e-Democracy debate: 12 years on…

Great to see Tony Hirst dismembering the Digital Britain Interim report and  reassembling it on the WordPress-powered  WriteToReply blog, supporting paragraph-specific comments from the public whom the report wishes to consult.

But wait a minute… <swirly timewarp venetian blind transition*> 1997, The Dearing Report is published on the Future Of Higher Education, and… we dismember and reassemble it to enable paragraph-specific comments from the public whom the report wishes to consult.   * hey, it’s Friday evening!

This time though, instead of a nice Web 2.0 tool downloaded for free and hosted in the cloud, we’ve employed a programmer for 6 months to write a Java desktop toolkit to process an HTML document in order to generate a frames-heavy document discussion environment called D3E [sourceforge / screencasts] which hypertextualises the Dearing Report, generating an automated contents list, bibliographic reference links, and a comment icon inserted next to each new heading and paragraph, which links to the corresponding thread in a customised HyperNews forum. I even managed to Google a screenshot of it, since I lost all mine. I love ‘old’ web screenshots: they speak volumes about their era.

D3E-ized 1997 Dearing Report on Higher Education, enabling document-centric discussion.

D3E-ized 1997 Dearing Report on Higher Education, enabling document-centric discussion.

Discussion on a specific section of the report

Discussion on a specific section of the report

Now, the interesting thing of course is to ask, what’s new, and what’s not?

  • On the technical front, attaching interactive commentaries to sections in a document no longer feels groundbreaking. It kinda did in the mid-90s. It’s now nice and easy to set up, and possibly easier to use. Good stuff. And of course, there are feeds coming off it, and Tony cunningly used Twitter to raise enough interest to rapidly get mainstream media coverage. Not possible in 97. Our Hypertext Godfathers have left their legacy. Engelbart’s paragraph-level link referencing is used in both systems, but Nelson’s transclusions have only found everyday reality with Web 2.0 feeds and embed code, enabling WriteToReply contributions to tunnel through the net to myriad unknown sites.
  • On the political front, we have to ask will it make a difference? For the Dearing exercise, we had Diana Laurillard, a member of the National Inquiry into the Future of HE and a senior person at the OU, who could take the online contributions and feed them into its deliberations. WriteToReply’s Open Letter to Lord Carter and the ‘Digital Britain – Interim Report’ Team is one way to raise the stakes, and increase the motivation of the public to contribute via this channel. And that is surely the societal dimension to e-Democracy tools such as this. The scare commodity is attention, so what  decides whether one channel will receive the eyes on it that are required to give it authority?

In 1997, I was reflecting on D3E, and trying to conceive what came next. How should we evolve from what was essentially the chunking of a traditional document into hypertextual pieces with traditional threaded commentary hanging of them, into… whatever should come next? Drawing on the foundational work of the hypertext research community into graphical ‘browser-based hypermedia’, such as PARC’s NoteCards and MCC’s gIBIS, I became convinced that the future was to layer semantic webs of interpretation over the vanilla Web, and to be able to filter and visualize them in order to see the conceptual structure of the ideas and arguments that conventional prose hides.Why can’t the platform tell me something about the logical structure of this debate, not just show me chronologically structured postings?

That evolved into our Hypermedia Discourse tools like Compendium, ClaiMaker, ClaimSpotter and now Cohere. These feel like the wall scatchings of cavemen, struggling to give birth to a new medium and literacy — but in 12 years’ time…

Meantime, all power to you Tony. I hope that we may now be in an era where the crowd really can, through intelligent swarming, build not only critical mass but critical comment with tools such as this. And yes, let’s try and figure out what you get when you mix WriteToReply with Cohere and simmer for 30mins 😉

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