Thursday, March 18, 2021

Reading :: We Tried to Warn You

We Tried To Warn You: Innovations In Leadership For The Learning Organization
By Peter H. Jones

In this short book, Peter Jones draws on his background in design research and strategic consulting to address the question of how to form a learning organization -- one that can learn from failures and effectively support customers as well as employees inside the organization. "To navigate the rapid change and complexity in today's wired markets, we can create continuous early innovation and early warning systems. A new organizational role is now possible, whose job is paying attention to weak signals and articulating insights to both suggest innovations and tactfully frame the bad news from the field" (Kindle loc 147). UX is ideally suited for this role. 

To discuss this role, he draws on Weick's notion of sensemaking, pointing out that most orgs don't have a situation room or other mechanism to tell stories about change, "no organizational practices or rituals for organizing their communication and storytelling" (loc 185). Thus "The kind of stories people want to hear get reinforced and repeated" (loc 353). One result is that UX (like technical documentation, honestly) gets introduced into the process late in the lifecycle, negating the foresight that it could bring to the product (loc 436). UX becomes subordinated to project management (loc 482). 

What do we do about this? Jones suggests a few things. One is to build in UX research earlier in the lifecycle, before specifications have hardened, so that it can impact the design of the product at all levels. Another is to make sure that "early warnings" are tolerated and valued in the organization: the organization must become more dialogic and more accepting of disrupting narratives. He adds:

We have outlined a clear value proposition for allowing failure and encouraging dialogue when it happens. Perhaps the best argument is that finding and fixing small failures on an ongoing basis prevents large-scale failures that occur later when we ignore reality. (loc 1041)

The book is a short but dense and rewarding read. If you're thinking through how your organization can become more nimble and oriented toward learning, definitely pick it up. 

Reading :: Wardley Maps

Wardley Maps By Simon Wardley

First of all, thanks for Frederik Matheson for introducing me to Wardley’s work. I’ve been reading it in bits and pieces, but finally was able to devote some time to read this linked PDF -- which is not a published book, but rather a compilation of Wardley’s Medium posts under a CC license. Still, it hangs together decently well as a book.

Wardley describes an issue he ran into years ago while serving as a CEO in the tech space: he had no way to envision strategy. He assumed that other CEOs did and that he just had to figure out how they were doing it. Eventually it dawned on him that they were as lost as he was. Like him, others leapt directly from purpose to leadership. Reading Sun Tzu, he realized that other factors had to be taken into account: landscape, climate, and doctrine. And he had no way of accounting for these.

This realization began a spate of eclectic reading as well as analogizing from other domains. Wardley drew from his experience playing games (chess, World of Warcraft), from warfare (especially map making, but also OODA), from Simon’s theory of hierarchy, from business and management sources (the Red Queen’s race, Boisot’s I-space, Moore’s Crossing the Chasm), and other sources in order to develop visualizations that could help him better understand strategy and make strategic decisions in the technology space. 

The resulting system is eclectic and complex -- and I mean that as a compliment. Wardley emphasizes (here and on his Twitter feed) that it’s more of a direction than a guaranteed product -- a way to map strategy that we can experiment with and improve. By folding in insights from different domains, Wardley builds in different perspectives and pushes us to think through strategy in ways that go beyond storytelling. 

How reliable are these maps, and do they serve to provide certainty or to generate potential relationships to explore in other ways? Gee, I don’t know. To me, they seem like they provide a visual vocabulary for identifying and categorizing potential change rather than a precision predictive tool. But (full disclosure) I skipped the exercises, which largely focused on business strategy for established companies. Still, I can see Wardley Maps as a heuristic that does for business strategy what the Business Model Canvas does for identifying core business components -- that is, it gives you the rules of the game, helps you to apply and understand things you already know, and identifies things you need to either discover or invent. 

I’m not a member of that target audience, since I’m not running a company, but I can see how the principles can apply to individual work and academic units. And this brings me to what I think is the broader lesson. When you feel lost or confused about what you’re trying to do, one way to address it is to change how you’re representing your work to yourself. That’s why we use calendars and to-do lists, Kanban boards and SWOT, flowcharts and business model canvases (and in qualitative research: flow, network, and matrix models). Wardley Maps zoom out beyond the scope of all of these, representing broader strategic issues in a way that emphasizes specific principles and considerations, and providing a way to explore new connections and relationships before you have to experience them. Reading this book didn’t make me want to draw Wardley Maps, per se, but it made me want to lift some of these techniques to address the ways in which I have been feeling overwhelmed in my own work. If you’re similarly struggling to pull back and see “the big picture,” definitely give this book a read. 

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Reading :: Mind as Action (supplemental notes)

Mind As Action
By James V. Wertsch

I reviewed this book a long time ago (2003!), but a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then. So I'll make some supplemental notes focusing on mediation.

In Chapter 2, Wertsch makes several claims about mediated action:

  1. Tension between agency and mediational means. Wertsch again takes up the question of signs and tools, giving the examples of pole vaulting and multiplication, which are both impossible without mediators and that require an analytic strategy to apply mediators to the action at hand (p.30). 
  2. The materiality of mediational means. He reminds us that even signs are material: "materiality is a property of any mediational means," including spoken signs (p.31). 
  3. Multiple goals of action. Furthermore, mediation is associated with multiple goals, often in conflict (p.32). 
  4. Developmental paths. "Mediated action is situated on one or more developmental paths" (p.34).
  5. Constraint and affordances. Mediators "constrain or limit the forms of action we undertake," partially because "even if a new cultural tool frees us from some earlier limitation of perspective, it introduces new ones of its own" (p.39). 
  6. Transformations of mediated action. "The introduction of novel cultural tools transforms the action" (p.42).
  7. Internalization as mastery. An agent masters a cultural tool by using it, developing specialized skills through that use (p.46). 
  8. Internalization as appropriation. Beyond mastering a cultural tool, the agent appropriates it, i.e., makes it her or his own (and here Wertsch draws on Bakhtin, p.53). 
  9. Spin-off. Cultural tools do not simply result from needs, but are "spun off" from current tools being used for new purposes. Here Wertsch uses the example of fiberglass being developed for military purposes and then being applied to pole vaulting poles (p.59). "Such accidents and unanticipated spin-offs may be the norm rather than the exception when it comes to cultural tools  used in mediated action," implying that "most of the cultural tools we employ were not designed for the purposes to which they are being put" (p.59). Among other examples, he cites David Olson's terrific book on writing systems (p.62). 
  10. Power and authority. Mediational means are not "neutral cognitive and communicative instruments" (p.64), and we can examine them not just in terms of the individual agent but also in terms of institutional and societal interests (p.65). Again, Wertsch invokes Bakhtin to explore these angles. 
There's much more to this book, and perhaps I will get into further insights in future supplemental notes! But I'll stop here for now. If you haven't picked up this book, I encourage you to do so!

Reading :: Voices of the Mind

Voices of the Mind: A Sociocultural Approach to Mediated Action
By James V. Wertsch

I was surprised to discover that I apparently haven't reviewed this classic from 1991. Drawing on Vygotsky and Bakhtin, Wertsch seeks to explain and develop the notion of mediation. Longtime readers of this blog will already understand the basics of mediation. See Vygotsky's economical introduction for some background—including the background for a distinction I'll foreground in this review: physical vs. psychological tools.

As Wertsch argues:

The third general theme that runs throughout Vygotsky's formulation of a sociocultural approach is the claim that higher mental functioning and human action in general are mediated by tools (or "technical tools") and signs (or "psychological tools"). Here again the influence of Marx and Engels is evident, especially in Vygotsky's discussion of the use of tools in the emergence of labor activity. But Vygotsky's main contribution resulted from his focus on psychological as opposed to technical tools. His lifelong interest in the complex processes of human semiotic action allowed him to bring great sophistication to the task of outlining the role of sign systems, such as human language, in intermental and intramental functioning. (pp.28-29)

Vygotsky was, as Wertsch points out, quite focused on speech in its relationship to thinking. This "ethnocentric bias" "is not so much one that invalidates the research as it is one that limits the applicability of constructs to certain groups and settings. It reflects a pattern of privileging that distinguishes the performance of people functioning in various cultural, historical, and institutional settings" (pp.31-32). Yet one lasting contribution is the insight that "the inclusion of signs in action fundamentally transforms the action. The incorporation of mediational means does not simply facilitate action that could have occurred without them; instead, as Vygotsky (1981a) noted, 'by being included in the process of behavior, the psychological tool alters the entire flow and structure of mental functions...'" (p.32). Signs change the flow of behavior. 

The focus on speech was one limitation of Vygotsky's thinking; another was his focus on "small group interaction, especially the interaction of the adult-child dyad" (p.46). For that reason, Vygotsky largely treated concept development as an individual process—but around 1934, Vygotsky began considering concept development "from the perspective of how it emerges in institutionally situated activity" (p.47). Wertsch thinks that if Vygotsky had survived past 1934, he would have extended his ideas further into the intermental realm, something that Wertsch advocates: "extending Vygotsky's ideas to bring the sociocultural situatedness of mediated action on the intermental plane to the fore" (p.48). Here, Wertsch believes that Bakhtin's ideas are relevant, since Bakhtin examines the relationship of utterances, meanings, and social languages, and thus the relationship between individual (intramental) and group (intermental) meanings.

After covering the basics of Bakhtin, Wertsch returns to Vygotsky's analogy between tools and semiotic mediation (Ch.5). Vygotsky had noted the limitations of this analogy, but Wertsch boldly states that in his view, "he did not push this analogy far enough": we should think of these diverse semiotic mediators as a "tool kit" (p.93). Thinking along these lines will push us to ask why someone uses one tool and not another in a given situation (p.94). Wertch again brings in Bakhtin here, noting how different semiotic mediators may come from different social languages.

Later, Wertsch criticizes Leontiev for losing sight of semiotic mediation: "In contrast, looking at action in isolation, without concern for the mediational means employed, loses sight of one of my most fundamental points and what is perhaps the most central contribution Vygotsky, Bakhtin, and many of their colleagues made to the study of mind: mediated action is an irreducible unit of analysis, and the person(s)-acting-with-mediational-means is the irreducible agent involved. ... Shchedrovitskii (1981) has argued that A.N. Leontiev's account of activity and action is flawed by the fact that Leontiev lost sight of some of Vygotsky's insights about semiotic mediation" (p.120). 

And I'll leave it there, although the book has much more to recommend it. If you're interested in mediation, Vygotsky, and/or Bakhtin, definitely pick up this highly readable classic.

Reading :: Facing Gaia

Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime
By Bruno Latour

Last summer I reviewed Latour's Down to Earth, one of the two books he published in English in 2018. This one, Facing Gaia, is the other. Both are oriented to the same problem, which is how to deal with climate change. But whereas Down to Earth was oriented to casual readers, this one is more academic.

Here, Latour argues that the "anthropology of the Moderns" that he has studied throughout his career resonates with the "New Climate Regime": "the physical framework that the Moderns have taken for granted, the ground on which their history has always been played out, has become unstable" (p.3). The result is an ecocrisis in which we should detect "a profound mutation in our relation with the world" (p.8, his emphasis), but we don't: "we receive all this news with astonishing calm," not acting (p.8). The question of why we haven't acted is at the center of the book.

Latour argues that the division between nature and culture is untenable (pp.15-16). Using the figure of Gaia from James Lovelock's Gaia Hypothesis, Latour portrays this figure as a "muddle" that results from a distribution of final causes (p.100), Latour encourages us to follow the actors, the overlapping waves of action that "are the real brush strokes with which [Lovelock] seeks to depict Gaia's face" (p.101).  Gaia is not a whole or superorganism (p.104), and thus we must abandon the distinction between individual and system. This point is critical later in the argument:

When they [social scientists] talk about "society as a whole," "the social context," "globalization," they are drawing a figure with their hands that has never been bigger than an ordinary pumpkin! But the fact is that the problem is the same whether we are talking about Nature, Earth, the Global, Capitalism, or God. Each time, we are presupposing the existence of a superorganism. The passage between connections is immediately replaced by a relation between parts and the Whole, and the latter is said—without much thought—to be necessarily superior to the sum of its parts—whereas it is always necessarily inferior to its parts. Superior does not mean more encompassing; it means more connected. One is never as provincial as when one claims to have a "global view." (p.135, his emphasis)

To interpret this passage, it may help to know that Latour has said that when people talk about "context," they typically make a circle with their hands that starts at the collarbone and ends at the sternum, leading him to think that context is the size and shape of a pumpkin. He also adds a footnote to the end of the paragraph: "There is a confusion between the cartographic globe, which is a way to register as many differences as possible through the simple device of Cartesian coordinates, and the globe of so-called globalization, which is the extension everywhere of as small a set of standard formats as possible" (p.135, footnote 68). That is, Latour is objecting to systematization as a way of simplifying relationships by reducing them to a single manageable frame. He adds in the next paragraph:

Scale is not obtained by successive embeddings of spheres of different sizes—as in the case of Russian dolls—but by the capacity to establish more or less numerous relationships, and especially reciprocal ones. The hard lesson of actor-network theory, according to which there is no reason to confuse a well-connected locality with the utopia of the Globe, holds true for all associations of living beings. (p.136)

This discussion leads Latour (again, as is his wont) to contrast science and religion, which he does through tables: one contrasting two approaches to science and two approaches to religion (p.178) and another that rearranges these columns under the heading of "Natural religions" and "Terrestrialization" (with a science column and a nature column under each) (p.181). (One might suggest that in systematizing science and religion, these tables simplify their relationships by reducing them to a single manageable frame.)

The next lecture is on the end of times. Latour argues here that the certainty of truths from on high is "the exercise of terror" (p.198) and that (quoting Vogelin) the West was the apocalypse for other civilizations (p.205). In trying to determine the date of the Anthropocene, Latour (p.218, footnote 84) embraces a starting date of 1945, not just because that is when we laid down the first radioactive layer from the atom bomb, but also because "it frames exactly the existence of the Baby Boomers." (Latour was born in 1947, and to my knowledge, this is the most Boomer thing he has written.)

And I'm going to wrap things up here. If you've read Latour, especially more recent Latour, I don't think you will encounter many surprises in the second half of the book. He identifies and sharpens differences, then flips and betrays them (as he did with the science-vs-religion tables earlier). He criticizes science and religion in the same terms. He argues that we must carry religion along with us to a new understanding of the world. We must question the distinction between organism and environment and we must emancipate ourselves from the infinite. 

Do you need to pick up this book? No—if you have a casual interest in Latour, I would suggest some of his earlier books, and if you want to understand how Latourean thought can be applied to ecological questions, I would recommend Escobar first. But is it still readable and entertaining? Sure. 

Readings :: Pragmatism

By William James

The link goes to the free Kindle edition, but my copy is a 1986 print copy from Hackett Publishing Company that I picked up in a secondhand bookstore a while back. The original was published in 1907, based on a series of lectures that James gave in 1906.

As I mentioned, my copy is secondhand, with at least two intemperate readers making marginal comments such as "What the fuck are you talking about?" and "No! Live without illusions, you wuss!" as well as this summative comment at the end of Section II: "Idiot."

Going out on a limb here, I think that William James was not an idiot. Rather, the unnamed critic was having trouble allowing James' argument to unfold. This argument is that philosophy has an ongoing dilemma and that pragmatism can address it.

The ongoing dilemma, James argues in Ch.1, is between the rationalist and the empiricist (or the "tender-minded" and the "tough-minded"; see p.10). James summarizes these views in two columns, with contrasts such as "intellectualistic" vs. "sensationalistic," "idealistic" vs. "materialistic," etc. He asks us to postpone the question of whether these contrasting columns are "internally consistent or self-consistent" and instead think through some examples that we know (p.10), allowing that most of us identify with characteristics on both sides (p.11). Then he asks: "Now what kinds of philosophy do you find actually offered to meet your need?" (p.12)—a question that provokes an outraged "WHAT!?" scrawled in blue ballpoint in the margins.  James answers his own question a little later: "You want a system that will combine both things, the scientific loyalty to facts and willingness to take account of them, the spirit of adaptation and accommodation, in short, but also the old confidence in human values and the resultant spontaneity," but what we find instead is "empiricism with inhumanism and irreligion; or else you find a rationalistic philosophy that indeed may call itself religious, but that keeps out of all definite touch with concrete facts and joys and sorrows" (p.13). 

After a few pages fleshing out this divide, James positions pragmatism "as a philosophy that can satisfy both types of demand," bridging rationalists and empiricists (p.18; n.b., I can see what Vygotsky would like about this idea). 

So what is pragmatism? In Ch.2, James explains the pragmatic method via the illustration of a squirrel shifting its position so as not to be visible to an observer walking around a tree. "Does the man go round the squirrel or not?" (p.25). The pragmatic method is "to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences": if the consequences are the same, the dispute is not meaningful; if they are different, one can make a judgment (p.26). (Notice that he is talking about small-t truth here, i.e., drawing distinctions on which one can build knowledge.) Here he quotes Peirce as saying that beliefs are rules for action. James characterizes pragmatism as empiricist, but in both a more radical and a less objectionable sense than in standard empiricism (p.28). "No particular results then, so far, but only an attitude of orientation, is what the pragmatic method means. The attitude of looking away from first things, principles, 'categories,' supposed necessities; and of looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts" (p.29, his emphasis). 

James contrasts pragmatism with instrumentalism, in which "ideas (which themselves are but parts of our experience) become true just in so far as they help us to get into satisfactory relation with other parts of our experience" (p.30). 

Later, he adds that "If theological ideas prove to have a value for concrete life, they will be true, for pragmatism, in the sense of being good for so much. For how much more they are true, will depend entirely on their relations to the other truths that also have to be acknowledged" (p.36, his emphasis). That is, truths are interdependent, and "The true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief, and good, too, for definite, assignable reasons" (p.37, his emphasis). This line of argument whips our unnamed annotator into a frenzy, perhaps understandably. James' approach is to make a strong and apparently radical statement like this one, then hedge it a bit to make it more acceptable. (The anonymous annotations heighten this pattern for me as I watch the annotator fall into the trap over and over again.)

Let's skip a bit. In Lecture V, James discusses common sense:
My thesis now is this, that that our fundamental ways of thinking about things are discoveries of exceedingly remote ancestors, which have been able to preserve themselves throughout the experience of all subsequent time. They form one great stage of equilibrium in the human mind's development, the stage of common sense. Other stages have grafted themselves upon this stage, but have never succeeded in displacing it. (p.79, his emphasis)

A couple of things here: (1) James illuminates the pragmatic relationship here with which our anonymous annotators have been struggling, recognizing that the great Truths and basic divisions on which we base our thinking were once invented or discovered themselves; in recognizing this state of affairs, pragmatism focuses on how such divisions are constructed. (2) James also establishes a relationship among philosophy, psychology, and culture, understanding the basic, currently unquestioned foundations of our thought as products of our cultural forebears. That is, our ways of thinking are a cultural heritage. The implications for genre in particular are obvious, of course. 

He carries this line of thought over to Lecture VI, on the notion of truth:

The moment pragmatism asks this question [the question of what consequences there are to accepting an idea as true], it sees the answer: True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify. False ideas are those that we can not. That is the practical difference it makes to us to have true ideas; that, therefore, is the meaning of truth, for it is all that truth is known-as. (p.92, his emphasis)

This definition fits pretty well as scientific or empirical truth. But it also plausibly works with religious truth, as William James' namesake argued (James 2:17). William James goes on to argue that for pragmatism, "The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it. Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events. Its verity is in fact an event, a process: the process namely of its verifying itself, its veri-fication. Its validity is the process of its valid-ation. (p.92, his emphasis). He goes on to discuss verification and validation in pragmatic terms. 

In Lecture VII, regarding pragmatism and humanism, he acknowledges that audiences do not like the view of truth he sketched out in Lecture VI. They want and expect "the Truth"—and "All the great single-word answers to the world's riddle, such as God, the One, Reason, Law, Spirit, Matter, Nature, Polarity, the Dialectic Process, the Idea, the Self, the Oversoul, draw the admiration that men have lavished on them from the oracular role," offering the Truth (p.109, his emphasis). But James says that speaking about the Truth is like speaking about the Latin Language or the Law: "an abstraction from the facts of truths in the plural, a mere useful summarizing phrase" (p.109). Instead, he says, when we add knowledge, "we humanly make an addition to some sensible reality, and that reality tolerates the addition. ... Which may be treated as the more true, depends altogether on the human use of it" (p.114). He goes on to emphasize that even our distinctions of things from their environment is arbitrary: depending on our purpose, we might discuss an audience, a collection of individuals, organs, cells, or molecules and atoms. "We create the subjects of our true as well as of our false propositions" (p.114).

There's much more to this book, but that's where we'll stop. James is really trying to think through how we make distinctions and what that implies for how we understand truth in the world. If you're interested in pragmatism—or ontology, or truth, or cultural psychology—definitely take a look.