How Do You Do Thoughtful Discussion Post 9/11/01?
I received this email last week from John Palmer, an industrial troubleshooter who works in safety and environmental protection and who has made contributions here before, and got permission to post his comments and pictures. (In discussing usability and industrial accidents after the Florida ballot issues, he wrote: "Only when the failures reach a crisis level is any serious study made to the problems, and at that, is often a 'band-aid' approach to pass through the periodic crisis.") My response to his recent email follows it.


...Two weeks after the terrible events in NYC and D.C., people are starting to consider many longer range issues associated with those days. Some thoughts are crushing and oppressive, as one can read from the articles in the New York Times about both victims' and the public's fragile mental health. Others are devoting themselves to trying to do larger and better things, while many are debating the larger issues of morality and ethics in the wake of these events.

My long drive from Michigan back to New Mexico gave me time to ponder on much of this, more so, as I carefully limited the amount of radio news I listened to in order to have some perspective on the events. I saw many other people virtually paralyzed with their viewing of the rescue attempts on television, not to mention the endlessly replayed impacts on the WTC
buildings. Others would listen to repetitions of the same news looped through hours, with small incremental changes that only created greater horror. I wanted to empathize, but not to create a personal atmosphere where I could not think about what had happened without falling into a depressed fugue. To set up a mental roadblock where I couldn't even consider the events of September 11 would have been a great disservice to all of those who died that day.

As I mentioned when I wrote to you last week, I did manage to make several stops along the 2,000 miles plus drive, to both unkink my body and try to ease my mind. One stop in Illinois, at the Herrepin Canal, offered both respite from the endless thrum of the road, as well as a view of gently moving water in a man-made system. I've attached a couple of photos to capture the feel of the moments spent there. [DanB: Two are shown here. For some reason I find images of old man-made structures comforting today.]

Like everyone else, I've been struck by the need for metaphors and comparisons to try and place the events of September 11 into a more understandable framework, and some of the visit to that canal has fallen into that need.

The canal is a wholly man-made device, intended to improve the world and make man's progress through it more simple and effective. Typically, a canal takes a very direct, even straight, route between two rivers, and is designed to allow man to traverse the distance in greater ease. Locks allow boats to move "uphill", though all of common sense says that the boats could only travel in one direction with the movement of the water. Motors on the boats allow movement against the current, or in some times further past, animals would pull the boats from tow-paths along the canal's banks.

But we don't use most canals anymore with the United States, because we have found other ways to address the needs for rapid movement. The canals, for the most part, still exist, but the locks are clogged with weeds, branches, and the mechanisms stand ready to some degree but rust further with each day. With each year, the canals are considered less relevant, and become almost unknown. They're lovely and quaint, but aside from some few people who would drive miles off an interstate, they're unknown.

The last fortnight has brought the nation a vast review of what some could call "moral sinew". There are some who would argue that there is precious little of that left, and would point us back to the era of the 'fifties as a golden age of security and happiness. Of course, such a comparison is apt and good, if one were a white anglo-saxon protestant man in that time, equipped with some education and raised with opportunities, but if one were a minority, fit within some ethnic stereotype, or simply was physically placed away from opportunities for growth and education, why, that was a "terrible shame" in that time, but one was still limited in their life. That era's "moral sinew" didn't extend to as many people as we would want today, and cannot be just re-adopted without change.

Like the passing of the canals as a major transportation system within the United States, giving way to other means of movement, we need to consider what kind of moral sinew is needed for the times ahead. It's an easy thing to identify a lack of religion or excessive religion, video games, or any issue of the moment as defining a cause for all of the events of two weeks past. It's easy, but it's wrong. Your commentary of last week pointed out that the Founding Fathers thought long and hard in the development of what has become a hallmark of democracy as the United States. The debates of the era leading to the Constitution were not ended with the signing, as any reader of the Federalist Papers can well attest, and many debates revolved in part around defining civic virtue and the obligations of a nation to foster such virtue.

In order to truly make a difference in the wake of a great tragedy, we need to begin some kind of a similarly thoughtful discourse to determine what we will call civic virtue in our society today. It's not going to be a simple task, especially given that the terms of the time in which we live are many more times more complicated than that of the Founding Fathers. No microphones intruded, no television cameras beamed images of perplexity to be used in political drama plays, and certainly, the world could not comment and belittle those men in their deliberations as could happen today.

As well, it's not a simple task to start a discussion on civic virtue, because it opens so many questions that are painful, divisive, or even taboo in our society.

But saying it is not a simple task does not make it an unacceptable task, nor does it excuse stepping away from that task. The measure of what could be considered civic virtue and the obligations of our nation to that virtue (not to mention our obligations to the nation through that virtue) must needs be taken, and not delayed for opportune moments when it might seem more easy.

We have a mechanism, though, that the Founding Fathers lacked, and that is the benefits of communication across distances. Perhaps some man or woman could have addressed vexing issues within the Constitutional Congress' debates, but the burden of long travel rendered that wisdom moot to the assembled speakers. We do not have that limitation.

A structured discussion group could consider these issues, debate the points, and perhaps, just maybe, be able to work with the merits of the ideas, while not allowing the tedious and petty sides of discussions to overwhelm the group. It would require a careful selection of people who value thoughtful input, balanced by those who challenge accepted ideas. Some mechanism or moderation would be needed to preclude the devolution of the discussion into the intemperate and illogical morass we see in some usenet groups.

The difficult question in proposing such a debate is how we could use our technology to foster the debate, elevate it above petty small-minded backbiting, and show a path for the discussion to develop and advance into useful ideas.

And there, my friend, I'm stumped. We have some of the rudiments of these criteria with Notes, Groove, or some of the P-to-P tools you've eloquently discussed over many months of your web posts, but I don't perceive that any one or a combination is adequate to that task.

What is your thought on this? Of almost anyone I've read over the last few years, you've shown one of the longer perspectives of what information technology (or whatever term we choose for both the hardware and software of the last thirty years) can do and _may_ do. As well, you've tempered your thoughts with a background in morality ( I still think back to your discussion of the DOJ/MS case with respect to Talmudic principles), where others cannot manage to combine those perspectives.

I'll think more about all this, and perhaps I'll hatch an idea or two myself. One can hope for the future if we all try to incubate some new ideas in the months to come.

John Palmer


Thanks for the comments and the pictures. I just so happens that I was driving through Erie Canal country a few weeks ago (before 9/11) and saw parts of it (very similar looking) and was similarly struck by the connection to the past. My friend Bob Frankston reminded me that one of the cities I stopped in, Syracuse, started out because of the canal.

I wrote an essay last spring entitled "Pamphleteers and Web Sites". I feel that personal web sites, and web logs, are the modern analogy to the pamphlets of old. This medium (as pamphlets) helped work out the issues of the early days of this country and others. We should try it again. Bernard Bailyn wrote: "It was in this form -- as pamphlets -- that much of the most important and characteristics writing of the American Revolution appeared. For the Revolutionary generation, as for its predecessors back to the early sixteenth century, the pamphlet had peculiar virtues as a medium of communication. Then, as now, it was seen that the pamphlet allowed one to do things that were not possible in any other form."

I think individual web sites are the way to do it today, to take advantage of that "benefit of communications across distances" you mention. I think that one way to do things is to have people who are participating publish web sites set up like many of our web logs: Both chronological comments with links and also (hopefully thought out) longer essays. I think the mixture of static essays and short comments with links to others is very important. It is very much like what went on in old times, but could be done without the wait for printing and distribution.

Flame-wars don't have to overwhelm others trying to use the same channels. Unlike threaded discussion groups and email lists, each person controls what's written in their web site/pamphlet. Without the uncontrolled mixing of voices, you don't end up with uncontrolled flaming if any party wants to stop. Also, by limiting who reads your material at first, you can hone your thoughts before you let a wider range of people know about it. P2P tools like Groove are designed for much smaller groups. We need thousands and maybe millions of people to be able to participate, if only as readers.

Anybody can participate, like in the days of pamphlets, but you are only "heard" if others want to and link to you. It takes ***a lot*** of time to work on such web sites (like most writing), so there may need to be a way to "encourage" certain people to do it. (Scholarships? Requests from the President?) Bailyn wrote: "The American pamphleteers were almost to a man lawyers, ministers, merchants, or planters heavily engaged in their regular occupations." We need today's equivalent of the cross-section of the country that was represented back then. (As you point out, we have a wider, more inclusive definition of "everybody" today than even 40 years ago.) To control things, it could be useful to sometimes use pseudonyms and indirect email addresses so people who don't agree with you can't spam up your normal email.

Some people would need to be given a full-time job of reading over lots of this as it goes on and act as "moderators/link-bloggers" like Lawrence Lee or Dave Winer (in his non-commenting role) do in the part of the web world I read. Perhaps the equivalent of weblogs.com's "recently changed" system needs to be used (one that perhaps works with most ways of authoring and also summarizes changes) along with a limited search system to help the people who want to do the gatekeeping/moderating type of job as part of their web sites.

There are many issues that need to be discussed, and many that are interrelated. Rather than separate discussion groups, web sites let you mix and match, taking something from here and using it there.

We need to find a way to include not only the "everybody" I mention, but also the lawmakers and other decision makers. They don't need to write stuff (they could if they want), but they do need to read as much as they can of the "good stuff" with the help of staff. Maybe, as a country, we need to budget a small amount to increase all their staffs by enough people to at least follow the more important writings. What's an "important" writing? I think we are developing techniques for this with search engines like Google and systems like Blogdex that look for who links to whom. Like with all reading on the web, the staffers can look at the web sites of people they know about and respect, as well as ones that come up in searches. If they find a popular item they don't feel is helpful, they can ignore it just like we all do with many search results. But, like many search results on the web, I'm certain those gems that may help solve those "vexing issues" will surface. Some thoughtful, concerned bartender, lawyer, or fourth grade teacher in Akron, Ohio, could turn out to be the Solomon or Jefferson of our generation who gives the idea that helps a lawmaker figure out how to craft the right compromises of liberty, safety, power, and humility.

Giving blood and money are ways to feel like you're doing something helpful post-9/11. I think reading, thinking, writing, and linking are other things that can help this country, and the world, move forward. It takes lots of time, but it worked for our founding fathers and I hope it will work now. I'm sure those of us who have used this medium and have been thinking about it for a few years would be willing to share our experience with the fine points of the genre (online, of course, or in person). Scholars of other forms of written discourse, like those during the 1700's, could also help.


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