Monthly Archives: February 2019

Living Deliberatively

One of the core tenants of deliberative theory is that every individual has agency and we each have a moral responsibility to respect, support, and meaningfully engage with ourselves and others as agents in the world.

In fact, I would be inclined to go so far as to argue that this is the core tenant of deliberative theory. That is, while the word “deliberation” itself suggests a process of discussing and reasoning, the ontological justification of “deliberative democracy” relies on “deliberation” as a deeply democratic process in which all perspectives are genuinely welcomed as adding value to the whole. This is what makes deliberation more than “just talk.”

Dewey seems to prefer to imbue the “democracy” portion of “deliberative democracy” with this power: when he argues that “democracy is a way of life,” he means that “democracy” is a metaphysical orientation which pervades the very ways in which we act and interact in the world. An orientation dedicated, roughly, to the belief that all people are equal and should share an equal role in co-creating the world.

While I’m not entirely sure I disagree with Dewey here, I am generally inclined to think instead of “deliberation as a way of life.” Dewey is right that democracy isn’t merely a system of government, yet the word does imply certain instrumental and institutional norms — eg, not only recognizing every person’s voice, but some process of giving every person a vote. Democracy ensures that deliberation is not simply performative, that each person’s voice equates to some measure of power.

This is certainly appropriate as a societal approach, but the challenge in trying to “live democratically” is that many sites of daily life do not (and, arguably, should not) afford equal power to individual participants. There are good and important arguments to be had about whether this is appropriate or not, but the widespread assumption is that children, students, employees, and others in hierarchal systems should not expect to be afforded the power of citizens in a democracy.

Perhaps we ought to seek to push the bounds of democracy into all these spaces — I would certainly agree that many are less democratic than they ought to be — but I would broadly be inclined to argue that democracy is not appropriate under all circumstances and we would be wise to treat it as such.

If the building is on fire, I don’t want to take a vote before someone decides to pull the fire alarm.

(One could, of course, argue here that we’ve all given implicit consent for a fire alarm to be pulled under such circumstances and thus this action would not represent of breach of democratic living; but nonetheless there are less dramatic circumstances under which it is appropriate for executive decisions to be made.)

All of this is to say that while “democracy” makes normative claims about the way decisions ought to be made, “deliberation” makes claims about the normative interaction of epistemic relations. That is – deliberation is fundamentally about the thoughtful and thorough exploration of knowledge, with the explicit assumption that we each not only have access to different knowledge but that we build and interpret knowledge in different ways.

These concepts, of course, go closely together — as, indeed, the phrase “deliberative democracy” would suggest. The Good Society ought to give all members power in making those decisions (ie, democracy), but members of The Good Society ought to interrogate their own and others views, seeking as much understanding as possible (ie, deliberation).

My concern about “living democratically,” then, is there are too many places at which a person may be inclined to cut corners — perhaps a toddler should not get to decide what they’re going to have for dinner each night. But while a reasoned person could certainly make an argument to that effect, making any exceptions quickly becomes a difficult slope — if there are, indeed, some circumstances under which democracy is not appropriate, how does one arbitrate those circumstances?

My answer here is, of course, deliberation — we ought to talk and discuss and argue about these questions.

But this also makes “living deliberatively,” as it were, a more powerful mode of interacting with the world. Taking deliberation as way of life means accepting that there are settings which are hierarchal, where some people have more decision making power than others. But it also means accepting, in a deep and meaningful way, that everyone brings value to the process, that every voice and perspective is desperately needed; that we all have agency regardless of how decisions are ultimately made.

This in turn creates a set of obligations – to share your voice, to listen to the perspectives of others, to fight for everyone’s voice to be heard; to recognize yourself and others as agents in the world.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently in terms of my pedagogical approach. My classroom is certainly not a democracy — and I’m not convinced that it ought to be — but my teaching style is decidedly deliberative. I want to know what my students think, I want them to tell me what works and what doesn’t work, I want them to argue against me, and to make suggestions for how they would like to see things done.

I like to share my pedagogical reasoning – to explain what types of learning styles a given approach is aiming to support; to ask whether my approach seems to meet that goal and whether there are other learning styles which need to be supported differently. As an instructor, these are my decisions to make, but they are not decisions I can or should make on my own. My classroom may not be a democracy, but my students are agents of their own learning and it’s important that they be treated as such.

Custommades and Readymades

This semester I’m teaching Programming with Data for Social Science, and my students have recently started reading Matt Salganik’s excellent book, Bit by Bit: Social Research in the Digital Age. The book gives a detailed and thoughtful overview of the many challenges and opportunities of computational social science.

One dimension Salganik introduces early on is the difference between “custommade” and “readymade” data. Borrowed from the art world, these phrases suggest different origins: custommades are intentionally created with a specific purpose in mind while readymades are repurposed.

Traditional social science methods tend to be custommades — you design your experiment, surveys, and sampling approach with a specific research question in mind. Data science, on the other hand, relies more on readymades — data are detritus of some other goal.

Both of these approaches have their strengths and weaknesses, and each appropriate under different contexts. Understanding this is a key piece of the art of computational social science.

Speaking of art, as I mentioned, the terms “readymade” and “custommade” come from the art world, and Salganik illustrates this metaphor by comparing two specific works of art:

[Marcel] Duchamp is best known for his readymades, such as Fountain, where he took ordinary objects and repurposed them as art. Michelangelo, on the other hand, didn’t repurpose. When he wanted to create a statue of David, he didn’t look for a piece of marble that kind of looked like David: he spent three years laboring to create his masterpiece. David is not a readymade; it is a custommade.

This excerpt doesn’t quite do justice to Duchamp’s work. Being somewhat less known that Michelangelo, I’m afraid this makes the metaphor incomplete. That is, you may understand Fountain as readymade without really appreciating what that means.

So, here’s some more detail on that readymade piece of art. As the Philadelphia Museum of Art describes:

In the spring of 1917, Duchamp, with the help of several friends, notoriously submitted a porcelain urinal to an unjuried exhibition held by the Society of Independent Artists in New York. Purchased from a store that sold plumbing fixtures, this object, which was titled Fountain and signed “R. Mutt” was rejected by a vote of the organizers, touching off a fierce debate. 

Duchamp, who had been one of the organizers, resigned in protest.

In May of that year, the avant-garde magazine, The Blind Man — published by Duchamp and his friends — ran an editorial defending the work:

They [said] any artist…may exhibit.

Mr. Richard Mutt sent in a fountain. Without discussion this article disappeared and was never exhibited.

What were the grounds for refusing Mr. Mutt’s fountain: –

  1. Some contented it was immoral. Vulgar.
  2. Others, it was plagiarism, a plain piece of plumbing.

Now, Mr. Mutt’s fountain is not immoral, that is absurd, not more than a bath tub is immoral. It is a fixture that you see every day in plumber’s store windows. 

Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has not importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that it’s useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.

While it may seem somewhat tangential to computational social science, the story of Mr. Mutt’s urinal makes me more fully appreciate the concept of readymade data.

Is it vulgar? Is it mundane? The art of Duchamp’s Fountain is in that very debate itself: he took an every day item and made it worthy of public discussion, encouraging us to question conventional wisdom and to ask questions we didn’t even know we had.

Similarly, there are important concerns about readymade data – questions of ethics and meaning, which should be rigorously debated. But that debate itself is an integral part of the scientific endeavor. The art of this work is in engaging critically with these concerns.

We may now be so inundated with data, so used to our movements and habits being passively tracked, that it’s easy to forget: there’s something profoundly radical about repurposing found data for social science research.

We CHOOSE it, we place it so that it’s useful significance disappears under the new point of view. In reimagining and reinterpreting these data we bring new knowledge into the world; we create a new thought for that object.