Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Joys and Tribulations of Thinking Different

The Land of Zero Convergence: The Keystone XL Pipeline

I’ve been curious about the Keystone XL pipeline recently. Every once in a while, something is in the news and I realize that I don’t know as much about it as I should. This bugs me and I want to learn more.

However, once I started digging deeper, I realized that the Keystone XL pipeline lives in two worlds: a pro-pipeline world and an anti-pipeline world. Depending on your political leanings, one of those is the real world and the other is some bizarro world where logic has no meaning. Both worlds have their own set of facts, experts, and published reports backing them up, and there is little to no overlap.

Whenever there is a program on the Keystone XL pipeline with a panel of experts, the same arguments and disputed facts are trotted out again and again. Even if a point is eventually conceded by the panel after exhaustively examining and evaluating all of the evidence, that same point is magically un-conceded in future debates and we have to start over again from the beginning.

If you go to the Wikipedia article on the Keystone XL pipeline, it dispassionately documents both worlds without trying to find any ground truth. It lays out the events that have occurred and the statements made by both sides, while pointing out how every independent, third-party report has been “debunked” by one side or the other because the report’s authors have received funding from one group or expressed support for another group in the past. It tells you what has happened, but it doesn’t help you figure out what will happen if the pipeline is or isn’t built.

Toward a New Normal: Reframing the Discussion

Trying to formulate an opinion on the Keystone XL pipeline is next to impossible without a body of facts that represent the ground truth. You can embrace one of the existing ground truths (pro or anti), spend months sifting through primary sources to curate your own ground truth, or sit on the sidelines. I suspect that most sensible people choose the latter, and our political system is the worse for it.

A few years ago, I began to think about systems for driving discussions forward. I realized that there had to be mechanisms in place to reach consensus. I don’t seek consensus just to get along; I do it because we will never get to the heart of an issue if we can’t even agree on some basic facts. And agreeing to some basic facts may just give us the skills to create a more substantial meeting of the minds.

We start by identifying what we know and don’t know. How many jobs will be created during the construction phase of the pipeline? How many once the pipeline is operational? What would happen if there is an oil spill in the Ogallala Aquifer? What percentage of the oil passing through the pipeline will be used domestically versus sold overseas? How will the pipeline affect oil production and what will this do to oil prices? Where would the oil go if the pipeline isn’t built and where would we get our energy instead?

We would publicly debate each of these questions and hammer out an answer. Comments that are insightful, informative, clarifying, synthesize multiple comments, or pose thought-provoking questions would bubble up to the surface. When consensus has been reached on a specific point, debate on that point is locked and the discussion continues with that point established as a given. If someone wishes to re-open debate on a point that has been locked, that can happen on a side thread, but not in the main discussion. Over time, consensus is developed around a set of key points and the discussion moves into new territory. It’s fairly obvious that the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline is a proxy for more serious debates… debates that we aren’t equipped for right now. Is it sensible policy to keep oil prices high to encourage the development of renewable energy sources? What is the right balance between short-term economic growth and long-term environmental sustainability?

Who decides which comments bubble up to the surface, which questions are debated, and when consensus has been reached? The community does, but your level of input is based on karma/reputation points that you acquire for the quality of your participation. Ask thoughtful questions, help others synthesize opposing viewpoints into a coherent viewpoint, uncover your own assumptions, provide expertise, help someone express themselves more clearly by reflecting back what they are saying… and those comments will be highlighted and receive more discussion, and you will gain reputation points that enable you to have greater input in the community. Be rude to others and continue arguing points that are considered settled… and you can keep posting those comments but they will be buried for few to read.

Why This Is Important: Obamacare

This level of discussion is labor-intensive. Without constant curation from highly skilled facilitators, the feedback loop breaks down and the discussion stalls. In order for the model to scale, discussions need to advance far enough to generate more facilitators. It’s similar to compressing mass-energy to ignite a sustained nuclear fusion reaction. Is the effort worth it?

At some point, the debate on the Keystone XL pipeline will end when one side “wins,” but that kind of resolution comes at a cost:

  1. Resolving an issue only after it has grown into a crisis is costly and often results in sub-optimal solutions.
  2. Letting a winner emerge instead of hammering out a compromise that both sides can live with can also result in sub-optimal solutions.
  3. We never debate the underlying issues.
  4. Ideas that don’t conform to the two-sided debate are never considered.

When President Obama laid out his initial proposal for healthcare reform, he did something interesting. He framed it outside of the existing two-sided debate. Instead of focusing on universal healthcare and providing healthcare to the uninsured, he focused on the rising cost of healthcare, which is rising much faster than inflation. The cost of healthcare is a huge drag on the economy. Individuals and businesses have to spend a greater fraction of their income on healthcare. In that context, most individuals and business leaders would agree that controlling the rising cost of healthcare is a top priority, and one that virtually everyone agrees on.

Rising healthcare costs is a much bigger problem than social security. Most business leaders would happily raise the minimum wage if it meant healthcare costs could be reined in. But we aren’t discussing healthcare costs at all! Why is that?

The Democrats and the Republicans are so far apart and their best ideas (single-payer healthcare and health savings accounts, respectively) are so unpalatable to most Americans, that any real discussion is impossible at the moment. President Obama hoped to changed that with a radical new approach.

In certain regions of the country, Medicare was able to drive down costs and improve the quality of healthcare (as measured by patient outcomes) at the same time. Better care for less. There were small scale experiments with preventive care and how doctors were billed. President Obama wanted to unleash this creativity on a wider scale. Think of charter schools, but where charter schools are intended to compete with public schools, “charter” health insurance companies would compete with private health insurance companies. But who would sign up for a new and unproven kind of health insurance? Health insurance companies need large subscriber bases to negotiate costs down. The solution was to subsidize and provide this health insurance to nonconsumers: the uninsured.

Unfortunately, to Republicans, the creation and funding of these charter health insurance companies was simply a ploy by Big Government to expand Medicare and get into the health insurance business. They couldn’t see it as an attempt to create competition for health insurance companies and use market forces to hold down costs. When this happened, President Obama chose to retreat and that portion of the bill was gutted. The only thing that was left was subsidizing healthcare for the uninsured, which fit neatly into the existing narrative of Democrats trying to expand entitlement programs. The most interesting part of the bill, using competition to hold down healthcare costs, was never discussed. And frankly, I suspect that President Obama was right to back down: we lack the tools to think out-of-the-box and have any kind of real debate as a community.

Thinking Different: The Joys and Tribulations

I don’t know if President Obama’s approached would have worked. I’m skeptical, but I would have liked to have discussed it and for our collective brains to study it. That didn’t happen and isn’t happening in many other areas. President Obama thought differently, but he couldn’t get enough people to do the same.

I’ve thought differently my whole life. On one level, it is very cool and kind of fun to see solutions where everyone else sees a lost cause. But it can be disheartening and lonely, too. I’ve chosen education as my battleground. I see potential in us and I genuinely believe that we can have the kinds of discussion that I dream about… and that those discussions can make us understand others better and think more deeply. More importantly, I have tested those ideas and I have seen them work on small scales. Would I love to test these ideas on a larger scale? Yes! Would I love to have a circle of friends to hash out new ideas, people who would push and challenge me to understand and think deeper myself? Hell, yes! I guess this is me putting the call out… if this resonates with you, if you yearn for the things that I yearn for, drop a line and say hello. It’s awfully nice to meet you.

“There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”
—Robert F. Kennedy

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Moving the World

A few weeks ago, I thought about writing an article on Apple Pay and posting it on one of the tech-site forums that I frequent. People were using the forums to discuss the merits of Apple Pay, but these discussions were filled with both missing information and actual misinformation. This made it difficult to draw any conclusions, and arguments ended up going in circles.

I hate when arguments go in circles and nothing ever gets settled. It happens in tech-site forums. It happens in education. It’s an incredible waste of energy that can stall forward progress. My plan was to write down what I thought I knew and then crowd-source anything that I had wrong or didn’t know. We would debate issues in the comments until we reached a level of consensus, and then I would update the original post with the new information.

When I shared this plan with my friend Daniel, he was less than enthusiastic. He asked me why I didn’t just research Apple Pay on my own and then post what I had learned. Why did I want to crowd-source the article?

This got me thinking. I wasn’t motivated by a desire to write a comprehensive and meticulously-researched article. I enjoy reading those articles, but not enough to research and write them on my own. I also wasn’t motivated by a desire to organize and harness a community effort to write a comprehensive and meticulously-researched article. I like the idea of sharing resources to build something together that would be difficult for any one person to build alone, but that level of sharing and community-building isn’t enough for me. No, I was motivated by a desire to transform individuals through the process of organizing and harnessing a community effort to write a comprehensive and meticulously-researched article.

Tech sites compete to improve along a specific trajectory. Their goal is to attract and retain eyeballs so that they can sell those eyeballs to advertisers. Some sites compete by writing well-researched articles. They attract and retain eyeballs by being authoritative and highly credible. Other sites compete by trying to be your one stop shop for all your tech news or the site with a community of like-minded readers. But either way, they measure success with the same metrics: How many readers do you have? How engaged/loyal are they?

Many tech sites would like to improve the quality of their comments and forums, but they can’t afford to do it unless it also attracts and retains eyeballs. Unfortunately, circular and never-ending arguments are a great way to fire people up and get them coming back for more. This is why many sites end up adopting clickbait headlines and goosing their readers to argue back and forth. It’s reached the point where many readers and tech-site editors just assume that any attempt to clean up comments and forums is a hopeless battle.

Why do people post comments on articles and in forums on tech sites? I think most people do it to connect with other people and win points for being clever. Being clever can mean being informative, but it can also mean the perfect put-down. Forums are fairly well-designed for these jobs, but some people would love to hire forums for other jobs: learning things, having thoughtful discussions, or pontificating. Since most tech-site forums aren’t well-designed for those jobs, those people end up as nonconsumers.

As a crowd-sourcing site, Wikipedia competes on a different set of metrics. It looks at the number of people who use it as a source of information and the number of active editors and contributors. I’ve read that Wikipedia has been struggling to attract and retain contributors. There have been complaints that a small group of longtime editors have been driving new contributors away. Unfortunately, that same small group of editors is the backbone of the site, so Wikipedia faces a serious dilemma. Do they try to make editing more inclusive and bring in fresh blood (but risk killing the site by losing their most active editors) or do they stay on course and hope that small tweaks will turn things around (but risk killing the site as the pool of contributors continues to slowly shrink over time)?

If I ever created a site to crowd-source articles, I would compete on an entirely different set of metrics: I’d measure the growth of my readers.

On a recent Apple Pay article, two readers were arguing back and forth. They exchanged over two dozen comments in an hour. A few other people tried to jump in, but they weren’t able to help. The first reader was wrong; he was basing his entire argument on a single misconception. Since you linked your credit card to Apple Pay inside of an Apple app, he assumed that Apple generated the token that is stored on your smartphone. What he didn’t realize is that Apple’s app establishes a direct connection to your specific bank, and the bank that issued your credit card generates the token, not Apple. It was an honest, and perfectly reasonable, mistake. The second reader was correct, but he never identified why the first reader was mistaken. Instead, he kept repeating his argument over and over again. He actually did explain that Apple did not generate the token, but there was so much cruft around that statement that the first reader couldn’t hear it. If the two of them could have identified the source of the token as the source of their disagreement, then they could have either resolved their disagreement then and there or at least parted company agreeing to research that one specific issue further. Instead, both of them parted company pissed off and convinced that they were right and the other was wrong.

Now, imagine if someone had jumped in and helped the two men identify the source of their disagreement. With a little research, they would have found a credible source explaining that the bank, and not Apple, issues the token. With consensus achieved, an editor would then add that information to the article so that other readers would not have to debate the same point. If this happens enough times, the first reader will learn not to be so sure of himself when he doesn’t actually know something, and that he can learn more by asking questions instead of arguing. In fact, if he asks enough questions, soon he’ll be the one helping the new guy out. Meanwhile, the second reader will learn that he can contribute more if he listens to people who are mistaken and can identify the source of their confusion. Instead of endless arguments, the forum provides an opportunity for growth.

My crowd-sourcing site is fundamentally different than Wikipedia because we compete on different metrics. At Wikipedia, people contribute to articles. When there is a disagreement, an editor comes in and makes a final decision. There is no attempt by the editor to help the contributors resolve their own conflicts. At my site, an editor is a mediator. They model how to resolve conflicts so that contributors can resolve more of their own conflicts, and many of those contributors will eventually begin mediating for others and become editors themselves. The debate has value; it’s not just a necessary step on the path to a well-sourced article.

Is there a business model for the kind of site I’m describing? I have no idea. I do know that there are nonconsumers who would love to hire the kind of website forum I’m describing. It’s also potentially disruptive because it changes the metric for performance. I also know that it is possible. I can envision it, even if I don’t know how large the market is. Imagine a site where people learned to resolve their differences, and then applied what they learned to other sites, to their face-to-face relationships, and then in the public arena. Instead of discussions about Apple Pay, we could grow to discuss global warming, universal healthcare, immigration, and sensible tax policy. Just imagine it. That’s the world in which I’d want to live.