Friday, June 09, 2006

Responding to IT Ills

So what do IT professionals do? I could come up with a long list of specific tasks but I’m thinking of something much broader. Do they diagnose or do they fix? Most true professionals do both. Doctors both diagnose illnesses and recommend cures. Lawyers and accountants do something similar. They evaluate the particularities of an event or situation and then recommend some sort of response.

IT professionals are faced with both diagnosis and intervention yet they are only given tools to deal with the latter. Where is the IT manual that diagnosis relevant issues? Where is the IT-ICD or IT-DSM? Of course, IT presents a much more heterogeneous and variable field of practice than those bound by the professions such as law or medicine. The human body isn’t changing (even if our understanding of it is). Similarly, the field of law is anchored in an extensive body of common law upon which all successive practice depends (at least in countries that use common law). ITIL or COBIT may come close but I doubt they will fulfill the same role as a DSM or ICD.
Flattening IT

We recently reviewed a research note about Service-Oriented Infrastructure, written by one of my colleagues. The point of SOI is that it’s not SOA. Rather it’s about the type of infrastructure that is required to establish SOA and, more importantly, to be able to determine the effectiveness or ROI for future SOA initiatives. Basically, SOI is a multi-year initiative that standardizes and flattens IT infrastructure. It involves using consistent and repeatable configurations, setups, and processes.

What I find particularly interesting in the discussion swirling around SOI is how it resonates with other arguments about the development of techno-science. In Science on the Run, Bowker—I’m on a bit of a Bowker-binge at the moment—explores the history of Schlumberger. Of great importance to Schlumberger was getting its advanced technology that worked in the lab to function appropriately in the field. Magnetic impedance readings in a hermetically sealed lab are very different from readings taking from a hole drilled in the middle of a Venezuelan jungle. Schlumberger’s trick was to actually turn the wilderness into a lab by controlling process, arrangement, and time. The first step in their projects was to turn some patch of wilderness into a consistent and regular space that could be disciplined. The whole argument reminds me of Foucault and Latour’s pasteurization of France.

SOI seems to be an initiative that fulfills much the same ambition as Schlumberger’s. It is an effort to standardize and flatten infrastructure so that changes and disturbances become manifest and apparent. This approach is in marked difference to the feracious adhocracy that characterizes many IT departments.
Thoughts from the Philosopher’s Walk

I’ve been walking to work. It gives me about 35-minutes to ramble around in my own head and think odd thoughts. I just sort of start walking and I eventually end up at my place of employment. On occasion, I’ll listen to my iPod. Sometimes, I’ll even load it up with relevant podcasts about emerging technology (fitting, since the iPod was a gift from our CEO). Most days, however, I just ramble…

The automobile radio killed religion. A sermon is something to carefully consider and mull over—like a fine wine or a single malt whiskey. Spending a lot of time doing something menial without accompaniment provides such an opportunity. I imagine that my mother—a Catholic Scott who immigrated to northern Ontario—had plenty of time to consider the wise words of her parish priest on those interminable walks to school and to fetch water (Fetch water! And this was the 50s). The rare collision of two events in my life (walking to work and actually attending some sort of religious service) has given me the opportunity to actually reflect on the content of various sermons. I was also surprised to realize that I would never actually do this reflection unless I was walking without music. It becomes too easy to get lost in the tasks of driving (considering lane changes, timing lights, swearing at pedestrians, etc.). Similarly, I can get lost in the accompaniment provided by iPod. Of course, the synthesis of driving and listening to the radio results in a period of almost complete grey-time, when I think about almost nothing. The inane chatter of the shock-jock DJs and public radio’s manic obsession with the news precludes me considering anything about Padre Ken’s wise words. It was neither science nor capitalism that destroyed organized religion in North America. Rather, it was an artifact produced by both: the car radio.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Bowker on Memory

A new thread found it’s way into my research: memory. I’ve been nibbling around the edges of Bowker’s most recent book and enjoyed his recent presentation “What’s memory got to do with it?” at the Annenberg Center for Communication at the University of Southern California, on January 12, 2006. He notes that the memory is how we hold the shards of the past together and it is also a distinctly social activity. Time, the constant river through which memory flows, is a structure that requires careful construction and maintenance. He also notes that classification is simply a type of memory and that it has a particularly dramatic effect on how we structure and interact with the world. Classification creates “incremental memory” in which only components that can be aggregated to the existing memory base are recalled. We can’t remember everything; our tools will only take us to the inauguration of a particular memory practice. For example (mine--not Bowker’s), medical classifications such as the ICD or DSM are only effective after institutions create them. He gives the example of a family in Norway whose members all died about thirty years ago. They all had symptoms of what we would now recognize as AIDS (the father was a sailor who had spent time in West Africa). Of course, they didn’t actually die from AIDS since “AIDS” didn’t exist in the ICD… at least until 1988 when preserved tissues were assayed. Here’s Wikipedia’s take:

“In 1976, a Norwegian sailor named Arvid Noe, his wife, and his nine-year-old daughter died of AIDS. The sailor had first presented symptoms in 1966, four years after he had spent time in ports along the West African coastline. Tissue samples from the sailor and his wife were tested in 1988 and found to contain the HIV-1 virus (Group O).”

It’s interesting to think of how many other people died of immune-related problems yet have never been considered AIDS victims.

In addition to the construction of memory, Bowker talks about “regimes of forgetting.” We’re quite good at it and “forgetting is big business.” Consider the amount spent on shredding and disposing of electronic information. He also discusses formalized regimes, such as England’s Act of Oblivion which mandated forgetting in pos-Civil War Era. Forgetting can be enacted in formal or tacit policies on how we create memory. For example, organizations may radically alter the way they keep records and documents. Bowker cites his work with Schlumberger in noting that the company switched from a policy of maintaining elaborate reports in French to keeping sparse records in English. This switch was intentional and engineered to protect against patent infringement suits.

We don’t create memory from whole cloth. Rather, it’s kept with a view to the future reader. And those things that don’t fit into both the patterns and rhythms of the existing memory structures, and our expectations of the future reader, simply don’t make the cut.

One aside that resonates with my own thinking is Bowker’s position on fingertip knowledge: “We’re not used to memory in terms of the crafts… the skills.” We have a good memory of Chartres cathedral but we couldn’t possibly recreate it. Similarly, although we’ve been to the moon we no longer have sufficient memory to recreate the project.

Of added interest to me is Bowker’s use of Ranganathan. While he doesn’t necessarily use any of the primary facets as a means of expanding his own arguments, he does position Ranganathan as a possible actor for considering memory systems. And for me, that’s important.

Sunday, June 04, 2006


I cooked fish for dinner last night: Moroccan-style tilapia grilled over mesquite. It sounds sophisticated; it wasn’t. The Moroccan seasoning required a large number of alternatives and tilapia should never be grilled because the white flesh is really too delicate for rough BBQ handling. I’m not a chef but I do own The Joy of Cooking.

A cookbook like The Joy of Cooking is akin to technical handbooks. It’s a diverse store of well-indexed and organized information. When I realized that I didn’t have the spices I required to prepare my white-fish vision (an unfortunate “shite-fish” typo wouldn’t have been far off the mark), I knew I could find alternates in my favourite kitchen handbook. Unfortunately, “spice alternatives” wasn’t listed in the index. Nor was “alternatives—spices.” But I knew that they were there since I had relied on them before (who actually has saffron in their kitchen!). My knowledge about the contents of the work were developed through the practice of working with it.

This insight goes contrary to some of the other thoughts I’ve had recently. My preoccupation has been the idea of social memory and how authors—particularly early authors of technical handbooks—were required to engineer their creations to capitalize on existing memory practices. The works, in essence, had to be palatable to and understandably by the intended audience. Hence, we see the use of apologia and extended theoretical introductions that invoke the names of Aristotle and Archimedes.

What’s missing from my analysis of the authors’ actions is some consideration of the readers and how the documents themselves had to evolve towards some sort of convergence—“closure” in SCOT terminology—for the handbook to really emerge. Consideration of the practices of both the professional reader and the author is required.