Friday, March 16, 2012

Reading :: The Exploit

The Exploit: A Theory of Networks
By Alexander R. Galloway and Eugene Thacker

Note: I reviewed the Kindle version, so I don't include page numbers.

The Exploit: A Theory of Networks seeks to develop an ontology of networks. The authors attempt to build this ontology from at least three very different traditions of networks - but unfortunately, rather than putting these traditions into dialogue, they conflate the traditions' definitions of networks. Since these definitions and their applications are so different, The Exploit becomes incoherent in places. In my judgment, it does not reach its goal of developing an ontology of networks.

To understand what went wrong, let's look at three distinct ways that the term network is used in the literature. (See Milton Mueller's excellent book Networks and States for more on how the term is used in different ways.)

In network analysis, a network is a set of nodes (units) connected by links or edges. Since this is a form of analysis, anything can be considered a node - an academic paper (linked via citations), a set of phones (linked by wires and switches), a group of people (linked by communication lines), you name it. As long as the units are consistent and the links are identifiable, you can perform a network analysis. That doesn't mean that the phenomenon you're studying is a network in an objective sense. For instance, you could study a hierarchical organization via a network analysis - and many people do - even though the hierarchical organization is not considered to be a network per se. Network analysis typically involves mathematical tools. (See Barabasi.)

In contrast, networked organizations are a phenomenon rather than a method of analysis. In this tradition, networks are a distinct organizational form, demonstrably and qualitatively different from other organizational forms such as tribes, hierarchical institutions, and markets. In networked organizations, control and discretion are typically decentralized (pushed to the individual level of the organization), although command may still be centralized. Networked organizations are often studied qualitatively. As a phenomenon, networked organizations are networked organizations no matter what analysis you apply. (For instance, al Qaeda is considered a networked organization; but the US Army in World War II was an entirely different kind of organization, a hierarchical one.) For examples, see Ronfeldt; Arquilla & Ronfeldt; Castells; and Toffler, who Ronfeldt cites as a strong influence.

A third construct, sociotechnical networks, is again an analytical frame rather than a phenomenon per se. In this tradition, theorists analyze the social and technical as an inseparable unit made up of varying other units (which could include humans, animals, tools, activities, concepts, etc.). One early example is Bateson's example of the blind-man-with-cane, in which he invites us to consider how the blind man taps his cane to navigate. By himself, he can't; with the cane, he can feel the curb, even though he's not touching it. The system of man-cane-curb is a sensory system in a way that the individual elements are not. This networked understanding of sociotechnical systems is used in somewhat different ways by Deleuze & Guattari, Latour, Engestrom, and others; I wrote a book about it

So: at least three kinds of networks and thus three different understandings of what the term network means. Two are analyses, one is a phenomenon. Two are largely qualitative, one is quantitative. Two involve fixed units (in social systems, these are people); one doesn't. They're bound together by the metaphor of network but little more.

Unfortunately, The Exploit doesn't acknowledge or even seem to realize the deep differences among these. I actually gasped out loud when I realized that they had read Arquilla and Ronfeldt's work on networked organizations, but missed how A&R carefully separated this phenomenon from network analysis. Indeed, they soon conflate Arquilla and Ronfeldt's networked organizations with Barabasi's work on "heterogeneous systems, be they terrorism, AIDS, or the Internet." And a couple of paragraphs later, they ask: "what is the principle of political organization that stitches a network together?" - a question that is unanswerable as long as the senses of network are still conflated. Incredibly, late in the book, they claim that Arquilla & Ronfeldt's notion of netwar is grounded in graph theory - despite the fact that A&R don't employ mathematical analysis!

The authors similarly deploy terms from network analysis in ways that seem inconsistent with it. For instance, in discussing SARS and bioterrorism, they claim, "Such skirmishes highlight an important point in our understanding of networks: That the networks of emerging infectious diseases and bioterrorism are networks composed of several subnetworks" such as the genome, epidemiological networks, knowledge networks, and pharmaceutical networks. But they don't explain the units and links of these subnetworks, nor how they qualify as subnetworks of a larger network (as opposed to, say, interfering networks). 

The authors do seem to hew closer to a sociotechnical understanding of networks in some places, particularly when they discuss Deleuze, Negri, and others in this line. Shockingly, although the authors mention Latour near the end of the book, they actually don't mention actor-network theory, nor do they correctly represent Latour's discussion of symmetry in their discussion of it: 
Yet despite Latour's emphasis on the way that human actors are influenced by nonhuman actants, there is a sense in which the nonhuman is still anthropomorphized, a sense in which the circumference of the human is simply expanded.
The principle of symmetry - the stance in which Latour applies the same terms and concepts to humans and nonhumans - the reason why he is constantly having to explain that he doesn't actually have conversation with lampposts - and the authors think that they just might possibly detect a hint of anthropomorphism. And that seems like as good a place as any to conclude this review.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Reading :: The Origins of Writing

The Origins of Writing
Edited by Wayne M. Senner

I read this 1989 edited collection over the winter break, but have been buried under other duties, so I haven't been able to give it its due. That's a shame, because it's an enjoyable book, with a variety of pieces including a chapter by Denise Schmandt-Besserat. The collection covers Sumerian tokens, early cuneiform, Egyptian heiroglyphics, the development of the Phonecian, Arabic, and Latin alphabets, runes and Celtic scripts, Chinese and Mesoamerican writing.

With this broad sweep, the collection ends up alighting briefly on different forms of writing. That means that readers get a sampling of these different writing systems and (sometimes) a sense of how they interact. But it also means that we don't get a sustained argument of how writing developed and spread.

Nevertheless, we see some interesting connections. In his chapter on the invention and development of the alphabet, for instance, Frank Moore Cross argues that the alphabet was invented only once (p.77). Nevertheless, five major, independent systems developed in the ancient Near East (p.77). Despite the mystic rumors swirling around runes, Elmer Antonsen compellingly argues in his chapter that these developed from the Latin alphabet, but adapted both for language and for the Germanic tendency to cut letters into wood: "the runic shapes avoid curves and horizontal lines, changing them to angles and oblique lines" because in wood "it is difficult to execute curves, and horizontal lines would tend to be obscured by the grain of the wood" (p.144).

These chapters, and the others, tell us fascinating things about how the diverse set of writing systems - some of which bear very little resemblance to each other - developed and interacted. If you're interested in the history for writing, check it out.

Reading :: Cross-Cultural Technology Design

Cross-Cultural Technology Design: Creating Culture-Sensitive Technology for Local Users
By Huatong Sun

I've been a fan of Huatong Sun's work ever since I read her award-winning dissertation a few years ago. That dissertation synthesized activity theory, genre theory, and British cultural studies to examine how people use SMS (texting) in US and Chinese contexts. It was timely.

So is this book, which is based on the dissertation but expands into subsequent studies of locally used technology. Sun argues that to design technology for local users, we must better understand local technology adaptation and meaning-making. That doesn't mean simply examining big-C "Culture" according to basic precepts or characteristics; it means examining how users themselves interpret, localize, and integrate technologies. How do practitioners and designers "develop an effective approach to design appropriately localized products that meet the cultural expectations of local users, support their complex activities in concrete contexts, empower their agency, and mediate their identities" (p.xiv)? Sun's answer is "the design philosophy and model of Culturally Localized User Experience (CLUE), which integrates action and meaning throughout the cyclical design process in order to make a technology both usable and meaningful to local users" (pp.xiv-xv). She illustrates its principles through studies of text messaging - "a technology that is poorly localized at the developers' site but is then rescued by users' localization efforts" (p.xv).

Sun brilliantly draws on specific, well grounded examples of text messaging to illustrate her principles, avoiding the essentialism that too often characterizes examinations of cross-cultural communication. She doesn't make her story a contrast of US and Chinese use, but rather a contrast in how locally grounded individuals perceive and use the same technologies in different contexts. In doing so, she illustrates the
seven defining features of the CLUE framework:
  1. The CLUE approach highlights the praxis of use.
  2. Local culture constitutes the dynamic nexus of contextual interactions and manifests numerous articulations of practices and meanings.
  3. User experience is both situated and constructed.
  4. Technology use is a dual mediation process.
  5. Structured affordance comes from dialogic interactions.
  6. Culturally localized user experience respects use practices of individual local users and values their efforts at user localization.
  7. Design is both problem solving and engaged conversation. (pp.233-234)

Sun illustrates each feature well through sensitive, compellingly told stories interspersed with data. And although the sweep of theory is broad, through these stories she manages to make it understandable, applicable, and convincing. 

Full disclosure: Huatong and I discussed this book project as she planned it, and I encouraged her to develop it and send it to a top-notch press. If you want to see why, just pick up a copy. It's solid work, and recommended reading for anyone interested in technology design, technology localization, and related issues.

Full disclosure 2: Forgot to mention that I received a free copy of the book. It's worth list price.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Synthesis Lectures on Human-Computer Informatics

Interested in HCI? Of course you are. So take a look at this Morgan & Claypool series edited by John M. Carroll. Each entry is a small monograph on an HCI topic. They're all blind reviewed. Currently they seem to be priced at $20 a pop, which I think is quite reasonable for these compressed, focused monographs.

Most interesting for me is the upcoming Kaptelinin and Nardi monograph, "Activity Theory: A Primer for HCI Research." I was privileged to review the manuscript. It's a great, compressed discussion of AT and how it relates to HCI - and an efficient, focused text that makes a great introduction to AT in general.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Seminar: Writing Persuasive Business Proposals

A while back I mentioned my upcoming seminar, Writing Persuasive Business Proposals. It's on Friday, June 8; if you're going to be in Austin, please consider enrolling!

This seminar is under the auspices of UT's Human Dimensions of Organizations program, which is full of people with incredible insight and expertise into how organizations work. We'll be starting up an MA program in fall 2013; if your business has (a) a wicked problem and (b) an individual you'd like to develop to solve it, take a look at this innovative program.

Review :: Reality is Broken

Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World
By Jane McGonigal

In this book's penultimate chapter, "Saving the Real World Together," Jane McGonigal describes a massively multiplayer game aimed at forecasting trends called World Without Oil. In this game, participants are given a scenario: The world has hit Peak Oil; the gap between global supply and demand has widened; and no other energy source is on the horizon. What will happen?

McGonigal, who is Director of Game Research and Development at the Institute for the Future, was the participation architect for this project. Eventually 2000 online gamers from all walks of life participated in developing scenarios for six weeks. McGonigal reports that two main strategies emerged: reducing demand or competing more aggressively for available supply. And what gives her hope is that these gamers, though they first gravitated toward strategy #2, eventually stabilized on strategy #1. "It was the proof-of-concept game that convinced me we can really save the real world with the right kind of game. It's the project that inspired me to define my biggest hope for the future: that a game developer would soon be worthy of the Nobel Prize" (p.312).

In this scenario, and this quote, we see both the promise and the fundamental problem of the book.

First, the promise. As McGonigal argues throughout the book, games do certain things for us. They "optimize human experience ... help us do amazing things together, and ... enable lasting engagement" (p.346). They "increase self-motivation, provoke interest and creativity, and help us work at the very edge of our abilities" (p.346). They put us in a positive mood; make our (in-game) work more satisfying and productive; help us see failure as positive feedback that gives us a better shot at reasonable goals; make us more social; and put our efforts in context on epic scale (p.346). They help us to get out more and interact with strangers (p.347). Harnessing their potential can result in more wins, more collaboration, and more foresight to apply to "planetary-scale problems"(p.348). McGonigal supplies plenty of examples of each of these lessons.

And she also describes the problems with reality as compared to games:
Reality is too easy. Reality is depressing. It's unproductive, and hopeless. It's disconnected, and trivial. It's hard to get into. It's pointless, unrewarding, lonely, and isolating. It's hard to swallow. It's unsustainable. It's unambitious. It's disorganized and divided. It's stuck in the present. (p.348)
But, she adds, reality is better than games, since we live here and can change it. She urges us to apply game dynamics, game problem-solving, and game engagement to reality: "Life is hard, and games make it better" (p.349). And throughout the book, she gives examples of how applying game principles to real-world problems can do exactly that. McGonigal has an encyclopedic knowledge of games and game strategies, and it was a pleasure seeing how she applies this mastery to various problems.

So that's the promise. Where's the problem?

Let's go back to this statement about reality: "It's disorganized and divided." All true. Compare the beautiful simplicity of a game - for instance, the console game I most recently played, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword - with real life. The game is well delineated, with a clear goal and a clear, guided set of steps to reach it. You have a mission, you have some leeway to achieve it, but you also have a clear set of progress indicators. Similarly, McGonigal's games provide clear parameters, goals, and feedback mechanisms. Sometimes the goal is to get out of the house, wear a costume, and film yourself dancing in public places; sometimes it's to collaborate with a global community to "discover" and play an ancient Olympic sport; sometimes it's to solve the problem of Peak Oil. In all cases, you know your mission and your problem is figuring out how to achieve it. Gaming makes reality better—by ordering it, clarifying it, giving you the parameters for engaging with it. The feedback loop is there to give you a thrill when you pass milestones.

That thrill? It's the thrill of obedience.

Here's the thing. In a game like World Without Oil, the players are given specific parameters. The world has hit Peak Oil; the gap between global supply and demand has widened; and no other energy source is on the horizon. These are unquestionable. In reality, we have to grapple with many more parameters, and many parties may dispute each parameter. Furthermore, if even one party refuses to accept a premise or parameter, the others are affected by this dynamic. Reality is indeed "disorganized and divided" because no one party can assert a set of premises by fiat.

To put it another way, gamifying reality means solving the problem of politics and persuasion by wishing it away; it makes life better by replacing the hardest problems, the problems of agreement, with the much easier problems of achieving goals given specific parameters. We've been here before.

Whether we're tackling the problem of Peak Oil or simply trying to get introverts to mingle and act more like extroverts (pp.166, 197), the problem is a given. People get a thrill from acting in unison and solving a common, clearly defined problem under a well-defined set of rules—especially the sort of people who like to solve word puzzles and who excel on the SAT. But there's a vast gulf between a 1600 on the SAT and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and unfortunately this book doesn't address that gulf, nor does it seem to even be aware of it.