The Large Opinion Collider (Part 4)

This weird experiment totes subverted all my expectations. My original ideas on Rhetoric and Dialectic were destroyed in the collision, but it was a constructive kind of destruction, like chiseling away at marble to create a beautiful sculpture.

Can we skip the cheesy metaphors, and recap how our ideas changed?

Sure thang.

So, our (my?) thoughts on Rhetoric went from “We should increase persuasive power!” to “We should distribute persuasive power,” because rhetoric is only one part of an ecosystem of thought.

As for Dialectic, I went from thinking “It can be used everywhere, from film to therapy!” to “It needs to be carefully crafted to fit its context,” and that we already know of many ways to do this.

That's good and all, but how does any of this relate to our original dilemma, and our interactive art?

Golly, I hope several essays later, this wasn't all a waste.

So the initial dilemma was I thought Explorables were a powerful way for an author to put forth their argument, but at the same time, isn't the real power in interactive art for the player to challenge the author? Should the author express themselves, or the player?

In the Part 2½ intermission, I confessed I thought the solution was obvious: just let both the author and player express themselves in a dialogue.

But that's not quite right, is it?

No, it isn't. The common thread between my new beliefs about Rhetoric (care about the ecosystem) and Dialectic (care about the context), is that I should be thinking about the whole, not just individual elements.

So, the obvious-in-hindsight answer to whether the author should express themselves, or the player, or some dialogue between author and player... is it depends on the purpose, the context, and the greater ecosystem of thought.

Forget the parts. Think about the whole.

Besides, Rhetoric and Dialectic aren't actually exclusive.

Right. In-between each question Cynical Bold Text posed to me, I was basically writing a mini-essay, using the traditional principles of rhetoric.

And you made my job hard, you dingus, whenever you had more than one point I needed to address in the follow-up question.

Fine, I'm sorry, me.

But yeah, dialogue is basically a bunch of very short monologues riffing off each other, and so, there's no real hard line between rhetoric and dialectic, they're just parts of a more important whole.

Probably worth actually talking about what that whole is, and what stuff we can make to serve that whole, huh?

Oh. Yeah. We should do that.

So, what does our ecosystem of ideas look like right now? I'm fully aware I'll be speculating a lot, (i.e. talking out my ass) but here's the biggest recent-ish change to the way we do communication: The Internet. And since tools are not neutral, the medium is the message, let's think about how The Internet has shaped how we reach and teach new knowledge.

Well, obviously, The Internet suddenly lets peeps see all kinds of viewpoints they've never considered before!

Or the opposite - algorithms only show you what it thinks you'd like, that is, what you already agree with. If you really want to see different viewpoints literally side-by-side, go to a library.

Now that's not fair, you'd still get to see a lot of outsider viewpoints...

How? By sea lions hounding you on Twitter? By seeing strawmen created by those who already agree with you? By the top internet comment that's upvoted for snark and/or flattery?

Okay, you're right. I concede. Heck, I was critiquing our current communications systems earlier, too. The Internet may not really show "both sides", due to the filter bubble... and even when it does, it shows crappy or cartoon versions of "the other viewpoint". That does not lead to beneficial collisions.

Okay, but The Internet does make it easier to do lots of research to support your argument!

Yes it does. It sure improves Rhetoric, that is, the art of talking past each other, and not actually trying to collaboratively come to the truth together.

Okay, I'll concede that too. Increasing persuasive tools isn't necessarily better, but at the very least, the internet also distributed persuasive tools? Which we agreed was better for the whole of the system.

I concede - the internet does do that.

Good, so--

...for now. Don't get complacent. Net neutrality is still up for grabs, Google and Facebook pretty much own half of all internet traffic, and advertising leads to centralization. We can lose the open, decentralized web. One could argue we already have.


Well, uh.

How do we fix that?

What can we do for the whole?

In that dialogue just now, we arrived at three thoughts about the nature of the internet, and what it's doing to our ecosystem of thought.

  1. The filter bubble is real, and it's dangerous.
  2. We've got lots of great tools for monologues, but not dialogues.
  3. The Internet does distribute communication power, but that could be lost at any time.

So if we're to make stuff that takes care of the whole, and fixes it, we should focus on getting peeps outside their filter bubble, better tools for dialogue, and making those tools open. There's probably not any one solution, and it'll probably require a mix of technological and cultural changes.

Again. I ask for the bajillionth time, how's any of this relate to interactive art, games, Explorable Explanations?

Back in Part 2½, the confessional intermission, I called this self-debating “intellectual calisthenics”, and wondered in a throwaway question, “what intellectual exercise-equipment would look like”.

I think interactive art can be that intellectual exercise-equipment.

I mean, I learnt a hell of a lot just by having this conversation with myself. But it's both intellectually and emotionally hard to pick holes in your own fundamental beliefs, and make useful collisions -- and not just making strawman arguments or unfalsifiable hypotheses.

A computer can aid in structured self-reflection, by confronting you with yourself! (Also, people are less shy about confessing to computers than confessing to humans. I sure as shazam don't want anyone looking at my DuckDuckGo history, my god that duck has seen some SHIT)

So... online quizzes.

Well... yeah! But the online quiz is the barest-bones prototype of what I'm thinking of, since most quizzes (including in traditional schools) let you enter a lot of your thoughts into it, then in response, it just spits out a numerical score.

That's just one iteration of a dialogue exchange, and not a very good one. If quizzes were like good dialogues, it would spit back not just a number, but more targeted questions, intended to collide with the beliefs you gave it earlier. Then you answer those targeted questions, maybe changing your mind on some things or not, then it replies with more targeted questions, so on, and so forth.

So... step 1) literally implement Strong Artificial Intelligence.

Okay, true. It'd be pretty much impossible (with our current technology) to build an interactive thing that can intelligently debate with you about any subject, using the full range of your chosen language.

But! Just like the field of Artificial Intelligence, the trick is to limit it to a specific use case.

And it's already been done, sort of! My first example is Telltale Games' The Walking Dead series, which mainly asks you moral questions in the context of a narrative, and then later confronts you with your choices over and over. And it does all this without feeling "quizzy" or preachy - it's got finesse. It just feels right.

My second example is, uh, the online quizzes from

My GOD, that website is... how old?

I dunno, pre-dot-com-bust era?

Anyway, their game I remember most is Battleground God. It asks you a series of questions about God, morality, evolution, science, and knowledge. But here's the trick - it asks you these questions one at a time, and if your answer to one question contradicts your answer to an earlier question, BAM! You get hit with a bullet. Also, there's an avatar of "you" walking across an intellectual battlefield, where there's lots of stray bullets.

That sounds... very not compelling, at all.

I dunno why I still remember this quiz. I must have first played it, like, 10 years ago? What stuck with me was when it revealed a contradiction in my thinking, coz it has "traps" for both the religious and non-religious.

I said that "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence", yet later on, I also said "the lack of evidence for God's existence is proof She doesn't exist."


You're going to need a less touchy-subject and less badly-visually-designed example, if you want to convince anyone else about interactive art as "structured self-reflection".

How about Telltale's The Walking Dead?

As awesome as it is (I can't even fake-disagree with that!) it's too full of other stuff to be a straightforward example.

Hm. True. Still, there's a lot to learn from The Walking Dead. Namely, one: that a quiz doesn't have to look anything like a quiz. It doesn't even need to speak a language -- it can use the language of visuals, of narrative, or of play.'re going to need to talk to me, in a language, how you might talk without a language.

I'm just thinking of all the ways Explorable Explanations can structure self-reflection, without text-based questions.

Like allowing a player to use drag & drop to input their own assumptions into a system, let them predict what happens, and see how they line up. Then, ask more targeted questions of them, see if they change their minds about their output predictions or input assumptions. (or, question the validity of the system itself!)

And, to get peeps out of their filter bubble, it should present different combinations of inputs, and let them collide. Then, to enable future dialogue, you can create and share your own variations of the system. And finally, to maintain the open web, it should be open source, for anyone to mirror or alter the core systems.

Again, with the making-several-points in one answer. Sigh. Let me pick out one point - "enabling dialogue". You're not, really, are you? It may be dynamic content, but still statically published. Unless peeps can share their model right in the comments. Or you can change your Explorable in real-time in response to feedback.

...maybe they can share models in the comments! Maybe I simulate a complex model of our economy, people can play with that model, then share their findings as a system. Also, it not being text-based makes moderation for nasty comments a lot easier. (and since people can't use random text to go off-topic, it means the ensuing dialogues will always fit the context.)

...and maybe I can alter the Explorable in real-time! Like a playable livestream. Oh wait, that's called a multiplayer game. Well! That just means this idea already has precedent!

And at the very least, people can take the code and remix it to make their own Explorable, then publish it somewhere. As we realized earlier, dialogue is just a really quick exchange of monologues. It's not either/or, it's a continuum.

Okay that all sounds... well, I don't know. Because none of what you described exists at all.

Which is why we gotta make it. “An Explorable Explanation... that explores you!



Well, that was a ridiculously long series.

Yep, around 6700 words over five posts. But we learnt so much! We've got more refined ideas about rhetoric, dialectic, and the very nature of our ecosystem of ideas. Then we took those syntheses, and came up with many new brilliant ideas for interactive art, or at least some media lab's research project.

We shouldn't stop there, though.

No no, of course not. Like a nuclear reactor, a collision between two particles creates more particles, which in turn collide with more particles, over and over, releasing a huge amount of energy. Same with dialogues. What we synthesized here should be left for the reader (or a future us) to collide with more stuff later. In fact, we've already collided several of our earlier syntheses in this series.

And the result is a hot mess that probably only we can understand.

We can always wrap our findings here in nice, straightforward rhetoric later. Coz while this dialogue may have been confusing to an external reader, we sure learnt a lot from it.


Let's never do that again.


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
Part 4: Conclusions, For Now ← you are here