Friday, June 03, 2011

Commemorative post - 8 years at

Earlier this year I realized that I've been blogging for almost eight years. In fact, the first extant post is from June 5, 2003 - my review of Latour's Pandora's Hope. (I've lost a couple of previous non-book-review blog posts when I moved from Blogger to the CWRL's Drupal platform and back again.)

In that time, I've posted 428 reviews, 1044 short items about net work, 39 items on coworking, and miscellaneous others. The blog has changed a lot over the years - for instance, most of the short items I once posted to the blog are now fodder for my Twitter feed - but the backbone has always been the book reviews. In fact, the blog solved two interrelated problems that I had noted back in my grad school days:

  1. Keeping track of my insights. Beginning with grad school, I've always annotated the books I read - but I've always been too cheap to buy the majority of those books. So my preferred method - sticking post-it notes in the margins - didn't work too well when I returned books to the library. At the same time, I had a hard time keeping detailed notes in a notebook or on a file. It seemed like a lot of work to get these notes in a format that would make enough contextual sense, and I had a hard time disciplining myself to take such notes. There wasn't enough external pressure to do it.
  2. Sharing insights with others. Also in grad school, I became interested in sharing insights with others and getting their insights from them. The big factor here was the reading list for our qualifying exams: what seemed like an endless number of books and articles we had to read and know. I thought: how can we share our insights and comment on each other's thoughts? Let's start a conversation about these items! (Maybe I had too much time on my hands.) The problem was that in the mid-1990s not many collaborative writing formats existed. I actually tried to get people to construct a hypertext in Windows Help format, but as you can imagine, it never went anywhere. 
At Texas Tech (1999-2001) I started keeping notes in text files and even putting my marginal post-it notes in folders. These efforts were okay, but didn't work out well. After moving to the University of Texas in 2001 and finishing up the manuscript for my first book the year after that, I returned to the problem of recording my thoughts about my readings. At the same time, people at our Computer Writing and Research Lab began writing blogs. So I decided to start one too. It had three simple principles:

  1. I blog a review of every book I read.
  2. My reviews should be helpful to external audiences. 
  3. My reviews should be detailed enough that I can slot them into background sections in my future papers.
Since I'm a little OCD, these principles really helped me to stay on track. The public nature of the blog meant that I had to live up to principle #2, and principles #1 and #2 got me started enough that I could follow through on principle #3.

Although I confess that I don't always follow principle #1 anymore - some nonacademic reading I've decided to keep personal - the vast majority of the books I've read have been reviewed on the site. Some are very short reviews and others are very long ones, but all have helped me develop a memory and an understanding of these sources that I couldn't before.

Re principle #2, I've also been surprised by how helpful these reviews have occasionally been to readers. One person told me that "Clay Spinuzzi saved my life" because she had trouble absorbing Bakhtin's work, and reading my reviews helped. People occasionally weigh in with their comments too, which I appreciate.

And principle #3 has paid off in spades. Nearly every paper I write has sentences in the literature review that I've copied and pasted from the blog. (It's okay if I do it  - but I don't encourage you to do this, of course.)

In 2008, I found another use for the blog. Intrigued by what seemed like a mysterious blog post, I met with a couple of guys at a "co-company" called Conjunctured. Soon afterwards, Conjunctured started the first coworking space in Austin, and I started interviewing space proprietors and tracking the fascinating emergent phenomenon of coworking. It's the first research project I've blogged, and for these posts, I always conducted member checks, running the text past the proprietors before I posted the profiles. Doing so gave me a sort of member check that helped me to deepen my understanding of these spaces and this phenomenon.

In any case, I can't believe it's been eight years. Hopefully the blog has been helpful to you too - it's certainly been a game-changer for me.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Android allows rich text editing in its Blogger application ...

... so why doesn't Google support it in their Google Docs app?

Reading :: Terror and Consent

Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-first Century
By Philip Bobbitt

I've been meaning to review this book for months, but have been very busy - and the book is so thick that it needs some time to review. You may remember that I reviewed Bobbitt's impressive book The Shield of Achilles a while back. Terror and Consent is his follow-up effort, in which he attempts to examine terrorism in terms of the constitutional change he described in his previous book. That is, he sees present-day terrorism and its practitioners as a reaction to the ongoing shift from the nation-state to the market-state.

I'm far from being an expert on terrorism or fourth-generation warfare, so you may want to see some thoughts on Bobbitt's work by people who are: David Ronfeldt and John Robb (link goes to Robb's two-star review). Go read those, then come back.

Are you back? Okay, great. My short take is that this book is not as solid or groundbreaking as The Shield of Achilles, but it is still well worth reading if you're interested in how that previous book's thesis plays out when extended to terrorism. Ronfeldt disputes one aspect of that thesis (that we are currently in the transition to a market-state) and Robb disputes at least two others (that the market-state is a constitutional order and that terrorism is an illegitimate reaction to that order). Keep these fundamental objections in mind as you read the book; I'm going to start out by playing by Bobbitt's rules, then circle around to discuss the objections toward the end of this review.

Bobbitt begins by arguing that "the objective of these wars [against terror] is not the conquest of territory or the silencing of any particular ideology but rather to secure the environment necessary for states of consent and to make it impossible for our enemies to impose or induce states of terror. The source of these wars is not Islam but rather a fundamental change in the nature of the State and its evolving relationship to the new methods, purposes, and technologies of warfare" (p.3). As Bobbitt says elsewhere in the book, the "war on terror" is not a misplaced metaphor - it's not a metaphor at all (p.173). These wars against terrorism, he argues, must involve three efforts: preempting attacks by global terrorist networks; preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; and protecting civilians against "natural catastrophes and nonnatural assaults" (p.3). That last item may seem odd, but as Bobbitt argues, we're entering an age in which we may not be able to distinguish between natural catastrophes and terrorism (think in terms of biological warfare) and natural disasters may be used as multipliers for the effects of terrorism. In any case, "relieving the suffering and devastation that would be caused by such disasters [genocide, earthquakes, pandemics, tidal waves, hurricanes] calls on many of the same resources as the efforts against terrorism and proliferation" (p.3). Furthermore, he says, the most important feature of terrorist attacks is that "we often will not know their authors and must act in a condition of great uncertainty" (p.4).

This book, Bobbitt says, isn't about the root causes of terrorism but rather about whether the current change in the constitutional order "will result in the triumph of states of consent or states of terror" (p.4). Terror is a crucial test of the market-state, he says, because terrorism challenges the very basis of that constitutional order (p.12). To develop that argument, in Chapter 1, Bobbitt reviews the history of constitutional orders that he discussed in The Shield of Achilles, matching each order with the corresponding form of terrorism: Crusaders, buccaneers, pirates, anarchists, and national liberation movements all make an appearance here as counters to their corresponding constitutional orders. And in the advent of the market-state, based on the principle of maximizing opportunities for the individual, we also see the advent of a terrorism that uses market-state methods to negate individual choice (p.44). "Market state terrorism will be just as global, networked, decentralized, and devolved and rely on just as much outsourcing and incentivizing as the market state," Bobbitt argues (p.45), sounding a bit like Robb. al Qaeda, which Bobbitt sees as a transitional response, is better financed than its predecessors (p.49), quick to outsource local operations (p.50), and structured in a way that represents VISA or Mastercard organizational charts (p.51). (In fact, Bobbitt argues, Osama bin Laden's lasting legacy will be his organizational innovations (p.52)). One major differentiator is that market-state terrorism is no longer a technique, but an end in itself (p.62).

Bobbitt concludes that al Qaeda can be regarded as either a market-state terrorist group or a virtual market-state (p.65). It's "like a mutant nongovernmental organization" (p.84). AQ's strategic goal is constitutional, he says, and thus a counterterror approach must tightly coordinate strategy and law (p.70).

In Chapter 2, Bobbitt continues this argument by reminding us that the constitutional order is the unique grounds upon which the State claims legitimate power. The nation-state gained legitimacy from improving the material conditions of citizens (p.86). The market-state, in turn, says: give us power and we will give you new opportunities (p.88). In a footnote, Bobbitt takes a shot at the belief that terrorism is caused by economic deprivation: that argument, he says, rests on nation-state assumptions and "have nothing to say to al Qaeda or ecoterrorists or animal-rights terrorists or even those antiglobalization terrorists who are aroused more by the threat to cultural identity than by unfair terms of trade" (p.91).

Bobbitt goes on to describe the rise of AQ Khan's network for assembling and selling nuclear bomb-making capabilities, citing Gordon Corera's book. As he tells the story, Khan assembled a market for bombs that overlaid the state but escaped state control. (He doesn't spend much time discussing Khan's nationalistic motivations, which came through so clearly in Corera's book.)

In Chapter 3, Bobbitt returns to the question: is al Qaeda just a terrorist network or is it a virtual market-state? He suggests that it is both, and that states of terror will have different valences just as nation-states did (p.126). If we accept terrorist networks as adversaries in war, the 20th century emphasis on war vs. crime is an artifact of that era's separation of law vs. strategy (p.140). Whereas in earlier wars the objective was to kill the enemy, in the 21st century, the preferred outcome is to temporarily disable the soldier without killing (p.152). (Contrast that statement with the targeted killing of Osama bin Laden earlier this year and the Obama administration's increased use of Predator drones for remotely killing enemies.)  

In Chapter 4, Bobbitt goes on to discuss the question of victory over terror. States of consent don't need to win, he says - they simply need to not lose (p.183) in order to steadily expand the zones of consent (p.213). That means hardening infrastructure, preempting, and preventing (p.213). This, Bobbitt says, is the way to win a preclusive victory, the kind of victory that characterizes the era of the market-state (p.213). In interventions, the mission is not to establish democracy, but to legitimize the rule of law (p.221). One contrast he provides is in how the US handled Hurricane Katrina vs. how it handled the 2004 tsunami in Sumatra (pp.222-226). Later in the book, he suggests several measures to better reconcile law and strategy in governmental responses to threats, including repealing the Posse Comitatus Act and mandating a national ID (pp.417-418).

Anyway, let's stop here; I think that gives the gist of the book, and the rest is details. Bobbitt is very concerned that without careful reforms, emerging market-states will be hamstrung by the nation-state separation between law and strategy, and may damage their own legitimacy by either bending the rules to become more responsive or following the rules and responding inadequately. He outlines several such reforms.

Now to the objections. As I mentioned earlier, Ronfeldt disputes one aspect of that thesis (that we are currently in the transition to a market-state). I think that perhaps the distance between the two is not as wide as it appears here, with Bobbitt seeing networks (such as terrorist networks) as characteristic of the market-state rather than succeeding it. On the other hand, I don't think that Bobbitt has worked out some of the details of the networked form of organization to which Ronfeldt refers. Certainly some of the stronger measures that Bobbitt suggests (such as the national ID) seem like hierarchical reactions to networked organizations rather than what we might expect from a network solution. Again, I commend you to Ronfeldt for more on this question.

From another direction, Robb disputes at least two other assumptions that Bobbitt makes: that the market-state is a constitutional order and that terrorism is an illegitimate reaction to that order. Robb does offer a powerful critique here, providing examples of asymmetrical warfare that seeks to (or claims to seek to) maximize individual choice against states that seek to take it away. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Robb has not been reluctant to point the finger at states that have been hollowed out by a runaway market. I don't think that's quite what Bobbitt had in mind, but nevertheless, the picture is more messy (transitional?) than Bobbitt offers.

Nevertheless, I recommend the book - along with the critiques. Bobbitt has thought deeply about the issues and taken the time to develop cogent critiques and offer concrete proposals. They're well worth reading, if only as a way to sharpen your own thinking on these matters and to develop your own counterproposals. But definitely read The Shield of Achilles first.

(discuss the objections)

Monday, May 30, 2011

Reading :: Wired to the World, Chained to the Home

Wired to the World, Chained to the Home: Telework in Daily Life
By Penny Gurstein

In this 2001 book, Gurstein examines telework through case studies in California and Canada. Gurstein thanks Manuel Castells for his early support of her work (p.ix), and indeed the research is quite Castellian: surveys and interviews, plus dire quotes that reflect alienation and helplessness. The title is a fairly accurate characterization of the book's message.

Gurstein defines teleworking as "work-related substitutions of telecommunications and related information technologies for travel" (p.4). She adds that "it is of interest now to both the private and public sectors because it produces a mobile, flexible labour force and reduces overhead costs" (p.4). And she identifies several contributing conditions, including the internationalization of the economy, the transformation from an industrial economy to a service economy, and advances in information and communication technologies (ICT) that allow outsourcing, offshoring, and automation. These changes lead to "a two-tiered workforce of core and peripheral workers. While a core of full-time salaried workers remains, temporary workers are hired on a contingency basis. For many of these workers, the home becomes their work site" (p.4). Gurstein also notes changes in the family: boundaries between work and family have changed, particularly with "dual-earner or female-headed families becoming the norm" (p.4).

Although working from home has been mythologized in terms of autonomy, freedom, and control, Gurstein charges, for many, "home-based work is a survival strategy and a form of resistance to societal forces beyond their control" (p.8). She notes that the home "is becoming the nexus for a whole range of activities" (work, socialization, entertainment), something that "could atomize and isolate homeworkers from interactions in the larger society" (p.9). In particular, the erosion of work-life boundaries is quite problematic and damaging (p.14).

To ground her discussion, Gurstein presents a typology of home-based workers, including "employed teleworker/homeworker/telecommuter," "independent contractor," "self-employed consultant and home-based entrepreneur/business operator," "moonlighter," and "occasional homeworker" (p.32).

Getting into the results of the study, Gurstein reports that in her California-based study, "home-based work is an escape from the hierarchical organization of the office environment and the managerial control imposed in that environment." Also, "Most teleworkers find that they work very efficiently at home" and Gurstein partially ascribes this increased efficiency to guilt: "They feel guilty about their pleasant work situation" (p.66). Gurstein also points out the fact that telework is associated with a sedentary lifestyle and cites the fact that "most wear sweat clothes when they are working, or even pyjamas and housecoats" (p.70). More worryingly, some report that dressing casually negatively impacted their self-esteem (p.70), something that reflects a broader self-esteem issue for teleworkers, who "have few symbols of their professional identity" (p.71). Teleworkers also report a shrinking network of friends, lower socialization, and more selectivity about interacting with friends (p.71).

(Notice that many of these issues - socialization, self-esteem, physical activity, symbols of professional identity - are directly addressed by coworking.)

Overall, Gurstein does a nice job of reporting statistics and interview results and connecting them with trends. However, I found some of her conclusions to be overly pessimistic. Reading between the lines above, the results from the California study and other studies seem to suggest that telework offers a great many tradeoffs. In any case, the book provides a nice counterbalance to more euphoric discussions of telework.

Reading :: Telework and Social Change

Telework and Social Change: How Technology Is Reshaping the Boundaries between Home and Work
By Nicole B. Ellison

In this 2004 book, the author examines how geographically flexible workers managed their relative independence in telework. Ellison argues that we're in the middle of a shift in which work is something you do, not somewhere you go; the organization is a network rather than an office (p.3). To explore telework, Ellison conducted case studies of two organizations over 22 months in 1998-1999 (p.15).

Some of the takeaways from these case studies included the following:

First, Ellison found that telecommuting meant becoming a generalist. For mobile workers, being "empowered" meant having to do the sorts of things that sales secretaries once did (p.67).

Second, she found that, in contrast to some of the earlier research on telework, teleworkers in her case studies did not feel isolated; they "expressed a sense of relief at not having to socialize with coworkers as they would in a traditional office" (p.95).

Third, she found that teleworkers had to set boundaries when working in their houses (Ch.6).

Although the results were interesting, I'm afraid the book is sometimes a bit repetitive. Ellison has a habit of providing a block quote from an interview, then restating that quote in her own words. My sense is that the book could be much shorter. Still, if you're interested in telework/telecommuting, it's worth a read.

Reading :: Teleworking in the Countryside

Teleworking in the Countryside: Home-Based Working in the Information Society
By Michael Antony Clark

This 2000 book studies telework in rural Britain. Clark defines teleworkers "by the nature of their work, in that it involves the production and communication of information from home" (p.5). Citing Toffler's prediction of the "electronic cottage" and later concerns that such home-based work is isolating, (p.17), Clark designed a study with two parts: (1) a survey of how telecottages facilitated telework and (2) interview-based case studies of teleworkers.

A word about telecottages. This book was the first source I've read on telecottages, which were typically funded by local development groups and furnished internet connections, computer labs, and training for those who wanted to learn about information and communication technologies (ICT). These were not what later became known as coworking spaces: spaces where teleworkers and others could come to work in each others' presence. In fact, Clark found that telecottages were quite underused, and at the end of the book he recommended "the establishment of a register of teleworkers and the promotion of small business clubs, maybe via telecottages, which could be integrated into a larger European network of teleworkers" (p.173). That is, Clark recognized that teleworkers didn't need ICT access and training so much as they needed places where they could network and work alongside each other. Remarkably, his recommendation predated the coworking movement by about five years.

Back to the study. Clark found that organizations hired teleworkers as part of the general desire to subcontract work (p.94). Teleworkers themselves gave several reasons for wanting to telework: their workstyle, lifestyle, access to childcare, the threat of unemployment, forced unemployment, and being economically active in-migrants (i.e., moving to a rural area but still wanting to work at an old job) (pp.116-127). They appreciated their autonomy, particularly their control over workflows, work tasks, leisure time, and client sectors served (p.148). Such teleworkers knew about telecottages, but "none had used the telecottage as a workspace" (p.143).

"Social isolation was only mentioned by a few respondents as a significant problem," Clark reports (p.155). Local networks reduced isolation for most respondents (p.156), but professional isolation was a problem for all; one complains that "'I've never had it really, the ability to bounce ideas off of somebody else, and this is a common problem'" (p.157).

Although Clark's book was published in 2000, much of Clark's discussion is still quite fresh and relevant to people working from home. If you're interested in the effects of telework, certainly pick it up.

Reading :: Internet and Change

Internet and Change: An Ethnography of Knowledge and Flexible Work
By Jens Kjaerulff

Although this book was published in 2010, it reports on a study the author conducted in 1999 after seeing a 1998 Danish television broadcast about teleworkers meeting for weekly get-togethers. As Kjaerulff describes it, the broadcast claimed that these teleworkers got together to help each other's work - to provide feedback over lunch (pp.15-19). One teleworker was quoted as saying that "we need colleagues" (p.18). Intriguingly, this weekly lunch sounds a lot like a phenomenon that arose later in the US and came to be known as Jelly.

But when Kjaerulff arrived to study these teleworker luncheons,  he found that they were not as advertised. He attended these weekly lunches for 16 months as well as visiting participants' houses. But "My fieldwork gradually revealed the apparent collegial engagement among the groups' members to be considerably exaggerated" (p.29). The Wednesday Lunch Group did indeed meet, and did indeed value its meetings, but they rarely if ever worked or discussed work during the lunches (p.31). Rather, they connected (p.30).

Given this revelation, Kjaerulff began studying how people from the lunch group worked in their homes. Using surveys, semistructured and unstructured interviews, focus groups, and participant-observation, Kjaerulff examined a handful of families and found some of the issues familiar to the telework literature: people wanted flexibility so that they could spend more time with their family, so they could work extended hours away from the office, and occasionally so they could hide how efficiently they worked (a la Tim Ferriss).

Overall, I'm afraid the book was not very illuminating. One disturbing sign was that although the book was published in 2010, most of his sources were contemporaneous with the study (around 2000). At one point - my apologies, I didn't record the page number - Kjaerulff cites several studies on telework that stop right at 2000. To me, this suggests that the author wrote the study some time back, then lightly revised it ten years later for publication. Another issue is that even though the author studied several families, the book focuses on just three of them, and we don't get a good sense of how generally their results hold. However, if you're studying telework or Jellies or coworking, the book may provide some useful background information.

Reading :: Handbook of Research on Writing

Handbook of Research on Writing: History, Society, School, Individual, Text
Edited by Charles Bazerman

This behemoth of a book (652pp. including index) covers several strands of research on writing under the headings of "history of writing," "writing in society," "writing in schooling," and "writing as text." It's a strong collection, well integrated and edited, with broad coverage. Given the strength of the collection as a whole, I had a hard time picking standout pieces, but here I focus on a couple of the chapters on writing history.

First, Denise Schmandt-Besserat and Michael Erard's "Origins and Forms of Writing" summarizes and extends Schmandt-Besserat's groundbreaking work on the origins of writing in Mesopotamia. Although the discussion of writing's Mesopotamian origins (circa 3200 BCE) are familiar to those who have read Schmandt-Besserat's books, the authors also point out that writing appears to have arisen independently in two other places: China (about 1250 BCE) and Mesoamerica (650 BCE). As the authors emphasize, writing is neither intuitive nor common: "the cognitive steps that led from logography to numerals and phonograms occurred only once in Mesopotamia" (pp.13-15), and similarly the alphabet was invented only once (p.15).

In contrast to the many changes in the lineage of Mesopotamian writing, Chinese writing "has an unbroken record of use in the last three millenia leading up to the modern time" (p.15). The earliest Chinese writing was engraved on "turtle shell and cow bone, used in divination practices" (p.16).

Mesoamerican writing is much harder to reconstruct since Europeans destroyed many codices and others, hidden from the Europeans, decomposed (p.17). But Mesoamericans developed "as many as 13 different writing systems" whose glyphs were written on stone stellae, ceramics, and bark paper books (codices) (p.17). "If writing in Mesoamerica is associated with economic functions, then in Mesoamerica writing is associated with calendrical calculations and the actions of kingly dynasties" (p.17).

Graham Smart's contribution, "Writing and the Social Formation of Economy," picks up on the thread of Mesopotamian writing, arguing that "Writing has, over the millenia, supported the development of increasingly complex and geographically far-reaching forms of economic activity. Throughout this history, newly invented texts and functions for writing have facilitated innovative economic practices. In turn, the use of particular kinds of texts in economic activity led to their early and widespread development, ahead of other forms of writing" (p.103). Smart points out that "new forms and functions for writing allowed for increased complexity in economic affairs," thus "enabling commerce to transcend the constraints of human memory, social trust, and geography" (p.104).

I've only scratched the surface of a thick book full of standout chapters. If you're interested in research on writing, by all means, pick up this volume.