Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Have a great summer

Grades are posted and summer has begun, but I wanted to quickly thank you all for a great semester. If any of you will be around this summer, keep an eye out for our informal SLIS Summer Reading Group, where we'll be working through three books over the next three months. Cheers,


Thursday, May 17, 2007

Book Review: The Making Of A Cybertariat

Ursula Huws, The Making Of A Cybertariat: Virtual Work in a Real World. Monthly Review Press, 2003. 208 pp. ISBN:1-58367-088-2

With the advance of the so-called “information age” and the digital technologies that are behind it, prominent social theorists from Daniel Bell to Manuel Castells among many others have talked about the big changes in the industry structures. However, the ongoing debate remained on how fundamentally it will change the existing labor relationships. Are changes such as decentralization and networking of labor breaking the old wall between the capitalists and laborers, or is it even widening the gap? Or is something else going on?

The Making of a Cybertariat is a strong argument that takes the latter view, while incorporating that something else is happening - the rise of a new form of information age proletariat she calls ‘cybertariat.’ This book is a collection of articles labor relationships in the ‘new economy’ from 1979-2001 while Huws has been working primarily as an activist in feminism and labor relations. Over the several decades, she has analyzed and manifested some strong intuitions on the politics of technology and their effects on the positions of laborers, with special focus on the labor of housewives. As such, the collection provides much food for thoughts and controversies on the changing work relationships in the decentralized, world-wide networked world of today’s labor.

As introduced briefly, the author’s main premise in this book is that modern technologies, especially information and communication technologies (ICT) do not ‘liberate’ labor from its constraints but create a new kind of 'proletariat'. Though it is true that time and space become more flexible, she argues that even such flexibility contributes to even stronger constraints in the labor relationship. To examine the processes how such mechanisms work, Huws looks into a vast area of fields ranging from domestic work to office workers in large-scale industries.

The first part which roughly encompasses Chapter 1 and 2 looks into the changes in domestic labor and how technologies that were advertised to ‘reduce domestic labor’ has actually brought even more labor and further instability for female workers. The second part ranging from Chapter 3 to 5 examines the changes in the office work and how the blurred borders between work (space) and leisure resulted in more and unstable position of laborers. The third part, from Chapter 6 to 8, talks about women’s work and technology in the workplace. And the last part (Chapters 9-11) revisits the theoretical claims and attempt to debunk the myth of the labor liberation by technology and even tell us how to make the ‘cybertariats’ become conscious of their labor positions and interests - ultimately, make an open call for the cybertariats to united for the common goal.

In this process, Huws examines changing categories of employment, and modes of organization. She tries to show how new divisions of race and gender are born, and how traditional organizations and individuals cope with them by reshaping themselves. Her whole argument is based on three main ideas. The first is ‘commodification'. She defines it as
"the tendency of capital economies to generate new and increasingly standardized products for sale in the market whose sale will generate profits that increase in proportion to the scale of production"(p.17). It is in accordance with the traditional Marxist concept, but takes a whole new view in scale in the globalized industry and labor structure in the information age (or rather, ‘new economy’ as she refers to). The second is ‘socialization of labor'. Socialization of labor is a phenomenon that arises from commodification. People in different parts of the world co-operate in producing, distributing and marketing the same commodities. Through new forms of communication, contact between them can be virtually instantaneous. The third is ‘externalization of labor’. It refers not only to the outsourcing of labor to distant other places but also delegating parts of production labor to the actual customers - “unpaid time of the service customer is substituted for the paid time of the service worker” (p182) as exemplified by the ATM case where bank customers do most of the service works that had been previously done by the clerks.

The three concepts come together in the model of labor commodification. Activities that had been outside of the market (e.g. unpaid domestic labor) are incorporated into the market, and are subsequently replaced by craft production/consumer service. In turn, it gives rise to new industries and social labor division ("socialization of labor and process"). It causes new types of work and further international division of labor. As such, even with technology, domestic work is not reduced. For example, the laundry machine was supposed to reduce laundry labor, but resulted in more need for clean clothes, Laundromats, and the very need to have an machine in every household. As such, even more money is needed to get the commodities, driving the housewives into social labor. The labor available to them however is limited to the lower paid and unstable work, drawing a parallel to the domestic labor workers in the industrial revolution. When the wages of the First world increases, such labor gets pushed to Third world. Such socialization and externalization of labor is further enabled on a global scale by the development of communication networks. Also, the technologies make the workplace more flexible through communication and outsourcing but require the workers to pay for the tools and make them accessible to the control and demands of the workplace more than ever before. Also, close relationships with co-workers are diminished in this process.

To back up such models, Huws analyzes office workers in various dimensions such as functional relationship of work to capital, occupations, social relation to production, places in social division of labor, comparative income, and social status. And after going through them, she concludes that the workers in this technological and industrial environment can be called as a new type of proletariat. Then, can they also become a 'class' and unite to fight for their rights? It is possible, she argues, but it is not sure if a class consciousness will develop in itself because gender, race, as well as an overtly nostalgic stance of male workers and left-stance activists are in the way. And that in turn is her open call to overcome such hurdles.

Huws’ idea of distributed labor via network is similar to what Castells discovered in his theories of information society. However, she uses such observations to argue the rise of a ‘common’ class of unskilled, low-wage workers rather than the spreading of the work itself. When taking into notice that both are coming from Marxist backgrounds, it is an interesting deviation. While Castells argued that such distribution will lead to the individualization and flexibility, Huws is emphasizing the position that the workers will be placed in will be no different than simply being a low-wage low-skill worker. It is a both bold and useful view to take from an activist’s aspect. It is an attractive open call and guidance to what should be realized in the labor movement in today’s working environment.

However, there are also some drawbacks in her way of explanation preventing it from being hailed as a classic. First, the focus of her problem setting is a little vague in parts. In her accounts Huws purposely emphasizes domestic labor as the prime example of unpaid labor that has been commodified, and takes a gender-centered (‘feminist’) view. Though the gender relationships becomes part of the unequal labor relationship between the employer and the low-skilled worker, it is a little confusing to have the feminist approach and labor-centered approach mixed together. In the latter parts where office workers of both sexes are the main subject, the theme becomes clearer.

The second is that she does not present enough historical or statistical data to support the claims as a firmly grounded research material. The data Huws reviews are not strictly quantitive or historical, leaving a good deal counterarguments on hand. Instead, she draws some parts from personal experiences and focuses more on the arguments and concepts. Though it is not a critical drawback and is even useful in keeping the text to a legible 200 pages, it narrows down the audience and use of the book. It would have benefited from compressing or separating the feminism-centered parts and elaborate on the middle and latter parts on office workers and customer time deprivation.

Despite such, the questions and views raised in this book are useful in even more than the phenomenon it described. For example, the notion of ‘externalization of labor’ - especially how production work is delegated to the actual customers fits nicely into the so-called Web2.0 concepts of today. Whether on Youtube, Wikipedia or citizen journalism sites, people are gladly willing to spend their own time unpaid for production of contents that once had been originally paid work by the employed workers. And it is even regarded to be more fun, more democratic, and simply cool. Does it mean that we users are “deprived of” something? Not necessarily, but the industry is gaining something and it seldom comes back to us in the form of actual rewards (even the psychological rewards of recognition is given by the peer users). Thus, building ideas for a more labor-rewarding Web2.0 would be beneficial for both the individual users and also the development of the web as well. Or how about utilizing the concept of a global spread of similar labor relationship to build a more communicatively connected network of a bigger solidarity of labor unions? Collective bargaining could enter a whole new scale, even global.

In summary, The Making of a Cybertariat is an energetic claim that provokes us to look into the labor relationships today and gives us thought pieces to act upon. Also, it is a good counterbalance to the more intentionally value-absent or even sometimes optimistic analysis of the labor relationships in the information age such as Castells’ works.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Review of H. Crowther-Heyck, Herbert A. Simon: the bounds of reason in modern America

Herbert A. Simon: the bounds of reason in modern America. Hunter Crowther-Heyck. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

Hunter Crowther-Heyck’s Herbert A. Simon: the bounds of reason in modern America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), is a biography of Herbert A. Simon (1916-2001), a political scientist and pioneering cognitive psychologist who was also a significant organizer of interdisciplinary, computer-assisted (or computer-driven) research into cognition on the international and national levels. The book is based on Crowther-Heyck’s 1999 dissertation, Herbert Simon, organization man (Thesis (Ph.D.)--Johns Hopkins University, 2000). Crowther-Heyck is currently an assistant professor of the History of Science at the University of Oklahoma.

Crowther-Heyck’s research, including his work on Simon, is devoted to what he calls the “bureaucratic worldview,” as expressed by the research interactions of the Federal Government, foundations, and large research universities since the New Deal. Implicit in Crowther-Heyck’s work is a concern with the fate of the individual in a public sphere dominated by large institutions.

Herbert A. Simon grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His father, Arthur Simon, trained in Electrical Engineering at the Technische Hochschule in Darmstadt, immigrated to the United States in 1903. The family was situated culturally in the German-American professional class of Protestant or Jewish origins (Simon’s father was Jewish; Herbert Simon became a Unitarian later in life) who strongly identified with the nonsectarian American civic ideal of the Progressive Era, which in Milwaukee was also the period of Socialist control of city government. In his autobiography, Simon recounted with some pride that he lived in a neighborhood where both corporate leaders and the Socialist mayor Daniel Hoan were neighbors (Crowther-Heyck, pp. 16-19, 22; Herbert A. Simon, Models of my life (Basic Books, 1991), p. 6).

In the first part of Simon’s career, starting at the University of Chicago, where he became a graduate assistant in Political Science (a program referred to as the “Chicago School” throughout the book) in 1936, he was involved with research into the possibilities of professional, nonpartisan urban planning and the improvement of public services. In the second part of his career, from the early 1950s on, based in the Graduate School of Industrial Administration at Carnegie Institute of Technology, later Carnegie-Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Simon became familiar with large, institutional, digital computers, and began to concentrate on making programs to study problem solving in collaboration with Allen Newell (1927-1992). This programming research led to Simon and Newell’s invention of artificial intelligence (Crowther-Heyck, chapter 10) and for Simon, an ever-expanding set of institutional relationships, a true research network. The question for a biographer is how to link up these distinct phases to form a picture of Simon’s work as a whole, and to explain the continuity of what Simon was trying to contribute intellectually.

Notes on the text. Crowther-Heyck’s book is organized around the events in Simon’s life up until the late 1960s. Many facts of the life are presented in an Introduction, “(Un)bounded rationality.” (The term “Bounded Rationality” originates with Simon.) Each period provides a starting point for intellectual histories constructed around the principal theme of the book, the juxtaposition of Control and Choice. In chapter 2, Crowther-Heyck uses the atmosphere of the University of Chicago in the 1930s to explain the background and outlook of the Chicago School of Political Science, particularly its preoccupation with control, here enlightened public administration within the context of representative government. In chapter 3, Crowther-Heyck presents a different facet of the same environment, the interest in applying mathematics and logic, the “sciences of control” to sociology so that research could be constructed and interpreted as much as possible in quantitative terms (“operationalism”). The chapter titles imply an almost mythological narrative about Simon’s lifetime intellectual quest following “forking paths,” an image borrowed from a short story by Borges (see Jorge Luis Borges, “The garden of forking paths,” pp. 19-29, in: Labyrinths (New Directions, 1964)).

The strength of the book lies in Crowther-Heyck’s explication of ideas and institutional relationships. To get at and to digest his interpretations, the reader has to navigate through Crowther-Heyck’s resistance to the ideology of liberal technocracy. This resistance emerges from statements about Simon’s personal beliefs that seem to resonate with the author.

For example, in discussing Simon’s attitude to gender as shown by his use of language and his treatment of women as students and colleagues, Crowther-Heyck writes “he was typical of a generation of liberal men who were taken rather by surprise by the need for a women’s movement in the late 1960s but who were friendly to it so long as it focused on equality of opportunity rather than equality of result” (p. 19). Why does the author feel obliged to insert a slogan about redistribution in an otherwise helpful observation about Simon’s relative gender neutrality?

Toward the end of the book (p. 312), Crowther-Heyck comments on a Simon colleague’s anecdote about his amazement at Simon’s compulsion to invent and solve problems on a car trip, in an effort to temper the impression of the colleague’s conventional and unqualified admiration for Simon, but digresses into the following:

"Most of us chose our field because we had a passion for ideas that was stronger than our passions for money or power or fame, else we would not have become academic scholars, to whom money, power, and fame are but nodding acquaintances. It is unfair to refuse to attribute to others the same 'noble' goals that we attribute to ourselves, just as it is unwise to refuse to analyze one’s own motives the way one analyzes those of others."

Reading this lament about the altruism and powerlessness of academics, one might forget that college teaching is one of the most privileged and personally rewarding occupations in the world today, or that Crowther-Heyck has spent much of the book showing how Simon was able to use the advantage of his academic positions to outmaneuver and overcome opposition (see pp. 258-259, an account of Simon’s lobbying to force the restructuring of the graduate program in Psychology at CIT).

Finally, in the conclusion (pp. 326-327), Crowther-Heyck presents a sort of credo in Simon, explaining that after beginning “as an instinctive supporter of his views on economics and critic of his psychology and his political science,” he had accepted Simon because of what he had learned about Simon’s personal political beliefs. But these beliefs as Crowther-Heyck states them, including “equal rights for all, a federal government that actively supports those rights, stewardship of the earth’s resources, and rational tolerance of different peoples, cultures, faiths, and political views” seem like inarguable, mainstream liberalism. They do not explain the “forking” path that the author has taken us on.

In the Borges story, “The garden of forking paths” two characters have a dialogue about the central theme of a Chinese novel also called “The garden of forking paths,” that is constructed as a labyrinth. The scholar who has reconstructed and translated the novel concludes that the theme of the novel is “time,” because the Chinese words for time are never used. Therefore, time, as its omission shows, is the theme of the book. “In a riddle whose answer is chess, what is the only prohibited word?” “…Chess.”

In Crowther-Heyck’s biography of Simon, while sociology, social psychology, and social modeling are discussed at length, society and the social impacts of research and research tools are never mentioned. By their omission, we can conclude that Crowther-Heyck is profoundly skeptical about the potential for positive social change through the application of technology. To return to the Borges story, Society is what this book is about, but the narrative excludes it.

To complete Crowther-Heyck’s story of Herbert Simon, his historical context, and the social impacts of elite research communities after World War II, we have to look beyond his work. Through Simon’s autobiography, Models of my life, we get a clear portrait of a liberal scholar who through his interest in computer science transformed himself into a public intellectual, editorializing about rational approaches to reform in opposition to attacks on the “system” in the 1960s (chapter 18), serving on advisory committees at the federal level (see chapter 19, “The scientist as politician”), and traveling abroad to receive awards or as part of cultural missions (chapter 21, “Nobel to now,” 22, “The amateur diplomat in China and the Soviet Union”). Paul N. Edwards’s The closed world: computers and the politics of discourse in Cold War America (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996), explores the connection between the development of computers, game theory and other models of control, cognition, and behavior, defense research, and Cold War resistance to Soviet power. His presentation of the evolution of the concept of artificial intelligence (Edwards, pp. 250-255) is crucial to an understanding of Crowther-Heyck’s interpretation of its significance (Crowther-Heyck, chapter 10). From Jennifer S. Light’s book, From warfare to welfare: defense intellectuals and urban problems in Cold War America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), we learn about how socially-conscious intellectuals positioned themselves in the defense establishment, taking advantage of postwar Federal largesse and an atmosphere of creative freedom to explore applications of systems research to urban problems. For the “defense intellectuals,” Simon’s colleagues, the military-industrial complex served as a refuge permitting experimental social thought within the context of applied research.

Evaluation. I found reviews of Herbert Simon: the bounds of reason in modern America in International Social Science Review, The journal of American history, Public administration review, and Technology and culture. The reviews are friendly, recognizing Crowther-Heyck’s pioneering effort to capture the range of Simon’s activities, and especially the academic milieux and schools of thought within which he worked. At the same time, there is impatience among reviewers both with the lack of a “romantic” emphasis on personal details, which to my mind underscores the work's reliability, and Crowther-Heyck’s reticence at drawing conclusions about the validity of Simon’s lifelong preoccupation with planning, modeling, and the understanding of cognition.

To conclude, I would like to suggest some lessons about Simon that might have been drawn from Crowther-Heyck’s extensive research, in the spirit of our class on Uncovering Information Labor. I agree with Crowther-Heyck that Simon embodies the classic German bureaucratic attitude, the notion that a highly trained elite, loyal only to public service and the State, would manage problems, and achieve public order and social control. Simon’s faith in this bureaucratic public sphere is sharply at odds with United States political and economic trends from 1980 to the present, and as Vincent Mosco has discussed, with the tradition of public planning by the financial elite in particular regions like greater New York City.

In contrast to today’s faith, albeit waning, in the power of unregulated markets to solve social problems by concentrating capital in the hands of winners best suited to lead, Simon proclaims, in effect, “I [my generation] am the Revolution!” In the chapter from Models of my life called “The student troubles” (pp. 279-289), Simon recounts with satisfaction his role in damping down revolutionary enthusiasm at Carnegie-Mellon by appealing to the potential for planning within the institutional framework. Clearly, he believed that the real Revolution had already taken place when the intellectuals were able to take charge of so much federally funded research during and in the aftermath of the New Deal. Nevertheless, he reserves a nice parting shot about the charisma of the newly affluent: “Whether the yuppie climate that replaced revolution has been, on balance, an improvement is a question….” Simon, unlike the class of “venture laborers” identified by Gina Neff, always protected himself by embracing the support structures of government and academic institutions. He seems to have little or no faith in a transcendent notion of individual freedom.

The weakness of Simon’s career is that he functioned entirely on an elite level, and that there were no apparent immediate, street-level benefits from his work. Part of the corrective to this perception lies in the greater public transparency to planning processes that is emerging, painfully, in the early 21st century. (The current discussion over the optimal location for a new power line in the Madison region demonstrates the potential and problems of public inputs.) As Amy Slaton suggests, why should the public not participate in engineering decisions that will have significant impacts on their environment? For public participation to work there must be greater and more general technological and environmental literacy. Had Herbert Simon spent more of his time contributing to public as opposed to elite education into the benefits of his many research directions, his legacy would be less troubling.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Questions from 1 May 2007 Jennifer Light interview/podcast

Here are the written versions of questions that I asked Jennifer Light:

1. Six years after the 9/11 attacks, to which you [Light] allude at the end of the book From warfare to welfare, where are the "defense intellectuals" in the urban policy community? How is that relationship structured and how is it working?

2. You avoid policy recommendations in the book, although elsewhere you have addressed the so-called "digital divide," accommodation of the disabled in the workplace, and the gendering of computer work. What policy might flow from a correct understanding of what "defense intellectuals" have to offer to urban planning?

3. What value, if any, can the Critical Theory tradition that includes a wide range of people, for example, Baudrillard, but also Emerson and Thoreau at its origins, offer to historians who are still in the process of working out the facts of how science and technology have changed the United States since 1933?

Monday, April 30, 2007

Strange Bed Fellows Indeed

From Warfare to Welfare: Defense Intellectuals and Urban Problems in Cold War America by Jennifer S. Light, tells a history of how American cities were planned in part with military guidance post War World II. This book brings forth the role of dispersal techniques used as an argument to get people from inner-city dwelling to the suburbs and beyond, thus making Americans safe from attacks. Forget the people that couldn't afford to move out of the city or the business people making a living or the fact that it clearly was not a viable option for many of the cities, even after promises of funding from the federal government.

What was highly interesting about this theory is the fact that such a varied collection of people were finally talking about urban planning and it seemed to be a catalyst for planners throughout the nation. Having local and national leaders, atomic scientist, defense workers, military strategists and planners working together on this failed idea seemed remarkable. Though not a complete failure after viewing the powerful legacy this marriage of planning and military defense has had.

It is easy to see a direct line from using the military to fight wars on anything from poverty, the war on Vietnam and communism, to 'black terrorism' and all kinds of activists. Military planning is pervasive in this country. From failures of the Army Corps of Engineers to the Patriot Act.

The late sixties brought an interesting mix of people joining the military crew. The ideas of the counterculture bringing technology, media and mass communication to the people were apparently beliefs that the US government and the Rand Corporation shared to connect the disenfranchised. But with the Nixon era starting and the funding for cable and war on poverty this near utopia was all but dead. Later when the public access channels were up and running they were all but outdated. Though now mandated but eventually its ideal of civic technology was dead.

After reading this book I feel like most social theory is either wrong or never implemented.
I wonder how things like 'think tanks' and all of the military planning and social theory have and are effecting the war in Iraq and shaping that country's future.
What exactly is the RAND corporation and what else has this and other corporations influenced our cities?

Monday, April 23, 2007

Thoughts on digital, sublime myths

This week's reading 'The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power and Cyberspace' by Vincent Mosco centers on the question of how and why the 'digital age' has been hailed. And unlike the readings of the previous weeks that emphasized the production and market functions, it sheds light on the cultural mindset as the major motivator. Especially the notion of 'myth' as the meaning-making mechanism through which people try to put value on the information and communication technologies(ICT) is discussed in great detail, ultimately incorporating the political-economical dimensions as well.

A short (and clearly oversimplified) recap of the Chapters:

Chapter 1: The need to look into the cyberspace with 'both eyes' is discussed. Not only the material conditions but the cultural dimension - the 'myth' - is required to understand how our society accepts the cyberspace.

Chapter 2: The key dimensions of the myth-making process of cyberspace is discussed. The 'mythmakers' include the academic, political, and business worlds and powerful supporting institutions via means of metaphors (most prominent examples: the digital library, information highway, electronic commerce, virtual community, digital ecology, and narrative stream).

Chapter 3, 4, 5 (the main body): Here, he provides invaluable critical summaries of the literature on the so-called 'post-industirial' information society theories. The myths of the cyberspace as being something sublime and completely world-changing are discussed in three major clusters - the end of history, geography and politics. he looks into the vast body of existing literature and explains how the mythmakers constructed discourses to make the society believe that digital communication will ultimately bring fundamental changes in time, space/place and power relationships. Especially in Chapter 5 he looks into the past historical moments of new communication technologies such as radio and television, and finds out that the principal pattern of the myth stayed similar.

Chapter 6: Here he uses the metaphor of 'Ground Zero' to emphasize that "history, geography and politics returned with a vengeance". The significance of political economical ('material') dimensions are revisited, and again the importance of incorporating cultural analysis (such as foregrounding the local, and taking historical contexts of discourse struggle into account) is emphasized.

Some questions worth thinking about:

- Why do sublime utopian myths of new technology seem to almost always win against the other possible form of myth - the dystopian one? Is it somehow inherent in mythical subliminality to neige to the bright and shiny ideal?

- According to Chapter 5, the principal pattern of the myth is repeated with new emerging communication technologies. Then, how do the outdated technologies lose their subliminality? Are there any myth-breakers at work, or is it simply that people forget their initial awe?

- On p.6, Mosco argues that the technologies become important forces for social and economic change after they have lost their role as source for utopian visions. Is it the case of the technology itself, or rather the utilization of it? For example, the recent utopian vision of the 'Web2.0' concept is mostly the same Internet technology as pre-dotcom burst, but the utilization pattern of that technology has changed so that many believe it is something new...

- What role have the 'sublime myths' played in the changes in labor relationships of the Information age we have discussed all along this semester? (For example, could it be the case that they have been covering up the fundamental exploitative labor structures by fostering a sense of being horizontally networked and decentralized?)

- To take it one step further... how does the concept of myths as the cultural meaning making process fit in the case of information labors? We have already discussed how programmers perceived themselves as active creators and how Video gurus became non-paid experts of the field. Are information laborers themselves myth-makers? Or even, do they need to be demystified to be part of the important forces for social and economic change?

PS. There is also a review on this book by G. Bowker whom we met earlier in our course. I think it provides a interesting link on how his research interests connect to this theme... Here's the link.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Privacy and Control: The Function of Surveillance in Society

Monahan, Torin, editor. Surveillance and Security: Technological Politics and Power in Everyday Life. 342p. Routledge. 2006. ISBN 978-0-415-95393-1.

The growth of information technology has brought with it a growth in our social, cultural, and political awareness. We are now accountable for our everyday lives more than ever before, as even the most unlikely individuals are subjected to ongoing monitoring and disclosure. This increased self-awareness has influence over our daily lives in ways that are not easily recognizable. In Surveillance and Security: Technological Politics and Power in Everyday Life, a discussion of technology's control over institutions and individuals, whether it may be law-enforcement, transportation, diplomacy, or parenting. Its collection of essays questions the limits which information technologies have created in our social networks and collective security. Our present climate of social and political deliberation and mistrust make this book a timely confrontation of surveillance methods and their effects on individual freedom and privacy. It raises questions about the ultimate costs and benefits of surveillance through several contemporary case studies. Overall, the book presents a detailed analysis of current surveillance trends and outcomes without any of today's obligatory flag-waving or defiant neoliberalism.
Surveillance and Security: Technological Politics and Power in Everyday Life features essays from various professionals from the fields of political science, sociology, criminology, and cultural studies. The book appeals to an audience interested in surveillance studies, criminal justice, the sociology of science and technology, and women's studies. An analysis of everyday technologies is presented, ranging from biometric technologies at airports and borders, video surveillance in schools/public housing, radio frequency identification (RFID) tags in hospitals and public transport, national ID cards, and magnetic strips on welfare food cards. The motivations and functions of surveillance technologies used in everyday life are investigated by the essayists. The central issue of the book revolves around the system of tradeoffs linked to surveillance technologies, such as security versus liberty, and security versus privacy. Its authors argue that tradeoffs provide for only brief discussion of the consequences of the current growth of electronic surveillance. Its editor, law professor Torin Monahan, argues: "Some of the obvious issues not discussed when talking about trade-offs are how surveillance contributes to spatial segregation and social inequality, how private high-tech industries are benefiting from the public revenue generated for these systems, and what the ramifications are of quantifying 'security' (e.g. by the number of video cameras for political purposes)" (2). The book investigates the larger motivations and function of surveillance technologies used in everyday life.
In her essay The State Goes Home: Local Hyper vigilance of children and the Global Retreat from Social Reproduction Cindi Katz comments on the growth in child surveillance and paranoid parenting across America. This domestic dystopia reflects the larger national surveillance crisis involving banking and the government. As Katz emphasizes: "But one thing is certain: the discourse of fear has provoked an increasingly serious domestic response to the perceived dangers in our midst" (28). Surveillance and Security: Technological Politics and Power in Everyday Life is also a response to national security, a discussion of the right to privacy and the social aspects of technology, as well as whose interests electronic surveillance actually serves.
Although the book gathers together essays from a diverse background of professionals and researchers, all of the essays come to the conclusion that most forms of surveillance are unnecessarily invasive and overly expensive. In his essay The Growth of Mandatory Volunteerism in Collecting Personal Information- 'Hey Buddy Can You Spare a DNA?" Gary T. Marx investigates the emerging consumer trend of soft surveillance. This surveillance appears to protect and empower consumers, yet Marx argues that this facade serves only the interests of big business, as it is: "Requesting volunteers based on appeals to good citizenship or patriotism, using dangerous communication, trading personal information for rewards, or convenience and using hidden or low-visibility information-collection technologies" (38). These newly emerging forms of technology, from barcodes to biometrics, intrude on our everyday lives without recognition. As Marx continues: "New hidden or low-visibility technologies increasingly offer the tempting possibility of bypassing awareness and any need for direct consent altogether" (41). Surveillance has become an intimate player in our personal lives, determining our social, consumer, and political identities, without any invitation or acceptance on our part.
The increasing costs and supervision created by surveillance has reinforced social hierarchies, as the essayists describe the priorities and agendas of everyday lives and the balance of power created by them. The essayists conclude that many of our everyday surveillance technologies are unnecessary and, in most cases, unwarranted. The goals and objectives of electronic surveillance are too hindered by bureaucracy and capitalism to produce any benefits to society. As editor Torin Monahan writes: "Indeed, most crimes-violent or otherwise-are not prevented by surveillance" (5). Throughout the book, the current ramifications of the global "War on Terror" are investigated. Monahan considers surveillance to be an inadequate approach to terrorism and crime. He notes: "The root causes for crime or terrorism are not engaged and deeper social changes brought about by surveillance and security systems are left interrogated" (10). The essayists of the book agree that surveillance only succeeds in reinforcing social and economic divides, as the poor are often victims of surveillance of the rich, as their personal activities and economic transactions are monitored and criticized. Nancy D. Campbell comments on the phenomenon of workplace drug testing in her essay Everyday Insecurities: The Micro behavioral Politics of Intrusive Surveillance. She writes: "Drug testing in nontherapeutic contexts will remain an unfair and unjust 'new-surveillance' scheme until the day when the poor begin testing the rich" (73). The essayists conclude that surveillance fails to protect identities or prevent crime. Simon A. Cole and Henry N. Pont ell elaborate this perspective in their essay "Don't Be Low Hanging Fruit: Identity Theft as Moral Panic". They argue: "Thus, in neglecting the larger social reality of identity fraud, such narratives allow systematic problems related to such crimes remain unaddressed, which increases the likelihood that the problem will become worse and that a fearful public will support even greater surveillance in the hope of rectifying it" (146). The book concludes by saying that surveillance does succeed in cultivating fear and mistrust, though not in the surveillance itself but the people controlling our society and supposedly provide protection for us.
The book thoroughly analyzes surveillance in our everyday lives and its effect on democratic values. The government and advertising companies hold tremendous power in monitoring our everyday lives. Today, millions unknowingly surrender personal information, social status, and geographic details by simply using a credit card, boarding public transport, or using a mobile phone. The most interesting chapter of the book is Heather Cameron's Using Intelligent Systems to Track Buses and Passengers. Cameron describes London Transport's recent efforts to provide a "transport system that serves the needs of all those who live, work, or visit London, irrespective of economic status or social identity" (226). In their effort to improve customer service, London Transport has applied several technologies to ensure efficiency and security for all of its passengers and employees. It is not surprising for London to be the first city worldwide to incorporate RFID, GPS, and security cameras into its buses. After all: "With the equivalent of one camera for every fourteen people, it is estimated that the average person in a large city like London is filmed three hundred times a day" (3). However, it is surprising to learn exactly how much surveillance these technologies provide. Security cameras both onboard buses and outside of bus lanes monitor passengers and vehicles illegally driving in bus lanes. These cameras may capture the driver's license plate and the driver may then be fined by mail for their violation. Similarly, passenger behavior is captured on video. Passengers can be caught on tape applying graffiti to bus interiors or harassing bus drivers. This video may then be used to identify such criminals and aid in their prompt prosecution. Although these security measures benefit transport users, other forms of surveillance infringe on their right to privacy. By using a London Transport Oyster card, passengers save on their fares but these RFID cards in turn communicate their names, addresses, legal status (i.e. student/senior), credit card information, travel behavior, and geographical location to London Transport. This information can then be sold to advertisers and targeted commercials can be shown on video monitors strategically placed near the doors of each bus. By using RFID, London Transport creates enormous revenues, yet passenger fares continue to rise. Bus fares on London buses are nearly comparable to London Underground fees. Yet bus passengers experience little of the comfort, convenience, and dramatically decreased travel times than that of their Underground counterparts. Through her essay, Cameron emphasizes the need for passengers and government agencies to address such surveillance issues and collaborate on protecting citizen privacy. Surveillance and Security: Technological Politics and Power in Everyday Life presents a thoughtful and provocative discussion of the exchange of information and the role of surveillance in our social networks and personal identities.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Book Review: From Counterculture to Cyberculture

Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. University of Chicago Press, 2006.

In this book, Turner traces the evolution of the personal computer and the freewheeling Internet from its unlikely origins in buttoned-down Cold War cybernetics. His focus is on Stewart Brand, creator of the Whole Earth Catalog, CoEvolution Quarterly, the WELL and a force behind the influential magazine Wired. Prominent here too is the California counterculture which developed in the 1960’s and 1970’s and provided a seminal influence.

Turner suggests that this evolution is not merely technological—it was not simply the case that computers became smaller and thus more accessible. The origins of computing in a military-industrial setting and the development of small desktop computers might just as easily have led to computers as simply part of a repressive bureaucracy. The development of personal computers as instruments for flattening of hierarchies, removal of geographic barriers, creation of online “virtual”communities and the like are the result in part of a utopian Zeitgeist that can be linked to the counterculture of the 1960’s and 1970’s, and more specifically to the role of Stewart Brand as a figure who brought the counterculture to the world of computing. This development is intertwined as well with a collaborative interaction within the confines of military and scientific institutions—a culture exemplified by lab work at MIT and Stanford which also interrelated with Brand’s ideas and the processes he exemplified. It is with this evolution from idealistic counterculture to vibrant cyberculture that this book is concerned.

Turner gives the label “ New Communalism” to the utopian impulses that led both to the portion of the sixties counterculture which found its central text in the Whole Earth Catalog, and to the embrace of technology which found itself eventually at home in the 1990’s with some aspects of insurgent Republicanism. He suggests further that the values of the communal 1960’s utopian movement exemplified by Brand and his Whole Earth Catalog were not co-opted and distorted in later years by the forces of capitalism or the state as some believe, but rather became a part of the cyberculture of both creators and users of computers and new forms of computing.

The book opens with the defining computational metaphor as expressed by contemporary writers such as Esther Dyson, Perry Barlow (a former lyricist for the Grateful Dead and now an information technology journalist and pundit) and Kevin Kelly (former executive director of Wired magazine): digital technologies transcend the world of governments and restrictions, and are instead tools by which stultifying bureaucracies can be overthrown and new, flexible ways of living, working, and producing for a strong economy can be achieved. Yet, to the students of the Berkeley Free Speech movement in which these writers began and which provided the origin of the counterculture, cybernetics represented a militarized and menacing force antithetical to the longed-for new society. The students of the Berkely Free Speech movement of the 1960’s and their colleagues across the country sometimes demonstrated and protested using computerized punch cards as the emblem of a repressive society.

In spite of the 1960’s students’ perceptions, Turner suggests that the seemingly closed world of the military-industrial complex was not monolithic. Within that complex, beginning with the great collaborative research enterprises of World War II, could be found a computation subculture bound by, in anthropological terms, a “trading language” and a “legitimacy exchange” which facilitated border-crossing and group work by professionals from various backgrounds. At the same time, Norbert Wiener and his associates, pioneers of cybernetics and associated with the wartime computing effort, expressed an idea of human being as automated mechanical information processors but with an added, more benign idea of a system in which men and machines collaborated. Thus it seems, even in the founding metaphors of computing, there were possibilities for divergence in how computing was regarded, along with spaces in which computing work was boundary-spanning and non-hierarchical.

It was the youth culture of the 1960’s, emerging as it did as a reaction against the systems which included the computing of the time, which added the notion of a liberated egalitarian society and communal ideals. It was during this time that two youth movements emerged. One was political, as represented by the SDS and the civil rights struggle, which became the so-called New Left. The other, more inward-turning, embracing new ways of consciousness and relationships and accompanied by drugs and rock and roll music, became the “counterculture”. It is in this non-political, utopian stream that Turner places the countercultural origins of cyberculture in the New Communalism. It is here that Turner arrives at the central questions he hopes to answer: how did the systems visions of the cold war and the seemingly antithetical communitarian visions of the New Communalists become so entwined that, years later as the Internet evolved out of the Cold War systems, it could appear to many to be the New Communalist ideal reborn? Here, Turner suggests, is the pivotal role of Steward Brand as the node connecting these networks.

Brand’s own intellectual journey into the counterculture began as a Stanford student learning about the then-new system-oriented ecological theories of population biologist Paul Ehrlich. After college and military service, he found his way into the avant-garde arts scene in New York city. These artists were developing a countercultural artistic system which were labeled “happenings”—seemingly spontaneous, egalitarian, and participatory, combining lighting, drama, music, art and systems thinking along with Eastern mysticism and involving multidisciplinary collaboration in a workshop setting. These artists were steeped in the communication theories of Marshall McLuhan which celebrated new media and tribal social forms, and the ideals of futuristic technology of architect Buckminster Fuller. Indeed, Brand credited Fuller as the inspiration for the Whole Earth Catalog.

Migrating back to the West Coast, Brand became involved with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, who offered a model of an alternative community involving borderless and interrelated self, technology and community consciousness via drugs. As a result of this collaboration with Kesey, Brand became the entrepreneur of the wildly successful countercultural San Francisco Trips Festival—a multimedia event featuring an amalgam of technology in lighting, images,sound, dance and music. Turner suggests that it was this techno-social amalgamation which formed the beginning ot the fusion of New Communalist social ideals and technological products which had their origin in the Cold War.

Once the Festivals were over, Brand joined the countercultural Portola Institute, newly formed in Menlo Park, which served as a meeting place for counterculturalists, academics and technologists due to its location near both the Free University and the Stasnford Research Institute. It was in this setting that the idea began for a publication that would provide access to tools for those counterculturals who were moving to the country to start their own communities. In 1968 the first Whole Earth Catalog appeared, gathering together in a “single textual space” the countercultural worlds of art with those of technology and academia which by then, Brand could successfully span. Turner suggests that this space became a “network forum” – a place where these communities came together in a process which synthesized new intellectual frameworks and social networks. On the cover of the eclectic catalog, representing artifacts from all sides of Brand’s experiences, was a powerful new image of the whole Earth as seen from space. With its juxtaposition of categories such as “Communication”, Nomadics, “Shelter and Land Use. and artifacts ranging from Fuller’s geodesic domes to hammers to computers and calculators, Brand encouraged his readers to see the world as a single system and linked the New Communalism into a techno-biological system.

In the early 1970’s after the Whole Earth catalog ceased, Brand, by now comfortably well-off, moved back and forth between the counterculture and the new centers of computer research in an environment in which the computer industry, computer hobbyists, and counterculturalists lived next to one another and interacted freely. By this time, smaller computers were being developed and the Portola Institute continued to serve as a space where researchers and counterculturalists could meet. For computer researchers such as Alan Kay, who was working at Xerox Parc on small computers and graphical user interfaces, the Whole Earth Catalog embodied a vision of technology as a source of individual and technological transformation and its format was a kind of hyperlinked peer-to-peer information system which seemed like a model for what the new computers should become.

As the New Communal movement began to die out in the 1970’s Brand became interested in the ideas of Gregory Bateson, whose encounter with cybernetics had led to communication-based social theories. Bateson’s ideas provided much of the intellectual background to the CoEvolution Quarterly, which replaced the Whole Earth Catalog. Brand’s flair for networking and entrepreneurship and his role in inspiring small-computer pioneers continued in the 1980’s as he became enamored of the emerging hacker culture. Through his attendance at the seminal hacker conferences he became interested in software and engaged in the developing computer community. As he began to publish software-related catalogs and to involve himself more in the the countercultural aspects of the growing computer industry, his function as a link between the countercultural ideals and computing became more pronounced. As computing changed, he wanted to be part of it, but on the terms which had formed his life experiences. This led to the leap into formation of the WELL—the Whole Earth Lectronic Link—in 1985. On its surface a teleconferencing system like others at the time, its membership and governance brought together former counterculturalists, hackers and journalists who collaborated in a network forum that had been shaped by countercultural ideals.

As digital technology became networked and as the technology industry in the San Francisco Bay area burgeoned, the WELL became a “virtual community”and an electronic frontier” with roots in the ideals the formed the Whole Earth Catalog. It was to be a free, open-ended, self-governing community in cyberspace, in contrast to the information utilities such as Prodigy which were its competitors. The notion of a community of linked minds and a “gift” economy persisted and found resonance in a setting in which collaboration and community had been a fact of working life in many worlds of computer engineering all along. These formed the basis for the new “virtual community”. Members of this community began to publish their views of the virtual community in mainstream books and journals and these ideas began to flow into the larger culture.

In the 1980’s Brand began to look for new horizons and discovered MIT’s new Media Lab as well as the conferences and networks associated with this new media technology. As he met with the computer entrepreneurs of the developing new economy, he formed the Global Business Network, which continued some of the countercultural ideals but in an overlapping series of business, social , technological and informational networks. This networking led in time to the founding of Wired magazine by GBN members, and the alliance of techno-libertarians of the computer industry, former counterculturalists, and social conservatives of the New Right. Included in this mix were the ideals of a New Economy, the notion that twentieth-century economics and the twentieth-century bureaucracy had been left behind. By the time of the collapse of the dot-com bubble, the notions surrounding the social possibilities of computing and computer networking begun by Stewart Brand and his countercultural colleagues had become so ingrained with the New Communalist notions of tool use and indivual consciousness, that the dot-com collapse could not shake them. New Communalists had succeed in fusing a collaborative tradition found within the hierarchical military-industrial complex with their individualistic search for alternative communities. Coming as it did at the right place and the right time, propelled by a clever and entrepreneurial node in the network in the form of Stewart Brand, the ethos of New Communalism counterculture fused with a subculture of the military/industrial culture to form a vision and a practice of cyberspace that might otherwise have been—and indeed might still otherwise become—quite different.

This intriguing book has been well-reviewed, and rightly so. The author has successfully melded anthropological, historical, cultural, and a degree of spatial/geographical, insight into a convincing study of the impact of a countercultural movement which has been taken for dead or irrelevant in many circles. The notion of a clever, thoughtful, and entrepreneurial individual’s influence as a node in a network fits well into contemporary thinking and seems to be very relevant to Brand and his impact. However, from this book alone it is difficult to see what other streams of thought might have contributed to the development of the utopian ideal of digital culture. The impact of Tim Berners-Lee, the rise of the open access movement in the field of information, the open-source coding movement, the information superhighway ideals of Al Gore, the concerns about the Digital Divide, for instance, find no place in this consideration of digital utopianism. Although Silicon Valley and San Francisco Bay form an important node in the digital network, this is not the only place where ideals of digital utopianism might be found. Did these other ideals have no impact on Brand or on the development of digital utopianism in the Bay area? Are New Communalism and scientific collaboration the only wellsprings of digital utopianism? It is to be hoped that this book will inspire other attempts to understand the utopian streams in the digital world; there are more waiting to be examined.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Guest Speaker: Gina Neff

In her articles, Neff notes that personal innovation and creativity shaped the creation of the internet and cyberspace. She describes the earlier forms of cyberculture, as observed in the social networking of workers in New York City's Silicon Alley. All of Neff's articles represent a few of the many stages of the social history of information.

The Changing Place of Cultural Production: Locating Social Networks in a Digital Media Industry, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 597 (2005): 134-152.

Several scholars have suggested that networks increase workers' mobility within industries that rely on network forms of organization, and regional networks may substitute for types of workforce support that used to be found within organizations, such as internal labor markets, job training, and job security (137-8).

  • Silicon Alley's tech workers had the same job security as low-end service workers. Why was individual recognition and social networking so important to these workers that they were willing to tradeoff more traditional forms of support?

Regionally based networks encourage collaborative practices across and within organizations, help diffuse continually changing technical information, and build environments of innovation that provide positive economic externalities for firms and workers (138).

  • The dotcom crash signaled a re-development of the technical industry and corporate culture moved back to the foreground of the economy. Can creativity and an independent culture truly compete in a capitalistic market?

The parties and nightlife of Silicon Alley helped to constitute the production of the industry, not the other way around (140).

  • What other forms of networking have emerged among tech workers that have shaped our understanding of new media?

Entrepreneurial Labor among Cultural Producers: “Cool” Jobs in “Hot” Industries, Social Semiotics, 15 (2005): 307-334, with Elizabeth Wissinger & Sharon Zukin.

An unappreciated dimension of the impact of one relatively small sector of the overall economy is that work in culture industries has cultural value: the industry is "hot," and the jobs are "cool" (310).

  • What is it about these new media jobs that makes them so alluring and why are workers so willing to take risks in order to achieve such a position? What are the tradeoffs for "cool" jobs? Who ultimately benefits from such risk-taking: corporations or workers?

Permanently Beta: Responsive Organization in the Internet Era, in Philip Howard and Steve Jones, eds., Society Online: The Internet in Context, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2003, pp 173–188, with David Stark.

Permanently beta would be a product that never leaves the test phase. The internet makes it possible to distribute products that are continually updateable and almost infinitely customizable-- products that, in effect, never leave a type of beta phase (177).

  • What shift in cultural values accompanied the commercialization of the internet?

Monday, March 26, 2007

Education for technology labor

Two readings this week, broadly speaking, consider the racialized science of management. In “The Anxious Engineer,” Amy Slaton explores how the seemingly value-neutral field of engineering, one of many educational enterprises, is related to strengthening or correcting social stratifications. If engineering schools can strengthen or weaken social stratifications, they are not only educational institutions, but also centers of social business in which minority inclusion – or exclusion – is carried out. Two cases – the University of Illinois and Prairie View University’s Center for Applied Radiation Research (CARR) – exemplify this point. Though the University of Illinois accepted minority students – African-Americans and Latinos – based on the idea of educational equity, the school hesitated to provide remedial coursework for those minority students with insufficient math skills. Thus, though the school lowered entrance standards, it did not couple this measure with corresponding changes in curriculum, consequently resulting in the exclusion of minority students from the field of engineering. In contrast, CARR produced increasing numbers of minority PhD students in the engineering field, supported by NASA’s flexible definition of productivity.

In “The Work of Corporate Culture,” Avery Gordon explores the racialized science of management in corporative settings, focusing on its ahistorical framing of race and gender issues. At base, Gordon situates the issue of diversity management in the context of the changing social contracts of the 20th century, in which the function of the state is transferred to private enterprise as a result of the development of capitalism. Diversity management in corporations is, in essence, “capitalist management,” in which maximizing profit is the only goal. In this context, Gordon argues, diversity management “upholds and defends systems that produce racializing effects,” though it rejects discrimination on the basis of race or color. He calls this new type of management “liberal racism,” which is an “antiracist attitude that coexists with support for racist outcomes” (p. 17). However, he does not specify or give the evidence of “racist outcomes” in corporations. It seems that he focuses more on ‘who’ manages for ‘what’, and what is maintained by diversity management, than on what they manage. Thus, it appears that his distrust of the managerialism on which hegemonic blocks lean in order to maintain their social status leads him to further suspicion of one of managerialism’s variations, i.e., diversity management.

Discussion questions

1. Amy Slaton appears to argue that racial inclusion (i.e., equity) should be seriously considered in the production of even high-tech engineers. Do you agree with her argument? If you were in a position to screen students applying to engineering school, which criteria would you give more weight – race and gender or skills required and background knowledge?

2. Is education’s primary social function to maintain the status quo (functioning as one of the ideological apparatuses as Louis Althusser argued) or to reform society? Engineering education is somewhat related to the distribution of technology. If this distribution excludes certain social groups and in doing so perpetuates social stratification, technology is also somewhat related to solidification of the status quo. Is the purpose of technology to maintain social structure or to transform it (as exemplified in the digital divide debate)?

3. If the establishment of a classification system implicates serious political concerns as Geoffrey Bowker argued, removal of a certain classification system must include political dimensions as well. Do you find any removal of an existing classification system in diversity management? If so, what is the political implication of such a removal?

4. It appears that ‘effectiveness’ governs the development of any technology. What other factors can we identify in the development of technology according to Amy Slaton’s article?

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Thoughts and Questions for Tuesday

Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star, Sorting Things Out

Thoughts and questions for Tuesday’s class.

This very rich and deep book invites readers to consider the infrastructures of information—the often invisible or unexamined structures of categorization and classification that underlie and affect many aspects of the perceived world and its participants. The authors use as their examples the classification of diseases and mortality, of nursing practice, and of race, drawing out the impact of classification not only upon individuals and populations, but also the conflicts and changes that arise when classifications extend across various groups, and the role of classification in the development of a profession such as nursing. They note the tensions in classification at the sites of conflict in medicine and society, such as AIDS, abortion and stillbirth. They touch as well upon the importance of classification in remembering/forgetting, and in the interstices, silences, and human cost when classifications fail.

The authors suggest that classification is part of a “built moral environment”—here is what struck me as the core of the argument : “The importance lies in a fundamental rethinking of the nature of information systems. We need to recognize that all information systems are necessarily infused with ethical and political values, modulated by local administrative procedures. These systems are active creators of categories in the world as well as simulators of existing categories”……

Questions: How are information systems infused with values? Where do these values come from? What is the interplay between administrative procedures and values? Can we relate this interrelationship to any of the other reading we have done so far, such as the development of information technology before the computer? Or the development of contemporary information technology? What kind of role do information work and workers play in this “built moral environment.”

On a more mundane level, Bowker and Star offer a definition of categorization/classification that we might want to examine: In relation to developing their analysis of classifications as a co-construction of nature and society, they distinguish between prototype and Aristotelian classifications. Prototype classifications are fuzzy, involving a broad picture, and they involve extensions by metaphor and analogy as we try to decide if something is part of this classification. Aristotelian classification works according to a binary set of characteristics that the object being classified either possess or does not possess.

Questions: how important/ useful are these distinctions? Do these differences alter or affect the idea of classification as part of a built moral environment? Can we provide examples of these distinctions beyond those provided by Bowker and Star? If so, can we describe a co-creation such as that suggested by Bowker and Star?

Well, that is a beginning.. add more if you'd like to. Barbara

Sunday, March 04, 2007

From Betamax to Blockbuster

The tool, The Artisans, and The Invisible Hand of the Market.

Greenberg tells the story of how the mediators — film lovers, VCR aficionados, and the business that they helped shape — often considered passive actors in the realm of technological development, played a major role in the story of the video business. The title itself, very succinct and meaningful, points to where everything started and what it became.

There are several questions that come up from reading Greenberg's book. Most interestingly, we have already discussed many of them in our previous meetings, although under different perspectives. In a way, "From Betamax to Blockbuster" illustrates what we have otherwise discussed in a theoretical perspective. I have particularly focused in some aspects that relate
to our previous discussions. For instance:

1. In the introduction, the author mentions some of the theories of mass communication and what they focused on. Later, he points out that "if we are to take the perspective that the history of a technology is essentially the history of knowledge-production about that technology, then it seems natural to look not merely at its producers and consumers, but at the spaces in between them through which such knowledge is mediated." (p. 9) How does this relate to the spaces defined by Castells? To what extent is the action happening in such spaces able to cause change and affect the decision-making process in the two different poles of the process?

2. Talking about the video rental stores, Greenberg starts by quoting Oldenburg's "Third Spaces" definition. He goes on to say that "over time, video stores became known as repositories of film knowledge, and at moments video clerks found themselves in the role of reference librarians" (p. 149) Were they the same as the 'guilds'? Was their strategic position as intermediators not only of the content (the movies) but also the technology something that would give them a special status in that segment of the society? (Greenberg has his view of this, but what do you think?)

3. "Having moved from a view of the history of technology that is about the production of artifacts to one that focuses on the production of knowledge about the nature and use of those artifacts (essentially studying ideas rather than things per se), the question of whom should figure as protagonists becomes problematic. One response shared by many sociologists of technology is that we should focus on 'relevant social groups,' those groups of social actors (bound together by a common identity) who have the skills and credibility to define the cultural meanings of a technology." (p. 8) How does that relate to the idea that "technology is socially shaped"? (p. 50 of Modernity and Technology) Can you think of some products that were initially designed for one thing and ended up becoming something completely different? Bring examples of such products and their respective turning points to the discussion!

Videophiles: an example of pre-internet community?

4. About the videophiles: "...usually male, 21 to 39 years old, often single (because they spend so much time with their machines they have little time left to be sociable), rarely look the way they sound on the phone, rarely sound the way they write…are hospitable, trustworthy, generally reliable, and all have enormous telephone bills!" (p.28). Any similarities to the web addicts of our days? Differences? What do you think fuel the differences?

5. The videophile community: "
Ultimately, there was only so much that an individual videophile could tape on his or her own, and video enthusiasts quickly realized that their results would be far better if they pooled their efforts."
(p. 33) Also: "
As a social practice, the general protocol for trading was straightforward whether in person or by mail (…). Thewhole system was held together by good will..." (p. 37) What are the similarities between their community and those of AOL? What are the main aspects that make this community different from the virtual ones?

Although these questions are based in the chapters assigned for this week, I would wholeheartedly recommend reading through the book. It's the result of a thorough investigation of the story of the VCR and the social events that surrounded it, told as one would tell a love story, regardless of the ending. (That's my opinion, feel free to comment/disagree/etc)

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Discussion for Jim Cortada Week

To recap, the James Cortada articles for this week discussed the integration of the computer chip and the computer in the United States as well as the effect this had on the country in the latter half of the 20th century. Additionally, the two readings related to The Digital Hand: How Information Technology Changed the Way Industries Worked in the United States discussed the impact of the computer, the computer chip, and related technologies on industry and society.

Progenitors of the information age: The development of chips and computers

Cortada looks at the development of the transistor and the integrated circuit as being an important lens to understand the United States from the 1940s to present. His chapter begins with AT&T sharing the rights and knowledge to create transistors and moves on to a discussion about how this has effected and changed (or not changed) the United States in both the government and industrial sector.

An interesting section of this chapter ties in with our past discussion of Chris Benner’s Computers in the Wild. Cortada mentions that an important component of chip development was the proximity of developers working together, the idea that ‘everyone knew everyone else,’ and their ability to move from job to job without physically relocating. He then goes on to state that the industry burgeoned and expanded rapidly to the rest of the country from its initial foundations.

Q. Does this add more or less credibility to Benner’s thoughts on Guilds and Professional Organizations as New Unionism? Is it possible that the ‘guilds’ are a transitory entity in an undeveloped industry?

Cortada ends his chapter with a passage about American ideology and technological growth.

  1. Computers are central to a reformed world.

  2. Improved computers can help reform society even more.

  3. More computers are better than few; there are no limits to how much is good.

  4. Nobody loses, everyone wins; in the worst case, it is neutral or apolitical.

  5. Those who resist computerization are hostile to social reforms.

Q. How accurate is Cortada’s depiction of this American ideology? If accurate, how does this effect decision making in industry, government, and at the academic level? What could be some of the possible negative effects of following this ideology?

Chapter 9 of the Digital Hand: Digital Applications in Higher Education

Cortada describes the applications of IT in administration, teaching, research, and libraries. He states that IT has had marginally less effect on academia than in industry and government even though the academic community has invested major time and effort into their IT infrastructures.

Q. Cortada quotes a university professor as saying “the problem is that the academic culture and the IT culture simply do not mix together well.” What are some examples of this? Is this an accurate statement?

Q. Cortada mentions that research is the main area where IT has dramatically changed academic life. He also states that science and engineering are heavily funded and that new disciplines, like bioinformatics, were in part shaped by the new access to technology. How has the type of research that IT encourages effected the way that we look at our world? When problems are simply 'atomized' by the binary logic of computer chips, what does this mean for scholars with a more holistic approach to research?

Q. According to Cortada, librarians have embraced “every new form of information technology that came along.” In Cortada's discussion of industry, being the first adopter of a new technology has had added benefits for competition. Is the same true for libraries and academia? By adopting new technologies, have libraries and librarians given themselves an advantage similar to the early adopters in industry?

Q. Cortada argues that IT has not fundamentally changed academia at the institutional level. Can we think of examples or instances where this might not be an accurate statement? Has IT only been used as a tool to support the underlying structure of academia?

The Digital Hand: How Information Technology Changed the Way Industries Worked in the United States

In this overview of The Digital Hand, Cortada discusses the research questions he was trying to answer as well as key findings. He also discusses how he acquired his archival materials and his research methods.

Q. The idea of a 'tribal' firm is discussed and is used as an organizing principle of the book. What exactly is a 'tribal' firm? How do these tribes come into existence, and what impact does this have on the way that individuals view industry and individual firms?

Q. Standardization and regulation are central themes in the book. How does standardization effect entry into industries, and how does this hinder or help competition? Relatedly, Cortada speaks of the competitive advantage of being the first adapter of a technology. If standardization is key to IT in industry, does the early adapters have the ability to create a standard that will allow them to wield power over industry in the future?

Q. Finally, Cortada states that he is surprised that flows are more important to understanding industry than the technical aspects of the technology themselves. How does this relate to our past discussions, especially pertaining to Manuel Castells? What does this mean for our previous discussion about defining technologies?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Podcasts and a photo now on our web site

Check out the hastily-edited podcasts of Nathan's interview (thanks, Anna) and public talk, posted to the regular course web site under the entry for his week. Should be accessible to anyone within the UW-Madison network, or who uses a UW-Madison netid login remotely.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Chess Players, Music-lovers, and Mathematicians

Finding a way to pigeon-hole programmers into a set of questions and personality tests to weed out other perhaps better programers speaks to a way of narrowing a new field. By doing this these hiring companies/government can exclude otherwise perfectly qualified people i.e. women in this field. THe other interesting section aside from programmers finding their 'place' in this field (professional or technical?) is the struggle between theory at the university and the technical schools that had popped up in this emmerging field. How is this struggle still playing out in the field?
Also when I was reading this chapter I was thinking of my programmer friends, all composers or musicians, highly creative and they all complain about their colleauges lack of social skills.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Labor of Computer Programming

Questions for discussion:

Historicizing the labor of computer programming, Nathan Ensmenger traces a power struggle between programmers, who occupy a new category of information labor in the 1950s, and the corporate structures of organizational management that were transformed with the introduction of electronic digital computers. He explores a number of key issues and concerns, such as:

  • The conflict between craft-centered practices of programmers and the “scientifically” oriented management techniques of their corporate managers
  • The changing visions of computing that helped transform computers from calculators to business machines, and the necessary labor requirements needed for this transformation to take place
  • The struggle over occupational categories (programming is considered at different moments clerical, analytical, technical, creative, and [potentially] professional) and how this affects the balance of power in corporate organizational structures
  • The construction of the “software crisis”—in terms of personnel problems, highly publicized software disasters, and difficulty recruiting “quality” programmers (itself an elusive characteristic)—as a development that prompted the re-negotiation of the computer programmers proper place in corporate and professional hierarchies
  • The role of professionalization in attempting to solidify job security, professional status, and authority for programmers (and interestingly adopted by managers as well, who embraced this as a business-like perspective on the computer skills market)
  • The lengthy debates and techniques concerning how to identify which aptitudes were essential to good programming and “high quality individuals”

With these in mind, I put together a few questions for our discussion this week (a challenging task considering that Prof. Ensmenger will be joining us). Hopefully these will get our conversation going:

1. Creative Labor vs. Information Labor

Q: One of the key cultural stereotypes that emerged with the computer programmer was an emphasis on individual creativity. “Creative work… just cannot be managed,” one report concluded. What are some characteristics that distinguish creative labor from information labor? How are they different, or in what ways is there some overlap? What are the implications of this distinction for studying information workers?

Creative labor is a kind of information work… but is it (or should it be) treated as a different beast entirely?

And a question I would be interested in asking Prof. Ensmenger: how do these struggles and categorizations of labor impact the types of programs that are created? Is there a dominant programming aesthetic that emerges in different historical moments in response to power shifts within organizational structures?

2. Role of Occupational Categories and Occupational Identity

Q: Ensmenger describes early demarcations between coders (clerical work that requires little conscientious precision) and programmers (analytical work that implies a higher level of thinking and management), but then explains how these boundaries were eroded over time. Programmers, he explains, are neither laborers nor professionals; they defy occupational categorization. How do different groups use occupational categories as a way to jockey for power within organizational structures? Why does Ensmenger find it most useful to think about the computer programmer as a technician? How does gender figure into these analytic categories?

3. Historicizing the Labor of Computer Programming and Software

Q: The IRSH reading begins by pointing out that computer programmers represent a perplexing problem for historians because we know so little about who they were, where they came from, or what their daily work lives were like. Compared with the detailed letters, documents, and public records that Rosenhaft was able to draw on in her account of Anton Dies, computer programmers of the 1950s are made visible in Ensmenger’s account largely through the management literature which is very critical of the authority and power that programmers were able to command. What kind of methodological challenges does this pose in trying to understand the labor of programming from the perspective of those workers? How does this color the kind of narratives that get produced? How can historians best cope with these gaps? Are there any unconventional sources that we might be able to turn to in order to get a sense of these missing voices and perspectives?

4. Micro, Macro, Meso Revisited

Q: Is this a meso analysis? (a la Paul Edwards in his essay “Infrastructure and Modernity”). How might Ensmenger’s accounts of the labor of programming be critiqued from the perspectives introduced in Modernity and Technology? Can the notion of infrastructure be used to understand these developments, and if so, how?

Monday, February 12, 2007

Uncovering Labor in Information Revolutions


Aad Blok begins our analyses of information revolutions by calling our attention to an often overlooked factor with ICT study: labor. Research and literature usually focus on the “information” or the “technology” sides of the revolution, while the work implicated within such phenomena goes unnoticed (with the exception of notable innovators or inventors).

Therefore Blok and Downey take labor to be the unit of analysis within information revolutions and propose three framing questions:

  1. what is the role and position of labor within the information revolution?
  2. what are the implications of these IT revolutions for labor?
  3. how have the spatial and temporal divisions of labor changed with temporal and spatial changes in capitalism enabled by technology, particularly with regard to globalization?

Within these questions we can see the influence of an STS approach that emphasizes the mutual shaping of labor and information technology. It is not a one-directional process of cause and effect.

Hands and Minds: Clerical Work in the First “Information Society”

Rosenhalf tells the story of eighteenth-century German clerical workers whose labor is qualitatively affected by an increase in the amount of required data processing. In these cases, workers experienced great mental stress and physical injury as they struggled to keep up with the growing number of pension cases. The troubling aspect from a Marxist perspective is that they were given no additional compensation for the demand of greater work productivity.

Q: Is this a classic case of capital-labor exploitation? In what ways would advances in technology at the time mitigated this exploitation?

If we consider the relationship between labor, technology, and information in the case of the pension clerks, we can see how an increase in information processes outstripped both the labor and technology of the time. As a reader on the edge of my seat, I cry out, “Oh, won’t someone please give poor Anton Dies a copy of Microsoft Xcel to help him make his calculations!?!”

Q: How may the need brought about by increased information processes driven the technological developments that led to such accounting software?

ICT, Containerization and International Shipping Labour

Sampson and Wu bring us into international shipping to consider the ways in which advances in technology have changed the work of various sectors of industry. Being driven by the capitalist logic of efficiency and productivity, the implementation of new technologies throughout the industry has speeded up many processes. This is a mixed blessing, however. While this may mean less time adrift at sea for sailors, it also means less time anchored in port. The authors also cite examples of changes in the social relations of production, such as in the Tetra terminal where dock workers no longer interact with sea staff. Furthermore, the analysis shows how innovation and technology do not necessarily change privilege along lines of division of labor, as in the case of only certain crew members having access to Internet aboard the ships and wealthier crew mates being less negatively affected by the distance from port to city center.

Q: Throughout the discussion, we read of instances and fears of machines taking away or deskilling jobs, making the work more mundane. Are these not the echoes of Marx’s theory whereby the cycles of innovation contribute to increased alienation of workers (eventually leading to the rise of consciousness)?

Q: While interesting and poignant, does Sampson and Wu’s article err toward a more technological determinist description of these processes? It is clear that innovation and technology “impact” the shipping industry in a number of ways. But in what way is the design, use, and interpretation of these innovations shaped by the people working with them? Where is the “interpretive flexibility” within these technologies?

Unionism in the Information Revolution

Benner discusses of the formation of “guilds” within Silicon Valley’s high-tech industry. He describes the formation of new cooperatives of skilled technology workers organizing to share knowledge and strengthen their collective position in a quickly changing labor market. The distinct nature of IT work in this time and place calls for arrangements between workers that professional organizations and unions can not facilitate. The guilds offer an alternative, though remain isolated and less powerful than their counterparts.

Q: How are these guilds different than other online communities of IT enthusiasts, other than that the people actually meet in person? What is the significance of actually meeting together, versus simply web blogging and chatting?

Q: How can such guilds begin to build alliances and strengthen their position within the workforce?

The Case of America Online Volunteers

Postigo writes about the AOL volunteers who helped pioneer America’s introduction to cyberspace, and their spiteful abandonment by the company. This article raises an interesting notion of work being multidimensional and including volunteerism, leisure, and hobbies. The lines between work and these other practices blur within the case of the web and cyberspace, as people engage with the Internet out of fascination and an ethic of knowledge sharing and technical development. Of course, this story has an unhappy ending when corporate need for profitability helps reify a distinction between work (paid, official, and sanctioned) and non-work (denied access and then invisible).

Q: The ethic of volunteerism and knowledge sharing continues strongly on the Internet through the Open Source movement and many useful websites and blogs. Is it inimical to this movement for AOL volunteers to be leveling a lawsuit that may undermine the value of these underlying principles at the expense of more material work-value ideology?

The Place of Labor and Information-Technology Revolutions

Downey reiterates our need to consider labor as a unit of analysis in IT revolutions before problematizing our conception of “revolution” by considering a historical account of various advancements in technology (some of which had far-reaching effects for capitalism and globalization, while others did not). He then challenges some normative assumptions about IT and labor. (note: do people really wonder why the Internet didn’t make work more efficient? Have they seen Google Earth!? I haven’t gotten any work done since it was released …).

Downey goes on to offer 4 dialectical themes that may facilitate making labor more visible within our analyses and discussions of ICT revolutions. He ends with the hope that critical historical narratives will help the history of IT inform societal change.

Q: How to define a revolution? Does it need to fundamentally alter the structure of society or the economy? On a time-scale, at what point does an evolution become a revolution? How fast does it need to happen? If, as Harvey suggests, we’re experiencing a time-space compression, is today’s evolution yesterday’s revolution?

Q: How does a geographic awareness (of space/time transformations, for example) enhance our understandings of ICTs? Why are geographers so awesome?

Q: Why do historians dislike normative assumptions? Is there any room within historical analysis for normative statements at all, and if not, is that a disconnect between historiography and the situated epistemologies of particular identities and movements that are invested in politics?