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17 April 2001

Enhancing the Quality of Email Dialogue

using artificial intelligence to moderate an array of listservers

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The explosion of email, and the consequent attention overload for any one individual, can only increase -- probably exponentially. Currently the main techniques for managing this are:

The challenge for the future is to devise software techniques to enhance the quality of e-dialogue within the increasingly dense pattern of communications. An associated challenge of considerable importance is the tendency of listserver dialogues to decay into exchanges amongst a small subset of participants, possibly with silent observers, possibly with progressive loss of subscribers. The question is what criteria to use in determining when this pattern is healthy rather than dysfunctional -- and what whoever might do about it, if anything.

Design challenge

A preliminary difficulty is giving some operational form to the notion of dialogue quality -- that lends itself to software solutions to handle the many lists held by a listserver. One approach is to rely on qualitative judgements by respected human moderators -- of which there are insufficient to take on this tankless task. These would determine participants and processes which sustain 'good energy'. This practice is already used in various closed groups. It is to be expected that the role will in future be increasingly professionalized as an analogue, or extension, to that of relatively costly facilitation in face-to-face situations.

Unfortunately this approach does not immediately lend itself to software 'gateway' solutions to help manage the boundaries of multitudes of email groups -- -- selecting fruitful participants/commuinications in and designing unfruitful participants/communications out. The gateway role is a somewhat thankless task with its own problems in the case of those attached to this role. The difficulty with relying on any 'good energy' definition is that -- as with restaurants or discos -- one person's 'good' is another person's source of boredom, irritation or distaste This is especially unsatisfactory where the objective is sustainable, mutually nourishing, dialogue.

There is a further difficulty in that this approach can easily end up as a replication of the elitist 'club' pattern which continues to be attacked as symptomatic of discrimination. Irrespective of this reservation, the pattern is itself no guarantee that the quality of dialogue will be fruitful in any absolute sense -- however it is appreciated by club members. Such clubs tend to accumulate their own bores whom it is difficult to discourage or dislodge. The clubs may play on their elitism in pursuit of other agendas and therefore invite constant harassment by others endeavouring to enter.

Design possibilities

Rather than relying on a universal definition of 'good energy', and the apparatus to manage its definition and determine unsatisfactory deviation from it, a more practical and interesting approach may be to endeavour to build in processes of self-organization supported by artificial intelligence. These could lead to the emergence of an array of listservers that might have a degree of emergent order.

Level 1 ('Paradise'): For maximum convenience, software procedures should effectively filter people and communications into distinct clusters. Each cluster would be a 'good energy' cluster to those participating within it. To maximize the quality of dialogue to those participating within a given cluster, the filtration process would exclude:

At this level dialogue would emphasize agreement and mutual support. It raises issues, well-known in traditional organizations, of how new people are to be coopted to sustain the favoured style. There is also the challenge of groupthink. In religious terms, this is best described as 'paradise' -- or the palace in which the Buddha was sequestered in his youth and protected from the realities of the outside world. In relationship terms this is the image of 'happy every after' -- otherwise known as the 'honeymoon period'.

Level 2 ('Heavenly Choirs'): Some participants in clusters at Level 1 may be challenged by the existence of perceptions that are automatically excluded from their dialogue in order to maintain its quality. These differences may, from a different perspective, be understood as part of a larger pattern of views in 'harmony' with the favoured view within any Level 1 cluster. A difference of this kind may be seen as that of a different 'voice', possibly that of a partner or potential ally in a larger pattern of dialogue through which interest and fruitfulness can be sustained.

The software problem here is to distinguish between fruitful and unfruitful difference, perhaps with criteria such as:

In musical terms this level corresponds to that of sacred music in which no unwelcome chords emerge. In religious terms, the notion of angelic 'heavenly choirs' perhaps best captures this form of dialogue. In relationship terms this corresponds to recognition of legitimate differences within, and contributing to, marital harmony. In inter-group terms it might be understood as ideal collaborative relationships and partnerships -- with an emphasis on complementarity of function. Academically these might take the form of mutual citation networks within a thematic comfort zone.

Level 3 ('Knowledge of Good and Evil'): Some participants in clusters at Level 1 or Level 2 may be challenged by the existence of perceptions that are automatically excluded by software from their dialogue as intrinsically disruptive of their quality. These exclusions might be:

A different type of dialogue cluster may then be created, by software, to handle communications and participants acknowledging these dimensions. Such clusters would have a somewhat different kind of definition of 'good energy'. This might include:

Clusters at this level would be concerned by the challenge posed by the existence of other clusters -- of 'otherness' in general. Their communications would be concerned with why all clusters at Levels 1 or 2 did not subscribe to a particular universal definition or framework that would reconcile their misguided differences. There is a sense in which Levels 1 and 2 do not allow for alternative orientations -- as would be modelled on a globe, rather than on a flat surface where all disagreeable features can be pushed to the margins (as in early maps). However clusters at Level 3, whilst allowing sensitivity to such dimensions, would not incorporate communications or participants reflecting disruptive alternative views.

From a software perspective, emergence of Level 3 clusters might result from the evolution of a Level 2 cluster. However it should be clear that, in the dynamic communication environment envisaged, clustering of any kind would be determined by:

In religious terms this level of dialogue is associated with awareness of conditions and temptations outside the harmonious framework. In relationship terms it is the challenge of the eternal triangle. In musical terms it is the challenge of diabolus in musica. From this perspective the strong views of the Catholic Church on particular music, considered anti-thetical to religious belief, are understandable. Various Pope's have expressed great distress at polyphony and the "diabolic" nature of unacceptable chords. The distress is due to recognition that they cannot be reconciled with the assumed framework for harmony.

Level 4 ('Mission'): Following from the recognition of 'otherness' by clusters at Level 3, another level of clusters would emerge with the mission to persuade those outside their cluster of the merits of their particular definition of 'good energy' and the inappropriateness of the views they currently hold that deny it. Clusters at Level 4 would derive part of their energy and identity from their commitment to persuade others of the power of their insights to resolve their problems and difficulties -- if only they would join them in their enterprise and cease to engage in dysfunctional activities and patterns of thought.

From a software perspective, Level 4 communications would be characterized by:

Impelled by their missionary role, Level 4 clusters would seek to engage in some way with 'unbelievers', possibly by involving them conditionally in their dialogue. Indicative of its religous origins, the notion of 'mission' is reflected in the many 'commissions' created to implement a particular goal -- in the interests of others but often with minimal consultation of them or respect for their concerns. Software techniques would be required to solicit and involve conditionally participants who might be targetted for this form of persuasive communication. In relationship terms this form of dialogue is best understood in terms of courtship and the presentation of positive attributes. In its commitment to the one truth, aspects of the interactions with those who oppose the mission may be framed as legitimately crushing them. In movie terms this is exemplified by the Highlander and the 'power of the one'.

Level 5 ('Doubt'): The engagement with others characteristic of Level 4, leads to situations in which the merits of alternative perspectives become apparent -- usually in the light of disastrous or tragic missions in which the costs of pursuing a particular value at any cost are recognized to be possibly too unacceptable. In Level 5 clusters questions are asked about the previously unquestioned merit of the universal applicability of the favoured definition of 'good energy' -- and the possible relevance of quite different understandings and initiatives under certain circumstances. However, although recognizing possible merit in others, clusters at Level 5 do not willingly seek the involvement of others to exacerbate that doubt. This level is characterized by 'internal' doubt and questioning. In religious terms it is described as a 'crisis of faith'.

From a software perspective, Level 5 communications would be characterized by:

There is extensive religious literature on crisis of faith. In relationship terms this form of dialogue is associated with the fundamental anxieties of 'does s/he love me?'. For activists of any kind this takes the form of 'burnout'. In collaborative relationships this is associated with the emergence of self-doubting by partners and doubt concerning the functionality of the partnership.

Level 6 ('Encounter'): From Level 5 clusters may emerge another form of dialogue, at Level 6, which is characterized by deliberate efforts to encounter otherness and difference on its own terms. Communications at this level are concerned with how to handle views that are strongly at variance with each other.

From a software perspective, Level 6 communications and participants would be characterized by:

Many efforts at inter-faith dialogue struggle to work at this level, despite the pull of the missionary tradition associated with Level 4 -- and ultimately incumbent upon followers of certain religions in dealing with 'unbelievers' for their 'salvation'. In relationship terms this form of dialogue is a goal of marriage counsellors in endeavouring to reconcile couples in despair. In musical terms this might be associated with certain phenomena in the 'encounter' between different instruments during jam sessions. The democratic deficit is forcing many bodies convinced of the merits of their own policies to at least appear to engage in consultative encounter with those who may hold alternative views -- whether or not any weight is subsequently attached to their insights.

Level 7 ('Complementarity'): Communications at Level 6 tend to be most successful as a succession of bilateral interactions. The pattern of such bilateral interactions may push some participants and communications to see the pattern as a kind of ecology of dialogues -- a pattern of connectedness which becomes the sustaining force of Level 7 dialogue.

From a software perspective, Level 7 communications and participants might then be characterized by:

Such forms of dialogue are typically characterized in religious terms as victims of the error of 'relativism' by those favouring forms of dialogue based on absolute and unwavering confidence in a particular perspective claimed to be of universal validity. Within the Catholic tradition, however, this is somewhat ironic given the several hundred religious orders which supposedly have complementary psycho-social and religious functions. In musical terms, beyond the 'diabolus in musica' crisis of pre-polyphonic music, this form of dialogue is exemplified by the riches embedded in the theory of harmony and orchestration. In relationship terms this is exemplified by the diversity of complementary types appreciated as appropriate to a mature community. In inter-group terms this is the domain of extended networks and networking typically free of any mutual constraint.

Level 8 ('Integrity'): The limits of sustainable appreciation of complementarity may be recognized through responding to the challenge of 'relativism' and tolerance in the face of disruptive or dysfunctional experience. This may encourage emergence of a new level of dialogue concerned with the nature of the integrity of the pattern of complementarity in response to that which challenges it. Here the communications might be characterized by:

A particular challenge to dialogue at this level is the manner in which attempts are made to coopt it by those strongly focused on Level 1 dialogue --necessarily associated with a particular understanding of integrity (to which all alternative perspectives are declared to be erroneous or irrelevant). Recognitizing diffrences, at this level there are efforts to identity underlying invariance or patterns of principle through which such differences can be framed. This may be seen in struggles to frame global ethical frameworks -- which may possibly be understood by Level 1 clusters as a minimal, if unsatisfactory response to the coherence of their own belief structure. It is evident in the push for codes of conduct and principles of collective self-regulation.

Level 9 ('Transformation'): Any particular solution to the articulation of integrity and coherence at Level 7 will tend to suggest other insights into integrity. The question will tend to arise of how any comprehensive pattern of understanding may evolve or transform in response to future challenges or changing conditions. This may be related to the challenge for any individual or community in maturing.

From a software perspective, Level 9 communications and participants might then be characterized by:

Periodic array of levels

As noted with respect to inter-faith dialogue (Judge, 1993):

The level approach has been criticized by feminist scholars, notably Carol Gilligan (1982, 1990), for being gender biased in its uni-directionality. It is argued that women are less concerned with rules and more with relationships, with where actions might lead and with the history behind moral dilemmas. Emphasis on levels de-emphasizes the degree of connectedness experienced by women. Cognitively, levels may thus be seen as a metaphorical trap. The need to see different "levels" as each providing its own valid framework, between which it is important to be able to shift flexibly, is stressed by another female scholar J Hemenway (1984) in her description of four complementary faith frameworks. Jacobs endorses this principle although pointing to resemblances between such frameworks and the kinds of stage distinguished above. He stresses that her approach is not developmental in nature. There is no sense in which someone moves 'back' or 'forward' between stages that would imply a value judgement that one framework is more 'healthy' than another.... For Jacobs (1993), "if the wish for order draws us toward linear models, it is important to emphasize that at whatever stage a person is, especially in terms of their psychology of belief, none is any 'better' or 'worse' than another. The only qualification to this is that within each stage some forms of belief appear to be more positive for psychological health than others."

It is therefore important to avoid 'demonization' of one or other level, whether or not some form of 'demonization' is characteristic of the dynamics from within any level -- as a consequence of dualistic, polarized thinking (which presumably has its place). The 'levels' might therefore be better termed 'clusters' or 'groups'.

In reviewing the levels/groups there are implications that from Level 8 or 9 there is a tendency to repeat functionality associated with Level 1. It is therefore intriguing to consider the possibility that Levels 1-9 may form, in musical terms, a kind of 'octave' that may be repeated -- at a 'higher' or 'lower' level -- to form an array as explored with respect to inter-faith dialogue (Judge, 1993). In this sense, Level 1 is repeated at different rows in the array -- corresponding to different understandings of the 'paradise' it metaphorically represents. The same might be said of Level 8, with respect to 'integrity'. Part of the challenge in dialogue is to distinguish in communications between 'Integrity 8' and 'Integrity 8h', especially since the latter carries embedded within it insights from dialogue styles corresponding to the many intervening rows and columns.

1h 2h 3h 4h 5h 6h 7h 8h 9h
1g 2g 3g 4g 5g 6g 7g 8g 9g
1f 2f 3f 4f 5f 6f 7f 8f 9f
1e 2e 3e 4e 5e 6e 7e 8e 9e
1d 2d 3d 4d 5d 6d 7d 8d 9d
1c 2c 3c 4c 5c 6c 7c 8c 9c
1b 2b 3b 4b 5b 6b 7b 8b 9b
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

The pattern of the periodic table of chemical elements suggests the possibility of organizing forms of dialogue into columnar "groups" and row "levels" which effectively identify cellular "elements" with particular qualities. It thus highlights the possibility of development from "lighter" to "heavier" elements, as well as the emergence of the electrochemically "positive" and "negative". Such terms are of course used to distinguish different kinds of dialogue, but more might be learnt of such distinctions from chemistry. Of special interest is the implication that suitably distant positions might "strongly" or "weakly" interact to form more or less stable configurations based on strong or weak "bonds". Physicists and chemists have long pursued the possibilities of very heavy elements, whilst appreciating the role of the lightest in the sustenance of life and the generation of solar energy. Some of the social implications of such an ordering have been tentatively explored by Ed Haskell (1972).

The software design objective would be to allocate communications (and possibly their originators) into email dialogues mapped into such an array. This would help to clarify the function of different kinds of dialogue. It may only be in terms of such an array that discussion can take place about the characteristic interactions between different styles of dialogue when confronted with each other through email messages of different style. The study of chemical elements illustrates that juxtaposition of certain elements may be explosively dangerous or toxic -- whatever their value in particular circumstances for the creation of new structures. Other juxtapositions are essential to life and nourishment.

Policy implications

Without a sense of the varieties of dialogue essential to sustainable community, there is a danger of effectively becoming victims of our own 'chemistry' rather than using it to enhance the quality of life. In mechanistic terms there is a need to be able to 'shift gears' in dialogue -- moving over the array according to circumstances. It is as inappropriate to use Level 8 dialogue when Level 1 dialogue is called for -- as it is inappropriate to use '5th gear', when 'lst' is called for (see Judge, 1980).

It is interesting that each form of dialogue presumably has its strengths and weaknesses -- its 'virtues' and 'sins' in classical religious terms (see).

But it is possibly more interesting that each form of dialogue has its policy implications. Each level or form of dialogue would tend to give rise to a particular style of policy. There is an evident tendency to formulate policy in terms of Level 1 styles ('one plan thinking'; 'one policy fits all'; 'silver bullets'). There are many mission-oriented policies ('indoctrinating the ignorant of other cultures that they may be saved'). There are policies emphasizing 'encounter' -- possibly as a prelude to more effective 'mission'.

Design considerations, such as those above, may be vital to democratic communication in a highly connected, issue-aware society -- in which many people and groups want 'access' to the policy process and many policy makers need to have access to voters. In relationship to the many efforts to articulate the nature of online democracy in the future, there is relatively little attention given to the varieties of dialogue -- and how they are to be distinguished and supported by software -- that will be vital to policy-making in a complex global society. These questions are also important to reflection on the nature of cyber-parliaments (see Judge, 1998)-- which may be a precursor for any meaningful 'world parliament'.

Software considerations

The design possibilities above already lend themselves to some form of online implementation through text and citation analysis.

At the simplest level filtering software can already be used by any individual to allocate messages to specific folders. However here the suggestion is that many of these functions be delegated to a pre-filtering procedure on the server managing an array of listservers. The server would effectively redefine the subject line to provide a standard pattern of triggers to which the user could adjust standard email filters. The server sends particular subject-coded messages to a given participant or redirects them in any way -- or even deletes them. Also intriguing is the possibility that the server automatically passes the communication on to another listserver array as being of 'possible relevance' to some list within that array.

Missing from current email exchanges is any standardized practice for citing other messages. This may be done to some degree in hierarchically threaded discussions. Messages held in this way may provide for links across threads within the same list or to other communications in the threads of other listservers.

It is unfortunately the case that few messages cite other messages. Most listserver messages are effectively lost after a few days -- in a continuing ahistorical celebration of the 'rolling present' in which newcomers repeatedly 'rediscover America' in the best of learning traditions. Algorithms are required to identify patterns of implicit citation and configurations of significance, perhaps indicated with various levels of probability -- as well as any patterns of explicit conclusion. This needs to be done independently of the marginalizing judgements of groups adhering to one or another style of dialogue.

There is currently, within an email dialogue, no build up of collective insight -- in fact collective memory is systematically eroded by the nature of email exchanges. Global society needs access to a vast pool of potential insights configured into whatever patterns people choose to find credible for their needs. Web technology does not yet facilitate this. Neural network techniques may be especially relevant.


Anthony Judge:

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