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Philosophy Cafe - Cafe Philosophique Message Board › Meeting dynamics, 2012

Meeting dynamics, 2012

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Jeff G
Oakland, CA
Post #: 6
_____________What this thread is for____________________

I am seized by an urge to make some sort of record of tonight's meeting. The urge is not irresistible, and there are some reasons I can think of to refrain creating a narrative of what was discussed, the most obvious being bias on my part. But I would like for myself and others to be able in the future to look back and see how the meetings have changed (for better or worse). Also I would like to provide a forum for asynchronous feedback on what the rules of order, so to speak, should be.

The fears I have are of putting words in people's mouths, and of broadcasting information originally intended only for the group who actually attend. My solution to that concern is to write here only about the meeting dynamics. A separate thread will be available to enter their own words on the topic.

Nevertheless the potential remains for bias, but hopefully the gains in perspective–longitudinally over time, and by diversity of opinion–by making this a public archive, will outweigh any harm done. The last 3 meetings now have been part of a conscious experiment to develop a new format, and any good researcher takes notes. This being a sociological experiment, a certain amount of subjectivity is unavoidable. So here goes!
Jeff G
Oakland, CA
Post #: 7
With these things in mind, allow me to report that the January 17 meeting was attended by 10 people, roughly evenly distributed between active members, brand new members, and those active in other philosophy groups but not Philosophy Cafe. It seemed to an unusually quiet night in the cafe, so we found a table easily and everybody could hear reasonably well.

After a 10-minute period of settling in, we began with round-robin introductions wherein nearly all provided their personal "willpower" problem. There weren't any explicit references (except by the organizer, me) to the hypothetical scenarios that went out in the email. A popular, but hardly universal, thread was the entrepreneurial problem of lacking an external authority to "crack the whip." Interestingly, no one spontaneously confessed to having made a New Year's resolution:-) The introductions went smoothly and concluded in just 15 minutes or so, which somewhat surprised me.

Something we might have done differently in this phase was to zero in on one story at a time and try to find the philosophical "meat" of it. Instead, we gradually focused on the entrepreneurial scenario, teasing out its assumptions. In terms of my goal for shaping the discussion, this worked just fine, as I did not perceive the splintering that usually occurs: everyone seemed to be "on the same page," which is to say following the discussion, even if they did not completely agree. But we never did formulate that "purely philosophical" question, perhaps because there wasn't one, maybe we didn't feel the need to depersonalize this issue, or it could be that no one wanted to tread on the "third rail" of fatalism. We did seem, though, to drift back from an "analysis" phase to an "application" phase, again without a marked transition point.

Coincidentally or not, everyone seemed unusually eloquent, polite, and succinct. I never had to cut anyone off, and we never ran aground. On the intuition that this might be due in part to the turn-taking at the start of the meeting, I resolved to do that again for the wrap-up.

Before we got to the concluding phase, however, something unanticipated happened: we had a 10-minute period of at least 3 separate conversations among subsets of the participants. It felt mildly chaotic, but it also felt good to be in "normal" conversation mode. I figured the closing round-robin would prevent the meeting from "sputtering" to a close. I used that 10 minutes to come up with a parting question. Obviously I only had my conversation to help me formulate that question; an interesting idea might be to have subgroups write their questions down, and we each respond to one of our choosing, or to a consensus pick.

Anyway, I left open the option to give an arbitrary parting monologue, which some people exercised, as my question wasn't as clear as I try to make it in the discussion thread. That took about 20 minutes, I think. It did mean that everyone had had the stage for 2-3 minutes during the meeting, which I liked. It seemed that people's "exit" statements were more detailed and coherent than their "intro" statements, or at least generally reflected that they had been paying attention, which made me feel good:-) The meeting adjourned about 9:15 and some of us lingered for a bit longer.
Jeff G
Oakland, CA
Post #: 13
The February 21 meeting was attended by 9 people, a slight majority of which were newcomers. It was a warm, busy night in downtown Berkeley, the day after a 3-day weekend, which was perhaps the reason we started off about 15 minutes late.

As we have been this year, we began with personal introductions, highlighting some experience we've had connected with hypocrisy. This proved to be somewhat difficult for several people, who seemed more in touch with what their idea of hypocrisy was. Newt Gingrich won the Most Likely to Be Accused of Hypocrisy prize.

I paused the discussion to explain a new feature of the meeting, aimed at producing something in black and white: a philosophical question for us to collectively consider. I passed out blank index cards and instructed the philosophers to jot down a question without interrupting the discussion, as we would come back to what was written on the cards. Some people wrote on their cards right away, and some waited until they were called in. My question was reflected a fairly new train of thought inspired by the discussion that I knew might take some doing to bring the group to center on. Thus I wrote it down so as not to forget it, but it did not win the poll, perhaps not coincidentally. Another good question occurred to me from a subsequent thread, but nobody recorded it on their card (and I had already used mine.) It does take a bit of practice to train one's attention on both what is being said at the moment and what you want to ask later.

To resume the discussion after the procedural explanation, we tried to define hypocrisy, particularly, to distinguish it from lying. Every person made significant contributions, which impressed me, there being so many newcomers. At about the one-hour mark, we seemed to lose momentum and I was tempted to take a poll of index cards to select an exit question. But then we delved deeper into social aspects of hypocrisy and that revived us. When we again splintered, I gave a two-minute warning on nominating exit questions: when there isn't a "speaker at the podium" that makes it easier for people to think a moment and write something down.

I read the index cards, sometimes interpreting them. It felt a little odd to be the knot of the proceedings when the authors of each card were at the table, so I think next time I may have people read their question–and clarify it–themselves. On the other hand, some of the questions were pretty similar, and we wouldn't want to spend time on multiple presentations of the same question. Also, the process of voting need not have been so public, as everyone could have read the cards and tallied their vote right on it. These observations alone suggest some simple refinements to the process.

Anyway, I feel that the basic intent (of the cards) was accomplished because our last 25-minute stretch had direction: jokingly, we said we were trying to "wrap up" the issue so that we could "sleep easy." As we did last week, we had a final round where people put in their "last word" on the subject, with most people addressing the exit question (or explaining why it wasn't an issue for them), and a few even owning up to a decisive yea or nay. In my case, the epiphany I always seek during these meetings happened literally while I was improvising my "last words," which I find comforting because it suggests that it might never have happened without the meeting and being on the spot to give a summary:-) We broke up about 9:15 p.m., after a couple of announcements.

Jeff G
Oakland, CA
Post #: 15
Our meeting on Privacy really began in the aftermath of the previous meeting, so I decided to begin the meeting notes to capture what happened "pre-meeting". Which is just another way of saying there seemed to be things happening before the meeting that will be of interest for the archives.

Choice of topic: Something that struck me from the hypocrisy meeting was what a commonplace the younger participants seemed to think it was that hypocrisy was a normal state of being. I knew from reading that young people are very concerned with privacy, despite their putting their lives on public display via the internet; I was also confident that the older set was up-in-arms about it. I also wanted to reserve a date without making a meeting announcement, so I published the meeting title, without really a clue as how to conduct it.

Meeting format: The ideal time to announce the meeting was creeping up fast, so I sat down to compose the announcement, still with only the vaguest notion of what to say. I loved that the initial paragraph captured exactly why I thought it would be a topic that would advance the group (which is to say, the techniques used to conduct the conversation, since the participants come and go–which of course is a big reason for writing all this down in the first place). But as usual, the beautiful generality did not easily translate into action. I knew that I'd been wanting to try out a game format of group interaction, but I was intending to inch toward it. Instead I saw no half-measure more understandable than to simply create a game. (Perhaps it happened this way because I had put myself into a predicament with such a threatening topic–I needed a game to get us past a big problem with the hypocrisy meeting: no one wanted to admit to personal hypocrisy nor to be seen as someone who cast the first stone). Since there was no time to compose all its rules, I focused on what was needed to set it up. So I only wrote what they would need to bring with them. I spent a fair amount of time countering all the fears people might have not to play. I reasoned–but did not necessarily believe–that we could make up the rules on the spot, as a group. But I still didn't publish the announcement until I slept on the idea. I woke up with an answer to the logical first question: "Now that I have dealt each of you 5 cards, what do you most want to do?" I was a bit stunned by the simplicity of the answer, so I send out the announcement.

Game development: I am coming to recognize that just playing a game–any game, really–would be of great value to the group, in that it would get people to slow down and react to one another. And yet, I want it to be a game that reflected the topic, and that engages us enough to fulfill its purpose (and make it possible to use more in the future). So every day I come back to it, asking what is needed next.

I recognize that it a privilege to design the game, because it clearly will reflect some of my ideas on what privacy is about (by ideas, I mean those implicit on how I live, because I'm not aware of any theoretical preconceptions, which was another reason it was a good topic). But I figure that others can design games for other meetings if they want, and to do that there should be a model. Also I used to make up board games and card games as a child: my friends would happily play them, but I tended to lose. Go figure.

So if it is true that everyone will experience the impulse to reveal their cards to relieve the tension of their secrets, then something is needed to stop them. In real life, that would be the fear of sanctions for the offenses represented on the cards. The most basic sanction relevant to moral issues is ostracism, which is an all-or-nothing affair. So that sets up a good dynamic: we get rid of one card at a time in order to approach a goal state of no secrets, yet each discard presents the dramatic threat of total loss. Like the card game 21, and so many others.

So how is it determined whether a discard results in ostracism? It cannot be something the discarding player can determine in advance, just as I detailed in the announcement: whether and what to discard constitutes the exercise of judgment that is the skill the game rewards, and thus develops. Clearly it should be a group decision, and the group must be motivated by competing concerns or they will vote one another off the island too quickly. One obvious brake is if condemning one sin would mean guilt by association, if you were found to be guilty of the same. A focus on fairness makes this an exercise in constructing a legal system. And since it a group decision, it is simple to allow the discarding sinner to try to exculpate himself using arguments. So we have a trial component that lends itself to discussion befitting a philosophy group, but surely we don't want to spend much time debating the severity of imaginary sins. It would be sublime if somehow the debate over particulars could be replaced with the debate over philosophical points. Not to mention, since these sins are invented, there are no particulars (though it sure would be fun–for some people–to invent those, too!)

Another side of all this is perhaps to go beyond simply not being ostracized, to participating more dynamically in the group. This would come into effect if the opportunity to interact was variable: the player may have a choice of whether to discard, or perhaps the other players could force him to discard. Or the player could earn some insurance (bribe money for the judges?) by doing something to increase his standing in this "society." Expanding the game with multiple items of value (credits, sins) seems too complex, which will erode its discussion value. But if the product of the second activity (besides the reveal) was used to determine the result of the reveal, then it would fit in.

So the focus is still on the judgment by the group of whether the revealed card kicks that player out of the game. It needs to be simple, but not mechanical. If there is a "mini-trial" it cannot lead us off-track of our topic discussion. So let the discarder makes only one special variety of argument: "X is to be ignored because it is private and none of your business. You must pretend not to know." In real life, many different approaches could be made to exculpate the discarder, but this keeps our focus where it should be. Moreover, arguing about facts is useless, since they cannot be changed. Arguing over judgment of the facts is usually fruitless, since it is difficult to change people's feelings in a short time. But if people look the other way, forgive, or otherwise forget on principle, that is something valuable to the revealing player because it dictates a result (though you might not get invited to parties, people won't take your property and banish you to the hinterlands).

Jeff G
Oakland, CA
Post #: 16
Anything of value will find a way to be traded. Since a determination that X is exempted from prosecution by privacy is useful to anybody holding card X (and perhaps to those holding cards similar to X), people who have been assigned sin X have a common interest in getting that determination made publicly. Clearly they can use their vote after the reveal of other X's to advance their interest, but we could use the non-reveal activity to make the negotiation smoother than if we had always to wait for a test case. (In a small game with uncontrolled pieces as we will have, we don't know if there will even be multiple X's.) In fact, we might even approach an ideal that I've had in the back of my mind from the start: that we never actually reveal our cards. (Of course, this won't be published until after we play;-)

Let the non-reveal activity be some statement that the group either accepts or rejects. If it is accepted, it passes into "law" where it can be cited, not as something everybody believes, but as something they have agreed to for the purpose of determining "guilt." (I suppose we could allow these resolutions to be rescinded, but recision won't change the results of prior reveals.) Of course the ability to evoke a group decision is something I've always wanted to do to move us forward, but of course no one ever wants to agree on anything...but that was before they had 5 sin cards burning in their hands!

I don't know if it will even be necessary to actually take turns, but if we do, then one elects on one's turn either to propose a resolution or to reveal a card. Actually I would like there to be turns, at least initially, because then everyone has to tip their hand at least a little bit.

Game development II: What needs to be done for the meeting reminder, which needs to happen within a couple days, is to get the best game inputs.

I'm going with the idea that the mini-trials are vehicles for debate. The need to deliver a verdict will guarantee a fairly quick resolution, and that it is a game will hopefully keep people from digging in too seriously. The setting of precedents, however, will create a thread of consistency, a sense of progress. Most important, the personal interest in winning will invest people in their contributions.

So, really the "sins" that people bring to the game are topics they would like to talk about, and because of the game set-up, matters they want to argue should be private. So is it a good idea to shuffle the cards? And, what if they want to argue that something should be public? Ha! The same mechanism could do both: as in some versions of poker, each player has to swap out a portion of his hand for cards from the deck, except in this case he will be trading cards with other players. So each person picks some things he is for and against, then swaps out the ones he is against (and hopes he doesn't get them back). Also, it's got to be good exercise to occasionally have to argue against what you believe, and most of the incoming sins are likely to be harder to defend. Five is then a good number: though I doubt we'll get through that many issues, it makes everyone think of 2 or 3 of each.

The specific instructions for making up the cards will be think of a very short phrase naming a matter that one thinks should be considered private, or that one thinks should be public. Ideally there should be just enough detail (maybe an example scenario that is not gender-specific, or a pair of scenarios) so that no two cards will be the same. If your notion of privacy applies to the matter only in certain circumstances (say, running for public office) then that should be on the card, otherwise it means at all times for everyone: however, if you hold that card, then for that turn you are in that context. The more "gray" the better, especially since at least half of your cards will not be the ones you brought. (We'll allow them all to be traded just to facilitate the protection of anonymity.) Outright crimes are not permitted.

I should be worried that no one will reveal a card, but that is okay if they have to make a proposal instead, which also triggers a short debate. After all, that is the standard form of a philosophy meeting: pronouncements without consequences:-)

Not sure if a guilty verdict means one is out of the game. Probably for the amount of time we have it will be a good rule. Being cast out doesn't have to mean non-participation, as that person could still vote on resolutions and verdicts (though that doesn't seem so realistic).

Announcing the meeting. Wrote the game rules up last night. Simple is good. My unresolved questions are Should I give examples? and Should I publish these pre-meeting notes in advance? The risk of giving examples is that people will think too narrowly and try to imitate them, or give up too soon because they might be turned off by the one example. Still I could use the one or two ideas that were suggested by people online. Prepublishing the notes runs the same risk: too much direction stifles improvisation. Probably better is to run 2-3 practice rounds, to get people used to the timing and the opportunities for strategy. A practice round is a round with no penalties.

So what happens, of course? Both the examples proposed online, focus on the act of violation of privacy, rather than what is uncovered. Rather than ignore this variation, I slightly complicate the instructions, which are getting to seem forbiddingly large, though in fact I think the game will be simple to play. It's the clarifications of what one hopes will come naturally that take up space. The change is that now the one who violates privacy could be on trial, which kind of compromises the metaphor of "secrets" but the discussion is the greater good. Still, I wonder if the violator case is a cop-out, because the bottom line is whether a fact becomes known, not how it becomes known.

Meeting published. I'll deal just one card to begin, for a practice round. That will accommodate latecomers, plus it will seem less stressful to just have one issue in your hand. Then I'll increase everybody's hand to 3 and we play "for real." That leaves a card or two in case we get an idea, say for a rule change.

We will likely spend some time discussing how the game format makes us feel and think. I'd still like to implement an improvement to how we select the exit question, but perhaps I'll have to save that for next time. I'm kinda exhausted for now. Besides, I suspect something that fits the theme or the format will occur to me on the spot.

On second thought, maybe we'll talk about format issues after the meeting is officially over. A lot of people aren't interested in "meta" issues. We will want to talk about whether this game reflected the dilemmas of privacy well.

I think in the final reminder I need to give people the option to come empty-handed. People can be put off by small things. I think people will come up with ideas after the practice round quiets their nerves. Also I think it would be productive if people teamed up to formulate their questions, and it would underscore the fact that it wasn't about anyone personally.

Jeff G
Oakland, CA
Post #: 17
I don't think I'll try to stretch the game out to include the whole meeting, unless the resolutions get very interesting. A lot of titillating questions probably don't fall into this rubric. I must keep in mind that this device is meant to replace the personal stories that we would normally use to ground the discussion, but then we need to let the discussion "take off."

Can't believe I didn't think about this: once the cards are randomized, people may be wondering who has theirs. As well as who wrote the one they got. But isn't that like life? You wonder who else is stuck in your shoes. You won't know until they reveal the card, though you may suspect, based on their resolutions.

Final reminder sent. I like the word "gamification." I am worried about people's ability to take the opposite side of an issue to what they believe, but that is what I am betting is the cause of discussion paralysis. The mere effort will go a long way. And I am still concerned about people's willingness to take up the spirit of playing a game. Oh well, the die is cast now.

I still haven't made up any cards!

Cards came pretty easy when I didn't try to be clever or controversial. Searched for "none of your business" on google, but mostly used what just occurred to me.

Noticed that my manual reminders don't automatically link to the meeting or have yes/no buttons. That's not good. Also I wonder if people don't check their emails and instead find the meeting on the site: they would have missed both. At least now the minimum info is in the comments for the meeting.

Please let me get one good night's sleep before this meeting....

Jeff G
Oakland, CA
Post #: 18
The March 13 meeting on Privacy had 4 participants, as 2 cancelled last-minute and 2 are habitual no-shows. We started and ended pretty much on time. Everybody brought game cards or things to write on them.

The damp weather may have decreased attendance but did not dampen the vigor of the discussion. At times it seemed to verge on being heated. We started on the game right away. This was the first time we'd tried a game as a way to stimulate our thinking, and everybody was cooperative. However, the assumptions built into the game–partly my personal idealization of the problem, and in part simplifications that go with being a game–seemed to stymie the players a bit. The game's promised realism depended on having the same idealization. We eventually got on the same page, but it took quite a bit of discussion time during the practice round to do so. The lesson for the next game (someday...too big a project for every meeting) is to sacrifice a bit of realism to make it cut-and-dried, ready-to-play. In this case, I might have stipulated a fictional future in which there was a publishing service that made available the information at stake, if the domain was decided to be public rather than private. (I guess I had presumed that such an all-or-nothing future was already here.) (Also, next time I will update the main meeting announcement instead of relying on email.) Although we discussed several kinds of information in depth, I felt that we might otherwise have used the time to explore a wider variety of themes.

The four of us seemed to pretty well cover the range of positions on privacy: from all-private to all-public. Maybe that was why our mini-debates were never boring. Everyone was quite articulate as well. People got the idea that the test cases had to be ambivalent, to make a good discussion and because you didn't know who would get stuck with it. Additional scenarios were given as arguments. Despite the artificiality of the game, I could tell we were taking it seriously. We had two similar cards played–your parents' ethnicities and what languages you speak–which met different verdicts, leading to interesting inferences about what features lead us to grant privacy in a domain.

In the last 15 minutes or so, we considered what our exit question should be, discussing the ramifications and similarities of each candidate, and their suitability as objects of philosophical speculation. We also learned about European privacy laws, Google+, pondering the future of privacy in the digital age.
Oakland, CA
Post #: 26
Wow, that was quite a recap!! I must admit, I skimmed a bit, but the design process was interesting. My day job is, in fact, game design, so I am very familiar with issues of incentive structures and game theory. I am also an avid gamer, so I do love games, but I have to say, I think the game limited us from delving as deep as possible into the topic. Philosophy is bound to destroy any game in fact by dissolving the terms of the game, so I was a bit skeptical that we could ever get cut and dry opinions.

It was a fun conversation but to be completely honest (which I try to do wink), I missed the open format we usually follow that might have allowed us more exploration.

That all being said, it was nice to flesh out this term that I don't think much about. The social vs legal pressures, the risk vs reward, and the futurist issues were all enlightening! Looking forward to the next meetup, however you might decide to run it. Hope we get more people to show up laughing
Jeff G
Oakland, CA
Post #: 21
Wow! I didn't think anyone would try to read it all. I considered editing it, but that would have sucked up even more time. Thank you so much for providing feedback!

If you can imagine that I left anything out of the tale, I decided somewhere in that span of time to simply seek innovations that might benefit the topic hand, instead of trying to slowly evolve a uniform approach to the meetings. So you can expect games to pop up for some topics, but not as a rule; more likely, we'll find ways to use aspects of games without having a cumbersome familiarization and competition. Maybe a game designer could help with that. ;-)

To my mind, a game, in the context of rational discourse, is an intensive version of a "thought experiment." People rarely submit themselves to the terms of a thought experiment, so the game motivates the simulation. But intensity is expensive, so it has to be used sparingly: we should have had a time limit, regardless of how much time went into making it.

It occurs to me now that those of us at the Privacy meet now have a common experience of playing a "philosophers' game" that might be useful in and of itself. For example, what made this particular game work or not may be relevant to the next theme.

Regarding the turnout: while some of the best discussions I've attended in various groups were quite small, a broad base is important to assure freshness and critical mass. I think the best bet is to accommodate multiple levels of "investment." A high-investment topic may have a challenging emotional aspect (hypocrisy, privacy) or require specific preparation (privacy game). The next topic will allow the participant to choose how "deep" he or she wants to go. It will also be closer to a classic philosophical theme–that is, intra-personal not interpersonal.
Jeff G
Oakland, CA
Post #: 23
We had 9 participants for the April 4 meeting, with a median attendance history of about 3 meetings by my estimate. Most arrived right on time, so we started at 7:05 p.m.

Rather than give our introductions/opening stories round-robin, I went by the categories as described in the meeting announcement. We had a few each of (a) skills we would like to learn and (b) skills we have learned. There was a fair amount of discussion about each one before we went on to the next one. We did not explicitly reach category (c), except to touch on language as being a good example of it. There were frequent connections made between the cases, though we never got so far as to systematically abstract what they had in common, for there were always more cases and more observations to consider.

Since there was always something being actively discussed, there wasn't a lot of pressure to come up with a definite question. While the conversation pace and focus did not require it, I still wanted to have an "exit question" to keep some goal in sight for future meetings. So I started writing questions on cards. With about 20 minutes to go, we passed them around and tallied which ones we liked on the card. We had time for each person to give a 2-3 minute answer to the favored question. (A nice touch was that the actual card was passed around the table as a sort of "talking stick.") I noticed each answer seemed to build on the ones before it, as though we were constructing a composite answer. Too bad that was the end of the meeting! The question is: were we able to do that because we had spoken at length about the examples (which were not controversial), or was it because of the procedure of everybody answering one question basically led us to synchronize our thinking a bit? The only way to know is to experiment: let's try putting out a communal question earlier. Then we could continue our free-form discussion and put out another communal question a little later. When I think of our meetings over the last 3 years, the only time everyone is considering the same question is right after one is selected, plus it is rare that subsequent argument actually changes the answers, so why not everybody just answer it and then we can move on?

Still, I had the impression that people were satisfied to delve into each sample knowledge type without trying to be too systematic. And it was a big topic. My feeling is that a meeting is most productive if it gives participants something to help sustain a train of thought over a few days, but I will push that agenda only gently. As with previous meetings, contributions were cogent, very relevant, and eagerly offered. Not only is that sufficient for a successful meeting, but it is probably necessary to get anything more out of the proceedings.

We adjourned right at the 2-hour mark. About half the group stayed an extra 20-30 minutes chatting.
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