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Abstract

Exercises intended to engage laypeople in deliberations about emerging scientific and technological issues have become very popular in recent decades. These exercises are typically organized by political or intellectual elites, and often assessed in a top-down fashion as well. This paper disrupts that pattern by using a mix of complementary qualitative approaches to explore the experiences of citizen participants in a large exercise on emerging technologies, the 2008 U.S. National Citizens Technology Forum (NCTF), which included both face-to-face and online deliberations. Research questions explore participants’ perspectives on 1) the quality of the deliberations, 2) the potential for the exercise to have impacts, and 3) the degree of empowerment they experienced. While most participants had positive experiences in the exercise, and did not feel that anyone dominated deliberations, at times tensions and conflicts simmered under the surface. Further, the majority of the participants were highly critical of what they felt were chaotic online interactions that failed to engage with some of their key questions. Though many mentioned gaining some personal efficacy, most categorized the exercise as a research project and therefore did not feel it would have many broader societal or political impacts. Finally, participants’ reflections on their experiences in the exercise revealed interesting insights that went beyond the focal research questions—such as their awareness of the top-down power dynamics in the exercise—and how they actively negotiated these dynamics in ways that shaped the quality of deliberation, their sense of empowerment, and assessments of the exercise's potential impacts.

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