The Large Opinion Collider (Part 3)

Like I revealed in Part 2½, my confessional intermission, I've rooting this whole time for Dialectic -- discovering truth by having peeps argue from different viewpoints -- to win against Rhetoric. But now, I'm not so sure. Rhetoric survived the high-velocity collision pretty well, as long as you keep in mind it's only one part of an ecosystem of thought.

But yes, the whole reason I started this blog post series is because I've been suddenly fascinated by dialectics. It just so neatly connects several things that have been on my mind recently.

Without going into too much personal detail, someone I knew had Borderline Personality Disorder, a very misunderstood mental condition. BPD gives you an intense fear of abandonment, which makes you act clingy and manipulative, which scares off the people closest to you, which makes your fear of abandonment worse. A vicious cycle. As it turns out, the best-known treatment for BPD is called Dialectical Behavior Therapy.

The name's not a coincidence. DBT has its roots specifically in the Hegelian principle of dialectical progress. In this case, you've got two seemingly-opposing goals -- Thesis: radical acceptance of the patient; Antithesis: the patient needs to change -- and hopefully, the resulting Synthesis will be stabler mental health.

Anyway, that's when I first learnt the concept of a "dialectic". Then I kept seeing it everywhere, from film theory, (clashing two shots together to create greater meaning) to the Socratic dialogues. (philosophers with opposing views duke it out)

If dialectics can apply to so much, from therapy to films, how can I apply it to my field -- interactive art, finally, the one medium that allows the audience to talk back to the author! (or does it???)

Then I thought it'd be funny to apply dialectics to itself, to question the act of questioning, so here we are.

Hi, it's me again, Cynical Bold Text. Haven't you already biased this article, by having a dialogue about the value of dialogues?

Not necessarily - this could lead to one of those "proof by contradictions", where we find out, through dialogue, that dialogue pretty much sucks. That's why you're special, Cynical Bold Text.


Besides, what's my alternative - the usual kind of essay where I state a thing, and give you a bunch of evidence? Then I'd be making a rhetorical argument about rhetorical arguments, and that's equally bias-ing. So, might as well go for the path less traveled here, and argue with myself.

Come on, give me a harder question! We need some hard collisions! Like in Part 2, I'll get over any icked-out feelings I have!

Fine. What about "Teach the Controversy", or sea lions butting into private conversations or safe spaces? Don't they just want to open up a dialogue?

Ohhh wow, them's some icked-out feelings I'm feeling right now. First, uh... I appreciate you plugging in more Wondermark comics...

Don't flatter me, Nicky. This isn't rhetoric.

Okay, the first thing that comes to mind is no, the young-earth creationists and sea lions don't actually want to open up a dialogue. They want to fake a scientific controversy or harass people, respectively.

Because, see, the whole point of a dialectic isn't to merely present "both sides", it's to make sure the two sides collide and create a synthesis. And modern evolutionary theory is the synthesis of collisions with creationism.

Long ago, the status-quo prevailing theory of the time, creationism, forced scientists to ask important questions like "how was the eye formed", or "what's the link between humans and apes". And right now, the big unsolved question in biology (that creationists love to point out) is "how was life created in the first place?" I wonder what people will synthesize from that dialogue.

(Side Note: While I don't personally believe it, I think guided evolution, à la 2001: A Space Odyssey, is a reasonable alternate synthesis from colliding evolution & intelligent design. “Whoops, evolved big dumb reptiles? Just toss an asteroid that-away.” Also, according to Wikipedia, apparently theistic evolution is accepted by many major Christian churches, including the Catholic Church? I didn't know that! Good on them.)

So, not only did evolution survive the high-speed collisions, it is the synthesis of those collisions... so, if the "Teach the Controversy" peeps actually did show the evidence on both sides, students would come away with a stronger understanding of evolution.

Their problem is they don't want a proper dialogue.

You just thanked the creationists for modern-day evolutionary theory. That's the bullet you're going to bite?


Alright, since you think the problem with the "Teach The Controversy" campaign is they don't want a proper dialogue, should churches be mandated to teach evolution?

What?! No! I'm not going to sea lion a church.

Why not? Unlike sea lions, you're not doing it to harass them, you just want to educate them about the facts... which, by the way, is what every "sea lion" thinks. They're not "just assholes", that's a wrong and unhelpful interpretation. Whatever happened to the "be compassionate" Nicky from your previous blog posts?

Cynical Bold Text, you're being a dick. Also, you got me.

I concede, and switch to a different position: just like how tools have specific affordances, they have specific use cases. A scissors isn't useless because it can't clean your dishes.

And likewise, a dialogue must fit its context, its use case.

A dialogue of faith doesn't fit in a classroom, and a dialogue of science doesn't fit in a church. The dialogues you might have with your doctor, would be wildly inappropriate in a church or classroom. There are even contexts where there should be no dialogue, e.g. shuddup and don't talk in a movie theatre.

Back to the "collision" metaphor. In a car safety lab, you want to collide cars. In the Large Hadron Collider, you want to collide subatomic particles. It would make no sense to collide a car with a subatomic particle. And in both cases, you need to collide cars & particles in specific ways, not haphazardly.

The same is true for dialogues - they must fit their context, and even so, the dialogues must be carefully structured to result in an intellectually & emotionally beneficial collision of ideas.

Cult leaders heavily "structure" the types of dialogue that can happen within their group. What say you to that?


First - their restrictions on dialogue are not intellectually & emotionally beneficial. Unlike, say, dialogue restrictions during dinner with a professional colleague, or a safe space for trauma survivors. Taboos don't happen just because peeps are stuffy, they have a specific social purpose.

And secondly - cult leaders, and any other extremist group you could have used, are rare by definition. That's why they're extremists. It's not worth throwing out a whole principle over unlikely edge cases. Probability matters.

Fair enough. That was a test, to keep you on your toes.

I know. Coz a proper dialogue--

You keep saying "a dialogue must this", "a dialogue should that", "a proper dialogue"... you're talking about an ideal dialogue in theory, when dialogue in practice is... internet comments.

A good theory leads to better practices. theory.

Also in practice! We're (I'm?) an artist, designer & engineer, I (We?) know firsthand about how theory directly affects practice. To figure out a way we can turn theory into practice, let's collide two of our earlier syntheses!


  1. Tools are not neutral, in use, use case, or morality.
  2. The dialogue must fit its context. (I just realized this is similar to "you must acknowledge the whole ecosystem of thought")

Therefore, whether a dialogue fits its context is shaped by the tools you communicate through. The medium is the message.

A bad tool, like Twitter, smashes contexts willy-nilly, it's impossible to tell what's between friends, what's meant for the public, or what if that offensive tweet was a joke retweeted out of context. It's called Context Collapse, and it makes sea lions inevitable. Yes. I'm not just saying public shaming happens on Twitter, public shaming is a logical consequence of Twitter's system itself.

A good dialogue tool is carefully crafted for its context. It might have features like moderation (to keep it civil, on-topic, and high-quality), pseudonymity (so other contexts don't get mixed in), and ephemerality (so talk can't leave this context).

There's a few technical problems with that, (how do you scale moderation? doesn't pseudonymity lead to trolling?) but here's a more fundamental, human problem with dialogue itself: people don't want to be proven wrong.

Sure, it's human nature to--

If your strategy involves "step 1) change human nature" you've already failed.

Okay, I concede, and change the position I didn't even get to fully type out. It's not human nature to dislike being proved wrong, and I can prove you wrong: the emotion of surprise.

People enjoy surprise, having their mental patterns broken. And artists know how to deliberately evoke surprise, and carefully avoid its unpleasant sister emotion, confusion.

And even in cases where it's hard to enjoy being wrong, we still have ways of making it tolerable. As a gamedev, it took me years to be comfortable with playtesting, since it constantly proves all my design ideas wrong, but nowadays, I sorta relish playtesting a bit, knowing it will make me and my craft better.

And isn't science & dialogue just "playtesting" for ideas?

And finally, as a meta-example, despite you being a dick, Cynical Bold Text, I actually really did enjoy this dialogue.

Don't flatter me, Nicky...

...This isn't rhetoric.

And now, a summary of this part's syntheses:

  1. Dialogue isn't about "both sides", it's about an intellectually & emotionally beneficial collision/synthesis.
  2. Dialogue must be carefully crafted for their context, and we can make tools that help with that.
  3. It's not human nature to dislike being proven wrong, and there's ways to make it tolerable, or even enjoyable.

So... how does any of this relate to interactive art or Explorable Explanations?...

I have no idea. Guess we're gonna find out in the next, final part.

This is part of a multi-part series, because I'm making it up as I go along, debating with myself, and somehow learning things from it?

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Rhetoric
Part 2½: Intermission
Part 3: Dialectic ← you are here
Part 4: Conclusions, For Now