Scientism, Solutionism, and Hackathons Pt.4

Just for fun, a few words on scientism from my Papers library:


Scientism. The political consequences of the authority enjoyed by the scientific system in developed societies is ambivalent. On the one hand, traditional attitudes of belief cannot withstand the demand for discursive justification established by modern science. On the other hand, short-lived popular syntheses of isolated pieces of information, which have taken the place of global interpretations, secure the authority of science in abstraction. The authority of “science” can thus encompass both the broadly effective critique of arbitrary structures of prejudice and the new esoterics of specialized knowledge and judgment. A scientistic self-affirmation of the sciences can promote a positivistic common consciousness that sustains the public realm. But scientism also sets standards by which it can itself be criticized and convicted of residual dogmatism.’ Theories of technocracy and of elites, which assert the necessity of institutionalized civil privatism, are not immune to objections, because they too must claim to be theories (107).” – Habermas, Jürgen. Legitimation Crisis. Translated by Thomas McCarthy. London, UK: Heinemann, 1976.

Neil Postman (he devotes an entire chapter of Technopoly to scientism. Here’s an excerpt):

“Technopoly… is totalitarian technocracy (42). Technocracies are concerned to invent machinery. That people’s lives are changed by machinery is taken as a matter of course, and that people must sometimes be treated as if they were machinery is considered a necessary and unfortunate condition of technological development. But in technocracies, such a condition is not held to be a philosophy of culture. Technocracy does not have as its aim a grand reductionism in which human life must find its meaning in machinery and technique. Technopoly does (52).

…By Scientism, I mean three interrelated ideas that, taken together, stand as one of the pillars of Technopoly. Two of the three have just been cited. The first and indispensable idea is, as noted, that the methods of the natural sciences can be applied to the study of human behavior. This idea is the backbone of much of psychology and sociology as practiced at least in America, and largely accounts for the fact that social science, to quote F. A. Hayek, “has contributed scarcely anything to our understanding of social phenomena.”

The second idea is, as also noted, that social science generates specific principles which can be used to organize society on a rational and humane basis. This implies that technical means— mostly “invisible technologies” supervised by experts—can be designed to control human behavior and set it on the proper course.

The third idea is that faith in science can serve as a comprehensive belief system that gives meaning to life, as well as a sense of well-being, morality, and even immortality (400).” – Postman, Neil. Technopoly. Random House LLC, 2011.

I find it really fascinating to be able to thread back hackathon solutionism to technologism, to scientism, to technopoloy. The “data hegemony” that might arise out of a culture obsessed with virtuality, is pretty frightening if you understand the implications.


Scientism, Solutionism and Hackathons, Pt.3

So this is the last part of the series (for now), be sure to read Pt.1 and Pt.2

This is a random grabbag of my thoughts I guess. The last article I’d highlight (and everything I linked before, I really enjoyed so you should read them) is FUCK THEORY. I guess it sets the tone for this post – up until now I’d like to think I’ve been pretty deferential about the whole issue, so let me blow off some steam with this post.

Let’s be perfectly clear – “science” as we think of it today is a new thing.  It dates back to the middle of the 19th century, when the disciplinary divisions we today regard as entirely natural were formalized by people like Hermann von Helmholz.  Before that there were no “scientists”:  there were thinkers, writers, philosophers, ethicists, geometers, and doctors.  There were also theologians, who Pinker dismisses out of hand, even though “science” would not exist without the precedent of Roger Bacon and Albertus Magnus.  “Science” is a fully historical product of the regimentation, organization, and professionalization of what used to just be people observing the world and thinking about it.  Science is the transformation of knowledge into a cliquish guild.

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Scientism, Solutionism, and Hackathons Pt.2

(Read Pt.1 here)

“Solutionism presumes rather than investigates the problem it is trying to solve, reaching for the answer before the questions have been fully asked.” – Michael Dobbins

My last post left off talking about how scientism relates to technologism, which in turn relates to solutionism. I believe that the commonality between these three is a near total belief in systematic, orderly approaches to problems, and the failure to acknowledge nuance, pure subjectivity, and comparative ethics.

First, there is the orderly approach to problems. City Atlas made this post which riffed off of Sasaki’s piece I mentioned last time.

Peo­ple seek short­cuts to hard prob­lems. Put another way by David Owen in an essay in the Wall Street Jour­nal, “[W]e already know more than enough, and we have for a long time. We just don’t like the answers.”

The rea­son for this is that the answers are some­times ugly. If we can cre­ate a pro­gram that allows us to geolo­cate road­kill, we con­sider our­selves smarter, hav­ing dis­cov­ered an elec­tronic “solu­tion” to this prob­lem plagu­ing soci­ety. We can sit back, happy that we used our incred­i­ble intel­li­gence to tackle an issue with­out even leav­ing the house. But what we, as a soci­ety, really need if these “solu­tions” are to become tan­gi­ble, is some­one who is will­ing to go out and actu­ally scrape a flat­tened squir­rel off of the side of the street.

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Scientism, Solutionism, and Hackathons Pt.1

If you follow the same people I do, no doubt you’ve come across the recent debate over Stephen Pinker’s piece in The National Review. The discussions that have followed this article highlight something that I think is relevant to the nature of hackathons I’ve been unveiling in my work.

Scientism itself is a pretty contested word – Pinker chooses to describe it thusly:

“[Scientism is] more of a boo-word than a label for any coherent doctrine. Sometimes it is equated with lunatic positions, such as that “science is all that matters” or that “scientists should be entrusted to solve all problems… Scientists themselves are immersed in the ethereal medium of information, including the truths of mathematics, the logic of their theories, and the values that guide their enterprise. In this conception, science is of a piece with philosophy, reason, and Enlightenment humanism. It is distinguished by an explicit commitment to two ideals, and it is these that scientism seeks to export to the rest of intellectual life…. The second ideal is that the acquisition of knowledge is hard.

I’m not going to debate Stephen Pinker, since I am a lowly masters student not yet in a PhD program, and he is purportedly one of the most influential thinkers on the planet at the moment. Instead, I’ll let others do that for me! Continue reading

Hackathon Yackathon reflections

Yackathon-webThe hackathon is an interesting phenomenon in the way that people have organized around technology development and social issues. Closely related to the concept of open data, the sort of collaboration that goes on at a hackathon is often structured around themes in the public interest, whether that’s open government, disaster relief, or community-minded apps and technology solutions. Our Hackathon Yackathon was designed to invite hackathon organizers, participants and those interested in such events to look at them with a critical eye, asking the sort of meta-questions that would impede hacakthon’s goals if raised during such events.

We provided a means for people to submit topics and came up with a rough agenda beforehand, but the more intimate nature of this hackathon (focused around conceptual work and ideation) with a smaller crowd meant conversation flowed more organically through the entire group – instead of splitting into our breakout sessions as planned, we started with smaller groups that came together for our first “panel,” which flowed into the next and focused on two main themes: Hackathon methodologies, tools and outcomes, and the tension between civic hacking and data activism. We were fortunate to have a diverse set of perspectives and motivations at the event – VJ Um Amel and Willow Brugh joined us via GoogleHangout and we had a fairly casual conversation with well-thought out input from all the participants.

For me, a key outcome was the sense of the hackathon as a method that has many different iterations and is not beholden to a particular ethos or inherent quality – it focuses on not merely volunteerism, but invested participation, which can be cooped by commercial interests as “cheap labor.” This was something we could all agree on, however, the ideological divide between the hackathon as a model of cooperation versus competition was something that also reflected schisms between hackathons organized to contribute to municipal and governmental goals, versus those which are more activist in spirit and intent.


Another interesting point which I wish we could have devoted more time to is the divide between big data and observable community results. Hackathons draw from a spectrum of skill sets by encouraging participation from people who know how to do more than just code. However, they are not always inclusive – for the activist and even the civic mode, it can be difficult to involve people who can’t just build something on a computer in a day or two. In addition, there’s a need to address the agenda and viability of data (is it alive or dead, and who creates it for what purpose?). One possible answer we thought of was to incorporate some of the methods from citizen science, and to organize hacakthons in a series, where data collection methods are planed and tools are created, then people are trained and can go out to build the dataset themselves, and return to work on it at future events. This way, people of varying skill levels have greater agency, participation and investment in the project as it develops.

This is also important, because as VJ said, “People in the West fetishize data to the detriment of its content” – it may be convenient for us to build tools that are practical and feasible, but do they really solve any questions we need answers to? Are we building things that people need, or just making a wasted effort for the sake of the exercise?

IMG_0015_2On a final note, there needs to be a set of reusable tools that can be adapted from one hackathon to the next. There may not be a universal set of “best practices” for hacakthons across the board, but there are some outputs (experience) that can be applied, and documenting them is difficult. The “case study” and working groups approach OccupyData has taken is useful, but hackathons in general suffer from a lack of institutional memory and high frequency that dilutes their effectiveness. I’d argue that the most important output of a hackathon is the community that develops as people experiment with each other from one event to the next, but if a hackathon is a platform for building a concrete product rather than concepts, there needs to be more structure to their organization. Unfortunately, this diminishes the agency and representation of participants… the hackathon is a tool itself, a way of organizing, that is contextual and suited towards unique purposes depending on the organizers and the participants. The variety of options between those purposes and motivations reveal the tensions that exist when we try to think of the hackathon as having a singular format and structure, and organizers must try to align the way the event is held with their motivational values.

OccupyData and TTW13

Evernote Snapshot 20130302 142839Last weekend I was at OccupyData and Theorizing the Web, as I mentioned earlier. Nathan Jurgenson and and PJ Reys put on an impressive conference for work about technology and theory (two things which are apparently difficult to talk about at the same time at conferences, apparently). At the same time, the organizers at OccupyData have done a good job coordinating people working on all sorts of different projects – there was a mixture of pitches and continuing work, and there was a little more structure to begin with this time. Two of the more interesting projects that were Data Anywhere [Day 2 post] and the NoFareHikes map that Ingrid Burrington showed us – I especially liked the later because as Christo said, “there’s a media action agenda inherent in project” which makes it great. I’ve been thinking about how a lot of hackathons propose a sort of data solutionism, or a belief that the technology solution is the solution to whatever the issue is. Continue reading

Hackathon Research Updates

highres_208510922Yesterday I went to the Code Across NYC hackathon, organized by CodeForAmerica and OpenNYForum. They had a pretty nice event space at the NYU-Poly Varick Street Incubator, and I think it was well put together with civic hackers and open government advocates in mind.  I was there as part of my participant observation for my thesis work on Hackathons, and like before, I had some qualms about how much I’d be able to participate, given the very skill-based nature of the event.

Unlike some of the other events I’ve been to, there were no prizes, and organizers were very clear that you get out what you put into this event. There weren’t any really evidently corporate sponsors – Joel Natividad of Ontonida was there (we had a really good conversation in the breakout group) and talked about OpediaCities as a “Smarter City” platform, for the sort of data-wrangling and resource management that others could build off of. There was also a presentation about Socrata, some talk about NYC Department of Education’s interest in this work, and Big Apps.

Our breakout sessions were really neat – there was a large crowd of beginners, about 17 people, a smaller group of people who knew what they were doing and were there to get something done, and a non-technical group I joined for a policy discussion. Noel Hidalgo (who led the intro and our policy group) explained how OpenNYForum is writing a white paper that will go to good government transparency advocates, and then be fleshed out to a broader paper on open open government and open data advocacy. Continue reading