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Deborah Tater Talk at the Humanities Center This Friday


ThoughtSwap is a web-based application that can be used to change the infrastructure of discussion in face-to-face small groups or classrooms.  It is a targeted, ephemeral tool that can be used to promote conscientious discourse by enabling people’s initial contributions to the discourse to be made anonymously.  Anonymous initial contributions can be used, by themselves, to prompt discussion that includes a wider range of positions than might emerge without the protection of anonymity, thus grounding the conversation on a firm basis.   However, ThoughtSwap has another key feature: by allowing the redistribution of contributions, it allows people to be asked to defend someone else’s position.  That is, instead of asking people to explain their own positions---a request which often leads them towards using practiced words and degrees of elaboration---we may make them responsible for presenting someone else’s positions, asking them to extend their own imaginations to encompass why a person acting in good faith would respond the way they responded.  ThoughtSwap is one of a suite of tools developed and under exploration by ThirdLab that utilize a philosophy we call zensign, that what we do not do with the tool can be as important as what we do.  In this case, face-to-face discussion with a human facilitator or instructor remains the key activity.  The technology just nudges that discussion to encompass a bit more of the elements that people might be difficult to say directly out loud.

Deborah Tatar is a Professor of Computer Science and, by courtesy, Psychology at Virginia Tech as well as a Member of the Center for Human-Computer Interaction and an affiliate of the Program for Women and Gender Studies at Virginia Tech.  Her undergraduate studies were in English and American Literature and Language (AB, Harvard, 1981) and her Ph.D. was in Psychology (Stanford, 1998).  Her dissertation was concerned with social and personal effects of having a pre-occupied listener during interaction.  Prior to taking up the professoriate, she has also been a Senior Software Engineer at Digitial Equipment Corporation, the author of a textbook on the LISP programming language, a Member of the Research Staff at Xerox PARC and a Cognitive Scientist in the Center for Technology and Learning at SRI International.  By-and-large, she asks what technologies we could have if we thought more carefully about the human richness the designs encourage, the values that they embody and the societal consequences of technological mistakes.