Archive for the ‘Problems’ Category

Learning to love Latour

Thursday, July 5th, 2007

Bruno Latour is a funny guy. At least in his very cheeky essay, “Where are the missing masses”. Now he may be (along with Michel Callon and John Law) the innovator of Actor Network Theory and a very famous French sociologist of science. But this is also a dude who insults his own colleagues and profession, not to mention myriad others – engineers, technologists, feminists, believers, novelists, the French. He lies, berates, misleads, tricks and teases throughout, yet still comes off as someone you’d like to have a beer with.

Calling himself a “mere philosopher”, Latour reserves most of his feigned disdain for sociologists, who have too long ignored the role of “non-human” actors in social life. When I first read Latour, I thought he was crazy. But a few years later, and a more considered reading (including Science in Action) of him has me reconsidering. I think, in fact, he might have gone crazy, but I haven’t touched his later works. At any rate, Latour insists that to “balance our accounts of society” we must pay some attention to non-humans, the “hidden and despised social masses who make up our morality.” I love it.

As quirky and irreverent as this sounds, Latour is really saying something rather simple. The social world has a material foundation with which humans necessarily interact. It is sensible, then, to consider how these material artifacts, techniques, devices interact with their human users, non? We must consider the fonction (Latour has no qualms about leaving French words untranslated in his English writings) of these non-human artifacts beyond the performance of their obvious, immediate task.

One of the major concepts in this essay is translation. In his case study of the automatic door-closer or “groom”, he defines translation as the transformation of a major effort into a minor one. It is this reversal of forces (the type of David and Goliath tale of which the moralists, er, sociologists are enamoured) that the sociologists should examine to understand the social construction of artifacts, “and not a hypothetical social context they are not equipped to grasp” (ouch!).

Other classic ANT concepts discussed here are delegation and prescription. Humans (engineers, mechanics) delegate to non-humans certain tasks that translate a major (human) effort into a minor (technical) exertion. In many instances, an unskilled non-human (door w/powerful spring mechanism) presupposes a skilled human user (knows how to get through the door w/out receiving a bloody nose). This, says Latour, is an example of prescription – the moral and ethical dimension of mechanisms. We have been able to delegate to non-humans not only force (closing the door) but values, duties, ethics.

Latour anticipates the cries and charges of anthropomorphism by admitting it and throwing the question back at his accusers: “Are they not our brethren?” he says of non-human actors? He gives 3 reasons why the groom is, indeed, anthropomorphic: 1. It is human-made (constructed); 2. It substitutes for actions of people (it is a delegate that permanently replaces humans; 3. It shapes human action by prescribing certain actions (e.g. what sort of people should pass through the door … the hydraulic door closer discriminates against the weak: children, the elderly etc.)

Instead of differentiating b/w humans and inhumans (as the sociologists say), Latour sees only actors – some human, some non-human, some skilled, some not – that exchange their properties. The divide b/w human/non-human actors is “untenable”, he says, with what I imagine to be a flourish.

Things get a bit tricky when Latour describes the attribution of the roles and actions of human and non-human as a choice. So far, I have not understood this idea. He talks about how builders and users are inscribed in a mechanism; how a mechanism prescribes certain behaviours and qualities. In other words, technologies both prepare their users for a certain interaction, and at the same time anticipate this interaction. Think of a traffic light. The red signal prepares the driver (or walker) to stop, but it also expects that she will, indeed, stop. However, there is nothing to stop her from not stopping. Chances are, not wanting to get into an accident, she will stop. “There might,” Latour concedes, “be an enormous gap b/w the prescribed user and the user-in-the-flesh…”

Latour goes on to explain the problem here: sociologists (damn them!) confuse the human-nonhuman divide with the differentiation b/w figurative and non-figurative actors. In a text, the choice of granting actors figurativity is up to the author; a character is more or less personal, depending on how framed. It is the same for techniques, where engineers are the authors. The label “inhuman” applied to techniques overlooks translation mechanisms (e.g. door-closer to groom) and the many choices that exist for figuring/defiguring, personifying or abstracting, embodying or disembodying actors.
It follows that the “enunciator” (the author of a text/engineer of a mechanism) is free to place (or not) a representation of herself in the script (texts/machines)

At the end of his mirthful narrative, where he recounts self-deprecating stories (I like the one about him screaming to his toddler who, unrestrained, would not stay seated in the back of the car: “If I brake too hard you’re dead.”) and heaps scorn upon all who’ve come in contact (however peripherally) with his topic, he concludes.

Technical translation, delegation, shifting out is the claiming of a once-human competence. In this way (says Latour) what we define as our social relations is silently prescribed back to us by non-humans. “Knowledge, morality, craft, force, sociability, is not a property of humans but of humans accompanied by their retinue of delegated characters. Since each of those delegates ties together part of our social world, it means that studying social relations w/out non-humans is impossible.”

And there you have it: Latour in a half a nutshell. Corrections and comments are most welcome.

Northern Voice, open knowledge and the most famous “Robert”

Monday, March 5th, 2007

So I went to Northern Voice last weekend.

I giggle to think that I’m blogging about a blogging conference one week (exactly) after it happened. I’m so lame.

But no, I”m not (said with all humilty). Like all but the professionally unemployed or the geekily employed, I find there’s not a lot of time left to blog after paid work, school work, house work and kids – not in that order, of course.

But I’m blogging about it now, and all should be forgiven. For me, it’s not part of membership in a club. Indeed, it was in the name of fieldwork that I attended. I have this blog for my research, not for the integrity of blogging (if such a thing may be said). That said, I’m uncomfortable in my role as “researcher” because my “subjects” (again, a problematic term) are human – living, sentient beings, not in fact objects to be studied, extracted from life and later “coded” for my empirical results. I get an icky feeling about it all – in grade school, they would have called me a “user”.

So I don’t approach conferences like this with half the amount of professionalism I “should.” I go, check out the panels that even vaguely corelate to my work, and then go for a beer. What else is there?

And it was over a beer that I met the most famous Robert on Google. I innocently asked the man across form me at the bar (apres conference) – so, what’s your blog? He said, I’m the number one Robert on Google. And he is. Two above Robert DiNero (he’s occupies spots number one AND two) and four above Canadian children’s author, Robert Munsch.

You don’t say!

I learned later that night that his fortune rose as the “Microsoft blogger” and the rest (as “they” say), as far as his place in the blogosphere goes, is history. I have two things to say about the guy: 1. He looks like Philip Seymour Hoffman (perhaps a tad handsomer?) and 2. He was very nice. I’ll leave you to pronounce on his geekiness.

But back to Northern Voice. It was full of the usual suspects – that is, the “who’s who” of the Van tech scene, plus many more my ignorance prevents me from immortalizing. I missed the opening addres by Anil Dash (I could only think of Damon Dash – what does that say about me?) but I made it in time for coffee (which was very important, given my haul on the B-Line and hike halfway across UBC campus – a vast and alien territory for me). There was one panel that was, in fact, a perfect match. It was called “Building Rich Communities with Wikis” and the discussants were Stewart Mader and John Willinsky. Now Mader was interesting – he spoke of his experience publishing a book about wikis on a wiki. You can check it out here.

But it was Willinsky, a UBC english prof, who really caught my attention. He was an engaging and fascinating speaker, but it was the substance of his talk that really fired me up. Willinsky is in deep in the Public Knowledge Project, a federally funded research initiative at UBC and Simon Fraser University that “seeks to improve the scholarly and public quality of academic research through the development of innovative online environments. PKP has developed free, open source software for the management, publishing, and indexing of journals and conferences. Open Journal Systems and Open Conference Systems increase access to knowledge, improve management, and reduce publishing costs.”

Willinsky described how he used wikis in the post-secondary classroom setting. I’m fairly familiar with this through CMNS 253, which I’ve TA’d for two semesters. Nonetheless, I was inspired. I asked about my pet interest – open knowledge. I take this to be similar to the products of wiki collaboration (Wikipedia, for one) but within the academy. Can scholars collaboratively produce “authenticated” knowledge, given the restrictions of copyright, and the requirement to innovate new ideas to ensure career advancement (e.g. single authorship, the “coining” of terms, notions, concepts or methods, “it’s MY idea” etc.) Essentially, the question is: Can we “wikify” academic knowledge?

Willinsky mistook my question, and corrected me: “Open access.” And proceeded to explain his involvement in this movement. Which is entirely worthy, and certainly adjacent to my concerns. But if we want to democratize society further – if we believe in the liberatory and progressive elements of knowlege; if we want to challenge the limits of capitalist democracy (My Friend says I have to stop using the “C” word if I want to make any headway…) we need to take on the Academy (and here I use it with a capital “A” for emphasis) head on. I mean, in a no-holds barred, street brawl kinda way. If the academy is the last bastion of free thought, the preserve of rational (and hence progressive) thinking, then why is access to its knowledge restricted (see the Public Knowledge Project); why must academics “publish or perish” with all the sacrifice to education (and quality of knowledge production) that entails; why the stinginess, the slyness and the lack of openness when it comes to presenting one’s ideas to the public (e.g. publishing)?

These are some (!) of my burning questions. I’m going to ask Willinsky, see what he has to say. I support his project. One of my collegues has been quite involved in the Open Journal Systems that supports the Canadian Journal of Communication’s online presence. There’s no question it’s innovative, important. But I maintain it goes beyond access to knowledge – right to the heart of the matter, to knowledge production itself. Open knowledge. How will it play out?

Gender inequity in the academy and the “mommy” track

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

I know, I know, it’s shocking that gender inequality would still be a topic for discussion… Not. People, especially young women and men believe (in the same way kids believe in Santa Claus) that there is no such thing as gender-based inequality or discrimintation – at least not in Western society. They assume that feminism is redundant, if not offensive, and that any woman daring to suggest all is not well on the gender parity front is simply a whiner, a man-hater or an attention seeker.

But as this Canadian Press article shows, gender inequality is alive and well in the hallowed halls of the academy, that bastion of patriarchy and hierarchy. Women profs receive less pay than their male colleagues (of the same rank) – or $6000 less for full professor. They also achieve full professorship – the highest rank – much less frequently, making up a mere 19% of Canada’s full professors.

While the Statistics Canada report on which the article is based shows “improvement” for women profs, this must not be taken as a job well done. It is utterly pathetic that since 1990, the percentage of women appointed to full professor (e.g. new appointments) has risen two percent. Two percent!! From 12 to 14. Pathetic.

The article notes that women account for the majority of students at the post-secondary level (undergrad and grad) – have done so since 1988. So why the disconnect between learning and teaching, between the classroom and the professoriate? If universities are graduating more women, it might be logical to think that they end up on the other side of the lectern, if not in equal numbers to men (gender-based discrimination and inequality being systemic and all), then at least in greaters numbers than currently.

One main reason for this, I’d hazard to suggest, is mothering. The article only touches upon this: “Climbing the academic ladder is supposed to be merit-driven, generally based on an evaluation of factors such as a candidate’s track record of research, publication and teaching.”

But, it continues, many women step off the tenure track for the “mommy track”. Funny, I don’t see this phenomenon affecting male profs. Yet their prospects for bearing progeny don’t seem to be affected. Hmmm! Men can have long successful academic careers, research, write and publish their way to a tenured position, and still have families!! Amazing! How is that possible?

It’s possible because women step aside, step down and forsake that career success to have the children. And the academy makes little to no accomodation for this handicap. And I say handicap in the best of ways – I have children. They’re amazing, lovely creatures with no equal in my heart. But they don’t factor in to the academy’s calculus for success. And that isn’t right. Not when the male profs are benefitting from this unequal situation.

This is why feminism can’t be dead.

russian chat datingonline dating chat ukdating sites with instant chatchristian singles find dating chatchat datingtelephone chat datingfree trial phone chat datingdating sites with free chatchristian dating chat roomadult dating chat ukteenage dating chatinstant messenger chat dating sitesfree adult dating chat sitesdating chat line for teenbook dating people chatnaughty dating chat sitehot chat dating sitefree chat room datingdating chat sitechat dating roomviagra cialisorder viagra cialisbuy sublingual viagraorder sublingual viagrasublingual cialis onlineorder sublingual cialisorder revatiorevatio onlinecialis jelly onlineorder cialis jellyviagra jelly onlineorder viagra jellyorder female viagracheap female viagraorder vpxlbuy vpxllevitra professional pricebuy levitra professionalpurchase levitraorder levitracheap levitraorder cialis soft tabscialis soft tabs onlinepurchase viagra soft tabsbuy viagra soft tabsorder cialis super activecialis super active onlineorder viagra super activeviagra super active onlinepurchase generic cialisorder generic cialisgeneric cialis onlinepurchase generic viagraorder generic viagracheap generic viagraorder cialis professionalbuy cialis professionalorder viagra professionalbuy viagra professionalbuy brand cialispurchase cialisorder cialisbuy cialisorder brand viagrabuy brand viagrapurchase viagracheap viagraviagra onlineviagra cialisorder viagra cialisbuy sublingual viagraorder sublingual viagrabuy sublingual cialisorder sublingual cialisorder revatiobuy revatiobuy cialis jellyorder cialis jellybuy viagra jellyorder viagra jellyorder female viagrabuy female viagraorder vpxlbuy vpxlorder levitra professionallevitra professionalpurchase levitraorder levitrabuy levitraorder cialis soft tabsbuy cialis soft tabsorder viagra soft tabsviagra soft tabscialis super activebuy cialis super activeviagra super activebuy viagra super activepurchase generic cialisorder generic cialisbuy generic cialispurchase generic viagraorder generic viagrabuy generic viagraorder cialis professionalbuy cialis professionalorder viagra professionalbuy viagra professionalbuy brand cialispurchase cialisorder cialisbuy cialisorder brand viagrabuy brand viagrapurchase viagraorder viagrabuy viagrapurchase levitrapurchase cialispurchae viagraorder brand viagrabuy brand viagraorder cialis super activebuy cialis super activeorder vpxlbuy vpxlorder levitra professionalbuy levitra professionalorder levitrabuy levitraorder cialis soft tabsbuy cialis soft tabsorder viagra soft tabsbuy viagra soft tabsorder viagra super activebuy viagra super activeorder generic cialisbuy generic cialisorder generic viagrabuy generic viagraorder cialis professionalbuy cialis professionalorder viagra professionalbuy viagra professionalorder cialisbuy cialisorder viagrabuy viagratake viagra cialis togetherviagra cialis priceorder vpxlbuy vpxlorder levitra professionalbuy levitra professionalpurchase levitraorder levitrabuy levitra cialis jelly onlinebuy cialis jellycheap cialis soft tabsbuy cialis soft tabscialis super active onlinebuy cialis super activegeneric cialis onlinebuy generic cialischeap cialis professionalbuy cialis professionalbrand cialis pricecheap brand cialispurchase cialisorder cialisbuy cialisbrand viagra pricebrand viagra onlineviagra jelly onlinebuy viagra jellyorder viagra soft tabsviagra soft tabs onlineorder viagra super activebuy viagra super activeorder generic viagrabuy generic viagraorder viagra professionalbuy viagra professionalpurchase viagraorder viagrabuy viagra

New year, same old

Sunday, January 7th, 2007

It’s been awhile since I’ve written; I felt the guilt, but not enough to motivate me. I wasn’t working – took almost 2 weeks off, and thus had nothing to write. But I got back to it this week, bright and early in the new year – January 2. All week I’ve been working on revising a paper I wrote for class into a journal article for Tailoring Biotechnologies. One of the eds saw my work posted on Indymedia, and inquired about it. As it hasn’t been published, they were pleased, and sent some editorial revisions. I’ve been struggling with these all week. You know how different people get different things from the same thing – an academic journal article, for example. So it feels, in some instances anyhow, that perhaps what I intended was not at all what the reader got out of it. We’ll see. Revising a paper is more of a challenge than writing from scratch. It’s a task I do not enjoy, but I’m almost finished, so it’ll be their problem, at least till they send it back!

On another note, I’m exasperated and annoyed at the blog spam I’ve been receiving. Every day. I feel personally affronted, though I know I should not and all I can think is, what losers. Unsurprisingly, this spam falls into 3 categories: 1. Porn; 2. Penis enlargement; 3. Fake winning money, in that order. It is beyond irritating. I have to do something, but I’m thinking of migrating this blog (unpredictable server plus no tech support), so I won’t do anything here.

Back in the day, when I was say 8 or 9, SPAM represented a new sort of consumer food, along the lines of TV dinners. It represented all that was good about being modern: the convenience, the scientific advance (you could *do* that with meat?), and to my young mind, the disposable income (in our lowever-middle class home, nothing was pret-a-porter, it was all “from scratch”, handmade, reused, and so, of course, all the less desirable). I would see it at my friend Karen’s house, in the pantry, and regard it with awe, and some envy, I admit. Never mind it tasted like shit, or cat food. Never mind it was a military food and that food, as we all know, beats out only hospital and airline food. But that wasn’t the point, now, was it?

Dialectical obligation

Wednesday, December 6th, 2006

“Theory is only realized in a people so far as it fulfils the needs of the people… Will theoretical needs be directly practical needs? It is not enough that thought should seek to realize itself; reality must strive toward thought” (Marx, Early Writings, pp. 52-4).

What does this mean? Practically speaking. For academics engaged in theoretical work. When we have no control over, or even impact on, “reality”, which is obliged to “strive toward thought”.

The technical code: how hard?

Tuesday, September 19th, 2006

So I’m revising my chapter for the ACT Lab book. Feenberg flagged me down while I was walking by his office the other day. He asked if I had time to go over his comments on my paper. As if I didn’t. Anyway, the comments/revisions were not few, but not drastic, so it’s a lot of picky work, but not too difficult. There were some mistakes in my application of the theory, which is embarassing, but to be expected, no doubt, from a student. Feenberg seemed fine with the work overall – happy enough, no major disturbances in the force detected. I’m having trouble with my rendition of his concept of the technical code. From what I can gather, there is the technical code of capitalism, which I didn’t know about till I read Transforming Technology. In the index, it is found under “code, defined”. It goes a little something like this:

“Capitalist social and technical requirements are condensed in a ‘technological ratonality’ or a ‘regime of truth’ [as Foucault would say – ed.] that brings the construction and interpretation of technical systems into conformity with the requirements of a system of domination. I will call this phenomenon the social code of technology or, more briefly, the technical code of capitalism. Capitalsit hegemony, on this account, is an effect of its code” (p. 76).

OK, sounds good so far, but I thought that this was *the* technical code. Apparently, though, it is different from the plain old technical code. According to Questioning Technology, the technical code is part of a technological regime; this, in turn, is the “technology-specific context of a technology…a structure that both enables and constrains certain changes” (Rip & Kemp, in Feenberg, 1999). Integrated into these regimes are numerous social factors expressed in “purely technical language and practices. I call those aspects of technological regimes which can best be interpreted as direct reflections of significant soical values the ‘technical code’ of the technology. Technical codes define the object in strictly technical terms in accordance with the soical meaning it has acquired” (Feenberg, p.88).

Please. How hard?

But, again, please, do not the two terms differ, yet purport to be describing the same phenomenon?

Where I erred, however, was in here: I thought that the technical code was always a reflection of domination. That is, the technical code necessarily embodied and reproduced the core values of the ruling elite – in contemporary society, capitalist maagers and their state counterparts. However, Feenberg nuances the definition by stating that the technical code reflects the values that “win out” in the design process. Typically, these would mirror those of the status quo; but this is not always the case, as Feenberg’s concept of “democratic rationalization” illustrates. When technologies are subject to democratic rationalization (vs. Marcuse’s technological rationalization), the technical design is opened up to users, and necessarily becomes more responsive to a broader range social of needs and values. My working example of this is the Internet, and free software development. Much more to come…