Saturday, June 12, 2004

STS and Equations

There are a few different STS related studies that feature equations. Yeang discusses the development of the Austin-Cohen formula as an engineering/physics hybrid realized through the auspices and resources of the US Navy. MacKenzie, meanwhile, explores the realization of the Black-Scholes-Merton equation.

Yeang, C.-P. (2004). Scientific fact or engineering specification? The U.S. Navy's experiments on long-range wireless telegraphy circa 1910. Technology and Culture, 45(1), 1-29.

MacKenzie, D. (2003). Long-Term Capital Management and the sociology of arbitrage. Economy and Society, 32(3), 349-380.

MacKenzie, D. (2003). An equation and its worlds: Bricolage, exemplars, disunity and performativity in financial economics. Social Studies of Science, 33(6), 831-868.
Potpourri for $200

There are a number of different ideas floating around in my head. I have to get them down on paper before they all fall out of my head...

1. Sense Making in Organizations: I've recently been reading Chun Wei Choo's "Knowing Organization." It's quite good. I do, however, have some issues with the text. In retrospect, I could extend these same arguments to Weick. Both Choo and Weick indicate the importance of the local in sense making. Neither, however, do a great job of describing or articulating what constitutes the local. I suppose that the local is a combination of factors (i.e., Knorr Cetina's "smear" or Pickering's "mangle"). Bowker's work on Schlumberger provides one possible way of pulling apart these concepts through the use of space and time. Importantly, space and time need to be locally constructed. This space/time concept is well developed in other realms such as Ranganthan's Colon Classification or Bakhtin's articulation of the chronotope. There might be some room here to do something... I'm not too sure what that something may be. Grant Campbell's work on the chronotope and NAICS may be informative.

2. The Landscape of Information: There is always tension between the words "information" and "knowledge". I've given up any attempt to articulate the difference perhaps because I've adopted Dervin's constructivist interpretation of information. Therefore, any definition of knowledge as socially constructed or locally contingent seems moot. Regardless, I can imaging a thesis defense question from an external like: "articulate for me, your understanding of the differences between information and knowledge?" Since I'm not a big fan of any of the other definitions (although Buckland's "information as knowledge" is quite interesting), I have to create my own. For a while I was playing around with some concept of information as a human-created "other" that shapes our actions (thoughts, again, being moot). This conceptualization bundled the recent work of Knorr Cetina on trading floors with classic Belkin and then threw in a few tablespoons of Lacan. Agency, however, became a problem. Does this "other" have agency? Do we give it agency? I'm no philosopher so perhaps I need a different definition.

If not a philosopher, I am a Civil Engineer. Another possible metaphor (see Lakoff) for information is inspired by hydrology. I'm imagining a landscape that has a particular shape. The landscape is effected by various process. Some are very slow geological process like volcanism and others are relatively fast i.e., hydraulic erosion. From an information perspective, the slow change relates to various epistemes, paradigms, or developmental stages. The fast processes, however, are related to information flow. Sometimes, the information flow is just too great and just runs off. Sometimes it produces creative flowering (imagine a desert) and it always involves some sort of change. There are great ways of torturing this metaphor--the hydrological cycle, turbidity counts in rivers, tortuosity of resulting river patters, etc. The question becomes: "What is knowledge?" It's the landscape left over that responds directly to any sort of incursion and has been shaped profoundly by past information flows... Or something like that.

3. Science vs. Technology: In studying science and technology and their various documentary practices, there seems to be a discrepancy is how we approach these two fields. Granted, there are a number of needs and uses studies for both fields but studies of science seems to have a real producerly bias i.e., scientists as producers of documents. Technologists are somehow treated differently in most cases (Bowker is an exception). Instead of studying the process of production--like with scientists--we study the conditions of production or focus on the inputs to production. The actual process of creating tangible artifacts seems to be black boxed. Perhaps we're comfortable as researchers to claim that science in general, and the corresponding scientific papers, are socially constructed. This argument is a bit tougher to make in the face of an actual physical artifact such as a missile guidance system (MacKenzie), a bridge (Suchman), a producing well (Bowker), a Portuguese galleon (Law), bicycles (Bijker), or an electrical grid (Hughes). How do we account for the actual construction of real artifacts?

4. Information on the Run: I can probably run with this idea for a while but I want to capture the kernel... Bowker provides a great description of how Schlumberger was able to produce stability in a local environment by controlling the space and time of the local context. They were chasing oil. While elusive, at least it's an actual product. It is possible to apply similar concepts to a resource such as corporate information? Can we engineer a means of constructing and stabilizing information within an organization? Just as Schlumberger were able to use the USSR and Venezuela as experimental grounds for perfecting their method and growing their organization, could I--for example--work within large organizations to establish exactly what "information" is? Could the company be built? Is there an underlying commodity (perhaps money)? I'm aware that I'm trying to conflate information with information i.e., information^n, but there may be something here.

5. Child Witness: In my current work on the child witness database, I'm aware of the struggles that we're having. Stabilizing the actual product is proving to be very difficult. It doesn't want to be black boxed. The problem is that people want to disseminate the product as a standard. I now realize, however, how locally contingent this particular tool is. There are a number of problems is getting the thing to stay put. The first is the variety of actors involved e.g., local agency, court system, police, etc. Each actor has different requirements and wants different traces from the actual device. The other difficulty is the chronotopic nature of the problem. A particular "incident" involving particular parties happens at a specific time and place. As the court system takes over, however, the time of the incident is subordinated to other classification structures such as the timing of particular court dates or instances of court preparation. Space is similarly difficult to construct given the variety of localities (e.g., court rooms, agencies, addresses, and locations) and jurisdictions (e.g., police, justice, community agency, etc.) involved. Tough problem. There may, however, be a paper in here somewhere.

Friday, June 11, 2004

A Day in the Life of the OED

I came across an interesting read while trawling the Internet (and diligently procrastinating). It's a review of one particular day in the life of the Oxford English Dictionary: April 19, 2004. The editor collected a series of anecdotes about what various staff members were doing. It seemed relevant to our recent class discussion for a number of reasons: 1- it contains stories of what humanities scholars do; 2- we see how people really interact with information systems; 3- I noticed that a lot of work isn't actually research but related to infrastructure e.g., publishing, marketing, etc.; and 4- the piece really documents the construction of knowledge in an archaeological sense e.g., Andreas Groeger, Assistant Editor basically constructs the etymology of "panzer" that will be reified in the OED.

Interesting stuff.

Here's the link to the article:

If you're not convinced, here's the editor's introduction:

Most of the articles that have appeared in previous issues of OED News have focused on a single aspect of the work that goes into creating the Dictionary. In this issue I would like to offer something a little different: a snapshot of some of the things going on in all parts of the project on a single day. I picked Monday 19 April entirely at random, and asked my colleagues to write me something about what they had done that day; it could be a description of the whole day's work, or of a single piece of work which seemed worth picking out. What follows is only a selection of the contributions I received, and does not, indeed could not, cover anything like the full range of tasks being carried out on that day. There is no account, for example, of the activities of our researchers working in libraries around the world, or of the many external consultants who comment on entries in particular subject areas, or of the research being done in the OED archives, or even of the mundane but essential business of filing away the quotation slips which flow into and around the OED office every day. Nevertheless, I hope the picture that emerges proves an interesting one.

Monday, June 07, 2004

Network Granularity and Fingertip Knowledge

I have a dull ache behind my eyes: humidity perhaps? Am I coming down with something? Is the cause the rather unfavourable score in the hockey game as I write this (1-0 Tampa in the second). I suspect that I’ve just read too much and it’s no longer making any sense.

The purpose of my particular “epistemic culture” (Knorr Cetina, 1999) is—at the moment—a bit beyond me. This process of reading a lot and reading little just doesn’t seem that productive. That said, perhaps I’m overstating things a bit to claim that my own circumstances are reflective of the entire culture. Van House, for example, points out that epistemic cultures shouldn’t be conflated with other conceptualizations such as “communities” (van House, 2004). Still, the daily process of reading is becoming a grind.

(2-0 Tampa… shit)

There are, however, a few threads that I went to pull out my recent reading. Although the limited space left to me necessarily precludes the construction of the detailed “narrative of conversion” that is so important for science (Brown, 1998). Instead, I’ll just blather on a bit about two ideas: “network granularity”, and “fingertip knowledge”.

Van House (2004) provides a very thorough introduction to the use of STS for information science. I particularly enjoyed her recipe card approach of describing the various approaches: ANT, SCOT, symbolic interaction, workplace, etc. I also appreciated her introduction to some of the criticisms levelled at the various approaches. While I’m a big fan of STS approaches (although I perceive some limitations) I’m intrigued by the notion of normalization and obfuscation. Given the concept of functional infrastructure, at what point do elements of our discourse networks become invisible? This argument certainly resonates with those of Bowker and Star (Bowker & Star, 1999), and Kaghan and Bowker (Kaghan & Bowker, 2001) but I’d like to stretch it a bit further. While ANT enables us to explore both the human and non-human actants in a network, how do we set the granularity of our analysis? In the case of workplace studies for example, we may have difficulty unpacking the “web of group affiliations” (Simmel, 2003 [1922]) of a group of photocopy repairmen or determining the various public and personal facets (Goffman, [1959] 2002) of other human actants. Non human actants represent similar complications. Given Haraway’s notion of the “cyborg” (see van House, 2004) perhaps any type of actor-network analysis should extend to the conditions of production and institutional forces extant in the stabilization of the artefacts. I suppose this type of thing could be a way of unifying approaches like ANT and SCOT. [My personal pet-methodology—chaine operatoire—may offer similar advantages (Bleed, 2001; Dobres, 2000)].

(still 2-0. I’m going to have to go to bed soon just to avoid the tension!)

My other thought involves “fingertip knowledge” and it relates to our particular circumstances in information science. Accepting the premise that our sub-discipline is moving toward understanding how individuals use information (for early discussion, see Taylor, 1984; Varlejs, 1987). How is what I’m doing right now assist in my personal quest [n.b., use of standard narrative tropes and metaphors] to understand information seeking behaviour? In her investigation of molecular biology labs, Knorr Cetina (1999) notes the importance of such things as “body knowledge” and the use of stories and “visual scripts” to represent complicated processes and procedures. Other researchers have noted similar concepts. Latour (Latour, 1987; Latour & Woolgar, 1979), for example, would probably recognize visual scripts as “inscriptions” that are all-important for the formulation and accumulation of science. Body knowledge is similarly evident in the “socialization” half of the socialization/reification dyad of Wenger’s communities of practice (1998)or Vygotskian concepts such as the zone of proximal development (Bockarie, 2002), and the importance of storytelling has been documented by Gabriel (2000).

The importance of tacit information and codification devices such as visual scripts and stories has been recognized in engineers my Henderson (1999) who recognizes that the act of sketching is of paramount importance to engineers:

"The visual culture of engineering is more than the sum of its parts: the practices of sketching and drawing constitute communication in the design world. Other forms of knowledge and communication (verbal, mathematical, experiential, tacit) are built around these representations." Pg. 25-26

In the same way that molecular biologists take control of the unseen through their use of visual scripts and stories, engineers take control of the uncreated. It seems that for both molecular biologists and engineers, these articulations provide some control or power over their respective epistemic cultures and actor-networks in a heterogeneous manner. For engineers, the drawings enable them to communicate with and exert influence on clients, coworkers, legislators, etc. Biologists have similar influence on funders (Lenoir, 1999) and publishers.

(Still 2-0… damn.)

So where does this leave us as researchers of ((human information behaviour) U (information seeking in context) U (information needs and uses) U (everyday information seeking))? We seem to lack those things important for stabilization of an epistemic culture. Where are our big science atom splitters, narrative genres, visual scripts, or disaster stories?

(Calgary is still down 2… time for bed. I can’t bear to watch.)


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