Friday, January 30, 2009

"Who's Undercutting Obama?"

My spotter sent me this article in which a journalist complains that Obama's press office is not providing customary access to journalists. He complains:
I have called 202-456-2580, the main number for the White House press office, going back to the Nixon administration. Never has anyone in the press office declined to spell his name, give his job title, or hung up, even after the kind of aggressive exchanges that used to be common between journalists and flacks—and between journalists and high government officials, for that matter.

And he points out that while the Bush administration edited briefing transcripts, the Obama administration has gone farther, only posting snippets. He sees these as indications that Obama's promise of a more transparent White House is being undercut. He continues:
Politicians make choices and have to live with them. How they deal with journalists—especially whether they are candid and direct about dealing in facts—sets a tone that will influence the administration’s ability to communicate its messages, especially those Obama messages that run counter to deeply ingrained cultural myths about the economy, taxes, and the role of government.

Talking to working reporters is not the only way to communicate with the people. The Obama administration seems to be embracing direct delivery of its messages via the website and YouTube. They seem to be saying “We don’t need the press to communicate our messages to the people. We can talk to the people ourselves.”

Okay, so let's unravel this a bit. Journalism has lost a lot of traction because, in effect, everyone has a printing press: electronic distribution is fast, inexpensive, and distributed, meaning that individual journalists don't have the advantage of positioning themselves at one end of the media pipe. So journalists aren't accorded the respect or level of access they were once given, simply because the White Househas other, more direct ways to get their message out. I'm not surprised that the Obama administration has figured this out, as the Bush administration did, nor that the Obama administration is going farther along this path.

On the other hand, when journalists lose their near-exclusive access to the upper administration, they don't get to ask tough questions directly to those administration members. Right now, the new media don't either. The new, distributed media architecture means that everyone can be an op-ed columnist or beat reporter, but it also means that individuals don't have enough individual influence to force their way into policy discussions. (That is, media has become "flat," but government is still hierarchical.)

So perhaps we're coming into an interregnum as old media power arrangements collapse but new media arrangements have not yet coalesced. The result, under these conditions, will most likely take the form of White House broadcasts (via YouTube and the official website) along with aggregation of feedback channels (e.g., comments, blog trends). This is quite potentially a recipe for poll-driven propaganda.

I'm hoping that we will quickly see other permutations. One possible model is that of the star blogger who has built up an enormous audience via network effects. Obviously this model, still under considerable development, has drawbacks as well as advantages.

"Not a stupid idea"

Actually, I thought it was a smart -- but obvious -- idea: A dock for your smartphone that allows it to extend its capabilities to the desktop. That only makes sense as smartphones become more powerful and the processor overshoots the capabilities of the built-in peripherals. What I don't get is how something this basic can get patented.

Reputation Systems

Randall Farmer and Bryce Glass are authoring their book on reputation systems in a wiki. Right now most of the chapters are summaries, but keep coming back and you'll see the book in process. Looks great - reputation systems and other forms of social evaluation are going to be critical in the near future, and they've been underexplored, so this book is really timely.

Fannie Mae narrowly escapes devastating logic bomb

Moral: If you're going to fire a sysadmin, escort him/her out of the building immediately.

Economy analytics

If you're one of the 900,000 people using Mint to track your finances, your (anonymous) data are being used to examine the economy. Another example of how ubiquitous, detailed data collection is being used to provide new analyses.

Asymmetry in Davos

And by "asymmetry" I mean the issue that Latour points out. In many endeavors, success is attributed to individuals while failure is attributed to the system, or society, or culture, etc. According to Bill Taylor, that trope perseveres:

[Daniel Gross'] dispatch captured the glaring (and self-serving) intellectual blind spot among the participants. Here's how he put it: "At least with regard to finance and business, the consensus [at Davos] seems to be clear: Success is the work of Great Men and Great Women, while failure can be pinned on the system."

In his dispatch, Dan nicely captured the contrasting treatments of success and failure. One lunch, he said, celebrated the "transformative power of the individual," shining a spotlight on the work of Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammed Yunus. Yet when CNBC organized a discussion of the financial crisis, there were three questions on the table: Which policy assumption failed? Which regulatory failure was the biggest shock to the system? Which market failure was worst?

Notice the difference in cause and effect: "Just as financial markets in the United States privatize profits and socialize losses," Dan comments, "Davos and other conferences privatize success (by chalking it up to individuals) and socialize failure (by blaming it on large systemic problems)."

Taylor concludes, "Welcome to the no-fault economy!"

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Discipline and punish

Reading :: End of Millennium

End of Millennium: The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, Volume III
By Manuel Castells

Manuel Castells' End of Millennium is the third and final book in his series The Information Age, following The Rise of the Network Society and The Power of Identity. Whereas the other two books covered the transformation of capitalism into informational capitalism and its effects on individual and collective identities, this book focuses on the crisis of statism. The book has a sense of urgency and doom that was muted in the other two books, and I wonder if it has anything to do with this passage in the Acknowledgements: "I would like to thank my surgeons ... whose care and professionalism gave me the time and energy to finish this book" (p.xiv). Indeed, the book seems not just more passionate but also more loosely edited and less economical than the other two. (Castells, incidentally, appears to be still alive and publishing more than any ten scholars.)

Castells argues that the changes surveyed in the book have precipitated a crisis of statism. Beginning with an in-depth analysis of the Soviet Union, Castells argues that industrial statism is threatened by the network society. The fourth world, he argues in Chapter 2, is rising. To make this argument, he draws a distinction between processes of social differentiation. On the one hand is distribution/consumption, characterized by inequality, polarization, poverty, and misery. On the other hand is production, characterized by the individualization of work, the over-exploitation of workers, social exclusion, and perverse integration.

The individualization of work involves "precarious" labor relations. Labor is defined in specific terms for each worker and for each of the worker's individual contributons, "either under the form of self-employment or under individually contracted, largely unregulated, salaried labor" (p.72). Over-exploitation involves discrimination against categories of workers (p.72). Under social exclusion, certain individuals or groups are systematically barred from positions that would afford an autonomous livelihood (p.73). Perverse integration involves labor process in the criminal economy (p.74).

The ascent of informational global capitalism, Castells argues, is characterized by simultaneous economic development and underdevelopment, inclusion and exclusion. Certainly these conditions affect whole countries -- Castells points to the predatory states that have developed across Africa (p.96) -- but they also affect patches everywhere, such as US inner cities (p.134), which have been hard-hit by the deindustrialization of the US and the placing of workers into individualized working conditions where they are left to their own individual fates (p.135). The extraordinary diversity of labor arrangements leads to a premium on workers with unique skills (p.135), skills that may not be available to vast numbers of workers. "Informationalization spurs job growth in the higher tiers of skills in America while globalization offshores low-skilled manufacturing jobs" (p.139). Consequently, "black holes" of social exclusion are manifested throughout the planet, not just in sub-Saharan Africa, but in every country and city (p.165). Such areas are termed "black holes" because it's almost impossible to escape them.

Castells next turns his attention to international criminal networks, which follow the organizational logic of the networked enterprise. They subcontract each other so that they can operate on each others' turf and share capacity (p.169). I can't do justice to the chapter in this brief review except to say that criminal networks appear to be increasingly independent of states.

In Chapter 4, Castells details the Asian market crisis of 1997-1998, a crisis that sounds very familiar as I look at the headlines of 2008-2009. It involved the "loss of investor trust and the sudden lack of credibility of Asian currencies and securities in global financial markets" (p.209). The penetration of global financial flows led to an addiction to massive short-term borrowing, leading to vulnerability to the reversal of investment flows (p.211). As our Congress contemplates a "stimulus package" of over $800b -- produced via short-term borrowing -- reading about the effects of the Asian crisis was sobering and depressing.

Chapter 5 addresses the European Union, which was incipient at the time of writing but which Castells envisioned as a possible "network state" (p.331). Such a state would be characterized by the sharing of authority along a network (p.352). A decade later, I think the jury may still be out on how the EU functions.

Finally, we get to the Conclusion - which, being the end of the series, summarizes the major themes of that entire series. Castells argues that this new world we are facing is the result of the coincidence in the 1960s-1970s of the IT revolution, the economic crisis of statism and capitalism, and the blooming of cultural social movements (p.356). Capitalism has been transformed, and now thrives as a global informational capitalism with a largely common set of economic rules (p.358). In this new capitalism, we face a structural transformation in relations of production, power, and experience (p.361).

In terms of production, productivity is driven by innovation and competitiveness is driven by flexibility. IT is essential for these. A new split is realized between self-programmable labor (in which education allows people to continually redefine and access skills for a given task) and generic labor (programmed by others, predictably transforming defined inputs into defined outputs, and consequently able to be outsourced or automated) (p.361). Flexibility "requires networkers, and flextimers"; the variable geometry of working arrangements leads to the coordinated decentralization of work and the individualization of labor (p.362).

Global financial markets colonizer the future via speculation. These are the actual collective capitalist. Global financial networks are the nerve center of informational capitalism (p.363).

If innovation is the main source of productivity, knowledge and information are the essential materials and education is the key quality of labor (p.365).

Under these conditions, we find a more complicated mechanism than under industrial capitalism. Employment relationships are tendentially individualized. Increasingly, producers control their own work processes and enter into horizontal relationships as individual producers. Earnings flow into global financial markets, making these producers collective owners of capital (p.366).

These conditions also introduce social cleavages: information producers vs. generic labor; exclusion of segments of society whose value as workers/consumers is used up; and a separation between market logic of global networks and the human experience of workers' lives (p.366).

Finally, in the new networked state, we find a new structure of power dominated by the network geometry, in which power relations are specific to given configurations of actors and institutions (p.367). "There are no more stable power elites," Castells declares, since power lies in networks of information exchange and symbol manipulation (p.368).

Castells ends with several predictions, which turn out to be largely correct a decade later. These include a rise in terrorism, multilaterial decision-making, and the more belligerent rise of Russia as a reconstituted power.

As with the other books in this series, this one was fascinating to me. It does not increase my confidence in short-term global fortune, but it does help me to think through some of the things I'm increasingly seeing in my studies of work and work organization.

Reading :: The Power of Identity

The Power of Identity: The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, Volume II
By Manuel Castells

Castells' The Rise of the Network Society was an enormously influential book in terms of understanding the emerging information economy (or whatever you like to call it). Its follow-up, The Power of Identity, was less influential - my colleagues who have started it have given up on it. For me, though, it continued to fascinate. And depress.

Whereas The Rise of the Network Society focused on the changes in work organization and structure precipitated by a number of factors, The Power of Identity focuses on how those factors are affecting social movements and politics. The network society is characterized by "the globalization of strategically decisive economic activities"; "the networking form of organization"; "flexibility and instability of work, and the individualization of labor"; "a culture of real virtuality"; and "the transformation of material foundations of life" (p.1). This transformed capitalism has been accompanied by "widespread surges of powerful expressions of collective identity that challenge globalization and cosmopolitanism on behalf of cultural singularity and people's control over their lives and environment" (p.2). Between these two trends, the nation-state is called into question, precipitating a crisis of political democracy (p.2).

Castells pledges to take an analytical view of these changes, not a right/wrong or progressive/regressive view (p.3), and for the most part he keeps that promise, though in some cases he cannot restrain himself from making value judgments. More on that in a bit.

To start his analysis, Castells outlines three types of identity: legitimizing identity, which is "introduced by the dominant institutions of society to extend and rationalize their domination vis a vis social actors" and generates a civil society; resistance identity, which is "generated by those actors that are in positions/conditions devalued and/or stigmatized by the logic of domination" and generates communes or communities; and project identity, which comes into play "when social actors, on the basis of whichever cultural materials are available to them, build a new identity that redefines their position in society and, by so doing, seek the transformation of overall social structure" - producing subjects, i.e. collective social actors (pp.8-10). The subject, he argues, is no longer built on civil society but instead on communal resistance (p.11). One form is fundamentalism, in which collective identity is constructed by "the identification of individual behavior and society's institutions to the norms derived from God's law, interpreted by a definite authority that intermediates between God and humanity" (p.13, his emphasis).

Fundamentalism -- and Castells examines it in Islamic and US Christian contexts -- is seen in this analysis as a reaction to the threat of globalization and the concomitant threat to paternalism (more about which in a moment) (p.25). Fundamentalism constructs social and personal identities on the basis of images of the past, projected into a utopian future (p.25). Similarly, nationalism in the networked society has become detached from the state (p.30); nations are "communal cultures constructed in people's minds and collective memory by the sharing of history and political projects (p.51, his emphasis - he really likes italics). Such cultural communes are "the main alternative for the construction of meaning in our society"; they tend to be defensive, culturally constituted, and reactions to social trends (p.65).

Castells explores social movements more deeply in the next couple of chapters. In Chapter 2, he discusses how globalization and informationalization result in sudden changes, resulting in resentment at the loss of control. He examines three disparate movements -- the Zapatistas in Chiapas, the American militia, and Aum Shinrikyo. The first is, of course, a case study for netwar. The second is an entirely networked movement made possible through Internet connections, incoherent in ideology but united in distrust: as he argues, the FBI searches in vain for an organized conspiracy connecting these groups, because the actual "conspiracy" flows in and emerges from the information networks (p.92). The third, Aum Shinrikyo, formed a shadow government to oppose a united world government (p.100). Despite their extreme differences, the three movements have crystallized around a common adversary, the new global order. Each movement opposes to a specific principle of identity: Zapatistas see themselves as oppressed citizens fighting for their dignity; militia members see themselves as original citizens fighting for their sovereignty; and Aum Shinrikyo see themselves as a reconstructed spiritual community (pp.105-106). In all three cases is an appeal to authenticity (p.106). And in all three cases, weapons are not owned for their own sake, but as signs of freedom and as event-triggering devices (p.106). New communications technologies are fundamental conditions for these movements to exist (p.106): "The revolutionary cells of the information age are built on flows of electrons" (p.107).

In Chapter 3, Castells performs a similar analysis of the environmental movement, creating a typology of identity, adversary, and goals for segments of the movement (p.112). He argues that environmentalism introduces a new concept of time to the global discourse - glacial time - as well as a new identity for human beings (as a component of nature within that glacial time) and a new enemy (state nationalism, which asserts control over territories) (p.126). The movement is different from those studied in Chapter 2, but the characteristics of the movement are quite similar.

Chapter 4 brings us to the crisis of patriarchalism. Castells argues that patriarchalism, a global phenomenon, is built on the patriarchal family - and that family is fundamentally challenged by the transformations of women's work and women's consciousness, transformed by factors such as the rise of the informational economy, technological changes in reproduction, and of course the surge of women's struggles (pp.134-135). Gay and lesbian movements have of course been devastating because they fundamentally challenge the molar unit of patriarchalism (p.137). These factors combine to form, not the end of the family, but the end of the family as we know it (p.139).

In particular, the network society demands more flexible workers, and women are disproportionately supplying this labor due to residual patriarchalism among other factors. This flexible labor takes the form of part-time, temporary, and self-employed work (p.173). Women bring wages and therefore more bargaining power into their households, and men lose their justification not to help with home care and childcare (p.173). In the larger trend, marriages become more egalitarian -- or break up. Castells helpfully provides a typology of women's movements (p.195). But he waxes most poetic when discussing gay and lesbian movements, which he links to the trend toward economic independence from large-scale organizations (p.205) among other factors. "The power of identity seems to become magic when touched by the power of love," he enthuses (p.221), breaking his pledge to take a strictly analytical view of identity changes. I think I can find it in my heart to forgive him.

Castells ends with a discussion of the future of the family. Men tend to fall in love romantically, he argues, whereas women engage in more complex calculations (p.230). He sees the salvation of the family in raising boys to become responsible fathers and raising girls to be able to love husbands (p.234). Marriages become reconfigured as egalitarian if they are to survive at all.

In the wake of the breakup of patriarchalism, "new personalities emerge, more complex, less secure, yet more capable of adapting to changing roles in social contexts" (p.240). Coincidentally, this profile matches the ideal knowledge worker, continually engaging in learning, continually interfacing with different workers across borders, and without hope of lifetime employment or career.

In Chapter 5, Castells turns his attention to the state. The state's days as autonomous entities, he says, are over. Economies are too deeply linked, and the only measure that can keep currency markets stable is supranational coordination -- meaning that individual states lose control over fundamental elements of their economic policies (p.245). Even US economic independence, he says, is an illusion: "likely to dissipate in the future when living standards will reflect competitiveness in the global economy" (p.246). Similarly, the nation-state is increasingly powerless in deciding budgets, organizing production and trade, collecting corporate taxes, and providing social benefits (p.254). The globalization/localization of media is tantamount to de-nationalization and de-statization of information (p.259). Crime becomes globalized (p.259). Even in terms of projecting force, the most militarily independent state -- the US, due to its independent production of warfare equipment -- is not independent in terms of committing forces abroad (p.264).

Based on these trends, Castells expected the year 2000 to be a crisis of government along small-government lines: economic populism, political isolationism, and the rejection of governmental interference in private lives (p.290). (In reality, 9/11 appears to have reversed these trends, at least in the short term.) Castells also argued that nation-states' power is threatened by the diffusion of surveillance capacity and the potential for violence outside state institutions and borders -- both of which appear to be true. We generally don't have to fear Big Brother, but we do have to worry about a crowd of Little Sisters gathering unprecedented amounts of information on us (p.300). Rather than centralizing control, the trend is toward decentralizing surveillance, leading to a surveillance society rather than a surveillance state (p.301). "In historically relative terms," he argues, "today's state is more surveilled than surveillant" (p.302).

Furthermore, the nation-state has lost its monopoly on violence to transnational terrorist networks and communal groups (like Aum Shinrikyo) resorting to suicidal violence. The state is caught in a double bind: if it doesn't use violence, it fades, but if it does, it precipitates an endless emergency, leading to fading legitimacy (p.302). (This should sound very familiar to anyone who has examined the Threat Advisory or heard speeches on the War on Terrorism.) The new power system, Castells argues, is characterized by the plurality of sources of authority and power (p.303). Nation-states now compete with the international polity as well as networks of capital, production, communication, crime, international institutions, supranational military apparatuses, nongovernmental organizations, transnational religions, and public opinion movements (p.304).

This leads to Chapter 6, the question of the crisis of democracy. To sum it up quickly: democracy is now mediated through electronic media, particularly broadcast media. To gain a groundswell of the vote, parties veer toward the political center. In the absence of sharp policy differences, scandal becomes the mode of differentiation. "With political parties fading away, it is the time of saviors," Castells concludes, daydreaming of President Colin Powell (p.349).

In sum, Castells is attempting an enormous job in this series, and he consequently covers a great deal of ground in his discussion of identity. This book was not as interesting to me as the first one, but it's still a crucial piece of the larger argument, and it gave me insights into how people are developing, self-representing, and interacting in the network society. Give it a read.

Reading :: Writing the Economy

Writing the Economy: Activity, Genre And Technology in the World of Banking
By Graham Smart

Graham Smart conducted an ethnography at the Bank of Canada spanning two decades (1984-2004), and the result is this book, which uses events over those two decades to develop genre theory within the context of activity theory. Smart agrees with McCloskey that economics is rhetoric all the way down (p.22), and accordingly his rhetorically-oriented ethnography examines how the BOC performs its three functions in its monetary policy: knowledge-building, policy-making, and external communications. During his exploration of these functions, Smart develops extensive lists of oral and written genres.

He also develops and adapts tools for analyzing them. After surveying the landscape of analytical tools that attempt to link assemblages of genres, Smart adopts three: genre sets for describing "a provisionally stable discursive system for creating, negotiating, circulating, and applying specialized knowledge" (p.12); genre systems for describing "an inter-organizational realm of discourse comprising genres used by two or more organizations to interact communicatively and develop knowledge mutually relevant to them" (p.12); and genre chains for describing "sequences of genres that exhibit what Fairclough refers to as 'systematic transformations from genre to genre'" (p.12).

The organization Smart describes changes relatively slowly: "relatively new" genres have "emerged in the last decade" (p.141).

What emerges from this is a fairly detailed understanding of the BOC's practices and how genres mediate them. Just as importantly, Smart moves toward a more integrated framework of analytical tools for genre, a timely endeavor.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Public rural broadband

techPresident has a story on the proposed public rural wifi initiative the new administration is pushing: "the build out of high-speed Internet in unreached parts of the U.S. to the tune of about $6 billion." This is a fairly large initiative at a time of economic hardship. On the other hand, Internet access is the lifeblood of the knowledge economy, and spreading access across rural areas should accelerate the trend of individuated, flexible labor in knowledge work. More on this later, maybe.