Gina Neff - Working in the "dot coms"

Gina takes an interesting line of analysis into the economic implications of the IT transition in society. After a detailed sociological investigation in the dot com boom of "Silicon Ally" in New York City, she proposes the notion of "venture labor" to capture the attitudes and worldview of people who investigated great amounts of energy and time into start up companies with little guarantee of return. The idea of such a worker resonates with the more flexible and potentially disposable nature of psot-Fordist economies.

The term venture labor nicely illustrates the conversion of labor to capital (and visa versa). Does the IT transition herald an increasingly commodified labor source, whereby labor is as equally as an investment as capital?


Underrepresented Minorities in America's Technical Workforce

Amy Slaton, "The Anxious Engineer" (2007) -- Dr. Slaton addresses the challenging task of increasing the representation of minority students in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields. While many point to a problem in the so-called pipeline and call for more attention to disadvantaged students earlier in their K-12 education, Slaton focuses on the role university departments play. One stumbling block to addressing the issue at the university level is deficiencies many underrepresented students have when being admitted into collegiate programs. The time and cost of remedial instruction to help play catch up has traditionally been met with resistance because of threats to the prestige of the institution and expectations of students, parents, administrators, and the societal workforce. Slaton suggests that for universities to seriously tackle the issue, they may need to undergo a thorough transformation in current models of success and time expectations. This involves a decoupling of the pace of research from the merits of the cognitive work being achieved.

While this may sound benign, it's actually revolutionary, challenging core fundamentals of traditional power structures within academic science and engineering.

Why should we spend time and energy to increase the representation of minorities in STEM fields? Answers to these questions typically fall along at least one of three lines, depending on which audience the persuasion is being directed (and persuasion is necessary, as the inclusion of minorities within STEM has not come without a struggle):
  1. equality of opportunity
  2. because the STEM workforce can not be filled by white males alone, therefore minorities and women are need to fill this role as well
  3. because diverse perspectives will help further the goals of scientific inquiry and technical innovation
I'm left wondering which reasons underpin Slaton's analysis. Surprisingly she makes a brief dismissal of the third reason in her conclusion, noting that such rhetoric attributes varied cognitive and creative contributions to the respective underrepresented persons. However, I don't see it necessarily positing essential qualities to a particular racial or gendered type. Rather, we can draw upon notions of situated knowledge, marginalized perspectives, or standpoint theory (and yes, here's where the calls of essentialism begin to bellow up) to validate some of the difference diversity allows for scientific discussion hitherto dominated by one particular cultural position. This difference is what will change the nature of science, and by necessity, will change the social relations and institutional nature of how it's practiced (including the academic setting in addition to the laboratory).

Equality of opportunity alone is not enough to move beyond what Avery Gorden refers to as liberal racism ("The Work of Corporate Culture: Diversity Management," 1995). It simply admits the previously unauthorized to participate in a system without changing that system or acknowledging that changing the system is indeed part of the goal of inclusion.


James Cortada and the The labor of computing

Dr. Cortada writes about his analyis of how the use of IT transforms American companies and industries. He looked at 35-40 different industries (including education and governmental work) to derive several conclusions:
  • different industries do not work in isolation, but learn from eachother
  • new IT was implemented incrementally to lower operating costs and improve interenal business operations
  • the use of happened concurrently with fashionable managerial practices
  • by the end of the 1980s, suppliers, producers, and customers were more integrated
  • firms and industries have moved into an undefined style of operation profoudly affected by technology
  • industries resemble ecosystems through homogenous uses of technology
Cortada's summary is interesting, though many of these findings seem fairly unsurprising. For those of us who grew up in such technology, do we really need an in-depth historical analysis to tell us these things (particularly that managers embrace technology to increased speed and efficiency at the workplace)? Perhaps so.

In The Digital Hand Cortada raises some questions for future research. He is interested to extend his analysis beyond the US context to look at other countries' industries. I agree this is interesting, but is it assuming the nation-state as the predominant scale of interest, particularly given the reorganization of financial markets and flows across state boundaries (i.e. globalization)? Such a research study can benefit from also noting how industry adoption of IT practices associated with reterritorialization - deterritorialization of international business and trade.

In Digital Applications in Higher Education Cortada provides a thorough discussion of the history of IT adoption and use within institutions of higher learning. His descriptions tell of the trends within colleges and universities that were effected by advances in technology development and shifting attitudes by administrators, professors, and students.

One question I have with regard to this discussion: How does IT affect the traditionally vertical and departmental flow of money, resources, and power within these institutions? Does it reinforce the tension of turf and control between departments, or does it sometimes facilitate more interdisciplinary or cross-displinary work?


the labor of programming

The effect of information technology and the computer is huge, of course. In the words of some, it has "changed everything." Such change invariably disrupts traditional modes of organizing power and knowledge. Dr. Ensmenger provides insight into a particular element of this disruption: the status and nature of the computer programmer.

His analysis expanded my fairly narrow understanding of the programmer. From my childhood in the 1980s I've always understood programmers as "geeks" who weld a particularly valuable form of expertise. Consistent with Ensmenger's description, in my mind the status of the programmer is unique in that He(?) occupies an ambiguous space of respect but social awkwardness and eclecticism. My mental schema of this person is also very much influenced by the more recent tech boom of the late 1990s when programming, though considered very difficult to master, was a hot marketable career path.

The historical perspective recalls an interesting distinction between programmer and coder, a time when the rational, analytical men would do the thinking and the women who do the tedious labor. But this turned out to be a false distinction as the labor involved with these two sphere was
eventually accepted to be necessarily intertwined. I associate the former with the algorithm (a more top-down, big-picture problem-solving approach) and the latter as a heuristic (finding workable solutions on the fly to fix a specific problem). From what I understand programming involves some of both. Ensmenger's story relates how management unsuccessfully attempted to wrest control of the algorithm half of the craft.

What leaps out at me from this reading is the the evolution of the computer programmer along gender lines. I find it no coincidence that as the computer programmer struggled to define their craft as prestigious and scientific, the labor was no longer relegated to women. Yet these women had clearly been ingenious for a period of time in finding the workarounds. How was masculinity used to validate the computer programmer's position from the challenges posed by management, and in turn, shape the identity of the programmer in later decades?


Castells and the network society

Writing as a geographer, the notion of a new type of space is intrinsically interesting (as far as I can tell, geography seems to be quite similar other social sciences, but emphasizes space, place, scale, and a global-local dynamic). Castells proposes a transition from a space of place to a "space of flows" that produces coordinated flexible networks. This amounts to a new social organization of society and the institutionalization of instability ... a "normalized volatility."

Yet really whither place? Is it just in our academic analyses that we shift from place to flows? I am willing to give that a try for a while, if it indeed proves useful. But what about our experience of place, and our tendency to make place through daily narratives? Are we placeless, now that we've been integrated into these networks? I wonder if this distinction is a bit too strong. Perhaps what we're seeing is the shift from space of place to space of place-flows, whereby the meaning the place and how we imagine placeness now incorporates informationalism.

The suggestion that network society has dramatic implications for time ("timeless time") relates back to last week's discussions of modernity. Weber documented how new bureaucratic forms of rationalization contributed to a new mode of social life (modernity), among which was a changing sense of efficiency and time. Here we have a parallel analysis in that the new time regimes signal our transition into another mode of social life (a post-modern one, if you will).

One aspect of this literature that appeals greatly to my emerging analysis of on-demand and interactive web maps is the formulation of the new technological paradigm known as "informatinalism" (Stalder 28: 2006). For instance, the concept of recombination (the combination of different information into something new) relates to current advancements in mapping. This is evident in Google maps, for example, which are increasingly acting as an interface allowing the user to bring data from different sources into one place. Another example is the Travelosity DreamMap that uses the map as the front end for exploring a databse of airline fares. Such analysis is equally as informed by the notion of distributional flexibility, or the "endless reorganization of information flows." The ephemeral notion of on-demand maps assures the continual transfiguration of information representation and use.


modernity and technology : a dialogue

I: Modernity and technology ... what are we even talking about?

R: That's a fair question. And perhaps it has a fairly straightforward answer: We are considering the relationship between two sets of conditions or phenomena, and simultaneously, two sets of ideas that describe and explain those phenomena. Modernity is the set of historical conditions, and modernity theory is how we talk about those conditions. In a similar way, technology studies is how we talk about a set of conditions we call technology.

I: Sounds like you're making a distinction between ideas and reality. Are you relying on some sort of historical materialism for this?

R: Perhaps. Let's consider a four-way relationship. The trick is separating out the ideas from the "real" stuff, at least momentarily. On a material level we have a condition of modernity, the autonomous subject let's say, that is affected by a technology such as the computer. Suppose the computer requires a login name giving him a unique identifier, thus reinforcing his sense of individuality.

I: Remember the editors of Modernity and Technology emphasize the mutual co-construction of these ...

R: Yes of course. So how does this autonomous self in turn affect the computer? Well it's not a social computer, or a cooperative computer, is it? It's a personal computer. So we can consider the way the computer was imagined and designed as a consequence of individuality. It has one mouse, one keyboard, and although the GUI can be seen by others, it is really an individual who has control over it. But here we're already slipping between the idea and the material phenomenon. Was it the actual person who made it a personal computer? Or was it particular contingent characteristics of self-hood that were projected onto the technology ... and if so, how were these characteristics made real?

I: Through discourse?

R: Exactly. So we begin to develop a model whereby, yes ideas drive material reality and reality drives the ideas. But they are linked through discourse, which isn't an abstract or rationalized mode of communication ... but an embodied one influenced by values and meaning. Not only do the historical conditions of what's modern influence material technology ... but they influence how we talk about technology.

I: Which in turn influences both how technology is re-designed, in a materialist sense, and therefore the material conditions ...

R: AND, how we talk about modernity. Modernity Theory.

I: Whoof. And visa-verse. This is complex. So this what the entanglement of these two is all about?

R: They are indeed very entangled. But unfortunately in an unbalanced way. If I may, allow me to introduce another concept to further complicate matters. Epistemology is a fancy word philosophers use to talk about how we justify our claims to knowledge. There are many ways to demonstrate that what we know is true, or at least probable (or even useful) to believe. One way of doing this is through making an appeal to a larger, more encompassing set of beliefs, from which we can logically infer that we are justified in believing our bit of knowledge.

I: A theory?

R: Indeed, often using what's called deductive reasoning. Another way is to go out and look for evidence from which to build a case that what we believe is true. This is called empiricism and uses inductive reasoning to make inferences. As the authors of our esteemed book point out, our discussions of modernity have easily tended toward theorising, or highly-abstracted talk. But our discussions about technology have been grounded more in the empirical methods ... much less abstract and much more specific.

I: But isn't it difficult to generalize from these specific accounts about technology?

R: Yes, and sometimes unfair to apply a highly-generalized theory to a specific instance with many distinct properties. This is the point of departure for our authors' discussion.
The difficulty in considering the relationship between these two is how we get the top-down approach to meet the bottom-up somewhere in the middle. How we get them to dialogue with one another.

I: Well ... we're off to a good start.