Friday, December 16, 2016

Reading :: Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs

Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change
By Wiebe Bijker

I've seen Bijker's work cited frequently in the science, technology, and society (STS) literature, so when I saw this 1995 book at the used bookstore, I scooped it up. Bijker uses three case studies—the development of the bicycle, the invention of Bakelite, and the marketing of fluorescent lights—to develop his theory of sociotechnical change. This theory draws heavily from others in STS, including Latour, Woolgar, Callon, Star, and Bowker.

Unfortunately, the book itself did not leave much of an impression on me. Bijker does an able job of developing the three cases, but the theory he develops does not seem markedly different from other readings in STS—it seems more like a summation of STS theory. Perhaps I missed a crucial theoretical distinction that others didn't? Or perhaps the book seems middle-of-the-road now only because it influenced STS so strongly? But looking at STS books from the late 1980s through the mid-1990s, I don't think that's the case.

In any case, the book is a relatively quick read and I learned a lot of things about the three cases themselves. If you are interested in one of these three things, or in a mid-1990s look at STS theory, pick it up.

Reading :: The Qualitative Manifesto

The Qualitative Manifesto: A Call to Arms
By Norman K. Denzin

I typically don't like manifestos. They tend to present highly contentious claims as, well, manifest. They signal an end to discussion and a call to action: it's time to stop debating and start acting (on my direction, the author implies). Denzin's manifesto is certainly that:
This book is an invitation and a call to arms. It is directed to all scholars who believe in the connection between critical inquiry and social justice. Our tent is large. There is room for everyone. Yet our international community of qualitative researchers is under attack from many different sides... (p.10).
As with most manifestos, the question is portrayed as a conflict and the addressees are cast as potentially powerful actors:
Postmodern democracy cannot succeed unless critical qualitative scholars are able to transcend the limitations and constraints of a lingering, politically conservative postpositivism. (p.14)
Denzin opposes the distinction between fiction and nonfiction texts (p.30), seeing truth in both. His latter chapters present his arguments, not in essay form, but in the form of one-act plays—dialogues between two speakers. (These speakers tend to affirm each other.) It's an unsettling device, at least for me—I prefer more disagreement and more wrestling with conflicts and tradeoffs. But then again, I don't like manifestos.

Most disturbing for me is Denzin's extended discussion of how to circumvent IRB regulations (Ch.5). He argues, sensibly, that the existing regulatory apparatus is flawed (p.73) and that they protect institutions rather than persons (p.74). So he exploited a hole in the system by characterizing his research as oral history, which is exempt (p.75). Unfortunately for him, oral histories were later excluded from exemption (p.77). "Townsend and Jones feel that the only solution is the one offered by the AAUP—full exemption, no provisos, no requirement of IRB approval of exemption! Clearly scholarly societies in the United States must organize around the AAUP recommendations" (p.78). This absolutist solution seems like a recipe for participant harm in the absence of some other well-promulgated and policed set of standards.

Overall, I thought this manifesto made for interesting reading. But the solutions seem too broad-brush for me to get behind it. If you're interested in manifestos, qualitative research, or the IRB, though, certainly pick this book up.

Reading :: Mass Authorship

Mass Authorship and the Rise of Self-Publishing
By Timothy Laquintano

Disclaimer: Laquintano courteously sent me a copy of this book earlier this fall. I'm glad he did. The phenomenon of self-publishing is really interesting to me (and not just for academic reasons), and it's been begging for a systematic study. Laquintano provides that study—actually qualitative "studies of four groups of writers" based in grounded theory (p.191). (His appendix on methods provides great detail on how he conducted the study, which included interviews as well as an internet-based corpus.)

Taking an activity-based approach, Laquintano examines how people are self-publishing, especially on sites such as WattPad and platforms such as Amazon's Kindle. Along the way, he thoroughly examines questions such as what it means to be an author, why people self-publish, how people market and promote their own books, how they police (or fail to police) their intellectual property, and the shifting meaning of authorship.

Most interesting to me were two propositions. One is that "self-publishing is entailed in shifting systems of mediation" rather than disintermediation (p.9). The other is that "networked participants (as opposed to 'readers') [have] the capacity to publish and induce networked  effects that shape the trajectories and circulation patterns of both traditionally published and self-published books and create mediated book cultures" (p.9).

Laquintano examines these propositions, and others, in detail. The result is a nuanced examination of the shifting ground of publishing. If you're interested in publishing, self-publishing, and the future of publishing, take a look.

Reading :: The Cherokee Kid

The Cherokee Kid: Will Rogers, Tribal Identity, and the Making of an American Icon
By Amy Ware

Just a quick review. I didn't know much about Will Rogers before reading this book, but Amy Ware's lucid prose and careful discussion taught me a lot. Specifically, Ware discusses how Rogers not only embraced his tribal identity as a Cherokee, he emphasized it in his films, appearances, and radio shows. His outreach meant that broad audiences thought about Cherokee differently—specifically, as a contemporary people, not just a historical one.

Ware organizes the book chronologically, essentially as a biography, so we can see how Rogers' self-presentation and rhetoric develop over the course of his life. She contextualizes this discussion well, allowing us to understand the biography in the context of historical and cultural changes. And the discussion is engaging; I didn't get bored, even though this subject matter is far afield from the subjects I usually read about.

If you're interested in Will Rogers, tribal identity, or the turn-of-the-century US, definitely pick it up!

Reading :: Thinking, Fast and Slow

Thinking, Fast and Slow
By Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics for some of his foundational work in how people make decisions. In this book, he overviews his research on the psychological aspects of decision-making, laying the principles out clearly enough that a casual reader can understand how they work. (Kahneman's work is referenced heavily in Michael Lewis' new book The Undoing Project).

To help us understand decision-making, Kahneman distinguishes "fast" and "slow" thinking by describing "System 1" and "System 2" (not actually distinct systems, but analytic categories). "System 1" is fast, intuitive, and automatic, while "System 2" is slow, deliberate, and controlled (p.13). "System 2" is a "lazy controller" (Ch.3), so most of the time we make decisions based on "System 1." And it turns out that "System 1" is not very good at math (which makes sense, since we as a species have not had math for very long). It instead relies on heuristic decision-making, which tends toward systematic biases, and is vulnerable to priming, in which framing a problem a specific way leads to bias toward a specific decision.

He illustrates these points with several studies, typically experimental studies in which he and his collaborators ask people to solve problems like this one:
A bat and ball cost $1.10. 
The bat costs one dollar more than the ball.
How much does the ball cost? (p.44)
(The answer is not "ten cents.")

Kahneman contends that the result is that we often think we are making reasoned decisions when the results are actually suboptimal. For instance, stockbrokers tend to overestimate their performances, which according to Kahenman are no better than random.

It's a good book, and Kahneman explains the different concepts well. But I can pinpoint the page where I realized that I just didn't like him.

It's p.244, at the end of Ch.22, in which he discusses his collaboration with Gary Klein. Klein studies how experts such as firefighters make intuitive decisions, and people in his school "adamantly reject the focus on biases in the heuristics and biases approach. They criticize this model as overly concerned with failures and driven by artificial experiments rather than the study of real people doing things that matter" (p.235). Kahneman (decently) reached out to Klein to "join in an effort to map the boundary that separates the marvels of intuition from its flaws" (p.235). The two disentangled one important point of disagreement:
we had different experts in mind. Klein had spent much time with fireground commanders, clinical nurses, and other professionals who have real expertise. I had spent more time thinking about clinicians, stock pickers, and political scientists trying to make unsupportable long-term forecasts. Nor surprisingly, his default attitude was trust and respect; mine was skepticism. He was more willing to trust experts who claim an intuition because, as he told me, true experts know the limits of their knowledge. I argued that there are many pseudo-experts who have no idea that they do not know what they are doing (the illusion of validity), and that as a general proposition subjective confidence is commonly too high and often uninformative. (p.239, my emphasis)
The two conclude that, to develop true intuitive expertise rather than the illusion of validity, experts need:

  • "an environment that is sufficiently regular to be predictable"
  • "an opportunity to learn those regularities through prolonged practice" (p.240)
Rapid feedback allows people the ability to develop intuitive skills—short-term feedback such as the kind that anesthesiologists get in the emergency room, as opposed to the slower, long-term feedback that is received by psychotherapists or financial experts (p.240). Kahneman and Klein thus concluded that some experts really could develop intuition, and they delimited the conditions under which this could happen.

Kahneman concludes by reaffirming something he mentioned in passing on p.239:
we also found that our early differences were more than an intellectual disagreement. We had different attitudes, emotions, and tastes, and those changed remarkably little over the years. This is most obvious in the facts that we find amusing and interesting. Klein still winces when the word bias is mentioned, and he still enjoys stories in which algorithms or formal procedures lead to obviously absurd decisions. I tend to view the occasional failures of algorithms as opportunities to improve them. On the other hand, I find more pleasure than Klein does in the comeuppance of arrogant experts who claim intuitive powers in zero-validity situations. (p.244)
Put me firmly in the Klein camp—if the occasional failures of algorithms are opportunities to improve them, why not see the failures of experts as an opportunity to improve them? But Kahneman seems much more interested in shaming experts. Earlier in the book, he recounts telling investment advisors that, based on his analysis, the correlation between their picks and outcomes was zero:
When we were done, one of the executives I had dined with the previous evening drove me to the airport. He told me, with a trace of defensiveness, "I have done very well for the firm and no one can take that away from me." I smiled and said nothing. But I thought, "Well, I took it away from you this morning. If your success was due mostly to chance, how much credit are you entitled to take for it?" (p.216)
Telling a man that his life is a lie and his expertise is meaningless? NBD, just a bit of fun. 

This incident gives a new perspective on a distinction that Kahneman discusses in Ch.25. He notes that economists and psychologists "seemed to be studying different species," denoted "Econs" and "Humans." Economists characterize Econs as rational and selfish; psychologists characterize Humans as neither fully rational nor fully selfish (p.269). Kahneman makes the case for Humans throughout the rest of the book. But I think he would have profited by talking to people in other disciplines—such as sociology or anthropology—who could shed light on other aspects of human behavior. For instance, in Ch.32, he discusses how framing risk leads to irrational decisions. One example is a survey of parents:
The respondents were told to imagine that they used an insecticide where the risk of inhalation and child poisoning was 15 per 10,000 bottles. A less expensive insecticide was available, for which the risk rose from 15 to 16 per 10,000 bottles. The parents were asked for the discount that would induce them to switch to the less expensive (and less safe) product. More than two thirds of the parents in the survey responded that they would not purchase the new product at any price! ...
 Anyone can understand and sympathize with the reluctance of parents to trade even a minute increase of risk to their child for money. It is worth noting, however, that this attitude is incoherent and potentially damaging to the safety of those we wish to protect. ... The taboo tradeoff against accepting any increase in risk is not an efficient way to use the safety budget. In fact, the resistance may be motivated by a selfish fear of regret more than a wish to optimize the child's safety. (pp.350-351)
A sociologist or anthropologist might counter that (a) people say things in surveys that they don't actually do, so it's unclear whether people actually make decisions this way—why not look at actual market data to increase ecological validity? and (b) self-image and social standing are also goods. People find some risks more socially acceptable than others, and the social aspects can outweigh others. To pick one example, many would agree with Emiliano Zapata that "It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees"—a claim that seems to have no place in Kahneman's discussion of rational risk.

I'll end this review with one more anecdote. Kahneman recounts "a family debate about moving from California to Princeton, in which my wife claimed that people are happier in California than on the East Coast. I argued that climate is demonstrably not an important determinant of well-being ... and tried in vain to convince my wife that her intuitions about the happiness of Californians were an error of affective forecasting" (pp.402-403). So he decided to test the proposition by studying the question of whether Californians were actually happier—part of a funded study of global warming effects. "As we analyzed the data, it became obvious that I had won the family argument" (p.403). This validated his decision to accept the position at Princeton.

Wikipedia's page on Kahneman tells us: "Kahneman is married to the award-winning cognitive psychologist Anne Treisman. They live part-time in Berkeley, California."