Friday, April 08, 2005

Reading :: Leviathan and the Air-Pump

Originally posted: Fri, 08 Apr 2005 19:55:32

Leviathan and the Air-Pump

by Steven Shapin, Simon Schaffer

This book is referenced frequently in the STS literature, particularly in Latour's We Have Never Been Modern and Haraway's Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium.FemaleMan_Meets_OncoMouse. After reading it (mostly on the plane back from San Francisco), I can see why. Shapin and Schaeffer have produced a painstaking examination of the battle between Hobbes and Boyle to create a discourse and a social contract that would legitimize scientific knowledge.

Not to give away the ending of the book, but here's the last sentence: "Hobbes was right" (p. 344). What was he right about? Shapin and Shaffer argue -- well, forcefully, and with considerable evidence -- that knowledge is the product of human actions, just as much as the state is. And this is the key disagreement between Hobbes and Boyle -- although the surface agreement was about whether Boyle could actually produce a vacuum with his air-pump. Boyle insisted that he was actually evacuating air from the chamber, while Hobbes argued (improbably, from our view) that the chamber was actually filled with an undetectable supple fluid or ether to which the chamber's glass was permeable.

The question of whether the chamber is evacuated is an empirical one -- and this book does much to examine to what extent an empirical question is constructed through social relations. Boyle, the authors argue, developed not just a research program but a language game with rules that practitioners had to follow if their experiments were to be accepted as scientific knowledge (p.22). This language game shifted agency to nature and required multiple witnesses (p.25). Importantly, it also used three technologies: material (in Boyle's case, the air-pump); literary (the textual conventions used to disseminate the results to those who could not be direct witnesses); and social (the conventions for dealing with each other and for considering truth-claims) (p.25). In Boyle's new program, questions that could not be settled experimentally ceased to be legitimate questions (p.45). "The language-game that Boyle was teaching the experimental philosopher to play rested upon implicit acts of boundary-drawing" (p.51), and those acts involved managing dissensus by focusing on findings rathr than persons -- no ad hominem attacks allowed (p.72). In this new settlement, a new set of social relationships were enacted through such boundaries, bringing a sort of order to experimental philosophy (p.80).

But Hobbes didn't buy it. This settlement, he contended, would lead to disorder; the boundaries, in Hobbes' measure, were not effective. Hobbes was interested in and worried about the question of political power. His worry about men's divided loyalty between church and state led him to theorize the Leviathan, a monist, materialist philosophy that collapsed hierarchical divisions between matter and spirit (p.98). Under this philosophy, there could be no private judgment in religious matters -- that led to too much fragmentation of authority (p.103). At the same time, there could and must be individual beliefs. The sovereign (as represented by the church) could exercise control over behavior but not belief (p.104).

And here's the nub of the disagreement. Boyle's knowledge was founded in consensus of freely, independently developed belief. Hobbes separated belief and profession: profession could be controlled, and had to be if one were to form a social order (p.105). So "for Hobbes, the rejection of vacuum was the elimination of a space within which dissention could take place" (p.109).

In Chapter 5, the authors discuss how this confrontation plays out. Boyle, they say, had constructed a particular language game, and did many things to continue and reinforce that game: he praised those who played it well (p.163), gave instructions in how to play it properly (p.165), and recast Hobbes' objections as a poorly played instantiation of the game (p.174). His reply to Hobbes was an opportunity to reinforce that game further (p.176).

Hobbes wasn't entirely defenseless in this argument, though. He countered by displaying the intense labor required to make a fact under Boyle's regime: the replication of equipment, observations, and witnesses (p.225). "In principle, Hobbes' argument is correct," the authors tell us. "Establishing matters of fact did require immense amounts of labor." And they assert further that "a fact is a constitutively social category: it is an item of public knowledge" (p.225). Replication was Boyle's way to produce it: "Replication is the set of technologies which transforms what counts as belief into what counts as knowledge" (p.225). Hobbes found this stance to be dangerous: The real fight was over whether politics had to depend on assent, which translated into the question of what separated common belief and reason. "Hobbes alleged that if the experimental form of life were adopted, this difference would be lost, and the result would be political disaster" (p.331).

Political disaster? You be the judge. But as the authors point out, Hobbes had a point: in his questioning of Boyle's air-pump, he established the difference between Hobbes' public (everyone) and Boyle's public (qualified witnesses: professionals) (pp.333-334), and he questioned the separation of nature and politics. And after leading the experimental life for centuries, we're beginning to reconsider Hobbes' interpretation.

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(My own personal paradigm shift, part 3)

Originally posted: Fri, 08 Apr 2005 19:55:16

I mentioned a while back that I had settled on Excel for my project management work. In case you've been wondering how this works, I've attached a sample (cleaned up) example. By default, it sorts by date completed, then by date due, then by start date; I typically hide the completed tasks. You can also sort by project. Color denotes project in the CWRL and Research tabs. In the Tenure tab, I show all tasks and use green to denote completed tasks. That's not consistent, but it's not like I share it with others.

I've been using this system for about a year now, and I'm continually surprised by how well it works. One important feature is that I can print out the entire workbook, which I keep in a folder that goes everywhere I go. I can then make additions, add sticky notes for longer notes, and set hard deadlines using my PDA's calendar. (I had originally planned to manage the spreadsheet on my PDA, but the screen is just too small for viewing the sweep of the activity -- which is of course what the spreadsheet does best.)

Typically, I also add notes pointing to other documents: "In NV" means that I've entered related text into Notational Velocity. "In steering committee minutes 2005.03.01" means that more information is in the committee minutes, which are posted on the CWRL's Drupal installation. The key isn't to bundle everything in one place, but to know where to get your information when you need it while making it accessible to others as well. >

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Thursday, April 07, 2005

(Reading Roundup: Bazerman & Little, Tardy, Miller, Bracewell & Witte)

Originally posted: Thu, 07 Apr 2005 02:35:37

I'm going through a backlog of PDFs that I've downloaded over the last several months, trying to catch up on my article readings in my spare time. The following articles had some interesting things to say about genre and/or mediated activity.

Charles Bazerman, Joseph Little, and Teri Chavkin. "The Production of Information for Genred Activity Spaces"

Bazerman et al. are interested in genre as linking and regulating activities as well as shaping the texts that are used in such activities. As they say near the beginning of the article,

genre provides a middle space for approaching production and understanding of text -- between the immediate local knowledge of specific conditions of production and reception and an abstract world of symbols existing apart from any use and apart from any organized relation to readers. Texts mediate human activity at a distance and help enlist and align people to larger social institutions and practices, and text genres provide means of recognizing social relations, obligations, and interactions embodied within communications. Because they can create joint attention and alignment, genres are one of the key mechanisms that people have used to create and to maintain larger forms of social organization. But genres also shape the substantive material that is represented within the bounded space of the text -- the meanings, information, and knowledge. (p.456)

To explore this understanding further, they examine environmental impact statements (EIS) and how a perceived social need for information creates the genre. "This genre creates a space that prompts the production of certain kinds of information to populate that space and creates a place for the display of that information" (p.457). Genre, they add, "crystallizes motives and compulsions to create a local habitation for the information to be lodged and recognized within" (p.460). Of course, the EIS doesn't function alone; it is situated within a system of genres and the system collectively helps to bind together the activity -- or, frequently, the set of activities. The EIS, for instance, is an information-gathering genre that provides one way to link together different entities. And that brings us to our next article:

Christine M. Tardy - "A Genre System View of the Funding of Academic Research."

Here, the genre is that of grant proposals, "a high-stakes genre" that "does not exist in isolation but as part of a complex reticulation of genres that interact to form a genre system" (p.7). Like Bazerman et al., Tardy emphasizes the function of this genre as part of a larger set of genres, and one that in turn comprises several genres. "Knowledge of a genre system may differ in important ways from knowledge of an isolated genre" (p.7).

Tardy also takes a stab at discussing genres as linkages across activities -- although she uses "social groupings" and "discourse communities" (p.10, 23), which really don't do as satisfactory a job of describing or emphasizing the directedness of activity. At any rate, she sees "grant proposals as social actions situated within multiple social groupings" (p.10) and reminds us that "Not only do genres operate within multiple communities, but they often coexist with other genres that operate within different communities" (p.10). The genres of proposal writing connect different activities (p.12). And although the PI works through the grant-writing process, he or she interacts with several individuals at local and national levels" (p.23).

Overall, this article was really useful for understanding grant writing, particularly for the NSF.

Carolyn Miller - "Expertise and agency: Transformations of ethos in human-computer interaction."

Miller's article is a very different animal. Miller applies the classic rhetorical term "ethos" to two models of human-computer interaction, and in doing so, teases out differences between two sorts of ethos: Aristotelian and Ciceronian. First a general definition: Ethos is "an accustomed place, haunt, or abode; the sense of variation by location would thus seem more fundamental than any normative virtue" (p.198). Miller wants to use ethos descriptively to explore community and communal character. So, interestingly, she applies it to two modes of human-computer interaction: "the rhetoric of machine control and the rhetoric of computational subjectivity"; her examples are

expert systems and intelligent agents, two technologies in which the role of ethos is foregrounded. Both expert systems and intelligent agents blur the boundaries between human and machine, creating 'hybrids' (in Latour's term) or 'cyborgs' (in Haraway's). Such human-computer hybrids transfer to the computer some aspects of human character and require some adaptation by a human interactant, creating a 'system,' or dwelling place, where both must abide. The question whether ethos belongs to the computational system or to the humans who design, use, and value it becomes a strategic ambiguity. (p.199)

"The two cases," she argues, "illustrate a fundamental instability in the concept of ethos itself, as in the first case it allies itself strongly with logos and in the second with pathos" (p.199).

In Aristotelian rhetoric, ethos stands in for expertise; it is essentially rational. Expert systems appropriate this Aristotelian ethos, incorporating and demonstrating expertise (p.204).

Intelligent agents incorporate a Ciceronian ethos: "Ethos needs its association with pathos, more in some situations than in others, just as it needs its association with logos, in order that goodwill not be dismissed as foolish and trustworthiness as naive." And "Intelligent agents, then, have adopted an ethos of sympathy, an ethos strongly allied for pathos, and it is for this reason that we can understand their rhetoric as a form of 'cyborg discourse'" (p.211).

In sum,

The ethos of rational reliability and the ethos of sympathy are not only rhetorical strategies but also rhetorical modes of being, each with its own limitations. Each in its own way attempts to create a version of the closed world in which we might dwell by modeling a character who belongs there -- a set of judgments, a way of feeling, a mode of interacton. (p.213)

Smart! This seems to be a valuable and interesting way to apply the classical rhetorical tradition to computer-mediated activity. The last article, on the other hand, examines and critiques how more recent developments have been applied to workplace writing.

Robert J. Bracewell and Stephen P. Witte. "Tasks, ensembles, and activity: Linkages between text producton and situation of use in the workplace."

Bracewell and Witte launch a sharp critique of activity theory. They announce that they want to draw on constructs such as activity systems, ensemble activities, literacy events, and work events to elaborate "a more integrated and potentially generative framework to account for workplace literacy and its functions in professional settings" (p.512). They start with Vygotsky's "construct of practical, objective human activity," but they charge that "current elaborations of the activity triangle ... are insufficient to account adequately, from a psychological perspective, for much practical human activity in contemporary workplaces" (p.512).

To explore this problem, they begin by discussing activity theory. The expansion from sign-mediated actions to activity systems, they point out, yields a greater range of applicability. And the addition of contradiction to the activity system yields a dimension of dynamism. But the tradeoff is an "increased gap between the abstract characterization of these components and the appropriate application of these components to the material, situated, and time-bound specifics of activity" (p.516). In particular, they think the application of the activity triangle to all three levels of activity is problematic -- a "quick fix." (p.518). This quick fix ignores that there are two major differences between activity on one hand and action and operation on the other hand. (1) operations and actions entail "physiological and neurophysiological dimensions" that make them objective in one sense. (2) "Goals and conditions are manifested by people in material/symbolic representations which can be identified by others (including researchers) and are thus objective" in another sense. But activity is not objective in either sense; activity is inferred and thus runs the risk of being subjective. "Activity is, we think, perhaps better understood as something like a theoretical construct rather than as a phenomenological and, hence, objective category" (p.521).

In other words, activity is like gravity or intelligence -- theoretical abstractions that have accrued explanatory power and whose "existence is posited or hypothesized not because of their objective natures but because of their objective effects." "Activity might thus be viewed as a theoretical construct that functions to explain or account for in some way a collocation of human behaviors and behavior outcomes centered around some set of performance parameters." They claim that this distinction maps well to Vygotsky's differentiation of parts in a theory: general explanatory principle and objects of study (p.522).

(This seems similar to Latour's critique of Marxist theories in general and AT in particular as having to invent sociocultural structures to explain human activity.)

The authors propose a resolution:

First, the activity/motive construct should be viewed as one that elaborates the general explanatory principle of practical human activity which serves to define the domain of psychological theory. Second, the action/goal and operation/condition constructs should be viewed as objects of study which serve to realize the explanatory principle in the complexity and detail required to account for the range and specificity of practical human activity. (p.522)

So they dicuss two new constructs: the task and the ensemble. "We define the task as the set of goals and actions that implement these goals, which are developed in order to achieve a solution to a complex problem within a specific work context. And "We define the work ensemble as the smallest group of people who collectively use sign systems in conjunction with other tools and technologies to realize an appropriate solution to a complex problem within a specific work context" (p.528).

But then they get to their inspirations, which include Vygotsky and activity theory, but also task analysis (Newell and Simon), distributed cognition (Hutchins), and studies of scientific knowledge (Bijker), among others. What a mishmash. Sure, they all deal with "the interplay of the individual, material, and cultural" (p.529), but they conceive of these in rather different ways that are not easily reconciled. That's fine, I've done similar things -- but the fact that they don't mark or discuss the differences is surprising given the rigorous theoretical critique they executed earlier in the paper.

Back to these constructs:

The work ensemble has at least two advantages for investigating workplace literacy. One is objectivity. Ensembles form, evolve, and disband around activities that their purpose (and subsidiary tasks) mandate, organize, and terminate. Rather than being defined by the researcher, the ensemble is defined by the participants, their coordinate actions, and the mediational means used to represent the content with which the ensemble deals. The actions and representations are particularly identifiable through the discourse of the participants and actions that attend the discourse. Such discourse and actions specify both the tasks of the ensemble and the means of doing these tasks. (p.547).

And "A second and related advantage is the degree of theoretical saturation ... that can be achieved" (p.547).

Overall: the criticism of the activity system/level of activity scores, but I'm not convinced by the alternative constructs, nor by the objectivity test that they use. The interviews, observations, etc. are much easier to nail down at the operation and action levels, yes, but activity-level analysis relies on the same empirical data. Why do these stories give us adequate information about motives and goals but not objects?


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Sunday, April 03, 2005

Reading :: Mind and Nature

Originally posted: Sun, 03 Apr 2005 11:52:05

Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity

by Gregory Bateson

Shortly after I posted my lengthy review of Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus, Kristie Fleckenstein told me she appreciated it because she had had trouble sustaining interest in the book. Whenever she read it, she would think of Gregory Bateson's Mind and Nature, which seemed to go over similar ground with greater clarity.

I had read Bateson's Steps to an Ecology of Mind some time ago (before the blog), so I had some idea what she was talking about. And I had noticed a few Bateson cites here and there in Deleuze and Guattari's book. But I really wasn't prepared for reading Mind and Nature. Because I quickly realized that A Thousand Plateaus is in great part a response to and elaboration of this book.

So much of it is there: a discussion of bilateral vs. radial symmetry, the notion of assemblages ("aggregates"), the comparison of rhythms to music and the linking with stochastic processes, the illustration of the crab, the question of segmenting, the comparison of map and territory, the illustration of the tick, the distinction of number and quantity, and of course the double bind. But where Deleuze and Guattari are deliberately opaque, Bateson is deliberately and surprisingly clear. Every one of these topics takes a paragraph, a page, or (in the case of stochastic processes) a chapter, whereas in Deleuze and Guattari the same topics take at least a chapter to elaborate. And with Bateson, there's no question about how metaphorical the application is supposed to be or what his overall project looks like.

I fervently wish I had read this book before A Thousand Plateaus. And if you haven't read either one, you really should read this one first -- although I still recommend A Thousand Plateaus for some interesting elaborations and articulations that Bateson doesn't get to go into.

Bateson dictated this book while bedridden at the end of his life. (He managed to finish this book and start another one before he passed away.) And I detect here a strong sense of wanting to get it all down before he passed, a desire to communicate his experience and understanding before it was lost forever. Bateson didn't believe in an afterlife and takes a few potshots at organized religion here (which is not uncommon for people on their deathbeds). But mostly he stays focused on articulating this understanding.

So what is this understanding? Bateson is looking for a monist understanding in which mind and nature could be talked about in the same terms. And he is quite open-minded about what constitutes mind, sounding more philosophical and less restrictive than distributed cognitionists while being clearer and more principled than Deleuze & Guattari or actor-network theorists. "A mind," he says, "is an aggregate of interacting parts or components"; "the interaction between parts of mind is triggered by difference"; "mental processes require collateral energy"; "mental processes require circular (or more complex) chains of determination"; "in mental processes, the effects of difference are to be regarded as transforms (i.e., coded versions) of events which proceeded them"; "the description and classification of these processes of transformation disclose a hierarchy of logical types immanent in the phenomena" (p.102). Bateson goes on to methodically elaborate each criterion, using them to build an argument that places "mind" in the interactions of a material assemblage rather than bracketing it off in someone's head. Bateson did this fairly well in Steps to an Ecology of Mind, but he makes a more methodical case here.

And he combines this argument with one on stochastic processes. In short, he says that evolutionary and somatic change, though of different types, are both stochastic; they can only change by incorporating randomness to inject productive difference. "The task of this chapter," he says in Chapter 6, "is to show how these two stochastic systems, working at different levels of logical typing, fit together into a single ongoing biosphere that could not endure if either somatic or genetic change were fundamentally different from what it is" (p.165). In fact, he strongly criticizes the invoking of mind as an explanatory principle for either change. In the rest of the chapter, he develops a really insightful critique of evolution as it is commonly understood, linked to a critique of mind as it is commonly understood.

What I like so much about Bateson is that he makes his points with incredible parsimony, strongly organized and capable elaboration, and interesting and understandable examples. The examples are drawn from biology, mathematics, literature, human perceptual studies, and a variety of other areas.

On the other hand, I think Bateson really overreaches at a couple of points. His Socratic dialogue with his daughter at the end of the book really brings this out, as when he describes the "world of mental processes" (and remember, this means any assemblage that meets the six criteria above) as a "slowly self-healing tautology" (p.228). Or when he summarizes this book as an attempt by one lemming to tell the others "I told you so" as they rush into the sea (p.231). You see, thinking that one lemming could actually stop this race to the sea would be arrogant.

All in all, though, a great book. >

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