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.