Response to “Degrees of Freedom”

What did you find most interesting about “Degrees of Freedom”?

What I found most interesting was the attempt by Karl Schroeder to really think about how the future of new media technologies can have an explicit impact on the way we do politics – specifically deliberative and democratic politics. There’s a lot of science fiction that relates to how technologies might encourage authoritarian politics, but not a lot about how they might bring about more positive ways that democratic deliberation might occur.

As a political scientist and a scholar of science policy, what elements of the story seemed realistic?

The things in the story that felt most real to me was not necessarily the technology, but rather the motivations of the folks who were engaged in the political process. The story features a number of people acting out of a political and communal vision, trying to protect values that they hold dear and, deploying the technologies that they have available to them to protect those values.

How did “Degrees of Freedom” remind you of issues in your own research?

In some of the work that I’ve done around the societal aspects of nanotechnology, we’ve attempted to devise new deliberative techniques that enable lay citizens to take part in discussions about the societal aspects of new technologies.

In one of those instances we organized a national citizens’ technology forum in the spring of 2008. It connected groups of citizens holding these deliberations in six different places across the country through what is by today’s standards (not to mention by the standards in the story), a very crude kind of software. Participants were able to text each other and engage via discussion forums discussion board across these various places. It was not seamless, to say the least: there were no visuals that went along with it and there were a lot of clunky things, but nevertheless we were able to come up with a process that gave the citizens in these six different locations some sense of what the folks in the other locations were thinking about, how they were thinking differently, to enable the citizens to interact with experts who were not in the same room with them either, and able to have, in retrospect, a fairly high-quality deliberation.

The software that we were using at the time was very limiting in terms of the kinds of interactions that we were able to facilitate. It’s very interesting to see this sort of informed speculation about how the visuals and the connectivity, but also the intelligence that exists behind the software and decision-making tools, like The Faces, might be able to break through some of the barriers that we faced in organizing this citizens’ forum.

How does the story open up new questions about science policy and public participation in science?

As a scholar, the questions that this story raises, if this were a real technology, would be: “What exactly is going on in the software, in the intelligence that sits behind the system? How is it programmed such that we can read the Dorians with such subtlety and guide ourselves to a decision?” From the legal scholar and activist Lawrence Lessig, we know that code is law – so what laws are being embedded in the code? Is it really as neutral as it’s made out to be?

David Guston is a Professor in the School of Politics and Global Studies, Co-Director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes, and Director of the Center for Nanotechnology and Society at Arizona State University. His research focuses on research and development policy, technology assessment, public participation in science and technology, and the politics of science policy