Building plans and technical aspects

Our approach to tool-building will be incremental. We will try to design a succession of components so that they are both useful in their own right and convenient to adopt. To that aim, we will first focus on a decentralized approach, which we believe is more likely to be adopted at first, as it does not depend on tool adoption by other parties in the discussion. This runs the risk that the first stages of the tools may favour debate over deliberation; as we introduce server-side logic, on the other hand, it will focus on useful coordination mechanisms which should tip the scale back towards constructive deliberation.

Step 1: Ontology and microformat

The first component will implement a model for explicit identification of argument structure in text. Following ClaiMaker, we intend to model the discussion more than its object. Following IBIS []Simon J. Buckingham Shum, Albert M. Selvin, Maarten Sierhuis, Jeffrey Conklin, Charles B. Haley, Bashar Nuseibeh. «Rationale Management in Software Engineering», Hypermedia Support for Argumentation-Based Rationale: 15 Years on from gIBIS and QOC, 111–132. Computer Science Editorial. Springer-Verlag, 2006. and SDSS []Murray Turoff, Starr Roxanne Hiltz, Hee-Kyung Cho, Zheng Li, Yuanqiong Wang. «Social Decision Support Systems (SDSS)». IEEE, , Proceedings of the 35th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, 2002., we focus on discursive moves that move towards a decision.

Technical aspects:

Step 2: In-browser representation of claims

We intend to design a visual representation of claims identified within documents, including those that are identified from outside the base document. Because text ranges will overlap, we are thinking of using markers in the margin (where rollover would highlight the ranges as well as show the claim), coupled with a condensed linear representation of all markers found in the text. We are still investigating visual representation of secondary claims. (We are not inclined to use free graph representations, as we find these tend to get cluttered.)

Technical aspects:

We will develop a javascript/CSS library that can collect references to a given text and display appropriate graphical markers to make the argumentation steps more explicit. This library will probably impose requirements on the structure of the source text.

Step 3: In-browser affordances for argument construction

A bookmarklet should allow to easily create a robust link on a document. The construction of claim microcontent should proceed from there.

Technical aspects:

Step 4: Representation of claims on external sources

Our initial design will require a text to include references to the javascript library so the claims can be displayed; a server-side application should allow to transform arbitrary texts so references to them can be displayed. A mechanism for transclusion should also be defined at this point (probably in the form of a javascript library).

Step 5: Cross-site argument reference

It should be possible to obtain from a site a list of claims made in other sites that refer to claims made on that site, so as to allow peer-to-peer argumentation. This touches ideas of data ownership.

Technical aspects:

Step 6: Identity and community

Claims are made by identified individuals, who are answerable for their site's contents.

However, it should be possible to define private sub-communities. Those would especially allow a "safe space" to examine drafts of controversial issues among trusted peers before they are presented to a larger community. (This is inspired by the School for Peace [ ]Rabah Halabi, Ed. Israeli and Palestinian Identities in Dialogue: The School for Peace Approach findings.)

Technical aspects:

Step 7: Claim equivalence and voting

Participants can express support for claims. Support can be tallied, yielding a vote. Conversely, expressing an objection should always take the form of expressing support for a claim that contradicts the original claim. Only support exists as a simple relationship in this ontology.

Votes on secondary claims are especially important, as they are used, among other things, to determine whether some primary claims can be identified as similar. If two claims from different authors are agreed to be equivalent (by the authors, or by an overwhelming majority of participants if one of the authors is not available to comment) then support for those options may be combined.

Note: As this system is to be used for social decision making, we must always assume that the claim base will be polluted by spurious claims. One way to get around this is that the original authors of source texts might always override identification of primary claims based in their work, or secondary claims based on such primary claims. Overriding must also be founded: If the argument goes the way of Godwin's law, and one of my opponent compares one of my claims to some of those attributed to Hitler (secondary claim of similarity) then contesting that secondary claim should take the form of showing where my positions and Hitler's differ. However, my doing so (or my endorsing someone else's doing so) is definitive.

Technical aspects:

Step 8: Representation of overall status

A representation should be derived to detect claims which are controversial (i.e. have support and whose counter-arguments are also well-supported); conversely, detect claims or primary sources which have not received adequate attention.

Technical aspects:

Vote propagation might use techniques equivalent to swarm propagation []Marko A. Rodriguez. «Social Decision Making with Multi-Relational Networks and Grammar-Based Particle Swarms.». in ,40th Hawaii International International Conference on Systems Science (HICSS-40 2007), CD-ROM / Abstracts Proceedings, 3-6 January 2007, Waikoloa, Big Island, HI, USA. IEEE Computer Society, 2007, p.39..

Step 9: Reputation and completeness

In the case of isolated claims or un-analysed sources, "experts" could gain (visible) reputation through a process of extensive (uncontroversial) review of obscure claims.

Uncontroversial review means that the experts will draw parallels between a new claim and existing claims that are not the subject of controversy (as above). Note that the expert is free to also make controversial secondary claims on the new claim, as long as it is explicitly distinct from the classification activity.

Step 10: Basic inference

The application might be enhanced to derive inferential support. A form of liquid democracy [] may be implemented by delegating support to an "expert" on any claim pertaining to a certain issue: the additional support would be added to the expert's support to sub-issues.

The inference application is quite complex, and resource-intensive; support may eventually be added for peer-to-peer argument propagation, distributed storage, distributed computing of support inference, etc.

Further research

Finally, much experimentation is possible, and desirable, with the social dynamics of argument evaluation: What is the equivalent of a plenary? Should there be a randomization or rotation of which new arguments get presented for comments first? etc.