Rome and why Kialo won’t work

Kialo is pitched as a debate forum, a way to explore contentious issues in an easily-comprehendible visual form — a map to argumentation, where the strongest arguments prevail, cutting through all the “noise” of online argle-bargle. But it’s better as an illustration of exactly the limits of technocratic, put-a-chip-in-it solutions.

Each topic starts out with a true or false preposition, their example being “The Earth is round.” Under this, pro and con arguments are made, each nominally supporting a side — you can see that Earth is round from space; if Earth was round, the oceans would fall off. From there, users vote on which arguments are stronger, with branches displayed in a segmented ring graph, giving deeper arguments more spread and stronger ones more color.

Actual debates on the site now include “Eating meat is wrong,” “Human life should be valued above animal life,” “Stand or kneel,” “Is gender a social construct?”

Ostensibly, by making the service invite-only, their video claims that they can “keep the trolls out.” Which is good, because this system is eminently trollable, which gets back to some sticky problems with truth that Kialo just kind of breezes past.

Circling back to that round-Earth propaganda, the immediate problem should be obvious: There are arguments to support the idea that the Earth is flat, but basically zero evidence. And if we need to learn anything to deal with Trump, Fox and Facebook, it’s that opinions without evidence are bullshit.

But take a more complicated question, that gender is a social construct. The leading dissent is that “Gender is determined by biological factors,” supported itself by “Suggesting gender is a construct undermines the breadth of the influence of epigentics and genetics in general, it places too much emphasis on personal choice as opposed to reality.” (Note: They use obnoxious script to hijack your right-click; I had to drill into page source to be able to quote accurately.)

This then rolls down to Wikipedia cites, topic sentences from academic papers, and other lazy high-school essay bibliographics. The blunt fact is that randos on the internet, no matter their good intentions, are probably unable to vote for the best solution to the contradictions of gender expression — they can’t even effectively decide on definitions, which is, like, step one to forming any sort of argument at all.

State your terms. Clarify your question. Do that before looking for evidence, or it’s GIGO.

Similarly, their hot takes on vegetarianism don’t actually transcend the same bullshit you hear in every online discussion of the ethics of vegetarianism. I’ve been vegetarian my whole life — I remember shit like “Harvesting wheat kills mice GOTCHA!” from Thanksgiving in the ’80s. There are all sorts of justifications for abstaining from meat — but there are plenty of legitimate ones for eating meat, especially if it’s a considered decision.

In theory, the premises also get hammered out — that this is a non-starvation situation, that eating artificial meat is still consistently vegetarian — but again, this suffers from the fact that it’s entirely divorced from any context. Without evidence, all you can say is that arguments are consistent, no that their conclusions are true. And without a canny appraisal of evidence, people believe bullshit and repeat bullshit.

This isn’t a new problem. In Imperial Rome, the rhetorical schools still produced great orators, but just as famous were the declaimers, who gave public performances arguing both sides of absurd problems in which pirates and poison were regular actors. Declaimers were known for their snark — sententia, sentences — that turned their arguments to witticisms which were endlessly quotable.

They were famously facile, flattering their patrons and denouncing enemies, and Roman men would declaim amongst themselves in the style of celebrities — the ancient equivalent of relating a New Yorker book review quip as if you’ve read the book yourself.

But it was predominantly bullshit. They gave fake trials, with non-existent judges, where the fidelity to the barest of rote details enabled flights of fancy like Breitbart reporting on Antifa — enemies are simultaneously omnipotent and incompetent; super soldiers and stoner dropouts. This isn’t the smug view of the present on the past — their contemporaries recognized their pontificating as bullshit too, though edifying bullshit. Through strength of argument, they affirmed that women should be in the home, that sons should honor their fathers, and that the aristocracy of Rome was benevolent, wise and virile.

So there’s a history of a misleading appeal to rhetorical rigor to prove the truth of arguments. But Kialo doesn’t just miss the first asymmetry between fact and bullshit — that of critical evaluation of evidence. It misses the second asymmetry of participation: the stakes matter. If the arguments against vegetarianism are eye-rollingly basic to me, I can only imagine how frustrating it would be for a trans person to wade into the gender construct argument and see a bunch of google scholars linking to the definition of epigenetics to support the idea that gender is inherently biological.

Right now, the question on reparations already devolves into a bunch of unquestioned assumptions about how issues like this should be decided — that a majority of Americans opposes reparations is an appeal to popularity, not a refutation. Imagine Richard Spencer earnestly arguing the same discredited pseudoscientific bullshit that racists have used to justify their own superiority for over a century. While Kialo claims that personal invites are how they’d keep out the trolls, there’s simply no way to scale a discussion — especially with democratic pretensions — without opening participation to disingenuous and antagonistic actors. There’s no fundamental legitimacy from having a select group of people if those people don’t have expertise either — imagine emacs versus vim debated by the board of the Metropolitan Opera. The over-estimation of translating cross-domain skills is one of the fatal flaws of engineers generalizing and of Kialo as it stands.

The issue of stakes comes up with declamation too: a stunning number of recorded performances address rape, often in burlesque and absurd ways. There are rapists who die before their execution (are their victims entitled to a share of their estate?); a man who rapes two women, one of whom wants him executed, the other to marry him; can a hero whose brother is condemned to be executed for rape use his public favors to have the victim executed in his stead? To each of these questions, the declaimers argue both sides with brutally detached fictitious details that read like fever-dream Red Pill Reddit. With the privilege of theoretical detachment, anyone could argue anything — there’s no truth being discerned. The “debate” is all heat without any light.

With the claim that it can address political decisions as well, and notions of being a civic platform, Kialo fails to understand what makes actual democracy works: it’s not because it comes up with the best answers, it’s that everyone nominally has buy in to the decision, so it’s legitimate. Without that legitimacy underpinning the debates, there’s no incentive to work toward a solution in any meaningful way and no reason to come away convinced.

More than anything, Kialo feels like an attempt to turn human philosophical debates into a form that can be quantified and digitized, that can let someone like Facebook assess which posts have “strong” arguments and which can be dismissed as fake news. Rather than having a human read and wrestle with these dilemma, it’d sure be cheaper to automate that level of moderation. But there’s no evidence that a platform or an app or a forum or a Forum can overcome the inherent problems in how people function as political agents, and the techno-naivety would be less concerning if it didn’t speak to a bigger problem with how technocrats in the age of Big Data ignore the history of addressing these perennial problems.

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