Needed: MindNet – A Knowledge Network

19Mar17

The Need for Better Organization of Knowledge 

The Internet has brought us into an age of confusion. People say, read, and see an endless variety of material. Much of that material is partly or completely incorrect. Nonetheless, it is often persuasive.

An underlying assumption is that people can handle this flow of information. In many ways, the reality is that they cannot. People vary in their abilities to absorb knowledge, to refine and critique what they are being told and shown, and to revise their opinions.

Numerous sources present themselves as fact-checkers, honest brokers, informed commentators, and otherwise credible aids to the task of separating truth from falsehood online. Some of these sources are helpful. Others are not. To varying degrees, these sources simultaneously simplify the situation (by filtering out untrue claims) and complicate it (by inadvertently or deliberately distorting or confusing the available information).

Our Internet-born age of confusion has yielded predictable responses. While some take advantage of the flood of information to become more informed and thoughtful on various matters, others become overwhelmed and, in some cases, disgusted, discouraged, or otherwise turned off by the disorder, amorality, or other perceived disadvantages of the present state of knowledge. That, in itself, would not be great — but these forms of emotional overload do not necessarily prompt the individual to refrain from sharing his/her frustration, fatigue, or ignorance.

A brief exploration of the philosophy of science will quickly teach that the process and nature of knowing can be complex. That does not mean that it must be. For practical purposes, with suitable refinement, most forms of knowledge can be relatively straightforward — and can be presented as such online.

Existing Responses

Websites like StackExchange demonstrate that it is possible to create a largely user-maintained knowledge source whose contents will typically be focused, precise, and informative. Those sites offer a primitive form of the possibilities of an online community referred to here as MindNet.

StackExchange represents an advance over sites like Wikipedia. There is less bureaucracy in the process of organizing knowledge in useful forms, and more of a focus on discrete, well-formed questions. Even so, StackExchange answers often entail considerable complexity.

One might say that the Internet (as commonly understood) answers questions at the website level. Wikipedia refines that by answering questions at the level of the single webpage. StackExchange refines that further, by breaking out single questions from such webpages and answering them in the form of relatively few paragraphs. MindNet represents the next stage of knowledge evolution: it would break those questions and answers down into single sentences and, where possible, single words.

Here is an example. Former U.S. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. That event triggered an incredible pile of facts, questions, and speculations, continuing for years thereafter. Wikipedia consolidated basic facts from that event into a single 12,000-word webpage, linked to numerous other pages on related matters. StackExchange welcomed specific questions about that event and offered relatively brief answers to those questions. For instance, one StackExchange participant asked, “Did Six FBI Agents die before they could testify before the House Select Committee on Assassinations?” The full phrasing of the question (with an excerpt from the online source giving rise to the question) required 129 words, and (at this writing) the two proffered answers to that question, and accompanying comments, required about 1,150 words.

The MindNet Contribution

It is no longer necessary, and is often not helpful, to discuss topics in such gross terms. Anyone who has studied law, philosophy, or theology is apt to be aware that even a single word, and certainly a single sentence, can and often does give rise to a great many disputes. MindNet would seek to clarify and focus discussion of a topic by favoring the breakdown of one question into several more precise questions.

Consider the example just given. The first intended question might be, “Did any FBI agents die between the time of JFK’s assassination and the House Select Committee hearing?” The person viewing that question might be confronted with as few as two options: Yes or No. Each of those options might be decorated (by colors, badges, percentages, or other indications) to inform the user of the relative popularity and/or merit of the available answers.

The StackExchange response illustrates how that might go in this particular case. One of the two responses to the question about six agents indicates that the answer is Yes. The other response states that the answer is No. At present, the Yes answer has 17 upvotes; the No answer has none. Moreover, the Yes answer has stimulated eight further comments. So, in MindNet, the colors or badges would alert the user that both popular opinion and traffic point toward the Yes answer as the most likely place for further information.

So the user faced the question of whether any FBI agents died during that timeframe; the user saw that the Yes answer was the hot one; and the user clicked on Yes. Now a new MindNet module opens, with a new question: “How many FBI agents died between the time of JFK’s assassination and the House Select Committee hearing?”

The preferred StackExchange answer suggests that observers have assembled a list of seven FBI agents who may have died in that period of time. The user could now face seven possible responses: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, or 7. The StackExchange answer suggests that 6 would be the most popular and best-supported response. But each of those seven responses could lead to a list of relevant names. Clicking on the 6, for instance, could lead to a module listing seven names, each designated briefly (e.g., “Donald Kaylor – Yes”; “Regis Kennedy – No”), with further links to additional questions. For example, the Regis Kennedy link could lead to a question about the birth and death dates of Regis Kennedy, the FBI Agent who testified before the House Select Committee.

Refining the System

Notice what happened in that example. The user came to this question about JFK seamlessly, by a link from whatever MindNet module s/he was viewing previously. With just a few clicks, the user obtained almost instant information about a fact of interest. It was not necessary to read paragraphs, or to get immured in the details of a potentially contentious debate; it was always possible to back up and choose a road less traveled; and the dominant current understanding on a particular issue was visible.

The previous section of this post suggested that traffic and upvotes could help the user detect, at a glance, which answer was best supported. But additional refinements are possible. For example, as in StackExchange, users may be able to accumulate reputation points for the quality and helpfulness of their contributions. Those Trusted Users may be allowed to review a participant’s profile and decide whether s/he is qualified to render a Highly Informed opinion. Criteria for that elevated credential could include firsthand experience in related events, or possession of a doctoral degree in the relevant field (e.g., American history). Individuals at that level may be qualified, in turn, to designate Experts who have firsthand experience, or who have published peer-reviewed scholarly work, on the specific event (i.e., Kennedy’s assassination). A mortarboard icon could indicate that one or more Experts favor a particular answer. This would represent a significant improvement over the StackExchange approach, never mind Wikipedia, where one cannot be sure who has endorsed a particular formulation, or why.

As at StackExchange, users with sufficient reputation points could click an Add button, within a module, to propose another possibility. For instance, someone suggesting that ten agents died within that timeframe could add the module, state its title (i.e., “10”), list the names, and provide the necessary links. The form of question would limit the possible variations (e.g., “orange” would not work). If the new answer gained traffic and votes, the user proposing it would gain reputation points. On the other hand, if a proposed answer (e.g., “2”) drew little to no traffic, it could wither away automatically after a certain period of time.

Users with sufficient reputation points may revise modules, and may add questions as well as answers. For instance, as just noted, someone might find it inadequate merely to name Regis Kennedy as an FBI agent; the user might want to create the module posing the question about Mr. Kennedy’s dates of birth and death, leading perhaps to a further question and answer regarding the cause of death. In that instance, there might be no controversy: the module asking “What was the cause of Regis Kennedy’s death?” might offer only one answer, with no further links — until someone considers that question interesting enough to elaborate or disagree on.

The Essence of the Proposal

Most complicated issues can be boiled down to questions that become simple, provided one is able to grasp the questions and answers leading up to those issues. It may take many questions, asked from multiple perspectives, to frame such issues well. Users may register many objections about phrasing, inconsistency, and ambiguity, by clicking on the Talk button available in each module, before the right questions are being asked — before, that is, the convoluted topography of discussion surrounding a complex topic finally settles down into a relatively coherent terrain.

Over time, MindNet has the potential to significantly reduce the passion and misunderstanding that arise when people ask incommensurable questions. MindNet has that potential because it draws upon the strengths of a site like StackExchange, while virtually eliminating the highly textual, paragraph-based approach that poses the risk of raising more questions than it answers.

* * * * *

(This post refines and simplifies a MindWeb proposal I posted on my website in 1999, which itself was a refinement of a proposal I sent to American Scientist and others in 1995 — which was an elaboration of a proposal I sent to CompuServe in 1987. A later post suggests a related approach to the processing of reader responses to newspaper editorials.)

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