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.