Monday, April 30, 2007

Defense logic and urban development

This week's reading 'From Warfare to Welfare' is a historical tour through the process of how defense logics and the professionals behind it functioned as the foundations for modern urban development in US cities. She examines various layers ranging from City management and GIS to the 'wired city' concepts. She argues that the defense logics were the backbone of it, but also limits that they have not been the all-deciding force behind everything because a lot of them did not actually leave the planning stage and materialized. She continues that in the post 9/11 era (or even more so) this relationship has become once again evident.

It reminds me of the famous urban legend that the Internet itself was developed to maintain a military C4I system and win the World War even in case one of the major cities is blown away by Soviet nukes. Though nobody actually confirmed of proved it, it sounded so plausible because the ARPANET was funded by NASA and people easily tend to think that if the defense people are doing it, it must have some military purposes. However, as Light found out in many other aspects, it is not defense per se but the logic of defense mechanism, its money and above all the actual professionals that actually propelled them into that direction. In that sense, it is clearly another layer of hidden information labor.

A question that comes into my mind is, what other paths of urban development could have been taken if it were not the defense professionals who were in the planning roles? Or simply, what difference did they really make? I wish if there was a section that compared the modern urban developments influenced by defense mechanism and its professionals to the pre-WW developments that did not rely on those logics, which would have made the findings of this book clearer.

Another question is how the Information flow structure that the planners have been emphasizing has actually affected the work and life in those areas and how those phenomena have fed back to the planners on subsequent plans. Was the defense logic still persistent in all the subsequent corrections as well, or did they mix up with other logics (such as market needs) to become something hybrid and new? I haven't followed the literature on this field, and maybe somebody already answered those questions...

Monday, April 23, 2007

Thoughts on digital, sublime myths

(As posted in the main course blog)

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.

Monday, April 09, 2007

On Neff... the specturm and the grey area

In her papers, Neff talks about the social lives of the information labor, which is a unstable, high- stake, only-the-few-take-the-fame (and food) job. In Entrepreneurial Labor among Cultural Producers: “Cool” Jobs in “Hot” Industries, she and her collegues even compare the new media jobs to fashion models. The portfolio-centered nature of the jobs (which is made possible by communication networks as we have learned earlier in the semester with discussions on Castells) make the individual workers as the nodes, rather than placing them into a stable work organization. Also in the The Changing Place of Cultural Production: Locating Social Networks in a Digital Media Industry piece, the importance on social networks is further emphasized. Even the physical/local concentration are considered to be important to strengthen the network.

But one thing that keeps coming back to me is, whether this model can be applied to a wide array of information and new media labor rather than a small portion of elite(?) programmers dedicated to 'creative tasks'. Sure, there are the top portion geek heroes who can actually jump from here to there by each project they pursue. But for many others who are not on the creator but only on the 'administrative' level or below, it isn't the case. For them, the whole idea of the 'cool' job only threatens the job security they need. I think more focus should be shed on the fine spectrum of jobs and their interests inside the scope of new media jobs.

In a similar vein, I also couldn't agree with the dichotomy between 'participant' permanent beta model and 'consumer' traditional model in the Permanently Beta: Responsive Organization in the Internet Era article. Because I see everyday a vast grey area between them. For example, the product itself may be in a permanently beta status, but for the average user it is simply the 'most current version' (moreover, Microsoft has already proven that even an "end product" intended solely to be consumed can be in a permanent beta stage by releasing crappy OS' and making you download endless patches). I think the spectrum of the various jobs, and the loss they would suffer if the discursive focus was fixed on only one side should be explored more in detail.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Hiding racism in the workplace

The main premise of the two articles are, that the seemingly equality-seeking practices of the professional fields are in other ways enhancing the inequality. Amy Slaton takes engineering education as the case where the UIC accepted minority students inclusively for entrance, but systematically excluded them from becoming professionals by not changing the existing standards in the curriculum. Though the justification for such open exntrance policy was to have more variety and thus train more competent professionals, it turned out the opposite. In Avery Gordon's piece, he criticizes the 'diversity management' practice in the corporate 'culture', which was a shift from the previous affirmative action paradigm. Though this paradigm was implemented to overcome affirmative action's limits such as the assimilation rule, it shows its own limits by assuming that diversity can be managed, and ultimately justifying racist outcomes such as stereotyping as well as a return to assimilation.

In any case, the very effort of the management or institution to separate unequal conditions such as race, class and gender actually contribute to strengthening it by making it look 'neutral' - and by this, hiding the clearly existing connections. This premise is linked to the main argument of this class: the need to uncover hidden systems in labor. Complicated as it may be, the stratifications among various lines and the interaction among them that result in inequity should be revealed, acknowledged and remedied as it is.

However, balacing it out with the professional need for efficiency is another thing. As mentioned in the texts, even equality is only pursued in those fields because it contributes for more (sometimes long-run) efficiency. How can be the uncoveing of hidden labor practices and systems be justified in terms of efficiency? Or how can it replace that firmly existing discourse? A large question to ask, but a crucial problem to think of if these discussions are to spread beyond the academic table.

Monday, March 19, 2007

On Sorting Things Out...

Bowker and Star's emphasis on the importance of categorization in Sorting Things Out reminded me strongly of Foucault's description on the history of 'madness'. The power to name things is the first step for control, and thus it is important to look into the history of the knowledge to uncover the truth about the governance structure we are embedded in. In his vein, the authors argue that categorization is ubiquitous and crucial in the human society (And indeed, formal knowledge in our modern westernized world is all about classification). In part I, they go over the system and history of ICD in great lengths to prove this point, while in part IV they cover the actual work of categorization. Ironically, the main argument of the authors is that those categories are never as solid or uniform as they seem.

One interesting thing that struck me the most is the crucial role invisibility of the classification work plays in the power of the categories. In the various 'hidden' labor we have been dealing with during this semester, their labor was hidden for the benefit of the others. However, in this case the classification labor can benefit itself by staying in the shadow. The more hidden it stays, the more power the classification gets, so to say. But what about the struggle to bulid new standards of classification? I would assert that a challenging party gains more power by publicly uncovering the hidden classifications. Is it the dynamic that the once the challenging classification chooses to go back to the shadows after it has become the leading principle?

Also, the notion of the Aristotelean and prototypical categories was a intersting subject. Though we imagine to achieve the former, the actual outcomes are closer to the latter. One thing, though, I would like to ask is how the prototypes are set. Aren't the prototypes actually some forms of ideals that have sprung out from relational concepts, as the French structualists have argued? It sounds like a chicken-and-egg problem, but maybe the real important thing is that the very aspiration of the current paradigm of classification to achieve some form of 'Aristotelean' categories.

Monday, March 05, 2007

History of VCR, User Culture

On reading Greenberg's account on the history of the VCR, I was pleasantly surprised that the whole process closely resembled what I have seen with the rise of the Internet. First, the technology is here. Then come the handful of enthusiastic people who find out new ways of use which is mediated among them into a new user culture. These unexpected novelty pisses off the bigger corporations, and they in turn attempt to restrict the technology and its specific use patterns through what they are good at: law and money. But at the same time, they quickly go about finding new ways to make commercial profit of the new user culture. And before you notice it, the commercialized 'system' becomes the default.

I completely agree on Greenberg's point that this whole process cannot be explained without looking into the in-between spaces and players. It is rather an interaction between technology, corporates, regulatory systems, and the complicated mixture of actual users. This interaction is the clue that leads to the answers of why some technologies are selected while others are dismissed. Why did the Laserdisc, which was more compliant to the aspirations of the movie corporates (e.g. better resolution, no wear-out for multiple playbacks, cannot duplicate) miserably fail to replace the VCR? The 'recording' function that connected the users closer to the TV culture and content sharing. Then why did the same concept succeed after a decade with the DVD? Probably (though not the sole reason) because the user culture itself had changed in some ways, incorporating experiences from other media such as the CD and Video game consoles.

But it calls for a practical question. Can the user culture - which is a sort of dialectic result between the (company) proposed use and (user) desired use - be effectively analyzed or even predicted? Is it the crucial driving force itself or should it rather be regarded as a surprise/noise factor that bring about the unexpected in the course of the history of media technology? Maybe a modification of Lessig's content regulating modalities (law, market, norms, architecture) would be useful, where a specific technology is socially selected by laws, markets, norms and 'user-culture'.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Cortada: industry changes

Cortada's pieces for this week are several parts of his bigger project on how the utilization of computers have changed the modern industry and the labor in it. Some questions on the reading:

In the summary to his ambitious series 'Digital hand', he looks into how the industry utilized computers rather than how they were provided (more or less in the same vein as Ensmenger last week, but with more focus on the actual industrial functions they did than identity construction). He emphasizes the role of the leading companies in the process, which have been maintaining oligopoly. The effect of contextual influence in a given industry sector is improtant in the spread of technology and the following social change. A form of peer effect, so to say, acts as the 'digital hand'. However, his position on the importance of that digital hand is not clear, when he both argues that "machines did not replace management", but also emphasizes the digital hand as almost deterministic in some points. So, how strong does he think the digital hand has been/is?

In the forthcoming piece 'Digital applications in higher education', he talks about why the academia did not positively incorporate computers into their system other than administrative matters. It rings a bell with Ensmenger's talk last week, when he argued that it depends on whether it suits with the established systems and goals, so as to strengthen their functions and productivity rather than reconstructing the whole and risking their jobs. However, I'm having a hard time agreeing with his view that academia has not been changed on the institutional level. True, there is still a tenure track system, grad school and semester system etc. But how fundamental is fundamental change? Research patterns have been significantly affected by the Internet and data processing power, student management and curriculum planning relies heavily on online resources, time and space of education has been altered. Even in the curriculum, it is hard to imagine the convergent academic programs of MIT's MediaLab without the influence of IT.

On the last reading, 'Progenitors of the information age', the most catching idea for me was the discussion on the relationship between American ideology and technological growth. The latter strives for social reform as the good based on the former. However, based on his historical accounts, it seems to me it is not that ideology bring about the development, but ideology is mobilized to justify the developments which are solely based on the strive for economic interests. I wish there was some more explanations that further elaborate on this ideology issue.