Thursday, May 13, 2010

Reading :: A Theory of Power

A Theory of Power
By Jeff Vail

I don't remember exactly how I got to Jeff Vail's blog - probably one of those Google chains that started with Ronfeldt's work on TIMN - but I was intrigued by his use of Deleuze and Guattari's rhizome concept to develop ideas about nonhierarchical organization and resilient communities. Based on the blog, I ordered Vail's book A Theory of Power.

This slim (50pp excluding references) monograph is quirky in many ways. For instance, it's written in English Prime (p.1, footnote 1), and thus includes no "be" verbs except in quotations. More broadly, it's iconoclastic enough to be described as "anarchist theory" - and to be endorsed by anarchist theorists. Two endorsement quotes grace the back cover: anarchist philosopher John Zerzan calls it "rich, stimulating, and ambitious," while Noam Chomsky, simply declares it "fascinating."

Personally, I found it fascinating too, but I'm afraid I was not persuaded by it. Vail makes an unusual argument that is made more unusual because it uses the concept of rhizome in a way that I think directly opposes Deleuze and Guattari's intention. If you've read my review of A Thousand Plateaus and my book Network, you might have some inkling of how startling it is to read Vail's declaration that he'll use the rhizome concept to "illuminate the fundamental clockwork of our minds, bodies, and societies, revealing principles of power-relationships that govern all aspects of what we perceive as reality, from the environment and economics to politics and psychology. It will unravel the bonds that hold humanity in slavery to the patterns of history - and ultimately provide the key to our freedom" (p.3). Vail reads A Thousand Plateaus and sees a foundationalist account of reality. This foundationalist account, like Engels' version of dialectics, characterizes the whole of reality: "The same concept of power-relationships that defines sub-atomic structure also seems to define the larger world we live in - ecologies, societies, and economies. It acts like opening a watch to reveal the works inside" (p.5).

Vail contrasts two "fundamental methods of organization," which are "hierarchy and rhizome" (p.7). And in contrast to Deleuze and Guattari's caution that a rhizome is an antigenealogy and an antimemory (see D&G p.11, 21), Vail takes "a developmental, historical approach in the deconstruction of our world" (p.8). His Chapter 3 provides a brief history of the world, drawn primarily from Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene (which I haven't read). Here, the argument goes something like this: The gene uses organisms to reproduce itself; we organisms are the junior partner in this power relationship, then, controlled by the gene (p.9), evolving in order to ensure the gene's survival. Group entities, or cultures, are meta-individuals - but here, following Dawkins, Vail says that the controlling power is the meme, "the cultural equivalent of the gene" (p.11). And just as genes control organisms to ensure their self-reproduction, memes control cultures to ensure their own replication (p.11). Genes and memes coevolve, but memes are more rapid, flexible, and adaptable; nevertheless, memes interact strongly with genes, triggering genetic functions (p.12). (Although Vail doesn't use the term, the relationship sounds quite dialectic in an Engelsian sense.)

With writing, memes could expand "beyond the linguistic confines of their human host" (p.16). Vail cautions: "We must not, however, forget that memes do not serve humanity - rather, they use us for their propagation" (p.16).

(An aside here: Neal Stephenson brilliantly uses a version of this scenario in his book Snow Crash. But that book is dystopian science fiction.)

In Vail's account, the evolution of memes led to agriculture, which "ended the genetic evolution of humanity as it existed for millions of years, and finally completed the transition of power over human action from the gene to the meme" (p.19). In agriculture, the meme controls food production and therefore the individual (p.20). Under agriculture, evolution switched from individual to group selection, and "the makeup of our genome froze in the Pleistocene era of hunter-gatherers" (p.21). Technologies, as memes, also "follow a hard-wired path" of "selfish interest" (p.30) - and here Vail tries to be radically symmetrical, but comes across as a technological determinist.

At this point, Vail argues: "The understanding that self-awareness exists to serve the meme breaks that bond of servitude - it acts as the realization of enlightenment. Reread that last sentence," he orders. Have you done that? Great. From a theoretical standpoint, I am extremely dubious. But the good news is that this is the turning point of the monograph, because Vail turns from overarching (and arboreal, in the Deleuzean sense) theory to the more practical question of constructing resilient communities via networked organization.

Vail forges on to describe an alternate arrangement: "The path to stability and sustainability in human society lies in the conscious manipulation of memetic control structures" (p.40), and here he turns to the rhizome, which is hierarchy's "opposite" (p.40). According to Vail, "Rhizome acts as a web-like structure of connected but independent nodes, borrowing its name from the structures of bamboo and other grasses" (p.41). It is incompatible with hierarchy (p.41). (And here, when Vail says "rhizome," I hear "network" in the Ronfeldtian sense.) At the same time, Vail declares that "Rhizome structure has no inherent instability, but it will quickly reorder into hierarchy if we do not address the institutions within our society that serve to perpetrate hierarchy" (p.41). He goes on to discuss rhizomes as the basis for what John Robb would call resilient communities.

At this later, less theoretically ambitious portion of the monograph, Vail is actually describing a particular kind of networked organization. And here, if we set aside the Snow Crash style historical narrative, we can realize some gains. Vail draws on diverse examples to describe how a "rhizomatic" (networked) community focused on individual empowerment might look. The result is a cross of John Robb's resilient communities, Bobbitt's entrepreneurial market-state, and vintage Heinlein. Then again, I think Arquilla and Ronfeldt's work does a much better job of examining the same sort of phenomenon in more qualified, better theorized ways.

In sum, I found this to be a very strange monograph. Like Chomsky, I would call it "fascinating," but not in a wholly positive sense. I regret that I can't recommend it to the casual reader, but those who are interested in anarchist theory or resilient communities may want to pick it up.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Reading :: The Work of Nations

The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st Century Capitalism
By Robert B. Reich

So I've been meaning to read this book for over ten years, ever since Johndan Johnson-Eilola first started referring to it. Published in 1991, this book is written for a general audience and attempts to explain "a transformation that will rearrange the politics and economics of the coming century. There will be no national products or technologies, no national corporations, no national industries. There will no longer be national economies, at least as we have come to understand that concept. All that will remain rooted within national borders are the people who comprise a nation" (p.3). That is, Reich is addressing the issue of globalization, of hollow nation-states (Castells et al), of post-capitalist society (Drucker), of the support economy (Zuboff and Maxmin), of the market-state (Bobbitt), of power shifts (Toffler), of asymmetry (Arquilla and Ronfeldt), of creatives (Florida).

If I had read this book in 1991, it would have been a revelation (although admittedly it would be less of a revelation if I had read Toffler's books up to that point). Reading it now, though, I find few additional insights that haven't been covered by the books above, and the book is more popularly written than even Toffler's books.

On the other hand, Reich's evaluation is different from those of the other authors. Reich concludes that the US' real challenge is "to increase the potential value of what its citizens can add to the global economy, by enhancing their skills and capabilities and by improving their means of linking those skills and capacities to the world market" (p.8). In doing so, Reich wonders less about the US economy than its society, and he wonders, "are we still a society, even if we are no longer an economy?" (p.9). Can we rescue the nation-state?

For Bobbitt, the answer was no, and that was fine because other state configurations wait in the wings. For Reich, the answer is yes, partially (I think) because he doesn't envision a state that's not a nation-state. To answer this question affirmatively, Reich takes us through an accessible history of the 20th century, focusing on the tacit bargain that the US struck with its national champions, the corporations. Yet as corporations became more internationally connected, began outsourcing to take advantage of cheap labor and localized competencies, and began taking advantages of differences in local economic and regulatory conditions, that bargain fell apart; corporations "are ceasing to exist in any form that can meaningfully be distinguished from the rest of the global economy" (p.77); and the standard of living for any country's citizens suddenly depends, not on the success of core corporations and industries, but on "the worldwide demand for [citizens'] skills and insights" (p.77).

Like Castells and Drucker, Reich sees corporations turning to "serving the unique needs of particular customers" (p.82), achieving high-value as well as high-volume production. Such high-value businesses focus on three skills: problem-solving skills, skills to help customers understand needs, and skills that link problem-solvers and problem-identifiers (p.84). The distinction between goods and services means less and less (p.85). And given this shift, bureaucracies make less and less sense (pp.87-88; cf. Toffler's adhocracies). Reich describes the new enterprise as a "web" (looking more like Burt's brokered "neighbor networks" than all-channel networks; p.89). Non-core standardized pieces, including temporary labor, are acquired as needed (p.90; cf. Toffler's adhocracies, but also Castells' generic labor). And because enterprises are arranged in this way, Reich argues, official statistics aree hard to interpret (p.94). For instance, we've seen a rise in self-employment figures, but Reich argues that these self-employed people are generally not taking replacement jobs, they're becoming autonomous nodes in enterprise webs (p.95). "There is no 'inside' or 'outside' the corporation, but only different distances from its strategic center," Reich states, offering the example of a deregulated AT&T (p.96).

Given these changes, Reich argues that "The key assets of high-value enterprise are not tangible things, but the skills involved in linking solutions to particular needs, and the reputations that come from having done so successfully in the past" (p.98). Ownership and power are diffused (p.98). Creatives can't be bought or acquired, only enticed (p.103; cf. Florida).

Globally, high-value enterprises resist top-down control and centralized ownership (p.110). The many digital and telecommunications technologies constitute the "threads" that make up the "global web" and make national control over information flows futile (p.111). Increasingly, the "global web" carries most of what is traded between nations: problem-solving, problem-identifying, brokerage between these, and routine components and services (p.113).

Later in the book, Reich breaks down the "three jobs of the future": routine production services, in-person services, and symbolic-analytic work (p.174). The first are routine, step-by-step, repeatable (p.174); Castells terms these "generic labor." Those who perform these jobs are in competition with workers and automated labor globally; their wages will fall. The second set are marginally more protected, since in-person services can't be outsourced, but their wages are also sinking. The third, according to Reich, are the truly competitive jobs, and their wages will rise. Symbolic-analytic workers work alone or in small teams; teamwork is crucial; they must have frequent and informal conversations; they are partners and associates rather than under bosses or supervisors (pp.178-179). They comprised only 8% of the workforce in the 1950s, but 20% in the 1990s (p.179). In the new economy, their job is not to know things, but to use that knowledge (p.182). Fortunately for us (the US), Reich says, no nation educates its symbolic-analytic workers as well as the US (p.225), and nowhere else is there such an agglomeration of them (p.226).

But, and this brings us back to Reich's question at the beginning of the book, can we save US society? After all, he says, symbolic-analytic workers are seceding from society (Ch.20-21). Alas, Reich ends with hope of a solution rather than an actual solution.

So was The Work of Nations worth it for me? I think it was. Although other readings cover almost all of this ground, and in frequently more sophisticated ways, Reich's piece is relatively early and provides a panoramic view of the shift toward a knowledge society. If that sounds interesting to you, pick it up.

n.b., When I refer to other books I've reviewed on this blog, I usually insert links. Today, that seems like too much work. But don't hesitate to search for any of the names above if the books sound intriguing.

Reading :: Digital Literacy for Technical Communication

Digital Literacy for Technical Communication: 21st Century Theory and Practice
Edited by Rachel Spilka

When I was in high school, I'd spend some of my yard work money on classic rock albums. But I wasn't exactly swimming in money, so I'd try to buy albums strategically. After all, plenty of albums have one or two hit songs, but the rest of the tracks were unremarkable at best and filler at worst. So as an austerity measure, I limited myself to albums that had at least three songs I recognized and liked. Led Zeppelin IV?Dark Side of the Moon? Sure, buy. American Pie? Nope.

I have more money now, but less time, so I find myself doing similar calculations. If you read this blog regularly, you know that I prefer single-author books to edited collections: they tend to be more coherent and vary less in quality. But then again, sometimes a good author and a good topic make it worth picking up the collection. That's the case with Rachel Spilka's new collection, Digital Literacy for Technical Communication - at least if you're interested in technical communication. This book addresses the question of how the field of technical communication is changing due to the influx of new digital technologies and how our theories and practices must continue developing to keep up. And I'm happy to report that it has some solid chapters.

Let's look at some of these. First up is Saul Carliner's "Computers and Technical Communication in the 21st Century." Carliner traces changes in technical communicators' work at a large (unnamed) computer manufacturer that has traditionally employed large numbers of technical communicators (p.22). And although Carliner discusses these changes in detail, you'll want to keep your finger on p.22 and turn to pp.24-25, where Carliner examines four stages - late 1970s, mid-to-late 1980s, late 1990s-early 2000s, and early 2000s-now - in terms of primary products, titles, qualifications, primary job responsibilities, and primary means of production. The bottom line is that technical communication has changed radically across all these dimensions. Carliner concludes that in this latest stage, "those who develop and produce content have been facing dwindling work opportunities" due partly to offshoring and content management systems (p.44). Carliner smartly draws implications for work processes, information reuse, and academic programs (pp.45-47).

Along the same lines, R. Stanley Dicks' chapter "The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work" describes "the rapid and intense increase in digital literacy" as pushing causing a "seismic shift" in technical communication (p.51). Dicks emphasizes corresponding changes in management philosophy, related to economics, management, and methodologies (p.52). In terms of economics, Dicks reviews the shift toward knowledge work, drawing on Reich (and Johnson-Eilola's work referencing Reich) (p.53), then moving to a summary of Zuboff and Maxmin's The Support Economy (p.55-59). In terms of management, Dicks identifies ways for communicators to show management how they add value: through cost reduction, cost avoidance, revenue enhancement, and intangible contributions (p.61). Finally, in terms of methodologies, Dicks discusses relatively new practices such as single-sourcing, agile development methods, user-centered design, iterative design, extreme programming, scrum, distributed work, and web 2.0 (pp.68-75). Dicks wraps up by discussing education that can address these emerging aspects of technical communication.

Dave Clark's "Shaped and Shaping Tools" examines technical communication technologies in rhetorical terms. As Clark points out, the rhetoric of technology is ill-defined, and we need a solid definition in order to better understand how technical communicators work with their tools rhetorically. Arguing strongly that the rhetoric of technology is not the rhetoric of science (pp.89-90), he draws on Dorothy Winsor's work to make that case, then proceeds to examine how tech comm scholars have conducted rhetoric-of-technology studies (pp.91-92). Clark tackles these under four (nonexhaustive) headings: rhetorical analysis; technology transfer and diffusion; genre theory; and activity theory. Clark concludes by emphasizing what the approaches share: "Understanding [technologies'] contexts is critical to developing a deeper understanding of technologies that can lead to their more effective use" (p.100).

William Hart-Davidson's "Content Management: Beyond Single-Sourcing" focuses on a specific area that Carliner and Dicks both mentioned (and that Clark has addressed in other publications). The chapter is well done, but turn to the table on p.136 for an overview of "technical communicators' expanding roles and responsibilities in the context of an organization's content strategy" (p.136). Think of this table as an exploded view of the last column in Carliner's table, a detailed view of aspects of Dicks' chapter, and to some extent a rhetorical understanding of technology along the lines introduced in Clark's chapter. Nice work here.

Other chapters are also worthwhile. Just to name-check two: Bernadette Longo's "Human + Machine Culture" attempts to draw connections between activity theory and cultural theory, while Barry Thatcher's "Understanding Digital Literacy Across Cultures" examines how digital technologies complicate intercultural communication.

Bottom line? I'm not sure Digital Literacy for Technical Communication is a Led Zeppelin IV, but it's no one-hit wonder either. It has some solid and surprisingly integrated pieces that represent smart thinking about how technical communication is developing. If you're interested in tech comm, I'd definitely recommend picking it up.