Writing Blocks, or What Would Darwin Do?

One of the great features of Wikipedia (aside from the "random page" button, which has destroyed countless hours of my life) is the ability to view the entire history of any article. Popular articles have hundereds, even thousands of edits, and you can look at every last version if you are so inclined. If you poke around in the history of major wikipedia articles, a pattern starts to emerge: most of them started out as total crap.

Take the Empire State building, one of our country's most famous landmarks. Surely a topic worth a pretty big article in an encyclopedia, right? Here is the entire contents of Wikipedia's First Article on the subject:

A 102 story Art Deco building in New York City was designed by Shreve, Lamb & Harmon Associates and built in 1930. It is the tallest building in the city, and was the tallest building in the world for many years.

At 9:49 a.m. on Saturday July 28, 1945, a B-25 Mitchell bomber accidentally crashed into the 79th floor, where the offices of the National Catholic Welfare Council were located. The fire was extinguished in 40 minutes. In the accident 14 people got killed.

That's it. Two small paragraphs, with nothing but basic information and a single factoid. It even has an inaccuracy: construction of the tower didn't finish until 1931. This article would be bad by third-grader essay standards, much less the high standards of an encyclopedia.

But look at the article today and you get something completely different: an execllent article, with sections on the tower's history, design, and significance, as well as some excellent photographs. For one person to research, write, and fact-check this article (not to mention take all the pictures) would take a paid professional the better part of a week. How did the article get so good all of a sudden?

The answer, of course, is that it wasn't "sudden" at all. This article has nearly 9 years worth of editing - thousands of revisions in all. One edit might add a new section, correct an inaccuracy, even remove vandalism like "A public observatory at the top of the building offers impressive views of your butt." There's no guarantee that any particular edit makes an improvement, but over time the article gets better and better.

This process goes by many names, but I'm a computer scientist so I'm going to call it Evolutionary Design. Instead of being built from meticulous blueprints and specifications, like the tower itself, the Empire State Building article emerged from many small design decisions, each one taking something that exists and attempting to make it just a little bit better.

Evolutionary design is a pretty crappy way of creating skyscrapers (say I go out back and build a dog house, am I any closer to building the Empire State Building?), but it's a great way to create less "physical" work: computer code, online encyclopedias, and (I'd argue) debate evidence.

Imagine you've never written a block before, or that you don't know what a block is, and I give you the assignment to "write me a block of Solvency answers to Zumbrota's Food Stamps case." Where the hell do you start? Maybe you've seen what a block looks like, but blocks have all this evidence and tags and jargon... where do you even begin? This is the problem: most Novices see a bunch of blocks before they are given the assignment to write one. It's like being given the final Empire State Building article and saying "there. Now go home and write one on the Leaning Tower of Pisa." Seeing the finished product, it's hard to imagine it's humble beginnings.

Now imagine a different assignment, something like "Zumbrota's case increases the number of people who qualify for food stamps, can you think of some reasons that might not work?"

I think that with a little bit of coaxing, your average novice debater could come up with a list that looks something like this:

  1. People won't user the food stamps because there's a social stigma.

  2. Food is just one expense. People also need housing, transportation, etc so they'll still be in poverty

  3. People will sell their food stamps on the black market and the use the cash to buy stupid stuff

Sweet. There's a start. Copy-paste to word. Control+S. You've just made a Block, a set of arguments prepared to answer a possible opponents' position. It's incomplete, it lacks evidence and strategic vision, and it probably isn't formatted very well, but it's a start. Like that first article on the Empire State Building from 2001, it has the potential to become something great, given care and attention.

Now, though you've just gotten started, you've already done the hardest part: getting started! After taking a few seconds to mentally celebrate your first block, it's time to start revising. Maybe think of some more reasons that their plan won't work. Maybe track down the cites from Zumbrota's case and add in an indict of their evidence, maybe track down a card of your own that makes one of the points on your block, but better. There are lots of ways that you can revise your block (and I plan on discussing many of them in this guide), but the point is that you're block is never "done," only "better." Your success as a debater doesn't hinge on how good your first revision was, but rather how well you revise it, and how well you incorporate your experience into your evidence.

I can't tell you how many times I got to the end of a debate round and thought to myself "Man, our 2AC block for that argument was crap. We sure got lucky this time." Maybe 5% of the time we'd actually go back and revise the block to make it better. By the time one of us sat down to re-write the block, we'd usually long forgotten the advice the judge gave us about how to make it better. Which is sad, because modern technology has made it so easy to revise your writing. I think that our set of tools has a long way to go in supporting evolutionary design (more on that later), but we've come a long way since the days of scissors and tape. Even if you don't have a laptop, you should be making constant edits to blocks, even if scrawled on the back of the pages, of how you can make that block better. Over time, all of your little improvements (and the improvements of your teammates) can turn mediocre blocks into deadly weapons.

Credit where it's due, the idea for this post borrows heavily from Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody

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