Friday, September 25, 2009

The G20 Protests

Not long ago, I analyzed the health care town halls in network terms, linking the protestors' tactics to the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle. Now we're seeing something more similar to the WTO protests, the G20 protests currently going on in Pittsburgh. I'm not going to attempt an analysis, at least not yet, but it's worth quoting John Robb on them:
In general, governments worldwide are losing control over all of the classical forms of national power from borders to finances to communication to media to economic activity to security to trade flows (of all types). The upshot of this accelerating weakness is a tendency to view any and all forms of public protest as a security threat.
Right. Castells goes further, noting that the state traditionally asserts a monopoly on violence (Communication Power p.51, for instance), and that "because networks are global, the state, which is the enforcer of power through the monopoly of violence, finds considerable limits to its coercive capacity unless it engages itself in networking with other states, and with the power-holders in the decisive networks that shape social practices in their territories while being deployed in the global realm" (p.51). But nonstate actors are also in play, as the Seattle protests nicely demonstrated, and these threaten states' abilities to enforce power.

So, Robb points out, states have begun turning to paramilitary operations, early and free use of nonlethal weapons on crowds (e.g., sonic weapons, tear gas), and speech restrictions. And as Robb warns:
This effort will almost undoubtedly generate unintended consequences (we can already see protest groups learning to counter this by using flash mob mobility via cell phones).
Yes, and as with the previous examples, groups are mingling and networking, using Internet and mobile communication technologies to coordinate, exhort, and plan. Techniques in one context are deployed in others - on both sides. For instance, one response to the town hall protests has been to hold "virtual town halls" in which representatives control the communication channels and thus the conduct of the meetings. The results have been less unruly, but also have been perceived in some quarters as analogous to Potemkin villages. Such communication management is perhaps analogous to the "free speech zones" Robb notes, but we can imagine more aggressive measures along these lines, such as disrupting mobile phone service or social networking.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Reading :: Communication Power

Communication Power
By Manuel Castells

Although Internet media had played a role in politics before, including the early success of the Dean campaign, perhaps the most startling impact it had was on Dan Rather's famous report about George W. Bush's National Guard service. Based on what he called "unimpeachable sources," Rather claimed to have solid evidence for the long-circulating rumor that Bush had used family connections to avoid serving in Vietnam, and in the waning days of the election, he grimly told the electorate that the war president was a draft dodger. His evidence: memos purportedly written by Bush's National Guard commander.

You know the rest. Bloggers and commenters at Free Republic, Little Green Footballs and Powerline examined the memos and noticed what anyone who has closely followed the shift from typewriter to word processor should have noticed: the memos were written in a proportional font and were automatically tracked. One person created an animated GIF showing one of the memos alternating with the same text typed into Microsoft Word with the default settings; except for smudges, the two were identical. Alerted by these differences, others noted content discrepancies. The story, which could have seriously compromised the Bush campaign, instead damaged CBS News. Rather's producer, Mary Mapes, was terminated, and Rather was put out to pasture. And bloggers famously told the legacy media that they would "fact check your ass."

It's telling – and disappointing – that the closest Manuel Castells gets to addressing this watershed event is to call Bush a "draft-dodging, alcoholic, drug abuser" (p.236) while holding Rather up as a sterling example of the US media, trying and sometimes failing to criticize the Bush adminstration enough (p.171, footnote 21). I found this quite disappointing, since one of the things that I admired about Castells' The Power of Identity was his evenhandedness in examining networked relations among disparate social movements despite his sympathy for one (the Zapatistas) and his antipathy for the other two (the black-helicopter crowd and Aum Shinrikyo). We sorely need that sort of evenhandedness to understand the very phenomenon Castells is trying to examine here – communication power – but Castells is anything but evenhanded. And in ignoring the Rathergate blog swarm and other examples that go against the anti-Bush narrative, he loses several opportunities to provide a fuller, more challenging analysis.

Indeed, I regret to report that Castells seems to entirely give up the analytical view in spots. His account of Barack Obama's presidential campaign, for instance, reads like a campaign ad – or a love letter – in which he is unaccountably credulous of the campaign's statements and actions. He extensively cites Obama's books as his major sources on the candidate's life, seemingly unaware or unconcerned that political autobiographies are typically crafted to work within a campaign's narrative. He enthuses that Obama is a different kind of candidate, oriented less to the left-right divide and more toward the future vs. the past (p.375). He even finds himself arguing that "Obama ... made a strategic alliance with the Chicago political machine, but he was not part of it" – and in the next sentence, suggesting that since the Daley machine produced such successful policies, maybe this dynasty wasn't so bad after all (pp.388-389).

Omissions such as Rathergate and commissions such as the offhand embrace of machine politics (when they support Obama, at any rate) are hard to overlook, and they cast a pall over the purpose of the book. In the opening, Castells describes how as a college student in Franco's Spain, he tried to resist the dictatorship's censorship. He came to believe that "power is based on the control of communication and information" (p.3). He is interested, then, in "why, how, and by whom power relationships are constructed and exercised through the management of communication processes, and how these power relationships can be altered by social actors aiming for social change by influencing the public mind" (p.3). In particular, he's interested in how communication power is exercised in the network society, which is constructed around digital technologies, technologies that have produced media of "mass self-communication" (p.4). What's mass self-communication? Think in terms of the blogs by which bloggers published their own analyses of Dan Rather's memos and contributed to each others' interpretations – just to pick an example out of the air.

Castells, as usual, is wide-ranging, and he tells us at the beginning that he will draw on various theories (which he characterizes as "disposable tools," p.5) without wasting too much time critiquing or reconciling them (p.6). And so he does. At times, this is regrettable: actor-network theory, for instance, is cited in a single sentence, called "brilliantly theorized," yet is characterized as being about "humans" – which is pretty much the opposite of Latour's intent (p.45). Nevertheless, Castells covers the network society pretty well in chapter 1, which is largely an update of his argument in The Rise of the Network Society.

His next chapter, on communication in the digital age, delves into the idea of mass self-communication: communication that could potentially reach the masses, but "is self-communication because the production of the message is self-generated, the definition of the potential receiver(s) is self-directed, and the retrieval of specific messages or content ... is self-directed" (p.55). Mass self-communication coexists with interpersonal and mass communication, generating a hypernetworked diversity that encourages mixing and recombining (p.55). This present age is undergoing at least four transformations of communication: a technological transformation based on digital communication; a transformation of the organizational and institutional structure of communication; a transformation of the cultural dimension of multilayered communication; and a transformation involving the social (typically power) relationships underlying the evolution of this multimodal communication system (pp.56-57). Castells traces the implications of each here, quite densely; I won't summarize all of his conclusions.

So far so good. But things start to slide, I think, in Chapter 3. Here, Castells starts borrowing from neuroscience and cognitive science, and I'm not thrilled with the results, which seem sutured together without enough theoretical structure to provide a well-structured argument. Castells tried to counter this criticism in the Overview, but I'm not buying it. I'll skip over the neuroscience portion he borrows from Damasio and go straight to the Lakoff. Frankly, I haven't read Lakoff, but every summary of his work has read like Castells' summary here: (a) Framing an issue is important because once people accept a frame, they can't see outside of it; (b) conservatives have successfully framed issues by activating the frames of terror and patriotism, frames that trigger conservative impulses in the hearers because we get more conservative when we think about death; (c) liberals need to therefore get off the ball, stop being so cerebral and even-handed, and start activating their own frames. I won't launch an extended critique of this line of reasoning (as Castells represents it, anyway). Instead, I'll just point out that that there's a rich history of studying and theorizing persuasion (i.e., rhetoric) and it has historically been critiqued by those who don't trust persuasion because the truth is so obvious that people could not be persuaded otherwise without some sort of nefarious trickery. I don't give this any more credence than I do the other side of the coin: conservative rumors that President Obama is such a successful speaker because he uses known hypnosis techniques.

Castells rides this horse a bit more in Chapter 4, discussing the rise of scandal politics (and illustrating it, as I mentioned at the beginning of this review), and really contributing some valuable theoretical work on why it is ascendant. Scandals, he says, have become the hidden expression of political struggle by other means (p.261; think here about Speaker Pelosi's claim that the CIA had never briefed Congress about waterboarding, for instance). He examines three different countries (the US, Russia, and China) to demonstrate how states use techniques tailored to their political climates in order to assert message control. This is among the most valuable parts of the book: how communication networks are "programmed."

Even more valuable is Chapter 5, on "reprogramming" communication networks through individuals' insurgent activities. Let's pass over Castells' merciless characterization of non-actors as "selfish parasites" (p.300), and let's applaud the apparent return of Castells' analytical distance as he points out that social change could be in any given direction (p.301). He argues that social change requires "reprogramming" communication networks, changing the power relationships embedded in these networks (p.302), and he points to "the potential synergy between the rise of mass self-communication and the autonomous capacity of civil societies around the world to shape the process of social change" (p.303). His extended example is that of the 2004 Spanish election, in which the ruling party claimed falsely that terrorist bombings were the work of Basque separatists rather than al Qaeda (p.349). The mass media were constrained from reporting fully, but citizens exchanged text messages, organized rallies, and forced further journalistic investigation, leading to the defeat of the ruling party. Alas, later in the chapter, he covers the Obama campaign in much less analytic detail, as I mentioned above.

Castells concludes by counseling us, without apparent irony, to "practice your critical thinking every day" (p.431).

I've been hard in this review on Castells, who I have admired in his previous efforts for his ability to cover and synthesize many different bodies of research in the service of understanding the network society. And Castells has some genuine, solid contributions here. But as I've intimated above, the book is quite patchy, with some parts reading like a second draft, some parts highly polished, some parts highly analytical, some parts glossy and nearly analysis-free. In a way, this book reminds me of Drucker's Post-Capitalist Society, which (to my eye) seemed like the sort of book one writes when one no longer wants to bother answering critics. Unfortunately, the result is a fair amount of gold mixed with a fair amount of dross. Proceed carefully with this book, and "practice your critical thinking every day."

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Reading :: The Ayes of Texas

The Ayes of Texas
By Daniel da Cruz

I read perhaps one book of fiction per year. This year, I picked up a piece of Cold War science fiction about which I had always been curious. The premise behind this 1982 book, The Ayes of Texas, is classic Cold War paranoia. In 1994, the Soviet Union is going strong, having taken over most of the world; the United States has gotten bogged down in pouring foreign aid into its own third world client states, including India and China. The Soviets have demonstrated their own strategic defense initiative and shown off their vast underground cities, both of which guarantee their ability to survive a nuclear struggle. An uneasy detente rests over the world. As the author explains, Reagan's attempts to reverse his predecessor's neglect of the military has doomed the US.

In this situation, a Texan millionaire, who happens to be a triple amputee WWII veteran, answers the call of the Texas governor by secretly refurbishing his old WWII ship, the rusting Texas. At the same time, the Soviets have proposed a peace accord that is a transparent Soviet ploy: one that would have the US abandon its industrial base and focus on agriculture. The weary US public buys this, but a few don't, and the Texas millionaire is among them. He riles up sentiment in Texas against a Soviet fleet that is touring US ports; the result is Texas secession and an unlikely battle in which the city of Houston annihilates the entire Soviet 17th Fleet.

The book is interesting mainly as a relic of Cold War paranoia in which Soviet expansion was inevitable, and only a Machiavellian Great Man could save the free world. As we now know, in retrospect this chain of events is not plausible: Carter's military spending had begun an upward trajectory even before Reagan came into office; the Soviet Union had already begun to suffer from overexpansion; and Great Men are overrated. But the book reflects the mindset of its time, and that's really the most interesting thing about it. I don't recommend the book.

Reading :: The Reagan Imprint

The Reagan Imprint: Ideas in American Foreign Policy from the Collapse of Communism to the War on Terror
By John Arquilla

As John Arquilla notes, many books have been written that speculate about President Reagan, seemingly open, but in practical terms one of the most private and closed presidents we have ever had. Arquilla does not set out to "crack the carapace of his psyche" (p.9), but rather to examine his strategic thinking based on foreign (not domestic) policy. And in those senses, Arquilla comes up with some surprising answers. He argues that Reagan was in many ways the pivot of presidential foreign policy, a president that has not been appreciated for his strategic insights as well as his strategic successes. "In short," Arquilla argues, "the world would be far more complicated and infinitely more dangerous had Ronald Reagan not risen to the presidency. But he did, making a favorable peace with the Russians just in time to give the United States the running room it needs to cope with a new era of complex problems and grave global challenges" (p.212).

Arquilla is, of course, most concerned with foreign policy strategy in general and military strategy in particular. I've reviewed some of his previous work on this blog, including his recent book on reforming the military to better deal with asymmetric warfare and some of his writings on netwar. In this book, he is most interested in "the Reagan imprint," the lasting influence that Reagan's strategic thinking had on the US military, US strategy, and the conduct of subsequent presidents. Arquilla's assessment is not entirely positive, but it appears thorough and searching to this lay reader.

This portrait of Reagan may be hard for some to take, given a popular perception of Reagan as driven by ideology, Christian apocalyptism, and half-remembered movie plots. But Arquilla builds a case that Reagan was "above all else a strategic thinker" (p.215). Although the entire book builds this case, I'll quote from the book's excellent summary. Arquilla singles out five ways in which "Reagan transformed American grand strategy" (p.215):
  • From containment to rollback: Up to Reagan's election, the US had taken the strategic position of containing Soviet expansion: a reactive, resistant strategy. Reagan elected to "take the initiative away from the Soviets" (p.216) by encouraging those under Soviet control to resist: "helping others help themselves," as Arquilla put it (p.216). Arquilla demonstrates that Reagan's successors (Bush, Clinton, Bush) have in their different ways followed through on these principles by "helping others free themselves" (p.216, my emphasis).

  • From deterrence to defense. Arquilla argues that up to Reagan's term, the Cold War emphasized avoiding war between the US and the USSR at all costs, because it would spiral into nuclear war. That was partially because US forces could not react quickly or forcefully enough to repel an expected Soviet invasion of Europe; war games with this scenario inevitably led to a nuclear conflagration. Reagan reasoned that building conventional forces meant opening a middle ground on which conventional warfare could be fought – making the world safe for conventional warfare, as it were – and thus making nuclear war less likely. Reagan was fond of saying that "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought," and Arquilla argues forcefully that Reagan's statement was not merely window dressing, it was a core tenet driving his strategy. The other component was, of course, ballistic missile defense (p.217). Arquilla demonstrates that this shift in strategy has influenced each of his successors.

  • From arms racing to arms reduction. "Until Reagan came along," Arquilla argues, "statesmen and strategists generally believed the superpowers were locked into an airtight, inescapable security dilemma" (p.218). Every attempt at defense could be understood as a threat by the other side; the arms race could be slowed through limitation talks such as SALT, but not stopped or reversed. Reagan rejected this dilemma and engaged in arms reduction talks (START) (p.218).

  • From propaganda to public diplomacy. Arquilla emphasizes that Reagan was the first president to use the term "information strategy" – and the first president of the Cold War to actively pursue one. The Great Communicator rejected "the propaganda that had characterized the war of ideas before him," and in contrast, "his strategy consisted of steadily increasing presssure on our adversaries by communicating directly with those people they were oppressing" (p.219).

  • From coercion to constructive engagement. Finally, Arquilla points out the more subtle change that Reagan introduced in our engagement with dictators. Reagan, Arquilla argues, inherited "a diplomatic strategy that, in its emphasis on containment, had come to rely on cultivating friendly despots to help defend areas that might come under threat of Soviet influence or control" (p.220). But the contradiction between US tolerance of dictators and its articulated human rights policy was severe. Reagan's solution was to "buil[d] his constructive engagement concept upon [the idea that some dictators were less odious than others] and added his own flourish about all tyrannies of the mind being weak. Their inherent weakness made it possible for us to think in terms of engaging them diplomatic, for time was always on our side according to this point of view" (p.220). Again, his successors followed this principle.

Lest Arquilla be thought as a Reagan cheerleader here, he also points to the failings in Reagan's strategy, failings that have made us far less able to deal with terrorism.

  • Allowing Pakistan to develop nuclear weapons. This failure arose from Reagan's need to accommodate Pakistan as it helped to support the Afghan muhajadeen against the Soviet incursion. Yet Pakistan's nuclear development led to the rise of the AQ Khan network and North Korean proliferation, as well as the possibility of nuclear weapons being taken by terrorist networks (p.222). Unfortunately, Arquilla adds, Reagan's successors have followed his lead.

  • Turning the concept of waging a war on terror into practical policy initiatives. Here, Arquilla uses "war on terror" to mean addressing asymmetric warfare – something that the US military is not well optimized or prepared to do, since it was shaped by Reagan's Defense Secretary Cap Weinberger to fight conventional wars. Weinberger preferred to take on terrorism using conventional forces. Reagan's Secretary of State George Shultz preferred covert special operations forces – the forces that were used with such success in Afghanistan under George W. Bush's administration. "Had Reagan's choice been to launch an irregular war on terror more than twenty years ago, the odds are that al Qaeda and other networks would not have become the potent threats they are today," Arquilla argues (p.223). Again, Reagan's successors have all followed this path.

  • Reagan's revitalization of the military gave the Pentagon free reign. This "resulted in a reaffirmation of the most traditional views of strategy and warfare at a time when the need to anticipate the rise of irregular adversaries was acute" (p.225). Reagan thus built a military optimized for a type of warfare that is "ever less likely to occur," and his successors have followed suit (p.225). Forces have been too large for their jobs.

Nevertheless, Arquilla makes a compelling case for Reagan's presidency as a transformative one, a presidency that in terms of strategy was driven by ideas rather than ideology. In the main text, Arquilla goes into great detail about how Reagan's actions were essential for spurring the collapse of the Soviet Union, taking on critics who have claimed the USSR would have collapsed even without Reagan's influence; how Reagan introduced essential ideas of informational strategy, drawing on his experience in the media; and other wrinkles. For many of my readers, these arguments will go against long-held assumptions about the Reagan presidency. But Arquilla limits his claims, supports them, and evaluates the results evenhandedly. If you're interested in strategy, in asymmetric warfare, or in informational strategy (the most direct connection to rhetoric), his book is worth a read.

A personal note. Reagan was president until 1988; I graduated from high school in 1987. As a high schooler, I had a surface understanding of the foreign policy challenges at the time, and a somewhat deeper appreciation for Soviet totalitarianism once I read Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago just before my senior year. And like many who grew up in the 1980s, I was pleasantly surprised to make it through high school without being incinerated in a nuclear holocaust. Arquilla's book has given me a better understanding of the challenges we faced during that decade, and a better appreciation of the challenges we face during this current time.

Reading :: Conversation and Community

Conversation and Community: The Social Web for Documentation
By Anne Gentle

I checked in my LinkedIn updates the other week, and Anne Gentle's status message said that she had just published this book. Curious, I checked out the description on, and then I did something I almost never do: I bought the book on Amazon, new, without even seeing it. That's because Gentle has finally taken on something that technical communicators desperately need to do: she has written a book that grapples with how technical communication is impacted by, and can leverage, social media.

I've ridden this hobby horse for a few years. The last chapter of Tracing Genres through Organizations, for instance, discusses a speculative "open system" in which users could contribute their own free-form documentation. These way-out predictions now look timorous and tentative, as I acknowledge in the summer 2009 issue of JBTC, since people use Google to find answers to very specific questions and Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, etc. to establish communities. In my principles of technical writing classes last year, I had a project based on establishing a relationship between static, official documentation and dynamic, user-contributed documentation. But I haven't done the practical groundwork to guide such work. So I was delighted to see that Anne Gentle has.

Gentle really comes to grips with the shift that ubiquitous Internet connections have precipitated. As she points out, consumers more and more frequently start their documentation searches with an Internet search engine, and they frequently look for documentation that matches their learning style – which may be a YouTube video, podcast, or set of photos rather than traditional written documentation (p. 17). Meanwhile, the third-party print market has begun to feature page turners (e.g. the For Dummies books) (p.21) rather than the spare reference guides and user guides that were developed during the tech comm heyday of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The tech comm landscape is much more populated these days, and writers have to be sensitive to the entire ecology of texts and what niche each one fills.

In Chapter 2, Gentle does a nice job of listing such niches of social media (pp.30-33), covering not just community content, discussions, and video, but also texting, microblogging, and tagging. She discusses user-generated examples such as the World of Warcraft wiki (p.37). And as the book progresses, she outlines how writers can determine the best contributions they can make, their starting points, and their strategies for best impacting social media. She describes social media roles (p.73) and the phases of a strategic plan for social media engagement, such as the listening phase, the participation phase, the content sharing phase, and the platform or stage phase (pp.75-78). She also discusses the social capital involved in developing documentation – and encouraging users to generate their own (p.107).

So I'm thrilled that Gentle has written the book and that it covers what it does. Conversation and Community isn't perfect – it's going to be difficult to follow for the people who need it most, students in introductory tech comm courses, who are not as familiar with basic tech comm concepts as the book requires them to be. But for those who have worked as technical writers, the book provides an accessible, strategically minded discussion of social media and how they can work with it. I am strongly considering adopting it for one of my classes. Take a look.

Reading :: Team Writing

Team Writing: A Guide to Working in Groups
By Joanna Wolfe

Whenever I talk to people in industry about what they need from UT graduates, they typically tell me that students need to be able to manage projects. That doesn't typically mean formal project management, but it does involve setting objectives, developing a task list and schedule, delegating, and collaborating with others. Unfortunately, group projects in writing classes typically don't provide mechanisms for helping students to collaborate or plan projects; students are usually thrown into groups and asked to cooperate. So I've put together a standard presentation for my classes focusing on the strategic, tactical, and operational components of project planning; I've asked them to use project management software with common task lists; and I've had them use collaborative software for writing, such as Google Docs or a wiki.

Joanna Wolfe, who received her PhD from the University of Texas not long ago, has gone light years beyond that. I am really thrilled with this book, which introduces students to the basics of project management and collaboration. Based on her work on collaboration for an NSF grant, she has systematized collaboration for students, including several genres such as task schedules, meeting minutes and agendas, project plans, and team charters. She includes diagnostics for discovering students' working styles so they can become aware of how each member prefers to work. She comes up with innovative ways of dealing with low-investment students, such as allowing disinterested students to negotiate up front for a lower grade in return for a lower workload. She describes different methods of collaborative writing, of conflict resolution, of soliciting feedback, of prodding late team members to contribute.

In short, Wolfe has put together what I consider to be an invaluable guide for team projects. The book is thin and she assures us that it could be handled within a two-week class segment. It is supplemented by videos on the book's website. And it can be optionally bundled with other Bedford/St, Martin books at a discount – something that will lead me to reexamine that catalog. I will almost certainly assign this book in some of my future courses.