Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Reading :: Vygotsky: An Intellectual Biography

Vygotsky: An Intellectual Biography
By Anton Yasnitsky

I was privileged to read this book in manuscript form a while back. Yasnitsky has done some exciting work in revisionist Vygotsky studies: work that involves questioning many of the statements that have been taken at face value about the Vygotsky Circle. Some of these statements have emerged from Soviet-era airbrushing; some from self-interested camps (I'm looking at you, Leontiev); and some from Western uptakes of Vygotsky. Yasnitsky has drawn on Zavershneva's recent archival work examining Vygotsky's personal papers; comparative work examining different translations of Vygotsky's publications and claims about those publications (such as the "Vygotsky ban"); and even some anonymous rumors in a wild but believable story about "Tool and Sign." So when he told me he was working on a short biography of Vygotsky, of course I was interested.

Dear reader, I think you will be interested too. Yasnitsky takes a deliberately provocative stance, attempting to break through the conventional story of Vygotsky's genius to help us better understand Vygotsky as an intellectual with his own frustrations and doubts. The first words of the book are:
Each great man's life story is simple unless one wants to make it great.
Each simple man's life story is great unless one wants to make it simple.
This story is about a genius. So they say. But the person did not become genius until after his death. So the story is simple and great at the same time. (p.xi). 
With this shot across the bow, Yasnitsky draws on published sources as well as previously unpublished archives to examine the chapters of Vygotsky's life: "Prophet" (his early life as the devout son of a prominent Jewish banker in the pale); "Bolshevik" (his life in the immediate aftermath of the October Revolution); "Reflexologist" (his journey from schoolteacher in Gomel to his debut at the Second Neuropsychological Congress in 1924); "Psychologist" (his hiring at Moscow's Institute for Experimental Psychology, his partnership with Luria, his interest in the Soviet Man described by Trotsky, and his shift to instrumental psychology); "Revisionist" (his realization that a new psychological system was needed; his work with higher psychological functions, followed by his denunciation of this work and his 1930 shift to systems of functions; his and Luria's denunciation of their reactological and instrumental periods in 1931; his 1932 criticism of the core of his own theory); "Holist" (his interest in Gestalt as imported by Luria, leading to reconstructing his theory as holistic; the split with A.N. Leontiev, who wanted to continue work in the instrumentalist vein; and Vygotsky's death); and "Genius" (an epilogue, discussing Vygotsky's uptake and why his readers were motivated to characterize him this way). The book concludes with a helpful timeline.

Although this biography is slim—just 126 pages, not counting the timeline—it seems calculated to maximally disrupt the reverential narrative of Vygotsky the genius. Parts of the book were genuinely shocking. For instance, Yasnitsky casually notes in a footnote that one of my favorite books by Vygotsky—The History of the Development of Higher Mental Functions—was not actually his book at all. The manuscript was taken up after his death and altered, with "psychological functions" being replaced by "psychical" (i.e., mental), and then published in 5 chapters under his name in 1960. (Note that this manuscript was from Vygotsky's instrumental period, on which Leontiev's scholarship was based, and it forms the basis for about half of 1978's Mind in Society.) In 1983, this manuscript was published in Vol.4 of the Collected Works with "an extra ten chapters" that "were taken from a completely different, but also unfinished, somewhat earlier Vygotsky manuscript on children's normal and pathological development" but were represented by the editors as newly discovered chapters of the same treatise (p.103)! I was so startled by this claim that I emailed Yasnitsky directly to follow up and he confirmed that this was the case, along with additional proof.

Other revelations were not as shocking for me, since I have been reading Yasnitsky's other works, but seeing them all in one place is striking. Whereas others have alleged that Vygotsky's Cultural and Historical Crisis in Psychology remained unpublished because it threatened the prevailing dogma of psychology, Yasnitsky draws from Zavershneva's archive work to demonstrate that it was likely abandoned due to theoretical problems (pp.56-57).

This manuscript, like the other two book manuscripts Vygotsky produced in the mid-1920s, ends with a discussion of a superman—the Nietzschean superman, which had been taken up by Trotsky and others as the New Soviet Man. Although this superman was expected to emerge as the result of communism, as Yasnitsky wryly notes, he had not yet appeared—so Vygotsky and Luria decided to study supernormal abilities such as memory and mental calculation (p.62; Luria eventually wrote up their findings). In his work with "defectology," Vygotsky followed this thread from Nietzsche's superman to Adler's discussion of overcompensation (in which an individual overcomes a defect through excess) to his own notion of psychological tools—including culturally transmitted tools such as "the alphabet, mnemonics, graphic charts, visual learning aids, and systems of counting" as well as "very complex systems: language, literature, and art" (p.67). To better explore such psychological tools, Vygotsky, Luria, and their research team used Vygotsky's double stimulation method (p.67) to examine how problems could be solved through the mediation of auxiliary instruments (p.68). The most important work in this vein was Leontiev's doctoral research, conducted in 1927-1929 and published in 1931 as The Development of Memory (p.68). As Yasnitsky adds, this book is the main source on instrumental psychology—Vygotsky never wrote such a book himself (p.68)!

Vygotsky and Luria did write a book that heavily borrowed from Leontiev's dissertation and that was intended to be about psychology and the Superman. But that book, which Vygotsky had intended to become his major work, turned into a popular science book: 1930's Studies on the history of behavior: Ape, primitive, child. The book was disappointing to Vygotsky partly because he realized that he needed a new psychological system, which he tried to develop in the aforementioned manuscript on higher psychological functions (p.84). But by October 1930, he denounced the notion of higher psychological functions, arguing that the functions do not change, the links among functions do (pp.86-87). By March 1931, Stalin's denunciation of right and left deviations led Luria and Vygotsky to denounce reactology and their instrumental period as mechanistic (pp.88-89). Vygotsky continued to criticize himself into the early 1930s: he "appeared distressed, frustrated, and disoriented. Stalin's Great Break and the social turmoil resulting from the introduction and realization of the First Five-Year Plan caught him unprepared for change" (p.94). He repeatedly criticized his own instrumental phase (p.94) and eagerly sought a breakthrough in Luria's Uzbek expeditions of 1931-1932. Vygotsky still sought evidence that collectivization would yield a qualitative leap for humanity (p.98). Yet this dream was punctured by Kurt Koffka, who had accompanied Luria on one of these expeditions and who attributed differences to "the attitude of the testees towards the experimenter" (quoted on p.100).

At this point, according to Yasnitsky, "Vygotsky was eager and desparate, but he had lost his way" (p.102). Thus, Yasnitsky avers, Vygotsky turned to the holism of Lewin (p.108). "Under the influence of gestaltism Vygotsky migrated from the idea of analysis by elements that he defended in the 1920s to the method of analysis by units in the early 1930s" (p.110). Lewin's German vocabulary makes its way into Vygotsky's writings in 1931-1934 (p.111), and in the last chapter of Thinking and Speech, written just months before his death, Vygotsky characterizes Gestalt theory as the "most progressive" (quoted on p.113). Yasnitsky also notes that Vygotsky's famous zone of proximal development was developed by Western scholars such as the American Dorothea McCarthy, inspired by Lewin's "field theory" (p.115), and was used to integrate the social situation of a child's development into Vygotsky's theory. In December 1932, at an internal conference, Vygotsky announced a new research program, understanding consciousness as a semantic structure, and specifically focused on "peak psychology": "on human performance in the highest, brightest, and extraordinary episodes of life, above the average, outside the everyday routine, beyond the confines of the usual" (p.116). Yet "from a personal standpoint... this meeting bordered on disastrous" (p.117). It was a complete non-starter for Leontiev's Kharkov group, which had focused on practical intelligence involving "instruments and physical objects" (p.117). Although Vygotsky made a desultory attempt at a manuscript, it was never truly started (p.117). His productive clinical work at the time was conducted in collaboration with Lewin's former students Birenbaum and Zeigarnik, who drew from gestaltist scholarship (p.117). In his last chapter of his last book, Thinking and Speech, he confesses failure, pointing to consciousness as a vast problem ready to be explored (p.119).

After Vygotsky's death, Yasnitsky says, he posthumously became a genius. Twenty years later, the mid-1950s Soviet thaw gave Luria and Leontiev (and many, many other Soviets) the room to publish more. Leontiev became a fantastically successful administrator while Luria became an internationally revered scholar. Both promoted Vygotsky as an important figure. "Their motives were not clear and might have differed considerably," Yasnitsky adds (p.124). Acidly, he notes, "The aura and charisma of the late 'genius' provided Vygotsky's followers with the authority they needed" (p.125).

This book, in sum, is riveting. For me, it's the equivalent of exciting beach reading, full of colorful characters, shocking twists, and gossip. It's irreverent, not toward Vygotsky as a person, but toward Vygotsky as a genius and legend. And it made me rethink much of what I thought I knew—even though I've already read Yasnitsky's previous revisionist works.

On the other hand, I suggest a degree of caution as well. For instance, Yasnitsky argues that Vygotsky-the-genius provided authority to his followers. But Vygotsky was promoted in the West only because his followers had already climbed to the top of the heap: Luria was internationally known as a foundational figure in neuropsychology, while Leontiev had climbed to the top of the administrative heap and won the Lenin Prize in 1963, the same year Thought and Language was published in the West. These figures were already established, and that is what allowed them to promote Vygotsky in the West in the first place. Yasnitsky is on safer ground when he declares that "their motives were not clear."

That being said, Yasnitsky has done an exceptional job of combing through what we know about Vygotsky and developing a fascinating, riveting, and above all valuable counterstory. If you have any interest in Vygotsky or his Circle, yes, read this book.

Reading :: Exit, Voice, and Loyalty

Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States
By Albert Hirschman

Every once in a while, I read a landmark book, usually in someone else's field or discipline, and come away unimpressed. Sometimes that happens because the book has had such a deep impact that its precepts now seem intuitive and uninteresting. Sometimes it's because the book clears away conversations to which I haven't been privy, creating a clean division. And sometimes ... I'm not sure why the book is a landmark book.

I'm not sure which category Exit, Voice, and Loyalty occupies. This 1970 book, based in economics, considers the phenomenon of "repairable lapses of economic actors" (p.1). In the face of such lapses, Hirschman says, individuals might exercise either the exit option (stop participating—e.g., customers stop buying the product) or the voice option (complain—e.g., customers complain to management) (p.4). Both options provide opportunities to repair the lapses. Hirschman asks: under what circumstances do individuals prefer one option over another? How do they interact? When do they work jointly? How can organizations perfect them (p.5)?

Although Hirschman begins with the example of customers buying a product, he quickly expands the question to individuals working within an organization, and he expands "organization" to apply to families, communities, religions, and nation-states. Exit reflects economics while voice reflects politics (p.15). Exit involves escape from an organization or system, while voice involves changing that organization or system (p.30).

It's a neat divide, "suspiciously neat," Hirschman acknowledges (p.15). Indeed, it encompasses individuals both internal and external to the organization; commercial, public, and nonprofit organizations; and family, state, and church as well as more formally defined organizations. That is, the exit/voice divide seems totalizing and Hirschman seems to be arguing that it is a general principle that works in roughly the same way across all of these social arrangements.

True, "the same way" does not mean that every organization has the same characteristics. For instance, "basic social organizations" such as "the family, the state, or the church" do not actually offer a realistic exit option, so individuals only have the voice option (p.33). This is not true in the Western economies, in which exit is always an option, but it was true in the Soviet economy (p.34)!

Now we get to the concept of loyalty: loyalists refuse to exit, so they can either voice concerns or suffer in silence (p.38). Interestingly, voice is expensive to use; the less expensive it is, the more individuals will use it (p.43). Hirschman adds that voice is qualitative while exit is quantitative (p.43).

There is much more to the book (although not that much more—it's a thin book). But it left me wanting even more explanation. Does the voice/exit dichotomy really do an adequate job across different types of social groupings, from family to church to state, as well as market? Do people apply exit and voice in roughly the same way if they are customers vs. employees? Do people not have additional options, such as hypocrisy, work-to-rule, selective belief, and double consciousness? Is the framework too individualistic to examine more complex group phenomena? What happens when different groups intersect, as they inevitably do (ex: every individual working for a company is also part of a family, state, and religious group)? The exit/voice dichotomy does seem like a starting place, but it seems too simple of a bifurcation to shoulder the burden Hirschman wants to place on it.

On the other hand, I understand that sometimes one has to clear the decks in order to see the problem in a different way, and perhaps that is what Hirschman is doing here. It's worth taking a look for yourself, from the perspective of your own discipline or field, and seeing what sort of work this dichotomy might be able to do for you.

Reading :: Kurt Koffka: An Unwitting Self-Porttrait

Kurt Koffka: An Unwitting Self-Portrait
By Molly Harrower

I picked up this book not because I'm interested in Gestaltists per se, but because Koffka accompanied Luria on his second Uzbek expedition and came away with a very different interpretation. In their discussion of this expedition, Lamdan & Yasnitsky draw on some of Koffka's private correspondence, which is in Ch.6 of this book.

The book is composed of letters Koffka sent to Molly Harrower, his protege, from 1928-1941 (thus an "unwitting" self-portrait, since the letters were not meant for broad consumption). Those who are interested in Koffka as a person, including how he looked up to and felt slighted by Kohler, may want to read the whole thing. I'll just concentrate on Ch.6.

In Ch.6, Koffka has been invited by Luria "to accompany him on an expedition to Uzbekistan in Central Asia." It's early summer, 1932, and "The Uzbek Republic had just come under the Soviet influence, and the government-sponsored expedition hoped to make a psychological assessment of the natives for comparative purposes at some later date, when Soviet influence would presumably be evidenced" (p.143).

After some visa trouble, he reached Moscow in May, writing on May 30 that he lectured to an audience of 300. "Most of whom understood German, but since some did not, Professor Vygotsky [[Russian psychologist, designer of concept formation test]], a most charming man, acted as my interpreter." He added: "I talked for about 5 to 10 minutes, and then he gave the most fluent translation you can imagine. He talked much more fluently than I, and it seemed to me for a much longer time" (p.145).

The next day, he attended a noon reception "at the Uzbekistan legislation [sic]," at which "the Minister of Uzbekistan gave me a long lecture translated by Luria, on the conditions of his country. ... The minister from Turkestan was also present" (p.146).

On 22-23 June, he wrote about the travel: a 20-hour train ride, then a cab ride into the mountains to their hotel. Due to a thunderstorm, the bridges had been washed out and it would take several days to clear the road. "Therefore we decided to make our first experiment in a somewhat more civilized district, a village, Kishlak, a native village some fifteen miles from Fergana" (p.147). The party set out in a bus, which almost immediately had a flat tire, so two parties had to walk a mile and a half to get a new one (p.147).

On 14 July, he reported that they were about to leave Palman, going partway with the presidents of Uzbekistan and Kirghistan (who would spend a few weeks at Shaki Marden) as well as the local president of the GPU (secret police) (p.150).

Unfortunately Koffka had an attack of malaria and could not continue. Luria himself drove Koffka from Shaki Marden back to Fergana in "an Army Ford touring car," but the car broke down and had to be towed, stretching the journey from three hours to seven and a half (p.151).

After struggling with illness, Koffka had to leave. On the journey back, he reported: "The strongest impression I gained from being with these different people in the train was the amazing uniformity of their outlook. It was as though all of them, my colleagues included, had gone through the same school in which they had learned the same lessons, lessons in history, economics, politics, and philosophy." He adds: "The fundamental conviction colored their views on all subjects, and this conviction had all the power, but also all the rigidity of a dogmatic faith. Theirs was the proletarian state bringing the dawn of real culture, while beyond the Soviet border bourgeois civilization was still bending all its efforts, even their science and art, to the profit of capitalism and thereby perverting them" (p.159). "The uniformity of intellectual and emotional outlook is one of the strongest memories I carried away from my six weeks' visit to the Soviet Union. ... What confounded me was that they were all honest and yet uniform. Talking to them was like running against a stone wall. To have built this wall in a relatively short time is perhaps one of the greatest achievements of the Soviet government — however negatively one may value it" (p.160).

Regarding the expedition, he sums it up this way:
I suppose the Moscow government were willing to spend considerable sums of money on this enterprise because they expected formal proof of the beneficial effects of their policy on the intellectual and moral status of their citizens. 
The Uzbeks have still another reason. This emerged on several occasions, in conversations with different men in leading positions, among them the president of the Uzbek Executive Council himself. Under the Czarist regime a commission of psychologists had been sent down from St. Petersburg—so I was told by my various informants—to test the native population with a view to develop an educational system adapted to their intelligence. This commission had reported home that the Uzbeks were of such low intelligence that it would not be worth it to give them any education at all. And now the Uzbeks who were governing the country found themselves in this dilemma; they wanted to introduce their countrymen and women to science, which was to take the place of religion, but science had found that their efforts would be futile. (pp.161-162)
In all, this chapter provides a revealing outsider's look at the famed Uzbek expedition. As Lamdan and Yasnitsky argue, Luria's account did not note the optics of a large convoy showing up in rural Uzbekistan with two presidents and the head of the secret police in tow. Koffka's account gives us a better understanding of the conditions under which Luria's experiments occurred. More, he describes the uniformity of outlook in the young Soviet Union, a uniformity that could and did turn on Luria at the end of the second expedition.

As mentioned, I'm not really focused on the Gestaltists or Koffka per se. If you are, definitely pick up this book. If, like me, you're mainly interested in the insights it can bring to the Vygotsky Circle, stick with Chapter 6.

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

(Presentation: Go or No Go)

I recently returned from Procomm 2019, where I planned to present this slide deck based on the paper "Go or No Go: Learning to Persuade in an Early-Stage Student Entrepreneurship Program." The paper was coauthored by David Altounian and Gregory Pogue, and it received an award.

Unfortunately I woke up sick on the day of the presentation — the first time I've ever missed presenting a paper, I think — so I wasn't able to actually present the paper. But you can click through if you like. It'll be almost like being there!

(Presentation: Fourth-generation activity theory: A literature review)

I recently returned from Procomm 2019, where I delivered a presentation on the literature related to fourth-generation activity theory. This presentation is based on a paper that David Guile and I provided for the proceedings. If you're interested in AT, please check it out!

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

(Presentation: Analyzing qualitative data with activity theory-based models)

Last week, I returned from the Activity Theory Summer School, which was a fantastic experience. My workshop, which was based on my book Topsight 2.0, focused on its integrated system of models for analyzing qualitative data.

If that sounds interesting to you, please take a look at the slides—they step through these models, demonstrating what each model does and how to build it, and provide exercises for producing them.

Presentation: Analyzing qualitative data with activity theory-based models

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Reading :: Principles of Topological Psychollogy

Principles of Topological Psychology
By Karl Lewin

I was intrigued by Zavershneva's claim that Vygotsky's holistic period was heavily influenced by Lewin's topological and vector psychology. So when I saw Lewin's book on Kindle, I grabbed it. Since this version is a Kindle book, I won't provide page numbers.

Lewin, like Vygotsky, argues that psychology needs a unifying framework to avoid being split "into a number of unrelated branches," yet one that does not "try to derive all psychological facts neatly from one single concept such as association, reflex, instinct, or totality"—perhaps shading Freud, Pavlov, Bekhterev, and the Gestaltists. He introduced topological psychology, AKA field theory, to provide such an overarching framework, one that would be more Galilean than Aristotelian.

Later, he argues that "A dynamic psychology has to represent the personality and the state of a person as the total of possible and not-possible ways of behaving."

In his topological psychology, Lewin attempts to map out different (overlapping) situations in which a person finds herself. This representation includes both the person and the environment—theories that do not represent the environment are "inadequate."

To be honest, I had a hard time getting into topological psychology. I got the idea of representing psychology topologically, at least in its outlines, but I did not understand how Lewin proposed to concretely carry out such an analysis. (Wikipedia adds that "There is some confusion as to the basics of field theory, causing misconceptions of how it should be used in Gestalt therapy"—so I am relieved that it's not just me.) Yet I can see some connection with what Leontiev later did in activity theory, which similarly offers a holistic approach and similarly identifies activities (similar to fields) in which people participate and goals they attempt to achieve.

To get a better handle on this, I'll have to read more Lewin and more commentaries on Lewin. Suggestions? Email me or leave them in the comments!

Reading :: Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics (second reading)

Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics
By Mikhail Bakhtin

I posted my original review of this book 15 years ago. In my recent reading, I took supplemental notes that focused on Bakhtin's dialogism as opposed to Engelsian and Stalinist dialectics. These notes are in Kindle, so I won't provide page numbers.

Bakhtin tells us early on that "A plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses, a genuine polyphony of fully valid voices is in fact the chief characteristic of Dostoevsky's novels" and what unfolds in his novels is "a plurality of consciousnesses, with equal rights and each with its own world" (his emphasis). Dostoevsky sought to destroy the monological European novel. Criticizing previous literary critics' characterization of Dostoevsky, Bakhtin argued that "In their attempt to squeeze the artist's demonstrated plurality of consciousness into the systematically monologic framework of a single worldview, these researchers were forced to resort to either antimony or dialectics," resulting in the gravitation toward a single authorial consciousness. Indeed, the relationships among the characters "are the last thing that can be reduced to thesis, antithesis, and synthesis." Nor are these novels to be "understood as the dialectical evolution of the spirit," which, "understood in Hegelian terms, can give rise to nothing but a philosophical monologue."

Indeed, for Dostoevsky, "in every voice he could hear two contending voices"—"But none of these contradictions and bifurcations ever became dialectical." "They were, rather, spread out in one plane, as standing alongside or opposite one another, as consonant but not merging or as hopelessly contradictory, as an eternal harmony of unmerged voices or as their unceasing and irreconcilable quarrel." Thus "it is futile to seek in [Dostoevsky's world] a systematically monologic, even if dialectical, philosophical finalization—and not because the author has failed in his attempts to achieve it, but because it did not enter into his design." Bakhtin goes on: "For Dostoevsky everything in life was dialogue, that is, dialogic opposition."

Turning to the individual in Dostoevsky's works, Bakhtin argues, "a living human being cannot be turned into the voiceless object of some secondhand, finalizing cognitive process. In a human being there is always something that only he himself can reveal, in a free act of self-consciousness and discourse, something that does not submit to an externalizing secondhand definition." He argues: "In the ideal a single consciousness and a single mouth are absolutely sufficient for maximally full cognition; there is no need for a multitude of consciousness, and no basis for it." And "In an environment of philosophical monologism the genuine interaction of consciousness is impossible, and thus genuine dialogue is impossible as well. In essence idealism knows only a single mode of cognitive interaction among consciousness: someone who knows and possesses the truth instructs someone who is ignorant of it and in error; that is, it is the interaction of a teacher and a pupil, which, it follows, can be only a pedagogical dialogue."

For Dostoevsky, an idea can't just live in a single consciousness: "Human thought becomes genuine thought, that is, an idea, only under conditions of living contact with another and alien thought, a thought embodied in someone else's voice, that is, in someone else's consciousness expressed in discourse. At that point of contact between voice-consciousness the idea is born and lives." And "even agreement retains its dialogic characteric, that is, it never leads to a merging of voices and truths in a single impersonal truth, as occurs in the monologic world."

Later, in discussing genre, Bakhtin adds: "The dialogic means of seeking truth is counterposed to official monologism, which pretends to possess a ready-made truth, and it is also counterposed to the naive self-confidence of those people who think they know something, that is, who think that they possess certain truths. Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction."

In these quotes, Bakhtin does not directly go after dialectic. Rather, he attempts to demonstrate that dialectic and other monologic approaches do not adequately address what Dostoevsky was trying to do. The application of this analysis to dialectic is only implied (or perhaps inferred?).

In any case, I was glad to reread this book, and I'll have to reread Bakhtin's other books soon as well.

Reading :: Aircraft Stories (second reading)

Aircraft Stories: Decentering the Object in Technoscience
By John Law

I originally reviewed this book over 15 years ago, and was not kind. More recently I reread it. And, although I still don't like Law's style, I found that parts of the argument stand up well. So in this second reading, I'll focus on those parts.

n.b., I read the Kindle edition this time around, so I won't include page numbers.

One of the central issues Law tries to address is "fractional coherence," which "is about drawing things together without centering them." Specifically, he examines representations of a fighter jet which was not completed, noting that it "comes in different versions. It has no center. It is multiple. And yet these various versions also interfere with one another and shuffle themselves together to make a single aircraft. They make what I will call singularities, or singular objects out of their multiplicities. In short, they make objects that cohere." Law's focus in this book is how such objects are made to cohere. He adds: "a fractionally coherent subject or object is one that balances between plurality and singularity. It is more than one, but less than many." Fractionality, he adds, is a metaphor for avoiding dualisms.

Furthermore, he argues that fractionality is distinct from perspectives: "inconsistency between different performances reflects failing coordination between different object positions rather than differences between external perspectives on the same object." In Chapter 2, he examines strategies of coordination: in his case study, a brochure for the TSR2 fighter, he identifies "a series of mechanisms that work to connect and coordinate disparate elements." These include syntax, physical structure, tabular hierarchy, perspective, cartography, system, and speed/heroism. He adds that "once we look at things in this plural way, any singular object immediately becomes an effect -- and a more or less precarious effect."

Later, he identifies singularity with modernism and multiplicity with postmodernism, arguing that the oscillation (and tension) between the two bears investigation: "It is much more interesting and productive to explore oscillation between certainties than to take a position in the debate." "Heterogeneity is an oscillation between absence and presence," he declares.

Law later refers to this project as an "academic pinboard" that consciously avoids a grand narrative.

Do I recommend reading Aircraft Stories—again? Yes, I suppose. I am not a fan of the "pinboard" approach, but I understand the project and why Law felt that this would be a good approach for exploring it. Still, I found the (more conventional) first chapter to be more rewarding than the exploration of the brochure in subsequent chapters.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Reading :: Cognitive Capitalism

Cognitive Capitalism
By Yann Moulier Boutang

David Guile suggested I read this book, and I owe him a debt for discussing its salient points with me. Moulier Boutang originally published it in 2007; this translation was published in 2011. In it, the author argues that we are undergoing a transition, not to socialism (as Marx and his successors have hoped) but to a new type of capitalism, corresponding with globalism.

In the Introduction, the author characterizes capitalism in three stages: "Marx in Manchester," "Marx in Detroit," and "Marx in California" (p.8). The third stage, AKA "cognitive capitalism," began around 1975 and has "little similarity to industrial capitalism, which at its birth between 1750 and 1820, broke with mercantilist capitalism and slavery" (p.9). He emphasizes: "We are not living in a period of socialist transition" but rather a transition into this new form of capitalism (p.9).

He continues this argument in Chapter 1, where he argues that "From 1975 onwards the pace of economic growth in the developed countries slowed considerably. ... Unemployment became omnipresent and structural." The previous model, which relied on "rapid salarisation of an originally agricultural population, an abundant supply of family dependants and a demand that was driven first by postwar reconstruction, and then by wars taking place in the Third World ... finally ran out of steam" (p.11). Yet there was no collapse. World trade rose and new trans-state organizations were created (p.12). Bases of capital changed repeatedly (see table 1.1, p.18). In the process, "Capitalism has set negative externalities at the centre of its functioning as positives, and they make one of the characteristics of complex systems within which organised human intervention must evolve" (p.20). These negative externalities include our air, water, and other aspects of our ecological system. And they are now interfering with transaction costs (p.30). This fact has an impact on immaterial labor, which characterizes the new production model.

By immaterial labour, the author means that "the essential point" for understanding the economy is "no longer the expenditure of human labour power" as Marx would have it, but rather "invention-power," or "the living know-how that cannot be reduced to machines and the opinions shared in common by the greatest number of human beings" (p.32). For example, the price of a pair of trainers (that's athletic shoes for those of us in the US) relies not just on the manufacturing and transport costs but also on "the value of the brand," which itself results from labor from designers, stylists, and lawyers (p.32). The capacity for innovation becomes a key part of the stock price (p.32). "If the economy is becoming increasingly flexible (a transition that many industries are finding it very hard to make), it is because the central core of value rests now on immaterialities" (p.33). Here, "immaterial labour" is not idealist, but rather an update of Marx's "abstract labour" (p.33). Capitalism now seeks to prioritize "collective intelligence, creativity distributed through the entirety of the population" (p.34).

Capitalism must mutate to survive, partly due to human change: the social accumulation of knowledge, expanded memory, and collective intelligence, due to information technologies (p.36). Thus he calls the new capitalism "'cognitive capitalism', because it has to deal with collective cognitive labour power, living labour, and not simply with muscle-power consumed by machines driven by 'fossil-fuel' energy" (p.37).

In Chapter 2, the author contrasts cognitive capitalism (hereafter CC) with other characterizations, such as the knowledge-based society, the information society, technological capitalism, and the new economy. Chapter 3 defines CC in detail as a coherent system and a dynamic process. The author argues that cognitive capitalism involves "a remarkable return ... to use-value and to the world of human relations" (p.49). CC has 15 markers:

  1. The virtualization of the economy, i.e., the "growing role of the immaterial" (p.50)
  2. "The weight of the immaterial is an outcome of the new computer technologies" (p.50)
  3. The capture of innovation "present in the interactive cognitive processes of social cooperation and of tacit knowledge" (p.51)
  4. Thus technological process "takes the form of a socio-technical system" and the critical variables are "the appropriation of knowledge" and "the use of technology" (p.51)
  5. The division of labor model has been brought into question; "As for innovation that requires not only the coordination of complex processes but also the active cooperation of agents, it is hampered, indeed blocked, by the division of labour" and thus "productivity gains ... derive from economies in learning"  (pp.51-52)
  6. "The growing complexity of markets" is increasingly managed via "learning economies" (p.52)
  7. Sequences of production are reversed: "Now deep innovation involves 'flexible production' and 'just-in-time' production" and relies on "the productive nature of consumption"—users become co-producers of innovation (pp.52-53).
  8. Traditional dividing lines "between capital and labour and between skilled and unskilled labour" are dissolving (p.53)
  9. The digital network yields the network society (p.53)
  10. The "hegemony of the paradigm of industrial labour and manual labour power" is coming to an end (p.53)
  11. Whereas "dead labour" is crystallized in machines, in CC, living labour "is not consumed and not reduced to dead labour in machinism" (p.54)
  12. "Concepts of individual performance within the workplace"are declining, while innovation is no longer solely located within the company (p.54)
  13. CC produces immaterial goods (information-goods, knowledge-goods), yielding tensions over intellectual property rights (pp.54-55)
  14. Externalities are no longer marginal: "capturing positive externalities becomes the number one problem of value," i.e., "work done outside working hours, and implicit knowledge, and capacities for contextualisation" (p.55)
  15. "Whereas industrial capitalism could be characterised as the production of commodities by means of commodities, cognitive capitalism produces knowledge by means of knowledge and produces the living by means of the living. It is immediately production of life, and thus it is bio-production" that can only "take place on the basis of collective brain activity mobilised in interconnected digital networks." This is "bio-production" and its control is "biopower" (pp.55-56). 
CC, he concludes, is "a mode of accumulation in which the object of accumulation consists mainly of knowledge, which becomes the basic source of value, as well as the principal location of the process of valorisation" (p.57). Its strategies "are determined by the quest for a spatial, institutional and organisational positioning likely to increase its capacity for engaging in creative processes and for capturing their benefits" (p.57). Its mode of production "is based on the cooperative labour of human brains joined together in networks by means of computers" (p.57). Therefore the new wealth of nations is "the important place of research, of technological advancement, of education (the quality of the population), of information flow, of communication systems, of innovation, of organisational learning and of management organisational strategies" (p.57). "A capitalist society of this kind aims to place at the centre of the sphere of production and to integrate fully into the economic sphere (both market and non-market) resources that had previously been external to them" (p.58). 

CC requires a new division of labor as well. The author provides a table (p.62) demonstrating a shift from industrial to cognitivist DOL in terms of various aspects: function, evolution variables, organizational model, etc. In a nutshell, CC characteristics seem similar to those of Adler and Hecksher's collaborative communities, focusing on cooperation in networks (not markets or hierarchies). Importantly, CC relies on educated, intellectual members, in contrast to the deliberately limited worker requirements of Tayloris, (pp.66-67). 

Yet, as the author argues in Chapter 4, cognitive capitalism is also unstable: it involves omnipresent exploitation and antagonistic social relations and relations of production (p.92). First CC splits living labor into consumed (crystallized) and continuing (skill, know-how). It produces living labor by means of living labor (i.e., knowledge by means of knowledge). Thus re get living capital, a seeming paradox (p.93). CC draws its legitimacy from the nature of its accumulation, mainly exploiting invention-power and ideally maximizing that exploitation (p.94). The author provides a helpful typology, showing different cases in terms of exploitation of labour-power, invention-power, and freedom: on one end is the slave or serf, who is solely exploited in terms of labour-power and has no freedom; at the other end, the creative, who is exploited solely in terms of invention-power and does have freedom (p.96). 

The production of knowledge goods has two problems: First, they are not scarce, and second, they are too public to be produced through a market system—hierarchy and market are inadequate (pp.103-104). The dot-com entrepreneur, he says, can only find a business model by staying on top of the wave of social innovation; we're no longer in the era of Schumpeter and Knight, when entrepreneurs identify the needs of a passive society (p.109). 

In Chapter 5, the author examines the question of social class. CC involves worsening inequalities and precarity (p.122). The latter does not mean poverty but rather vulnerability to poverty: the safety net has holes (p.129). Precarity involves intermittent workers; to exploit invention-power, trades must "develop multi-level capabilities, so that their pollination and nomadic activity may be recaptured" (p.132). "The regime of widespread intermittency is becoming the real form of work," he says, adding that a guaranteed universal income will be needed to underpin CC—people need to eat in order to do cognitive work (p.134). 

In Chapter 6, the author argues that finance is the only way to govern the inherent instability of CC (p.136). Accounting rules are currently inadequate for companies that accumulate and retain immaterial (intangible) capital (p.141). 

In Chapter 7, he presents a manifesto, gathering up the policy recommendations made throughout the book (universal basic income, financial governance, etc.).

And let's stop there. This was a rewarding book, allowing me to draw together some of my previous readings and writings to rethink what is going on with work. I highly recommend it.

Reading :: Expertise in Transition

Expertise in Transition: Expansive Learning in Medical Work
By Yrjo Engestrom

This 2018 book, like 2016's Studies in Expansive Learning, serves as a capstone for aspects of Engestrom's prodigious work. Whereas Studies in Expansive Learning summarized his career findings related to the theory of expansive learning, Expertise in Transition summarizes his career findings about the nature, development, and improvement of expertise, a theme stretching back to his 1992 research bulletin Interactive Expertise. Specifically, it focuses on medical expertise.

As Engestrom says in the preface, "our predominant notions of expertise are foundationally insufficient in the face of the present challenges of an interconnected and unpredictable world," and in response, "this book builds a perspective of transition toward collaborative and transformative expertise" (p.vii). This argument is based on the one from Interactive Expertise, in which Engestrom argued that traditional cognitive foundations of expertise are dualistic, with algorithmic and enculturational poles (Ch. 1 in Interactive Expertise, covered also on p.4 in this book). He goes on to note two dimensions of expertise (learning for stability vs change, and collective vs individual locus of expertise), which he maps into a four-field diagram (p.10) to demonstrate a lacuna in the quadrant of learning for stability && collective locus of expertise. That's the quadrant that Engestrom fills with this book, using activity theory (p.13). He argues that

  • Expertise is located in mediated activity systems and "cannot be meaningfully reduced to individual competency";
  • "Expertise is inherently heterogeneous"; "there is no universally valid, homogeneous, self-sufficient expertise"; and 
  • "Expertise is increasingly faced with the challenge of radical transformations that require culturally novel solutions and learning about what is not yet there" (p.14).
Related to the third point, he argues that in situations that require emergent learning, "There is no competent teacher, or there are many competing ones" (p.18). As he did back in Interactive Expertise, Engestrom points to Gregory Bateson's "Learning III," characterized as dialectical and understood within Engestrom's expansive learning cycle (pp.18-19). To address emergent learning, we need an interventionist developmental methodology (pp.20-21) in which "research aims at developmental re-mediation of activities" (p.22). He proposes a "methodology of formative interventions" (p.23), such as his own Change Laboratory (p.24). 

In this book, Engestrom specifically focuses on medical expertise. Like Annemarie Mol in her study of medical expertise, Engestrom notes that "a chronically ill patient typically becomes an object for a number of physicians, each viewing the patient from the perspective of his or her own specialty" (p.25), and "the multiplying nature of chronic illness further complicates the issue" by yielding different diagnoses and prescriptions (p.25). (Unlike Mol, however, Engestrom sees these as perspectives on a unitary object.) This question of the object is discussed further in Ch.2, where Engestrom illustrates the question in an empirical study, demonstrating that physicians hold different dominant models of the object associated with different theories of the illness (p.41). The object, he concludes, "is not only constructed by the subjects, it also constructs itself" (p.54). I note that here, he characterizes Latour in Science in Action as being purely constructivist, and relates this view to "critical sociological studies of medicine" in which "the professional dominance of doctors is commonly pictured as constructing patients and illnesses as if they were passive material" (p.54)—a characterization that seems at odds with Latour in that book and subsequent ones. 

In Chapter 3, Engestrom discusses levels of activity and contradictions. 

Chapter 4 goes into the spatial and temporal expansion of the object, focusing on the case of a Change Lab intervention. In addition to activity system triangles, Engestrom develops other representations (care maps, calendars; see p.78). These three types of representations are mediational means that provide dual stimulation for the participants in the Change Lab. I want to note this point because critics of CHAT have often focused on the activity system triangle as an oversimplified and limited representation of activity. Yes, it's simplified, just as a paper prototype is a simplified version of a tool to be fully developed later. These representations are not meant to be purely descriptive, analytical devices; they are starting points for codesign and co-intervention. 

In Chapter 5, Engestrom brings in the notion of knotworking, which happens in "work that requires active construction of constantly changing combinations of people and artifacts over lengthy trajectories of time and widely distributed in space" (p.85). Knotworking involves fluid combinations of individuals that have roles but do not work together continually, such as judges and attorneys (the combinations change for each trial). "These combinations of people, tasks, and tools are unique and of relatively short duration. Yet, in their basic pattern, they are continuously repeated" (p.86). Such combinations, he says, are not well described by terms such as team or network, both of which (he argues) assume stable configurations (p.86). In contrast, knotworking is unstable, pulsating, with no center of coordination or control (p.87). In his example of knotworking, the case of a mental patient, "the knot functioned as a self-conscious agent" whose duration was too short to develop infrastructure (p.91). He concludes the chapter by discussing another case, the development of a care agreement. 

In Chapter 6, Engestrom examines knotworking as expansive decision-making. Drawing on Klein's work in naturalistic decision-making, Engestrom argues that activity theory can contribute to NDM by providing a framework that addresses socio-spatial, temporal, moral-ideological, and systemic-developmental dimensions of decision-making.

The book has more chapters, but I'll stop there. In sum, Engestrom has drawn across his theorization and case studies of the last three decades to provide a coherent accounting of expertise from an activity-theoretical perspective. In doing so, he has demonstrated and illustrated the extraordinary potential for activity theory to understand and intervene in domains of complex expertise. If you're interested in expertise, activity theory, or both, you really ought to read this book.

Reading :: Practice Theory

Practice Theory, Work, and Organization: An Introduction
By Davide Nicolini

I've seen this book referenced in various places, but a conversation with Julian Waters-Lynch convinced me that I needed to pick it up. Although the book as a whole is solid, I'll focus below on aspects that are salient to activity theory.

As the title indicates, Nicolini provides an introduction to practice theory, an umbrella term for "contemporary theories of practice" contributing to "the practice turn in social and organizational studies" (p.1). These theories include praxeology (Giddings, Bordieu), practice as tradition and community (Lave, Wenger), activity theory (Engestrom), ethnomethodology, social practice (Heidegger, Wittgenstein), and conversation analysis. These are all different, but they generally agree on certain points:

  1. "Practice approaches are fundamentally processual and tend to see the world as an ongoing routinized and recurrent accomplishment" (p.3).
  2. Practice approaches are material, bodily, with active objects (p.4).
  3. "Practice theories carve a specific space for individual agency and agents" (p.4).
  4. "Adopting a practice approach radically transforms our view of knowledge, meaning, and discourse. From a practice perspective, knowledge is conceived largely as a form of mastery that is expressed in the capacity to carry out a social and material activity" (p.5) 
  5. "All practice-based approaches foreground the centrality of interest in human matters and therefore put emphasis on the importance of power, conflict, and politics as constitutive elements of the social reality we experience" (p.6). 
In practice theories, practice comes first—not rational agents (practitioners) (p.7). They "use a performative perspective to offer a new vista on the social world" and they provide an "alternative to  cognitive perspectives that try to explain organizational conduct and phenomena as something stemming from the mind or brain of an individual" (p.7). They are material (p.7). They are dynamic and discursive, but not solely discursive (p.8). Finally, they "depict the world in relational terms" (p.8).

Practice theory impacted organizational studies in the 1990s, shifting the focus of org studies from orgs-as-things to orgs-as-social-processes (p.11). The current practice-based organizational studies derive from three research streams: "the study of learning and knowing phenomena as situated practices," "the study of technology as practice," and "the study of strategy as practice" (p.11). 

In Chapter 2, Nicolini traces the roots of practice theory to Aristotle's focus on praxis and poeisis, discusses its demotion in the Western tradition, and examines its rediscovery in Marx, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein. In particular, Marx embraced praxis as critical to materialism, arguing that thought and world are always connected via human activity and cannot be separated (p.30). Nicolini argues that when Marx articulated his famous thesis—"the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it"—his epistemological proposition was "the need to engage practically as well as cognitively with phenomena in order to understand them" (p.32). 

After Chapter 2, Nicolini begins covering various strands of practice theory, including interstitial chapters that illustrate each strand with a case study. Let's skip to Chapter 5, on activity theory.

Activity theory, Nicolini notes, is not unified. Here, he focuses on CHAT, Engestrom's variation and "the strand of activity theory that tackles more explicitly the issue of theorizing practice, and which has been translated into organization and management studies" (p.104). And "the fact that the result of one type of activity may become the raw material for another makes work the fundamental grounding of sociality as well as one of its outputs. Work is thus not only material, but also inherently social" (p.105)—to which I would add that this stance was articulated in Engels' origin story in Dialectics of Nature and retold by Vygotsky & Luria and Leontiev

Nicolini articulates five major tenets of CHAT: "the mediated nature of practice; the notion of an activity system; the object-oriented nature of human activity; its historical and contradictory nature; and the necessarily interventionist and developmental nature of the study of practice" (p.106). 

In discussing the object of the activity, Nicolini notes that the object is "partly given and partly emergent, both socially constructed and objective" (p.112). Since "the object is actively constructed through the negotiation, alignment, or ignoring, of the different motives, interests, and aspirations represented in the community," "it follows that the object is inherently fragmented" because it "is not visible in its entirety to any one of the participants", and it is also "composed of heterogeneous entities" and therefore "inherently multiple" (p.112). 

In discussing CHAT's interventionist orientation, Nicolini notes the "Marxian reading of Kurt Lewin's principle that you cannot understand a human organization until you attempt to change it." For CHAT, "Expansive learning always originates from small fractures, deviations, and individual exceptions, and proceeds in cycles or spirals, through multiple phases and over lengthy periods of time" (p.116). 

Overall, I found Nicolini's overview of practice theory, and his view of CHAT, to be valuable. In places, I thought he worked a little hard to fit CHAT into the practice theory mold (for example, I'm not sure that Engestrom sees the object the way Nicolini does). But viewing CHAT from this direction helps me to think through its structure and limitations. For that, and for the general insights into practice theory, I recommend the book highly.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Reading :: Dialogism

Dialogism: A Bakhtinian Perspective on Science and Learning
By Wolff-Michael Roth

Wolff-Michael Roth has published an extraordinarily large number of books. I'm not sure how he does it, but I like to think he has a whole Warhol-style factory somewhere.

In any case, this book takes "a 38-minute conversation in one classroom" among three high school students attempting to finish a lab, and uses it to ground "an extended reflection on language, learning, language development, linguistic transformation, and the learning paradox" (p.ix). This conversation came from a research study Roth conducted in his own class "nearly 20 years ago" (p.xi) and previously published. Here, he rethinks the conversation from a Bakhtinian and CHAT perspective, using it to explore three learning paradoxes:
Specifically, I focus on three learning paradoxes insufficiently attended to in the learning sciences generally and in science education more specifically: (a) how learners can intend to learn what they do not know and which therefore cannot serve as the object of their intentions; (b) how persons can learn something new when their current understandings and therefore their grounds and means for learning are inconsistent (contradictory) with what they are supposed to learn; and (c) how the subject matter disciplines are both reproduced and transformed over time given that today's experts themselves have come to school yesterday uninstructed about science. (p.ix)
How can we answer these paradoxes? He continues: "The answers to these paradoxes can be found in an approach to language with a dialectical materialist foundation that Mikhail Bakhtin called dialogism" (p.ix). In contrast with constructivism, "we learn by participating in taking up positions in the world, and language specifically—and communication generally—is but and [sic] aspect of taking up positions in ways that are intelligible by and defensible to others" (p.x).

Roth goes on to argue that Bakhtin's approach to language "is the linguistic (structural) equivalent to Karl Marx's dialectic of value" (p.1) and thus offers a "materialist dialectical framework that allows us to understand how the learning paradox is overcome in praxis" (p.2). Here, dialogism is not simply dialogue: it is "the non-self-identical nature of the word specifically and of language in general" (p.26). He further argues that "Bakhtin constructs his approach to language on the model of Karl Marx's treatment of political economy in Capital" (p.39; he provides no citation for this assertion). Later, he equates dialogism with polysemy (p.78).

He contrasts dialogical and monological understandings: finalization—that is, proceeding to a final endpoint that stops the interaction—is monological, while "the essence of dialogism" is unfinalizability, in which two voices or evaluations continue to interrupt each other. Indeed, "Dialogism and emergence go together and are opposed to finalization" (p.175). And "Dialogism therefore inherently means open-endedness and impossibility of finalization" (p.211). Later, he concludes that "life itself is dialogical (life-flesh, birth-death, reproduction-transformation, etc.)" (p.261).

At this point, some of my readers may be scratching their heads. Did Bakhtin really base dialogism on Marx's dialectic of value? Is dialogism really based on dialectical materialism? Doesn't Bakhtin elsewhere contrast dialogics and dialectics, characterizing dialectics as monologic? (Yes, he does.) Recall that the authorship of some books from the Bakhtin Circle is disputed. Recall also that after Bakhtin saw members of his Circle disappear into the Gulag, and after he himself was sent into internal exile, he became much more circumspect about his thoughts, keeping them hidden in notebooks and publishing versions that would not get him disappeared. Thus it's not always clear what Bakhtin actually thought.

Roth tells us that he works from several translations. Among them:
I have a French and an English translation of Marksizm i filosofiia iazyka, which in the English translation (Marxism and the Philosophy of Language) is attributed to 'Valentin N. Volosinov', but in the French translation (Le marxisme et la philosophie du language) is attributed to 'Mikhail Bakhtine' with some editing help from 'V.N. Volochinov'. (p.xii)
Yes, the members of the Bakhtin Circle published four books between 1927-1929, including two by Voloshinov (1927, 1929), one by P.N. Medvedev (1928), and one by Bakhtin (1929). Voloshinov died  of tuberculosis in 1936 and Medvedev was shot in 1938. When Bakhtin's works were rediscovered by young scholars in the 1970s, they asked Bakhtin if he had written his collaborators' books, but the cagey survivor of the Stalinist era refused to give them a straight answer. But internal evidence suggests that MPL was not authored by Bakhtin, although it represents an attempt to apply his work within a dialectical framework. In any case, Bakhtin's thought on dialogue surely developed between the 1920s and the 1970s.

But is this quibble actually material? After all, we might replace "Bakhtin" with "the Bakhtin Circle" and still yield a dialogic analysis that is more centered on Voloshinov than Bakhtin—perhaps. On the other hand, how elastic is "dialectical materialism"? In 1929, perhaps Voloshinov could get by with characterizing it in terms of unfinalizability. But by 1938, the year Medvedev was shot, Stalin had published Dialectical and Historical Materialism, which did not characterize dialectics in a way reconcilable with dialogism. Stalin based his book on Engels' Dialectics of Nature, which was published in the USSR in 1925 and which similarly seems hard to reconcile with dialogism.

Granted, Marx seemed to be much more flexible in the way he understood dialectic (and he didn't actually define the term strictly, leaving an opening for Engels). So perhaps dialectical materialism could be interpreted more broadly and dialogically than Engels or Stalin interpreted it. I guess what I'm saying is that I'd like a more specific, thoughtful discussion of dialectical materialism in this book so that we can see how dialectics and dialogics can be reconciled.

Nevertheless, Roth draws widely—not just on the Bakhtin Circle, but on others from Sausseure to Merleau-Ponty to Davidson—to interpret and analyze his students' talk, yielding an understanding of learning through taking up positions in the world. It's a worthwhile book, and I recommend it.

Friday, March 08, 2019

(Activity Theory Summer School)

If you're (a) really interested in Activity Theory, (b) working on an MA or PhD, and (c) free this summer, I have an opportunity for you.

The Activity Theory Summer School is a 7.5-hour course at University West, Trollhättan in Sweden. It runs from June 17-August 11.

From June 25-28, students and instructors will meet at University West, Trollhättan in Sweden.

Instructors include Yrjo Engestrom, Anna Sannino, David Allen, Stan Karanasios, and myself. We'll each put on a half-day workshop, discussing theory and history, methodology, analysis, concepts, and case studies. We'll also discuss publishing and (of course) the future of activity theory. We'll also provide students with feedback as they develop their own studies.

It's a really exciting opportunity, and I hope you'll consider joining us!

Saturday, March 02, 2019

(CO.LAB Community Makerspace)

We've seen a lot of makerspaces, coworking spaces, and event spaces spring up in Austin over the last decade. These have typically focused on empowering freelancers and other independent workers.

But such spaces can also be a tremendous benefit for underserved communities — a way for people to get access to (for instance) a Glowforge Laser Cutter, CNC Milling Machine, 3D Printer,  woodworking tools, and craft materials so that they can create for themselves and support their own entrepreneurial efforts. And this access can be especially important for children, who need educational scaffolding to help them take advantage of these tools.

So I'm excited that four experienced educators are opening CO.LAB Community Makerspace in North Austin. Their mission is
to empower creators of all backgrounds regardless of financial situation, ethnicity, or orientation by providing a safe space that facilitates powerful ideas and access to tools. We aim to support our community makers in their entrepreneurial endeavors.
Today and tomorrow (March 2-3), CO.LAB is having an open house. If you're in Austin, swing on by—and wherever you are, consider contributing to their kickstarter.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Reading :: Wicked, Incomplete, and Uncertain

Wicked, Incomplete, and Uncertain: User Support in the Wild and the Role of Technical Communication
By Jason Swarts

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, technical communication programs grew precipitously across the US. In part, that's because of the PC Revolution. People were suddenly buying computers and software, and they needed to know how to run them. Software interfaces were not yet standardized. And (don't underestimate this factor) people were not yet used to paying hundreds of dollars for digital media—and software manuals made the boxes heavier.

Yet, as John Carroll noted in 1990, computer documentation was inherently limited, because writers simply could not cover every use case. He advocated the "minimal manual," focused on exercises that could help readers apply general skills to their specific problems.

Fast forward to the late 2010s, and writers really can cover every use case. But these are not necessarily trained writers: They're other users, communicating with each other on forums and via social media. As Swarts says, "We still need help, but increasingly we are ignoring manuals because our purposes have grown beyond what manuals are capable of addressing" (p.3).

Swarts methodically makes his case throughout the book, drawing on his (meticulously planned and executed) published studies as well as those of others. Through this work, he demonstrates how the object of technical documentation has shifted; how tasks related to stabilized situations have given way to "wicked problems" in unstable situations; how expertise has been decentered across different users (and here he uses stasis theory to demonstrate how users in tech forums collaboratively define and attack a problem); and how new genres of help have emerged to address these problems.

And yet, he argues in the last chapter, there is still a place for technical communication as a field:
technical communicators need to be a different kind of expert, less a 'throw-it-over-the-wall' expert and more like a facilitator or network maker, someone who is skilled at finding the right information and making the right connections and creating the right protocols and formats to meet the user's needs. (p.150)
Although the skills of traditional technical communication—clear style, strong organization, chunking, signaling, etc.—are still useful and important, for technology documentation, this facilitation/curation role is much more important. Swarts (as usual) nails it here. If you're interested in technical documentation, definitely pick this book up.

Reading :: Down and Out in the New Economy

Down and Out in the New Economy: How People Find (or Don’t Find) Work Today
By Ilana Gershon

Work has changed considerably over the last few decades (as you may have read). Lifelong employment is all but dead, and individuals find themselves thinking through how their career path might lead to the next job. As Ilana Gershon argues, this shift—among others—means that we have begun to think about employment and job-seeking in very different ways.

When employment was more stable, Gershon argues, we used to use the metaphor of self-as-property: I will give up a bit of my freedom for the security that comes from employment. But as lifelong employment has become more rare, this metaphor made less sense. Instead, she says, we use the implicit metaphor of self-as-business (p.8)—"a bundle of skills, assets, qualities, experiences, and relationships" (p.9). Rather than emphasizing our properties, we emphasize our personal brands. Rather than feeling loyalty to the employer, we feel passion toward our pursuits (p.8). The resume, rather than being a historical document of your employment, becomes a marketing tool for your business-of-one, demonstrating the problems that you have solved rather than the positions you have occupied (p.9). The employee becomes a business solution, i.e., a company (and brand) to ally with (p.11).

In this case, what happens to the genre repertoire of employment? As Gershon demonstrates, it changes considerably, incorporating branding genres, language, and orientations. Yet, Gershon notes, much of the personal branding advice given to job-seekers seems ineffective. Resumes are scanned for keywords, and the keywords that convey personal branding often turn out to be quite generic.

In all, this book was readable, compelling, and interesting. It certainly made me rethink the employment process and how our seniors are approaching their first jobs out of college. If you're interested in how people are hired—and certainly if you are about to hit the job market—take a look.

Reading :: Words Matter

Words Matter: Communicating Effectively in the New Global Office
By Elizabeth Keating and Sirkka L. Jarvenpaa

Elizabeth Keating is a linguistic anthropologist who teaches in the Human Dimensions of Organizations MA program at the University of Texas. When she mentioned her recent research, it was intriguing enough that I had to pick up this 2016 book and read more about it.

Keating and Jarvenpaa collaborated on this research program, which involved observing and interviewing engineers involved in international teams. These engineers—from the US, India, Brazil, and Romania—worked on shared projects across language and culture barriers, usually via teleconferencing and email. And although they were all engineers and all spoke English, they had to deal with frequent miscommunications and the resulting hurt feelings and suspicion that can result.

Through stories about these teams, Keating and Jarvenpaa identify several assumptions that cause trouble in such teams:

  • the purpose of communication is to convey new information
  • all hearers can be treated alike
  • information is always the same, no matter where it originates
  • if people speak the same language, they should understand each other
  • communication is based on clear, rational rules
  • good communicators know how much information to convey
  • the right language can neutralize the effects of culture
  • good communication is direct and clear (pp.18-19)
They suggest that cross-cultural teams will communicate more successfully if they take on new assumptions:
  • "Language is action, not information" 
  • "The hearer is the most important player"
  • People must "build common ground to interact successfully
  • "Language is social (and cultural)"
  • "Technology is a handicap" (that is, communicating in ways other than face-to-face) (pp.19-20)
The authors offer the "Communication Plus" model for helping such teams to communicate more effectively.

Importantly, this book is written for a general readership, not scholars. I could easily see it being used by business professionals or others who do not specialize in communication theory. For those readers, I recommend it highly. Language specialists will get less out of it, but it will still be useful to them. Definitely pick it up!

Reading :: Moneyball

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game
By Michael Lewis

Yes, I finally got around to reading Moneyball. It's a good story, compellingly told, and Michael Lewis does a good job of talking through the basics of what statistical analysis brought to baseball recruiting and how it disrupted pro ball.

That aspect, I think, is what made this book required reading in UT's MS in Technology Commercialization — which in turn is why I read the book in the first place.

On the other hand, I confess that I didn't feel much more informed after reading the book. I mean, I understand baseball a little better, but my real goal was to better understand statistical analysis and how it might apply to problem solving in domains traditionally dominated by lore. Moneyball gave me an extended example, but at such a level of generalization that I would have a hard time applying it elsewhere.

Still, it's a great read, and I recommend it.

Thursday, February 07, 2019

One-Day Seminar: Persuading Like an Entrepreneur

Since 2012, I've been studying how entrepreneurs communicate, and especially how they persuade stakeholders. It's a fascinating topic, since they have to articulate a problem, identify audiences for whom it's a problem, and position their own product or service to address the problem.

In fact, it's so fascinating that I've authored or coauthored several articles about it, and edited two special issues of journals on entrepreneurship communication.

Watching these entrepreneurs put together their arguments has led me to think: What lessons do they have for the rest of us? What can we learn about persuasion from them?

And that led me to put together an HDO one-day seminar: A Good Idea is Not Enough: Persuading Like an Entrepreneur.

This seminar is on March 6. We'll talk about

  • Understanding the big picture. Why don’t ideas “sell themselves”? How does persuasion work, and how can we develop and communicate an offering that can persuade all of our stakeholders?
  • Choosing the right argument — and refining it with feedback. What kind of logic should you apply to your offering? How do you establish feedback loops to refine that offering? How do you identify pain and articulate a persuasive value proposition?
  • Making it work: Figuring out your self-sustaining system. A value proposition is the kernel of your argument, but you also have to demonstrate that it can be sustained. Whose problem are you solving? What’s the solution’s scope? What are the pieces of the system that will sustain it? And how do you “fail faster” without failing disastrously?
  • Pitching. Once you’ve developed an argument, you have to pitch it, then answer questions from stakeholders who may disagree with you and each other. How do you pitch effectively? How do you cocreate solutions with your audience? When do you decide to persevere, pivot — or punt?

If you might be interested, but have questions, shoot me an email at I hope to see you there!