The IDeA Project: A White-Paper

a final paper for

Impact of Networks and New Media
Prof. Howard Besser, BA296.7
Dec 12, 1996

Allen Gates
Walter Lovato

"When there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty."

Henry Robert


This paper explains the goals and summarizes current research for the IDeA project, a long-term effort to advance the state-of-the-art in electronically mediated, wide-scale deliberative assembly on the Web, using Robert's Rules of Order as a focal point and primary research vehicle. The project was launched in Fall 1996 at U.C. Berkeley, in conjunction with Prof. Howard Besser's Impact of Networks and New Media class, which included a diverse group of students from the MBA, Computer Science, and Public Policy programs. Chief researcher is Allen Gates, a second year MBA student, electrical engineer, and software developer with an abiding interest in wide-scale deliberative assembly. First year MBA Walter Lovato worked jointly on the in-class project, and has provided useful insight and commentary.

If at any point a quasi-anarchic subtext should rear its head, we apologize in advance, but not too much. The IDeA concept has some profound and potentially very desirable implications, which we hope you'll recognize from the essay. As for relevance, IDeA could only happen with networks, and as imagined, it could become a hugely significant class of new media. Enjoy.

IDeA Overview

IDeA falls under the broad umbrella of collaborative groupware, but differentiates itself by focusing on Web-based large-scale deliberative assembly built on a framework of general parliamentary law-specifically, a cyberspace adaptation of Robert's Rules of Order. By large-scale, we mean the ability for groups of as many as a thousand people to effectively collaborate and transact a wide variety of business on the Web. By deliberative assembly, we mean at least what is stated in Robert's Rules, namely that:

Robert's Rules On the Web? What's the Big IDeA?!

Sure. Robert's Rules provides an excellent, rigorous, time-tested architectural blueprint and working document for running effective deliberative assemblies. Only problem is, well--hardly anybody cares about Robert's except grandmothers in service clubs, or maybe the occasional killjoy student council advisor. Besides, aren't Robert's Rules:

Wellsometimes, yes, sometimes, definitely, probably, no, and NO! Yes, it can be dry, and it is long, and there are detailed procedures and exceptions and protocol that can sometimes tie your brain in knots. And yes, it's Beavis' and Butthead's worst nightmare. But an anachronism from meatspace? No way! Much of the material is timeless--a complete recipe book for avoiding chaos in a group setting. All wrong for cyberspace? An even more emphatic no way! Robert's is a treasure trove of common sense algorithms for getting things done in the large. Best of all, the most tedious, detail laden parts benefit most from computer automation. Even in paper-and-ink form might, Robert's is highly relevant to IDeA and the Web. It's a mother lode of great software ideas, if you keep an open mind. That killjoy student council advisor might not be as dumb as you think.

This raises an obvious question: What next? Robert's Rules of Order (hereafter RRO) is nice, and so is the Web, but where do they play together?

RRO Gets Wired

In a nutshell, it's all about leveraging the proven substance of RRO in an electronic medium, preferably one which is:

If it sounds like the World Wide Web, that's the IDeA. In a nutshell, IDeA is about combining Web technology with RRO to build a powerful tool for building communities of affinity. Sounds vague, doesn't it? Maybe even like marketing-speak. So let's approach the definition a little differently, by way of a thought experiment.

Start with Disenchantment…

Let's say we're in early 1997, thoroughly disenchanted with the recently completed Presidential election. Mr. Clinton played defense for six months, a situation made possible by Mr. Dole's failure to develop a credible agenda, let alone convey it to a skeptical public. Looking ahead to the 2000 election, we shake our heads in resignation at the prospect of Al Gore vs. Jack Kemp vs. Ross, shorter sound-bites, insipid media coverage, vapid media consultants, Dick Morris clones, spin doctors who should be sued for malpractice, and rhetoric emptier than a nun's gun collection. El mismo que toto-same as it ever was. And we wish someone had a better IDeA…

…a way perhaps, to organize a new political party in cyberspace, built on common-sense and hard facts, not $1000-a-plate dinners and politics-as-usual. A technology where hundreds of intelligent people can convene to decide critical issues, and thousands more can contribute. A technology that supports meetings, sessions, assembly history, disposition of motions, voting, document multi-casting, distributed hyper-linking, secure conferencing, minute-keeping, opinion surveys, polling, group scheduling and calendars, agenda keeping, speaker timing, enforcement of parliamentary procedure, and a host of other functions to ease the task of deliberative assembly. Around this technology can be built

A virtumocracy.

Yeah, sure. Utopian bullshit, no doubt. Starry-eyed technobabble. Yet another Wired magazine brave new world piece, with lots of annoying dayglo ink. Get real. Virtumocracy. Sounds like something Howard Rheingold made up, or maybe Alvin Toffler, in his dotage. Nice try. Brilliant IDeA, guys. One thing, though…

…It's Going to Happen

Easy for us to say. This started out as just another grade. But IDeA is going to happen, and as it does, there's going to be some major upheaval. It won't happen overnight, and it won't necessarily be pretty, to wit:

"Every great change must expect opposition because it shakes the very foundations of privilege."

Lucretia Mott

But why is it going to happen? Well, because it just makes too much sense. Rather than rely on the shopworn political apparatus of Eeyore and Dumbo, the future of politics is virtual. No sir, this doesn't mean Not even close. That's not the IDeA.

This is the IDeA

One key idea is to enable effective, large-scale virtual communities, with the power to do more than interleave text with nine other anonymous surfers who stumbled into the Firefly chat room by accident. IDeA is a key enabling technology for virtual communities to:

IDeA has the potential to fundamentally alter the status quo, because it will allow a critical mass of people to cheaply assemble and transact business in cyberspace. Heading off to your local Republican fundraiser? Good luck. The IDeA Virtual Party (IVP) just raised $500,000 in two hours with an online auction. A quorum of the 17 IVP national party members are now meeting online, engaged in a parliamentary session which will span several meetings over two days, to decide the disposition of campaign funds over the next week. The IVP candidates rely on a top-echelon, Java fueled Web site to present their agenda to the surfing public. Al Gore and Jack Kemp are like a deer in headlights-every word they've uttered publicly is on the IVP site in the CredibilityWatch areas, with every contradictory or inaccurate statement hyperlinked to a reliable set of sources which expose the contradiction. Next election, if a candidate steadfastly defends a preposterously Dolesque 15% tax cut, users will be able to run the IVP BudgetSim Java-applet to graphically expose the fallacy of such reasoning. With the click of a button, users will watch an animation showing that if Defense, Social Security, Debt Service, and Medicare comprise 70% of the federal budget, and you don't cut spending in these areas, then a 15% tax cut means 50% of the what's left. Users who still don't get it can hyperlink to periodical articles which clarify. See'ya Bob. Be glad you retired in 1996.

The Raisons d'Etre: Why the Time is Right

So What's this IDeA Project?

Right now, it's evolving from just ideas to some tangible experiment-ware. In the remainder of this paper, we discuss the work to-date, followed by plans for the future.

First off, here's what RRO says about rules of order:

The term rules of order refers to written rules of parliamentary procedure formally adopted by an assembly or an organization. Such rules relate to the orderly transaction of business in meetings and to the duties of officers in that connection. The object of rules of order is to facilitate the smooth functioning of the assembly and to provide a firm basis for resolving questions of procedure that may arise.

This is all fine and good, until one realizes that this set of rules isn't your "no running, chewing gum, horseplay, or sharp objects" set of rules. Rather, RRO is a richly detailed compendum which sprawls across 20 chapters, 60 major sections, and 800+ pages. Thus, job number one was to get RRO moved to electronic form. RRO is loaded with cross references, virtually begging to be hyper-linked. Thus…ahem

This is a Research Project With No Budget, So…

We really, really hope the Robert's people will be nice here. This project is kind of underfunded <grin>. Yes, despite the quasi public-domain nature of RRO, the copyright is rightfully held by the Robert's Trustees. In my defense, I bought a copy of the book, and plan to use the electronic version only for research purposes. Nonetheless, I'm going to need to get a non-exclusive license to use their material in exchange for my hyper-linked version. I know-I'm reading Mary Carter's Electronic Highway Robbery.

Enter HP, Xerox, and Microsoft

That's right. Scanned and OCR'ed. All 800+ pages of the RRO tome, now in Microsoft Word 95 format. One of the most intensely boring experiences of my life, made tolerable only by Seattle's finest--Pearl Jam and the Presidents of the United States of America. Kudos to HP for a nice, low-cost flatbed which performed like a champ. Kudos also to Xerox for their outstanding TextBridge OCR software. It's not perfect, but it's about as close as you can get from a $99 package. Even the pages with tiny Roman numerals, like xxix.

Next Step: RRO Meets the Web, Phase 1


The current focus on this project is to migrate the entire RRO corpus to the Web, with extensive hyper-linking. There are several compelling reasons to do this, namely:

Tools Used to Create Demo

To build the demo version, I've used the following tools. I always like to know what tools other developers and researchers are using, so feel obligated to provide this information for my own work.

A View of a Work-In-Progress: RRO/Web

Here's a demo you can play with, illustrating how the initial RRO will be hyperlinked. This was a proof-of-concept using a single chapter from the electronic RRO. The section links have been stubbed in for the moment, but will point to the real sections in the finished version.

An Invitation

IDeA is an ongoing project. We invite you to return in early January to review new developments.