Friday, June 18, 2004

George Bush and the mad-doctors

There is a story in today's edition of BMJ (British Medical Journal) on a "sweeping mental health initiative" to be unveiled by George Bush in July. The plan involves mental health screening for "all consumers" linked to a "state of the art" medication treatment plan. BMJ itself, as well as other more radical commentators such as Mark Frauenfelder, draw attention to the close links between the Bush family and drug companies, particularly Eli Lilly, who stand to make further billions out of the scheme.

Clearly there are elements of conspiracy and corruption here, but that is endemic to the American political system in any case (oops, there goes my chance of ever getting a US visa again). Of more interest I think is the continuing medicalisation and psychologisation of American and world society that is signalled by this. And as usual it is all being done in the name of human rights. For example, the president's commission who recommended the new system say they are concerned because "each year, young children are expelled from preschools and childcare facilities for severely disruptive behaviours and emotional disorders" - and hopefully now many more of these disruptive kids will be put on rational treatment regimes "based on efficacy data from clinical trials" (to quote Darrel Regier, director of research at the American Psychiatric Association).

I guess soon Americans will be able to sleep more soundly at night, since, as Dr Graham Emslie, who helped develop a Texas project on which the new nation-wide system is to be modelled, explains: "There are good data showing that if you identify kids at an earlier age who are aggressive, you can intervene... and change their trajectory."

I am trying not to be naive about this. Of course there are kids who are uncaring and violent and make their own and others' lives a misery, and of course society has every right to protect itself from such kids and to try and help them. For whatever reasons, there may even be many more such kids in America than there are in most other countries. But to pretend that violent, disruptive behaviour is simply a property inherent in individuals and not also in the political fabric of society as a whole and that it can be fixed by screening out and medicating (or therapising) individuals - that is madness.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Nancy White on conference design

I see Nancy White has also responded to Clay Shirky's post on the backchannel at conferences. Among other useful ideas, she suggests that pre and post conference online work ("for agenda creation and relationship creation/deepening and post for reflection") can help a lot to make a conference more participatory. She also points to Open Space, an approach to organising meetings where there is no pre-formed agenda but participants simply post topics they are willing to facilitate a discussion about on an Agenda Wall (together with a time and venue) and report-backs from discussions are posted on a News Wall. If like me you get frustrated by all the stuff on the Open Space site about its benefits and can't find the bottom-line about how it works - try the two page primer.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Who owns a conference?

There is an interesting post on "the backchannel and conference design" by Clay Shirky (on the many2many group weblog). A backchannel at a conference presentation or other talk occurs when people in the audience text-chat via their laptops or PDAs while the presentation is in progress. The good part is that a presentation becomes a lot less of a one-to-many affair; the bad part is that some people experience it as disrespectful of the speaker. Clay's post touches on this (something which has been hotly debated elsewhere) and relates it to the broader issue of how the conventional form of academic conferences may be changing in a hyper-networked world. For example, at the 2004 Planetwork conference the backchannel is being formally co-opted to allow attenders to create the conference schedule (suggesting topics and voting on them).

Clay identifies various types of risk involved in this: people "gaming the system" to push their agenda, group prejudices being amplified so that unusual papers becoming even less likely to be accepted for presentation. But, says Clay, irrespective of whether more democratic ways of running conferences will do more harm than good "it won’t matter, because the real change here is not that technology is allowing new forms of participation, but rather that it is allowing new forms of creation — a conference has heretofore been an artifact, crafted by a small group for a large group, and as usual, the small group has found many ways to justify its existence (and I say this as a veteran of conference planning.)"

There are two interesting international psychology conferences happing in South Africa next year - the Critical Psychology Conference and Theoretical Psychology Conference. Given that the attendees will be a whole lot less tech-savvy than those who go to the sorts of conferences that Clay frequents, I wonder to what extent we will be able to get away from the "crafted by a small group for a large group" syndrome. In my experience critical psychologists, like most left-leaning academics, are good at critical analysis but a lot less good at doing participatory democracy.