Playing cards for really tiny stakes

Yesterday marked my first visit to the Dana centre with my Audience Panel hat on (not as trendy as it sounds). The topic was nanotechnology with the format supplied by progressive economics foundation nef, in the form of their card game Democs – DEliberative Meeting Of CitizenS, apparently. I’ve been there only once before, for a discussion of measuring brain activity for lie detector purposes (we hit this topic at Mind Hacks); it’s essentially a venue for public engagement with science, much like the presently dormant Cafe Scientifique at the ICA (however, it seems to have found a home at the Dana Centre, though quiet since January; check out your location to see if there is any action) and the nearby Darwin centre. In London you’re well supplied for discussion and debate on science (why, not last month there was an illuminated talk by Messrs Stafford and Webb on cultivated perception at Foyles), but much of this depends on being in the know – the right mailing lists and so on.

This was the Dana centres first use of Democs, which is essentially a structured way to introduce information about a topic and have a discussion, and after the scheduled session those on the Panel were plumped into a focus group. Quick tip – if you’re going to ask people to turn up at 6:20 and then end up keeping them til after 10pm, it would be nice to supply some food beyond olives and nuts, or tell them to eat first. Just sayin. On the focus group turns the future use of the game, so in some sense the future of public engagement with science, making what follows of breathtaking importance.

When we arrived the missus and myself were greeted and seated at a table with a bunch of other people; we were the only two with any priors, which could have been awkward if it were not for this stubborn flu (after 18 days I am entitled to call it that) rendering me impervious to social nicety. Drink orange juice, stare at pretty screens. The centre, which is an outgrowth of the British Science Museum, is a bright, flashy, multimedia bar, wherin organisers strut about in brittany-type headsets (strangely flesh-coloured, strikingly like face huggers in the moments where reality was flickering), but in a fairly accessible manner. It feels a little bit yo sushi, in the way that you could bring your folks there and have them bemused but impressed, rather than bewildered til they crack, clawing at their eyes as they stagger into the conforting outdoors. I know this is true because I have seen two sets of ‘folks’ through the experience without incident. That said, if that robot drinks waiter had appeared on the scene, it would have been touch and go.

The game, introduced at confusing length by the Head Brittany (HB), is all about arming people with knowledge about an issue and allowing them to discuss it in a safe space. The first part turned out fairly well. There was a short introduction to nanotech via HB and the screens, then after a quick riffle shuffle the first set of cards were doled out, each containing a key piece of info on the topic. Everyone at the table picked two cards to read out, and explained why they chose those. The rest went to the graveyard discard pile. It felt like a clever way to orient people to information, by making it interactive (rather than yet more facts over loudspeaker) and giving some direction through demanding selection of the best (by whatever criteria) facts; it also had a parallel role in icebreaking, as the whole group was forced through a process together, increasing cohesion, and had to back up their choices with reasons, revealing where each of us were coming from. For these reasons alone, the game as it stood showed enormous potential in facilitating genuine public engagement with a scientific issue that they could know little or nothing about prior to commencement. However, there were various issues that put the whole thing, well, out of whack.

The game did not lend itself well to discussion; in fact, it severely cramped it. Following the information round was an issues round, where in a similar fashion cards (this time denoting issues such as ‘Who controls the uses of nanotechnology?’ were distributed and each member spoke about two. This seemed to be the section in which debate and discussion ought to flow, yet it flat failed. The biggest issue was pragmatic; each section was on a fixed time regime, and we barely had time to read our choices out before we were cut short. This can be remedied, but for me more frustrating was the ground rules under which discussion must take place. The emphasis on a safe space, where debate (as opposed to consensus-forming) was actively discouraged, seemed to me entirely wrong-headed. It meant that the justifications for cards were weak and general- ‘I think this is something we shouldn’t neglect in this debate’ and were never challenged, which left no obvious mechanism for winnowing down the multitude of perspectives supplied. Now, I think that discussion should have some kind of safe space in which to occur – I’ve written about it before, it underwrites the name of this blog, and some of my favorite sites (e.g. Obsidian Wings, Left2Right) enforce this with a resultant high calibre of discussion. Giving people time to speak, allowing quiet voices to be heard, civility, and the assumption that everyone is arguing in good faith seem to me entirely right and proper. (Of course, not everyone agrees.) But the use of counterfactuals, explicit disagreement, reduction ad absurdo or pointing to internal inconsistency seem to me worthwhile ways of challenging and developing opinion. These were approaches that the game did not give a space to.

To my mind this totally limited the utility of the game. The final stages wherein the cards preserved by the group were ammassed and sorted into different clusters was thought provoking but esperating, as no-one wanted to make too bold a decision yet there was no explicit accord on what was important, as we hadn’t a chance to make a case and stake a claim. When we were then asked to quickly choose the cluster that the group agreed was most important, you could sense the shrug undulate across the table. This process did not yield that product.

So the game (as we played it) was flawed but certainly had its bright moments; I think it was an excellent way to introduce knowledge to a lay group and encourage participation between strangers. Within the focus group, various measures were suggested; one was the allocation of different story cards (expressing the situation and viewpoint of a relevant individual, such as a biomedic or a transhumanist) to different tables, as a starting point for debate; in our session the stories were simply read out back-to-back at the beginning, and didn’t serve as more than a distraction. Another was fewer issue cards and more emphasis on debate from this stage (after the icebreaking), possibly applying these issues to the plight of the hypothetical character and building an argument pro or con. The main one was a lot more time, particularly by extending the game beyond the cluster ratings and final vote on opinions by encouraging people to stay on and debate at their table – in effect, that when the game ends the discussion really begins. Apparently our comments might lead to changes in the way it is used in future, which I would be very happy about. The evening was well worth turning up for (did I mention that, like most Dana Centre events, it’s free?) and should you sit down for a game of Democs and it turns out rather well, just remember to thank me later. You’re welcome!

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