Friday, September 16, 2005

Public science and social software

I'm currently smitten with DEMOS - "the everyday democracy think tank" - and despite having never met any of the people involved, and not knowing terribly much about them, I fantasise about running away and joining such a circus. (Note to self: see if there is a Canadian equivalent.)

This morning I read a recent report of theirs: The Public Value of Science, Or how to ensure that science really matters by James Wilsdon, Brian Wynne and Jack Stilgoe.

Produced within their nanodialogues project, partly funded by the UK's Sciencewise initiative, the report begins:

"Even in long-established democracies, people do not feel that they have ownership, control or even much influence over the technologies that are exploited by their governments and by commercial enterprises...The scientific community is beginning to realise, but often reluctantly accept, that we scientists need to take greater notice of public concerns, and relate and react to them. Expressions of despair at public ignorance, impotent polemics about the advantages of technology, assertions that our economy is threatened by reactionary attitudes, attempts at manipulation of the press, are all totally inadequate responses. Neither will mere lipservice about the value of public engagement be helpful...The time is right for examining the means and the details of public engagement. One step forward might be for the scientific community to accept that it does not own the science that it pursues. Another step may be for government to place more value on proper public dialogue, and to facilitate it better...In this pamphlet, we argue that despite the progress that has been achieved over the last five years, a fresh injection of energy and momentum is now required. Otherwise, we will end up with little more than the scientific equivalent of corporate social responsibility: a well-meaning, professionalised and busy field, propelled along by its own conferences and reports, but never quite impinging on fundamental practices, assumptions and cultures."


Brilliant.

Anyway, the report covers everything from the ways scientists and government see the public, to the increasing relevance of China and India in global scientific and technological production, to relationships between science and business, to the limitations of linear models of innovation, to public discourse and public value, to problems of determinism and reductionism, to changing scientific cultures themselves.

"Scientists need more frequent opportunities to talk about the choices they are making, the assumptions their work reproduces, and the purposes to which it might be directed...it is our belief that Britain’s hope of becoming 'the best place in the world to do science' rests as much on giving scientists and engineers the freedom and incentive to renew their institutions and practices as it does on ten-year frameworks and R&D targets...

Despite the progress of the science and society agenda, there are still those who maintain that the public are too ignorant to contribute anything useful to scientific decisionmaking...As we emphasised in Seethrough Science, upstream engagement is not about members of the public standing over the shoulder of scientists in the laboratory, taking votes or holding referendums on what they should or should not be doing...This agenda is not about imposing cumbersome bureaucratic structures on science, or forcing lay people onto every research funding committee. Questions about structures do need to be considered, but are a sideshow compared with the far more important – and exciting – challenge of building more reflective capacity into the practice of science. As well as bringing the public into new conversations with science, we need to bring out the public within the scientist – by enabling scientists to reflect on the social and ethical dimensions of their work."


Interesting how they leave unchallenged the assumption that national fitness on the international playing field requires certain scientific and technological capacities. Interesting how they grant agency - visibility and power - to the scientific community. Interesting how they blur the boundaries between public and private.

This is very effective rhetoric. They take many of the principles of science, technology and society research and recode them in terms that revive and revitalise socially and culturally acceptable views from Kuhn's normal science, capitalist economics and participatory democracy. Interessement, translation and enrolment in action.

**

In my dissertation, I discuss the prevailing tendency of "social software" to define "social" in terms of connected individuals. This privileging of individualism, I argue, not only demonstrates cultural and class biases, but also points at some of the limitations of network models of interaction. To focus on connecting individuals along the lines of shared interests and practices is indeed a type of social interaction, but it shouldn't be confused with public value. Even when artists and designers choose to focus on the "public" dimensions of "social" software, they often resurrect the sense of public implied in the "collective," a form of anti-structure if you will, and sometimes a remarkably insular and homogenous one at that. In many cases, "social" software involves technology "for" the people or technology "by" the people, but only rarely do the two come together. Network models are uniquely amenable to connecting and maintaining such discrete pieces in part because they manage or control the types of connections that can be made, and so public wifi networks and other open or hackable architectures are never public in the sense of being "for" and/or "by" everyone.

In The Fall of Public Man, Sennett explains that in the mid-1400s, the "public" was identified with the common good. In the early-1500s, it was identified with being open to general observation and scrutiny, and by the late-1600s, "public" was contrasted with "private" or being sheltered by family and friends. The 1700s witnessed the struggle for public order - or the imposition of private (elite) norms and expectations outside the home environment. By the 1800s such movements admitted defeat, and those private citizens who could afford to seek protection from "public chaos" did. Segregation - most often justified in terms of "shared interests" and which could just as easily have been described as "irreconcilable differences" - became the new norm.

Sennett's public space is seen to be a special region of sociability where, if private refers to that familiar and homogenous, then public comprises the unfamiliar and heterogeneous. So if public life consists of negotiating difference and complexity, and we tie this sense of public to our definition of the social, then how many "social software" projects are actually social? Where in our collective social softwares are our public values?

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