Saturday, April 04, 2009


David Ronfeldt was kind enough to point me to this recent article on hackerspaces, a phenomenon that I keep meaning to look up but haven't until now:

There are now 96 known active hacker spaces worldwide, with 29 in the United States, according to Another 27 U.S. spaces are in the planning or building stage.

Located in rented studios, lofts or semi-commercial spaces, hacker spaces tend to be loosely organized, governed by consensus, and infused with an almost utopian spirit of cooperation and sharing.


Since it was formed last November, Noisebridge has attracted 56 members, who each pay $80 per month (or $40 per month on the "starving hacker rate") to cover the space's rent and insurance. In return, they have a place to work on whatever they're interested in, from vests with embedded sonar proximity sensors to web-optimized database software.


Many [hackerspaces] are governed by consensus. Noisebridge and Vienna's Metalab have boards, but they are structured to keep board members accountable to the desires of the members. NYC Resistor is similarly democratic. Most of the space — and the tools — are shared by all members, with small spaces set aside for each member to store items and projects for their own use.

"The way hacker spaces are organized seems to be a reaction against American individualism — the idea that we all need to be in our separate single-family homes with a garage," says White. "Choosing to organize collectives where you're sharing a space and sharing tools with people who are not your family and not your co-workers — that feels different to me."

The setup looks at first glance like coworking for the DIY/Dorkbot/Maker Faire crowd. Organizationally, the similarities seem pretty strong. Both coworking spaces and hackerspaces are conceived as collaborative areas. Both types of spaces have adherents that trace their genesis to artists' collectives. Both imply "a reaction against American individualism." Both emphasize creating local community.

However, as coworking folks imply, the two are not quite the same. Let's throw together some hypotheses about the differences, and maybe I'll test these later. Off the top of my head, here are some differences between coworking (as described by the coworkers and coworking literature I know) and hackerspaces (as described in this article):
  • Coworking tends to involve professionals who work for their clients in the company of others with loosely similar skills; hackerspaces are for enthusiasts working on their own projects for their own enjoyment.
  • Coworking spaces, although they often have thin margins and are often loss leaders, are a business; hackerspaces - at least according to this article - are run as collectives.
  • Coworking spaces provide common office equipment such as copiers, printers, and wifi (and coffee machines), but the central tools are actually the laptops and mobile phones that the coworkers bring from home; hackerspaces' tools are mainly shared.
  • Coworking spaces mainly involve using software; hackerspaces mainly involve hacking hardware (and software). That is, in coworking, technology is a tool; in hackerspaces, technology is the object to be transformed.
That being said, I think hackerspaces are part of the general trend that has produced other forms of outworking. I'll try to monitor this phenomenon as I continue to get my arms around this larger trend.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Administering "paternity tests" in qualitative research: or, creating a rigorous account of lineage that would convince Maury Povich's audience

So I got into an online discussion a while back on the question of whether coworking can trace its lineage back to other forms of loosely organized work. It's an open question, though I am skeptical. The comments on that post became really interesting, surfacing differences in assumptions and proofs. And the discussion got me thinking about how qualitative researchers establish such lineages -- an important discussion in itself, especially for people who do the type of work I do, examining workplaces, workplace development, and workplace contradictions.

Unfortunately it looks like the last four comments in the thread were lost. Rather than trying to reconstruct the conversation, I want to take the opportunity to explore the question: how can qualitative researchers establish developmental lineages? Or: How do we test for paternity? And to focus the discussion, how might a paternity test look for coworking? (The last question is not just abstract, since I'm planning to study coworking this summer and fall.)

Let's put the abstract question this way:
Does phenomenon B descend from phenomenon A? That is, did A develop into B? Did A cause B? Are they genetically related, with a specific lineage?
Here are three examples:
  • Coworking (see the blog post). Does modern coworking trace its "lineage" back to pre-industrial forms of work? Is it descended from those forms of work, now reemerging? Or is it actually a different, unrelated phenomenon developing from more current work forms?

  • Interface elements (See Tracing Genres through Organizations). Did elements of a modern interface descend from previous, pre-automation genres?

  • Objectives (See Network). Can we trace current understandings of "universal service" back to previous understandings? Can we relate these to changes in markets and regulations?
How can we answer these questions?
  • One common-sense impulse is to look for resemblance. (A and B have these things in common.) But resemblance isn't enough. The obvious rejoinder is to point out dissimilarities. (A and B also have these enormous differences.) After all, resemblance is often coincidental - and often in the eye of the beholder. (That's the tack I began to follow in my first comment on the coworking post.)
  • Another common-sense impulse is to look for chronology. (B came after A.) But by itself, this is post hoc reasoning. I was born after JFK, but that doesn't mean JFK was my father. Mayan writing developed after Phonecian writing, but that doesn't mean that Mayan writing originated in Phonecia. Coworking came chronologically after other work that occurs among independent workers sharing a space, but that doesn't mean it descended from that work.
So we get a sense of why these two approaches are shaky. How do we get to a less shaky, more verifiable argument for paternity? Here's an analogy.

Analogy: Who's the Father?

Suppose you're watching a daytime talk show, like Jerry Springer or Maury Povich. The theme -- a recurring theme -- is: "My baby's father won't admit he's the father!"

You may be familiar with how this episode goes, because they all go basically the same way. The couple argues:
  • The baby does/does not resemble the accused father. ("Look, he has his father's eyes.")
  • The baby's conception does/does not fit the chronology. ("We got together and nine months later the baby was born.")
Oh, and the couple leans heavily on ethos. ("I would never do that." "I swear on my life that that never happened." "Believe me, I know!")

But the audience isn't credulous. They listen to these arguments for entertainment, and they have their favorites, but they know the question will be settled at the end of the episode -- with a paternity test. Without it, these arguments don't settle anything.

Conducting Paternity Tests in Qualitative Research

So, by themselves, resemblance and chronology don't constitute a paternity test. What does? How do we get to a rigorous explanation of paternity?

The question is important because research is itself an argument. And as with any other argument, you have to play the believing-doubting game in order to make that argument solid: you spend some time believing your emergent argument, then you doubt it and push yourself to find evidence that can turn back those doubts. A worthwhile audience will be skeptical -- and speaking as someone who reviews a lot of journal manuscripts, I am always skeptical of the methodology, no matter how banal the conclusions -- so you must be skeptical first and deepen your argument as much as you can. That skepticism, applied methodically, produces rigor. As my colleagues and I put it in a recent article, "Healthy research and a healthy disciplinary matrix for research involve developing a coherent and densely textured argument as a symbiotic cluster; it involves creating rhetorical rigor" (Fleckenstein et al. 2008, p.411).

So let's go back to my first book, Tracing Genres through Organizations. There, I was trying to establish the lineage of interface elements. So how did I test the paternity?

I went back to the basics: I triangulated different data sources in order to validate and deepen my analysis.
  1. Artifacts. I started with the artifacts - the interface elements of GIS-ALAS (maps, menus, and dialog boxes), PC-ALAS (menus, dialog boxes), and Mainframe-ALAS (punchcards, printouts), as well as pre-automation forms and reports. I put these in chronological order and looked for similarities - but I went farther by rigorously examining dissimilarities. By doing this, I was able to
    • establish a set of unchanging and changing characteristics.
    • establish similarities with other preexisting artifacts (e.g., interface elements such as dialog boxes)
    • construct a reasonable story of how and why characteristics were mingled as new interfaces were developed (e.g., they had to break up this printed form's questions into two dialog boxes in order to make it work in a dialog box format)
    • establish not just a chronology or similarities, but a chain of custody in which characteristics were passed from one interface to the next.

    That gives us a decent story, but the story needs to be tested.

  2. Documents. I then went to any documents I could find that could shed light on the transitions between interfaces. These included software manuals for the three computer programs, but also newsletter accounts, written records of the development, and in the case of GIS-ALAS, the thesis and the drafted dissertation of the developer. Doing this allowed me to
    • validate my reasonable story of the transitions (and in some cases, correct and deepen it)
    • gain insight into the specific decisions that led to adopting characteristics
    • validate the chain of custody of characteristics

    Okay, but I like to verify my verifications. So I took the obvious next step: I asked.

  3. Interviews. Finally, I talked to people who had been involved in the activity and, when possible, the development of the different systems. Doing this allowed me to
    • gather more documents (see step 2), allowing me to further validate the record
    • gather unwritten history - although recollections are variable and always have to be triangulated, they can shed new light on how pieces of the documented history fit together
    • validate my reasonable story of the transitions (and in some cases, correct and deepen it)
    • gain insight into the specific decisions that led to adopting characteristics
    • validate the chain of custody of characteristics
At the end of the process, I had a verifiable story. Each part of the story, each transition - that is, each assertion I made about the lineage - was supported by at least two and usually three types of data, triangulated so that I could really pin down what happened. And the parts that I couldn't verify, I either left out or hedged so that readers knew where the weak parts of the chronology were. Based on that study, I was able to establish that some of the interface elements were actually hybrid genres, i.e., text types that could trace their lineage back to two or more separate texts originating in two or more separate activities.

In other words, I had a paternity test -- and more than that, I was able to establish the entire family tree.

Lineages and Rhizomes

Now, paternity tests and lineages are fairly restricted ways of thinking about these issues. Sometimes people enact work or organize themselves or use tools based on experiences that they idiosyncratically transfer from one focal point to an entirely unrelated one. Imagine, for instance, someone using a disused software manual as first base in an impromptu softball game -- or someone being unable to interpret a GIS-ALAS map properly because they think of the dots on the map as separate pushpins.

Issues like these are what pushed me toward looking at rhizomes in Network. Rhizomes are "anti-genealogies," as Deleuze and Guattari put it: they constitute associations, sometimes entirely idiosyncratic ones and sometimes ones that form interferences with each other. These interact with the "paternity tests" in definite and observable ways - they are often implicated in discoordinations and breakdowns, for instance - but they don't constitute lineages in themselves. (How can they? They're "anti-genealogies"). John Law does a great job of discussing rhizomes and the problems they pose for research in his book After Method, a book that has become very familiar to my grad students.

Rhizomes seem to completely destabilize lineages, and therefore "paternity tests." Think in terms of Ulmer's "chora," or resonations among entirely different meanings for the same word. Or in terms of "genre ecologies" in Tracing Genres through Organizations, in which a given text can represent a hybrid of two or more different genres, each with its own logic, assumptions, and associations. Or in terms of "splicing" in Network, in which whole activities are sutured together to form new, destabilized and dynamic ones. But in all these cases, unless they're completely tacit and idiosyncratic, these associations can be isolated and traced through some careful interview work and the right analytical technique -- grounded theory, for instance, excels at building a picture of a loose, slippery concept. That doesn't mean that everything can be simply reduced to a line of development, especially since qualities emerge from the interplay/hybridization/splicing among different lines of development. But it does mean that the careful researcher can still tease out these lines of development and build a case for each, separating the historical-developmental characteristics from the emergent/dynamic ones.

Giving Coworking a Paternity Test

So let's apply this approach to the case at hand. Can we give coworking a paternity test?

Sure. We can determine possible lines of development by looking at similarity and chronology, and we can verify those lines through our paternity test, careful triangulated research.

One obvious way would be to interview the coworkers. For instance, in I'm Outta Here, the authors interview people who were involved in the early coworking movement, turning up a number of precedents. These precedents don't stretch back to trades and guilds, but they do make definite connections to mid-20th century experiments in artist collectives. Interviews like these might at least establish some perceived lineage. Of course, you have to be careful to avoid feeding answers to your informants, who might be eager to see connections to older forms of work and who may express affinities or ideas rather than actual lines of development. "We're like a clan of nomads" is very different from "coworking can trace its lineage directly to nomadic clans."

If the interviews suggest a lineage, we could then try to establish a line of cultural development for that lineage. For instance, if a participant claims that he sees coworking as developing from artist colonies and collectives (I'm Outta Here p.20), how did that development work? Can we establish that an art collective turned into a coworking site, or its members migrated to that site, or its principles migrated to a professional organization to which workers belonged before they started their own coworking site? If a participant claims that coworking is the descendant of guild work, can we establish that guilds' tools, principles, or ideas survived in (say) workers' unions and were revived when union members became coworkers? Do these ideas, tools, or organizational structures have a traceable chain of custody? Or are they just similar, but developmentally separate, solutions to similar problems?

Finally, we could look at documents. Was the business plan of a coworking site influenced by a manifesto written by an art collective? Was the site's layout explicitly patterned on older studios?

If we can establish and triangulate evidence that allows you to clearly delineate these lines of development, their resonances and interferences, then we've successfully administered the paternity test.

Parting Thoughts

I'm really pushing here for an understanding of research as an argument, a rigorous argument that should emerge from the data and that should be hedged appropriately. That approach sometimes seems unnatural to us, especially for graduate students who are first beginning research: they know that research is unfamiliar to them, they're still working on mastering it, and they expect a lot of charity from their readers. That charity should be lent -- but only in the early stages, only by instructors who can mentor the beginning researchers and guide them into asking the proper questions. When research becomes "real," taken seriously, it also needs to be a solid enough argument to fly. And sometimes that means scaling back the scope of the research and its claims.

Certainly that doesn't mean cutting off speculation. But speculation should be clearly marked, heavily bracketed, and usually should appear in the Implications section, where the researcher can suggest it as a new research question.

But when you can, turn speculation into verification. Don't restrict yourself to saying "Don't you see his eyes? He looks just like his father!" Because you can expect your readers to be at least as smart and critical as Maury Povich's audience.

Monday, March 30, 2009

MIT Press' new digital distribution portal: CISnet

My first book is at MIT Press, and they've made the first chapter available for free online ever since launching the book. (Not coincidentally, when people cite Tracing Genres through Organizations, they usually seem to cite Chapter 1.) But MIT Press has now made that book and many others available through CISnet. This is from the email they sent me:
As part of the MIT Press’s ongoing exploration of digital publishing opportunities, we are launching CISnet, a new electronic collection of MIT Press titles in computer and information science. I write to let you know that one or more of your books is included in the collection. CISnet, the MIT Press Computer and Information Science Library, can be found at It is the Press’s second library of e-books in a single subject area and follows the model of CogNet, our popular online collection in the cognitive sciences. CISnet currently contains about 170 titles hosted in PDF by technology partner Tizra, Inc. It offers the ability to read these books from any Web-enabled computer and to search within them as well as across the collection.
I've cruised through my book online, and it looks pretty good. They're shooting for institutional subscriptions, but you can buy individual ones too. Check it out.