"Discourse and Dialectics" is one of a set: see here also "Ground Zero" and "Dialogics";
elsewhere, "Beginning with Foundations" and "Getting Down to Brass Tacks"

''Participatory Deliberation''


"The Purpose of computing is insight, not numbers."
--Richard Hamming

Sometimes it's very hard to make something easy. The code for OS/GUI like Windows is terribly complicated. And the point of it is to have a lot of powerful function presented in a way that's easy to use. Not easy to do. Not simple to do, even when it's simple to use.

Sometimes it takes a lot of time to get a piece of writing to be short and clear. (Lord Chesterfield, the famous essayist, is known for "I apologize for having written such a long letter. If I had more time it would have been shorter.")

I don't want to get into a lecture about cognitive-psychology and the social dynamics of communications. This isn't a research project and anyhow there's lots of fine theory already on the shelf.

The point of "Gnodal" is that as human beings we exchange meaningful information ("data that makes a difference") conversationally. Let's call that "discourse". (We'll have need for "discussion" and "debate" a bit later.) And when we compare our versions of the facts, testing and challenging our opinions about what's true, we are using the dialect, even though the term is unfamiliar and antique-sounding. (Some will recognize it from having read Plato's writings about Socrates and his style of conversation. Others might recognize it as a concept Marx used.) The point of the dialectic is that, often times, a good idea interacts with another good idea that seems to contradict it and the end result is an even better idea. If our societies haven't progressed in their ethics its because there hasn't been enough discourse (authentic exchange that includes appreciating the other's point of view) and the dialectic has stopped: when we don't entertain ideas that are antithetical we get stuck with our original thesis and there's no synthesis.

What's this got to do with what people do in their daily lives? Just this: a lot of what we do is about making choices and decisions. And so we very often look for information. Sometimes data (phone numbers, that sort of thing) but most often information. A businessman doesn't care if he has 20 salespeople or 200, he cares if he has enough or not enough. "Should we cut back? Should we expand?") Our lives as citizens is likewise involved with information: we often have hot-button opinions, but just as often (hopelfully more often) we are trying to find a solution to a problem or to fix a trouble-spot. ("Should we spend more on education? Do we have enough schools? Too many?")

Facts are dead boring. News and current events are about facts that matter to people. "Dog bites man" doesn't rate, but "Five times as many dog attacks this year as last year" could be a headline. There's a certain entertainment value to how we engage our world, it isn't just civics. But what really catches the public imagination is controversy: when there are different accounts and different people have different numbers, that becomes something of a sport. And if we get to agree on the numbers, more than likely there'll be disagreement on what those numbers mean, what the data tells us to do, what our choices and decisions should reflect. We get into debates and arguments. And that's all fine and good ... so long as the real business of running a planet gets taken care of. And I have to ask: how well have we been doing?

Discourse and dialectics. Can we agree on more than "There is weather"? Things get complicated aweful fast. We get flooded with data; too much information can swamp our efforts to understand what's going on and what we should decide to do. What's happening now is that, first, more and more people are talking meaningfully just with others who agree with them ... opinions don't get challenged, hypotheses are taken as though written in stone, beliefs get treated as though absolute truths ... and business of all kinds suffers.

A hundred million people exchanging hundreds of millions of words in tens of thousands of venues ... is it more than just churn? Does it produce anything more than heat? Are we working things out and seeing things through?

The dialectic sets conflicting opinions up against one another in a way that allows the process to be clear. Not only are the facts seen, but they're tested and checked and verified, or corrected. Not only are the facts established so that they can be agreed upon but, in the end, a discourse arises where we can see that facts mean different things to different people because they matter in different ways. Biases and assumptions are exposed, myths are debunked, prejudice and dishonesty is exposed ... we start getting down to brass tacks.

Take an issue. Say, access to health care. Let's say there is one human physiology. Let's say there is a very small number of medical sciences. Why are there thousands of health care systems, tens of thousands of healt care policies, hundreds of thousands of bureaucratic committees and working groups, and millions of citizens left feeling like things are pretty much a bungled mess? Lack of productive discourse and systematic dialectic ... so much discussion and debate and argument and bickering, so much heat, and so little light! But: there is the one issue ... access to health care. Why then is everything such a blurred mess surrounded by mounds of paperwork?

A systematic approach to information means that discourse is accessible for sharing. The details of individual opinions are infinite only in the minutia ... the salient data is not infinite in scope ... the field of knowledge is not impossible to map and re-present, for commentary and study. Why is every place "re-inventing the wheel" from scratch, or nearly so?

Our needs as individuals in community have not been met by our best practices. We can make data easier to find, information easier to access, discourse easier to engage, and in the end our opinions will be substantial and of a quality that will effectively inform public policy. We will not, of course, always be right. But we'll know why we're doing what we're doing, and so we'll be able to appreciate just how things go wrong when we fail, and that's got to be a vaste improvement on our present practice.

"Who said what about what?" When we aim to supply answers to that question things will fall into place.

For more information and to signify interest or support please contact Bernard D. Tremblay | ab006 AT chebucto.ns.ca