Peer Day on the Internet: Canceled!
Evaluation by John Perkins

1998 John Perkins

Michael Bratman would call the discussion, planning and completion of a peer day a "shared intention." He says to comprehend shared intention
...we should not appeal to an attitude in the mind of some superagent; nor should we assume that shared intentions are always grounded in prior promises. My conjecture is that we should, instead, understand shared intention, in the basic case, as a state of affairs consisting primarily of appropriate attitudes of each individual participant and their interrelations. 1

Due to breakdowns in the communication among my peers and myself, I canceled this peer day. I did not want to, but I felt that many of the technical logistics I had to arrange and the uncertainties of resolving all of our changing plans had become too complex and unstable.

Using Bratman's article, I will briefly examine my assumptions about this peer day, and analyze where our shared intention crumbled.2

We had scheduled this peer day on the Internet for Sunday 10/2 to meet from 9 AM to 5 PM. Bratman points out that "in shared intention I not only intend that we J; I also intend that we J in part because of you relevant intention."3

I insisted that when we met on Saturday 10/1/94 that we talk, as a formal part of the day's agenda about the aborted Internet peer day. I felt angry. Bratman has given me a structure for analyzing my anger. In his most developed argument, which he labeled View 4, he says,

View 4: We intend to J if and only if
1. (a) I intend that we J and (b) you intend that we J
2. I intend that we J in accordance with and because of 1a, 1b, and meshing subplans of 1a and 1b; you intend that we J in accordance with and because of 1a, 1b, and meshing subplans of 1a and 1b.
3. 1 and 2 are common knowledge between us.4
So, what happened to our shared intention from our Colloquium to when I cancelled the peer day?

(1) I felt we, the group of us, had reached a shared intention to have two full peer days on 10/1 and 10/2. We share a common knowledge of a shared intention. We had a rough sub-plan to meet from 9 AM to 5 PM. I undertook studying the Internet specifically to prepare for co-convening (with Paula Wolfe) a peer day on 10/2.

(2) At our starting colloquium we had agreed to keep the participation to just people attending the colloquium, so that some of our time would be like a reunion and review. Therefore I had not promoted this peer day to other Union Learners. Neither had any of the other learners.

(3) Soon after leaving my colloquium and getting involved in my Internet research, (5) I realized that the Internet was much more complex than I had anticipated. I wrote my fellow learners requesting everyone to do something to distribute the burden (In a peer day I assumed we could request that all share equally in providing content for the class). I had begun to make some arrangements: I had inquired about renting a local computer user group's resource center set up with big screen projection, so everyone would be able to see; I also had begun to locate experts who might have been willing to come and guide us through the Internet. We had discussed the rental of the resource center in California. In my proposal I asked for comments and feedback.

(4) Thomas Broxtermann from San Diego had arranged to fly into and out of Portland, so that he could ride up to Seattle with Helen Livingston and Renice Schweitzer. To get Tom to his flight on Sunday, the three of them would have to leave before noon. Helen had informed Paula. Eventually, Paula and Helen told me. We discussed briefly working a long day on 10/1 and starting early on Sunday. This did not feel like sound andragogy. Also, I wanted to have firm plans before calling possible technical experts.

As Bratman points out
Recall that intentions are subject to a demand for stability. One reason for this is that the reconsideration of an intention already formed can itself have significant costs; a second is that an agent who too easily reconsiders her prior intentions will be less reliable partner in social coordination. 6
(5) The emotional and social costs did seem too high to me. The learners leaving early proposed to share in the financial costs of these services; but that was not my primary issue. Three learners leaving effectively destroyed the peer day, since just Paula and I would remain. The instability of the plans did not bode well, and I lost my confidence that my peers were preparing as I had requested in the peer day proposal.

(6) I needed a great deal of cooperation from learners, the user group, and the Internet expert, but ten days before the peer day nothing was rock solidly in place. I still needed to arrange for someone to actually open the resource center, my first request to an expert was turned down, and my peers were making what felt to me like drastic changes in the schedule. So I canceled the peer day on the Internet.

Margaret Gilbert argues that an important meaning of "acting together" is, as Bratman summarizes her, "each participant has associated nonconditional obligations to act and nonconditional entitlements to rebuke the other for failures to act."(7) When we met on October 1, I claimed my right to rebuke. This is how Thomas, Paula, Helen and Renice responded, naturally, according to my perceptions of what occurred.

All of them accepted a portion of the responsibility in the breakdown in communication. Helen mentioned that she had assumed that Paula was keeping me informed of the changes. Paula said she was waiting for plans to clear up. We all agreed that for future peer days we will communicate changes in plans to listed co-conveners separately and early.

But a few began to suggest that maybe it was more "my" peer day than a shared intention, or "our" peer day. I clearly saw it as "ours," while some learners tried to describe it as "mine." This is a sliding type of responsibility, as though our discussions in Tiburon were not binding on them, just on me (and perhaps Paula).

Some learners did not like highly organized structures for their peer days. However, the risk of not liking a convener's style accompanies any peer day or seminar or class. No one in July had said, "Sure, I'll come, if, and only if, your proposal meets with my approval for an appropriate style for the day." I feel we had made a commitment to each other simultaneously binding on everyone. To Bratman, "Once we begin executing a shared intention implicit promises frequently arise--promises that generate nonconditional obligations."(8) I agree.


1. Thomas Bratman, "Shared Intention," in Ethics 104(1) October 1993: 97 - 113, quote is from p. 99.
2. Some of these arguments were refined in a private conversation with Elizabeth Butler in Seattle on 11/13/94.
3. Bratman, p. 104.
4.Ibid., p. 106.
5. This included: locating the inexpensive but superb Internet Public Access Guide which I informed my peers on how to purchase in my peer day proposal, attending the Macintosh Downtown Users Group main meeting and telecommunication special interest group's meetings on the Internet, attending two evening presentation by King County Library on the Internet, reading popular computer journals on e-mail, getting my own e-mail address and just as I decided to cancel the peer day I enrolled in a course on the Internet conducted via Internet e-mail.
6. Bratman, p. 110
7. Ibid..
8. Ibid. p. 111.