Tag Archives: social science

Games People Play

Video Game Collage (courtesy bobfoldfive)

Video Game Collage (courtesy bobfoldfive)

On the recommendation of my colleague Garrison Le Masters, I brought the book, Dionysus Reborn: Play and the Aesthetic Dimension in Modern Philosophical and Scientific Discourse, by Mihai I. Spariosu, to read during my vacation at Lake Hawthorne. Garrison and I had spent many hours over the last few years comparing our common interests through different disciplinary perspectives–he from a cultural studies perspective and I through the lens of social science. Often engaged in these endeavors, we decided to collaborate on a project that would build on both our strengths–a paper that explored whether the criteria typically used for evaluating standardization at the lower levels of ICT networks served well for applications at the highest levels such as, in our chosen case, video games and virtual worlds. We plan to present the paper at this year’s Telecommunication Policy Research Conference (TPRC). 0801423279

Not knowing very much about the subject of play–at least from an academic perspective–I decided to get up to speed by reading Spariosu. Despite all of the playful moments in my childhood–catching turtles, trying to beat the boys at king of the mountain, acting out various fantasy roles such as homemakers, storekeepers, librarians, and even fairy queens transported by eggshells in a magic kingdom–I had never systematically thought about play; at most I viewed play as an adventure, or exploration. Thus, I often associated play with excitement and risk (even if imaginary); for in my experience a playful romp might start out innocently enough, but eventually it could lead to trouble–as, for example, when as children we developed an elaborate plan to track down the rumored ghost in an abandoned house down our street, only–upon entry–to be greeted by the police.

By any measure, reading Dionysus Reborn here on my porch abutting the lake–where once I listlessly day dreamed reading Ivanhoe, Lorna Doon, and Vanity Fair, is anything but play. Rather, it is extraordinarily hard work. I am lucky if I can read fifty pages in a day. Only now do I understand why my cultural studies colleagues assign such a limited number of pages to their students. “Its all about interpreting the text,” they say. I must agree! The problem is not so much the numerous references in German and French–I can manage these. No, it’s the long unfamiliar latin-based English words, which make references to references on top of even more obtuse references.

Yellow Wheel Barrow (David Cooke)

Yellow Wheel Barrow (David Cooke)

To proceed I have to follow my father’s advice to me when I was learning to read–substitute the word wheel barrel for every word I can’t understand. No surprise, then, that I am beginning to think the subject of this book is more about gardening than about play. At the end of the day, I ask myself whether Garrison might not be playing with me.

At the end of the day, I ask myself whether Garrison might not be playing with me. 

It is on this basis that I have decided to become more light hearted about this whole affair. I will use my blog to explore this subject further, that is to say, to play with some ideas. As in all games, It’s risky, but it also should be fun. Where do I stand at this point? From my readings to date, I understand there is an on-going historic conflict between a pre-rational, free-wheeling notion of play (as characterized by Schopenhaur, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Deleuze and Derrida) and a more rational conception of play (as understood by Plato, Aristotle, Kant and Schiller). Moreover, these two perspectives parallel what many past ‘thinkers’ believe to be an underlying conflict between the forces of chance vs. those of necessity. I have an inkling that this conflict can be reconciled within the framework of complexity theory and Stuart Kaufman‘s concepts of fitness levels and fitness landscapes, which in turn can also be linked to standardization and standards. But, to sort it out will take a lot more playing on my part.

Value Free; Value Added

Preparing for my Technology and Society class unveiled an interesting paradox. Looking back from an historical perspective, I was struck by how the term value free science has become a very value ladened word.

looking back from an historical perspective, I was struck by how the term value free science has become a very value ladened word.  

Indeed, this is a curious unintended consequence! For, as John M. Jordan documented in Machine-Age Ideology: Social Engineering & American Liberalism (1998), social scientists have, for more than a half century, diligently sought to rid their disciplines of all interpretations and ideological perspectives. As Jordan pointed out, the ultimate goal of these social scientists–which included such luminaries as Thorstein Veblen, John Dewey, Walter Lippman, Edwin Gay, and Herbert Croly, among others–was not only to generate new knowledge, but also, and perhaps more importantly, to enhance democratic politics by replacing ideologically oriented politicians with value free experts.

Backfire  (courtesy of Tohoscope)

Backfire (courtesy of Tohoscope)

Assessing the political situation today, one can only say that the efforts of these social scientists clearly backfired. For, while most academics remain standoffish, isolated in their ivory towers creating value free science, politicians–such as John McCain and Sarah Palin–have clearly gone over the top in contending that personal values and personalities trump policy analysis. Equally problematic , in terms of differentiating between facts and ideology, are the growing efforts by today’s political leaders to employ the work of scientists to cloak private interests in what is ostensibly value free analysis

politicians–such as John McCain and Sarah Palin–have clearly gone over the top in contending that personal values and personalities trump policy analysis. 

We seem to have come full circle in this regard. For, not without some irony, today’s opponents of the Administration’s performance disdainfully equate the present government’s science with political science. (Statement of Liz Godfrey, policy director for the Endangered Species Coalition. )

The Bush Administration and Congressional Republicans have been especially pernicious in characterizing scientific studies whose conclusions it opposes as junk science, while labeling those with which it agrees as good science. The Department of Interior’s analyses of scientific data calling for protection of endangered species provides one interesting case in point. For example, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, which conducted a survey of Fish and Wildlife Scientists in 2005, Julie MacDonald, a political appointee in the Department of Interior, consistently demanded that the Agency’s scientists alter their findings so as to justify not listing imperiled species such as the Gunnison sage grouse, the California tiger salamander, the roundtail chub, Gunnison’s and White-tailed prairie dogs, and the Mexican garter snake. According to one survey respondent:

I have never before seen the boldness of intimidation demonstrated by a single political appointee. She has modified the behavior of the entire agency. I believe that there should be a thorough investigation of her abuse of discretionary authority and modification of science information provided in the FWS documents. (Noah Greenwald, Seattle-Post Intelligencer December 20, 2006)

Such shenanigans are not limited to one Federal Agency. EPA’s former administrator, Stephen Johnson, was also forced to resign, after the union representing the vast majority of EPA scientists accused him of chronic mendacity, information suppression, and overriding his science advisors in setting new ozone standards (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility Newsletter, Spring 2008). One symptom of this behavior was the Agency’s decision to close half of its libraries, which housed a good portion of EPA’s earlier scientific studies ( PEER Review Winter 2007, p.9). Equally telling was Vice President Chaney’s role–uncovered by the Washington Post–in overriding scientists’ efforts to restore endangered Salmon in the Klamath Basin by redirecting water from the Klamath River, and the fish, to agribusiness. Only after 90,000 fish had died was this decision reversed by the courts.

When it comes to the realm of politics, value free science may not be the goal to strive for. Perhaps what is needed instead is value added science.

Where do we go from here? When it comes to the realm of politics, value free science may not be the goal to strive for. Perhaps what is needed instead is value added science. Building on Habermas’ model of the public sphere, value added science might be conceived of as the product of a dialogue among diverse actors–hard scientists, social scientists, and value based interests alike. However, instead of taking place in local coffee houses, the discussion might be organized and orchestrated within the government itself. A dialogue that links interests and scientific analyses in an open, transparent fashion, adds tremendous value to the political debate while identifying and enhancing the array of subject matter ripe for scientific investigation. This idea is hardly far-fetched. One need only consider the successes of the National Academy of Science and the former Office of Technology Assessment.