Friday, March 26, 2010

SXSWi: Interview with Amanda Congdon on coworking

For once, I was the interviewee. Thanks to Amanda and the SometimesDaily crew for this opportunity. They managed to edit my interview into something coherent - although I can't believe I pronounced the country "Bangalesh" :/

Update: Here's a pic a colleague snapped of me during the interview. Amanda had a two-person team, one with a camera on a tripod (to our left), the other one shooting the primary video on an SLR. I was impressed by how smoothly they worked together.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Reading :: Building Social Web Applications

Building Social Web Applications: Establishing Community at the Heart of Your Site
By Gavin Bell

Gavin and I have been following each other on Twitter for a while (he's @zzgavin), partially because we both share an interest in social media and activity theory. Since he was in town last week for South by Southwest Interactive, I swung by and picked up a (signed) copy of his new book, an O'Reilly title on designing, building, and maintaining social web apps. It's quite good (and Gavin is a great guy in person).

The book is pitched toward people who are building social apps, who have an idea, but who may not have the experience to execute. So it takes us through topics as varied as building APIs, creating and managing community relationships, managing change, making choices about relationships and privacy, managing identities, understanding social network patterns, and organizing the site. Gavin draws on many examples from familiar sites, including Twitter, Facebook, and FriendFeed among others. These are tremendously useful.

For instance, I was struck by his example on p.72 of how Facebook initially rolled out its Mini-Feed in 2006: they had tested it internally, within a smaller, generally colocated group of coworkers (Facebook mployees), and had assumed that their experience would be identical to that of Facebook's general users. But FB's general users tended to friend people they didn't know - and suddenly the Mini-Feed made them feel exposed to all of these not-really-friends. Interestingly, as I read this story, I realized that I had just heard almost exactly the same story - from the GMail/Google Buzz group at their SXSWi panel. If only they had read this book!

Gavin draws on activity theory and actor-network theory to underpin his ideas on social web applications, although they are explained mostly in a sidebar on pp.94-95. He credits Jyri Engestrom, from whom he borrows the concept of social objects, but also points us to Kaptelinin and Nardi's excellent book. Activity theory isn't discussed in great detail - it's not that kind of book - but Gavin clearly thought about it a great deal as he thought through this book.

If you're thinking about launching a social web app, if you're teaching students about the same, or if you just want to better understand how these sites work, I highly recommend the book.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Reading :: The Shield of Achilles

The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History
By Phillip Bobbitt

This morning, after a hard-fought battle in Congress, President Obama signed a health care reform into law. The legislation was hashed out over a year, then passed in the House with just a few votes. No Republicans voted for the bill. And in my Twitter stream and Facebook activity feed, people characterize their opponents in outrageous ways. One set characterizes the new law as impending socialism or fascism, and they hope that it can be struck down or repealed. The other characterizes the law's opponents as racists who hate the poor or dupes who exhibit a Pavlovian response to Republican fear-mongering. I'm left to wonder whether these two sets are aware of each other and whether they see the same status updates that I do. My guess is that they do, since occasionally one will threaten to defriend anyone who disagrees with him. As far as I can tell, no one pays attention to these threats.

Such battles, I think, have been brewing for a while and I think they will continue to intensify. I don't think that's because our representatives are hypocrites, oligarchs, or demagogues (although I'm sure some are) or because our citizens are underinformed, callous, or easily led (although I'm sure some are). I think it has more to do with the question of what the State's obligation to its citizens is - the unspoken assumptions or warrants that underlie the State's authority. And in this delicate post-Cold War period, the “end of history” as Fukuyama optimistically called it, we are in the middle of figuring it out. Again.

What is the role of the State? Phillip Bobbitt, in this award-winning book, doesn’t seek to prescribe it but to chronicle it. In his 827-page book (not including the index), he lays out the case that the State has undergone many transformations, many different constitutional orders and bases of legitimacy, each one corresponding roughly to an epochal war. Bobbitt lays out the following types of state, their approximate (overlapping) spans, and their bases for legitimacy:

  • Princely state (1494-1572): “The State confers legitimacy on the dynasty.”
  • Kingly state (1567-1651): “The dynasty confers legitimacy on the State.”
  • Territorial state (1649-1789): “The State will manage the country efficiently.”
  • State-nation (1776-1870): “The State will forge the identity of the nation.”
  • Nation-state (1861-1991): “The State will better the welfare of the nation."
  • Market-state (1989-present): “The State will maximize the opportunity of its citizens.” (p.347)

Although Bobbitt has sometimes been read as advocating a market state (see the Amazon reviews), he doesn’t appear to be advocating at all, and in fact he is quite forthright about the many drawbacks of the emerging market-state. This isn’t a progressive understanding of history or a view of states as evolving to greater legitimacy or complexity. Indeed, he calls out Fukuyama’s notion of the “end of history,” arguing instead that what Fukuyama saw was only the end of an epochal war. More about this in a moment.

Rather than a progressive evolutionary view of the State, Bobbitt sees states as periodically undergoing constitutional crises in conjunction (or feedback) with other states, periodically redefining legitimacy as they do. (“Every era asks, ‘What is the State supposed to be doing?’” (p.177)). And as their constitutional bases change, so do the underlying assumptions regarding state actions. In one striking example, he argues that the 1995 debate over whether the US should have dropped the A-bombs on Japan in 1945 was “almost unintelligible in light of the struggle of the nation-state and its role in the Long War, but fits nicely within the assumptions and strategies of the market-state” (p.217, footnote).

Let’s get to the notion of the epochal war. Bobbitt argues that when a new constitutional order emerges, it corresponds roughly with epochal wars in which variations of the state battle for supremacy. For instance, he interprets the major wars of 1914-1990 as being parts of a single war – he calls it the Long War, and includes the Cold War among others – and claims that the Long War was about “which of three constitutional forms would replace [the preexisting imperial] system: parliamentary democracy, communism, or fascism” (p.24). That struggle, he says, ended with the end of the Cold War: parliamentary democracy outlasted and outcompeted fascism and communism, best enhancing the welfare of the nations that adopted it (p.62). This triumph yielded Fukuyama’s illusory end of history – and “the end of a way of living” (p.62).

Yet, Bobbitt adds, the nation-state can no longer deliver on its promises. It can’t guarantee the safety of its citizens: states that have no nuclear weapons cannot guarantee security, but those with nuclear weapons make their citizens a target (p.218). It can’t guarantee welfare: the proceeds of the nation-state’s borrowing have been returned as consumption rather than infrastructure or investment, so

a nation-state’s government simply finds itself unable to either balance its budget (because it cannot reduce welfare outlays to all sectors) or redirect the proceeds of its borrowing, because only by borrowing money can it continue plausibly to claim that it is bettering the welfare of its people …. Such policies have an inevitable end, as everyone recognizes. There is no reason a state cannot grow out of its deficit, but to do so, however, it will have to increasingly abandon the objective of the government’s maintaining the ever-improving welfare of its citizens. That is, it will have to change the crucial element of the basis for its legitimacy as a nation-state. (p.222)

Furthermore, the nation-state can no longer protect the nation’s cultural integrity: the nation-state relies on the morale of its own nation (and on crushing the morale of the nations of its enemy states), yet “the globalization of communications … wrests control of this morale from the instrumentality of the nation-state” (p.224). Further, the nation-state typically allies with one ethnic group in its nation, something that works against “the equal treatment of different cultural communities” – and as this problem works itself out, “we will inevitably get a multicultural state when the nation-state loses its legitimacy as the provider and guarantor of equality” (p.225).

Finally, the nation-state relies on controlling its self-portrayal. Yet the press and the electronic media have disrupted the history and self-portrayal of the state, delegitimizing it. At the same time, computer technology has “breached the security of the State and ever more widely disseminated the information government once claimed to possess solely”; the bureaucracy controls information, but the photocopier disperses it (p.227). (We might add, with Castells, the effects of the Internet, texting, YouTube, and Twitter – and we might marvel that China recently conducted censorship negotiations with Google as if Google were more than a company.)

So, Bobbitt says, the nation-state can no longer deliver on its promise to better the welfare of the nation: the system of entitlements has topped out, national security is only relative when other nations have nuclear weapons, and the idea of the nation itself is crumbling as national narratives are disrupted and nations themselves turn from “melting pots” to multicultural collections. Yet Bobbitt does not see the end of the State itself, as some have predicted. Rather, he argues that we are in the transition to a new sort of state, the market-state (p.228), which focuses on maximizing the opportunities (not the welfare) of individuals. The market-state has these characteristics:

  • It depends on international capital markets to create stability.
  • Its political institutions are less representative, more democratic.
  • It “assesses its economic success or failure by its society’s ability to secure more and better goods and services, but in contrast to the nation-state it does not see the State as more than a minimal provider or redistributor” (p.229)
  • It “exists to maximize the opportunities enjoyed by all members of society” (p.229). Personal autonomy is more valued and prevalent (p.668).
  • It sees currency and jobs as simple commodities.
  • It is “classless and indifferent to race and ethnicity and gender” (p.230)
  • It is not characterized by the rule of law, as the nation-state was, but by a level playing field.
  • It often chooses to restrain government in order to reduce transaction costs.
  • The marketplace replaces the factory as the economic arena; people are consumers rather than producers. (p.230)
  • Teamwork and harmony become better indicators of an organization’s long-term prospects than other indices (p.232) (cf. Heckscher & Adler, Castells, Drucker, Toffler)

Whereas the parliamentary nation-state’s motto was to “make the world safe for democracy,” Bobbitt says, the market-state’s motto would perhaps be “make the world available.” (p.233)

Let me interrupt the recap here. If you’re reading this and thinking that the market-state sounds like a Libertarian fantasy that corresponds closely to the Republicans who are resisting health care, that’s completely understandable. But I should point out that Bobbitt sees several possible forms for the market-state, only one of which is consonant to any significant degree with libertarianism. “Because the market-state secures political legitimacy through the active pursuit of opportunity for its citizens but declines to specify the goals for which opportunity is to be used, there will be different models whose advocates can plausibly maintain that their constitutional strategy best maximizes opportunity” (p.669). Bobbitt sees three models of the market-state, models that will compete just as the nation-state’s models of parliamentary democracy, fascism, and communism competed during the Long War. These models include:

  • The entrepreneurial market-state, which involves little protectionism, relies on immigrant labor, keeps wages low, grows hardy and agile local industries, tends to have high income disparity, and emphasizes autonomy and personal achievement (p.670). He proffers China as a model (p.670), which may be a surprise to some, because this is the most libertarian of the models (p.671). His metaphor for this form: the “Meadow” (p.721).
  • The merchantile market-state, which “relies on a strong central government to protect national industries, stabilize crucial research and development, and steer certain important enterprises toward success” (p.671). This state relies on artificial pricing and interest rates, coordinates capital flows, and sees long-term societal interests as outweighing consumer interests. Income disparities are suppressed and pay is rationalized (p.671). The objective is social stability, and success comes not through efficiency but through mobilizing all labor and encouraging high capital accumulation (p.672). Models include Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan (p.671). His metaphor for this form: the “Park” (p.721).
  • The managerial market-state, which “consists of three basic elements: free and open markets within a regional trading network, a government that provides a social safety net and manages a stringent monetary policy, and a socially cohesive society” (pp.672-673). Its main objective is to achieve social equality (p.673). It relies on “stakeholder companies” that seek to “reflect the priorities of workers, managers, communities, vendors, and environmentalists on something like parity with the interests of shareholders” (p.673). It’s highly regulated (p.674). Models include Europe and possibly India. His metaphor for this form: the “Garden” (p.721).

Each model has its own strengths and vulnerabilities. In Ch. 25, he conducts some thought experiments, imagining how worlds dominated by each model might handle similar scenarios. In Ch. 26, he discusses how threats will be manifested in a world dominated by the market-state, emphasizing that different forms of the market-state have different views of sovereignty (p.779). Throughout, he is brutal about and discussing the pros and cons of each model as well as the market-state as a whole; no cheerleading here. Moreover, Bobbitt doesn’t see the end of history here: he expects these three emerging forms of the market-state not just to compete but to war, just as parliamentary democracy, fascism, and communism did.

I’ve skipped a lot in this book, including Bobbitt’s lengthy discussion of each historical form of the State, and I hope that I’ve done justice to the discussion that I’ve reviewed here. Because I think this epochal view is an important one, and Bobbitt’s is more finely textured than some, such as Toffler’s three waves, and does a nice job of articulating some of the baseline assumptions about the legitimacy of the state. And I like his speculative work, although I am not ready to endorse that speculation or Bobbitt’s overall view of history. It’s an epochal view that’s worth examining, just as Toffler’s three waves or Ronfeldt’s TIMN or (to a lesser extent) Heckscher and Adler’s taxonomy of organizations. If you’re like me, you might try it on to see how it fits.

To bring things back to the beginning, Bobbitt’s discussion of states also provides a starting point for discussing current issues such as the healthcare battle discussed above. I think this battle has more to do with an underlying, but still quite inchoate, disagreement over the State’s function and legitimacy. And that doesn’t mean that we have market-state Republicans squaring off against nation-state Democrats – it means that people are still sorting things out on both sides of the aisle, still figuring out the shifting warrants, and in some cases still retreating to the nostalgia of bygone days as they grope for solutions to current issues (cf. the Tofflers' Creating a New Civilization).

In any case, the sweep of this book is really quite remarkable, and I found it to be thought-provoking. If you have a solid chunk of time and the inclination, I highly recommend you take it for a spin.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Reading :: Neighbor Networks

Neighbor Networks: Competitive Advantage Local and Personal
By Ronald S. Burt

I admit it: The math associated with social network analysis (SNA) confuses me. I don't have the background to follow it. But at the same time, I'm glad that someone does. SNA may lose some details and textures compared to qualitative research, but it scales more easily and provides better points of comparison. So, although I picked up Burt's Neighbor Networks with trepidation and skipped through some of the more involved analysis (even when "the math involved is modest," as Burt assures us at one point (p.227)), I'm still glad I read it.

Burt asks a simple question: "Is there advantage to affiliation with the well connected?" (p.1). Or in other words: do your neighbors and their networks matter? "The common-sense answer is yes," Burt says (p.1), but he wants to study the issue systematically. He begins the task by defining "structural holes," which are "mission relations that inhibit information flow between people" (p.4) - holes that happen when explicit knowledge is converted into local, tacit knowledge (p.3). These holes serve as "boundary markers in the division of labor" (p.4). (Longtime readers of this blog might think in terms of horizontal learning.)

Burt distinguishes between two sources of advantage in networks: brokerage and closure. "Closure is about staying on your side of the structural hole," while "Brokerage is about the benefits and exposure to variation in opinion and behavior provided by building connections across structural holes" (p.4). And in this book, Burt focuses on "network brokerage, measured in terms of opportunities to coordinate across structural holes" (p.4). After undertaking various studies, Burt concludes that "Despite technological advance, social capital remains a phenomenon local and personal" (p.14).

To make his case, Burt leads us through a number of analyses, methodically building a case for how brokerage works in different cases: with network spillover, in balkanized and in highly connected networks, in industry networks and financial services.

Overall, I'm glad I read Neighbor Networks. I have a better handle on SNA concepts now, and I also have a better idea of how SNA argument works. The math is still beyond me, I'm afraid, but the careful argument development was a pleasure to read.

Reading :: Web Campaigning

Web Campaigning
By Kirsten A. Foot and Steven M. Schneider

Reading this 2006 book is really a fascinating exercise in 2010. Foot and Schneider aim to understand technology adoption and deployment patterns by viewing campaigns as sociotechnical networks (p.14) - specifically the "web spheres," the "dynamically defined digital resources spanning multiple Web sites deemed relevant or related to a central event, concept, or theme" (p.20). They examine campaigns' web spheres in 1998, 2000, 2002, and 2004, and they find that these web spheres performed at least four functions: informing, involving, connecting, and mobilizing (chapters 3-6 respectively). Each function is broken down into different components, so we can see how web spheres have tended to develop each component and function over time (see p.158).

Despite the many changes we've seen since 2004, this fourfold heuristic seems really useful for understanding how web presences have developed over time. What really intrigued me was that the changes were so deep between 2004 and 2008, when two of the most innovative and intriguing presidential campaigns used social media in radically expanded ways. Yes, Obama was one, but Ron Paul's minimal-core, social-media-heavy campaign was the other. Another development: we've seen the permanent campaign develop its own continuous-process "voting" mechanism, the money bomb, enacted partially through social media. I'm wondering how these changes will register in Foot and Schneider's follow-up work: will they be able to fit them into existing categories or will they develop additional ones? Will they continue to be able to trace web spheres in the way they could in the relatively limited campaigns of 2004?

In any case, Foot and Schneider have come up with a strong analytical framework for understanding web presences. The examples are now dated, but the framework should be able to bear more recent analyses. If you're interested in web campaigning, certainly pick this one up.

Reading :: The Firm as a Collaborative Community

The Firm as a Collaborative Community: The Reconstruction of Trust in the Knowledge Economy
Edited by Charles Heckscher and Paul S. Adler

I was dismayed last month to discover that I hadn't already written a review for this book, partially because it's so full of insights, and partially because it's such a behemoth that reviewing it will take some time. To give you an idea of what I mean: this 13-chapter collection starts off with a 95-page chapter by Adler and Heckscher, an introduction that is just a hair too short to be a monograph.

As Heckscher and Adler explain in the Introduction, the collection itself tackles a tension in social analysis: "community and trust seem increasingly necessary in a complex interdependent world, but they are also less available" (p.1). That's true in the public sphere, but also in the corporate sphere, because "complex knowledge-based production requires high levels of diffuse cooperation resting on a strong foundation of trust" - and, the authors argue, markets and hierarchies have not been enough to coordinate in the absence of trust (p.1). This collection's contributors share the sense that "a distinctively new form of community is being developed in the womb of the most advanced business organizations today" (p.2), a much more collaborative and open community where trust can be built. The authors suggest three pillars of "this emergent collaborative community":
  1. "a shared ethic of interdependent collaboration";
  2. "a formalized set of norms of interdependent process management";
  3. "an interactive social character ... that grounds an interdependent social identity" (pp.2-3).
Adler and Heckscher also contribute the first chapter, "Towards Collaborative Community," in which they examine sociological views of community. They describe three sociological camps, then plant themselves in the third camp, which "has explored the possibility that a new and possibly higher form of community might emerge, offering a framework for trust in dynamic and diverse relationships, and reconciling greater degrees of both solidarity and autonomy" (p.12). They develop this idea by first discussing "thick" trust (Gemeinschaft) and "thin" trust (Gesellschaft) (p.13), then suggesting that in the new form of the collaborative community, these two sorts of trust are brought together in a dialectical synthesis (p.15).

To move this argument forward, the authors define three principles of social organization - hierarchy, market, and community - and use a number of tables to compare these principles in terms of coordinating mechanisms, primary benefits, resources produced, tasks, values, organization, and identities (pp.15-17). This discussion reminded me strongly of Ronfeldt's TIMN structure (see Ronfeldt's commentary on Adler & Heckscher). It also helps to clarify what Adler & Heckscher mean when they discuss the emerging collaborative community: one that exhibits high levels of adaptiveness and complex interdependence, one in which trust is both vital and difficult (p.20). And we get an activity theory connection:
In a collaborative community, values are not individual beliefs, but the object of shared activity; they have to be discussed and understood in similar ways by everyone. The basis of trust is the degree to which members of the community believe that others have contributions to make towards this shared creation. Adler's chapter [later in the book] invokes this idea under the label 'object': a collaborative community emerges when a collectivity engages cooperative, interdependent activity towards a common object. (pp.20-21)
Adler's later chapter is an activity-theoretical analysis, and the authors make clear that they mean "object" in activity-theoretical terms. In that light, I think the authors gain a vital insight: In a collaborative community, in which different specialists from different disciplines (and often organizations) come together to achieve a project, the object of the activity is not the project itself (which is ephemeral) so much as the emerging values that help to define the collaborative community. This is Adler and Heckscher's answer to activity theory's current crisis in defining shared objects in knowledge work. (For a concrete example, see p.48, in which the authors describe a "values jam" at IBM.)

After some theory, Adler and Heckscher turn back to comparing bureaucracies, markets, and collaborative communities in terms of knowledge. Bureaucracy, they assert, is good at "organizing routinized production," but not at "complex interactive tasks involving responsiveness and innovation" (p.28). And although markets seem to be a good substitute, the market "fails to optimize the production and distribution of knowledge" (p.29). So neither of these "can simultaneously optimize incentives to produce knowledge and to disseminate it" (p.29). They believe that community can, since it reduces transaction costs, reduces agency risks, and allows tacit knowledge transfer (p.30). But the traditional form of community in corporations has been that of a community of loyalty - a community that (a) is founded on long-term employment and (b) tends to involve personal relations that are "linked to the hierarchy, rather than cutting across it" (p.33). In contrast, a knowledge-intensive economy needs teamwork based on principles, teamwork that involves "swift trust," not blind trust (p.34).

This isn't simple: "In a collaborative order people may be working on multiple tasks and initiatives with multiple accountabilities, and they frequently find themselves in situations where they are pulled in several directions at once. The ability to manage these tensions is one of the key capabilities required of individuals" (p.52). Further, people must understand the functions, contributions, and values of their partners in other parts of the organization (p.53). That is, workers must become more interdependent, and that new ethic is creating strains just as the emergence of the industrial revolution did: "it demands the ability to interact in multiple communities and to adapt to competing demands of interdependence" (p.54).

Adler & Heckscher here differentiate collaborative communities from "network relations," the term under which this phenomenon is often treated (p.59). They argue that although networks/communities are often treated as opposed to organizational hierarchies, this simple opposition is not adequate (p.59). Examples include corporations but also the open source movement.

This first chapter is worth the price of admission. But other chapters also make solid contributions.

In Chapter 2, Charles Sabel reviews the recent changes in organizations. "After roughly 1980, the canonical organization is federated and open," he says (p.107), "networked" - and "Network organizations manifestly outperform hierarchies in volatile environments, where goals change so quickly that reducing them to a seamless set of task specifications is highly risky, if it is possible at all" (p.108). Sabel goes on to discuss some variations of the networked organization and its challenges.

In Chapter 3, Michael Maccoby theorizes changes in selfhood as we transition from bureaucratic to interactive mode of social production. He argues that new organizations produce new selves with new ideology and ideals, new social character, and new socioeconomic bases (p.161).

In Chapter 4, Jay R. Galbraith defines networks as "varied relational patterns," and subsumes hierarchies and markets, friendships and value chains, under this heading (p.179). Given that definition, he argues that "business success increasingly depends on the ability to manage all these types of networks appropriately" (p.179). He helpfully presents a diagram of differentiated networks, extending from voluntary and informal groups through e-coordination, formal groups, integrators, matrix organizations, to line organizations, graphing them from low to high network power and authority (p.185).

In Chapter 5, Paul Adler presents his own case study, one of programmers transitioning from a relatively autonomous guild-like organization to a less autonomous collaborative community (p.199). Using activity theory, Adler examines the tensions (contradictions) felt by programmers as they made this transition.

Skipping a bit, in Chapter 7, Anabel Quan-Haase and Barry Wellman discuss "hyperconnected net work": "a new form of network organization, in which traditional hierarchical bureaucracies are short-circuited by employees that have direct access to all" (p.282). They use social network analysis to describe exchanges in an information network (p.297), and conclude that the site is "a hybrid organization, what Adler and Borys call an 'enabling bureaucracy,' where rules about work and vertical and horizontal divisions of labor exist along with high levels of trust and community cohesion" (p.315). The organization is "hyperconnected," with computer-mediated communication, face-to-face, and telephone contact creating a situation in which "community members - at work or elsewhere - are always connected to CMC and always available for communication" (p.317). CMC, they found, afforded trust (p.320).

In Chapter 9, Lynda M. Applegate extends the conversation to inter-firm collaborative communities. Like Adler & Heckscher, she develops tables comparing markets, hierarchies, and communities - this time, in terms of operating core, coordination and control, infrastructure and supporting processes, culture and affiliation, and leadership (p.372), using NASDAQ as a case. She further contrasts traditional and next-generation cooperatives (p.377) before applying the market-hierarchy-community comparison to Covisint, an automotive industry cooperative that attempts to provide equal value to suppliers and automakers (p.385). She takes away the key insight that "Community is emerging from the shadow of hierarchy and market to become a dominant form of governance" (p.404).

I've highlighted just a few of the chapters here, but the entire book is filled with really interesting insights. If you're interested in the transformation of work and work organization, as I am, or if you're just interested in how macro changes are affecting rhetoric and values, I highly recommend this book.