Weighing it out

If a debater can learn only one skill, I would choose for them to learn weighing.  To progress beyond saying “You are TOTALLY WRONG and I am TOTALLY RIGHT” and instead say “These six things you say are right, but I feel that these four factors I’m talking about are more compelling still” is a hallmark of mature thought, in my book.  It’s all the more a shame that political discourse takes the form of TOTALLY WRONG and TOTALLY RIGHT.  One of my main objections to Public Forum’s format is that the brevity makes thoughtful weighing in an mature manner a losing strategy.  One of the hallmarks of the case wiki discussion has been that we’re all weighing and carefully so.   I wish all discussions of forensics policy could be done so.

So we’ve been talking about this disclosure idea, in its myriad angles.  Jim remains skeptical, I remain skeptical and even somewhat nervous about it, but many, including Aaron Timmons, remain thoughtfully for it, and will drive it forward.  He believes that the harms are potentially strong, but the link to debate is remote, which is a fair opinion.  I think the link is somewhat stronger than he does, and I don’t weight it against the existence of a case wiki itself.

First, the link: the nightmare scenario has happened already in college debate.  Twice.  The first is the YouTube rant by a policy coach at CEDA nationals that sat idle for several months, until finally emerging, hitting the news, and famously leading the college to fire the coach and disband the debate team.

A better link comes from APDA, the parliamentary league that most of the Northeastern “elite” schools belong to.  APDA would publish videos of a number of high quality elimination rounds.  In one, a debater argued for the teaching of masturbation in public school.  APDA’s format meant he had choice of neither topic area or side in this round; he was just following the rules of the game.  This video also sat online and unheralded for a while, until the student graduated and became the Republican candidate for a New York State Assembly seat on Long Island.  The video was seized upon, and his candidacy was done.  He was a long shot candidate anyway; unlikely to win.  However, if he had thoughts of moving into public office in the future, in races where he had more of a chance, those thoughts are gone now.  He’s now Pro Masturbation Boy forever.  The APDA video website has since been scrubbed of much of its best material.

So the link isn’t entirely nonexistent, empirically.  However, there’s plenty of space between videos about a coach’s ill-advised rant or an extemporaneous form of debate on an unserious topic, and an LD case wiki.  As Timmons says, Policy has had case wikis for a long time now.

However, today’s internet is different.  We’re at an inflection point as searching becomes commonplace, not the realm of teenagers or geeks.  Five years ago, no one Google searched prospective employees; now everyone does.  The first class of students with Facebook access throughout their high school careers just graduated last June.    The CEO of Google recently speculated that high school students should change their name upon graduation, to leave behind the legacy of their immature years locked up in search engines and online archives.  Google, of course, is the reason this online presence persists, but that’s what search engines must inevitably do: they’re the magnet that pulls the needle from the haystack.  Search engines, boundlessly useful, also change the nature of information: a lot of data used to be nominally public but impossible to filter and sift for what you wanted.   If Menick wanted to see what my house looked like, he’d could satisfy his curiosity only by driving to Boston; now he can hop online and take a look for himself in minutes.  The barrier to entry is a lot lower.  The appearance of my house was always public, but now it’s public and searchable.  And that makes all the difference.  A search can turn up anything about a student; Facebook photos, former dates, and yes, bizarre (to non-debaters) Marxism negatives and nuclear terrorism speculations in debate cases.  It hasn’t happened before, but we’re in a moment where it’s more and more uniquely likely to happen.

Finally, I’m weighing this possibility not against the benefits of the case wiki itself, but a publicly available case wiki.  I think a case wiki can achieve many of its aims by simply being private and password protected, and dumping it at the end of a topic run.  The password can be something simple, and it can circulate among debaters freely nationwide, though it should also change reasonably often too.  It can get emailed out to NDCA members whenever it does change, and they can in turn pass it on to anyone else.

A semi-private password is a very porous barrier; anyone with determination could defeat it.  That’s the point.   First, it would keep out casual views of the case wiki.   Outsiders to debate wouldn’t be able to just stumble upon it and see what was there; to gain access you’d need to be trying.  Second, and relatedly, it would keep out search and archive engines.  A Google search on a student’s name would not turn this material up, and later removals would be real removals; the information wouldn’t linger on in the Wayback Machine.  There’d be no more lurking time bombs.

I don’t pretend to know what effect a case wiki will have on the rounds itself.  I suspect, in my uncharitable moments, that it’s being driven by large programs that long ago reconciled themselves to doing extensive scouting.  Now, those same coaches who gave up on judging several years ago are suddenly forced to actually watch rounds again, for scouting purposes, and they don’t like it.  The solution?  Disclosure.  More seriously, I worry that it may make debate less accessible, or at the very least the decision of whether to continue to use disclosure won’t truly weight accessibility in the final calculus.

But I think that a public and open to the world case wiki is just very poor informational design; especially when you sacrifice so little to make it just private enough to keep out most of the long term harms and risks.  And I think that the exposure to a tournament that requires use of a public disclosure wiki isn’t nonexistent either: witness that Shanahan’s rant destroyed not just his own job but his school’s debate program too.

And that’s what we don’t need, in a shrinking activity in a world of ever drying public funding for education.  That’s what we don’t need, at all.