ASCII by Jason Scott

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Opinion Spectrum Collapse Disorder —

During the presentation I gave at ROFLthing this past January about Sockington, I pulled out a term from the air to describe something I’ve been seeing in action lately.  Here’s what the slide looked like, courtesy of Scott Beale of Laughingsquid:

What’s been really interesting for me in the past 20 years or so is watching theoretical situations become hard reality, and then that hard reality encountering problems that the theoretical situations never even dreamed of. At one time, and stick with me here, it was really weird and unlikely that newspaper stories would become available online, and especially not for free, and especially not instantly. In fact, it is now the case that stories become available online before they are even printed anywhere. In the 1980s this seemed an unlikely occurrence, but then became more and more likely, until we have the current situation that it’s expected. With this now expected situation additional unexpected situations like print newspaper collapsing, always-there inherent flaws in journalism being ripped apart, and low-cost aggregators that once were thought to be moneymaking opportunities in the “smart agent” space that are now so beneath economic contempt that you wouldn’t get three sentences in with your business plan before you found yourself on the curb, watching a truck hauling away empty newspaper vending machines. You just could not sell that idea anymore.

Taking it further, there are now flash-powered projects which sit on news feeds and create spinning globes showing you where the current hot thing is taking place. This is science fiction level stuff, and at this point it’s a free application on the Nintendo Wii, functioning as a screensaver. We both knew this was coming and didn’t know this was coming. Now that it’s here, the response by some might be “And this is what we’d hoped it’d be?” or more likely “Is that what you considered the big cool future thing while using your home computer 20 years ago?” Well yes, yes. Our dreams are still big; it’s just the future that got small.

But along with this dreamland have come problems we are totally unprepared for and situations we’re not even getting a full grasp around. And I think one of the biggest is Opinion Spectrum Collapse Disorder.

Come with me back in time to the Debate Den. This small textfile was captured by me in 1984, from an excellent BBS called The Safehouse in Minneapolis. (How joyful it was for me to meet some of the sysops of this board for my documentary.) As one might find children playing with handguns or chemistry sets containing radioactive materials to be a bit troubling peering through a modern sensibility, so too might one be amazed that someone would start a discussion board this way:

Numb: 1
Subj: [ Debate Den ]
Date: 08-03-84 at 02:02 AM

Welcome to the Debate Den!

The Den is for debate and discussion on almost any topic you wish...

This room is especially for political discussion, since this is an election
Go ahead.. post!

Could you imagine? Can you even think, in this modern day, both starting a political discussion on purpose, or, for that matter, writing such a happy go lucky invitation for debate? As if you were seeking it out? Like plastic or internet access, a once rare thing is now so common that its mere existence is not a miracle, and in fact has degraded to an air-like status: it’s just there, and sometimes it is choking.

This textfile is also an indicator of the speed at which a BBS might move. If you take the time to go through the timestamps of the file, you get this list:

Date: 08-03-84 at 02:02 AM
Date: 08-03-84 at 01:05 PM
Date: 08-03-84 at 02:37 PM
Date: 08-04-84 at 02:13 AM
Date: 08-05-84 at 03:48 AM
Date: 08-05-84 at 04:36 AM
Date: 08-29-84 at 10:44 PM
Date: 08-30-84 at 02:31 AM
Date: 08-31-84 at 12:21 AM
Date: 08-31-84 at 11:24 AM
Date: 08-31-84 at 01:02 PM
Date: 08-31-84 at 03:54 PM
Date: 09-01-84 at 07:06 PM
Date: 09-01-84 at 08:46 PM
Date: 09-02-84 at 12:49 AM
Date: 09-02-84 at 07:02 PM
Date: 09-02-84 at 07:33 PM
Date: 09-03-84 at 12:19 AM
Date: 09-03-84 at 12:50 AM
Date: 09-03-84 at 04:14 PM
Date: 09-05-84 at 12:23 AM
Date: 09-07-84 at 05:10 PM
Date: 09-07-84 at 10:06 PM
Date: 09-07-84 at 10:09 PM
Date: 09-08-84 at 04:16 AM
Date: 09-10-84 at 03:24 PM

Seriously, that’s all the posts, and this was a very popular BBS by 1984 standards, and even had two incoming phone lines for multiple injected messages into a given topic. As you can see, sometimes a whole day or even two will go by before a single message is posted, followed by another few days afterwards for a possible response.

In this environment, everything tends to run cool, although flamewars are definitely possible. But a flamewar then is usually a small number of folks dropping into well-worn melees. The introduction of Fidonet, where hundreds of people could interact with each other, definitely turned the notch up. Postings would echo throughout the Fidonet network (and other similar multi-BBS networks) and result in a much more heated discussion.

Compare that, however, to the modern day, where a message base like Fark or Something Awful can have the most specific topic of discussion, a specific event related to a single person hurting themselves, or a found personal item in a subway, and it can instantly expand into a multiple-hundreds-of-participants orgy of linguistic violence.

As the accessibility of a conversation increases, so too does the spectrum of opinion brought to that conversation, until the opinions range along such a wide spectrum that the conversation simply cannot move forward. It will continue to grow, but like a tumor it is useless and for all purposes dead. It will not better anyone involved in it. The conversation has collapsed from the width of the spectrum of opinion.

This will happen more, not less, while engineering continues to deal with the problem as a single-troublemaker issue and not a human nature issue. Broadcast mediums, inherently sterile in presentation, will often represent the cleanly-polished conclusion of a thousands-of-mails-and-contacts pile in the back office. When contemporary people attempt to emulate the positive aspects of this model (clean and clear message, polished delivery, delineated plotline) without understanding the garbage collection behind the screen, they end up falling in on themselves.

Categorised as: computer history

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  1. A guy says:

    Good point, and interesting use of the BBS message base metaphor to illustrate the point.

    I just read an article in Wired about (it may be a few months old, takes me awhile to get to them) about the challenges faced by the Obama administration in attempting to implement measures to deliver more accessibility and transparency to all levels of government. While legal hurdles, coordination and sheer scope are probably larger issues, the article did clearly angle towards the “disappointment” the “active constituents” felt towards the lack of back-and-forth on what forums had already appeared (lack of comments sections on YouTube, etc). To be fair Wired did bring up the typical level of discourse on Youtube as a possible determining factor. And considering what you wrote, who in all honesty would want to seriously debate upon or even possibly decide legislative issues with the trolls from “Flamers’ Cavernz” much less Something Awful.

    P.S. Is there really only one comment on this? Am I hallucinating. O_o

  2. Fuzzlebuttz says:

    Jason, this is still a new medium to most of us. Over the long term (and I’m talking generations) I think the novelty of being able to say just exactly what the fuck is on your mind at that particular moment in time will wear off. I think society in parallel with technology will mature to a certain level where discourse online will level out. Or not, I don’t know. I used to hate all humans but now I’m starting to have renewed faith in them as I see that people are finally waking up. The reason they are waking up is because the internet has given humanity a new power to be connected to one another anywhere in the world instantly and anytime. This is obviously something quite new. So we are still feeling it out and pushing its envelopes and finding out what works and what doesn’t and eventually equillibrium will be reached and OSCD will be as obsolete as ADHD.

  3. TrendyMoron says:

    Fuzzlebutts, I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting for people to get tired of saying what’s on their minds without any repercussions whatsoever. The whole of humanity is not going to mature beyond basic human nature any time soon.

  4. Aurora says:

    The term itself doesn’t make a lot of sense. Since disorders are specific inside of an overarching spectrum.