Sunday, December 28, 2003

Reading:: A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia

Originally posted: Sun, 28 Dec 2003 05:16:43

A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia

by Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari

(Note: A later review of this book is available.)

A Thousand Plateaus is a deeply influential book which, though first published in French in 1980, is being increasingly cited in rhetoric, technical communication, science studies, educational psychology, and the like. In in, Deleuze and Guattari introduce themes such as rhizomes, deterritorialization, bodies without organs (BwO), and the like. Through their highly metaphorical language, imaginatively written explanations, and their attempt to write the book as a rhizome -- even inviting readers to begin reading at any point rather than at the beginning -- Deleuze and Guattari perform as well as describe an approach to language that relies on heterogeneous, multiply linked assemblages.

I found the book to be excruciating and abandoned it on p.178.

Is it worthwhile to review a book of which I have read less than half? Perhaps so, especially because I strongly suspect that most people who cite this thing haven't read it all the way through either. When I see references to Deleuze & Guattari, they almost always focus on the notion of rhizome discussed in the first (and most readable) chapter. In any case, I'll take the authors at their word when they say in Chapter 1 that the book is written as a rhizome, an organic structure (or rather anti-structure) that is so interlinked that any part is as the whole.

This notion of rhizome, as I hint above, is the best traveled and most used concept from the book, at least in the literature I've read. "Any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be," the authors tell us (p.5). Rhizomes may rupture in spots, temporarily, but everything is connected so these disruptions do not destroy the rhizome. The rhizome is an anti-genealogy: it does not rely on historical development, it links through and across states of being and ontologies. One can see how writers such as Bruno Latour and John Law, who have been applying the notion of heterogeneous networks to science and technology studies, would be intrigued by the concept. Frankly, I think they attempt to apply the concept much more concretely than Deleuze and Guattari do -- to actual empirical cases, not just to endlessly circulating semiotic systems -- and in doing so they expose some of the problems with the concept.

What problems? Here's Latour, from his chapter "Social theory and the study of computerized work sites":

Rhyzomes and heterogeneous networks are thus powerful ways of avoiding essences, arbitrary dichotomies, and to fight structures. But ... their limit is to define entities only through association. ... they become empty when asked to provide policy, pass judgement or explain stable features. ... Their dissolving power is so great that after having dissolved the illusions of critical postures, there is not much that is left and they even may turn into a somewhat perverse enjoyment of the diversity, perversity, heterogeneity and multiplicity of the unexpected associations they deploy so well. (1995, p.304).

The genius of rhizomes -- the point that we can put Cartesian distinctions behind us and examine the multiple and multiplying interconnections among people, practices, artifacts, ontologies, etc. -- is also its Achilles' heel. What do you do with them after you cry for the umpteenth time, "aha, there's no Cartesian divide!" You descend into the joyless, wearily self-indulgent spiral of deconstruction that Latour so rightly condemns as "perverse" here and in stronger terms in Pandora's Hope. Stability is lost -- or, rather, completely rejected -- as is any interest in or explanation of sociocultural development. The latter point is particularly corrosive to empirical examinations of work, and I think has fought against some of the more interesting work in science and technology studies.

Of course, Deleuze and Guattari didn't come up with the notion of rhizome with those studies in mind, and it's actually not very clear to me exactly what they want to apply rhizomes to. The examples in subsequent chapters, though, tend to be semiotic systems, endless regimes of signs forming infinite, infinitely circular networks (see especially Chapter 5). It seems to me that what the authors have given with one hand -- the notion of a rhizome composed of heterogeneous nodes across categories -- they take away with the other by immediately collapsing these heterogeneous nodes unto dreary, labyrinthine regimes of signs. We're back to the prison-house of language from which Latour, Law, Callon, and others worked so hard to release us. Behind our backs, Deleuze and Guattari restored the asymmetrical relationship between humans and nonhumans by insisting that the whole is interpreted. So we spiral back into an endless post-Freudian discussion of how pores resemble vaginas, a colorless set of instructions that a masochist might leave his dominatrix, and so forth.

That seemingly endless discussion involves a lot of neologisms and a lot of highly metaphoric language. Even some of the words seem endless, especially when you say them out loud. "Deterritorialization." "Bodies-without-organs." Frustratingly, it's very difficult to figure out these metaphors in spots, making the book read like a mystical text rather than an imaginatively constructed one. When Deleuze and Guattari say that language is not a map but a tracing, do they mean the same by trace that I do -- a sociocultural line of development? Who knows? As with any mystical, metaphoric text, A Thousand Plateaus requires the acolyte to read without immediate comprehension, to soak in the wisdom through multiple readings, to work out an endless regime of signs in his or her own life. Tons of words, teaspoons of insight.

I'm just not up for that, so I just stopped reading. Yes, I'll likely cite the first chapter as apparently everyone else does. But I can't imagine reading the rest of this excruciating book of my own free will.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2003

(So very tired)

Originally posted: Tue, 16 Dec 2003 09:50:14

No, I still haven't made it through Deleuze & Guattari yet. (I refuse to call them "D&G" as Jenny suggests.) And today the book was recalled. Fortunately my friendly colleague Mark Longaker has offered to loan me his copy, so I'll get after this during Christmas break. If I can tear myself away from playing the new Zelda on the GameCube.

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Wednesday, December 03, 2003

(Reading roundup)

Originally posted: Wed, 03 Dec 2003 21:11:31

Things are going slowly here: many projects in which I'm involved have come due, so I'm finding myself writing more and reading less. But I have found time to crack Deleuze & Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus -- a book which promises to be rewarding and interesting, based on the first few pages, but also long and frustrating. Will post a review soon.

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Sunday, November 30, 2003

Reading:: Interaction Design for Complex Problem Solving

Originally posted: Sun, 30 Nov 2003 11:33:15

Interaction Design for Complex Problem Solving: Getting the Work Right

by Barbara Mirel

Interaction Design for Complex Problem Solving is surprisingly heavy. Since there are so many color illustrations -- mostly screen captures of various modeling software for visualizing problem-solving processes -- the pages are heavly slick paper rather than the lighter uncoated paper used in most Morgan Kaufmann offerings are composed. The first thing I picked the thing up, I thought, what did they put in this thing? Lead?

The content, similarly, is surprisingly heavy. I'm used to Morgan Kaufmann's offerings being fairly lightweight or at least textbook-ish -- books by authors such as Beyer & Holtzblatt, Rosson & Carroll, Kuniavsky, and Snyder have been trade/textbooks and have been written as introductory texts. Mirel's isn't. As she explains in the preface, "more than anything, this book is an argument intended to help HCI specialists convince their managers and software teammates to pursue the design and development required for useful applications for complex problem solving" (p. xviii). So it's not a how-to guide or a theoretical/academic text, she says. Neither fish nor fowl, the book is hard to categorize or characterize.

On one level, that's disappointing. My copy is a review copy I requested for consideration in my undergraduate user-centered design seminar, and after reading it, I can't imagine using the book in that class; it's not structured like a textbook, it doesn't offer a how-to, it stresses the complexity of work with several extended examples that are themselves complex and hard to follow, and it doesn't offer the natural breaks that one would expect in a textbook. But as a researcher of computers and writing in the workplace, I can see how Mirel's argument is useful for my own research -- and a sharp critique of fieldwork-to-formalization research approaches such as contextual design. (Actually, I'm a little surprised that Morgan Kaufmann would allow one of its authors to offer such a penetrating critique of one of its best sellers. Mirel inoculates herself by saying that contextual design is good for normal, stepwise work but not for complex problem solving -- a little trick, I think, because most work above the level of routine prescribed tasks, i.e., most work done by knowledge workers, could be considered complex problem solving.) I can also see my own work being implicated by this well-thought-through perspective on complex problem solving. And finally Mirel's critique of a variety of visualization tools -- most of which I have never encountered -- is probably very useful to those who are active in that area.

Mirel offers a set of categories, heuristics, and models for examining complex problem solving. These are all smart. But I hope I can be forgiven for saying that they don't quite gel. Despite the detailed cases, the categories seemed too abstract for me to grasp. The models are understandable and look terrifically useful -- like topological maps of mountainscapes, with major tasks serving as base camps for the metaphorical mountain climbers who complete them -- but I don't see any discussion of how to build them and I'm not clear what the spatial arrangements represent.

As I mentioned, I don't know exactly how to categorize this book and I haven't yet figured out how to use it. But the book provides a broad-based critique of oversimplifying approaches that is hard to beat and a level of sophistication about visual problem solving that would be hard to match. I'm positive that I'll return to it and cite it frequently as I continue to work through similar issues in my own work.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Reading:: Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium.FemaleMan_Meets_OncoMouse

Originally posted: Tue, 25 Nov 2003 22:55:24


by Donna J. Haraway, Lynn M. Randolph (Illustrator)

I detect an element of insecurity in this book, despite its daring and improbably long title and the risks it takes. Perhaps it's because Haraway repeatedly has to tell us that she is funny. "With a raging sense of humor," she insists. The insecure comedians are the ones who feel the need to tell people they're funny.

I didn't find Haraway to be funny. Her attempts at troping, her choice of figures such as FemaleMan and OncoMouse to represent key parts of her argument, and her breathless explications of lesbian-themed science fiction seemed forced to me. And don't get me started on the symbolically and technically clumsy art supplied by Lyn Randolph. These elements served to distract, or at least to distract me. And that's too bad, because -- once you get out of the first section -- she has some exceptionally interesting and insightful things to say.

Yes, interesting. Though for me she failed in her aim for readers to "have a good time" and to use comedy as method (p.15), she did provide some provocative thoughts and illustrations about the sorts of divides common in science and technology, their scholarly examinations, and their popular conceptions. Haraway is a materialist and she works hard to demonstrate how problematic these divisions are, particularly nature vs. culture and subject vs. object. "The relations of democracy and knowledge," she declares, "are up for materialized refiguring at every level" (p.68), and she describes ways to perform that configuring, such as valorizing the non-scientific ways of engaging with science that, though customarily devalued, are vital for understanding and protest and change (p.94).

You can see why Latour would like her, and she returns his admiration although she is suspicious of the war metaphors he tends to use. The Latourean language of actors, networks, and enrollment is here, along with close kin such as boundary objects, but Haraway explores these in rather different ways and introduces some of her own metaphors, mostly involving bodily fluids. "Sticky threads" is a favorite (of hers, not mine). She declares that objects are knots of knowledge-making practices, knots with sticky threads extended in all directions; the challenge is which sticky threads to follow. Another favorite is the transgenic, a trope which takes many forms -- cyborg, vampire, clone -- and which represents the collapsing of subject and object, the amendment of Marx to remember nonhumans, or in other terms, the principle of symmetry popular in actor-network theory.

One of her most used methods to get at these issues is that of overreading. In others' hands (such as John Law's -- see my review of Aircraft Stories), overreading is a deeply disrespectful activity that can too often be used to turn your opponents and bystanders into straw people. But Haraway brings an ethical principle to her overreading: "I will critically analyze, or 'deconstruct,' only that which I deeply love and in which I am deeply implicated" (p.151). And she freely acknowledges overreading (p.154), meaning that rather than throwing her voice, so to speak, she is using the text as a heuristic or a topos for generating and then illustrating her points. It sounds a little loopy, but it actually works, and it was when I realized this that I understood what so many people had seen in this book. Unconventional and smart.

The book is tough sledding at times, especially if you are put off by people who spend a lot of time telling you how funny they are. But push ahead, get into Part II, and see what you get out of it.

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Friday, November 21, 2003

Reading:: Social Studies of Science v22 (1993)

Originally posted: Fri, 21 Nov 2003 09:02:28

Social Studies of Science v22 (1993).

A colleague has been working on a task modeling technique, and when he described it, I thought about an article I had just read by Bruno Latour, Philippe Mauguin, and Genevieve Teil. So I recommended it. He was interested enough that I went back yesterday and reread the entire special issue so I could have an informed discussion with him. The approach and the issue are both very interesting. They point to a direction that I think Latour explored and ultimately abandoned -- at least I haven't seen any trace of it since.

That direction is what Latour calls a "quali-quantitative" one. In "A Note on Socio-Technical Graphs," Latour, Mauguin, and Teil describe "a visual and conceptual space" that -- they emphasize -- explicitly works against the social vs. technical factors that are often described in social studies of science by introducing a dichotomy that explicitly cuts across those factors. Social vs. technical is a false division, they say (reasonably, to my mind), so the new dichotomy serves to jolt us out of its use. This visual-conceptual space, meant to map scientific controversies by examining statements of all parties, draws on the notions of association and substitution -- or in the linguistic terms used here, syntagm and paradigm -- for the mapping structure. These two notions serve as the axes for a two-dimensional graph in which narratives are analyzed both quantitatively and qualitatively. The graphs were implemented in HyperCard, a program that researchers in Europe had gone nuts over. (For instance, at about the same time Latour and his colleagues were connecting these graphs, Bodker and Gronbaek were using HyperCard for cooperative prototyping in Denmark.)

Now, these graphs were specifically developed to analyze narratives in science and technology studies, not observations or other naturalistic collection methods and not other sorts of narratives. So I'm not sure how well they travel. But in the framework of STS, they do really interesting things. For instance, Latour et al. suggest that they can be used to identify black boxing: if a series of actants stays together through successive versions of narratives without "defecting," then "they may be aggregated in a black-box and given either a new name or the name of one of the actants" (p.41). Black boxes are a staple in actor-network theory, so being able to identify black boxes across many narratives at a glance -- or better yet, being able to automate this identification -- is a real boon.

Just as the graphs can be used to identify coherent assemblages across accounts, they can also compare contradictory accounts. This allows us to avoid the essentialism in functionalist accounts by identifying divergences without making a priori distinctions about which ones are useful (right, reasonable) and which ones are meaningless (wrong, irrational).

Near the end of the article, on p.45, Latour et al. have a little dialogue with one of the reviewers. The reviewer objects: but explaining success can't just involve counting the actants involved and assuming that the longer network will be the stronger one. He gives the example of American Bell, a relatively small company that ultimately prevailed over Western Union with the help of a "small and unassailable set of patents." So, the reviewer asks, don't you need to account for other, more qualitative factors? Latour et al. reply that yes, the longer network did win: American Bell used its patents to align itself with a vastly longer network, the legal system. This argument is a neat trick, but I want to emphasize that it's an escape hatch: as far as I can tell, there really is no way to count the number of actants that make up a network. Just as Latour et al. lift the curtain to reveal the entire legal system standing behind American Bell, his reviewer could choose to lift another curtain to reveal other networks standing behind Western Union. And those competing networks, if extended enough, will eventually overlap and actants will find themselves oscillating between them! The "longer, stronger network" argument is very difficult to quantify, even with these socio-technical graphs. Particularly because Latour et al. do not give any methodological guidelines for coding narratives!

This article is followed by responses. The first is by James K. Scott, who had used these graphs in his own work and gives us sort of a testimonial about them. He makes the point that the socio-technical graphs are inscriptions -- ways "to reduce (translate) complex processes to features that can be graphically represented in two dimensions" (p.60) -- and that actor-network theorists were thus using the same strategy for success that they had so often witnessed in use by the scientists they had studied. He goes into some of the methodological details about coding that Latour et al. had avoided, and he supplies an example from his own research. He also includes a number of objections, including the objection that this method doesn't provide any way to discriminate among the texts (narratives) to analyze.

More strenuous objections come from W. Bernard Carlson and Michael E. Gorman. The first author is unmasked here as the unnamed reviewer whose argument Latour et al. had dismissed. Like Scott, these authors remind us that many texts are after-the-fact reconstructions (often dubious narratives); sources are heterogeneous and difficult to code in a uniform manner, particularly visuals; no criteria are discussed for what to include or exclude on the graphs; and finally Latour et al., in their opinion, did not answer their concern about counting actants. In the place of socio-technical graphs, Carlson and Gorman push their own cognitive mapping scheme, which attempts "to map the mental processes" of the actors (p.87).

If you've read much Latour, you can guess what happens next. In his own reply to Carlson and Gorman, Latour heaps scorn on the notion of mapping mental processes. "Either the authors have access to completely new types of documents unknown in France which allow them to directly observe mental processes, goals, and details, or they have simply misunderstood the whole argument of our method" (p.94). The whole argument is that socio-technical graphs allow the triangulation of accounts, not essences -- which, Latour charges, is what Carlson and Gorman are after with their attempt to map mental processes. Latour, who famously declared a ten-year moratorium on cognitive explanations, emphasizes again why this is a good idea.

Can these graphs be used to model tasks? No, not as such. But they can provide an inspiration for such modeling. And as my colleague pointed out, my own genre ecology diagrams are all about associations and substitutions too. Guess what I'm going to be working on for the next couple of years.

Note added 11/3/2004:

I said that this line of work appeared to have been abandoned. In fact, it shows up in the 1999 book Pandora's Hope.

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Saturday, November 15, 2003

Reading :: Interactive Expertise

Originally posted: Sat, 15 Nov 2003 08:50:08

Interactive expertise: Studies in distributed working intelligence

by Yrjö Engeström lists this book as "out of print -- limited availability." No kidding. My copy is actually a copy of a copy: Charles Bazerman lent his copy of the book to David R. Russell, who copied it and later lent the copy to me to make my own copy. So I have the notes of two really outstanding scholars in the margins. It's not as great as it sounds: Chuck apparently puts vertical lines by the parts that he likes, while David typically writes "YES!!" by points he finds to be illuminating.

There are a lot of vertical lines and yesses in this book, though, because it is smart and interesting. And unlike Learning by Expanding (reviewed below), this slim "research report" is based almost entirely on empirical work the author did with other scholars: two examinations of interaction in courtrooms and one of interaction between nurses and an elderly patient. All use conversation analysis or at least something that looks a lot like it (but Ritva Engestrom, one of the group, published a 1995 paper in Mind, Culture, and Activity arguing that activity theory was a superior framework to CA, so now I'm not sure what to call it). And fortunately all three empirical studies have been published elsewhere. So you don't have to get copies of them from me.

The real gem here, though, is Chapter 1. It's a framing piece meant to situate the three studies that follow, and it does that quite well, arguing that reigning understandings of expertise are Cartesian and suggesting that a non-Cartesian understanding -- like that provided by activity theory -- has to understand expertise as distributed. "Expertise resides in collective activity systems," he declares. That's a striking argument, because taken to its logical conclusion, it means that competence -- and incompetence -- is not the property of an individual but rather of the system in which that individual is embedded. As I argue in a piece to be published in 2005, that's rather problematic because it means that responsibility, blame, and accountability are complicated enormously. What about when someone just flat screws up?

Well, let's leave that question for now. Engestrom gets to the instability of activity systems here -- an old theme, and I hope that my review in yesterday's "Reading Roundup" didn't give the opposite impression -- and uses one of my favorite declarations, "the activity system incessantly reconstructs itself." Incessantly, because its parts undergo continuous transformations, partially because their interpenetration with other activity systems in a network of activity. No, he doesn't cite Latour here, but he does elsewhere and the comparison with actor-networks is quite clear.

Latour, of course, is almost indifferent to explanations of expertise and competence; he says very little about how people learn, gain expertise, and transform their activities accordingly. Engestrom is very interested in all these topics and he brings in key concepts from activity theory, such as internalization/externalization and the zone of proximal development, to talk about these. He also brings in Bakhtin to argue that an activity system is a multivoiced formation.

Much of the rest of the chapter introduces vocabulary and arguments that we've seen elsewhere in his writings. For instance, he discusses the four types of contradictions and again fingers the primary contradiction as between use value and exchange value in a capitalist society. (That's the Marxism showing through.) He presents a detailed taxonomy of disruptions. And he preps us for the three careful case studies that follow.

It's a great publication, and one that I keep coming back to. Despite its 1992 publication date, this material is largely fresh and keeps giving me new insights, particularly as I wrestle with this issue of networks.

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Friday, November 14, 2003

Reading:: Analyzing Streams of Language

Originally posted: Fri, 14 Nov 2003 20:07:56

Analyzing Streams of Language : Twelve Steps to the Systematic Coding of Text, Talk, and Other Verbal Data

by Cheryl A Geisler

I ordered and reviewed this book partially because I'll be teaching a qualitative research class next spring and I'm on the prowl for good texts. Not sure that this is a good fit for that particular class -- it trends quantitative -- but it's a very strong textbook nevertheless. I found myself wishing that it had been around when I was taking my grad courses in research (and maybe wishing Geisler had been around to teach them).

The book is well considered and well put together. It starts with the review of the literature and goes all the way through presenting the results of the study. And it manages to describe what's happening in plain language, making things look simple where before they seemed insanely complicated. Examples, tips, and exercises help pull us through. It's a fast read; I think I spent a total of 90 minutes on it, although to be fair I skimmed some parts.

But the most striking -- and at the same time the most limiting -- feature is the tight integration with Microsoft Word and Excel. Geisler points out that MS Office, which appears to be on practically every Windows and Mac machine in the world, is a fine tool for coding and analyzing data, so who needs more expensive tools such as Nvivo or ATLASti? So Geisler provides detailed instructions on how to get Word and Excel to do sophisticated analyses, exploiting very specific features that many people don't know about. On the one hand, this is a welcome development: students at UT can buy Office for $5, so why spend $500 on a high-powered qualitative research tool? On the other hand, the book starts to sound like an extended ad for a particular version of a particular office suite. The next time MS Office gets upgraded, the book will be out of date. Or is this planned obsolesence? I'm also not sure how germane the advice is to those of us who are running different office suites.

The book's website, maintained by Geisler, contains videos, exercises, spreadsheets, and other resources, including what I think is supposed to be a sample syllabus. It could be useful, but it doesn't appear to be very extensive or well maintained. I saw some disconcerting typos -- as I did in the book, most distressingly in the first paragraph of the first chapter.

All in all, well worth it. If you're intimidated by the thought of analyzing verbal data, particularly with simple statistics, check this book out.

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Thursday, November 13, 2003

(Reading roundup: Latour, Mol & Law, Engestrom, Engestrom & Vahaaho, Nardi, Whittaker & Schwarz on Networks and Structure)

Originally posted: Thu, 13 Nov 2003 21:34:55

I'm working on reading several books right now, including Barbara Mirel's new book on complex problem solving, Cheryl Geisler's new text on analyzing text, and two of Engestrom's older books. And I have recalled Deleuze & Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus: everyone is citing the damn thing, so I might as well read it. So expect more reviews soon.

For now, I'm chipping away at the notion of network and I'm reading several articles and chapters related to it. Network's a bit outmoded. Actor-network theorists are now "post-ANT," having traded in their networks for rhizomes, fluids, and regimes. Activity theory picked up on networks in a big way, but in their later work they've become suspicious as well. Four pieces have helped me to muddle through and do some comparisons:

Bruno Latour's "Social Theory and the Study of Computerized Work Sites" is a short chapter in which he talks about the problem with networks -- among other things. "Rhyzomes and homogeneous networks are thus powerful ways of avoiding essences, arbitrary dichotomies, and to fight structures." But they "define entities only through association." Thus "they remain critical tools, good only at disturbing, undoing, deploying, disseminating." They're always critical, not terribly constructive. Latour argues that something has to be added to networks "to make them useful in following displacements without seeing them as so many fragments." Not essences or structures, of course, but something that endures. Fluids (Mol & Law), modes of coordination (Callon), and regimes of delegation (Latour) are all ways to do this.

The concept of fluids is an intriguing one. In "Regions, Networks and Fluids: Anaemia and Social Topology," Annemarie Mol and John Law discuss this notion. In this taxonomy, regions are areas that can be negotiated and where something can exist (typically geographically). For instance, anemia is widespread in a region called Africa, not so much in a region called The Netherlands. Within Africa, there are regions where anemia is more severe. One can link these regions with a network, in this case a network of laboratories in which immutable mobiles circulate. In The Netherlands or in Africa, the same lab equipment can be deployed in similar lab settings to come up with results that tell us about anemia. That is, anemia can be performed similarly anywhere in the network; outside the network, that performance of anemia isn't possible; that sort of anemia, in a sense, doesn't exist.

But some sort of anemia does exist outside the network. Even when equipment breaks down, doctors can test for anemia or at least make good guesses based on practices that spring up outside the network. Checking the eyelids and gums, for instance, can provide a reasonably accurate diagnosis of anemia in the hardest hit parts of Africa (where anemia is most severe), but not in The Netherlands (where anemia, when it occurs, is far milder). Checking for dizziness and shortness of breath can similarly provide a good diagnosis in The Netherlands (where good nutrition and easy labor make these symptoms rare) but not in most parts of Africa (where poor nutrition and hard labor are the norm). So anemia, in this case, is a mutable mobile, something that has the same name but that is performed quite differently in different regions and networks. It flows: it varies without boundaries, transforms without discontinuity. There is no obligatory passage point.

This lack of structure and order tends to bother activity theorists. I've alluded to this tendency already, in my review of a special issue of Mind, Culture, and Activity earlier in this blog. Activity theorists tend to want a more ordered, genetic-historic analysis. So the AT understanding of network has traditionally emphasized relatively stable groups and activities interacting, sharing their tools or objects. Recent AT work, however, has led away from stable structures. In "When the Center Does Not Hold: The Importance of Knotworking," Engestrom, Engestrom & Vahaaho examine "work that requires active construction of constantly changing combinations of people and artifacts over lengthy trajectories of time and widely distributed in space" (p.345), work that has no center or stable configuration (p.346). That description sounds suspiciously like the one Latour has advanced repeatedly, yet the authors argue that "networks are typically understood as relatively stable structures" and thus do not provide a sufficient explanation (p.346)! Engestrom, Engestrom & Vahaaho invent the term knotworking to describe this phenomenon. A closer examination of the chapter reveals that even when this dynamic work is recognized, it is immediately contextualized within stronger and more durable ordered structures.

Finally, Nardi, Whittaker & Schwarz argue in "NetWORKers and their Activity in Intensional Networks" that cross-disciplinary and temporary links -- in personal social networks in the workplace -- are on the rise and cannot be explained by the existing formulations of network. They examine and reject knotworking as one model to apply. Interestingly, they also examine and reject actor-network theory's account: they claim that it assumes "firm footings in institutional structures inhabited by Machiavellian 'princes'" as opposed to the "incessant buzz of small but crucial communications and reflections [that] shaped people's worklives and consciousness" in their study (2002, p.235). Again, activity theorists are accusing actor-network theorists of being too structural. Pot to kettle: you are black.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Reading:: Learning by Expanding

Originally posted: Tue, 11 Nov 2003 20:08:15

Learning by Expanding
By Yrjo Engestrom

I met Yrjo Engestrom once. He's over six feet tall, energetic, aging gracefully, impossibly fit, impossibly productive as an academic. Like a Nordic superman, he flies between the University of California, San Diego and the University of Helsinki. He radiates the clear-eyed certainty that you sometimes get with fervent Marxists.

I'm not sure whether to describe Engestrom as a Marxist. In this 1987 book -- published online, thankfully, because it's out of print -- his influences definitely include Marx and the Soviets who followed him, but they also include Peirce, Mead, Popper, etc. And although Engestrom talks about the key contradiction of capitalism (use vs. exchange value), Braverman, dialectics, and so forth, I think he attempts to move beyond the standard Marxist mode in his exploration of learning.

Like many Marxists, though, Engestrom writes densely. Maybe it's part of the Marxist aesthetic: lots of block quotes of other Marxists, few headings. And unlike some of his other books, such as Learning, working and imagining, this one has no empirical work. Instead, Engestrom analyzes Huck Finn, Robert Jungk's account of the making of the atomic bomb, and other nonempirical work. (Engestrom explains that fiction in particular is a good place to look for the sort of long-term learning patterns he identifies; I am skeptical.) Consequently, the book often seemed longer than it really is.

It does hold important lessons, though. This 1987 work sketches out the notion of learning by expanding (as opposed to learning by rote or learning as storing discrete bits of information), a key concept that permeates Engestrom's later work. He methodically describes each element of the learning process, provides an expansive methodology based on Scribner's description of Vygotsky's methodology, and links the whole mess to the notion of zone of proximal development. The last chapter attempts to lay the methodology out -- although, again, empirical cases would have helped quite a bit here.

At the same time, I notice some things that I think are amiss in this 1987 piece. One is that he tries to explicate dialectics ("the logic of expansion") by referring to Bakhtin. Bakhtin. The fellow who ridiculed dialectics as a stilted, artificial counterfeit of true dialogue! I also note a tendency to appeal too quickly to the abstract. Engestrom holds fast to the notion that learning is ascending from the abstract to the concrete, a notion that I have a hard time following -- and I don't think that's just because I am dense. Maybe there are some Continental reverberations that I am missing. Finally, everywhere in this piece are references to structures and systems -- even though Engestrom shows a willingness to examine idiosyncracies, variations, and differences, it's always with the intent of explicating structure and systematicity. I can see why Latour was so frustrated with him in the 1996 exchange I reviewed earlier.

This book was a struggle, but worth it.

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Thursday, October 30, 2003

Reading:: Activity, Consciousness, and Personality

Originally posted: Thu, 30 Oct 2003 22:33:42
Activity, Consciousness, and Personality
by Aleksie Nikolaevich Leont'ev
I usually link to's listing for each book I read, but this book has been out of print for a long time. Fortunately, it's available online in two versions: the HTML version at and the PDF scans at the MCA website (complete with someone's notes in the margin). That's a very good thing, because this book is a synopsis of much of the "second stage" development of activity theory.
As with most Soviet texts of this era (1978), the book contains many glowing references to the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin, etc. -- especially in the first chapter and near the beginning of each chapter, where the censors would look. In works such as Mikhail Bakhtin's, these sorts of references tended to be subterfuges meant to smuggle in the non-Marxist or anti-Marxist ideas he wanted to talk about; here, Leont'ev is clearly a Marxist and has based his work squarely on Marxist insights. (So did Vygotsky, but his books were banned in a later era because they took Marx's work as a starting point rather than as the final word.) Starting with familiar ground such as historical materialism, mediation, and division of labor, and building on Vygotsky's pioneering work in the field, Leont'ev fleshes out the theory of activity in ways that scale it up from individual to organizational activity. Here, for the first time, we see most of the familiar components of activity theory: the levels of activity; the structure of an activity system; the separation of activity from motive, action from goal, operation from conditions. We see the famous (well, famous in AT circles) illustration of shifting gears as an example of actions becoming operations. Chapters 3 and 4 are the pivotal ones here, and they shed quite a bit of light on these important elements. No, Leont'ev doesn't use a lot of triangles -- the archetypical AT triangle was an innovation by Engestrom -- but you can see how Leont'ev's work inspired those triangles.
The book isn't perfect. For one thing, it's a summary of years and years of research, so you don't see the detailed empirical cases upon which Leont'ev bases his conclusions. Unlike his book Problems of the Development of Mind, which details several imaginative and fascinating experiments along with statistical tables, this one speaks in generalities. The many references to the superiority of Soviet psychology in Ch. 1 get tiresome. The references to essential differences between simians and humans are dated and not borne out by contemporary research. And in many cases the text is fairly dry. But those drawbacks shouldn't keep us from treasuring this important and insightful book and blessing those good folks who put it online. Thanks.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Reading:: Voices of Collective Remembering

Originally posted: Tue, 21 Oct 2003 19:13:44

Voices of Collective Remembering

by James V. Wertsch

I recently reviewed Wertsch's Mind as Action and that caused me to look his work up on Amazon. When I saw he had a new book out, I picked it up and read it fairly quickly. That turned out to be a good move, because the last chapter of Mind in Action turns out to be a great lead-in to the new book. Voices of Collective Remembering deals -- as the title suggests -- with how we publicly construct and maintain memories within societies, and in particular how official histories are both written and resisted.

Most of the work in the book comes from interviews, surveys, and textual analyses the author conducted in Russia, where the Soviet obsession with controlling history has consequences over a decade after the USSR itself collapsed. You would expect some of the findings, such as the tendency for Soviet history books to valorize whoever was in control of the Soviet Union at the time they were written. (One interesting fact: across the entire Soviet Union, all students in a given grade would read the same pages of the same textbook on the same day.) Like Big Brother in 1984, the Soviets would indeed change parts of the official recorded history to suit their ends. But unlike 1984, Wertsch finds, the Soviets rarely made up facts out of whole cloth. Rather, they deleted parts. In one striking illustration, Wertsch describes how pictures of Stalin would be periodically airbrushed to remove people who had later fallen out of favor, leaving uncomfortable and obvious gaps -- and sometimes eventually leading to pictures of Stalin alone.

But the book is about more than Soviet stage-managing of history. Wertsch identifies a prototypical Russian narrative that is applied time and time again to historical events -- in particular, World War II -- and that both predates the USSR and persists after it. The Soviets leveraged this narrative, to be sure, but that leveraging doesn't seem to have been conscious. What's more, though the official history predictably was resisted through clandestine oral accounts and samizdat texts, these accounts and texts also show traces of the narrative. Wertsch takes these insights and, importantly, points to how they can be applied to history in the West as well.

Memory is really not my research interest, so I'm not sure how useful this book will be to me. But it's a fascinating book and, I think, important for understanding history and memory dialogically.

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Friday, October 17, 2003

Reading:: The Body Multiple

Originally posted: Fri, 17 Oct 2003 11:17:06

The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice

by Annemarie Mol

Annemarie Mol, a Dutch ethnographer, has written and worked with John Law and has helped to develop the brand of post-ANT amodernism that we see in his later work. The hordes of people who read this blog undoubtedly are thinking of the review I wrote of Law's Aircraft Stories, which I think tried a bit too hard and lost its grip on the materialist pragmatism (if I can characterize it that way) of ANT. As I began reading this book, I was worried it would turn out the same way. After all, she spends a lot of time in the first chapter being rather introspective -- talking about her positioning as a Dutch researcher who must write in English if she is to be read by a large number of colleagues; examining her own pre-med background; talking about disease as being "more than one, less than many." (When I mentioned that phrase a few days ago, someone shot back: "That would be ... two?") Most bothersome was Mol's choice to have two running sets of texts, meaning that on nearly every page, the top half and the bottom half constitute different takes on the chapter. That probably seems clever and dialogic to most people, but I found it to be annoying and discouraging: I'd finish a chapter, then go back to the beginning to read the same pages over again.

Yet the book, as a whole, is tremendously interesting. Either it makes John Law's point from Aircraft Stories far, far better than he did, or I'm going to have to read Law's book over again. Because what Mol does here is to persuasively argue that the things we take as settled, scientifically quantifiable and observable phenomena are not really just objects-in-the-world; rather, they always multiple. Reality, she says, multiplies when we focus on artifacts or practices.

How could that be? Mol manages to take a very mystical-sounding concept and -- unlike Law -- ground it through material, pragmatically gathered and analyzed data. She asks: What is the disease called atherosclerosis? And the best illustration comes from one of her informants, who shows her a slide under the microscope and demonstrates how the veins have calcified and narrowed, restricting blood flow and causing great pain in the legs of the person who had the disease. This calcification, he tells her, is atherosclerosis. And after a pause, he qualifies: under the microscope.

It's an important qualification. The pathologist can only make these slides after the leg has been amputated (since the veins are otherwise occupied until that point, you see), so his version of atherosclerosis comes rather late in the game. Other people's versions of atherosclerosis are enacted differently (and Mol selects the term enacted carefully, to indicate the complex practices in which they are embedded). To the patient, atherosclerosis is great pain in the legs; to the general practicioner, one possible explanation for that pain and for the weak pulse in the legs; to the radiologist, a cloudy smear in the X-rays after a radioactive dye has been injected; to a surgeon, "pipes" that have to be cleaned; to an occupational therapist, a malady that can be abated with exercise. Mol points out that usually these multiple enactments of the disease cohere -- that is, there's enough correspondence among them that people can be said to be talking about the same object, the same disease. But, interestingly, sometimes these enactments don't cohere. Mol spends much time trying to figure out when that happens and why.

The book is in general engagingly written (although, like Law, Mol can sometimes be too self-indulgent) and thought-provoking. What interests me is how this line of research impacts activity theory. In amodernist, ANT and post-ANT approaches, we always operate at the level of lived experience and we use tools such as representations to change the scale of things to fit that lived activity. To examine calcified veins, for instance, we use a microscope to make the veins "larger"; to examine galaxies, we map them in photos; and we don't marvel that we can place photos of microscopic veins and macroscopic galaxies next to each other. Sociologically speaking, there is no macroscopic or microscopic, there is only the lived experience with its many tools for expanding or shrinking phenomena appropriately. But in AT, there is a definite belief in different scales of sociocultural phenomena. We look for the elements of an activity system, including the actions that sustain it and the operations with which those actions are enacted. And at the macro level, activity theorists look for contradictions among or within activities. Engestrom, for instance -- following Marx a bit too closely -- argues that the primary contradiction in capitalist society is the one between use value and exchange value. For a materialist theory, AT sounds very abstract sometimes! What Mol's work does is to clearly call into question these sorts of macro-level abstractions, pulling us back from dialectic and into a more dialogic understanding of activity that is always grounded at the level of the individual. Yes, I'm still processing this notion.

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Monday, October 06, 2003

Reading:: Mind As Action

Originally posted: Mon, 06 Oct 2003 08:05:57

Mind As Action

by James V. Wertsch

When I was just starting to look into activity theory, in 1995, one of the first books I picked up was J.V. Wertsch's Voices of the Mind. In that book, Wertsch attempts to synthesize the Vygotskian cultural-historical tradition with Bakhtin's dialogism. I was really fascinated by it, but didn't understand why Wertsch wasn't using triangle diagrams or extensively citing Engestrom, Leontiev, and others in that vein. As I studied more deeply, I began to realize that Soviet psychology had forked after Vygotsky, and that the activity theory tradition with which I was familiar tended to trace its lineage to Vygotsky's colleague Leontiev, while Wertsch's CHAT tradition took a somewhat different path.

Nevertheless, the two schools have much in common both in terms of thought and sources. So when Mind as Action came out, I read it eagerly and took much away from it. Parts of it were key to helping me understand and develop my own ideas about mediation. (Mediation is the main focus of both books.) And some of Wertsch's cases in this book helped me to think about CHAT in more political-ethical terms than I had before. Although parts of Mind as Action were hotly contested on the mailing list xmca, as a whole the book is solid, interesting, and useful.

In his attempt to further understand mediated activity, Wertsch turns to Kenneth Burke's Pentad. Burke, like Bakhtin, is hard to characterize but can be called a language philosopher and literary critic. His Pentad, a heuristic for analyzing human action in terms of Act, Scene, Agent, Agency, and Purpose, is here applied to mediated action in general.

And what interesting examples Wertsch tends to give us. Being an educational psychologist, Wertsch tends to draw his cases from pedagogy -- not really my main interest. Wertsch looks at how education is intertwined with issues of power, how power is often taught through narrative, and -- surprisingly -- how citizens of Soviet Estonia, taught a heavily fictionalized and regulated history of their country, managed to develop a far more critical and nuanced understanding of the country's history than students in the U.S. (The last case I don't find altogether convincing because Wertsch's methods drew on a very small sample of citizens and it's unclear how he chose them -- but the narratives are fascinating nonetheless.)

All in all, a provocative book and one I'm sure I'll read yet again.

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Thursday, October 02, 2003

Reading:: Writing Power

Originally posted: Thu, 02 Oct 2003 07:53:57

Writing Power: Communication in an Engineering Center (Suny Series, Studies in Scientific and Technical Communications)

by Dorothy A. Winsor

When I was a PhD student at Iowa State University, word reached me that Dorothy Winsor was going to be joining the faculty. Winsor's work was well known -- required reading, in fact -- and her sociocultural orientation made her a good fit. I was busy assembling my dissertation committee at the time, so with the chair's permission, I wrote her and persuaded her to join. It was a good move: besides being extremely smart and well read, Dorothy is a warm, witty, and considerate person. And she's intellectually curious, reading and writing about activity theory, distributed cognition, and actor-network theory, among other things. Her first book, Writing Like an Engineer, is already a classic.

This book, which has just been published, is good too. Winsor has boiled five summers' worth of observations into a discussion of what it means to communicate in an engineering center. I suppose that probably sounds boring to some of my vast army of readers, but Winsor manages to make it interesting with her strong narrative style and her keen choice of anecdotes. At issue here is the question of how power is constructed, distributed, and maintained through communicative genres. Power is not really an interest of mine -- I find that it's usually underdefined and, as Latour argues, it tends to be seen as a cause when in fact it's more of a consequence -- but Winsor does manage to theorize it in ways that help us examine how genres help to enact it.

I also found reading this book to be helpful because in many ways the study is similar to the one I'm trying to turn into a book -- although Winsor shoots for depth while I aimed for breadth in the data collection and analysis process.

Well, obviously I admire the writer and enjoy the book. But I want to also do a bit of a critique. Winsor touches on a lot of theorists and theoretical schools here: Hutchins (distributed cognition), Latour (actor-network theory), Vygotsky (CHAT), Miller, Bazerman, Berkenkotter & Huchin, Orlikowski & Yates (genre), Bordieu, Foucault (postmodernism, I guess). But, perhaps because it would have disrupted the flow, she didn't do much work in connecting these different schools or synthesizing them. For instance, her discussion of distributed cognition often sounds more like run-of-the-mill division of labor rather than the more radical notion that cognition is computation distributed across humans and nonhumans in the environment. Similarly, when she describes how an engineer asserts that a machine is "communicating" with him, she dismisses the notion by asserting that he really doesn't believe this -- even though a thoroughgoing distributed cognitionist or actor-network theorist would accept the claim and argue that it was indeed true! Symmetrical theories such as DC and ANT have often been criticized because they appear to elide agency (indeed, often by CHAT and postmodernists), and agency is at the heart of much that Winsor has written here, so I wanted to see a discussion of that discrepancy.

In any case, the book is interesting, well written, and useful for folks like me who are interested in how texts and people interact through organizations. Pick it up and take a look.

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Reading:: Tracing Genres Through Organizations

Originally posted: Thu, 02 Oct 2003 07:58:55

Tracing Genres Through Organizations: A Sociocultural Approach to Information Design (Acting With Technology)

by Clay Spinuzzi

No, I'm not going to review my own book. I just wanted to note that on Monday I was informed that it had just been printed. I'm supposed to get my copies later this week. If you want to see some endorsements, why, here are some.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Reading:: Telewars in the States

Originally posted: Wed, 24 Sep 2003 09:29:15

Telewars in the States: Telecommunications Issues in a New Era of Competition

by Thomas W. Bonnett

Most readers of this blog (assuming there are any readers) probably haven't been scouring the used bookstores for this book. Most of the books I review here have to do with cultural-historical activity theory and related topics and tend to be theoretical or empirical. Telewars is, to perhaps oversimplify a bit, a Cliff's Notes version of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. It was published by the Council of Governor's Policy Advisors and is meant for "CGPA members and others who advise state Governors." In fact, it was published in 1996, which means that Tom Bonnett must have thrown this slim, wonkish volume together very quickly.

One might think that with those qualifications, reading Telewars would be like reading Al Gore's diary -- plodding, uninspired, heavy on the minutiae, and with a very short shelf life. Well, that's how I imagine that experience would be.

But it turns out that Telewars is readable as well as informative. Its shelf life has indeed passed, and I would be surprised if governors' advisors were using it almost ten years later, but it does provide some real insight into how our messy telecommunications system works and how legislation affects it. Explanations are readable and successfully thread their way between the Scylla of wonkishness and the Charybdis of techno-geekiness. (How's that for a tortured metaphor?) A timeline, a glossary, and a two-page summary of the book's chapters all help to make things more readable. And the minutiae are banished to the footnotes.

I ended up reading the book during three bus trips. It's that easy to read and that fast of a read. And it'll stay on my shelf for a while, since I need to figure out many of these issues for my current book project. If you really are interested in the differences between inter-LATA and intra-LATA, or wondering what a CLEC is, or if you're surprised that your cable company is suddenly offering phone service, check out this book.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Reading:: Future Workshops

Originally posted: Tue, 16 Sep 2003 19:38:00

Future Workshops: How to Create Desirable Futures
Robert Jungk, Norbert Mullert

I had to get this book through interlibrary loan, and when it came time to link to it, I had to go to rather than This book has not had a wide circulation within the U.S. And that's understandable. The book reads like a breathless political tract, or even a religious tract, in which we're urged to resist the evil forces that seek to take control of our lives. Here's a sample:

"What is a future workshop all about? Well, the man in the street has practically no say when it comes to jobs, the environment or the way the future is shaped. All of these aspects of our lives are in the hands of the politicians, the industrialists and the experts. To remedy this non-democratic state of affairs and to show that things can be done better, Robert Jungk and his co-workers, over a decade ago, developed the future workshop method. The idea behind it is that the silent majority actually has plenty to say about what our towns and neighbourhoods should be like, about jobs and industry [and] energy and all their other needs." (pp.51-52)
And so forth. It has the sort of fervor mixed with simple hope that one would expect from a Green Party rally or a self-help book. And it's easy to dismiss the book and its bifurcated view of powerful/powerless. But one has to remember that this book was written by a German who fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and attempted to alert the European media to the menace -- and it was written a couple of years before the Berlin Wall came down. Jungk and Mullert specifically cite Lech Walesa as an influence. Jungk's Future Workshops approach is clearly an attempt to encourage workers to take control of their lives in the face of nascent totalitarian regimes.

One can see why this idealistic, vaguely socialist approach was adopted wholesale by the Scandinavians as they developed participatory design. Even though the book wasn't published until 1987, the FW approach has been around since the 1960s and clearly influenced the Scandinavians deeply. The powerful/powerless dichotomy became mapped onto the capital/labor dichotomy that drove PD at the outset. What really interested me about reading this book, though, was that Jungk saw entrenched union leaders as the powerful! He suggests that future workshops should involve, not elected union leaders or their representatives, but rank-and-file workers who have volunteered in response to direct appeals by the FW organizers (p.79). What an about-face this approach took in the hands of the Scandinavians, where the oppressors became the oppressed. The more I look into this line of research, the more fascinating it gets.

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Friday, September 12, 2003

Reading:: Systems Design For, With, and By the User

Originally posted: Fri, 12 Sep 2003 09:44:56

Systems Design For, With, and by the Users: Proceedings of the Ifip Wg 9.1 Working Conference on Systems Design For, With, and by the Users
Ed. by U. Briefs, C. Ciborra, L. Schneider

I've been trying to get into the roots of participatory design lately, so I picked up this volume to see an addendum on the UTOPIA project. What a fun read. Back in 1983, people across Western Europe were concerned about automation and its impact on work and saw participatory approaches as a key counterbalance to management's attempts at total Taylorist control over the work process. So, even though "participatory design" hadn't been coined yet (papers mostly refer to "participative system design"), we see the same sort of rationale and arguments that we later see in Ehn's Work-Oriented Design of Computer Artifacts (1990) and the classic coedited volume Computers and Democracy: A Scandinavian Challenge (1987). But the thoughts are newer, the papers are more spread out geographically, and the excitement is more palpable.

You can almost smell the revolutionary fervor, for instance, as Ulrich Briefs explains that the eventual goals for "participatory steps towards a workers production policy in systems design" include "guaranteeing the right to work for everyone" and "changing the internal structures in organizations," goals that he says question the "basic structures of the capitalist society" (p.315). I personally find this idealism charming. And informative. Among the many papers are discussions of the legislative environment for "edp" (electronic data processing?) in Scandinavia, a comparison of participative design across the world, a discussion of representation of users, working reports on DUE, DEMOS, and UTOPIA, and many many many Marxist interpretations of work organization. It's especially sobering to read in the working report on UTOPIA that "the project must result in a 'technical success'" for it to be considered an overall success (p.447). Of course that didn't happen, and in later reports the blame is laid on a subcontractor! (See Ehn 1990; Bodker 1991.)

Reading these reports reminds me of something that Langdon Winner wrote in Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems some years later. Examining the results of the UTOPIA project, he points out that technically the resulting system was very similar to that of PageMaker on the Macintosh -- yet, he said, PageMaker and MacOS were developed by capitalists in the US without worker participation. So what is the concrete contribution of participatory design? We can easily come up with partial answers, of course -- including a discussion of how PD focuses on workflow as well as narrow technical aspects -- but that would be to miss Winner's larger point. The technical results of PD do not reflect the radical ideology, partially because PD itself is more evolutionary than revolutionary. For all the revolutionary fervor evident in these essays, we know that 20 years later the real revolutions -- globalization, work decentralization, the service economy -- had nothing to do with it, pushed things in a very different direction, and forced PD itself to go in a different direction.

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Monday, September 08, 2003

Reading:: Cognition and Communication at Work

Originally posted: Mon, 08 Sep 2003 19:02:09

Cognition and Communication at Work
by Yrjv Engeström (Editor), David Middleton (Editor)

This book is a strong collection of essays reporting on work research, mostly using ethnographic and ethnomethodological approaches and informed by sociocultural approaches such as activity theory, symbolic interactionism, situated and distributed cognition. Work is studied "as mindful practice," as the title of the introduction puts it; throughout, work is valorized as a complex, interconnected, intellectual task with a strong communication component.

Given the lead editor, it's no surprise that activity theory shows up frequently in the book. That's fine with me. And unlike the chapters in Perspectives on Activity Theory (which I reviewed about a month ago), these studies tend to be accessible to those without much background in AT. The book isn't quite introductory material for an AT class -- which is what I was evaluating the book for -- but several are suitable for that purpose and may find their way into my course packets in the future.

Several standout essays are in here. But I should point out that I tend to get bored with the ones using an ethnomethodological approach. Sure, that's a failing of mine, I guess, but I just become dismayed when I see pages of closely set quotations followed by pages that dissect those quotations line by line. So the studies that caught my attention tended to be in the ethnographic, philosophical, or PD categories instead.

For instance, I enjoyed reading the Bodker and Gronbaek piece. The afterword claims that this is a reworking of the essay they published in IJMMS in 1991, and indeed some of the framing is the same, but the empirical case is actually different and B&G end up bringing out different insights here. Star's comparison of symbolic interactionism, AT, and information systems was highly interesting, especially in that she reviews some really fascinating SI studies from the mid-20th century. Engestrom's "The tensions of judging" is a nice example of the developmental work approach and allowed me to see some of the similarities between it and PD. And of course the other usual suspects show up -- Hutchins and Klausen, Suchman, Heath and Luff -- all with strong work. The book ends with an essay by the late Arne Raeithel in which he discusses his excitement at how ethnography is making its way into the German milieu.

On a side note, I notice that there's been an exodus of top-flight work researchers from industry to academia. Lucy Suchman is now at Lancaster University; Bonnie Nardi is at UC-Irvine; Steve Whittaker is now at Sheffield. Bad days for Silicon Valley.

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Wednesday, September 03, 2003

Reading:: Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems

Originally posted: Wed, 03 Sep 2003 01:43:33

Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems 12 (2000)
Special issue on Information Technology in Human Activity
Eds. Olav W. Bertelsen and Susanne Bodker

Occasionally I review a special issue of a journal as if it were an edited collection, if the articles are interesting enough and the issue as a whole has a strong enough theme. Both are true with this issue. SJIS is a really interesting journal to begin with, so interesting that I've ordered several articles from it via interlibrary loan. SJIS is one of the last bastions of the serious Scandinavian-style participatory design work that flourished in the 1980s and early 1990s, before globalism and US-style user-centered design approaches overshadowed it. At the same time that PD flourished, activity theory began to flourish and develop -- primarily through Yrjo Engestrom's efforts, of course, but also through those whom he influenced. There was -- and is -- quite a bit of cross-fertilization between the two camps, particularly with Susanne Bodker's groundbreaking work connecting AT and PD. And much of what is going on between the covers of any given issue of SJIS reflects that cross-fertilization.

The nine articles in this issue, fortunately, are online in PDF format -- and they're worth downloading. At this point (2000), researchers are attempting to adapt PD-inspired methods to a globalized world, using AT and similar theoretical frameworks as grounding. That makes sense because the early roots of PD tended to be flat-out Marxism with some Heidegger thrown in; that early framework was good at making class distinctions, arguing for class struggle, and thinking about language games, but it provided too bifurcated an understanding of the workplace to take into account the various constituencies and allegiances at play in the Scandinavian workplace, let alone other workplaces across the globe. It also did not provide a strong enough empirical framework for examining microinteractions or theorizing artifacts well. Activity theory, with its Marxist roots, its empirical focus, its developmental orientation, and (later) its extensions for handling networks of activity, provided a suitable framework while allowing researchers to continue PD's early goal of workplace democracy. So this issue provides insight on how the two traditions have merged and developed.

Activity theory has become one of the most important sociocultural frameworks for human-computer interaction, computer-supported cooperative work, and information systems, so these articles tend to break new theoretical ground -- they really are pushing to develop AT rather than simply applying received wisdom to a new problem domain. Some of the topics covered in this issue include the nature of an artifact (Bertelsen; Beguin and Rabardel), networks of activity systems (Helle; Fitzpatrick; Spasser; Korpela et al.), and adapting usability methods for AT/PD design work (Bodker and Petersen). Also included is an introduction that nicely lays out the issues involved in studying information design as a human activity. And most of these articles are supported with empirical or illustrative cases.

I wish I had time to review each of the articles. But the standouts include Bertelsen & Bodker's introduction, Helle's study of a newsroom as an activity network (especially interesting in light of the shortcomings of the UTOPIA project, the most famous of the early PD projects), and Beguin and Rabardel's discussion of how the notion of mediation can guide design work.

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Friday, August 22, 2003

Reading:: Information Technology and Changes in Organizational Work

Originally posted: Fri, 22 Aug 2003 19:21:51

Information Technology and Changes in Organizational Work
by J. De Gross, Jones (Editor), Orlikowski (Editor)

Well, things have been crazy around here. I finished this book a few days ago but haven't gotten a chance to post the review until now.

The thing you need to know about this book is that it's the proceedings of a 1999 conference by the same name. So it has a high number of chapters -- 25 -- and some of these chapters are 2-3 page descriptions of panels rather than papers per se. At the same time, the papers are generally solid and intriguing, not the sort of abbreviated arguments you might expect if you've been attending, say, CCCC or ATTW. So even though the papers are short, many are worth reading and citing.

That's especially true if you're interested in the integration of information technology and business from a theoretical or research perspective. The book has sections on new forms of work, business process reengineering (BPR), systems development, inscription (mainly influenced by Latour's and Akrich's work at the time), and learning. Of course I found several essays quite valuable. Shoshanna Zuboff, for instance, argues for dismantling the 20th century managerial hierarchy and critiques BPR from this standpoint. Kari Kuutti contributes yet another thoughtful piece on information systems research, this time discussing new forms of work in terms of post-Fordism. Richard Vidgen and Tom McMaster discuss a design problem in a parking garage in terms of actor-network theory (in what looks to be a companion piece to one published in Kyng and Mathiassen's Computers and Design in Context), along with a critique of ANT that doesn't quite hit the mark. In his piece, Latour finally confesses that one disadvantage of networks is their extreme flexibility: they cannot provide policy, pass judgment, or explain stable features. He goes over ways that he and other ANT people have tried to deal with the problem recently: fluids, modes of coordination, regimes of deregulation. (I remember him talking about these in Pandora's Hope, but I don't remember him admitting that these provided a fix for the earlier incarnation of ANT.) And finally, Eric Monteiro and Ole Hanseth continue a series of ANT-based work by discussing sociotechnical networks; they provide a useful list of drawbacks of ANT studies in technology.

This book isn't what I would consider a landmark book by any means. One of the problems with proceedings is that the arguments are sometimes poorly fleshed out and empirical cases are frequently sketchy, and this book -- although a very good proceedings -- suffers from some of these problems. But it provides a nice broad social perspective on information technology research and some interesting arguments nonetheless.

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Saturday, August 02, 2003

Reading:: We Have Never Been Modern

Originally posted: Sat, 02 Aug 2003 12:25:58

We Have Never Been Modern
by Bruno Latour

Okay, a short review this evening. Latour describes postmodernism: "I have not found words ugly enough to designate this intellectual movement -- or rather, this intellectual immobility through which humans and nonhumans are left to drift. I call it 'hyper-incommensurability'" (p.61). He lets postmodernists have it with both barrels in this engaging book, saying that there is always "a hint of the ludicrous" in the postmodernists' pronouncements (p.47) and -- in the unkindest cut -- that postmodernists are more naive than modernists (p.131)! Of course, there's plenty of this to go around. "Dialectics ... feigns to overcome [the divide between nature and society] by loops amd spirals and other complex acrobatic figures" (p.55). Constructivism? Latour says it's impossible to be convinced by a constructivist argument for more than three minutes. Nobody escapes the hit list. I, of course, find this all immensely enjoyable.

This book is a mediation on modernism, what it is, how it came about, and what has happened to it. In typical fashion, Latour conceives of modernism in terms of a political arrangement -- a constitution with checks and balances that allow modernists to separate Nature and Society while surreptitiously joining them with hybrids. But that constitution is falling apart as the poles are forced farther from each other. Latour calls for a new constitution modeled on the modernist one but making up for its defects.

We have never been modern is a good read and a genuinely thought-provoking book. But, like Marc Berg (or was it Mike Lynch?), I long for the empirical work Latour did in The Pasteurization of France or Science in action.

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Monday, July 28, 2003

Reading:: Perspectives on Activity Theory

Originally posted: Mon, 28 Jul 2003 00:05:28

Perspectives on Activity Theory
by Yrjo Engestrom (Editor), Reijo Miettinen (Editor), Raija-Leena Punamaki (Editor)

Perspectives on Activity Theory is composed largely of selected papers from the Second International Congress for Research on Activity Theory in Lahti, Finland. Consequently, the papers come from all over, tackle a variety of issues, and are generally quite short. The book thus provides a broad international and interdisciplinary set of perspectives on activity theory, its applications, and its parallels with other social, cultural, historical, cognitive, and interpretive perspectives. It is not for those new to activity theory.

I don't consider myself new to activity theory, having written about it since 1996, but I found many of the essays to be tough sledding. Partly that's because so many of the essays hearken back to AT's 19th-century German philosophical roots, with which I am unfamiliar. (I'll make a stab at these soon when I read Marx's Captial Vol. 1.) So I found myself out of my depth in discussions of ideality and so forth. Another factor is the international flavor of the contributions -- not because they represented different perspectives but because so much goes unsaid that I cannot follow or evaluate some of the arguments being advanced. I don't think that this is simply because I'm a provincial American but rather because I don't have the philosophical grounding emphasized in Russia or Finland. That philosophical grounding being what it is -- again, 19th century German philosophy -- I'm not sure how much effort I want to put into it, frankly.

Nevertheless, many of the essays were both accessible and useful. Engestrom and Miettinen's introduction gives a good "big picture" view of AT. Engestrom's "Activity Theory and Individual and Social Transformation" provides a strong argument for paying attention to contributions made by the people, not just elite decision makers (perhaps a dig at ANT?) and criticizes the agency/structure, psychology/sociology distinctions that have traditionally been made in the social sciences. Lektorsky and Hayrynen separately note AT's roots in the totalitarian society of the USSR and discuss the implications that this context had for how AT handled social development and agency-structure relations. Closer to my interests, Kari Kuutti again weighs in with a strong essay that classifies various traditions of human-computer interaction, including participatory design; the essay concludes by suggesting that AT can provide a framework that allows the Information Systems community to account for both individual and organizational viewpoints. Finally, Engestrom's essay "Innovative Learning in Work Teams" discusses expansive learning and provides the barest link to ANT.

I've read this collection before, but in light of my current readings, AT comes off as a good deal more structural than before and I can see some of its drawbacks more clearly. Fascinating. If you're familiar with AT, by all means check out this collection; if you're not, go for a more introductory text such as Nardi's Context and Consciousness.

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Sunday, July 27, 2003

Reading:: Mind, Culture, and Activity 3(6), 1996

Originally posted: Sun, 27 Jul 2003 22:47:51

Mind, Culture, and Activity 3(6), 1996.

This special issue of the superlative journal Mind, Culture, and Activity isn't a book, of course. But it provides a unitary set of papers around one main issue, and as such illumnates Latour's thoughts in ways that I have found quite useful. In particular, it highlights the advantages of Latour's approach, its disadvantages, and its relations to other approaches such as activity theory.

I say "Latour's approach" here because at this point Latour is no longer referring to his work as actor-network theory. Like John Law (see previous reviews in this blog), he has made a conscious decision to transition to post-ANT thought. Whatever that means. Despite some changes -- for instance, focusing on mediation rather than translation -- what Latour describes here is certainly part of a continuous trajectory that started with his ANT and "pre-ANT" work rather than a radical break. His critics also examine his work in terms of ANT. So I'll refer to Latour's argument as "ANT" or "post-ANT" throughout with the caveat that there may be important differences that I just don't get at this juncture.

The special issue includes Latour's essay "On Interobjectivity" along with commentaries by Michael Lynch, Marc Berg, and Yrjo Engestrom, and concludes with a response by Latour. (The issue also includes an unrelated article and two book reviews; I won't concern myself with these.) Latour's essay essentially tackles the micro-macro or agency-society or actor-network distinction that has concerned him since almost the beginning of his work. He criticizes attempts to separate the two, particularly as those attempts involve divining a macro-level structure that affords a God's-eye view of social interactions. Macro-level "forces," he says, cannot control us any more than we control our mediators.

For instance, he says, consider puppeteers. "If you talk to a puppeteer, then you will find that he is perpetually surprised by his puppets. He makes the puppet do things that cannot be reduced to his action, and which he does not have the skill to do, even provisionally" (p.237; cf. Bakhtin's discussions of dialogism in Dostoyevsky). "Is this fetishism? No, it is simply a recognition that we are exceeded by what we create" (p.237). Similarly, Latour argues, no macro-level force can be said to completely control us or pull our strings. "One can only associate mediators, no one of which, ever, is exactly the cause or the consequence of its associates" (p.237).

This insight leads Latour to a couple of conclusions. One is that skill cannot be attributed to a particular actor -- a statement that, taken to the extremes that Latour takes it, is anathema to activity theory and any other theory of learning and development. (On the other hand, you can see why Latour admires Hutchins' version of distributed cognition.) Another is that it doesn't make sense to talk in terms of levels or social structures -- action, rather, is shared by dispersed actants with various ontologies. Even the action of "summing up" (for instance, creating macro-level diagrams of activity systems) is a set of localized interactions meant to shrink a macro level down to human scale through inscriptions.

The commentaries are all interesting in different ways, but I want to focus on Engestrom's because it gives a lot of insight into both scholars' views. Engestrom praises Latour's essay for its similarity to activity theory, then criticizes it for its differences. In particular, Engestrom criticizes Latour for abandoning the idea of levels, for abandoning "cognition, volition, and emotion" (in short, learning and development applied to individuals), and for not accounting for a systematic durability beyond objects. In particular, Engestrom makes the argument that he has made elsewhere, that in a capitalist market economy the primary contradiction is between use value and exchange value. In short, while praising Latour, Engestrom disagrees with nearly all of the main claims in Latour's essay.

Latour understands this immediately and highlights it in his response. "How am I supposed to deal with this matter-of-fact rendering of everything I reject in my paper? ... Surely, all the differences in scale, timing, agencies that I pointed out in my paper cannot be put on the Procrustean bed of Yrjo's 'embeddedness'!" (p.268). Latour says that he is explicitly shifting away from the Marxist notion of dead labor, the notion of "a human in command, or more exactly, laborers who are empowered again by what has been taken away from them by fetishism and naturalization" (p.267). In short, Latour disagrees with the Marxist (and more generally modernist) tack of backgrounding the world of artifacts so as to foreground human ingenuity. Again, Latour is trying to draw our attention to a symmetrical understanding of the world, one in which humans and nonhumans alike are actants. "I am not trying to naturalize or mechanize humans by turning them into what are held by objects, I try to modify as much the humans who are no longer in command as its associates who are no longer objects, nor means, nor tools" (p.267).

The dialogue is fascinating for what it tells us about ANT (or I guess post-ANT) and AT. Reading Engestrom's other work through this lens, I discover a persistent reference to social structures, to the essential contradiction between use and exchange value as sort of a foundational contradiction in Western society, and to dead labor (although not usually expressed as such). And hand in hand with those is the persistent valorization of individual humans -- something I have done myself and that I make no apologies for, since I believe it was a necessary counterweight to the prevailing managerial models of human-computer interaction against which I was arguing. Latour's argument makes me pause and want to reevaluate AT, which is so rooted in 19th-century German philosophy and so focused on individual and group development. On the other hand, it makes me suspicious of Latour's account that he uses the interconnectedness of networks as an excuse not to account for individual and group development. Surely the sorts of everyday innovations we witness are not simply to be dismissed because of their interconnectedness!

And this gets me, again, to one of the chief complaints I have with ANT. I admire the persistent critique of abstract structures and the undertaking of integrating levels of analysis. I admire Latour's willingness to praise ethnomethodology. But ethnomethodology studies second-by-second interactions (what we might call micro-level interactions) and attempts to connect them to larger trends (what we might call macro-level interactions). ANT appears to do the latter but not the former. Does ANT use the flattening of levels as an excuse not to examine the routine, moment-by-moment interactions that by its own account make up the fabric of actor-networks? If not, then where are these accounts? Until they appear, I don't see why frameworks that do account for these interactions should pull up stakes.

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Monday, July 21, 2003

Reading:: The Telecommunications Industry

Originally posted: Mon, 21 Jul 2003 10:07:17

The Telecommunications Industry
by Susan E. McMaster

This is not a book to read for pleasure, but it's a solid introductory history of telecomm in the US. I was fortunately able to skim it because my teaching assistant, the diligent Bill Wolff, had already produced a timeline based on this book for a project we're working on. I took a break this week from actor-network theory and read this account of the telecomm industry instead, to help me make sense of the Telecorp data I'm analyzing. The book, frankly, was not fun to read -- its style is not honed -- but the subject matter is fascinating. In the US, the story of telecommunications is essentially the story of AT&T, and this book does a good job of describing the complex strategies and often bareknunckle tactics employed by that company and (later) its descendants, the so-called Baby Bells. Technology, legislation, market pressure, and other factors all figure into the story in a Machiavellian (or of you prefer, Latourean) mix.

The last two chapters were the most interesting for me. Once competition was let in -- first in the long distance sector, then in the local markets -- things get really interesting. AT&T is forced to allow other companies to hook to its network, a necessary step because that network was essentially the only national infrastructure and it simply wasn't possible for other companies to duplicate it, run wires alongside it, and compete with redundant infrastructure. Once the companies were allowed access, they could use the AT&T network as a base for growing their own networks; now we're seeing those networks spread at both national and local levels. Legislation meant that telecomm service could be black-boxed: the consumer could make the initial decision on CLEC and LD carriers, then these choices should fade away and just become "the telephone company" -- same area codes, prefixes, services, etc. Part of AT&T's strategy is to open that black box, create ruptures, so that people's experiences are significantly different from the familiar AT&T experience.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Reading:: The Pasteurization of France

Originally posted: Tue, 15 Jul 2003 21:48:48

The Pasteurization of France
by Bruno Latour

The first time I read The Pasteurization of France was in early 1999. I was finishing up my dissertation and decided to take a break from reading about activity theory to examine ANT. As it happened, I was called in to jury duty; I read most of the book while waiting for the proceedings to finish. (I ended up being called to serve on the jury, an interesting but frustrating experience that took up the rest of the day and could have taken longer.)

I think this book was the first I had read by Latour. In revisiting it, I find that I'm not quite as impressed by it as I had been previously. Don't get me wrong -- it's a strong book, it outlines key elements of Latour's argument (particularly translation, the key concept in the book), and it's an interesting read. But it doesn't have the breadth of most of his other books. At some point near the end of the first chapter, we concede his point, but he keeps hammering away at it, and that hammering tends to get in the way of the fascinating story he tells.

What struck me most about the book this time around was the prevalence of the war metaphor. Latour starts off by quoting Tolstoy's description of the battle of Tarutino in War and Peace, then uses it as a metaphor for Pasteur's battle against the microbes. That sets the tone for the rest of the book: the "cordon sanitaire" erected by the hygenists is compared many times to the Maginot Line; Pasteurians are described as enlisting allies; microbes, colonists, and physicians in turn "invade" others' space. No wonder people have tended to read Latour as being ruled by the narrative of war.

May I make a confession? I only skimmed the second half of the book, "Irreductions," which is laid out as a series of philisophical propositions. Parts of this section are striking, such as Latour's pseudoautobiographical account of his revelation that nothing can be reduced to anything else (pp.162-163) -- a revelation that occurs on the road from Dijon to Gray, just as Saul of Tarsus' conversion happened on the road to Damascus. Many of the propositions serve to clarify and define points of actor-network theory, so those were helpful too. But I tired of the seemingly endless list of propositions, most of which are better argued and illustrated elsewhere in Latour's writings.

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