Friday, December 18, 2009

Reading :: The New Global Economy in the Information Age

The New Global Economy in the Information Age: Reflections on Our Changing World
Edited by Martin Carnoy, Manuel Castells, Stephen S. Cohen, and Fernando Henrique Cardoso

In 1992, the Soviet Union had just collapsed, and the new Yeltsin government invited the authors to come to Moscow to advise it on political economic policy. A year later, their analyses were published in this book, which is an interesting time capsule of the period. It's also a place where Castells sounded themes that he developed in his later work.

As the authors argue in the collaboratively written introduction, "The first political casualty of the information age is the communist state system, based on a 1920s-model hierarchical industrial organization and incapable of incorporating new, flexible management of rapidly changing technology" (p.2). But they argue that it may not be the last casualty: Capitalist states are similarly vulnerable to the transformations that are underfoot, including a new international division of labor "based less on the location of natural resources, cheap and abundant labor, or even capital stock and more on the capacity to create new knowledge and apply it rapidly, via information processing and telecommunications, to a wide array of human activities in ever-broadening space and time" (p.6). The authors interpret the Reagan administration's response to the changing world thus: "The Reagan administration's 'solution' to increased international competition and informationalization was to deregulate such critical sectors as telecommunications, air transport, and financial services, to break unions and lower real wages, to decrease federal tax rates, and to redistribute income to the top 1 percent of income earners. The idea was to make U.S. industry more competitive through cheaper labor and to legitimize such action politically through lower tax rates. ... the emphasis is on cheap inputs, not higher productivity" (p.11).

The authors are not enchanted with this strategy. What was striking to me in the subsequent chapters, however, was that Exhibit A was the lack of US success and productivity compared to the Japanese, whose model was perceived as far superior, especially in Cohen's chapter "Geo-Economics." I remember the widespread fear that the Japanese were going to own the US - but looking back, the Japanese "lost decade" began in 1991, and they lost ground economically throughout the 1990s - falling prey to a bubble somewhat similar to the one we have just experienced in the US. Realizing that fact helped me to put the authors' assessments and arguments in a historical context.

In Castells' chapter "The Informational Economy," he analyzes the collapse of the Soviet Union and the changes in the global economy, arguing that "the increasingly important role of applied knowledge and information is a characteristic of advanced economic systems, transcending the historical characteristics of their modes of production" (p.16). He argues that

(1) "the greater the complexity and productivity of an economy, the greater its informational component and the greater the role played by new knowledge and new applications of knowledge" (pp.16-17);

(2) one strong trend is "the shift, in advanced capitalist societies, from material production to information-processing activities, both in terms of proportion of GNP and in the proportion of the population employed in such activities" (p.17). The "real transformation" is the information economy "wherein an ever-growing role is played by the manipulation of symbols in the organization of production and the enhancement of productivity" (p.17);

(3) another trend is "a profound transformation in the organization of production and of economic activity in general," a change that "can be described as a shift from standardized mass production to flexible customized production and from vertically integrated, large-scale organizations to vertical disintegration and horizontal networks between business units" (p.18). That doesn't mean the decline of the large corporation, but rather their organizational transformation leading to more flexibility and adaptability (p.18);

(4) a fourth trend is "a global economy, in which capital, production, production, management, markets, labor, information, and technology are organized across national boundaries" (p.18), meaning that "the national economy now works as a unit at the world level in real time" (p.19);

(5) and these all take place within a significant technological revolution, based in advances in information technologies. Telecommunications in particular create "the material infrastructure needed for the formation of a global economy" (p.19). Information technology is a critical factor allowing for flexibility and decentralization (p.20).

One result of these transformations, Castells argues, is the end of the Third World as a relatively homogeneous economic region (p.27). It gives way to a Fourth World of marginalized economies (p.37) - an idea that Castells later developed in terms of "black holes." Another, he hopes, is that of "leaner, smaller, more effective, high-tech-equipped, and information-oriented military forces" that would be "at the disposal of all major nations" for peacekeeping (p.42).

In the next chapter, "Multinationals in a Changing World Economy," Martin Carnoy considers the question of large multinational enterprises (MNEs). These MNEs are "attractive and usually necessary additions to any country's economy," but are also "footloose," without allegiance to a nation's development goals - and, in fact, frequently willing to shape national development goals to their own needs (p.46). MNEs, he says, are concentrated in four sectors: oil, autos, electronics and high tech, and banking (p.48). Carnoy notes that US and British MSEs tend to be antistate and more "footloose" than other MSEs, which frequently have some sort of nationalist association (p.86).

The fourth chapter, "Geo-Economics," is Stephen Cohen's assessment of "America's mistakes" and Europe's chance to avoid making them (p.97). The US, Cohen asserts, is not transitioning well to the new realities: it has "set out in the wrong direction," creating a less generous, just, and secure society (p.97). Cohen points to new international competition, particularly from Japan's "developmental state" (pp.98-100) with its answer to Fordism: "Toyotaism," with its measures for high-volume flexible production (p.111). The results are not good: a large trade deficit and an enormous national debt of ... $600 billion! (Ah, the good old days, when we only owned $600B. Currently it's $12,097,698,782,543.93.)

Let's skip to the epilogue. The authors, like so many authors, see hope for real change in a new President. "Bill Clinton's election signals the exhaustion of the laissez-faire economic model whose profoundly negative effects on American productivity and competitiveness we have documented and analyzed in this book" (p.161). Doesn't this passage remind you of Castells' pronouncements about Obama in his 2009 book?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Reading :: Learning and Expanding with Activity Theory

Learning and Expanding with Activity Theory
Edited by Annalisa Sannino, Harry Daniels, and Kris D. Gutierrez

This book is in a sense a tribute to Yrjo Engestrom, whose landmark book Learning by Expanding (1987) was so influential to developing - and popularizing - activity theory. In the introductory chapter, the editors chronicle "four main phases of Engestrom's work as an activity theorist" (p.11). These included 1) the discovery of AT; 2) the turn from student learning to workplace learning; 3) developmental work research (DWR) and expansive learning; and 4) "the formation of activity-theoretical communities aimed at changing social practices" (p.11). The authors in this collection were influenced by all of these phases, particularly the latter three, and they discuss how Engestrom's work has filtered into various disciplines and fields.

For instance, Frank Blackler describes how Engestrom has impacted organizational studies, particularly in more recent discussions of nonhierarchical work involving horizontal learning, mycorrhizae, and knotworking (p.23). Blackler also lauds Engestrom's "powerful" critique of actor-network theory (p.23; I don't agree with this assessment - see my book Network if you like). Blackler does allow that he thinks Engestrom's later work has been steered more by Engestrom's desire to explore exciting new forms of human agency rather than to seriously "chart the changing nature of work and organizations" (p.30). But he very much admires Engestrom's approach to intervention in organizations (p.34).

In rhetoric and writing studies, David R. Russell (n.b., my dissertation director) discusses what he calls "writing, activity and genre research" (WAGR) (p.40). I quite like this acronym, which I think David developed just for this chapter and which I mentally pronounce as "WAGeR." Russell argues that cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) is a welcome framework for writing studies, since it integrates writing and activity; allows for mesolevel analysis; allows for a unit of analysis broader than the dyad; eschews the Cartesian split; and doesn't privilege one medium over another (p.41).

Russell goes on to examine the role of genre in activity systems at the macro, meso, and micro levels. At the micro level, he argues that "genre helps account for social-psychological stability, identity, and predictability in organizations or, indeed, broader social formations as unconscious operationalized actions" (p.45). But at the meso level, he states that "genres are also central to object formation, transformation, and maintenance of activity systems" as well as "deeply involved in the construction of motives. Genres are, in a sense, classifications of artifacts-plus-intentions" (p.45). Third-generation activity theory emphasizes interlocking activity systems; Russell argues convincingly that genre systems or ecologies provide one crucial avenue for mediating these interlocking activity systems through the boundary objects of genres (p.48). This chapter does a great job of both summarizing WAGR development and linking it to 3GAT in ways that those outside of writing studies can understand. As far as I'm concerned, it's a standout piece that should be cited broadly in writing research (and of course I'll be citing it soon).

In another intriguing chapter, Vladimir Lektorsky reminds us that Engestrom's version of AT is not the only one. Lektorsky argues that "Engestrom's ideas are essentially original. They contain a nw conception of activity, a new understanding of its structure, and they are used to solve new problems" in contrast with Russian and other variants and with the original Vygotskian project (p.78). In particular, Lektorsky draws contrasts in terms of the subject and mediation (p.79).

In terms of the subject, Lektorsky emphasizes that although some variants of AT don't require a subject, "I cannot agree with this idea. Activity has its bearer. ... The subject is activity itself from a certain point of view" (p.79). (On a side note, this emphasis on a human subject is one of the many fundamental, yet underexplored differences mainstream AT has with actor-network theory.) In terms of mediation, Lektorsky airs some Russian philosophical critiques of internalization, then explores mediation to some extent (p.82).

Interestingly, the next chapter actually mounts a critique of AT precisely because it is overly bound to the notion of a subject. Georg Ruckreim argues that digital technology and mediation pose a twofold challenge to AT: theoretically and methodologically (p.88). He argues that "there is no way to characterize those [global] communication networks adequately in terms of subject, action, or activity, let alone goal or motive": they enable pure contingency in self-weaving communication networks. So, he asks, "Can those automatically and independently functioning technical systems still be called activities or activity systems?" (p.91). He charges that phenomena such as Rheingold's "smart mobs" have been brushed aside by activity theorists such as Engestrom, boxed in with vague descriptors such as "interagency" and considered "rare, bizarre, or difficult to comprehend phenomena"(p.93). "Since activity theory is basically tied up with the concept of a subject of activity, it is more than difficult to combine the above-mentioned 'very temporary organizational forms' [i.e., interagency] ... with a kind of 'collective intentionality'" (p.93).

Ruckreim also criticizes Engestrom's work in terms of mediation:
Engestrom's understanding of the problem of mediation remains within the framework of the classical authors and alternates between Vygotsky's and Leont'ev's version of how to solve the problem of mediation. In consequence, Engestrom refers to collective activity systems embedded in capitalist societal structures as described by historical materialism. His methodology does not allow him to interpret the Internet as a basic transformation factor, let alone as a framework for perceiving our present reality as a qualitatively new emerging social formation. ... he analyzes emerging communication processes in terms of old socioeconomic concepts. ... His intervention strategy does not provide him with an adequate instrument to differentiate between traditional changes and emerging revolutionary transformations and their specific problem structures. (p.95)
These are fighting words. Ruckreim continues:
Engestrom seems to fail to take notice of Leont'ev's explicitly repeated emphasis on the strictly systemic nature of the components of individual activity. Instead, he stresses their hierarchical structure and so turns them into an ontological understanding. The psychological meaning of central concepts such as "subject" and "intentionality" inevitably slips into a sociological understanding of activity. ... There is no theoretical understanding of why and how this complexity has been formed as an independent system and got to be more than an augmentation of the same. (p.109)
(Engestrom is not happy with this critique, and lets Ruckreim have it in his response chapter.)

Skipping ahead, Reijo Miettinen examines "high-technology capitalism," which he describes as "the latest form of capitalism" (p.161). In this phase of capitalism, increasing complexity means that no one masters the activity, and "this is why actions must increasingly be transformed with respect to the changing object and motive of a given activity by the people who participate in that activity. A new kind of activity, learning activity, is needed to accomplish this" (p.161). Drawing on Marx, Miettinen argues that
the institutions of capitalism, such as markets, hierarchy as an organizational form of production, and the systems of intellectual property rights evidently do not satisfactorily support the formation and uses of the general intellect. New nonmarket and nonhierarchical forms of organization are needed that allow the development of individual capabilities and call for trust-based collaboration, and that favor the exchange of knowledge and understanding between the participants in the general intellect. (p.169)
Reading that sentence again, I'm struck by how many nominalizations and how much passive voice Miettinen uses, and how they hide the actors. Ruckreim critiques Engestromian activity theory for its fixation on the subject, but here Miettinen reverts to a subjectless, actorless process of historical development, similar to Adam Smith's dead hand of capitalism - or more to the point, a redescription of the inevitable, universal process of dialectics as portrayed in Engels and Ilyenkov. Nevertheless, I am glad to see Miettinen noting the movement from markets and hierarchies toward networks (in the Castells sense) (p.170). He argues that the network society embeds a primary contradiction between common knowledge and the knowledge society's privatization of knowledge (p.172).

Like Miettinen, Anne Edwards addresses the network society. "We live in risky times," she declares, as boundaries and certainties dissolve at all levels and "the sequential linearity of early modernism ... has been disrupted" (p.197). So "the workplace is therefore now less likely to be the source of a sustained identity, whether we are victims [sic] of short-term contracts (Sennett, 1998), are boundary-breaking creatives (Guile, 2007), or are specialist professionals collaborating on complex tasks (Edwards, 2005)" (p.197). Such changes disrupt the organizations that had emerged to leaven the worst effects of capitalism (p.198). In response, Edwards sees AT's collective subject as "a way of thinking about the risky nature of work that is carried out beyond the safety of established social practices and perhaps a way of countering rampant subjectivity (p.197).

Edwards draws on two case studies to explore these themes. In particular, she examines partnership working, in which partnerships and alliances increase in number, also increasing the tensions and therefore becoming more difficult to sustain and manage (p.203). In such situations, practitioners working in the boundary zone developed configurations of confidence that, Edwards tells us, were not networks in the Castells sense so much as latent mycorrhizae activities in the Engestromian sense (p.204). She points to "how one learns how to know how to know who" (p.205), a catchy but difficult-to-parse way to express personal networking.

Katsuhiro Yamazumi also addresses agency in the knowledge society, more specifically, the shift from mass production to interorganizational collaboration (p.212). Focusing on expansive learning, Yamazumi argues that "new types of agency are collaborations and engagements with a shared object in and for relationships of interaction between multiple activity systems" and describes a "hybrid activity system" (p.213) - I found this last part interesting because Engestrom and others describe such hybrids as activity networks with shared objects.

"The world of human activity is increasingly dominated by longitudinal dialogic relationships of collaboration between multiple activity systems," Yamazumi continues. And
these multiple activity systems are engaged by 'runaway objects,' that is, partially shared large-scale objects in complex, distributed multi-activity fields (Engestrom 2005a, 2005c, 2006b). Although these partnerships and alliances are obviously relevant to rediscovering and expanding use values in the objects of activities, they are extremely difficult to sustain and manage. This is where collaborative learning possibilities and challenges truly become necessary. Such learning can be characterized as interorganizational learning (Engestrom, 2001) engaged in the expansive reforging of shared objects and creating new forms of activity between different activity systems. (pp.214-215)
Thus we need a better account of expansive agency or distributed interagency (p.215). Like David Ronfeldt in his TIMN work, Yamazumi argues that types of agency are associated with organizational forms:
This imperative of a new type of agency principally differs from the historically previous forms: "control and command" for management, "resist and defend" for workers in hierarchy organizations, and "take advantage and maximize gain" in market organizations. The efficacy and valuer of collaboration and reciprocity are missed or limited in both of these forms. (p.216)
Later in the book, Susanne Bodker discusses some personal history and theoretical developments in a subject dear to my heart, participatory design research. (She also cites me briefly, something that made my day.) I think Bodker's book, based on her PhD thesis, was the first book-length treatment of activity theory I had read - and I was surprised to read in this rememberance that she hadn't encountered Engestrom's work until after her thesis was completed, when Kari Kuutti showed her a copy of Engestrom's Learning by Expanding (p.275). Bodker goes on to briefly recount PD's development, compare it to Developmental Work Research (DWR), then lays out some challenges to PD and DWR that, like other chapters in this collection, have to do with knowledge work. These include multiplicity (p.282) and going beyond communities of work to address the entire life context (pp.282-283).

Finally, Engestrom responds to the pieces, partially laying out what he'd like third-generation activity theory (3GAT) to address. "Third-generation activity theory still treats activity systems as reasonably well-bounded, although interlocking and networked, structured units. What goes on between activity systems is processes, such as the flow of rules from management to workers ..." but "In social production and peer production, the boundaries and structures of activity systems seem to fade away. Processes become simultaneous, multidirectional, and often reciprocal. The density and crisscrossing of processes makes the distinction between processes and structure somewhat obsolete. The movements of information create textures that are constantly changing but not arbitrary or momentary" (p.309). But, he argues, this phenomenon can still be analyzed within the bounds of activity theory (pp. 309-310). Like literal mycorrhizae, "social production requires and generates bounded hubs of concentrated coordination efforts" and "activity system models are very appropriate for the analysis of such hubs" (p.310). He speculates that perhaps we need a 4GAT to better model trails and mycorrhizae (p.310).

At the end of the volume, I was encouraged by the number of authors who took on knowledge work and knowledge society issues, although I still would like to see much more development along these lines. If you're interested in activity theory and particularly how it's developing to address new forms of organization, this is certainly a strong collection. Take a look.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Reading :: Activity theory in practice

Activity Theory in Practice: Promoting learning across boundaries and agencies
Edited By Harry Daniels, Anne Edwards, Yrjo Engestrom, and Sten R. Ludvigsen

Here's a joke I heard some time ago. What's the difference between a Star Trek fan, a Trekkie, and a Trekker?

A Star Trek fan dresses as a character and goes to a Halloween party.

A Trekkie dresses as a character and goes to Star Trek conventions.

But a Trekker dresses as a character and goes to ... the Renaissance festival.

If there's a similar division among activity theorists, call me an AT fan. I see activity theory as a useful framework with great explanatory power for certain situations, particularly situations involving cultural-historical development in and among organizations. But I don't see it as a theory of everything (see my book Network). The authors of this collection, however, are more like AT-ers: they closely follow the Helsinki school of activity theory as developed by Yrjo Engestrom (p.1) and implemented in research centers in England, Finland, Northern Ireland, and Norway (p.2).

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Trekkers spend a lot of time developing ways to reconcile incoherencies in the Star Trek universe (called "retroactive continuity" or "retconning"), and similarly these AT-ers are putting much effort into the relatively new issue of "how to capture the generation and mobilisation of knowledge in practices that span different settings. This problem arises from the changing world of work where complex problems call for multifaceted responses that can be in tension with the long-established social practices of settled work settings" (p.1). That is, they are attempting to develop third-generation activity theory, which grapples with the issue of internetworked systems of activity: "the development of practices across organisational boundaries" (p.1). Following Engestrom, they are developing activity theory to address the complexities of knowledge work, which tends to involve a high degree of interdisciplinarity, boundary crossing, mobility, customization, and change. Indeed, the theme of knowledge work comes up again and again in these papers, most of which employ variations of Engestrom's Developmental Work Research (DWR) (p.6).

For instance, in "From Diagnosis to Clients," Virkkunen et al. discuss how physiotherapy educators and workplaces co-construct the object of collaborative development. Right out of the gate, they note new developments that have been characterized as the "information society" and the "knowledge society" (p.9). And "the trend is from the production of standardised basic commodities to the production of specialised, unique or custom products" (p.11). But "Globalisation and the information-technology revolution have brought somewhat contradictory challenges to professional education" (p.12), challenges that, in true Helsinki School fashion, the authors display on a matrix with two dimensions: special v. basic and general v. dedicated (p.13). Using the Change Laboratory method of intervention (p.15), the authors worked with the educators to develop and reorganize teaching (p.22). It's a textbook example of using the Change Laboratory to address boundary-crossing issues.

In "The Meaning of Physical Presence," Kallio describes how pulp mills that implemented new software would ask engineers from a software company (Metso) to introduce the software on site - a role that the engineer could theoretically perform remotely. Kallio asks: Why did they insist the engineers come on site? Intriguingly, Kallio argues that the engineer had to help construct a joint object of activity, an object toward which the pulp mill and Metso were both oriented (p.39-41; see diagram p.41). Furthermore, the engineer had to provide a joint language with which the two entities could examine and transform the object (p.40). Not surprisingly, Kallio describes this work as co-configuration (p.41), and demonstrates that it extends into long-term cooperation. Kallio provides the usual 2D matrix (p.45) to describe the different types of logic at work.

Home care of the elderly is the subject of the next chapter, Nummijoki and Engestrom's "Toward Co-Configuration in Home Care of the Elderly." Here, the authors argue that
Co-configuration requires new kinds of agency from both the client and the provider of the service. The client must continually assess his or her own needs and experiences and take initiatives to shape the service accordingly. The service provider must be willing to change the shape of the service and experiment with new patterns of service when a need arises. (p.49)
The authors are intrigued by this idea of new agency and explore it in this study. Specifically, they look at home care of the elderly in the City of Helsinki as it worked before and after a Mobility Agreement (p.50). They begin by illustrating the contradiction in the object of current home care: the home care service sees the object in terms of duties, while the client sees it in terms of their own life (p.51). After discussing the problems with the current situation, they explain how they used the DWR cycle to design the Mobility Agreement (p.54). The authors then examine transcripts from pre- and post-agreement visits, noting layered development in home care.

In the next chapter, "Expansive Learning, Expansive Labour," Warmington and Leadbetter examine multi-agency children's services, using Marx's notion of "labour-power": "the constellation of skills, knowledge and dispositions that constitutes the capacity of individuals and collectives for productive labouring action" (p.72). Arguably, the authors say, labour-power is part of the object of organizations (p.72) - particularly in learning organizations (p.76). In fact, in learning organizations, "workplace activities are as much about the production of the unstable and unfinished commodity of labour-power as they are about marshalling concrete labour to produce general commodities" (p.76). After examining the case, the authors conclude that "thus there is a cyclical, or spiralling, relationship between learning to do multiagency working and the social production of labour-power," and they urge us to understand activity systems in these terms (p.87).

The other chapters in this collection are similar in many ways. Most deal with the issue of newly interconnected work and the boundary-crossing that goes along with it. For instance, in their study of software development, Morch et al. describe co-configuration in terms of adaptation (p.189). In their discussion of joint design in wikis, Lund et al. discuss polycontextuality (p.207) and connect co-design to participatory design (p.189). But in each case, they grapple with multi-activity networks and the sort of repair and reconciliation work that this level of analysis involves, frequently in terms of developmental cycles. It's a valuable collection, and I'm very glad to see AT being stretched to address the vexed issues involved in complex interconnected activities, especially in terms of the knowledge economy and learning organizations. At the same time, the similarities across studies concerned me: these authors use the same tools, approaches, and concepts, but I wanted to see some productive differences. Less retconning, more tension.

Nevertheless, if you're interested in applying third-generation activity theory to complex interconnected activities, this book is a milestone. Pick it up.

Reading :: Future Shock

Future Shock
By Alvin Toffler

Inspired by some of David Ronfeldt's work, I've been reading some of Alvin Toffler's books. Like 1980's The Third Wave, 1970's Future Shock is a fascinating mix of straight-on predictions, near-misses, and way-off guesses that sound like the science fiction being written contemporaneously. Let's put the third category aside for the most part and concentrate on the things that Toffler got right - and what a 1970 perspective might tell us about changes at the end of the first decade of the 21st century.

Toffler defines "future shock" as "the disease of change" (p.2) and "the human response to overstimulation" (p.326). Like its namesake "culture shock," future shock describes a moment at which an individual's expected social cues no longer mean what s/he thinks they mean (p.11) - but with future shock, such moment occur because one's own culture is changing rapidly; you can't retreat to your own culture, enclave, or ex-pat community. Toffler portrays this accelerated pace of change as a characteristic of "super-industrialism" and points to transience as one symptom (p.17).

Transience manifests, for instance, in our relationship to artifacts: "Instead of being linked with a single object over a relatively long span of time, we are linked for brief periods with the succession of objects that supplant it" (p.55) - and here he gives examples such as disposable cigarette lighters and cardboard milk containers, which were relatively new developments in 1970. (Personally, I thought of increasingly rapid genre formation and hybridization.)

But Toffler also points to other aspects of transience that were stirring in the 1970s: apartments; increasing numbers of travel-related jobs; higher divorce rates; the breakdown of the extended family; the loss of lifetime employment. This last point leads to perhaps the most valuable discussion, the chapter on "ad-hocracy," in which Toffler argues that bureaucracies are doomed because workers are too transient and bureaucracies too inefficient and inflexible to survive the rapid change he was seeing. This is "the organization of the future": in it,
man will find himself [sic] liberated, a stranger in a new free-form world of kinetic organizations. In this alien landscape, his position will be constantly changing, fluid, and varied. And his organizational ties, like his ties with things, places, and people, will turn over at a frenetic and ever-accelerating pace. (p.125)
Since organizations are facing higher turnover, he says, the resulting high change in organizational relations dooms the bureaucracy (p.128) by destroying fixed lines of authority and loyalty. The most dramatic symbol of this trend is project or task-force management, in which "teams are assembled to solve short-term problems" (p.132). Novel problems, such as ones involving innovation or customization, require novel organizational structures (p.135). Such ad-hoc teams don't necessarily replace permanent functional structures, Toffler concedes - but they do change those structures (p.135). Simultaneously, traditional chains of command are breaking or being sidestepped, replaced with horizontal communication, (p.137), because vertical communication requires too many steps to convey information (p.139). Furthermore, specialists don't fit into traditional chains of command. Sounding exactly like Drucker, Toffler argues that these specialists are
in vital fields so narrow that often the men on top have difficulty understanding them. Increasingly, managers have to rely on the judgment of these experts. ... Such men are assuming a new decision-making function. (p.140)
So "managers are losing their monopoly on decision-making" (p.140).

"Each age," Toffler adds, "produces a form of organization appropriate to its own tempo" (p.143) - a theme that he later develops in The Third Wave and that Ronfeldt takes up in his TIMN work. And in the age that Toffler describes, "Executives and managers will serve as coordinators between the various transient work teams. They will be skilled in understanding the jargon of different groups of specialists, and they will communicate across groups, translating and interpreting the language of one into the language of another" (p.144).

So, he concludes, "this is a picture of the coming Ad-hocracy, the fast-moving, information-rich, kinetic organization of the future, filled with transient cells and extremely mobile individuals. From this sketch, moreover, it is possible to deduce some of the characteristics of the human beings who will populate the new organizations - and who, to some extent, are already to be found in the prototype organizations of today" (p.144). Whereas bureaucracies were characterized by "permanence, hierarchy, and a division of labor," demanding people who could work within those constraints (pp.144-145), the ad-hocracy demands workers who are loyal to their professions rather than the organizations through which they cycle (p.146); able to work in interdisciplinary, cross-functional groups (p.147); oriented to the task or project rather than the job (p.148); entrepreneurial (p.148); risk-seeking and innovative (p.150); moving among slots in the organization (p.150); extremely adaptable in terms of systems, arrangements, locations (p.150); and in sum,
basically uncommitted to any organization. He is willing to employ his skills and creative energies to solve problems with equipment provided by the organization, and within temporary groups established by it. But he does so only as long as the problems interest him. He is committed to his own career, his own self-fulfillment. (p.149).
It's hard for me to express how closely this assessment seems to align with much more recent literature in knowledge work, communication, project management, and fourth-generation warfare, as well as some of the things I've seen in my own studies. Certainly I could pick holes if I wanted to get into the particulars, but the overall direction has been vindicated.

Certainly Toffler isn't as accurate in some of his other predictions. He argues that people will live in underwater colonies well before 2000 AD (p.191) and that we'll genetically tailor the human race to produce "girls with super-mammaries" (p.201 - and here I wonder if all of Toffler's books include predictions about mammaries). He also predicts the death of college degrees, credits, and majors as we know them (p.273).

On the other hand, he predicts that governments will condemn people to death and transplant the condemned's organs into the bodies of more deserving citizens (p.206), a theme that doesn't just show up in Larry Niven's novels but also in transplant ethics discussions. He predicts, though overhypes, the experience economy (p.226). He predicts the reconfiguration of families to include childless couples, single parents, gay couples, and blended families (Ch.11).

All in all, this 39-year-old book is still a fascinating read, and in parts - especially the chapter on ad-hocracies - it's surprisingly current. If you're interested in organizational change in particular, I recommend it.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Reading :: Managing in a Time of Great Change

Managing in a Time of Great Change
By Peter F. Drucker

This book, written in 1993, is largely drawn from previously published pieces in The Atlantic Monthly, the Harvard Business Review, and similar publications. As Drucker explains in the Acknowledgements, “every piece in this volume was written with this book in mind,” but he “prepublished” them in other publications as a “market test” (p.353). Wily, but it means that the chapters present a measure of repetition among themselves and with other publications such as Drucker’s Post-Capitalist Society. So, yes, I skimmed, and consequently this review is not terribly substantive. But I’ll attempt to surface some points that are worth exploring further.

One is the notion of an organization’s theory. Drucker argues in the first chapter, “The Theory of the Business,” that each organization has a theory – a set of assumptions about markets, customers, competitors, values, behavior, dynamics, strengths, and weaknesses. “These assumptions are about what a company gets paid for” (p.22). Unfortunately, sometimes these assumptions become invalid, yet organizations don’t revise their theories, and consequently these organizations stumble. Warning signs include: an organization that achieves its original objectives (p.34); an organization that doubles or triples in size (p.35); and unexpected success or failure (p.35). Each of these conditions should prompt an organization to find a new theory.

In Chapter 6, “Managing in the Network Society,” Drucker goes on to assess changes in the organization. This ground is familiar to those who have read Post-Capitalist Society, but Drucker offers some additional discussion here.

In Chapter 20, “The New Superpower: The Overseas Chinese,” Drucker provides a fascinating glimpse into secretive and tightly controlled networks of organizations run by direct relatives of an ethnic Chinese living in the Philippines. “What holds together the multinationals of the overseas Chinese is neither ownership nor legal contract. It is mutual trust and the mutual obligations inherent in clan membership” (p.206). This claim, of course, reminds me of Ronfeldt’s description of TIMN: although these organizations are constituted as networks, their trust is tribal. Yet the organizational forms are in some ways contradictory, and dealing with those contradictions will soon mean developing the networks so that they can scale: sharing information and allowing outsiders in. Honestly, this was the most interesting part of the book for me.

In Chapter 21, “A Century of Social Transformation,” Drucker describes the fall of the blue-collar worker and the rise of the knowledge worker. And in contrasting the two, Drucker made me think about a transition that has always interested me: the birth of the participatory design approach in the UTOPIA project and related projects in the early 1980s. In that project, unionized craft workers (typesetters) were faced with the prospect of losing the benefit of their deep craft knowledge because their organization was planning to move to a digital system. Computer scientists worked to design a digital system that would leverage that craft knowledge. Yet the UTOPIA project never delivered a concrete product, and as I’ve described elsewhere, participatory design techniques were translated considerably as they moved to other contexts. Drucker maintains that manual work is experience-based while knowledge work is learning-based. “Displaced industrial workers thus simply cannot move into knowledge work or services work the way displaced farmers and displaced domestic workers moved into industrial work” (p.227). This summary judgment may not explain what happened with participatory design, but it provides an interesting perspective from which to examine the transition.

Should you read this book? I’d recommend Post-Capitalist Society over it, but if you haven’t read that book and you want a quick overview of his contemporaneous work, this book might be worthwhile.

Reading :: Together with Technology

Together with Technology: Writing Review, Enculturation, and Technological Mediation
By Jason Swarts

Jason Swarts has done some very solid work in technical communication (including a great piece in a TCQ special issue I edited), focusing on genre and writing technologies. This 2008 book describes a study in how writers and subject matter experts at five organizations engaged in writing reviews. But the real news here is a technique, textual replay, that he introduced as part of his study:

A textual replay is closely related to the “instant replay,” although instead of recording and replaying a sports event, textual replays capture and replay online writing activity. Textual replay is a term to describe the product of a screen capture program that takes multiple, successive screen shots of onscreen writing activity and splices them together as a digital movie, played back in a way that approximates the writing performance. (p.61)

Swarts used Camtasia, but makes clear that one could use other technologies to enact the technique and enable

a different kind of writer-reviewer interaction that moves more easily between practice- and artifact-oriented views, while providing perceptual and representational evidence to which review participants can attach their explanations. It will also create a surface on which writers and reviewers can work jointly, so that the reviewer’s experience can guide the writer’s practice at the moment of performance as well as after. (p.61)

In sessions using this technique, writers and reviewers seemed to learn from each other – more so than in sessions that didn’t involve the technique (p.123). In particular, writers were able to exert more control in the textual replay sessions (p.128), the writers and reviewers coordinated more, and their coordination involved more attention to constraining rhetorical circumstances (p.134).

In the last chapter, Swarts tells us that “Textual replay does not exist, at least not yet. … Textual replay is an idea for a technology that would provide useful mediation for writing review by allowing presentation of the text as a particle and stream of writing activity” (p.145).

And at this point, I placed a sticky note in the margin with the word WAVE on it.

Textual replay is a technique waiting on a technology, and technologies such as Google Wave can easily surface how documents evolve while accommodating writers’ and reviewers’ notes on them. The technology has perhaps caught up to the technique.

Friday, December 04, 2009

How hard would it be? A couple of ideas for future Google services

Just a couple of ideas I had for future Google services. I can't imagine these would take long to implement.
  • Dictation and transcription service. Leverage Google Voice's voicemail transcriptions for longer messages, either phoned in or submitted in audio files. Compete with CastingWords. For an additional fee, add light human editing.
  • Voice appointments. Allow people to speak their appointments into Google Calendar, using the same syntax as Quick Add.
  • Video voicemail. Integrate Google Voice with Google Video/YouTube capabilities to allow Seesmic-like messaging. This might take off more easily when Android phones have forward-facing cameras, but it's device-independent.
Have any other ideas that involve leveraging current Google (or other) services? Leave them in the comments.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Peer review, Climategate, qualitative research

At Smart Mobs, Judy Breck points to ClimateGate's implications for peer review. "Regardless of one’s opinion on global warming, the leaked emails now making headlines are interesting for another issue. They are shining light into a growing challenge to scientific publication peer review."

Right: Like her, I don't intend to engage in the question of global warming, but rather in what the incident means for peer review in a networked world.

On the one hand, peer review allows people who specialize in a particular branch of study to bring that specialty to bear. A narrower conversation means a greater chance that everyone shares the same unspoken warrants, knows the same controversies, and works from the same set of theoretical frameworks. Researchers still have disagreements on these, but the disagreements are manageable and allow the researchers to build on previous work rather than rehashing basic issues over and over. When I use activity theory to analyze my workplace studies, for instance, I don't have to write 120 pages describing the basics of that complicated theory or the basics of collecting observational notes; I can just throw in a few cites and know that my readers - and peer reviewers - will get the gist. Without that narrower conversation, it's very difficult to make much progress; you spend all of your time explaining and/or defending base assumptions.

But on the other hand, the problem with a narrower conversation is that those base assumptions don't get challenged much. The narrow conversation becomes too narrow, the assumptions become too assumed, and consequently the conversation becomes vulnerable to outside rebuttals. Notice that I'm not saying the conversation necessarily goes wrong, but that its interlocutors forget how to, or neglect to, consider and preemptively rebut arguments that don't share those warrants. It's a problem with the design of the argument.

One side effect is that data are locked down rather than being made transparent. And that's turned into a major issue with ClimateGate, with allegations that original data haven't been shared with other researchers - and that original analyses can't be reproduced from them. The result, of course, is uncertainty and distrust. (As I've discussed elsewhere, one key element of netwar is introducing uncertainty into the declarations of your enemies.)

The antidote, one would think, is exposure to one's original dataset. In the past, this was difficult to achieve, since the dataset had to be published and distributed, and that incurred expenses that were sometimes significant. Now, however, it's easy to post datasets. The genie is out of the bottle; there's no solid excuse not to publish datasets online and show one's work, preferably by publishing open source code so that others can reproduce your results. It's a basic confidence-building move - especially when your work can substantially drive public policy and expenditures.

But as I discuss in a recent chapter, field researchers are in a bind. On one hand, we can't share our raw data. Unlike temperature data from climate stations, our data are tied directly to human subjects and we can't expose data that would identify them or endanger them (even if the danger involved making them vulnerable to, say, mild reprimands in their jobs). On the other hand, the human subjects are free to comment on our work. In the past, they didn't have an avenue to make such comments unless they were willing to buy their own printing presses; now they can post on blogs or in comments. Like the climate change scientists, field researchers could make a better case by exposing their datasets - but unlike them, we are forbidden to do that by our institutional review boards. Two sets of ethics collide.

So what can we do, as field researchers, to avoid such collisions?

Expose what we can. I am personally very interested in the notion of pushing the bounds of what we can expose. How far can we go in publishing our raw field notes, interviews, and artifacts, and in showing how our coding schemes have been applied to them? Can we set up protocols that anonymize data sufficiently that we can publish lightly modified raw data? I think we need to be prepared to do so, if IRBs approve.

Triangulate with public data. Another alternative would be to triangulate field research with vast corpuses. For instance, this summer I became very interested in the health care town hall protests, which had been characterized by various sides as (a) centrally coordinated astroturfing and as (b) pure, grassroots outrage. I blogged a theoretically informed interpretation, but I would love to see investigations that combine field research (observations of town halls, interviews with those who attended) with principled examinations of the public communications that coordinated the protests (websites, Facebook groups, Twitter hashtags). The field data may not be publishable in raw form, but it could be triangulated with the public communications, which researchers could summarize and code publicly. If both sets point to the same conclusions, readers may have more confidence in the closed field data.

These are just two starter ideas for opening research data and avoiding the insularity that too often comes with specialized research communities. If you have further suggestions, please leave them in the comments.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Irony of the day: Rules for Radicals

A screen shot of the UT library's listing of Alinsky's Rules for Radicals. Of course real radicals aren't going to return the book!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Soma Vida's Work Well Social Event

Soma Vida is hosting a Work Well Social Event on December 15. If you're in Austin, swing by for free coworking (9am-noon) and learn more about this unique coworking space. I plan to be there too.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Reading :: Networks in the Knowledge Economy

Networks in the Knowledge Economy
Edited by Rob Cross, Andrew Parker, and Lisa Sasson

Edited collections are often uneven, and this one is no exception. The chapters mostly focus on social network analysis, including relatively new pieces as well as classics, and even two chapters that Malcolm Gladwell originally wrote for the New Yorker. The order is odd as well: Granovetter's classic 1973 piece “The Strength of Weak Ties” comes right after, not before, Krackhardt's 1992 reply to it, “The Strength of Strong Ties,” and a chapter before Gladwell's discussion of the Granovetter piece. Someone who is relatively new to social network analysis – such as, say, me – would have to reconstruct the order themselves.

Fortunately, the individual pieces are strong and compelling, so the reconstruction effort was worth it. By the time I finished the book, I had a good understanding of social network analysis (SNA). It's not that complicated, although some of the pieces use some rather intimidating formulas to crunch the quantitative data.

Cross, Parker, and Sasson start the collection with a strong introduction that both leverages their own data and overviews SNA. Network has become “a central organizing metaphor for twenty-first-century firms,” they point out, particularly in restructuring efforts to “promote organizational flexibility and efficiency”; and “one outcome of these restructuring efforts is that information flow and work increasingly occur through informal networks of relationships rather than through channels tightly prescribed by formal reporting structures or detailed work processes” (p.3). In addition, knowledge-intensive work has become more prevalent, increasing the importance of trust in informal networks (p.3). Such informal networks are not on the organization charts, but “frequently can be sources of both strategic and operational success for an organization” (p.4). So how do we figure out where these informal networks are so that we can promote and leverage them? The authors suggest SNA (p.4).

As they tell it, SNA is not that difficult; their example involved reading an organization chart and having executives fill out a survey. But that simple methodology, they argue, yields complex network diagrams that show the strength and density of ties among executives – and thus insights into (1) social capital; (2) knowledge creation and sharing; and (3) how informal networks support strategic objectives (p.7).

In Chapter 1, Ronald Burt argues that networks can take different shapes, with some optimizing for efficiency (with nonredundant contacts, i.e., contacts that don't connect to each other except through you) and others optimizing for saturation (with redundant contacts, yielding friendships and dense resources). Clusters of contacts need to be connected by weak ties: “weak ties are essential to the flow of information that integrates otherwise disconnected social clusters into a broader society” (p.30).

Chapter 3 expands on weak ties, a concept that comes from Granovetter's 1973 work. Here, David Krackhardt argues that although weak ties can be powerful because they connect disparate networks and draw in different sources of information, we shouldn't ignore “the strength of strong ties in cases of severe change and uncertainty. … Strong ties constitute a base of trust that can reduce resistance and provide comfort in the face of uncertainty” (p.84). Krackhardt demonstrates by drawing on a fascinating case study of a high-tech company facing possible unionization.

Inexplicably, this chapter is followed rather than preceded by Granovetter's classic paper “The strength of weak ties,” in which Granovetter argues that the strength of interpersonal ties can be measured by time, emotional intensity, intimacy, and reciprocal services (p.110). He draws on his study of how people got jobs, finding that they most frequently found new jobs through weak ties rather than strong ones.

Let's skip to Chapter 9, where Krackhardt and Hanson examine the informal networks in an organization. They interviewed executives, and concluded that the organization had at least three informal networks: advice, trust, and communication (p.236). The advice network revealed experts (p.240), but the trust network revealed a very different set of clusters (p.241). The authors were able to convincingly argue that these networks had great bearing on how the organization reacted to issues.

In Chapter 11, Rob Cross, Stephen Borgatti, and Andrew Parker continue this theme by discussing how to make invisible work visible. “Informal relationships among employees are often far more reflective of the way work happens in an organization than relationships established through the formal structure. However, these informal relationships are often invisible or at least only partially understood by managers – a problem that is growing with de-layering of organizations, virtual work, and globalization” (p.262). The authors suggest tracing these invisible relationships with SNA. After another case study, the authors argue that “work of importance is increasingly accomplished collaboratively through informal networks” and “network relationships are critical anchoring points for employees, whose loyalty and commitment may be more to sets of individuals in their network than to a given organization” (p.277). The authors conclude with some methodological notes about how to conduct SNA (p.278).

I hope it's obvious by this point that I find SNA to be a fascinating and valuable technique. But at the same time, to my eye, it has some flaws as an analytical tool for the sort of research I do. Methodologically, SNA only maps connections – mostly self-reported connections – between individuals in an organization. None of these studies appear to triangulate by using observational data or other sources such as data logging (although I have seen some papers elsewhere that attempt to articulate networks through email contacts and frequency, connections in online social networks, and so forth). None of these studies go beyond personal connections to texts, genres, artifacts, practices that are handed down from one individual to the next, and so forth. In this volume, SNA doesn't seem to have a language to describe peripheral influences transmitted through artifacts. That doesn't take away from what SNA does extremely well, but it does limit SNA's use for the sort of research that I do – and it limits SNA's implications for information design, textual design, and related areas.

Nevertheless, I highly recommend the book for anyone who wants a look at SNA or who is studying networks.

Reading :: Lingua Fracta

Lingua Fracta: Toward a Rhetoric of New Media
By Collin G. Brooke

The first thing I noticed about this book when I pulled it off the shelf was that the cover claimed it was “Edited by Collin Gifford Brooke.” The second was that the subtitle on the cover said “Towards a Rhetoric of New Media,” while the title page reads “ Toward a Rhetoric of New Media.” When I contacted Collin about the first error, he told me that I must have gotten an early copy – later copies have been fixed. The subtitle issue is apparently still in the later copies.

Don't judge a book by its cover. Brooke takes up an intriguing project: rethinking the canons of rhetoric in terms of new media. “A rhetoric of new media,” he argues, “rather than examining the choices that have already been made by writers, should prepare us as writers to make our own choices” (p.15). So he concludes that “we must begin to move from a text-based rhetoric, exemplified by our attachment to the printed page, to a rhetoric that can account for the dynamics of the interface” (p.26). To undertake this project, he first appeals to the ecological metaphor that has lately been deployed in related areas. He cites several scholars in related fields who have used this metaphor, including my colleague Peg Syverson and me (thanks, Collin), and suggests that the canons of rhetoric have been left behind in this work (p.36). So, he says, let's frame the canons in terms of ecology (p.37).

That reframing work is undertaken in the subsequent chapters, where Brooke uses several “p words” (p.197) to refigure the canons. In chapter 3, invention becomes proairesis; in chapter 4, arrangement becomes pattern; in chapter 5, style becomes perspective; in chapter 6, memory becomes persistence; and in chapter 7, delivery becomes performance. Brooke casts his net widely for examples as he reframes these canons, discussing Wikipedia, World of Warcraft, blogs, tag clouds, social bookmarking, and other new media examples. He concludes in Chapter 7 that “this book seeks to stage a mutually transformative encounter between rhetoric and technology” (p.197) – an encounter that is necessary, he emphasizes, because we can't productively understand either one without the other.

Those who are studying rhetoric should certainly give this book a look. In particular, students of rhetoric and technology will find it useful for thinking through the relationships between the two – although Brooke argues here that all rhetoric students should also be students of technology and that the separation is damaging. Nevertheless, I think the book will make its deepest impact in graduate programs oriented toward rhetoric and technology and in the computers and writing literature, where scholars are already prepared to wrestle with the issues that Brooke outlines here. For them in particular, I recommend this book.

Reading :: Memory Practices in the Sciences

Memory Practices in the Sciences
By Geoffrey Bowker

Geoff Bowker apparently likes the term “redolent,” which he uses throughout this book in throwaway descriptions like this one: “Here is an extended quote from Russell Seymour that is redolent of Lyell's concern with archive commissioners” (p.171). But then again, this is a book about memory, and fragrances often evoke memories in ways that other sensory input doesn't, so perhaps this word – with its double meaning of evocation and fragrance – works. And maybe Bowker is trying to get at a sense of memory that is more evoked, more diffuse, and more intimated than the sense that is usually meant in the sciences. After all, this book isn't just about memory but about different types of memories, different memory regimes, and breaks between different memory practices. It's as much about forgetting as it is about remembering.

Bowker is well positioned to write this sort of book: his previous books have similarly dealt with science in practice and with scientific categorization. They're terrific. This book was not quite as compelling to me, but it's still a solid book on how we remember in the sciences.

So how do we remember? Or: “how do scientists figure their own pasts” and “how do scientists figure the past of their entities” (p.6)? Bowker answers that “we generally project onto nature our modes of organizing our own affairs” (p.18) because we understand nature through the archives we have accumulated, and those archives are organized in particular ways. “The empire voraciously gathers as little information as it can” due to high transaction costs, Bowker reminds us in a discussion of railway tickets (p.38). “The imperial archive cannot be understood solely in terms of record keeping. Thee acto of keeping records is itself intimately tied to the conjuring of the social and natural world into forms that render themselves amenable to recording” (p.39).

Bowker explores this theme with several concrete cases drawn from the archives. In Chapter 1, he first describes the new time of the Industrial Revolution, then discusses Lyell's successful attempt to create a special time for geology – a kind of time separate from sacred time and secular time, a geologic time that could avoid contretemps with the church while still telling a story of an ancient, slowly changing Earth (p.52). See p.63 for his discussion of the “day-age” and “gap” theories that Lyell's allies deployed to square the idea of an ancient Earth with the Book of Genesis; these theories are still deployed today. Lyell invented a geologic time – a time that, Bowker argues persuasively, is itself a reflection of industrial time with its division of labor and its parceling of time into regular units (p.69). At the same time, geologic time excludes, or works around, the time of heroes and a literal interpretation of the Bible (p.69). Sounding like Latour, Bowker reminds us that Lyell's concept of time is just as constructed and just as grounded in his own world as these earlier conceptions of time were. Geologic time was invented by treating the Earth as an archive and setting the rules for interpreting it.

In Chapter 2, Bowker looks at a very different branch of science, cybernetics. And here, he argues, we have the other side of the coin. Whereas geological memory practices represent an “explosive, singular memory” that is “working in a world of too few facts per unit time,” cybernetic memory practices represent “the implosive, recapitulative memory practices of the cyberneticians working in a world of too many facts per unit time” (p.77). In cybernetics,

we have seen three kinds of accelerated recapitulation: accelerated social change (whole civilizations in a decade), accelerated data processing (whole centuries of scientific progress in a year), and accelerated philosophizing (whole millennia of useless philosophy taken up and reworked in a trice). … in each case … the unit of historical time is changing such that processes once tied to civilizations and “longue duree” are now attached to individuals/societies and much shorter duration. The ontogeny of cybernetics recapitulates human phylogeny. (p.94)

In Chapter 3, we get to the age of the database and the context in which it is deployed. “The miracle of memory in our time is that memory practices are materially rampant, invasive, implicated in the core of our being and of our understanding of the world – and yet we experience them and discourse about them in terms of their ideal ramifications on some hypostatized entity created to void materiality from the equation: the individual, the nation-state, the people, and so forth” (p.109). And here and in Chapter 4, Bowker explores the study and memory practices of biodiversity – a realm in which the explosive memory of geology meets the implosive memory of cybernetics.

Memory Practices in the Sciences is a challenging book, partially because of its perspective, partially because of its thick cases. If you're interested in the rhetoric of science, or in memory, I recommend picking it up.

The Read/Write/Ruin Web

John Robb discusses open source insurgency, which was a theme of his book Brave New War , in terms that are very similar to the ones I used in my own book Tracing Genres through Organizations (Ch.6) several years ago. But whereas I, and others working in the read/write web space, focused on positive contributions in a developing ecology, Robb points to the possibilities for guerilla action.

The benefit of this passive approach is that it creates the potential to form an open source community around the topic. As such, it not only attracts people tightly aligned with the creator's goals, but also a much larger group of individuals and groups that are pursuing tangential and marginally aligned interests. Also, because the site is a tool, it benefits from a virtuous feedback loop that tends to accelerate growth: people that use the site often see immediate benefit from the interaction.

Software tools of this type can be used to create open source communities for both positive endeavors (like building resilient communities) to insurgency.

For example, say I wanted to run an insurgency against financial capitalism, and in particular an effort that specifically targets Goldman Sachs. The software tool approach offers a variety of entry points for this endeavor.

Read the whole thing.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Coworking in Austin: Cospace

“We bring the co,” enthuses Kirtus Dixon as he discusses Cospace (, a coworking site that he is planning to open with his business partner Andrew Bushnell. Here's what the co stands for, according to their website:
Why Cospace?
We feel it a simple yet effective name for our space and what it means to us and the community it will serve. The prefix CO means together, mutually, or jointly, and that expresses what our space will be perfectly. It is a COoperative, COmmunal, and COllaborative space that will be a place for work and opportunity for its members.
So that's what we're discussing: the co. We're sitting in a room at Genuine Joe, a coffee shop in north Austin, and we've been talking for an hour about the space they're planning. I contacted the two earlier this week, after seeing Andrew post a message on the coworking Google group, and they've been telling me about their vision for Cospace – a vision quite different from the other coworking spaces in Austin. The two met when working as recruiters at a company in California, where they appreciated some aspects: the open floor plan (a “bullpen”); the spontaneous collaboration; the ability to learn from others, especially about technology (they're “late adopters”). But they found that they wanted more. In particular, they wanted more flexibility, more opportunity to build their own businesses, and more diverse coworkers. One problem with working at their old organization, Andrew tells me, was that everyone did the same thing. So they would talk about work all day, leave the office, go out for a beer with coworkers, and talk more about work – learning nothing.
Finally the two broke away, moved to Austin, and became entrepreneurs and business partners, driven by three goals: practice, freedom, and enjoyment. They've started a child safety franchise, initially working out of their houses, but they missed the interaction with other people and they suffered from a lack of work-life separation. More than that, they missed the opportunity to network with other small business owners. Suppose we need a website, Kurtis asks rhetorically. How do we know who has a good reputation? Go to Craigslist? An impersonal, electronic solution like Yelp doesn't appeal to them; they see social media as a good way to cast a broad net, but for relationships, they prefer face to face contact. Networking. The co.
Networking drew them to coworking. After looking into various office solutions, they discovered coworking and saw the appeal. It fit in well with their three goals – practice, freedom, enjoyment – and it met their networking needs.
So why not work at an existing coworking facility? Several reasons. One was that none of the existing or proposed coworking spaces fit the niche. Conjunctured is tilted towards freelance entrepreneurs, tech entrepreneurs, and artists in downtown Austin. Soma Vida is oriented toward family entrepreneurs, especially those in the East Austin area. LINK will be focused more on employees of corporations. None of these serve the small businesses community, address the networking needs of small businesses, or explicitly serve as incubators for businesses that will eventually outgrow the space (although they don't disallow that). None of these spaces reflect Kirtus and Andrew's identities. In addition, none are in north Austin where Andrew and Kirtus live – an important factor, since they want to build a community where they live.
So Kirtus and Andrew saw a niche for SBO coworking, serving growing businesses with sales between $500,000-$1,000,000 that need an SBO network to grow. Businesses like theirs. They envision a place that resembles the bullpen environment in the company where they met – but one where the corporate setting has been washed away. “Take out the bad,” Andrew says. Kirtus agrees and describes the place as resembling the group projects in which he used to participate in business school at classmates' houses.
Flexibility, they say, is the name of the game these days. And that's not necessarily tied to technology, an area where they say they have a lot to learn. It has more to do with networking, developing new relationships, sensing opportunities, and building relationships. As people who fall at the dividing line between Gen X and Gen Y, they see value in mindsets they associate with each, and they also see opportunities in mentoring the next generation, who overrely on social media and underemphasize personal relationships. Social media, Andrew and Kirtus tell me, do a good job of being the broad end of the funnel – they establish broad but shallow connections. But for deep, enduring relationships, you need human contact.
So when will we see Cospace open? Kirtus and Andrew are actively looking for a space, but they recognize that they have to find a landlord who “gets” it and can be flexible in terms of future capacity. Initially they tried working with a real estate agent, but they couldn't find one who could get her or his head around the concept of coworking. Now they're looking for spaces on Craigslist, looking for broad connections that they can turn into one deep relationship with the right landlord.
For now, though, if you're in Austin, you can meet the two during a Jelly at 360 Primo on Thursday at 11:30am.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Transborder Immigrant Tool

Via BoingBoing, we find out what at least one of the Zapatistas is doing these days: hacking cheap mobile phones to create tools for illegal immigrants to cross the border between Mexico and the US.
What is the device, exactly?
We looked at the Motorola i455 cell phone, which is under $30, available even cheaper on eBay, and includes a free GPS applet. We were able to crack it and create a simple compasslike navigation system. We were also able to add other information, like where to find water left by the Border Angels, where to find Quaker help centers that will wrap your feet, how far you are from the highway—things to make the application really benefit individuals who are crossing the border.
Repurposing cheap consumer devices and using publicly available information to route around law enforcement. Brilliant, and undoubtedly just a small part of what we'll see soon. Plenty of smartphones will be available cheaply soon and, as little computers, should be quite hackable.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Reading :: The Third Wave

The Third Wave
By Alvin Toffler

According to the cover, this is "THE BOOK THAT MAKES SENSE OF THE EXPLODING EIGHTIES." Published in 1980, just after the oil crisis, the Iranian hostage crisis, and Reagan's election, the book made some bold predictions. Toffler, after all, was a futurist whose work was to extrapolate the future from current trends. In a way, that makes The Third Wave an interesting piece of science fiction: Toffler predicts that we would soon be living on space platforms and in aqua villages (p.144), while the gene industry would make other innovations possible. One interviewee predicted that we would be buying "a 'mammary mattress' - created out of the same stuff as the human breast" (p.148). Other predictions included the paperless office (p.189) and a renaissance in lodges, clubs and churches (p.204).

It would be easy to poke fun at such predictions. But what is striking to me is how often Toffler gets it right. In fact, many of his predictions came true quite rapidly: the demise of the secretarial pool and the popularity of even senior executives writing their own correspondence due to the computer (p.186); the shift toward telecommuting and the "electronic cottage" (Ch.16); the rise of cooperatives - "all sorts of new relationships and organizational forms become possible" due to computer networking (p.205); the death of the melting pot due to demassification and diversity (p.232); the demassification of time, leading to the popularity of flextime and workers' autonomy over their own time (p.246; 385); social networking (p.250; 372); the increasing popularity of matrix organizations and other networked forms (pp.259-264); the move toward private armies (p.397; cf. John Robb's work); and electronic town halls (p.429). In parts, he sounds a lot like Drucker's and Castells' work in the mid to late 1990s. That's extraordinary.

Toffler builds these predictions on his thesis that we were, in the 1980s, experiencing the "third wave" of change. The first wave was the agricultural revolution (p.10), which gave rise to institutions and hierarchies - as well as families, nations, etc. The second wave was the industrial revolution (p.10 and most of the first half of the book), which enacted huge changes across civilization, from the most basic (the family unit; the understanding of time and morality) to the most elaborate (work organizations, markets, representative democracy). He doesn't give a name to the third wave, but he associates it with the year 1955, when blue-collar jobs were first outnumbered by white-collar and service workers (p.14; compare Drucker, who pegs post-capitalist society to the GI Bill just a few years earlier). And he predicts that the Third Wave will similarly restructure society in very basic ways: from families (he predicts, for instance, that other family configurations, such as gay marriages, will become increasingly accepted; cf. Castells) to the perception of time to the authorities and values to the very organizational substrates of our world.

The three waves that Toffler identifies seem to track closely with Ronfeldt's TIMN structure, with tribes being pre-Wave, institutions corresponding to the First Wave, and so forth. That's probably not a coincidence: Arquilla and Ronfeldt had Alvin and Heidi Toffler write the preface to their collection In Athena's Camp. Nevertheless, I'm impressed at what Toffler managed to describe 15 years before other, similar work came out. I'm not ready to canonize him, but I do plan to read more of his books. If you're interested in the knowledge work literature, definitely take a look.

Reading :: Online Town Hall Meetings

Online Town Hall Meetings: Exploring Democracy in the 21st Century
By David Lazer, Michael Neblo, Kevin Esterling, and Kathy Goldschmidt with Collin Burden

Someone recently pointed me to this report, suggesting that it provided a positive alternative to face-to-face town hall meetings in the aftermath of this year's health care protests. In this project, funded by the NSF, the researchers conducted a series of experiments in connecting constituents to issues.

The experimental groups participated in an "online town hall" in which they used software (Adobe Acrobat Connect or Microsoft LiveMeeting) to submit questions to a moderator; the moderator passed questions to the Member of Congress or Senator holding the town hall; and the representative answered each question over VOIP. All participants received two-page materials on the topic beforehand. Representatives were from both parties.

One control group received the same materials, but no session. The other received no session or background materials.

Results were characterized as positive:
The key findings from the town hall meetings were that:
  1. The online town halls increased support for participating Members of Congress.
  2. Members persuaded constituents of their position on the issue discussed.
  3. The town halls increased policy knowledge of constituents on the topic of discussion.
  4. The sessions attracted a diverse set of constituents.
  5. Participation in the town hall increased citizen engagement in politics.
  6. The discussions were of generally high deliberative quality.
  7. The positive results of the smaller sessions were also seen in the larger session.
  8. The sessions were extremely popular with participants. (p.11)
And indeed I can see why they would be positive results from the perspective of incumbents, because this format seems custom-made for helping incumbents persuade voters - as finding 2 above intimates. In fact, "no matter which side of the issue they were on, the Members dramatically moved their constituents to their perspective" (p. 16). In the specific issue - immigration - if the Member, say, supported making illegal immigration a felony, s/he persuaded constituents of this position. If the Member opposed making illegal immigration a felony, why, s/he persuaded constituents of that position. Constituents, in fact, appeared to capitulate to the superior knowledge of their Member:
As one constituent stated, “As we move to the upper echelon of politicians, things get more complicated. There are just so many outside variables that we as normal citizens just do not consider or see. You don’t realize that until you participate in something like this.”
So constituents were willing to forfeit previously held positions on the belief that the Member knew the complicated issue better and therefore should make the decisions.

As Michel Callon once said, to represent someone, you have to stop them from speaking. The online town halls do this quite well - literally, since the Member speaks to the constituents, but they can only type questions to him/her, questions that are selected by a moderator and not brought into a genuine dialogue. One constituent stated without any apparent irony that "It was great to have a Member of Congress want to really hear the voices of the constituents" - when in a literal sense, only the Member was allowed to project a voice.

So, yes, this forum was much more effective than the messy, conflict-ridden live town halls that erupted in August. The Member could be the sage on the stage, without any possibility of interruption. The constituents were put in the place of asking questions, not making statements or demands. The moderator made sure to prioritize questions from different constituents rather than follow-up questions from the same constituent, minimizing any chance of dialogue. Constituents learned that their place was to be persuaded by their own representative and to capitulate to their representative's judgment in strategic as well as tactical issues; their role was not to set direction or express their own objectives. And according to the results, they learned their lessons well.

I'm not surprised that incumbents are enthusiastic about this format. But I am not so sure that I would characterize it as "deliberative" - or "positive."

How not to write fiction

Note: This blog post comes from a talk I presented at Texas Christian University on November 6, 2009.

How Not to Write Fiction: Style and Evidence in Qualitative Research Studies
So I no longer read fiction. I read perhaps one book of fiction a year.

It wasn't always that way. Growing up, I used to love reading fiction – especially, I admit, science fiction. In fact, the first long novel I read was Jules Verne's annotated 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I was intensely proud of having finished it – I was perhaps seven – and also really interested in the annotations, which taught me all about narwahls and light bulbs and so forth. Most of the science fiction I read wasn't so highbrow, though: Heinlein, Asimov, Niven, Pohl, Herbert, Burroughs (Edgar Rice, not William). I even went through a bad patch where I read Piers Anthony, which is the science fiction equivalent of drinking Keystone Light.

Don't get me wrong, I also read other genres. I read a lot of murder mysteries, mostly Agatha Christie. I read the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift. I read the Bible cover to cover at least three times by the time I finished high school. I read Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago the summer before my senior year. And I read plenty of trash, such as Von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods. But science fiction was my passion, and I even thought that I might be interested in becoming a science fiction writer someday. Although I decided not to pursue that career in college, I kept reading fiction, at least a paperback or two a week, up to the point I started my PhD. Program at Iowa State University. And then, within a year or so, I stopped reading fiction almost entirely.

Why? It wasn't the course load. It wasn't that I thought I was suddenly too good to read fiction. It was simply that I had begun to read research studies, and I found that good research studies – the ones that were solidly grounded, well written, and intellectually curious – were more interesting than fiction to me.

Look at it this way. In fiction, you know the story is the author's construct. You know that it's often a reference to contemporary issues, sometimes an allegory, sometimes with a moral you have to intuit. You can scrutinize it to see how it's constructed. You can anticipate plot twists, sometimes far in advance, which really takes the fun out of it. You can pick holes and identify what's implausible. And although there's some pretty trippy science fiction out there, for the most part even the trippiest ideas are conventionalized enough to sell copies. Science fiction writers like to say that science fiction is not really about the future, it's about the present, and after a while you start to see the present concerns poking through the futuristic window dressing. It starts feeling preachy and contrived.

Compare that to, say, Edwin Hutchins' Cognition in the Wild, where he takes a concept as trippy as anything you see in science fiction – cognition isn't in your head, as everyone assumes, but instead it's distributed across people and artifacts – and he makes a solid case for it with compelling writing and stories that actually happened.

Compare it to Lev Vygotsky's studies in Mind and Society, where he argues that everyone has child development wrong – thought doesn't bubble out of children as language, language gets absorbed to produce thought – and he provides evidence with ingenious and bizarre experiments.

Compare it to Bonnie Nardi's Context and Consciousness, a collection of studies that is as compelling as any collection of short stories. (To me, anyway.)

These studies make claims that changed the way I saw everything, they backed them up with true stories and reproducible data, and they "showed their work" with methods sections – I could play along at home. And I had to: unlike my science fiction readings, these didn't give me the luxury of rejecting stories as implausible or suspending disbelief when they were well written. Either the theoretical framework held up and the methodology worked well, or not. And let's not forget that while fiction has a moral, research studies offer an implications section. Here's the lessons we learn; here's the work that must still be done; here's the ways in which actual people, including the real people in these stories, can benefit.

That, I decided, was the kind of study I wanted to write. Something useful, something interesting and trippy, something really readable in terms of style. Something like the studies that Bruno Latour writes. You've read Latour? He's a master stylist. Reading Latour is like drinking too much. Reading his books in the evening, you think, "this fellow is brilliant! Why isn't this clearer to his critics?" Then you wake the next day with a headache. "Ohhh, does that even make sense?" That's what I wanted to achieve – minus the headache.

A little side story here. A few years ago I was rereading some rhet-comp articles about research, and one casually mentioned that the researcher Steve Woolgar had gone as far as to make up a coauthor in one of his experimental ethnographies. That's odd, I thought. So I turned to the bibliography to see what ethnography the author was referencing. And there it was: Laboratory Life, by Steve Woolgar.

Laboratory Life, of course, was coauthored by Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar. And it dawned on me that this author thought Latour was a figment of Woolgar's imagination! A fiction!

Style and Fiction: Who Killed Rex?
Okay, so here's a story of my own. In 2000, I found myself sitting in the Network Control Center of a regional telecommunications company in West Texas. I really didn't know what I was looking for, to be honest: I had talked this company into letting me study its employees over ten months in exchange for reports on the company's "communication problems." Whatever they turned out to me. So I started with Customer Service, moved to Customer Service Data Entry, and then to the NCC, simply to see how people were communicating with each other. I would spend two hours shadowing each individual, then observe them again a couple of weeks later, giving them an interview after the second observation. And I would pick up artifacts – printouts, sticky notes, anything that looked interesting and related.

The NCC was a big room with a screen on one wall, seats facing it on tiers, kind of like a small movie theater or a large Enterprise bridge. Specialists hot-desked in the NCC. And the phones were always ringing: the NCC was where you were transferred when you reported some sort of network problem, like lost or interrupted service, crosstalk on the line, and so forth. If your overhead line was snapped by a falling branch, if you accidentally dug up an underground cable with a backhoe, the incident would eventually make its way to the NCC. There, a specialist would create a trouble ticket, assign it to a technician – usually a technician working for the dominant telecomm provider in the area, which we'll call BigTel - and communicate with the technician until the problem was resolved.

The NCC was busy. I mean, our individual phone service is rarely interrupted, but strands of the telecomm network break all the time. So specialists would be working three tickets on the screen, typing up a fourth while talking to a customer about the fifth. It was quite incredible to watch.

So one day I was sitting in the NCC, waiting for all these incidents to form patterns, when a specialist, Nathaniel, leans over to the guy I'm shadowing, Donald. Nathaniel said:
"BigTel let somebody's dog out and it got run over. Nothing mentioned in the ticket about it."

Donald nodded and listed the tickets he was to work for that day.
A few minutes later, the NCC's assistant manager sternly told the story again, this time to the entire NCC.
"There was nothing about a dog on the ticket," he said. "You must note that."
So this intrigued me. I mentioned that I read murder mysteries as a kid, right? And although this wasn't a murder mystery per se, it was still a mystery. Of course I asked people about it. Long story short, treating this incident like a mystery helped me to understand how Telecorp communicated internally and externally. It intrigued me, just as mysteries had intrigued me when I was younger, just as research studies had intrigued me in grad school.

Eventually, I wrote it up for a collection being put together by my good friend Mark Zachry and my beloved former professor Charie Thralls.

And since I had thought of it as sort of a murder mystery, I wrote it up in those terms, making it as entertaining as possible, hoping that others would get the same sort of thrill reading this study that I had gotten reading Hutchins, Vygotsky, Nardi, and especially Latour. The editors and I were pleased with the result.

An Email and a Question
Then I got this email from a graduate student. I've redacted it, but you can get the gist.

I'm currently taking a Qualitative Research Methods with [professor] at [university]. In our last class, we read your article "Who Killed Rex?" During our discussion, it was suggested that you fabricated your qualitative investigation of Telecorp in an effort to educate your readers ...

Let's leave aside for a moment the fact that this graduate student has asked me if I have falsified research data, a serious ethical charge. Maybe he wasn't aware of how big a deal that would be. Instead, let's concentrate on the irony here. Ten years after I gave up on reading fiction because it wasn't interesting enough, I was being asked if I had written fiction. At least he hadn't accused me of being a figment of Steve Woolgar's imagination.

The answer was, of course, absolutely not. I have never fabricated or fictionalized research data. Besides being completely unethical, that would have missed the point. It would have taken all the fun out of it! How easy and how boring that would have been.

I told the grad student that the story of Rex was true, that I had the data to prove it, and that each claim had at least 2-3 different data points supporting it, data points coming from different data collection methods.

Write Like a Mystery Writer, Build the Case Like a Lawyer

I had written the case like a mystery author, but I had built the case like a lawyer. Specifically, I had sourced each claim by triangulating, and I made uncertainties clear through hedging. (This is something I just finished discussing with my undergraduate field methods class.)

There are at least two types of triangulation:

Triangulating across data types. In a qualitative study, you should have at least a few different types of data, and these should give you different views of the phenomenon. You can't rely on just one. If you just rely on observations, you'll only have your perspective - you will be able to describe what happened, but not why or how it connects with their goals. If you just rely on interviews, you get their perspective - their story - but sometimes people recall incorrectly or are just flat wrong. So as much as possible, you have to build a story by looking across the data to see what the different data types are telling you. In this case, people from the NCC were blaming the other units for the problem, and if I hadn't cross-checked their stories with the other data, I might have told a more simplistic, less accurate, less interesting story.

Triangulating across data instances. But I also had to make sure to triangulate across instances. It wasn't enough to, say, compare Nathaniel's statements with observations and artifacts pulled from his sessions. I also had to compare his statements against statements of others; his observations against observations of others; his artifacts - well you get the drift. Doing this allowed me to ask: how representative is this incident? How representative are these views? Am I talking to an oddball here, or does everyone see things this way? This sort of triangulation helps you to ensure that the most interesting or extreme views don't take over the argument.

Hedging. Finally, unlike a fiction writer, we don't get to take a God's-eye view. We don't see everything, and in fact John Law has some great examples of how he always seemed to be missing the action in his ethnography of a research center. So if we didn't see an incident, or get that interview describing it, or pick up the artifact that would confirm it, we have to fess up. This is ethos-building, it's confidence-building. Hedging is a sign of honesty and confidence, not weakness.

Some examples of hedging in "Who Killed Rex":

  • "I did not witness the original complaint being filed, of course, but I did observe customer service clerks dealing with similar complaints."
  • "We can't rule out Customer Service entirely, but their culpability seems less likely than Donald suggested."
  • "I did not observe any sales reps asking about pets and locked gates. But ... sales reps had developed no self-regulative genres, no scripts or checklists or forms, to remind them to ask about pets and locked gates."
Being Accused of Writing Fiction
So much for building the case like a lawyer. Let's talk about writing like a mystery writer. As you can tell, this topic is dear to my heart, because I really, truly believe that the best studies can be as interesting and more world-changing - and certainly stranger - than fiction. How can you be accused of writing fiction?

Get excited about your work. When my undergrads conduct studies, I remind them that chances are, no one has ever looked at their site in this way, with this level of scrutiny, with these analytical tools. I tell them that they'll see a lot of things that their participants already know about - but they'll achieve a systematic overview and a depth of understanding that no one else ever has. That's a big deal. And it has transformative potential.

Celebrate when the data don't fit your preconceptions. When I started the Telecorp study, I was working within a standard theoretical framework, activity theory. Even my interview questions were constructed around the parts of an activity system. But soon I realized that the data were not fitting activity theory well. I was thrilled: that meant that my theoretical preconceptions were not shaping what I saw. I wasn't just repeating the story that other activity theorists had told me - I was actually recounting my own story, based on the data I had collected.

Let the evidence deepen your claims. As you triangulate, you'll find that your early hypotheses (claims) often won't be complex enough to account for the data. Great. Let the claims simmer a bit, working in the data, deciding which claims to abandon, which ones to hedge, which ones to make more specific. Often the early claims are not nearly as interesting as the ones that you've let simmer, just as a two-dimensional character isn't as interesting as a three-dimensional one.

Edit for style. Remember, build the case like a lawyer, but write like a mystery writer - or borrow from whatever genres interest you. Look how some of the more engaging studies handle the challenge. Me, I read a lot of Latour as I wrote this study, and some of his bombast and dramatism rubbed off on me. In the book, I also drew from all those readings during my youth, especially the Bible, which I quote and paraphrase and play with.

At its best, a qualitative study can be better than fiction. It can grab people, fascinate them, impact them, and improve their lives. And that's what I want to leave you with:

Make it better than fiction.