For some years now David Price
and I have been collaborating to develop DebateGraph
as a new kind of tool for modeling, and thereby facilitating the understanding of, complex debates in public policy, philosophy, science and other fields. Throughout our collaboration I have taken care of technical development (software design, writing and debugging code, administering web and database servers) and David has built content on the site, fostered the DebateGraph
community and secured third-party projects and funding. I plan to change emphasis in the coming period by seeding a cluster of maps grouped under the heading The Civilization Project
(see also attached element on the map).
We have collaborated closely and continuously on the application design. It has been an unusual collaboration in that we live on opposite sides of the globe - David in Somerset England and I in Blackheath in New South Wales, Australia. Just about all our interaction has been done on the internet using tools like Skype and, of course, DebateGraph
. Blackheath is a small town around 120 km west of Sydney in the heart of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage area
. I have added a bit of background about Blackheath here
- worth a look if you are ever down this way.
In a former life I was a politician - an Australian Labor Party (ALP)
member of state and national parliaments for twenty two years. This included a period as a federal minister with responsibilities for Higher Education (universities) then for Social Security (in Australia this includes the full range of government-funded income support including aged and disability pensions and payments to the unemployed). After the ALP lost office in 1996 I served for a period as opposition spokesman on education, then finance. The experience of opposition led me - belatedly - to the conclusion that politics was an occupation for which I was cognitively and psychologically ill-suited, so I left (a bit reminiscent of the scene in a film about Soviet master-spy Kim Philby where his fellow-spy Guy Burgess is depicted agonizing about the rightness of his support for communism while in the process of defecting to the Soviet Union after a long spying career).
After leaving politics I developed an interest in the field of argument mapping and the software tools to support it that were starting to emerge, particularly the pioneering work of Tim van Gelder
. They seemed to provide a way to address some of the obvious deficiencies in political discourse - endless repetition, fallacious arguments, resort to rhetorical devices - and to enable the building of concise, accurate visual representations of complex debates that do justice to the various viewpoints. Having surveyed what was on offer, it seemed to me that two aspects in particular needed to be addressed:
- At the time I started looking most of the tools were designed to be used in a desktop or closed network environment, with the requirement to install special software on each computer. It seemed to me that to harness the full power of the approach, with truly global collaboration, required the development of a web application that could be accessed from anywhere in the world using standard internet browsers.
- More fundamentally - and this is where my political background is relevant - the existing tools did not, in my opinion, do justice to the complexity of real world debates. For example it is common for tools to enforce a pro/con structure in which cases can be marshaled for and against some proposition - such as favoring or opposing military intervention in Iraq. In the real world debates like this normally take a different form: decision makers typically need to consider a number of rival policy packages with multiple, often overlapping components. I expand on this point in a separate article
Atypically, my background before entering politics was in Electrical Engineering and I had done some software development, mainly programming in the FORTRAN language, for technical applications. This is very different to modern object-based software, so I embarked on a process of re-education aided by some superb textbooks, Microsoft's Visual Studio IDE (integrated development environment) - and of course the web, and started writing some code.
I was joined by David Price
, who brought his own extensive - and highly complementary - background and expertise to the project. DebateGraph
is the result or our collaboration and we hope it is a useful contribution to the field of web-based argument visualization.