Monday, March 07, 2005

Reading :: Distributed Work

Originally posted: Mon, 07 Mar 2005 21:54:27

Distributed Work

by Pamela J. Hinds (Editor), Sara Kiesler (Editor)

I picked up Distributed Work in hopes that it would address some of the issues of distributed capitalism as discussed in works by Zuboff and Maxmin, Haraway, and Deleuze (see their respective reviews on this blog). It does touch on some of these issues, but obliquely. The book is mainly focused on how work changes as it is distributed geographically, particularly in global organizations and telework. There are some real gems in here, but the collection is somewhat uneven (as collections usually are). Many of the later chapters seem overly rigid in methodology and framing, probably an artifact of the original venue in which they were shared: a workshop. Like Jaakkotul Virkkunentftul, who recently reviewed this book for Computer Supported Cooperative Work, I think that the concept of distributed work was never really nailed down in theoretical terms, and this caused some problems in the later chapters.

I also agree with Virkkunentftul that the most interesting and useful chapters were the two historical studies. In the first one, John Leslie King and Robert L. Frost provide a riveting account of how the Roman Catholic Church and the creation of constitutional government both used "ambiguating technologies" to manage distance work. King and Frost use concepts from actor-network theory, particularly immutable mobiles and boundary objects, to great effect here. And they discuss two types of immutable mobiles -- texts and money -- in ways that brilliantly point out the necessary ambiguities and slippages that make the system work. Although they don't cite Callon, I see a lot of overlap here with his later work.

The second historical study covers 150 years of operation at the Hudson's Bay Company. This study, authored by Michael O'Leary, Wanda Orlikowski, and JoAnne Yates, makes the case that trust and control are intimately intertwined -- something that may sound counterintuitive to those who are used to thinking of control in terms of Foucauldian disciplinary societies, but that fits in perfectly with Deleuzian control societies. "Trust is closely connected to and intertwined with control," the authors conclude, and "both are enacted through ongoing organizing practices. Our investigation of the HBC suggests that at least three practices -- socialization, communication, and participation -- were particularly important sources of trust and control" (p.47).

Other chapters are useful as well, though not to the same degree. For instance, Bonnie Nardi and Steve Whittaker discuss face-to-face communication in distributed work, and in doing so, extend the notion of information ecologies to "media ecologies." And Robert E. Kraut and colleagues discuss how proximity affects collaboration. These and other chapters are useful, but I didn't see major revelations or theoretical or methodological implications arising to the same extent.

The book is worthwhile reading, particularly if you're interested in the challenges of telework. But I'm still waiting for a collection on distributed capitalism!>

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