On microfoundations and Barley

Seems the comment tool on Posterous is not working today, so here is my comment to Jan-H. about Barley, the neo-I crowd, and technology.

While I have always liked Barley’s work on technology, there is something I have got to get off my chest: in his super famous 1986 paper, the one about radiologists and new workplace technology (ASQ?), what was he really showing in that paper that made him so famous?

He showed that technology does not have a straightforward consequence when it enters a work place and instead can have different consequences in different workplaces. Well, I’d say “of course”. After all, the paper provides a counter point to a non-issue. Even in the literature at the time, it was almost unfair to ask: what is the single consequence of this technology for all work? Thus, his argument was pinned against is flimsy one, even for org studies.
Here is why: they have been searching for that answer since the 1960s with Woodward who assumed one could “unlock” the consequences of industrial manufacturing technology, namely, the assembly line, for work in general, laborers, managers, etc.
Guess what? She couldn’t. There was no single consequence.
Tech did not uniformly speed things up.
Tech did not shape each organization the same.
Tech did not … and so on.
Woodward assumed it would, or hypothesized as much, but Woodward was, in fact, learning what Barley would later test as a hypothesis the other direction. Barley assumed it the other way — that there would not be just one consequence of technology — and, unsurprisingly, found it. Well, in a way, of course he did; he found what scholars had been finding (but not looking for) for decades.

My Best Fiend lectures: Fuller & Oswell recordings | CSISP

Steve Fuller: ‘Bruno Latour and Some Notes on Some Also Rans’ (December 13th).

Who is my best fiend? S/he is someone who has got the right facts mostly right but draws exactly the wrong normative conclusion – or at least gestures in the wrong way. In my own career, Kuhn and Latour fit that description. These are two ‘Zeitgeisty’ figures – i.e. future historians will understand their disproportionate significance in terms of their eras, the Cold War order and the neo-liberal post-Cold War order, respectively. But if you want to think ahead of the curve – perhaps because you believe that there is some larger ‘truth’ that humanity is trying to grasp – then you will want to ask how can these very smart people can be both so persuasive and so wrong. (I recommend this as a strategy for younger scholars who plan to be alive beyond the year 2050.) Of course, I have been beset by other fiends in my career, but they are much less interesting because they are simply slaves to fashion/induction, taking their marching orders from high scientific authorities. (And here I mean to include just about anyone who has reacted violently to my support for intelligent design.) I’ll say something about them, if only because of their entertainment value.

Recordings (to be downloaded; these are not designed to stream)

1. David Oswell: lecture
2. David Oswell: discussion
3. Steve Fuller: lecture

Thanks to the ANTHEM Blog I saw this today and I feel sad that I was not able to be in London in December. Although the basic point Fuller makes sounds familiar, I remember reading it in Putnam´c comment on Rorty, it is a valid point. And Fuller is – although a bit strange – always an entertaining guy to listen to.

A Thought on Data and an Orbituary

This NYT article has been on my reading list for a while (some might have noticed that I posted it accientially before two times). I wanted to share it because first (of course) as an orbituary, as a bow before one of the last centuries most inspiring teacher of programming and computing. But I also wanted to share it because it points us who are interested in the assemblage of contemporary infrastructure to a figure that STS seems to like to forget after getting rid of the myth of the genius inventor: the programmer.

For years, Mr. McCracken was the Stephen King of how-to programming books. His series on Fortran and Cobol, a computer language designed for use in business, were standards in the field. Mr. McCracken was the author or co-author of 25 books that sold more than 1.6 million copies and were translated into 15 languages.

Well, of course not the individual, creative and inventive programmer – I sure we would step into the same explanatory traps again that were connected with the inventor-myth. But programming – the core acivity of building, connecting and maintaining IT infrastructure – is a cutural practice on its own, a mixture of play, craft and learned or trained skill. And as any practice, it gaines stability and cultural significance by the network of activities and things surrounding it: trainings, courses, guidelines, how-to-books, textbooks, journals and so on. Maybe it is time that we spend some thoughts on how this particular practice was shaped – an idea that struck me after reading this: 

In the early days, computer professionals typically fell into one of two camps — scientists or craftsmen. The scientists sought breakthroughs in hardware and software research, and pursued ambitious long-range goals, like artificial intelligence. The craftsmen wanted to use computers to work more efficiently in corporations and government agencies. (…) But his books are not like the how-to computer books of more recent years written for consumers. His have been used as programming textbooks in universities around the world and as reference bibles by practicing professionals.

Public Question: What did the old theorists think about technology?

A while back I asked “does anyone know if there is a good paper or book about what Weber thought about technology?” which is an interesting question in light of new STS work. Marx has been paid some attention by scholars, but here comes the public question:

Is there a book that tackles, one chapter at a time, what the old theorists thought about technology?

This seems like a great edited book or mini-conference or mini-conference that turns into a great edited book.

So, next question:

Is there any interest in a book that tackles, one chapter at a time, what the old theorists thought about technology?

From "forces of production" to "forces of customization"

A new line of research might open-up if we read David Noble‘s Forces of Production again and ask “what is the relevance for contemporary packaged software”? Noble, who recently passed-away last December, wrote what is arguably one of the best books in STS’s past about the role of managerial power to determine the direction of technological development, much of which is accomplished by selecting one technology over another to foster toward future development. Additionally, Noble keyed us all to the idea of the “path not traveled” wherein we consider “what might have been” had another road been traveled (i.e., another technology [or no technology] been selected).

In some ways, I think Noble’s work appears old-fashioned to new scholars (despite his excellent empirical material). But maybe not.

If we can extend his ideas about managerial power being augmented by selecting one technology over another toward an analysis that predicts that managerial power is instead augmented by iteratively selecting the ongoing customized form of a flexible technology (i.e., an ongoing process rather than conceptualized as a nominal, usually binary, decision breakpoint).

Obituary for a unique mind: Harold Garfinkel died last week

Sad, but true: Harold Garfinkel died a week ago at the age of 93. A student of Parsons (and maybe his most creative critic), linking American and European social theory again through the works of Alfred Schuetz, he became well known as the founding father of Ethnomethodology – the study of the orderliness of social life, created in the moment-to-moment work of (not so) ordinary practices. 

Instead of praising all his accomplishments and wonderful writings, a short passage of his 1996 paper in Social Psychology Quarterly (59/1, pp. 5.21) will show how much we owe him, and it is not a passage describing Ethnomethodology – but a footnote showing his modesty and humor. The footnote is attached to the claim that the achievements Formal Analysis are “unquestionably demonstrable achievements” (page 6):

If this claim is read as irony, it will be read incorrectly. To read it withou irony, recall the scene in Ionesco´s Rhinoceros. The last man and his girlfriend, Daisy, are looking out into the street below filled with rhinoceroses. Daisy exclaims: ‘Oh look, they´re dancing.” The last man: “You call that dancing!” Daisy: “That´s the way they dance.” (…) EM is not claiming to know any better (than FM, JHP). But neither is EM proposing to institute and carry out EM investigations of ordinary society while being in the midst of organizational things and therein knowing nothing. Rather, we´ ll proceed without having to decide or even know how to proceed while knowing nothing. Instead by [beginning], by [carrying on], by [finding our bearings again], by [completing an investigation], we´ll land ourselves in the midst of things. Procedurally we know something. We´re not agnostic. (…) In the midst of its endless things we´ll study the work of which immortal ordinary society consists. We´ll see. 

With that in mind I remembered the statement from Latours “Reassembling the social” (2005: 54-55): “It would be fairly accurate to describe ANT as being half Garfinkel and half Greimas: it has simply combined two of the most interesting intellectual movements on both side of the Atlantic and has found ways to tap the inner reflexivity of both actor’s accounts and of texts.” John Law already claimed that ANT is (or should be) a modest sociology. From Garfinkel, whose thoughts live on in us, we can learn how that is done.

Paul Edwards: A Vast Machine – Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming (MIT Press, 2010).

Paul Edwards is of course not a “new scholar to watch”, he is a well known scholar of infrastructuration. But he is also a Blogger, in a way at least. His recent book on climate data (which is already on my shelf, a review will follow) has its own blog, his research on cyberinfrastructures for scientific activity together with Geof Bowker, David Ribes, Steve Jackson, Tom Finhol and Chris Borgman also has a blog. And of course there is the old (last post form 2007) “Infrastructuration” blog.


A Vast Machine is a historical account of climate science as a global knowledge infrastructure. Weather and climate observing systems cover the whole world, making global data. This infrastructure generates information so vast in quantity and so diverse in quality and form that it can be understood only through computer analysis — by making data global. These processes depend on three kinds of computer models: data models, used to combine and adjust measurements from many different sources; simulation models of weather and climate; and reanalysis models, which recreate climate history from historical weather data. A Vast Machine argues that over the years data and models have converged to create a stable, reliable, and trustworthy basis for establishing the reality of global warming.


    Old scholars and professionals to remember: Max Weber

    Soon I will speak at St. Francis University about Max Weber. The talk I’m giving is entitled “Sociology to the Max (Weber).”

    St. Francis is a good liberal arts school. Their vision:

    Saint Francis University is a Catholic university of choice for undergraduate and graduate students, nationally recognized for its Franciscan mission and goals, its academic excellence and its vibrant student life co curriculum. The University places particular emphasis on developing individuals who will lead or serve with character and values in their chosen professions and communities.

    …and the talk I’m giving is part of a “sociology week” mainly put on by undergraduate students, which is cool.

    As I prepare:

    Does anybody know of a concise history of Max Weber’s writings on technology?

    I get the feeling that a “what did Max Weber contribute to STS” would be a good book.