Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Mon 15 Oct 07 07:17
I.m very excited about our next guest, Denise Caruso. Caruso joins us to talk about her new book on risk, public policy, and biotechnology, "Intervention: Confronting the Real Risks of Genetic Engineering and Life on a Biotech Planet," which won the silver medal for science writing in the 2007 Independent Publisher Book Awards. Caruso co-founded The Hybrid Vigor Institute (http://hybridvigor.org) in 2000 to study and practice collaboration in the service of solving difficult problems. In January 2007, Caruso was invited to write a monthly column, which she titled "Re:framing" -- you can search her columns at http://query.nytimes.com/search/query?query=%22denise+caruso%22+&srchst=ny t -- for the Sunday Business section of The New York Times. She has a long and proud career as a technology journalist and analyst, where she was a pre-Electronic Frontier Foundation advocate of First Amendment rights online, and was one of the first journalists to focus on the impact of personal computing on commerce and culture. Leading the conversation with Caruso is Jon Lebkowsky, an author, web strategist, and gonzo futurist who is increasingly focused on sustainability. He has worked as a consultant, CEO, technology director, project manager, systems analyst, and online community developer. He writes a regular column for Worldchanging.com; he also has his own blog at weblogsky.com and is a contributor at smartmobs.com.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 15 Oct 07 07:46
Thanks for the intro, Cynthia. Denise, can you tell us a bit about your former career as a tech journalist, and how you made the transition from the New York Times to the Hybrid Vigor Institute back in 2000?
Denise Caruso (denisecaruso) Mon 15 Oct 07 10:35
I was one of those people who landed in the state of mind we call Silicon Valley by accident.I truly knew nothing about technology, but in 1983, when I got there, which were the early days of personal computers, anyone who had good journo cred could get hired at a trade magazine. So I learned fast, cycled through a few trade publications and by 1986 I was writing a column for the Sunday San Francisco Examiner. Then I got wind of a new suite of technologies called multimedia that was going to change the world, which I believed, and which in fact it did -- multimedia morphed into the commercial Internet. After starting two newsletter and a company on the subject, I ended up in 1995 writing a column called Digital Commerce for the New York Times. One day, a friend from MIT came to San Francisco. He was telling me how the shortcomings of the high-definition TV camera he'd built for Polaroid (the first ever) spurred him to start researching all the various disciplines that study human vision. As a result of synthesizing their findings, he had a revelation about how to build a new machine vision system. Hearing his story, I realized I wanted to get my hands dirty again, and start helping people work together to solve hard problems rather than just writing about them from my aerie. And that was the founding idea behind Hybrid Vigor.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 15 Oct 07 11:02
How were you affected by infamous busting bubble at the end of the 90s? Did that have anything to do with your decision to start a nonprofit?
Denise Caruso (denisecaruso) Mon 15 Oct 07 11:13
It had everything to do with my decision. I was sick to death of the greed and mendacity, not to mention the utter foolishness of some of the behavior I was witnessing every day. I actually left NYT just before the dot-bomb dropped, and pretty much predicted the bust. See it here, folks! http://tinyurl.com/2yckew I wasn't really into the nonprofit idea out of ideology, though. It is a tough row to hoe, lemme tell you. Unlovely in more ways than I knew at the time, for sure. But I wanted to be able to take money from my natural constituents, which I considered then would be not just foundations, but also the government. Both often require that you have nonprofit status as a precondition to giving you money.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 15 Oct 07 16:53
Can you describe what your original intentions were for Hybrid Vigor? How has the organization changed over the years?
Denise Caruso (denisecaruso) Mon 15 Oct 07 20:42
The starry-eyed manifesto I wrote in 1999 said our mission was 'to invigorate learning and knowledge between a broad range of scientific and academic disciplines.' And it still is. The idea was, we would hunt down the right people for a given problem that neede solving, and introduce them to each others work. Then wed publish the results in a variety of different venues, from newsletters to conferences. Id been doing that kind of cross-pollination for many years in technology. Once my co-founder Diana Rhoten, a Stanford education professor, joined me, we started going for government money, which we got. We also published a couple of white papers and I wrote a couple myself. I jumped into a very interdisciplinary topic -- assessing the risks of technology innovations like biotech -- and eventually sold a proposal to write a trade book on the subject. Diana moved to New York during that time and took the project with her, which put HV mostly in suspended animation until I finished the book. I'm just reinvigorating it now.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 16 Oct 07 04:59
Would we be correct in assuming that, moving from the more general charter you describe above, Hybrid Vigor will be focusing more narrowly on the subject of the book, which was summed up very well by Steven Johnson: "how we measure and anticipate risk with ... complex, open-ended technologies"?
Denise Caruso (denisecaruso) Tue 16 Oct 07 16:22
Nah. I hope not, anyhow. Sure, risk is the biggest part of what I'm working on now. You'd expect that after working on a risk book for four years. But I don't expect it will be HV's entire focus long-term. One of HV's program areas, for example, is to study the practice of cross-discipline problem solving. I'm fascinated by how people make judgments and decisions. How a culture can learn to practice critical thinking and make better decisions is the bigger theme that underlies 'Intervention.' But I'm interested in lots of other things, too. Like the mind-body connection and its relevance to things like addiction and autism -- that's one of the areas pulling at me these days. Lots of fun projects to be done there. And you know, even though the subject matter isn't always cheery, doing this kind of work really *is* fun. There is no more satisfying workday than helping a room full of really smart people riff off each other and stimulate some new ideas none of them had ever thought of before. In fact, it's much more fun than writing books!
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 16 Oct 07 17:30
Your reference to the room full of people riffing is intriguing - does Hybrid Vigor have a social methodology that uses that approach? What are your typical deliverables?
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Wed 17 Oct 07 09:45
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Denise Caruso (denisecaruso) Wed 17 Oct 07 10:24
There really isn't a single 'it,' methodology-wise. People have lots of ways of snapping together these kinds of groups. The method I'm the most enamored of is based on a combination of traditional analysis and deliberation amongst a group of stakeholders who are all trying to make a difficult decision or solve a common problem. I learned about it from a terrific 1996 National Academy study called, 'Understanding Risk: Informing Decisions in a Democratic Society.' I have to say, reading that study really rocked me. For the first time in my adult life, I saw a reason and the means by which people might want to get involved in public life again, where they could make a real contribution to the decisions that affect them. I think it's a thing of beauty, and frankly, it's what kept my spirits up while I was researching 'Intervention.' For as bad as the situation was and is, because of 'Understanding Risk' I knew it wasn't hopeless.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 17 Oct 07 11:00
That book focuses on deliberative process combined with analysis, which is a great way to bring a group to an informed understanding of complex issues. Some people see dialogue and deliberation evolving as a framework for democracy, but given the limited scale of deliberative groups, I find myself wondering how we bring more people into the conversation, which is almost certainly a requirement if we want to have truly democratic decision-making processes. Have you given any thought to this question - how we scale deliberation so that it has effective results?
Denise Caruso (denisecaruso) Wed 17 Oct 07 12:17
What do you mean by the "limited scale" of deliberative groups?
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 17 Oct 07 17:26
I mean that there's a limit to the size of deliberative groups. The character of conversation changes as you scale up.
Tell your piteous heart there's no harm done. (krome) Wed 17 Oct 07 23:27
Well, that depends *how* you scale up. Executives and even scientists hire their friends and cronies in which case new ideas are shut out. But if one is drawing on a wide enough sample we may find ourselves amidst the din of democracy.
Credo, Ergo Dubito (robertflink) Thu 18 Oct 07 05:24
>I mean that there's a limit to the size of deliberative groups. The character of conversation changes as you scale up.< There is an analogue in chemical engineering. A process developed in a lab can suffer in scale up due to e.g. pressure gradients in large vessels. In my experience with international committees writing standards, group size affected deliberations so much that what could be done in a group of six or eight was nearly impossible in a group of 40. IMO, scale is often a neglected factor but one that needs attention if implementation is to be seriously considered. I'm reminded of the old saw: "The idea is nothing, planning is everything and the devil is in the execution."
Denise Caruso (denisecaruso) Thu 18 Oct 07 07:52
All good points about scale -- and welcome to the conversation! I think of scale in a couple of ways. One is the size of the deliberative group, and the other is the scale at which the processes are being deployed -- in communities, regions, state-wide, nationally, etc. The scale issue is how to or whether it's possible to synthesize the decisions into coherent national policy. Particularly given that coherent national policy seems to be an oxymoron at this point. Frankly, I think if we get to the point where we have to worry about that kind of scale in doing these processes, I'll be dancing in the streets. That will be a very high-class problem. As to group size: my experience as well as my observation is that you'd be hard pressed to find a *well-defined* problem that had more than 20 or 25 relevant, identifiable stakeholders. Problems can snap together or break down into larger or smaller chunks depending on how you frame them. For example, Hybrid Vigor co-hosted a meeting with Larry Brilliant and GBN a couple of years back, on preparing for the avian flu pandemic. It wasn't a deliberative risk process like the ones I talk about in Intervention. But it could have been (and probably will be at some point, something else I'm working on). It's a really complex issue, yet the 40 people in the room represented most of the relevant stakeholders, with several duplicates. A critical caveat, to address krome's comment: the ONLY way these processes work is if the entire process is transparent. Selecting who is at the table is clearly the most important part. If the decision is to be credible, there has to be agreement that everyone who's at the table should be there -- and the ones that shouldn't be, aren't.
bill braasch (bbraasch) Thu 18 Oct 07 08:33
the open standards process seems to bring out a draft that was developed in a room that was too large (for example, SOAP), then move toward something simple that works (for example, REST) for most applications. The bottom up informs the top down. The top down motivates the bottom up.
Gail Williams (gail) Thu 18 Oct 07 10:37
Excellent observation. I never noticed that but it makes perfect sense.
Denise Caruso (denisecaruso) Thu 18 Oct 07 10:55
That's slick -- I haven't been watching tech standards for a while. Is there something written up that has recorded how the process has unfolded? It's definitely the ideal. That's how representative democracy is supposed to work, right? Emphasis on "supposed to," of course. Because I sure wish that were more the case in areas like risk policy. If you look at the public policy/regulatory process in the U.S. for technologies like transgenics (the proper term for organisms genetically engineered using recombinant DNA) -- or cloned meat and milk, or coal plants, for that matter -- the top down is designed to ignore the bottom up, and the bottom up is given no authority to inform those at the top. Credible concerned scientists have been arguing for more than a decade that commercial, living, reproducing transgenic crop plants are likely to be having unintended and adverse consequences in the field, and that at the very least, government should require monitoring and tracking of the crops. And evidence of some of those adverse consequences is starting to make its way into the peer-reviewed journals. Not necessarily because it wasn't there before, not because regulators required the research, but because someone had to be enterprising enough to look. Here's the latest along those lines, from Indiana University: http://newsinfo.iu.edu/news/page/normal/6507.html This being the case throughout the regulatory community, I suspect that the most important scale to be concerned with right now is the local level. Once these collaborative risk deliberations are deployed at the city or regional level and laws get passed based on the decisions that result, state and national regulators eventually will be forced to address whatever contradictions arise.
Tell your piteous heart there's no harm done. (krome) Thu 18 Oct 07 14:59
BTW, I am in this discussion w/out a copy of the book.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 18 Oct 07 15:08
In all my conversations about democracy, what I'm most concerned with is how we get *informed* participation, how that participation feeds into the policy-making apparatus, and how indirect stakeholders (who might not even know they have a stake) are addressed. When you have something like the GBN meeting, what's the deliverable and how do you make it relevant?
Denise Caruso (denisecaruso) Thu 18 Oct 07 17:06
The Pandefense meeting is a probably not a great example because it wasn't a really a deliberative process per se, nor was it designed as a risk assessment. It was a couple of days of intense brainstorming with a group of stakeholders to come up with a small number of achievable, actionable interventions to reduce death, economic loss and social unrest. That was our deliverable for that meeting. I was going to answer your question about deliverables earlier, but got sidetracked. So let me be more specific. In the kind of collaborative problem solving or risk assessment process that I've written about in 'Intervention,' the deliverable is a decision. The kinds of decisions vary. Sometimes you want to come to the end of a deliberation with a decision that's a clear solution to the problem: Yes, we will allow a tugboat into Prince William Sound. No, we do not believe the demonstrable benefits of New Chemical X product are worth the risks. Or, my personal favorite -- and the rarest of them all -- we don't have enough data to make this decision right now. So we will officially monitor the situation and when we have the data we need, then we will decide. This kind of decision is chronicled in 'Understanding Risk,' in a case study where EPA used the process during a rulemaking about disinfectant byproducts in drinking water. Other times, you might end a deliberation without solving the problem, but you've made a decision that's just as valuable -- you've agreed on a new agenda based on insights into the gaps and errors of existing knowledge. This is something that stakeholders can take home and start working on, maybe even together. To your point about relevance: no matter what kind of decision is reached, it's always relevant. The reason you're there, in the room, participating in the process, is to reach agreement about a problem that affects you (or a representative of you) and everyone else in the room. If the problem or the decision that's going to be made is not relevant to you, you wouldn't be there.
Credo, Ergo Dubito (robertflink) Thu 18 Oct 07 20:26
Great topic and comments, Denise. I'll look for the book Some comments from international standards for medical devices: -Do no harm (trading on the Hippocratic oath) -Help, don't hinder, the practice of medicine. -Include all relevant disciplines. -Transparency including rationals for content and omissions so that non-participating (i.e., actual working) experts can understand. -Actively court those that will be living (putting up) with group output. -Don't expect those in charge of the overall systems to solve problems of coordination and jurisdiction. -Try to provide added value -Remember that technology changes can quickly obviate even the best work. -Debate concepts, not definitions. BTW,
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 18 Oct 07 22:12
I've been in discussions about democracy where there seemed to be no assumption about the need for a decision. Without a decision, I think you just have a conversation or a debate. I think it's great to see "decision" as the deliverable from a deliberative process. But I wonder to what extent a deliberative body is empowered to make a decision, and for whom. In your book you describe studies where consultants were polled, consensus was established, then ignored in actual policy. What can we do to ensure that decisions are made by the right stakeholders, and that they're adopted?
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