17 April 2001
Enhancing the Quality of Email Dialogue
using artificial intelligence to moderate an array of listservers
- / -
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:
- ignoring messages or deleting
- providing minimalistic, courtesy or automated responses
- unsubscribing from listservers, or not subscribing in the first place
- use of filters to file messages for possible later perusal
- use of 'unlisted' email addresses to avoid involvement
- dependence on human list moderators and gatekeepers
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.
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
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.
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:
- any communications that exhibited detectable opposition to any other communication
in the cluster
- any communication that exhibited any form of negativity -- relatively easy
to determine by software (as is done with spelling and grammar checkers)
- and, ultimately, any participant whose communications were frequently excluded
for the previous reasons
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:
- a communication of a different perspective that is cited by others and evokes
new harmonies as a result
- a communication from a different perspective that reinforces the value of
those from which it differs
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:
- recognition of the existence of alternative perceptions in strong disagreement
with those of their cluster (perhaps in another Level 1 cluster).
- recognition that other people are not persuaded of their particular 'universal'
definition of 'good energy'
- recognition of challenging and problematic conditions in the wider world
that cannot be addressed within the rules of their cluster, especially in
the eyes of those affected.
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:
- recognition of the existence other ways of thinking, however regrettable
they may be considered
- recognition of the problems experienced by others (because they have failed
to subscribe to a universal definition through which some problems are reframed
- recognition of the need to persuade others of the merits of a particular
universal definition of 'good energy'
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
- each communication would tend to pull a participant into, or out of, a given
- a 'cluster' would be a notional boundary rather than a fixed boundary
- it would be just as appropriate to understand a cluster as pulling away
from a person, as a person pulling away from a cluster
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
From a software perspective, Level 4 communications would be characterized
- exhortations to follow injunctions defined by the Level 4 cluster
- condemnation of alternatives disruptive of the harmony to which the Level
4 cluster subscribes.
- unilateral assertion of truth, and an emphasis on educating others (rather
than absorbing insights from others)
- a resistance to understanding, or valuing, alternative perspectives as in
some way complementary
- refinement of a sense of mission to proselytize the world to ensure dominance
of the 'good energy'
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
- questions rather than answers
- citation of alternative approaches that are apparently successful, surprisingly,
beyond the pale of the accepted 'good energy' orthodoxy
- cross-boundary sensitivity
- expressions of anxiety concerning the appropriateness of Level 4 type missions
under certain circumstances
- a degree of self-criticism
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
From a software perspective, Level 6 communications and participants would
be characterized by:
- listening to alternative views in the light of the challenge that they fruitfully
- reference to alternative views as supportive of valid alternatives
- translation between alternative views to facilitate comprehension
- characteristic absence of assertiveness
- concern with whether communication is effectively occurring and potentials
- use of illustrative communication tools (stories, parables, metaphors, visual
aids, etc) to circumvent difficulties with words
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:
- statements stressing complementarity and pattern between a diversity of
- recognition of the (ir)relevance of particular perspectives under particular
- efforts to identify the particular functions of each perspective within
the knowledge ecology and their contributions to each other
- efforts to set radical opposition within the knowledge ecology
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
- statements stressing the configuration of the set of polarities or complementaries
recognized in Level 7 dialogue
- ensuring integrated understanding of patterns of diversity; the challenge
- relationship between integrity and the sense of identity that it sustains
- learning pathways interrelating the diversity of perspectives
- legitimation of apparently divergent perspectives
- paradoxical relationships between incommensurable perspectives that must
necessarily be integrated within a common frame
- notions of integrative framework beyond mechanistic structures
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:
- concern with transformations between different patterns of integrity
- invariance under transformation
- the nature of transformation processes
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.
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.
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
- Excessive consumption of resources, especially energy
- Collective anger, especially expressed in violence
- Collective greed, especially in the accumulation of resources
- Collective envy, especially for resources controlled by others
- Collective pride, typically as arrogance and triumphalism
- Collective lust for power, typically as expansionism
- Collective apathy, typically in response to emerging problems
- Collective despair, typically in acknowledging current impotence and in
recollecting past failures
- Hope, which is expressed both individually and collectively
- Will (or Courage), especially in frequent appeals for the "generation of
the political will to change"
- Purpose (or Dedication), increasingly evident in the formulation of "mission
statements" and implicit in "resolutions"
- Competence (or Discipline), increasingly stressed as vital for effective
- Fidelity or Loyalty, increasingly a concern of corporate human relations
programmes and security procedures
- Love, increasingly explicit in "green" approaches to the environment and
traditionally implicit in recognition of the "brotherhood of mankind"
- Care, especially evident in relief programmes
- Wisdom, occasionally acknowledged in calls for collective wisdom and statesmanship
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
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'.
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
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
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