META: Improving the list (was: Can we please dekookify the list?)
Sun, 28 Feb 1999 09:25:22 EST

The subject of maintaining focus on the open extropians list has come up once again, and rightly so. As Brian Atkins has pointed out, extropian ideas and values are increasingly entering the mainstream and mentions of ExI and this list are appearing more and more outside our community. In response to this recent discussion, I would like to make a few observations.

First, I would urge all list subscribers to PLEASE BEAR IN MIND THE SUBJECT MATTER OF CORE INTEREST TO THE BROADER COMMUNITY REPRESENTED BY THE LIST SUBSCRIBERS AS A WHOLE. This is a list for discussion of transhumanism and extropianism. There are some fine examples of postings in this milieu: As I pointed out recently, Doug Skrecky's and Anders Sandberg's work in collecting and publishing here items of recent research in science and technology aimed at augmentation of the human animal and the discussions that have gown out of these postings are the kinds of things we have all come here to find. Other examples of recent discussions that are, in my opinion, clearly within the core area of interest to transhumanists and extropians include the thread about the role of spirituality in transhumanism and extropiansim started by Natasha V. More and the discussion of the FAQ edited by Nick Bostrom.

Second, extended discussions of specific issues that may go into considerable depth are, in my opinion, certainly appropriate here. Such discussions may explore particular issues into avenues that may not at first seem relevant to the core ideas and values of transhumanism and extropianism. However, it is incumbent on every poster to work at maintaining relevance to the main topics of interest to the list's subscribers as a whole. As Winston Churchill once observed, "A FANATIC IS SOMEONE WHO WILL NOT CHANGE THE SUBJECT". If you have any doubt about whether this observation applies to you personally, please reread Sir Winston's aphorism again. And again. Thank you.

If a thread has drifted far off an original item of interest to transhumanists and extropians generally, PLEASE consider taking the discussion into private off-list correspondence or, perhaps, creating a list specifically for the discussion of that topic. There are many examples of such very worthwhile
"daughter lists" that have been spawned by material that has been first
discussed here, both sponsored by ExI and otherwise.
With the development of services such as "OneList", creation of "daughter lists" has become easier than ever. In short, before you post the 125th message on a topic, think about who has maintained interest by responding to your posts and consider taking the discussion into private correspondence or onto a separate, specialinterest list.

With all that in mind, let me echo Brian's observation about the value of this open forum as a place where newcomers to the ideas and values of transhumanism and extropianism gather important first impressions about our community. List subscription rates have been consistently much higher in the last year or so than in previous times, but so has list turnover. The more this list offers high-quality discussion about the main themes of transhumanism and extropianism, the more successful it will be in building the kind of long-term cultural change that is one of ExI's main goals. This is an open and informal forum, and I, for one, want to keep it that way: I personally welcome and enjoy humor, serendipitous cross-posting, extended open discussion and simple socializing within our community here. But we must all ask each other to also THINK about the impression our discussions have on the wider world before we post.

Now, as someone who has been on the list for some time, but not since its inception, let me offer some observations about the discussion of custom-built list software and schemes for collaborative filtering. The original list was run on a piece of software written for the extropians group that was, by the standards of its day, pretty sophisticated. The list also had a charter that attempted to implement extropian ideas about self-governance. In my opinion, neither element of the list's initial constitution realized their full potential because the community could not economically support a sufficient level of on-going technical support. Despite its creator's best efforts, the software required maintenance beyond a level possible with part-time, volunteer efforts. Likewise, the "political" aspects of the initial constitution of the list required more effort to maintain than the body of subscribers was able to invest in it.

Neither of these observations leads to the conclusion that elaborate collaborative filtering mechanisms or privately produced list constitutions are a bad idea. However, I believe that the experience of the original list constitution does teach that it is difficult to maintain the good intentions and good ideas of original conception without on-going economic support sufficient to make sure the right people are able to devote time to issues that arise WHEN they arise. No matter how skillfully written, custom-built software has to be maintained and upgraded. Who will do this? Most importantly, who will do it WHEN IT NEEDS TO BE DONE? If it takes even a couple of days for a fix to a disabling breakdown of the list software to be accomplished, the list community can quickly lose cohesion. Through absolutely no one's fault, this is what precipitated the change to less sophisticated off-the-shelf list software. Likewise, distributed private dispute resolution to maintain a preconceived list charter requires the devotion of time by the disputants and arbiters, IN A TIMELY FASHION: One of the primary ingredients of good justice is swift justice. The fact that many of the list's original subscribers are still here is evidence that people prefer some community to an ideal community that can't execute its essential functions in a timely fashion.

Which leads to practical considerations raised by the proposals that have been discussed since Brian's post. Right now, ExI maintains this list with donated server capacity and minimal personal effort. Using custom built software would presumably require more effort on the part of our current host, or some other host. Who will support that effort economically and with devotion of time and effort? Any current volunteer effort, no matter how wellintentioned, is subject to the contingencies of one or few people's personal lives over time. What seems like a minor commitment today may become unworkable as jobs and life commitments change.

If these issues could be sorted out in a manner that offered some guaranty of continuity to the list in the face of the kinds of contingencies that would inevitably arise, I'd be all for adopting a more sophisticated collaborative filtering scheme for the list as a whole. In the meantime, though, I'd advise caution in making significant change in the constitution of the list.

I'll close my little sermon by once again offering my personal gratitude to the folks who have made this a rich and lively forum for many years.

	Greg Burch     <>----<>
	   Attorney  :::  Director, Extropy Institute  :::  Wilderness Guide   -or-
	           "Good ideas are not adopted automatically.  They must
	              be driven into practice with courageous impatience." 
	                      -- Admiral Hyman G. Rickover