don't know what I mean.

The Final Winner

Winner It’s with great pleasure that I announce that the winner of the third copy of Dungeons & Dragons & Philosophy is Samantha Blackmon. A signed copy of the book will be winging its way to Indiana shortly! (Please allow 4-6 weeks for delivery).

Many thanks to everyone who contributed to the Spring Review Drive – you all won a book, so that’s a pretty equitable outcome for all concerned!

Off to Philosophy at Play

I’m away this week giving my first ever philosophy keynote (level up!) for Philosophy at Play at the University of Gloucestershire, so I won’t have time for anything more substantial on the blogs this week.

I am making my way through the manuscript for Chaos Ethics, and hope to resume blogging more seriously by May (fingers crossed). At the same time, I have certain fears that social networks have taken away too many regular players and that discussions of the kind we used to have in the heyday of Only a Game are now impossible. Your thoughts on this, surviving players, would be most welcome!

More soon!

Win a Book in the Spring Review Drive!

Help me gather reviews and you could win a book… If you have read any of the five books pictured below, you could win one of three signed copies of Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy I’m offering as prizes in a special Spring review drive!

Bateman Books A friend recently pointed out to me that I don’t have a great deal of reviews on the Amazon sites, and that it would be good to get the numbers up. To this end, I’m offering books as prizes for three lucky contributors to a review drive running throughout Spring. To take part, you have to have read at least one of the five books pictured above, and contribute a review to either Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk (or both – for double the chance of winning!). At the start of the competition, there are 10 reviews for these books on Amazon.com and just one on Amazon.co.uk – surely we can do better than that!

Here’s what you have to do:

  1. Write a short review (a couple of sentences will do) for one or more of the books above and post them on Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, or both.
  2. Send an email to comp [at] ihobo.com giving your name and address, the review text,  and the website posted to. If you have any special request about how you’d like the book signed, you can mention this too.
  3. If you post the review on both Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk, you can send one competition email for each site, for twice the chances to win!

That’s all there is to it! Each book review on each site is worth one more chance to win, so if you’ve read more than one of my books you can rack up multiple chances to win. (If you’ve already written a review of one of these books for one of these sites, you can still submit that review to the competition).

There will be three random draws for prizes, one at the end of February, another at the end of March, and a final one at the end of April. If you enter before the first draw, you will get three chances to win for each review you submit.

Good luck!

Closing date for entries is 30th April 2013. Prize draws will be held on or shortly after 1st March, 1st April and 1st May. Competition is open to individuals with a postal address anywhere in the world. Multiple entries are permitted provided each corresponds to a review posted to either Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk, the text of which must be included with the entry. Reviews posted to the relevant sites prior to the competition commencing are still eligible for entry into the competition provided the relevant email is submitted to the competition address. The same review text may be posted to Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk, and this will qualify as two entries provided each is submitted in a separate email. Participants may only win one prize no matter how many times they enter. Winners will be determined at random using polyhedral dice rolled by an appointed judge. The judge's decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into. The prize may not be transferred to any other person. No cash alternative or alternative prize is available. Spambots will be shot. All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension. Entry in the competition implies acceptance of these rules.

This competition is currently open.

Win a Copy of The Mythology of Evolution

Free to one lucky player of Only a Game, a signed author copy of The Mythology of Evolution. Simply send an email to comp [at] ihobo.com giving your name and address. Also, let me know if you’d like it signed to you personally, otherwise it’ll just have my signature on its own.

Good luck!

Closing date is 31st October 2012. Offer is open to individuals with a postal address anywhere in the world. Only one entry per person is permitted. The winner will be determined at random using polyhedral dice rolled by an appointed judge. The judge's decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into. The prize may not be transferred to any other person. No cash alternative or alternative prize is available. Spambots will be shot. All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension. Entry in the competition implies acceptance of these rules.

This competition is now closed.

Edinburgh Interactive 2012

I’m proud to report I have a gig at Edinburgh Interactive this year with Ren Reynolds, at 2:30 pm on Thursday 9th August. Here’s the blurb:

Are computer games art?

This seemingly obscure academic question can quickly get film critics spluttering, lawyers scribbling, and bloggers, erm... blogging. Why all this passion? Because if computer games really are art then they matter. Not in the sense of computer games being the UK's most successful creative industry where we export products and talent around the world, or games being a massive boost to the British economy. No. Really matter. As a culture that people have to take seriously.

To answer the question once and for all, philosopher and policy wonk Ren Reynolds talks to Chris Bateman about games, art and their intimate relationship. As author of the book Imaginary Games, founder of International Hobo and lecturer, Chris brings the twin perspectives of game maker and academic to this vexed question.

Cross posted from ihobo.com.