Digifesto

Category: ischool

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Beniger on anomie and technophobia

The School of Information Classics group has moved on to a new book: James Beniger’s 1986 The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society. I’m just a few chapters in but already it is a lucid and compelling account of how the societal transformations due to information technology that are announced bewilderingly every decade are an extension of a process that began in the Industrial Revolution and just has not stopped.

It’s a dense book with a lot of interesting material in it. One early section discusses Durkheim’s ideas about the division of labor and its effect on society.

In a nutshell, the argument is that with industrialization, barriers to transportation and communication break down and local markets merge into national and global markets. This induces cycles of market disruption where because producers and consumers cannot communicate directly, producers need to “trust to chance” by embracing a potentially limitless market. This creates and unregulated economy prone to crisis. This sounds a little like venture capital fueled Silicon Valley.

The consequence of greater specialization and division of labor is a greater need for communication between the specialized components of society. This is the problem of integration, and it affects both the material and the social. The specifically, the magnitude and complexity of material flows result in a sharpening division of labor. When properly integrated, the different ‘organs’ of society gain in social solidarity. But if communication between the organs is insufficient, then the result is a pathological breakdown of norms and sense of social purpose: anomie.

The state of anomie is impossible wherever solidary organs are sufficiently in contact or sufficiently prolonged. In effect, being continguous, they are quickly warned, in each circumstance, of the need which they have of one another, and, consequently, they have a lively and continuous sentiment of their mutual dependence… But, on the contrary, if some opaque environment is interposed, then only stimuli of a certain intensity can be communicated from one organ to another. Relations, being rare, are not repeated enough to be determined; each time there ensues new groping. The lines of passage taken by the streams of movement cannot deepen because the streams themselves are too intermittent. If some rules do come to constitute them, they are, however, general and vague.

An interesting question is to what extent Beniger’s thinking about the control revolution extend to today and the future. An interesting sub-question is to what extent Durkheim’s thinking is relevant today or in the future. I’ll hazard a guess that’s informed partly by Adam Elkus’s interesting thoughts about pervasive information asymmetry.

An issue of increasing significance as communication technology improves is that the bottlenecks to communication become less technological and more about our limitations as human beings to sense, process, and emit information. These cognitive limitations are being overwhelmed by the technologically enabled access to information. Meanwhile, there is a division of labor between those that do the intellectually demanding work of creating and maintaining technology and those that do the intellectually demanding work of creating and maintaining cultural artifacts. As intellectual work demands the specialization of limited cognitive resources, this results in conflicts of professional identity due to anomie.

Long story short: Anomie is why academic politics are so bad. It’s also why conferences specializing in different intellectual functions can harbor a kind of latent animosity towards each other.

POSSE homework: how to contribute to FOSS without coding

One of the assignments for the POSSE workshop is the question of how to contribute to FOSS when you aren’t a coder.

I find this an especially interesting topic because I think there’s a broader political significance to FOSS, but those that see FOSS as merely the domain of esoteric engineers can sometimes be a little freaked out by this idea. It also involves broader theoretical questions about whether or how open source jives with participatory design.

In fact, they have compiled a list of lists of ways to contribute to FOSS without coding: this, this, this, and this are provided in the POSSE syllabus.

Turning our attention from the question in the abstract, we’re meant to think about it in the context of our particular practices.

For our humanitarian FOSS project of choice, how are we interested in contributing? I’m fairly focused in my interests on open source participation these days: I’m very interested in the problem of community metrics and especially how innovation happens and diffuses within these communities. I would like to be able to build a system for evaluating that kind of thing that can be applied broadly to many projects. Ideally, it could do things like identify talented participants across multiple projects, or suggest interventions for making projects work better.

It’s an ambitious research project, but one for which there is plenty of data to investigate from the open source communities themselves.

What about teaching a course on such a thing? I anticipate that my students are likely to be interested in design as well as positioning their own projects within the larger open source ecosystem. Some of the people who I hope will take the class have been working on FuturePress, an open source e-book reading platform. As they grow the project and build the organization around it, they will want to be working with constituent technologies and devising a business model around their work. How can a course on Open Collaboration and Peer Production support that?

These concerns touch on so many issues outside of the consideration of software engineering narrowly (including industrial organization, communication, social network theory…) that it’s daunting to try to fit it all into one syllabus. But we’ve been working on one that has a significant hands-on component as well. Really I think the most valuable skill in the FOSS world is having the chutzpah to approach a digital community, propose what you are thinking, and take the criticism or responsibility that comes with that.

What concrete contribution a student uses to channel that energy should…well, I feel like it should be up to them. But is that enough direction? Maybe I’m not thinking concretely enough for this assignment myself.