Social middleware: another installment – another app

In an earlier post I argued the case for the ‘middleware of democracy’ arguing for the inculcation of the (largely social) skills that help constitute collective intelligence. Skills like having some small inkling of how ignorant we all are, listening to those with different opinions as if they might have something to say, being good at retaining the respect of those who don’t agree with you while you try to persuade them of your point of view.

We occasionally pay homage to the importance of these skills, but we haven’t in my experience thought hard or taken any strong action in the direction of seeking to build them except by rhetorical emphasis – and words are cheap. That’s why I thought Tim Van Gelder’s YourView was a great initiative. It runs debates online but all the while in the background it’s ranking the ‘epistemic virtues’ of the participants in the conversation. He might have chosen a more compelling term than ‘epistemic virtue’ but then Tim’s a philosopher.

In any event I thought YourView constituted the middleware of democracy in an age in which virtually everyone hates what our democracy has become. In the same spirit here’s an educational initiative and educational software that monitors, and so offers a way to teach collaboration. I must admit my heart sank when I read this:

By working with real teachers and real students the ATC21S™ team have developed an assessment tool to provide real data to teachers and parents about students’ collaborative problem solving skills.

Real teachers, real students – real data. A bit tough on those of us who like to pretend. Anyway this is a small tick in what looks like a great initiative.

As the website explains after its threefold insistence on its own reality (Rene Descartes eat your heart out):

The assessment tool involves pairs of students working online to solve a problem.  Each partner has different information on their screen and they need to communicate and share information in order to solve a problem.  They communicate via a chat box and they may need to adjust their language and communication style so that they can work effectively as a pair.  An example of one of the problems students have to solve is growing a plant: one student controls the temperature and the other controls the light conditions for the plant and they need to work together to make the plant grow.

I love this for the way it gives concreteness to the ‘publicness’ of education, to the fact that, in addition to inculcating specific individual skills in individuals, a great many of those skills will be used in collaboration. One could make a philosophical/sociological argument that virtually all functioning intelligence is social intelligence. Put in more folksy terms, one often doesn’t know what one thinks till one hears oneself say it – and one comes to individual insights socially, dialogically – by talking them through – with others and inside one’s own head. That’s why writing stuff down helps. You talk to yourself, put it on the page/screen and then, if this didn’t happen when you first wrote it down, when you reread it, you step into the mind of someone else. Often this leads you to realise that the words and the ideas need clarification, or won’t stand up at all.

But, particularly since our policy thinking seems to have pretty much collapsed into the economic, it is certainly the case that most people’s economic productiveness, and their usefulness to employers relates to their ability to collaborate with others who represent different disciplines, areas of expertise and parts of the organisation to contribute to the employer’s collective intelligence. So, in an economic sense, our education system is there to deliver ‘inputs’ to the productive process – people who have strong cognitive skills representing the best systematic knowledge that can be got from textbooks, refereed articles and books and <irony> (even) some unrefereed sources </irony> as well as the social skills to combine their own and others’ skills effectively into collective intel. But here’s the thing, these social skills are all co-dependent. Someone with high order social skills will be much more effective with others with the same skills.


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Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
8 years ago

“One could make a philosophical/sociological argument that virtually all functioning intelligence is social intelligence.” Would Newton be the exception that proved the rule?

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
8 years ago

Business schools are all over emotional intelligence and learning the skills of persuasion. Future managers know that they must be empathetic and culturally sensitive and well, just damned nice.

Which is OK. But none of our MBA students seem to be taught the other side of the coin. Which is… if you are negotiating with someone who acts like an arsehole well just learn to suck it up and listen to his (he will probably be a male) argument anyway. You are getting paid shitloads by your organisation to find a win-win.

It seems to me that, as with all well intentioned schemes, there are perverse effects in emphasizing the social skills. In this case, it legitimises and almost encourages people having a thin skin. You have to learn to work with arseholes! I think I will propose some new electives at MBS to follow the core on Managing People. The first could be Managing Dickheads. The most advanced would be Managing Academics….


[…] in the development of online tools to improve the quality of discussion and collaboration. […]


[…] These ideas suggest to me two fronts on which we might seek to address the democratic decline that’s all around us.  First one role that it seems to me digital tools might help lead the way is in providing what I’ve called the middleware of democracy. Such ‘middleware’ would help discussion converge to less reactive, more reflective equilibria than currently occurs with the Alan Jones’s of the world revving up their audiences and passing it off as civic engagement. (As an aside, digital tools might really offer a new horizon for the teaching of collaboration.) […]