“the experimental society”

As I write these words, I am attending the Nesta event “The experimental society”, at its headquarters in London.  

The comms tech being used – easily visible to both speakers and audience – is really nice: poll and question software called sli.do, which even allows for spontaneous thought-up answers to add to the standard multi-choice responses.

The debate has already touched on the privacy side of ID cards where politicians reframe studies whose results they don’t like; on the right a society – more importantly, the private sector – has to conduct the often hidden experiments being discussed tonight; specifically, quite a lot of debate around Facebook’s manipulation of people’s streams around election times; and particularly on the allegedly “poor science” nature of such social experimentation.

I have to say as a newly recruited ethnographer in the context of Criminal Justice, and as a citizen never instinctively in favour of the Facebooks of the world, to condemn such beasts as having conducted bad science shows a gently limiting acceptance of what the scientific method can mean.

A large scale ethnographic experiment may not have been what FB actually did on the occasions described this evening, but with more work and preparation, and an understanding of the various options too, it would be very easy to do good ethnographic science – that is to say, deliberately going in without a prior hypothesis to hand – whilst generating the kind of data which FB functions with every day.

My impulse in all these things is never to stop nor attempt to control what anyone does, but work from a promoted and shared culture and wider environment which aims to better encourage societal participation in both experimental design and the understanding of the end results themselves.  Never even attempt to stop stuff full-stop: rather, look to create a far more collaborative and cooperative societal Petri dish out of which this experimentation will then emerge quite naturally.

To paraphrase Peter Levine: work to a Good Democracy where inclusiveness and efficiency are balanced – not only in well-understood political debate but also, now, in experimental societal-wide innovation and implementation.

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