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.