Reflections on two reunions

[Cross-posted from my Connected by Data weeknotes]

Are we capable of governing ourselves?

Asking this of the emerging online world was one of the driving questions that led Charlie Nesson (and colleagues) to establish the Berkman-Klein Center (BKC) for Internet and Society at Harvard Universtity 25 years ago. It was a question that was posed again on Thursday morning to the gathered community of current and former fellows, affiliates and faculty in Cambridge, MA to celebrate the 25th anniversary of BKC.

While we gathered in celebration, and with much joy at reconnecting with old colleagues and meeting new ones, we also gathered, I hazard to say, with a degree of weariness carried in from our respective work. For a community that has, collectively, been studying, building, litigating, organising and advocating in the hope that we might develop, deploy and govern technologies for the public good, 2023 offers a tough reality check.

Online discourse feels more fractious. Digital power more concentrated. Our climate in crisis. And our diagnosis of priorities for action less unified. Openness, conventionally the go-to tool of the place that gave birth to Creative Commons, feels less effective, and even counterproductive, in confronting and challenging the power dynamics at play. And as much as BKC has operated for over two decades as an impressive institutional hack, seeking to share out some of the privilege embodied in Harvard to unusual suspects, the institutional dynamics and legacy relationships can at times feel in the way of, rather than in service of, transformational scholarship and action.

I could tell perhaps a similar story of the start of my week spent with open government advocates in Tallinn as we hosted a fringe workshop on the sides of the Open Government Partnership. Although I didn’t get chance to stay for the full OGP Summit, I had the opportunity to reconnect with old colleagues, and meet some new. Amongst the energy from meeting together, we had little illusion that the stakes, and the challenges, have rarely been so big. And there was ample recognition that ad-hoc tools of openness alone do not deliver the kinds of accountability, reallocations of power and social justice interventions so desperately needed.

Are we capable of governing ourselves?

Perhaps first we have to (re-)learn how to facilitate first…

Our workshop venue in Tallinn was a little unconventional. Often used a yoga studio rather than meeting space, the room had a mix of armchairs, sofa and futons in place of the usual tables and chairs. As I was staring to unpack flip-charts and post-it notes, Veronica Cretu, who had kindly arrived early to help us set up, took one look at the arrangement, with two rows of chairs and obstructed sight-lines, and set about re-arranging to help our conversations flow. Into this re-arranged room we brought in findings from background interviews, expressed, thanks to the insight of Helena Hollis, though large-printed mind-maps that invited discussion, addition and elaboration. And we tried to structure the day to flow from building shared understanding of a problem, to considering solutions, and sketching potential actions. By the end of the day we had sketched out some promising policy proposals.

In Cambridge, within the imposing setting of Harvard Law School, the BKC team demonstrated characteristic thoughtful action to disrupt the formality, and bring the whimsy and warmth for which the center has a quiet reputation (a lot more costumes than I see at most academic gatherings for starters…). But as the programme itself progressed through a series of conventional panel sessions, I started to wonder if we were missing the critical role of facilitation in fully unlocking the wisdom, ideas and energy of the assembled group? And why?

This year is also ten years since my own fellowship year at BKC, and so the ‘class of 2013’ were well represented, and were recalling our months of weekly ‘fellows hour’ (2 hours duration), working groups and collaborations. I was reminded by Amy Johnson that one of the particular interventions we made as a group was to create a small ‘facilitation team’ that would hold a weekly standing meeting to help the rotating host of the next weeks fellows hour to think of a creative and engaging way to lead their topic (not for us a weekly seminar: think instead hands on-workshops, learning games and curated discussions). There was an important recognition here of content presentation and facilitation as distinct roles, and of chances to gather not just as a moment for a transfer of thinking, but as generative moments of deeper exchange.

Over drinks in Tallinn, I had the chance to briefly reflect with Alex Howard on OGP Summits past. One notable feature of early summits were the national or regional sessions. Slots on the agenda to share what had made it onto the open government National Action Plans of different states, and, crucially, where governments and civil society shared the room and stage in talking about them. These have dropped from the agenda in recent years. And with that, a critical moment around which to structure other conversations in the run up to, and follow up from, a summit. Formal panels have their place.

For many years, BKC had an active unmoderated discussion e-mail list, linking current and former fellows, affiliates and faculty. In the last few years, the list was paused, after a number of heated discussions and clashes, and it has not (yet?) returned. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that, at least for those not in residence in Cambridge, the listserv felt like the heart of the BKC community – albeit not a perfect forum. Yet, its role was not addressed from the stage over two days of discussion about the past, future and present of the Center, and while I heard some side discussions exploring what kinds of moderation a renewed list might need, I heard little on the question of facilitation: an active and justice oriented process to build conversations across community.

Effective facilitation frequently also involves thinking about the who as well as the how of discussion. Part of this is about boundaries and curation. The Open Government Partnership has a set of criteria for which countries can, or cannot, be formal members, although civil society from non-members are not excluded. One of the reasons I suspect a self-organised listserv has not emerged in place of BKCs discussion list, is that the gatekeeping function of a BKC affiliation helps draw boundaries of an official list, in a way that a self-organised list could not easily achieve. Equally, facilitation also needs to consider invitation, space-making, and sharing of power. In our workshop in Tallinn, we tried to get a balance of countries, sectors and disciplines represented, while looking for enough shared interest and background to enable productive conversation.

Are we capable of governing ourselves?

The BKC reunion did not just start with the question. The opening panel also pointed towards one possible answer answer. For too long, it was argued, we’ve been looking at how to build governance top-down. Instead, one panellist urged, we need to start from the bottom up. I heard this as an educators answer: to start from cultivating the virtue and capability of the individual student, and to build out from this to collectives, organisations and states that can be self-governing. It is a good answer. Yet, bringing in the lens from our work at Connected by Data, I wonder if we also need to start from community and collective. When we focus on governing from the group-up, then the facilitation of sense-making and position-taking both within, and between, groups becomes central to the question.

I suspect my own approach remains deeply informed by early engagement with informal education, youth work and group work. We learn in groups. Not open, unbounded groups. But intentional groups, with the right mix of support and challenge. The groups we belong to also confer privileges, interests, burdens and oppressions: and the extra labour that some collectives and individuals face in joining dialogue, particularly racialised or majority world citizens, need recognition[1].

This is something I’ll be reflecting on more as we come to think about resources for deliberative engagement on data and AI governance : thinking about how inputs for dialogue might be received (and responded to) differently in groups brough together by sortition, or by those connected through solidarity and shared experience.

Are we capable of governing ourselves?

Given the challenges and crisis we face as both local and global communities, we can only keep trying to work that out.

[1] I must acknowledge here my own imperfect journey with being attentive enough to the impacts of privilege in my work and practice, or being clear and direct enough as an ally of communities facing inequity and injustice.

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