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Publish Date: 
Sat, 03/31/2012 - 12:26

Because of health problems, I need to postpone the final stretch of this month's research for a little while. I hope to pick it up again before long, possibly in May. When I do, I'll do some more research and writeups, send out the gifts for contributors, and do a closing assessment of what happened and what's to come in the future.

Meanwhile I want to give you this citation:

S. Conry, K. Kuwabara, V. R. Lesser, R. A. Meyer, 1991, Multistage
Negotiation for Distributed Constraint Satisfaction.

This paper describes how a crowd of machines is programmed to find a collaborative solution to a complex routing problem. First they identify a number of problem-solving goals; then they unpack those into subgoals; then they propose various solutions to goals and subgoals, investigate the solutions in different combinations, find out how they conflict with each other and work out how to resolve the conflicts. If there's a way to solve the problem they are guaranteed to find it. But there's more! If there isn't a solution because there are too many constraints, they will decide together which goals to abandon, and then solve the remaining ones.

This is a rich and powerful framework that has a great advantage for my purposes, which is that the problems, goals, subgoals, and solutions are very clearly defined and ready to use in silico. I'm interested in seeing if I could develop this system into a framework for comparing different processes of deliberation.

Being a standard constraint satisfaction setup, though an especially interesting one, this system probably doesn't incorporate any of the complicating factors I've been identifying. These computer programs were created to solve the problem at hand, they know exactly what process to use to do it, and none of them will ever consider working against that top-level goal, unlike people, who have many different goals affecting the deliberation at hand. Also, they will never change their preferences (except at the one stage where they abandon excessive goals) or need to engage in debate or argument. I haven't even worked out what the key questions are about race, gender and class dynamics, but it's clear they aren't going to show up in this model as is. But it might be a good starting system to bring these complications into.

Speaking of changing preferences, I'm shocked that I've missed the main point before now. The key word is persuasion:

The model assumes that political preferences are not rigidly fixed:
that a critical mass of individuals might shift their support from
majority to minority or vice versa depending on the arguments and
appeals presented to them.
  J. H. Read, Majority Rule versus Consensus: The Political Thought
of John C. Calhoun

Political scientists seem undecided about whether persuasion consists of people revealing information to one another, or introducing ways of interpreting known information, or whether there are other cases. I'm thinking there are other cases, because I'm skeptical that political decision making is entirely rational.

It would be great to know when and how persuasion happens, but I can also work with it without knowing. A bare-bones approach would be to make a range of quantitative assumptions about who persuades whom and when, taking persuasion to mean that the listener's preferences change to match the speaker's, and seeing how that affects the outcome of the process. In the constraint satisfaction framework this persuasion would mean that an agent abandons some constraints and/or takes on some of the other agent's constraints.

I've been wondering whether to add another item to my list of complications: what happens when a participant isn't at liberty to say certain things openly. This can lead to people trying to influence the process without being forthcoming about their reasons and desires. This also connects to some of the other items, though. For instance, the questions about deliberation in the presence of racial, gender, and other differences have something to do with when people feel they can speak openly. In this way, that question probably relates to Spivak's "Can the Subaltern Speak?" and Habermas's work on ideal speech situations. Academic namedropping aside, though, I still don't have much to say about that. I'm definitely hoping to do more with it.

My reading includes Peter Taylor and Jeremy Szteiter's brand new book, Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research and Engagement, on how to engage with resources, scheduling and other people in the service of effective research, and Marianne Maeckelbergh's The Will of the Many: How the Alterglobalization Movement is Changing the Face of Democracy. Neither of these was available from the university library, so I bought them using the funding you have so graciously provided. Your support is very important in this project, and very much appreciated.

This'll be the last pseudo-weekly update for now, until we resume, but by all means keep in touch. Your responses and encouragement have been very welcome.

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