Creating windows of opportunity: Installing (social) order at the National Weather Service

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An often overlooked aspect of how infrastructures impose (social) order is through transforming time into a trusty ally. One of their essential functions is to afford  shared frames for enacting a window of opportunity. Like many out there, I have been watching with bated breath as Hurricane Matthew churns a destructive path through the Caribbean and, now, along the coast of Florida. Yet, by the time Matthew goes “live” on our news screens it is already too late to act. The window of opportunity is gone, and even emergency personnel must wait until it is safe to respond. The U.S. National Weather Service (NWS), however, has been closely monitoring this storm long before it became  “Hurricane Matthew” to us. Charged with protecting life and property, NWS forecasters all over the East Coast were anxiously (and excitedly!) poring over the model forecasts and other weather guidance from the National Hurricane Center, deliberating over the uncertainty of the storm’s path and pondering how and when it was going to affect their area of forecasting responsibility. Remarkably, despite the great excitement and responsibility involved, the demeanor of the entire agency through it all has been calm, measured, and deliberate.

We may take it for granted, but “speaking with one voice” represents a great sociotechnical achievement – at the NWS as well as anywhere else. As I discuss in my book, the NWS has cultivated sets of temporally judicious decision-making habits in its forecasters both by promoting expeditious meteorological skills and rules of thumb and by scaffolding the temporal architecture of a given task onto more or less fixed deliberation structures and technologically hardwired timing sequences. Specifically as it pertains to hurricane operations, NWS forecasters must abide by the storm tracks charted by the Hurricane Center and, in fact, cannot publicly divulge any information prior its official release to ensure “the issuance of information to all users at the same time on an equal basis.” As I had occasion to witness first hand, however, NWS forecasters don’t always agree with the  pronouncements of the Hurricane Center, or of each other for that matter. And so, Hurricane Center forecasts/warnings are issued one hour before NWS field offices are to issue local hurricane advisories and warnings. This hour is the window of opportunity during which NWS forecasters will deliberate (via prescheduled conference calls and (ad hoc) chat room discussions) with the Hurricane Center as well as neighboring field offices about possible local amendments to the intensity/timing/track of the storm. Local expertise (in microclimatic conditions as well as community needs) is considered an asset at the NWS, militating for the existence of field offices in the first place. But eagerness to save the day and “nail the storm” can lead to flip-flopping, over/underwarning, or even bouts of indecision. It is especially for those fateful moments, when successfully utilizing windows of opportunity becomes paramount, that the NWS has sought to mold time into an organizational resource and forecasters into poised decision makers.

When it comes to windows of opportunity, however, one size doesn’t fit all. Different time horizons call for different infrastructural regimes of decision-making action. Here I have only touched upon hurricanes, which are “long-fused” events. Forecasting tornadoes, or some such “short-fused” event, presents entirely different windows of opportunity. Predictably, therefore, NWS infrastructures during fast-paced scenarios call forth a set of skills and resources best suited for keeping up with the action, whereas slow-paced scenarios come bundled with an equivalent set of skills and resources, meant to elicit good long-endurance performance. In the end, time makes a fool of us all, of course; but, in the meantime, we might as well devise ways to turn it into our best ally.  

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15 thoughts on “Creating windows of opportunity: Installing (social) order at the National Weather Service

    • Thanks for reading and reblogging, dmf! Interesting association with Pickering’s “islands of stability” concept. My work is of course greatly inspired by ontologies of becoming and Pickering’s concept of “tuning.” Here, I am less interested in topological ontologies and propose that we start paying more attention to temporal ontologies.

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      • indeed and time is of course central to emergence, both tying in I think with our earlier exchange around the creation of localized and at least relatively novel assemblages to meet current/emerging needs (interests as Isabelle Stengers would say), my thought is that we should treat such assemblages (temporary stabilities) as proto-types (reflecting their timeliness as well as their parts, their tools marks, seams, etc and perhaps even some blueprints and experimental notes of the process to accompany them) to be reworked/bricolaged (if not scrapped) to suit other times/places/assemblies/interests and not as arche-types to be used as is in all times, places, and peoples, does this make some sense?
        -dirk
        https://syntheticzero.net/2014/02/03/andrew-pickering-engaging-emergence-from-cellular-automata-to-the-occupy-movement/

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  1. Your opening commentary is really sticking with me — in particular, the general inability of the social sciences to seriously tackle temporality (with rare exception). I like the angle of practice and “window of opportunity” (whenever I hear that I think of a wendi orlikowski piece that inspired me dearly as a graduate student). Why do you think temporality is such an issue with the social sciences?

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    • You mean Wanda Orlikowski’s piece with Marcie Tyre, right? It’s funny, in my own work, I actually use the term “horizon of opportunity” because I find it more theoretically evocative. But I chose the commonly used “window of opportunity” here because of its easy associations with infrastructure!

      I don’t think I have a good answer to your question, which continues to perplex me as well. There are plenty of philosophical (esp. phenomenological) treatments of temporality, of course, and several essayistic attempts to tackle the concept of time in social life. Empirical social science work on temporality, however, is still sorely missing. Time is typically studied/understood as events, memory, change, etc. But, in soc psych, there is now a growing literature on “time-use”, which is encouraging. In management studies, the recent turn to decision making as process is very promising. And in sociology, a small but growing body of work in “projection”, “anticipation”, and “prospective action” has started to take temporality more seriously as a topic of empirical investigation in its own right. I am hopeful…

      BTW, would love to hear how others on this blog have been dealing/struggling with temporality in their own work!!

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      • WANDA! ohhh, you are right, right. Please do go on about “horizon” versus “window.” I like the sound of it, but I don’t know exactly what is more evocative.

        Right, the time-use diaries and event modeling (i.e., diffusion, and so on) have decent use of time but not really strong theorization on the topic.

        I have been — to answer your last question — working on that with a guy in Denmark who is a professional scenario planner and getting his PhD in ‘futures studies” (this sort of small nether region of b-school research). We have one STS paper on the topic, another under review, and two in draft right now. They are about the future and planning for the future with a strongly sociological bent (you’ll get that immediately, I’m sure, given how strong your references were in last book).

        Here is one of them: https://www.academia.edu/17865015/The_Future_Multiple

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        • seems like there are lots of possibilities along this theme/lines; Phaedra-like constructs/uses of time, the need to somehow re-present contingency/open-endedness in both after the fact accounts and as you note future oriented project-ions, the in the moment experiences of time, and so on. Would be interesting to keep the kind of experimental notes on the differing uses of time in projects and the effects they produce along the lines of the notebooks that ceramicists keep where they note differing combinations of materials and environs/treatments, a bit of Pickering style mangling/alchemy if you will. I’m going back to reread Rorty’s Contingency, Irony book especially the chapters on the contingency of language and selfhood if folks are interested in reading along, I think there is a version of neo-pragmatism (married to enactivism) that gives us an alternative to modern idea(l)s of being scientific that keeps with post-ANT and folks like Stengers, Haraway and https://syntheticzero.net/2014/04/01/tim-ingold-asks-objects-or-materials/

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        • I’m familiar with your STS paper on the topic, Nicholas, and look forward to hearing/reading more about the new research in development. In fact, I was talking to Ann Mische about your work, since her current big project is very much aligned with yours. You two should definitely connect!

          To answer your question re “horizons of opportunity”: I find this term more theoretically evocative for my purposes because it signals that (the construction of) time does not only frame action but actually defines the limits of the possible.

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              • that’s intriguing, in fields like biology or organic chemistry there are limits to how useful physics is for many tasks/experiments but if one’s speculations/results are contrary to physics we have a pretty strong signal that something is amiss, but there we have pretty near universal (at least at the macro level) standards/equations to apply, would think it might be much messier in areas where technology is being evolved manufacturing new affordances/scaffolding and likewise with metaphors/paradigms/etc.

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