Saturday, December 30, 2006

(10x15: 10 books that changed my life by the time I turned 15)

Originally posted: Sat, 30 Dec 2006 05:48:25

Over the holidays, I looked through some of my keepsakes and visited my parents. So I'm in a nostalgic mood. And in that mood, I began thinking about some of the books I read in the first fifteen years of life. I was a voracious reader, although unfortunately I tended toward pulpy science fiction and fantasy novels. But some texts really stand out -- not necessarily the ones I read most often, but the ones that had a lasting impact on me. Here are ten books I read by fifteen:

20000 Leagues Under the Sea

by Jules Verne

One of my older siblings probably was the original owner of this annotated hardcover edition of Jules Verne's classic. Annotated is the key word here: the margins were filled with footnotes about the inventions and the geographical and natural features encountered in Verne's fictional travelogue, and those footnotes both helped me to understand the text and sustained my interest in it. When the text talked about a narwahl, the annotations described the creature and provided an illustration; when the text described light bulbs, the annotation explained that they had not yet been invented and discussed Verne's uncanny ability to extrapolate inventions from current trends. I remember how proud I was to finish the text (I was seven) and how interested I became in hard science fiction after that.

Verne's novel was a real travelogue: The narrative (the narrator is captured by a megalomaniac who has built a submarine and uses it to sink ships) is a thin premise on which the author hangs a series of descriptions of undersea life, sunken cities, and icebergs. For a seven-year-old, the clash between the narrator's egalitarian perspective and Captain Nemo's aristocratic one) was fascinating and useful, and the fact that the narrator was nearly brought under Nemo's thrall was especially instructive.

Interestingly, I was not nearly as enchanted with other science fiction from roughly the same time period. Edward Bellamy's utopia Looking Backwards was creepy, with its description of a lockstep society. HG Wells' The First Men in the Moon was even more creepy: I had trouble digesting the fact that one character was actually enchanted by the moon civilization's regimented, genetically controlled organization. And of course The Time Machine was especially creepy: I found no one to root for. Looking backward (pun intended), I realize that science fiction is less a prediction of the future than it is a commentary on the present; Verne's hard science fiction was an optimistic commentary that was given the certainty of concrete technological innovation, while Wells and Bellamy employed transparently flimsy plot devices to describe futures in which genuine human dialogue and conflict had been squeezed out -- sociological, "soft" science fiction. I preferred the "hard" science fiction, and in later years I read Asimov, Heinlein, Niven, and others in that vein.

Incidentally, we didn't have Wells' The Invisible Man, but we had Ralph Ellison's. That was an extremely confusing book for a seven-year-old, and I didn't finish it until much later, in college, I think.

New American Standard Ryrie Study Bible

by Charles Ryrie (Editor)

I was raised in an evangelical household -- not the stereotypical kind that you see on television that shouts Hallelujah a lot and handles snakes, but the kind that takes the Biblical text seriously and seeks to understand its historical and cultural context. The Ryrie Study Bible, heavily annotated by Charles Ryrie of Dallas Theological Seminary, was de rigeur: nearly every verse had an annotation that explained controversies, gave alternate translations from the original Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic, pointed to non-Biblical sources, and described archaeological findings that helped to put the text in context. Every book had a half-page introduction that summarized and dated it. And even the dreariest passages in Leviticus were enlivened by discussions of the cultural context in which they were followed. Between this text and Verne's, no wonder I like footnotes so much.

I read the Ryrie Study Bible cover to cover at least a few times, a chapter a night, after my normal reading. Doing this certainly did not make me more virtuous, but it did instill an appreciation of the book that has most deeply impacted Western culture. And Ryrie's annotations helped me understand from an early age that reasonable people could disagree about given texts and interpret them differently based on various types of evidence. On the other hand, Ryrie never questioned the inerrancy of Scripture, and consequently he went through some really complicated acrobatics in order to reconcile passages with each other and with archaeological evidence -- something to which I was not sufficiently sensitized at the time.

Chariots of the Gods?

by Erich Von Daniken

On the other hand, I was skeptical of this 1972 book from the beginning. I remember reading it and similar books that had been handed down from older siblings (we had an enormous bookshelf at our house) and also watching the documentary based on Von Daniken's "research." Von Daniken postulates that the Earth had been visited by ancient astronauts who were or were not our ancestors -- he's not always clear on this point, and based on the variety of evidence he provides, the Earth looks like a busy crossroads for UFOs. That evidence, however, is transparently contradictory and often transparently ripped from its context. Before I knew what the term "Occam's Razor" meant, I was already applying it to this pseudoscientific text. (I was probably eight or nine.)

People forget what sort of impact this book had, though. Six years later, science fiction writer James P. Hogan put forth a much more plausible scenario of ancient astronauts in Inherit the Stars, as if to say, "Look, Van Daniken, here's how it's done." Later still, The X-Files and Stargate picked up the thread. Meanwhile, I continued reading lurid books along the same lines, such as Von Daniken's Gods from Outer Space and Fanthorpe's The World's Greatest Unsolved Mysteries, laughing up my sleeve -- but secretly wanting to believe.

The Making of Star Trek

by Stephen E. Whitfield

Speaking of wanting to believe, I was a huge Star Trek fan as a kid. And although the show had been off the air since before I was born, I always hoped they would find a way to bring it back. Reading this book, a nuts-and-bolts account of the show's genesis and operation as well as studio politics, made me really interested in the whole enterprise of developing and maintaining a fictional world. It also cleared up a lot of mysteries. (Why did the Enterprise have a transporter? Because they couldn't afford the special effects it would take to land a spaceship every week.) I memorized Star Trek trivia from this book like sports fans memorize sports trivia. On one level, it was an enormous waste of time -- the book was published between the second and third seasons, so it had an optimism that I knew from the beginning was misplaced -- but on another level, I learned early about the complex collaboration and the enormous coherence issues involved in a large, er, enterprise such as this one. Let's face it, it's probably a good thing to understand how your fiction is manufactured.

Barlowe's guide to extraterrestrials

by Wayne Douglas Barlowe

And yet, it's also fun to pretend that all the fiction that takes place in different worlds can be brought together in one place. That was the premise behind Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials, an illustrated compendium of "great aliens from science fiction literature." If you want to see a stunning portrait of Arthur C Clarke's Overlord, Larry Niven's Puppeteer, or Frank Herbert's Guild Steersman -- along with detailed annotations and a scale chart -- well, here you go. The appendix includes process sketches as well. This book led me to read a number of others, just to see what the aliens were like in context. (I found that Barlowe often took considerable liberties with the sketchy descriptions.) If you haven't seen this text, you really ought to take advantage of Amazon's Look Inside the Book feature and see what sorts of messed-up things I was reading at eleven or twelve.

At the time I was reading this book, Dungeons and Dragons was big, and I had the notion of using Barlowe's Guide as a sort of "monster's guide" for a science fiction RPG. Blessedly, those plans never came to fruition. Eventually, I sold this book at a garage sale, and have regretted it ever since.


by Frank Herbert

I was nine or ten when my older brother gave me this book for Christmas. It was a bit adult for me -- religious fanaticism, Machiavellian intrigue, and genetic programs were probably not appropriate for a ten-year-old -- but I really latched onto it for reasons that I have discussed elsewhere. Looking back, I see that although Dune had no footnotes, it did have several appendices that were meant to make the text more real through supplemental context, just as the Ryrie Study Bible further explained the Bible with its supplemental notes on archaeology.

In later years, my older brother gave or lent me a string of age-inappropriate books, including many works by Piers Anthony (who has strikingly infantile attitudes about sexuality) and Stephen R. Donaldson (whose antihero Thomas Covenant performs relentless narcissistic handwringing in a reality that is entirely centered around him). But Dune is one of a kind -- tightly integrated, intriguingly interwoven despite its deep flaws, describing a future world in Roman decline and yearning for a jihad that would sweep away the old order and restore the vitality of humanity. If only Herbert had stopped there instead of authoring and coauthoring an endless stream of derivative sequels.


by Larry Niven

Larry Niven represents a melding of the two science fiction traditions that have their roots in Verne and Wells respectively: on the one hand, the "hard sf" that relies on plausible extrapolations, and on the other, the more sociologically concerned science fiction that postulates how societies change in contact with new technologies and new civilizations. Ringworld is not Niven's best work, but it leverages Niven's "Known Space" stories to present a compelling vision: a massive artifact left behind by an unknown race, so large that it has more livable space than any race would ever need, so ancient that its denizens had forgotten it was an artifact. This wasn't an entirely new idea, and in fact Tony Rothman did something similar in far more obsessive detail the next year with his interesting, but far less compelling, The World is Round. (Nor was it as well fact-checked.) But its combination of sheer scope, inventive technology, and sociological observation -- and its sly references to other "Known Space" works -- made it a remarkable book that spawned a number of imitators.

Far Arena

by Richard Sapir

I was probably 13 or 14 when I picked this book up, either at a garage sale or a used bookstore. It looked intriguing -- and turned out to be really strong, despite some flaws. Sapir's protagonist works his way up from slavery to become a free man and the premier gladiator in Domitian's Rome. After disgracing Domitian, he is marched up to the frozen North and, er, frozen, only to be discovered and revived in the late 20th century. (This device is not very plausible, but at least it's more plausible than the device in Bellamy's classic utopian novel Looking Backwards, in which the protagonist is hypnotized to sleep and revived a century later!) In any case, the gladiator's story is told as a series of flashbacks interspersed with stories from a variety of perspectives: a Texan geologist working for the oil company that finds the frozen gladiator, a Russian doctor who is the foremost expert on cryogenics, and a nun who happens to be fluent in spoken Latin. I'm not sure which was more intriguing to me: the Roman flashbacks, which were quite detailed, or the gladiator's coming to grips with a modern world that seems both bizarre and strikingly familiar to him.


by George Orwell

I'm pretty sure I read 1984 in 1981, when I was eleven, in anticipation of the upcoming date. (The novel was arbitrarily set in 1984 because Orwell was writing in 1948.) 1984 is a classic, of course, and certainly in the H.G. Wells dystopian mold. But it was also deeply disturbing to me: the pervasive surveillance, the control over language that was meant to yield the control of thought, the constant tailoring of history, and eventually the psychological breaking of the protagonist. When confronted with his deepest fear, he cracks, and at the end "he loved Big Brother" -- with no God to appeal to, no heroic sacrifice to make, no hope and no escape. Of course, reading this in 1981, I was also reading it through the lens of what I knew about the Soviet Union, so it was scarily real. And that brings us to the next and last book:

The Gulag Archipelago

by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn

Although I had read plenty of dystopian novels by the age of 15, and heard plenty about the travails in the Soviet Union, The Gulag Archipelago -- which I primarily read at endless swim meets during the summer of my 15th year, I recall -- really brought the horrors of the Soviet experiment home to me. Like 1984, Solzhenitsyn's descriptions of the secret police, show trials, and labor camps were told without hope of appeal or justice. But whereas the secret police of 1984 were psychological surgeons, the Stasi were butchers, interested not in assent but in convictions and punishment. The dry, pervasive fear that Solzhenitsyn described stayed with me, and is brought back forcefully whenever I read biographies of Bakhtin or Wertsch's account of double consciousness -- or whenever I read about activity theory's development in the Soviet Union.


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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Reading :: Experience Research Social Change

Originally posted: Tue, 28 Nov 2006 22:12:11

Experience Research and Social Change: Methods Beyond the Mainstream, 2nd edition

by Sandra Kirby, Lorraine Greaves, Colleen Reid

Amazon lists this book title as Experience Research and Social Change, but on the cover it's simply Experience Research Social Change. I think someone at Amazon was attempting to make sense out of an unparseable title, one that's repeated frequently in the book with no explanation. How can we sensibly parse it? Are these three concepts mashed together? ("Experience! Research! Social Change!") Is experience a noun, an adjective ("Experience research"), or an imperative verb ("(you should) experience research")? So many questions, but no answers in the text.

So the title is frustrating, but no more so for me than the book in general.

For one thing, it's advertised as accessible for undergraduates, but the language is fairly dense and seems theoretically advanced -- and the actual methods discussions seem too sketchy for an introductory text, meaning that it would have to be used in conjunction with a more detailed how-to.

Another issue I had was that the book really doesn't live up to its subtitle, "methods beyond the mainstream": the methods generally amount to the well-worn trinity of interviews, observations, and artifact analysis that have been with us lo these many years, and never reach the more innovative work done with participatory design, user-centered design, or related methodologies. The thing that pushes these methods "beyond the mainstream" is the commitment to coparticipation, which may have been radical when the first edition came out but no longer is. The closest the authors get to going beyond the mainstream is in their discussion of "other approaches" in chapter 7 -- and that discussion takes place in a series of gray boxes deliberately set off from the main text.

A third issue I had with the text is its mistaken belief -- unfortunately all too common in action research and related approaches -- that one must identify with the participants and commit to their aims in order to engage in coparticipant research with them. In practice, this can amount to avoiding genuine dialogues and instead using research participants as mouthpieces for one's own beliefs. The authors do engage with this problem to a very limited extent, asking with Katherine Borland, "What should we do when we women disagree?" and following up with an account of an interview in which an informant turned out to be antisemitic. They don't provide much guidance here beyond the uncomfortable recommendation to "acknowledge differences." But of course these differences -- large and small -- will turn up when interviewing any population. Women don't all think alike -- no population does, unless you're investigating incredibly constricted questions with a very small population, and even then it's questionable. I'd argue that action researchers should instead take a page from the ACLU, which finds common ground in the most unlikely places -- joining hands with the KKK to defend free speech rights, for instance, although the two organizations agree on little else. A less evangelical, more ecumenical approach could provide more insights -- and could lead to some innovations that are truly beyond the mainstream.


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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Reading :: War Made New

Originally posted: Tue, 14 Nov 2006 21:35:15

War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History: 1500 to Today

by Max Boot

Max Boot, a former columnist for the Wall Street Journal, really has the perfect name for a war historian. (I expected his dust cover photo to look like Nick Fury; instead, he looks like a bookish Cary Elwes.) He also has a strong background for the work: senior fellow in national security studies at the Council for Foreign Relations, advisor to the DoD on transformational issues, lecturer at military schools. And here, he pulls off the impressive feat of writing nearly 500 pages (not including footnotes) on war history and making it both interesting and accessible to lay readers.

Why would lay readers be interested? More specifically, why would scholars in rhetoric and technology studies be interested? Yes, the book is certainly about warfare, something that affects us all. But more broadly, it's about the relationships among technology, organization, and society that have been debated in fields such as science and technology studies (STS). Boot provides a short discussion of technological determinism, but the real contribution is in the examples he draws from 500 years of warfare, which demonstrate that superior technologies don't usually carry the day -- they have to be mobilized with appropriate organizational structures, deployed with appropriate doctrines, strategies, tactics, operations, and logistics.

Such changes have quickened considerably. At the beginning of the history Boot presents, technological and organizational changes were slow: the British used "Brown Bess" muskets for 150 years, for instance. But the pace quickened considerably: not surprisingly, half of the book is devoted to the changes in the last 50 years, and three chapters recount just the last 15 years. For those who have been following current events avidly, these chapters are fascinating, providing a detailed and even-handed analysis of how the military has been transformed to meet different threats.

In particular, Boot points out that the United States' current military research budget is larger than the total budget of any other country, and argues that the current unparalleled supremacy of the US military is what makes the global economy possible, by ruling out most conventional warfare and therefore giving people faith in the stability of nations, national relations, and infrastructure. But Boot also warns that, as he showed earlier in the book, military and technological supremacy can be easily undermined by new technological, organizational, tactical, and strategic developments. He points to al Qaeda as one example, and China's "unrestricted warfare" as another. And he drives home the lesson of Iraq: a military that is configured to win conventional wars may not be well adapted to win asymmetric wars.


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Saturday, November 11, 2006

Reading :: Acting with Technology

Originally posted: Sat, 11 Nov 2006 02:04:06

Acting with Technology: Activity Theory and Interaction Design

by Victor Kaptelinin and Bonnie A. Nardi

Activity theory is complex, intricate, and often difficult to understand, and until now, no full-length text has managed to provide a good solid understanding of what it entails. That's especially problematic since AT has been adopted by people in so many fields and used to do so many things, leading to some conceptual drift. When I taught a graduate course on activity theory and human-computer interaction a couple of years ago, I ended up using Nardi's Context and Consciousness and excerpts from several other works, but students rightly objected that the threads of AT had not been brought together in a coherent way.

If I were to teach that course again, I'd use this book. Kaptelinin and Nardi have worked hard to develop a single text that lays out AT for those without much background in it, and in general they do a really fine job. In particular, the chapters that summarize AT's principles, development, and treatment of objects are all quite strong. The case studies, which are largely based on published articles, are also valuable but are sometimes not well integrated with the overview and theory chapters. But that's okay -- the authors do a great job of referring to external AT studies and resources, so readers can easily find additional, relevant articles and cases.

So what does the book say about AT? The authors emphasize AT's coherence and its emphasis on human intentionality, themes that contrast with the characteristics the authors see in rival frameworks such as distributed cognition and actor-network theory (see, e.g., p.10). They also discuss how AT's new interest in Bakhtinian dialogism and multivocality (p.23) help to position it to study recent changes in work, since "work is more distributed, more contingent, less stable" (p.26). In fact, in their chapter on objects, they do a really nice job of discussing "polymotivation" (p.138), a key move in addressing the issue of networked work organization. And their chapter discussing AT's development and discontinuities is tremendously helpful for anyone who has wondered how AT relates to Vygotsky and Leont'ev and Bakhtin, or whether Engestrom's triangles are an essential part of an AT analysis, or why they're called "objects."

The authors also discuss AT in relationship to other postcognitivist theories in Chapters 9 and 10, particularly actor-network theory and distributed cognition. Bonnie was kind enough to let me review draft copies of these two chapters, and also kind enough to cite my work in them. My reaction, then and now, is that these chapters do important work -- but they tend to take AT's goals as the gold standard for comparison and criticize the other approaches for falling short of those standards. Since ANT and DC have very different objects (to use AT's terms), of course they fall short. I should say here that I consider myself an activity theorist, and I have a strong interest in individual human activity, development, and ingenuity (as the authors themselves point out by kindly citing my work). But I do think that other projects can be pursued and that examining their separate objects could have produced a more amicable comparison.

Despite that wrinkle, the comparison is tremendously valuable, especially in Chapter 10, where the authors compare treatments of agency. When activity theorists criticize how symmetrical approaches handle agency, the obvious counterclaim is that in emphasizing individuals so strongly, activity theorists actually ignore the incredibly important concept of mediation developed by Vygotsky. Isn't one obvious implication of mediation that cultural activity is mediated activity, i.e., activity that only exists because heterogeneous elements such as workers, practices, artifacts, and material objects form assemblages that mutually change each other? That is, doesn't AT point to a form of symmetry?

Kaptelinin and Nardi, anticipating that counterclaim, furnish what is perhaps the most important new development in the book. They produce a typology of agents (p.244), breaking down the concept of agency into several subtypes and demonstrating how these are operationalized differently through different agents. For instance,

  • Natural things have conditional agency -- they produce effects -- but they don't demonstrate delegated agency or needs-based agency.
  • Cultural things have conditional and delegated agency, but not needs-based agency.
  • nonhuman, domesticated living beings have conditional, delegated, and partial needs-based agency (they act according to their own biological needs, but not their cultural needs).
  • only human beings (such as "Spinuzzi's traffic engineers") exhibit all these kinds of agency in full.

This really is quite brilliant, as it nails down some of the slippages in the term "agency" that have allowed actor-network theorists to claim agency for things. For instance, Latour argues elegantly that speed bumps have agency just as much as people do, since these "sleeping policemen" are delegated the responsibilities that human policemen have, and often discharge those responsibilities more faithfully. But no, this chart says, Latour is confusing two very different types of agency. We all intuitively know this, the argument goes, but now we can point to exactly where the confusion is and we can avoid that mistake. Or so the argument goes; I'm still processing it.

Well. As you can tell, I'm really quite impressed with this smart and timely book. Although I've spent a bit of time in this review questioning assumptions in a couple of the chapters, partly because I've been so engaged with them lately, the book overall is a huge contribution to the AT literature. I'll certainly refer to it, cite it over and over, and think hard about its implications.

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Saturday, November 04, 2006

Reading :: Interactive Qualitative Analysis

Originally posted: Sat, 04 Nov 2006 10:02:30

Interactive Qualitative Analysis: A Systems Method for Qualitative Research

by Norvell Northcutt, Danny McCoy

We've seen a lot of research methods and methodologies recently that involve collecting and analyzing data along with research participants. Participatory design, action research, and contextual design are three examples. The latter, in fact, borrows much from TQM methods such as the K-J Method and affinity diagrams. Interactive Qualitative Analysis draws from the same well, outlining a systematic qualitative approach to collaborative data analysis that leverages those TQM methods and strives for true mutual participation in data analysis.

Written by two researchers associated with the School of Education here at the University of Texas, the book describes Interactive Qualitative Analysis (IQA) in detail. IQA is based in systems theory and dialectics (p.xxii). In fact, they approvingly quote Engels' laws of dialectics in their description of IQA (p.14). In fact, they get quite carried away with dialectics throughout, making the same sorts of overreaching claims about is that Engels likes to make: "This ebb and flow is the result of the dialectical nature of both history and reality itself" (p.102). (They also use the dialectical ground to take some potshots at postmodernists, although they make conciliatory noises as well.)

Essentially, IQA is a phenomenological approach in which focus groups produce affinity diagrams describing a shared phenomenon, an affinity that involves both open and axial coding. This coding leads to interview protocols, which in turn guide individual interviews. The interviews and affinities then lead to mindmaps, or systems diagrams that describe the phenomenon.

The authors illustrate IQA by applying it to an IQA course -- an extremely confusing example, because it's very difficult to tell when the authors are talking about IQA and when they are describing what students said about IQA. Really, this was a bad move for the authors to make, and they compound the problem with too many stories, transcripts, and lists. They also compound it with distracting and generally unsuccessful attempts at humor. (One footnote reads: "The interviewer was, of course, one of the authors, but he could easily have been the other one" (p.423).)

That's really too bad, because IQA is in many ways an intriguing approach that complements the other approaches I mention above. Although it does not appear to support observational work (being primarily phenomenological), it does pose some interesting possibilities for those who do phenomenological work, particularly in its adoption of TQM techniques and its stance in favor of co-analysis with participants. The use of mindmaps is also intriguing, although the authors appear to overrely on them and equate them with mental models (always dicey when you're talking about more than one person).

In summary, IQA is a really interesting and potentially useful method for qualitative analysis carried out with the participants. It's more focused on rigor than contextual design is, but it's also far less modest in its claims and far less observational. If I were to use it, it would be either for strictly defined phenomenological work or as a component of a more integrated study, and my claims would be considerably more hedged than the ones the authors present in their examples.

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Reading :: Free Culture

Originally posted: Wed, 01 Nov 2006 19:59:23

Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity

by Lawrence Lessig

In 2002, Lawrence Lessig argued before the US Supreme Court that the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act should be declared unconstitutional. He lost the legal argument. This book, essentially, is his response: a policy argument that attempts to rectify his loss of the legal argument.

So what's the argument? Lessig describes the problem: Copyright, which originated as a strongly limited right to one's own work over a relatively short period, has been progressively extended in a number of ways. Most obviously, Congress has enacted a series of rolling extensions that, as long as they continue, will result in de facto permanent copyright. But copyright has also been extended in other dimensions, due to changes in distribution systems (video, radio, electronic). Additional restrictions have been built into software, and the act of circumventing copyright protection itself has been made illegal. Lessig argues that these changes, in total, mean that an increasing amount of our cultural heritage is being taken off the table and commoditized -- and worse, works that cannot be commoditized, that will not pay for themselves (e.g., less popular Laurel and Hardy films), are decaying for lack of funds to covert them to more permanent media. One big problem is that there's no central registry for copyright holders, so it's sometimes impossible to determine who holds the copyright and thus impossible to get permission to use their work.

Lessig responds with a suggestion for a compromise: make copyright a fixed 50-year term, then extend it via a nominal fee (say, $1 a year) that involves registering the copyright holder.

I have a lot of sympathy for this argument. But as a policy issue, several things occur to me. I'm no legal scholar or policy expert, but I suspect copyright has not evolved enough to keep up with various sorts of changes in how works are designed and produced, and I further suspect that Lessig's proposal only exacerbates these problems:

  • When copyright was conceived, works were primarily authored by individuals. Now they're authored by teams, and important parts of what make them unique or salable are not added by the copyright holder at all. For instance, acts like Def Leppard and the Cars would not have been nearly as attractive without producer Mutt Lange, who strongly contributed to their sound. Lange is not the copyright holder, but he strongly impacted their work.
  • Similarly, individual works often enact larger properties. The obvious example is Mickey Mouse: a new Mickey Mouse property is in a sense just a brick in a larger edifice that stretches back to Steamboat Willie. (Jason Craft describes these edifices as "fiction networks," using comic books and the Star Wars universe as examples.) An enormous amount of work goes into building and maintaining these edifices, with later works impacting the interpretation of earlier ones. That work is distributed across time, space, and disciplines, and frequently functions as an organic whole. So: if Mickey Mouse is still being developed, can he go out of copyright? If you make your own Mickey Mouse T-shirt, are we talking about the character (who is under continual development), or just screen grabs from out-of-copyright works?
  • Works enjoy much broader distribution across a much larger set of media.
  • Two related operating assumptions of the book are that our cultural heritage is precious and that reuse is an essential creative act. I wonder about both of these. We have, to put it bluntly, created an enormous amount of garbage in the last century, and I'm not sure that it's a bad thing that those Laurel and Hardy films are moldering in their cans. Nor am I convinced that reuse is so essential to further creativity.
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Lessig's solution to the copyright problem is not especially workable. Copyright is a bureaucratic problem, and creating another layer of bureaucracy in the form of a massive centralized database is not an especially elegant solution.

Anyway, the book is fascinating and, as you can tell, thought-provoking.

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Monday, October 30, 2006

Reading :: The Search

Originally posted: Mon, 30 Oct 2006 10:10:24

The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture

by John Battelle

This book is pretty light reading, but also quite interesting. Although the book is mainly about Google, Battelle starts far pre-Google to discuss search algorithms, Internet startups, and ad pricing structures, and he manages to do all of this quite compellingly. If you've wondered just how Google gets those results, this book provides a pretty good lay introduction. And if you are not quite sure how Google makes money off of a free service, you should definitely take a look.

On the other hand, this sort of book has a very short shelf life. Battelle's speculative chapter about the future of search seems alternately dated and oversold, and his afterword barely mentions the groundwork that Google had already laid for moving into office software for small businesses. But what he does discuss gives us an idea of how Google will continue to strategize, particularly in the small business market. Check it out if you'd like to get a quick understanding of search and what it means.

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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

(Reading Roundup: Nardi, Engestrom, Sun)

Originally posted: Wed, 11 Oct 2006 19:51:21

Coming off of a very busy couple of months, and with the Net Work manuscript complete and being reviewed by a couple of good friends, I've finally been able to get back to my readings.

They start with the latest TCQ, which is quite a good issue.

Zachry, M. (2006). An interview with Bonnie A. Nardi. Technical Communication Quarterly, 15(4):483?503.

Mark Zachry's interview with Bonnie Nardi is really interesting to me, not just in terms of her research trajectory and her development of activity theory, but also in terms of her thoughts on methodology -- something that is fresh in my mind, since I taught a qualitative research seminar this spring and have been developing methods sections for various grant proposals over the summer.

In terms of qualitative research, Bonnie says:

Qualitative analysis for me is a very open-ended

kind of enterprise. So, what I usually like to do is get my interview text and my field notes in front of me in some reasonable form where I can kind of read through them, like a novel. And I don?t look for metaphors or anything else. I just read them and hope that things are starting to work in my unconscious. And then I go back and do something much more systematic where I look for themes, or metaphors, or whatever kinds of constructs that I think are really important.

And a moment later:

No, I am not that systematic. I am a very old school anthropologist. I don?t use computer-based analytical tools. I don?t count very much. Sometimes I count things, but mostly I am looking for the themes and the sensibilities that I find in the transcripts, or in my field notes, or on the websites.

This is indeed old-school anthropology, the sort of intuitive work that hearkens back to ethnography's roots in travel writing, and that has been critiqued by later methodologies that focus on analytical rigor through strict analytical tools and procedures (e.g., grounded theory). Nevertheless, Bonnie's work has considerable analytical rigor -- as we'll see in a moment -- that is perhaps intuited and perhaps guided by her theoretical rigor.

Bonnie's rigor comes partially through immersion, and at the time of the article she was immersed in World of Warcraft, which she characterizes as an introductory step to global collaboration:

And, although it is only a game, certainly, I am interested in the fact that people are learning to interact with people that they don?t know, and that they are never going to see. It is interesting that they learn how to get along with these other players and organize themselves and do things together. I think this is really going to be important in the future because I think we are going to be doing a lot more of that. All the problems we?ve created, many of which come from technology, are global in nature, and we can?t solve them in our own little neighborhoods and our own backyards. We have to collaborate with other people.

She goes on to discuss the implications for networks, and particularly for "placeless organizations," which are "organizations that have a transformative object and which do work in shifting multiple sites." And "what really grabbed my attention was the fact that people are trying to create either national or global change through these placeless organizations, and they are placeless because the world is a big place and if you only pick one place, you can?t effect the kind of change necessarily that you want to."

Which brings us to the next reading:

Nardi, B. A. (In press). Placeless organizations: Collaborating for transformation. Mind, Culture, and Activity.

Bonnie was kind enough to share this manuscript with me; it'll be published in early 2007. Here, she elaborates on the concept of placeless organizations, which are characterized as "sites and generators of learning at a large scale." The concept here -- which goes a long way toward studying transformative global net work -- hinges on starting with the object (in the activity theoretical sense) rather than with organizational boundaries. The notion is somewhat similar to actor-network theory's dictum to "follow the actors," but more focused in that objects are a bit better defined in the activity-theoretical sense (although Bonnie acknowledges that the term still has a lot of slippage). One important deliverable in this article is a detailed taxonomy of different types of organizations, including placeless organizations, distributed teams, virtual organizations, corporate hierarchies, knots, communities of practice, and social movements.

I don't want to say too much about an unpublished article, but I look forward to reading and citing the final version when it comes out.

Engestrom, Y. Current State and Future Strategy of the Center

Speaking of these sorts of organizations, I was interested to see what's happening at the Center for Activity Theory and Developmental Work Research in Helsinki, where researchers have been developing third- and fourth-generation activity theory to deal with the sorts of distributed organizations Bonnie talks about above. This PowerPoint presentation outlines the Center's recent strategic focus and its possible foci through 2011, and may provide an interesting glimpse into what's coming next. What strikes me is that these issues primarily deal with how to develop activity theory to address a globally networked world in which traditional organizational boundaries are insufficient to characterize human activity. In particular, the Center will be studying issues such as

  • Hybrid and amoeba-like activity systems, including the global organizations, hybrids, and high-discontinuity organizations that are increasingly characterizing a globally networked world. This research strand is subtitled "Toward a 4th Generation Unit of Analysis."
  • Gigantic objects, universal tools, which focuses on large-scale crossdisciplinary objects such as global warming. This strand is subtitled "Toward a New Relationship Between Humans and Nature."
  • Object-oriented interagency, which is primarily concerned with how we understand human agency in the face of the collaboration (coordination, cooperation, communication) that happens within and across activity systems.

These themes complement the work recently coming out of the Center, focusing on horizontal learning.

Engestrom, Y. "The horizontal dimension of expansive learning: Weaving a texture of cognitive trails in the terrain of health care in Finland."

Horizontal learning has become a really interesting focus in recent "third-generation" activity theory, primarily because work organization is changing: "the world of work is is increasingly organized in ways that require horizontal movement and boundary crossing." No longer is the focus on learning exclusively vertical, that is, a progression within the bounds of a single activity or discipline. Increasingly, we learn across overlapping activities. To explore this issue, Engestrom turns -- as he so often does -- to a comparison with another construct, examining how it handles the issue theoretically and methodologically, then discussing how it can inform activity theory. Talk about "learning by expanding." Engestrom sees cognitive trails as an empirically useful construct, in contrast to Deleuze and Guattari's construct of "rhizomes," which he critiques for being too metaphorical to be applied in empirical research.

Sun, H. (2006). The triumph of users: Achieving cultural usability goals. Technical Communication Quarterly, 15(4):483?504.

And that brings us back to the issue of TCQ that I have been reading. Based on Huatong Sun's award-winning dissertation, this article uses activity theory, genre theory, and British cultural studies to examine how Chinese and US phone users enact text messaging. (British cultural studies -- particularly articulation theory -- owe a debt to Deleuze and Guattari and their notion of rhizomes.) If you've read her dissertation, this article won't be news to you -- but if you haven't, start with the article first, because it provides a cogent summary of the dissertation's themes and underscores how far ahead Huatong is in terms of understanding how intercultural communication issues interact with usability and technology.


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Monday, September 25, 2006

Reading :: Extreme Democracy

Originally posted: Mon, 25 Sep 2006 21:15:09

Extreme Democracy

by Jon Lebkowsky, Mitch Ratcliffe

I've been delaying blogging this book review because a decent review would take more time than I think the book is worth -- and because my colleague Mark Longaker has already written an incisive review that will appear in Technical Communication Quarterly in a few issues. But I'll summarize my impressions here.

This collection, written just before and just after Howard Dean's implosion in the 2004 primaries, varies in quality even more than a normal collection does. Some chapters, like Clay Shirky's, are really smart and insightful. Others, like James F. Moore's "The Second Superpower Rears its Beautiful Head," are just awful in their reductionism and naivete. Still others present interesting case studies of community-based technologies, especially Drupal, which was used to power many of Dean's community sites.

The book itself is essentially a print version of a collection of online documents, and that leads to some charming formatting and copyediting mistakes. Often block quotes are not set off from the rest of the text, so we have to guess who's actually speaking at any point. Hyperlinks are formatted as underlined, but of course without the actual links, leading to sentences such as "See this about Allbritton's breakthrough."

Overall, the collection is so situated in its originating time period that it is dated; only a few pieces manage to escape that situating and become more widely useful.

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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Reading :: The Hydrogen Economy

Originally posted: Tue, 29 Aug 2006 20:40:46

The Hydrogen Economy

by Jeremy Rifkin

After a particularly full and difficult summer, I was in the mood for some light summer reading, and Jeremy Rifkin's The Hydrogen Economy fit the bill: it's well written, gripping, and impossible to take seriously.

Yes, impossible to take seriously! The Hydrogen Economy suffers from the same problem that so many dissertations and theses do: the author has identified a genuine problem, but has made it so central that it becomes all-encompassing. Just as Beniger identifies "control" as an overarching explanation for the workings of all organisms in general and human society in particular, and just as Malone explains the shape of all organizations based almost solely on the cost of conveying information, Rifkin provides the grand narrative of thermodynamics to explain Everything. He even refers to historians as being squarely within the "thermodynamics" camp. Rifkin's thesis is that civilizations thrive when they have access to relatively low-cost energy, and decline when they no longer have that access. It's a compelling thesis, just as the theses of control and information cost are, and just as the thesis of "moral decline" has been for certain segments. But these overarching, monocausal explanations seem far too simple to me.

But that appears to be how Rifkin operates. In succeeding chapters, he identifies several threats posed by the petrochemical regime, and blows each one up into what seems like an insurmountable problem. So for instance, we find that we are near the point of peak oil, and that at any moment we might find that the world's economy has collapsed. And that our reliance on oil might quickly result in a worldwide Caliphate. And that since we are totally reliant on petrochemical energy for raising food, global famine is around the corner. And that we may have already passed the point of no return on global warming, and may face a seven-meter rise in sea level in a few decades. These warnings take about two-thirds of the book, and by the time you finish reading them -- if you take the author's arguments seriously -- it appears that our civilization's fate is absolutely sealed. Really, it's like reading an over-the-top comic book series, in which the Earth is constantly threatened with imminent destruction by a series of intergalactic superbeings.

But like any good summer thriller, this one supplies an easy solution that makes everything right with the world. Rifkin not only presents hydrogen power as an easy solution but as a fait accompli. We find out that GM, Toyota, and Daimler-Chrysler are all going to be rolling out hydrogen-powered cars by 2010; that companies like Ballard are going to be providing hydrogen-powered generators for residences by that time, and that these will enable individuals to sell power back to the grid; that a distributed hydrogen infrastructure will obviate the need for a centralized distribution system; and that these innovations will solve each of the problems discussed in the first two-thirds of the book, just as the Silver Surfer will rescue the Earth each time that it is threatened by Galactus.

As summer reading, it's very satisfying. As a guide for policy, it's iffy. >

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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Reading :: Communities of Practice

Originally posted: Tue, 22 Aug 2006 20:18:14

Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity

by Etienne Wenger

This is my second time to read Etienne Wenger's book Communities of Practice, a well cited study of claims processing at an insurance company. Wenger's after a better understanding of how people form communities in work, how they learn and teach each other, and how they cope with changing organizations and practices. As he puts it in the introduction:

If we proceed without reflecting on our fundamental assumptions about the nature of learning, we run an increasing risk that our conceptions will have misleading ramifications. In a world that is changing and becoming more complexly interconnected at an accelerating pace, concerns about learning are certainly justified. But perhaps more than learning itself, it is our conception of learning that needs urgent attention when we choose to meddle with it on the scale on which we do today. ... As we become more ambitious in attempts to organize our lives and our environment, the implications of our perspectives, theories and beliefs extend further.

Wenger is talking in part about the move toward knowledge work, although I don't think he ever uses that term. Work is "becoming more complexly interconnected" indeed, as Wenger illustrates in his study, and conceptions of learning and apprenticeship have not kept up. We constantly read exhortations for knowledge workers to engage in "lifelong learning," but few have actually attempted to figure out exactly how lifelong learning is supposed to work -- and how the different pace and character of interconnected work affects traditional learning. Wenger really rolls up his sleeves and gets to work on this problem, and that's what makes this book so valuable.

In particular, Wenger highlights the differences between formal training and the constant contingencies that workers encounter in his study (p.36). "Living," he suggests, "is a constant process of negotiating meaning" (p.53). And most of the book involves developing the concepts and terms that allow us to understand this negotiation.

The conceptual apparatus becomes fairly interesting in Chapter 4, in which Wenger leverages the notion of boundary objects and uses it as a starting point for an extended discussion of boundaries, overlaps, peripheries, boundary practices, and boundary encounters. I can see how this work has influenced third-generation activity theory in particular. It's certainly important as we begin studying more networked, interpenetrated organizations.

In the coda that comes between chapters 5 and 6, Wenger discusses "regimes of competence": "a community of practice acts as a locally negotiated regime of competence," he argues, referring to the mutuality of engagement, the accountability to the enterprise, and the negotiability of the repertoire in a given community of practice (p.137). Such regimes are important to conceptualize and study in knowledge work, where different standards of competence clash and merge.

So there's a lot of good in this book. The subject matter is gripping. Unfortunately, the style is not. In particular, the narrative sections attempt to tell stories from this workplace in an engaging style modeled after fiction -- but this style is hard to carry off, and the sections read like a "young adult" novel. In these segments, Wenger throws in superfluous details, speculates about the thoughts of his informants without much basis, and uses adjectives, adverbs, and metaphors with abandon. Here's the end of a long, impossibly and unnecessarily detailed account of one informant's workday.

The freeway is already a bit slow. Toward the city, Ariel looks at the brownish haze of smog hanging over the hills: the sky looks like it has dragged the hem of its bright evening gown in the dust. The thing is, it only seems to be getting worse. Pollution really worries her. What about cancer? There was that old lady whose husband was dying of cancer and who called her three times to ask the same question about hospital deductibles. What is going to happen? Ariel would even pay a bit more for gas if she knew it would help. But it would probably go into someone's pocket. As she turns on the radio and starts tapping the beat on her steering wheel, she thinks of the computer system she uses, of the new one to be installed soon that is supposed to do so much more, of the elevator that talks to you. Pollution? "Well, I'm sure they'll figure out something."

Brrr. Apart from the style, it's impossible to determine how much of this is wholly fictionalized and how much actually came out of an interview. But the overall portrayal is not complementary to Ariel, who comes off as thinking very shallowly about an issue that concerns her. This portrayal may or may not be accurate, but I doubt that an informant's depth of thinking about an issue can be measured through interviews and observations regarding an entirely different phenomenon.


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Saturday, August 19, 2006

(our apologies for the delay)

Originally posted: Sat, 19 Aug 2006 01:52:04

It's been almost two months since my last post and, unfortunately, it's not because I'm way behind on my blogging. I've only completed one book in that time (which I'll blog Tuesday). The rest of the time has been spent working on my own book, some grant applications, a proceedings paper, my fall class schedules, and of course the CWRL. It's too bad vacation is over now and the busy season is just around the corner!>

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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Reading :: The New Work Order

Originally posted: Tue, 20 Jun 2006 21:10:04

The New Work Order: Behind the Language of the New Capitalism

by James Paul Gee, Glynda Hull, Colin Lankshear

I've seen many cites to this book, and at least a couple of colleagues have recommended it to me. And in fact it was useful, though not as useful as I had hoped. Gee et al. have attempted an analysis of the language of "fast capitalism," both in the popular literature and in workplace settings. What results is often a stinging indictment of "fast capitalism," comparing its claims to its implementations. However, as in much of the literature I've seen criticizing capitalism (or other large-scale phenomena), there's a tendency to compress the phenomenon into a single mode so that it can be nailed down, characterized, and criticized. And -- as I'll point out in a moment -- the authors sometimes use easy equivalencies to get the job done, equivalencies that are not especially convincing or generalizable. Nevertheless, the book provides some real insights into how "fast capitalism" is narrated and characterized.

Before we begin, let's draw a distinction. The authors specifically use the term "fast capitalism" (or "new capitalism") to describe an enterprise-oriented view that emphasizes an enterprise's adaptability, dynamism, flattened hierarchy, and continual reskilling/learning; the term applies to an entire enterprise, from manufacturing to service to management. I've been writing recently about "knowledge economy" work, which is specifically focused on what Reich calls symbolic-analytic work. Knowledge workers can be embedded in a "fast capitalism" enterprise, but they don't have to be; and a "fast capitalism" enterprise necessarily includes workers other than knowledge workers. If we lose the distinction, we commit a category error, and we lose a lot of analytic power.

With that caveat, let's start with some of the really valuable work in this book. In the first couple of chapters, the authors examine the "fast capitalism" literature on learning and knowledge. They argue that

The bottom line is this: the focus of education, we argue, should be on social practices and their connections across various social and cultural sites and institutions. Learners should be viewed as lifelong trajectories through these sites and institutions, as stories with multiple twists and turns. What we say about their beginnings should be shaped by what we intend to say about their middles and ends, and vice versa. As their stories are rapidly and radically changing, we need to change our stories about skills, learning, and knowledge. Our focus, as well, should be on multiple learning sites and their rich and complex interconnections. We will see below and in other chapters that this focus on social practices brings us squarely up against the growing concern in the new capitalism with sociotechnical practices -- that is, with the design of technology and social relations within the workplace to facilitate productivity and commitment, sometimes in highly 'indoctrinating' ways. (p.6)

With this stake in the ground, the authors situate themselves within a generally Vygotskian tradition in which learning is seen as more or less continuous social-cultural-historical development of individuals (even as they acknowledge that the new capitalism coopts the Vygotskian notion of the zone of proximal development, p.62). In contrast, the new capitalism tends toward a systems view, and the authors specifically finger distributed cognition (in which learning is seen as the function of a system, not the trajectory of an individual, and in which individuality is seen as emergent) as a result of the new capitalism -- or at least as its enabler (p.59).

But at the same time, they claim that Discourses (roughly, social languages) create people: "The Discourse of law school creates kinds of people who (overtly or tacitly) define themselves as different from -- often better than -- other kinds of people" (p.11). Those subscribing to a systems view, such as distributed cognitionists and especially actor-network theorists, would make such a claim, but would actually mean it in an ontological sense: in the systems view, actants are constantly emerging, being defined by their emergent relations with other actants. These authors, on the other hand, seem to be working with a weaker version that takes as its bedrock the notion that "people are people," and sees Discourse as providing a classificatory function rather than an ontological one. And consequently they don't quite reach the conclusion that Deleuze does when he talks about the control society being populated by "dividuals" rather than individuals, multiplicity rather than singularity. They conclude that

learning works best -- it is most enculturating, but (alas) also more indoctrinating -- when it is done inside the social practices of a Discourse. Such 'deep' learning always involves the formation of new identities and thus possible conflicts with old ones. We will see in this book that new-capitalist businesses want such 'deep' learning, with its concomitant identity and value formations. (p.15)

With this basis, the authors forge on to Chapter 2, which is devoted to the theory and practice of fast capitalism. Throughout this chapter, their working assumption is that fast capitalist texts do not describe current changes, but a vision of the future order, a world view. The fast capitalist texts describe and map out such changes, and the authors thus limit their critical engagement to examining the morality and ethics of this world view. And I think this is an error: I would have liked to see more critical engagement with -- or at least acknowledgement of -- the actual economic and organizational changes that have often precipitated these texts. Assuming that these texts were the cause of the phenomena they attempt to describe leads the authors to equate description with prescription in these texts. For instance, the authors indict the fast capitalist texts for their treatment of networks:

The fast capitalist world is one that celebrates temporary and fast-changing networks, whether of co-workers or different businesses. The networks come together for a given project and disperse into other configurations as products, projects, and services change in the hypercompetitive and fast-paced environment of the new capitalism. The fast capitalist literature is silent about the implications of these ephemeral networks for stable communities of people with shared histories and long-term commitments (other than to the vision and core values of the organization). (p.40)

But those networks are actual economic and organizational phenomena, described not just by the fast capitalist texts but also by Manuel Castells, whom the authors cite approvingly. Castells certainly does talk about the implications of these networks in his critically acclaimed and widely cited book, but he doesn't provide any solutions to their shortcomings either. (Neither do the authors of this book, as we'll see in a moment.) Perhaps the difference is tone, and the authors would be more accepting of fast capitalist texts if only those texts would stop making silk purses out of sows' ears!

It's worth noting that the authors correctly link new economy texts to postmodernist theory, although I'm not convinced that the correct term is "coopting" (p.68). But at this point, the authors begin to make some easy equivalencies that, on closer examination, look like square pegs forced into round holes. On p.69, for instance, they claim that Bakhtin's discussion of carnival (which they label "postmodernist," a questionable designation) is paralleled closely by Tom Peters' fast capitalist text using the metaphor of carnival. The parallel is quite incomplete: not only do the authors acknowledge that the fast capitalist author had probably never heard of Bakhtin, the two conceptions of carnival differ in marked ways. (Most obviously, Bakhtin's version is centrifugal, while Peters' is not.) So two authors who had never heard of each other used the same metaphor to describe two very different phenomena -- not a very strong foundation to build the case that fast capitalist texts have coopted postmodernist language!

This problem of equivalency, unfortunately, makes its way into the two empirical studies as well. In Chapter 4, the authors study a training session for manufacturing workers at a "fast capitalist" organization, noting that the (untrained) teacher followed an IRE pattern (inquiry, response, evaluation; see p.97), and making the case that these training sessions served to reinscribe the hierarchy that they were ostensibly supposed to flatten. The claim is convincing, but the authors attempt to indict fast capitalist corporate training in general by pointing out that the curriculum came partially from larger organizations -- again, too big a claim to be supported by the evidence (p.101). Similarly, in Chapter 6, the authors attempt to portray a cooperative in Nicuragua as a peripheral "fast capitalist" company -- despite the fact that the cooperative didn't meet some of the criteria for such a company (e.g., a highly educated workforce) and marginally met others (such as "vision"). They provide no evidence that the cooperative conceived of itself along "fast capitalist" lines or organized itself in alignment with the "fast capitalist" literature (highly doubtful since the members were marginally literate). They do not engage at all with the question of work organization or the crosslinking of disciplines. Yet they confidently declare that "we can construe them as a 'textbook case' of fast capitalist methods" (p.145).

It's almost ironic, then, that the authors urgently tell us that

a sociocultural approach to literacy takes the view that language must always be understood in its social, cultural, historical, and political contexts. We are arguing here that in one of these contexts, crucial in our 'new times,' is the context of the new work order in all its ramifications. Language, indeed our very humanity, is in danger of losing meaning if we do not carefully reflect on this context and its attempts to make us into new kinds of people: for example, people who are 'smart' because they buy the highest 'quality' brushes -- but do not care about, or even see, the legacies of their greed and ignorance writ large on the world. (pp.150-151).

By those criteria, humanity has already lost its humanity -- indeed, has rarely if ever had it!

If you want to engage in the authors' solution, by the way, why don't you nip over to Starbucks and get some fair trade coffee (p.150). Yes, that's pretty much the solution they propose.

Well. Despite the irritation I felt at some portions of the book, it was valuable, particularly the first couple of chapters. I can see why it has been cited so broadly, and I intend to do so myself. >

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Friday, June 16, 2006

Reading :: The Essential Drucker

Originally posted: Fri, 16 Jun 2006 19:34:31
The Essential Drucker: The Best of Sixty Years of Peter Drucker's Essential Writings on Management
by Peter F. Drucker
"When Karl Marx was beginning work on Das Kapital in the 1850s," this book begins, "the phenomenon of management was unknown" (p.3). Almost offhandedly, Drucker -- originally writing this passage in his 1988 book The New Realities -- declares Marx's work to be out of date, unable to deal with an institution -- management -- that "has transformed the social and economic fabric of the world's developed countries" (p.3; cf. p.295) and that "has become the new social function" (p.8, his emphasis). Throughout this book, which is a sort of "greatest hits" of Drucker's work from 1954-1999, this theme of management as transformative social institution is developed. And despite some level of disjointedness and a paucity of citations, probably due to the distilled nature of the text, Drucker manages to be relatively coherent and consistent throughout the book.
So what is the book about? Drucker attempts to lay out a vision of what management entails, casting it as a "liberal art" that is less concerned with profits and margins than it is with social impacts, problems, and responsibilities. The vision of management here is broad and developed over a very long career, so it's hard to summarize here, but I'll try.
First, whereas people such as Malone and Beniger claim that the information society came about due to a radical drop in the cost of disseminating information, Drucker argues that "management has been the main agent in this transformation. Management explains why, for the first time in human history, we can employ large numbers of knowledgeable, skilled people in productive work" (p.4). Management "has converted knowledge ... into the true capital of any economy" (p.5). And this enormous transformation has taken place over the last century or so:
Not many business leaders could have predicted this development back in 1870, when large enterprises were first beginning to take shape. The reason was not so much lack of foresight as lack of precedent. At that time, the only large permanent organization around was the army. Not surprisingly, therefore, its command-and-control structure became the model for the men who were putting together transcontinental railroads, steel mills, modern banks, and department stores. The command model, with a very few at the top giving orders and a great many at the bottom obeying them, remained the norm for nearly one hundred years. But it was never as static as its longevity might suggest. On the contrary, it began to change almost at once, as specialized knowledge of all sorts poured into enterprise. (p.5)
As large agencies began immediately to transform themselves through the incorporation of specialized knowledge, Drucker argues, management had to coordinate this transformation, "to make people capable of joint performance, to make their strengths effective and their weaknesses irrelevant" (p.10); to establish "common goals and shared values" (p.11); to "enable the enterprise and each of its members to grow and develop as needs and opportunities change" because "every enterprise is a learning and teaching institution" and "Training and development must be built into it at all levels -- training and development that never stop" (p.11). Drucker sees management's work as social and ethical, not primarily focused on profit (p.18), but on human potential and needs. In fact, he devotes a chapter (Ch.4) to nonprofits, and another (Ch.5) on social impacts and social problems.
Drucker has been closely associated with the move to flatten organizations, and in Chapter 6, he discusses the question. He acknowledges that there is no one correct organization, just organizations with strengths and weaknesses related to specific kinds of tasks. And in terms of the supposed end of hierarchy, he terms such claims "blatant nonsense" (p.73). Rather, he says, a flatter organizational structure means that
Individuals will have to be able to work at one and the same time in different organization structures. For one task they will work in a team. But for another tasks they will have to work -- and at the same time -- in a command-and-control structure. The same person who is a "boss" within his or her own organization is a "partner" in an alliance, a minority participation, a joint venture, and so on. (pp.75-76)
That is, workers are not free from hierarchy, they have to occupy different hierarchical niches in different structures simultaneously. (I sense some resonance here in Deleuze's discussion of "dividuals.") Increasingly, such workers function not as subordinates but as associates (p.78).
Let's skip ahead to Chapter 15, where Drucker traces some of the implications of workers functioning as associates. He declares:
More and more people in the workforce?and most knowledge workers?will have to manage themselves. They will have to place themselves where they can make the greatest contribution; they will have to learn to develop themselves. They will have to learn to stay young and mentally alive during a fifty-year working life. They will have to learn how and when to change what they do, how they do it and when they do it. (p.217)
This means that workers have to continually educate and develop themselves. Since "knowledge workers are likely to outlive their employing organization" (p.217), they must prepare for multiple careers. Drucker has advice on this, mainly in terms of logging and analyzing one's own work patterns. But he also emphasizes education, saying that
The knowledge society must have at its core the concept of the educated person. It will have to be a universal concept, precisely because the knowledge society is a society of knowledges and because it is global - in its money, its economics, its careers, its technology, its central issues, and above all, in its information. Post-capitalist society requires a unifying force. It requires a leadership group, which can focus local, particular, separate traditions onto a common and shared commitment to values, a common concept of excellence, and on mutual respect. (p.289)
Drucker calls for "a universally educated person." That doesn't mean a polymath, and "in fact, we will probably become even more specialized. But what we do need -- and what will define the educated person in the knowledge society -- is the ability to understand the various knowledges" (p.294). In the knowledge society, "the new jobs require a good deal of formal education and the ability to acquire and to apply theoretical and analytical knowledge. They require a different approach to work and a different mind-set. Above all, they require a habit of continual learning" (p.305). Whereas their predecessors could count on an end to learning and a steady career path, knowledge workers must be entrepreneurial about developing and determining their own careers, largely through self-directed learning and relearning (p.326). As specialists, they also require an organization to provide essential continuity: "It is only the organization that can convert the specialized knowledge of the knowledge worker into performance" (p.308).
Reading over the quotes I just transcribed, I'm struck by the fact that Drucker's work has become so foundational to the knowledge economy literature. Many of the assertions that Drucker makes here, particularly in terms of continual learning, seem to have been transmitted with relatively little transformation in Zuboff and Maxmin, Malone, and many others. Remarkable!
Yet I found myself wanting much more. Drucker has a real wealth of experience, but the book was thin on case studies and citations, reading more like a series of homilies than anything else. I suspect that that has to do with the fact that the book is a collection of excerpts. As a statement of principles and assumptions, then, this book is fascinating. As an argument based on evidence, it's less convincing. >

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Monday, May 22, 2006

Reading :: Seasons of the Italian Kitchen

Originally posted: Mon, 22 May 2006 23:46:47
The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen
by Diane Darrow, Tom Maresca
Never have I reviewed a cookbook on this blog, but never have I loved a cookbook as much as this one. It's out of print, which is too bad, because it's just a joy to read. Here's the authors discussing the issue of frying in olive oil:
Well-fried food is not greasy or heavy; in fact, properly fried food usually creates a palatial impression of lightness and purity, as if the food's natural flavor has been heightened, not obscured. The olive oil component of the flavor is like the harmony line that makes the melody more interesting. And foods cooked in olive oil are not unhealthy unless that's all you ever eat -- but you could say the same of water. In the Italian diet, fried foods are balanced out by fresh fruits and vegetables, by pasta and rice and wine. Some fat is essential for human nutrition, and olive oil is the best there is. (p.129)
Yes, most of the book is like this. The recipes are arranged by season, then by course (primi, secondo, etc.). Each one -- not each meal, but each recipe in each course -- has extensive and well thought out wine recommendations.

Although the book isn't vegetarian, there are plenty of vegetarian and even some vegan dishes here, and they're all fantastic. When we first came to Austin, I made a meal of capri salad, pasta with uncooked sauce (fresh tomatoes, parsley, onions, olive oil, wine vinegar), zucchini marinated with mint, and I believe granita. Wonderful, and that's not because of the cook -- the recipes are simple enough even for me to make.

If you see this one for sale somewhere, pick it up. Even if you think you hate "Italian food" (or that stuff that goes by the name, covered with horridly processed tomato sauce sweetened with corn syrup). Make the pasta with uncooked sauce (salsa cruda), the fusilli vesuvius, the eggplant parmesan, the zucchini marinated with mint, the capri salad ... And do what I do: buy your olive oil in three-gallon containers. It's worth it!
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Update 2011.09.05: Amazon now has this book, new, in paperback!

Reading :: Power to the Edge

Originally posted: Mon, 22 May 2006 23:19:31

Power to the Edge

By David S. Alberts and Richard E. Hayes

Power to the Edge, like The Agile Organization, is an electronically published book that focuses mainly on information-age transformations in warfare. As the subtitle suggests, the authors are concerned with how military organizations will have to adapt as they move from the Industrial Age to the Information Age.

As I've remarked elsewhere, this body of literature is required reading for anyone trying to make sense of the transformations that Donald Rumsfeld is trying to implement, how they have led to a particular type of warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq, and how these transformations have led to worry among senior military leadership. The so-called Generals' Revolt appears to be in large part an outgrowth of resistance to these transformations, using Iraq as an example of how they might be leading the military down the wrong path. That path leads to a smaller military footprint and a heavier reliance on information technologies, but it also leads to less hierarchy and more peer-to-peer interactions, or as Alberts and Hayes call it, "power to the edge":

Power to the edge is about changing the way individuals, organizations, and systems relate to one another and work. Power to the edge involves the empowerment of individuals at the edge of an organization (where the organization interacts with its operating environment to have an impact or effect on that environment) or, in the case of systems, edge devices. Empowerment involves expanding access to information and the elimination of unnecessary constraints. For example, empowerment involves providing access to available information and expertise and the elimination of procedural constraints previously needed to deconflict elements of the force in the absence of quality information. (p.5)

In such an organization, command and control are separated: "commanders become responsible for creating initial conditions that make success more likely" and exercise control in ways that allow for agile self-organization and relative autonomy; they command, but control is assumed by the personnel on the "edge," who are closest to the action (p.5). This sort of arrangement requires "shared situation awareness, congruent command intent, professional competence, and trust" (p.6).

To make their argument, the authors first lead us through a discussion of the different military philosophies found in successful 20th-century military organizations, focusing particularly on the degree of centralization in each (pp.19-26). Next, they describe the characteristics of industrial age command and control, characteristics that are just as relevant to commercial enterprises: decomposition, specialization, hierarchical organizations, optimization, deconfliction, centralized planning, and decentralized execution (Chapter 2). These characterisics, the authors claim, developed systems that were inherently cyclical, a result of the limits of Industrial Age communications technologies (p.49; cf. p.175).

But, the authors argue, Industrial Age assumptions are not adequate for Information Age organizations; the latter should be optimized for interoperability and adaptability, and should allow the organization to better bring its information, assets, and expertise to bear (p.56). "Centralized planning," they say, "is antithetical to agility because it (1) is relatively slow to recognize and respond to changes in the situation, (2) results in ill-informed participants, and (3) places many constraints on behavior" (p.63).

One problem that arises is that the "stovepipes" or hierarchically separate branches of an organization result in "seams" that "create gaps in roles and responsibilities that lead to a lack of accountability for interoperability, information sharing, and collaboration, all of which are necessary for a transformed military" (p.64).

Stovepipes, then, must be gotten rid of, because different branches and units must be interoperable; a "super star" commander is not enough (p.88), so "rather than rely on individual genius, Information Age processes tap collective knowledge and collaboration" (p.89). Furthermore, military organizations must be able to forge "a coalition that will in all likelihood include nonmilitary and/or nonstate actors" (p.103), an assertion that brings to mind Castells' networks or Zuboff and Maxmin's federations as well as the networks described in Arquilla and Ronfeldt.

Such networks, the authors claim, "are inherently more resilient than the hierarchical and stovepipe systems that characterized Industrial Age military organizations. Because there are multiple links available, the loss of a single node or link is absorbed by a robustly networked force" (pp.135-136). In such an organization, "control is not a function of command but an emergent property that is a function of the initial conditions, the environment, and the adversaries. Loyalty is not to a local entity, but to the overall enterprises" (p.217).

This resilience of networks, in fact, is one of the characteristics of an agile organization: robustness, resilience, responsiveness, flexibility, innovation, and adaptation.

Compare this vision of the military to the "Powell Doctrine" used in Gulf War I: win through overwhelming force and numbers. This doctrine is most easily carried out through a massive Industrial Age structure, and despite its strengths, it is not especially agile. (If the US had used the Powell Doctrine in Afghanistan, the war would have probably been far longer and bloodier.)

Alberts and Hayes' book is interesting reading for anyone who wants to know how organizations are adapting, and could adapt, to the Information Age. >

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Reading :: The History of Florence

Originally posted: Mon, 22 May 2006 23:34:59

The history of Florence, and other selections

By Niccolo Machiavelli

This version of Machiavelli's great history of Florence is incomplete, including only Books II-IV, VII, and VIII. Nevertheless, it's fascinating and highly entertaining for the most part. When describing a great statesman, Machiavelli sometimes gets caught up in cataloguing the man's best zingers -- Machiavelli did love the insults -- but most of the time he provides a dispassionate account cataloguing both the virtues and the flaws of the actors. We can see many of the lessons from the Prince here in historical form, including concrete illustrations of the shifts in government (republic, aristocracy, dictatorship) and detailed analyses of how these came about in Florence time after time.

These history lessons also remind us that reading The Prince is not enough to understand Machiavelli's political analysis. Of one contemptable Duke, who lost his sovereignty in a revolt, Machiavelli says, "he wanted men's service, not his goodwill, and therefore he preferred to be feared rather than loved" (p.110) -- clarifying the advice he famously delivers in his more popular book. As in The Discourses, his many discussions of conspiracies remind us that "in these affairs the number small enough to keep the secret is not sufficient to put it into effect" (p.44) and that long-term conspiracies are always discovered (p.95). He amusingly notes that Florence's government prosecuted fewer wars once a law was passed applying taxes to nobles as well as the popliani. and in passing, he notes that one Pope "had shown himself a wolf and not a shepherd" (p.279). Later, the Pope signed a peace agreement, and died five days later; Machiavelli suggests that it was because "the sorrow of having to make peace killed him" (p.302).

Machiavelli also has lessons for project managers. Here's a story about Niccolo Soderini, who became Gonfalioniere of Justice and manages to screw things up:

Messer Tommaso and Niccolo Soderini were brothers; Niccolo was the more spirited and enterprising of the two, and Tommaso the more sagacious. The latter being a great friend of Piero de? Medici, and knowing at the same time his brother?s disposition, and that he had no other object but the liberty of the city and to establish the government firmly and without injustice to any one, advised him to have no ballotings made, so that the election purses might be filled with the names of citizens devoted to their free institutions; which being done, he would see the government established and confirmed without disturbance or harm to any one. Niccolo readily adopted his brother?s advice, and thus wasted the period of his magistracy in vain efforts, which his friends the conspirators allowed him to do from jealousy, being unwilling that the reform of the government should be effected through the authority of Niccolo, and in the belief that they would yet be in time under another Gonfaloniere. When Niccolo?s magistracy came to an end, it became apparent that he had begun many things, but accomplished none; and thus he left his office with much less honor than he had entered upon it. (pp.233-234).

You gotta manage your projects, Niccolo.

All in all, this book is not just interesting but insightful and easy to read. I had worried that it would be a long slog, but by the end I was disappointed there wasn't more. Maybe I'll pick up the complete version soon.


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