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Lessons Learned

Although our ideas about stakeholder involvement did not match the everyday reality of the struggling start-up that Datashare was, we do think our experiences offer four possible lessons for those who want to pursue field philosophy.

The first lesson is that before engaging with a practice, one should explore what that practice entails and what the rules of engagement are. Looking back, we had underestimated the uncertainties in working with a start-up company and the time that it takes to really fathom the organization and everyone’s expectations, roles, and responsibilities. We only gradually came to appreciate that we were part of an ongoing negotiation about what the organization, the product, and technology were. Moreover, our aims and those of Datashare did not sufficiently align, notwithstanding our shared commitment to value sensitive design. In light of the practical constraints Datashare was under, our ideas about stakeholder involvement were naive, and our envisioned role as mediator between stakeholders was too ambitious and probably misguided (Noorman et al. 2018). Although this is just one case, it leads us to express caution about the role of philosophers in fast-moving entrepreneurial contexts.

A second, and perhaps more fundamental, lesson is that as field philosophers we should reflect on possible mismatches between our ‘philosophical DNA’ and the requirements of the practice we engage in. If philosophers move from study room to the street, that is going to affect how they do philosophy. Philosophy is proud to be slow. This may be for sound reasons, but it also means that in some contexts one gets dismissed as slow-witted. Also, the standards of transparency and openness that characterize philosophical reflection and deliberation can be incompatible with market-driven demands for opacity, ambiguity, and strategic manoeuvring. We struggled with the question whether we should (and, if the answer was ‘yes,’ could) devise a type of philosophical reflection that would somehow fit the dynamic, fast-paced, and often opaque environment of this lean start-up. Or should we pull out once we realized that we were unsuccessful as mediators, as practitioners among practitioners? But then we would also forfeit our chance to develop the certification tool for the platform.

A third lesson, then, is that as a field philosopher one sometimes has to choose between pushing your own normative ideas and letting yourself be guided by the interests of your collaborators. If one is unwilling to do so, wishing to keep one’s hands clean, then it is best not to get too close to the field. As we were not ready to give up on including stakeholder values in the digital platform, and also felt obliged to Datashare, which had hosted us hospitably, we attempted a type of philosophical intervention more appropriate to the lean start-up environment. What we came up with could be dubbed ‘stand-up philosophy,’ except that there was no humor involved. To avoid being slow, we resorted to periodic observations of Datashare’s daily practices and meetings, and to occasionally engaging in conversations with the team. We found that by simply being there we triggered reflection on the concepts used, and encouraged the team to articulate and explicate their thinking. For example, whenever the subject in a meeting would turn to privacy, everyone would look at the philosopher in the room to check for a response, or they would justify or hedge their comments? We also attempted to represent, as much as we could, what we knew about the interests of the ordinary citizens to Datashare’s management—thus salvaging a few of our initial ambitions. Giving up on being mediators, we retreated to the time-tested role of the philosopher as advisor to power. Not quite what we had hoped for at the start, but the best we could think of under the circumstances. After all, we lacked bargaining power. Essentially, we were guests and had to behave as such.

A final lesson was that becoming a practitioner among practitioners also means becoming dependent on the success of one’s collaborators. We learned this the hard way. Our ethical project, including our promise to design a certification tool, was predicated on the general success of the Datashare project. Unfortunately, halfway through our project period Datashare was put on hold by Current for various reasons that go beyond the scope of this chapter. With Datashare, our own involvement also abruptly ended.6

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