Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Reflections on a trip to Sweden

Just read Glen's recently updated post written back in October of last year on his experiences while in Norrköping, Sweden. I'm heading off in 10 days and his post suddenly made me feel how real it is - that place over there where I'll be so soon. Cool. And cool it will be too... I have started scrounging around for warm things and dug out the old skiing and bushwalking box to try and get together some garments to withstand the plummeting temparatures of late autumn. You know I had a secret plan (not so secret anymore) that I'd go to IKEA while I'm there.

Sociotechnical capital

Eva Cox sent me a copy of the paper she gave the other day called Reclaiming Social Capital: an exploration of new standpoints and complexities. I found the paper pretty useful and challenging.

I have been thinking how a theory of sociotechnical capital might be relevant for exploring some of the more mysterious aspects of people-technology relations within organisations. I discovered upon googling that a guy called Paul Resnick has adapted the notion of social capital to the sociotechnical domain and is considered to be one of the pioneers in the development of recommender and reputation systems. Not sure if you know about recommender systems. Amazon is a good example of one -
you know how when you search for books you get a whole host of ways of mapping the found book/object in relation to what other books customers have bought who have also bought this book, customer reviews and customer book lists (listmania). Very interesting indeed, not least because it represents an attempt to capture social capital as a reusable resource. I was interested in Eva's use of it as a kind of lens for identifying the presence (or absence) of some qualities at the level of the group that could then be analysed using a range of analytical tools.

I found her piece interesting and was drawn to the concept of social capital because it helps to articulate how a group produces social contexts and relations through its interactions, and identifies the role of this dimension as constitutive of the operations of the group and individuals within it. Where I think it has room for expansion and/or adjustment is in the clear separation of the social from the material. For example, bonding can take place between people and objects, as can bridging and linking. In some cases the relation is with the object itself and in others the object plays a mediational role shaping the experience of the connection with others. Trust and distrust play out on these different levels too - think of how you feel when you are having a conversation with someone that you trust over the phone but their phone keeps getting cut off whenever you talk to them. This may not lead you to distrust the person, but it may make you feel less trustful about sharing your thoughts over the phone, which may in some strange way have the same effect, particularly if your primary contact with them is over the phone.

So some of the questions that came up for me included how social capital relates to material capital. Another example, my experience working with many community organisations that were under sustained funding pressure/cuts was that I observed a slow degradation of social capital within the organisation. Yet in some organisations this did not happen and would paradoxically lead to higher social capital. So while they do seem interconnected and the structural elements are important, neither of these things in themselves explain everything.

Other question I had was how S.C. relates to concepts like 'diversity' and this lead me to wondering how compatible it would be with an ecosystem perspective - to help explain and/or identify that there are certain qualities of local ecologies that are a product of the relations that constitute them that contribute to their survival as healthy and robust local systems within a larger heterogenous ecosystem.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Email list conventions

I know it shouldn't surprise me but it does. The way some people think email can be used really makes me realise how conventions associated with communication technologies are always being negotiated and what I think is bleeding obvious is clearly not for all.

Today I received an email from a guy inviting me to a movie this Saturday night. Now firstly,
I should say I identified the name of the sender immediately and recognised it wasn't spam. I also noted that it didn't appear to be a personal invitation. It had that impersonal, directed at the world in general tone. He asked, "Does anyone want to go to the movies with me?" This made me very curious. Clearly I was on some kind of a list and one of a number of people invited on this...was it a date? It wasn't clear whether it was a date or not. I expanded the header of the email because my mail program is set to suppress this level of detail. And yes, it seemed my initial thought had been correct. I was among 11 others invited to go see a film with this guy. Was it a group date? All the names on the list were familiar and they seemed to be all the female members of a singing group that I usually attend. It all started to click into place. I handed out my email address to be contacted for events associated with this singing group and this group list is now being used by one member for personal reasons in order to invite 'someone'/'anyone' to go see a movie on Saturday night. The group maillist, normally associated with a very particular activity and purpose is being used by this person as his own personal network.

Now, I don't think this act rates as abusive (at least not in my reckoning). It was obviously not designed to be malicious and doesn't come across as intentional mis-use of a list. What does surprise me though, is that he obviously thinks this is perfectly OK use of a group list. But I don't feel comfortable about that and it occurred to me that I assume that most of the women on the list would feel the same way. What do you think?

Friday, September 23, 2005

Eva Cox and Social Capital

I attended a seminar yesterday on 'Reclaiming Social Capital' at the CCR with Eva Cox. Eva is one of Australia's well known feminist and political scholars. I really enjoyed her presentation and sent her a follow up email to ask if I could obtain a copy of her paper to read more closely. I became interested in her ideas about social capital in relation to technology as I listened to her talk. My PhD is concerned with the relationships people form with their personal technologies in the workplace; how people respond to problems, the role of the "personal workspace" (including technological spaces) in workplace culture particularly in relation to the office environment, and shifts that come about with technologies that support more mobile modes of work.

I think the analytical space of social capital could be
extended to include how humans relate to technology and how the organisation of technologies implicates humans. Technologies and their organisation are involved in the states of trust and belonging that work to bind and support the group as an organisation. One of my observations working in IT was how perplexing it was that organisations that had 'low' social capital expressed this, in often unexpeced ways, through their IT system. For example, the lower the state of trust within the organisation, the tighter the security and the less control individuals had of their IT. I haven't seen the concept of social capital extended to the socio-technical domain. I wonder if it has been. Oh where are you my google...

Monday, September 19, 2005

Carmel made it in seat of Marrickville

Well the local by-election is over and Carmel won with a small swing against her that went to the Greens. I haven't had a chance to post this but a few days after I sent my carefully drafted email to her I actually received a reply. A letter arrived in the post signed by Carmel which attempted to respond to my points, although I must say, rather disappointingly.

She claimed that she was "grossly misrepresented" on the issue of banning the gay and lesbian resource as Minister for Education but doesn't offer an explanation of what really happened. At any rate, whether grossly misrepresented or not, she did ban the resource so it comes across that she is more concerned with the issue of her representation by the media than the actual issue of withdrawing the resource and what message that sends to the general public about homophobia.

I grant her maybe '1 brownie point' for responding to my letter personally and so swiftly but she wanted my vote so that's not very surprising. One interesting aside, because she has to vacate her seat in the Upper House to now sit in the Lower, the politician that has been appointed in her place is a lesbian parent. This is the first for Australian politics and I do wonder whether Carmel had anything to do with it and whether it is a sort of compensatory gesture (not to me personally - but to the large gay and lesbian contingent in her ward.) Politics...

On the Sweden preparations, I've made contact with Corporate Communications at Ericsson in Sweden to try to arrange an interview with staff in the R&D and product development departments. I've received a reply that they are processing my enquiry so that's a start at any rate.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Back to the phd

I suddenly realised it's almost half way through September and I'd like to submit my Ethics Application before I go to Sweden. The next date for submission to the Ethics Committee is the end of September. Today I started to review the draft application I had written about a month ago and updated it with some new material following my Confirmation of Candidature and a phone conference with my supervisor. Barring two last tricky little questions, one about demonstrating beneficence, I'll have it completed.

I've also been busy reading and trying desperately to be a good girl and take notes. I really am dreadful at notetaking but recognise it's necessity. Without notes I will never recall in two years time what the hell I was reading back in the first half of 2005. Plus I like to read a few books at a time so it's good for remembering who said what. I'm currently reading "Beethoven's Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture" by William Benzon. Benzon is a cognitive scientist who has drawn on fairly recent findings in neuroscience that refute the mind/body and emotion/reason split to argue that the mind evolved through music because music is an activity that facilitates self and interactional synchrony. It is this capacity for synchrony (which precedes language) that is at the core of what makes humans social. I'm also reading "Context and Consciousness" edited by Bonni Nardi which is an introduction of activity theory to the discipline of Human Computer Interaction.

Monday, September 12, 2005

"George Bush Don't Like Black People"

I came across The Legendary K.O. hip/hop mix today while blogastinating. I have to agree with the blogger on whose site I discovered this (as well as adding Danah's blog to my roll). When I heard Kanye West reported as saying "George Bush doesn't care about black people," I was moved and shocked. It went straight to the core of it. No mucking around. I recommend checking it out.

Letter to Carmel

Carmel Tebbutt, the Labor Candidate for Marrickville, left us a card under our door yesterday when she came around to talk to residents about this Saturday's By-election. Unfortunately my girlfriend and I missed our opportunity to let Carmel know our opinions so I wrote her a letter. I should note that referring to "home ownership", "local business involvement" and "community participation" is strategic to add political weight to the letter and does not reflect a notion of citizenship that I hold and judge others by.

Dear Carmel,

As I missed your visit to my house yesterday, I would like to give you
some feedback about my vote this Saturday. I have been living in the
inner west for over 10 years. As a long term resident and now
homeowner of this area, I am committed to maintaining and developing
this diverse and vibrant community. In addition to having been
involved in a range of community activities, I started and ran my own
IT business in the innerwest which employed over a dozen people. I now
own my own house in Newtown with my partner and we are active members
of the community and know many local residents.

I will not be voting for you Carmel and I would like you know my
reasons. Furthermore, I have urged all voters in the Marrickville
electorate that I know to consider your poor record on being "Caring
and Committed" before giving their vote to you.

The main reason I will not be voting for you is because you let all
Australian gays and lesbians down when, as current Minister of
Education and Training Minister, you banned an education resource as
part of a sex education program that promoted tolerance to gays and
lesbians after "The Daily Telegraph" published a story of one parent
complaining to the school about the program. Your reaction was to ban
the material and claimed "it was inappropriate."

You have made it clear by your actions that your policies, ostensibly
promoting a government that is "Caring & Committed", does not extend
to promoting social tolerance and understanding to gays and lesbians.
Far from reducing the level of homophobia in our society, your actions
have reinforced it. The Inner west deserves to be represented by a
leader who is prepared to stand up and be proud of the contributions
of its gay and lesbian constituents.

I have been a long term supporter of Labor in the local area but for
this reason I will not be giving Labor my vote in the upcoming

Saturday, September 10, 2005

When is a document a document?

I read a story that delightfully illustrates how 'contingent', or perhaps more accurately, how 'convenient' the meaning of technology is. In Japan parties have started campaigning for the upcoming national election. There is a law that limits the overall number and distribution of election material such as posters and flyers during the campaigning period. A recent move by officials to apply this law to Internet campaigning has involved a rather unique interpretation of the definition of a "document". According to the interpretation, a "document" can include a single web page or email and each "download" of a "document" is seen to be equivalent to a single physical exchange of a file, such as handing someone a brochure. The article describes how those who defy the law and who go ahead and update their home pages or disseminate emails risk being stripped of the votes cast in Sunday's pol and jailed for two years or fined up to 500,000 yen ($6000). (SMH 9/9/05)

Campaigners immediately responded to this by putting a quarantine on their web sites. The article goes on to explain that, "The threat has caused the home pages of the main parties, usually dynamic, to be frozen in time, appearing the same as they were on August 30, the first official day of campaigning...While party platforms can be downloaded, there are no updates, interviews or transcripts, and no way for voters with questions to get a reply." (SMH 9/9/05)

There are a number of questions about the
technical understandings that must come into play to equate a web page with a document and a download with handing someone a brochure. I will return to this point about the properties of technology later. What initially impressed me about this story is how it illustrates that the definition of a technology, in this case a "document", is directly connected to an interpretative operation. This operation defines not just what we understand the technology to be, but also what it does. Woolgar offers us the anti-essentialist perspective;

"The objective effects of technology are anything but self-evident. In each case the effect of technology necessitates some form of human interpretation; even if debate about such effects may be brought to (temporary) closure, and a consensus constructed around the alleged effects, this consensus is socially constituted, not the result of an autonomously and exogenously imposed truth." (p138)

The interpretative operation can also be seen to follow the stages of translation in actor-network theory as described by Woolgar in "The Machine at Work".

1. The nature of technology is problematised (what is the definition of a document?)
2. The meaning of a technology is translated to mean something else (a web page and an email are documents.)
3. The meaning is stabilised (in law and by the policies of authorities) and fourthly,
4. The new meaning is mobilised (through the threat of action by authorities and the response of campaigners to this threat).

So this case demonstrates that any understanding of technology, what it is and what it does, must be viewed firstly, as an interpretative operation that endows it with meaning and secondly, that the operation is a translation, or a strategic set of moves that involves a transfer of meaning (and power).

Although this account is pretty comprehensive, I am left feeling uneasy. It is not just the meaning of the object - the document - that is problematised and then re-interpreted but also the act of exchange itself - the download. Here we are to understand that downloading can be equated with handing someone a brochure. My initial reaction to this was that it was clearly the work of a bunch of lawyers who no nothing about IT. In both cases we are required to suspend certain technical properties that make the equivalence extremely difficult to maintain and to enforce. An anti-essentialist perspective would argue that the inherent technical properties are not inherent to the technology but have come to be known through a social consensus involving technicians and programmers etc.

But to my mind, downloading is really nothing like handing someone a brochure. Perhaps my IT background is clouding my reading but surely there has to be some acknowledgement of attributes that belong to the object at the time of the interpretative operation. Surely this bears greatly on the conditions of the interpretation and its success.

When I open my browser and visit a home page, I am downloading, or more accurately, my browser is loading the data that constitutes the web page through a series of requests and replies to the server hosting that page. The download is more correctly understood as a stream of queries and replies. It is not a single transaction of a single contained piece of information. Secondly, given this definition, each time I point my browser to that web page, another download occurs. And yet, this is not equivalent to me returning to the campaigner standing at a street corner and being handed another brochure because, unlike this scenario, re-loading a web page is not cumulative. I am left with no more data 'in my hand' so to speak after re-loading the page.

In the story about Japan, the interpretation seems to have accounted for this cumulative property by equating it with changes to the web page. And yet there still seems to be a mis-match of equivalence. What I can do with a bunch of brochures in my hand is completely different to what I can do with a re-loaded web page on my browser even with updated information.
In this case, the mis-alignment of equivalence has resulted in a kind of slippage of meaning, rather than a complete substitution. While the ANT approach might read this as an effect of the incomplete enrolment of actors in the network, I am left unconvinced.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Social researchers respond to Katrina

While information that we receive from the media is invaluable during disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, and often the only source of news and information, it is at best anecdotal and fragmented. Some experiences gain enormous exposure, while others fade into the background or are not related to the public at all. Social researchers have an important role to play to gather information that the media can't or won't because of it's primary concern with 'breaking news'. Some researchers have responded by initiating research with small groups of Katrina survivors to understand the impact of the disaster and the issues that face many people, and to clarify some of the worst excesses of the media's accounts i.e. the prevalence of crime...

From: Wesley Shrum <>
Date: September 6, 2005 12:52:05 PM EDT
Subject: Katrina -- one week after

On Sept 5, one week after Katrina, a team of ten people conducted qualitative interviews in the parking lot with approximately 50 displaced persons at a central Baton Rouge location. Afterwards, we met for a couple of hours, to abstract a consensus view of what we had learned. It is important to keep in mind that we spoke with individuals with some mobility (own car, other’s car, bus) that had been displaced by Hurricane Katrina and we have not yet interviewed those living in collective shelters.

The vast majority are from the New Orleans metropolitan area (including Kenner, Metairie, Chalmette, but not the New Orleans North Shore or Plaquemines). The vast majority of displaced persons are staying
in private homes.

The further one goes away from hurricane areas, the more, the
better, and the quicker is the assistance (people came back to Baton Rouge because they want to be closer to home, even in spite of reduced assistance).

Crime and fear of crime was universally unobserved or insignificant, both for early and late evacuees.

Blacks are more committed to returning home to New Orleans than whites, who express more reservations about returning (note, this does not take into account social class).

Displaced people have received assistance from (in order of importance), family, friends, and strangers. Churches have helped. Public (government) assistance was not just negligible—no member of the team recalled any instance of government assistance reported by this group of individuals (in the rare cases where help was requested, it was not provided).

Most people consider themselves to be very lucky, doing well, or doing reasonably well given the circumstances. They are not requesting assistance (beyond that they are receiving, and some of the most fortunate have their own means). But the minority of persons who are not doing well DESPERATELY NEED HELP.

The main concerns are financial, for a place to stay, and education for their children.

Put simply, depending on how long before they move back (if they do), people are worried that they will wear out their residential welcome.

Summarized by W. Shrum, 5 September 2005 World Summit event in Tunisia Science & Development Project site Society for Social Studies of Science

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Oh Sweden on my mind...

My trip to Sweden is coming up so fast. I have only one month before I fly to Stockholm. I've been liaising with the contacts over there to confirm accommodation and my research activities and everything is working out really well. I'll be staying in Stockholm for the time that I'm there and will commute to ACSIS by train. ACSIS is a national centre for interdisciplinary cultural research based at Campus Norrköping of Linköping University.

The Director of the centre has been very helpful with potential contacts to follow up while I'm there. There are lots of academics in Scandinavia that have done workplace and technology studies and an increasing number doing mobility studies.

Katrina People Finder

Another resource that has been set up to help people affected by Katrina. This is the blurb about it:

Donated money? Please donate a little time. Join the Katrina PeopleFinder Project. It's easy. All you need is an internet connection and the ability to copy data into a form.

After Katrina many friends and family members have been separated and left with no clear way to find each other. Hundreds of internet web sites are gathering hundreds, and probably thousands, of entries about
missing persons or persons who want to let others know they're okay.

The problem is: the data on these sites has no particular form or structure. So it's almost impossible for people to search or match things up. Plus there are dozens of sites - making it hard for a person seeking lost loved ones to search them all.

The Katrina PeopleFinder Project NEEDS YOUR HELP to enter data about missing and found people from various online sources. We're requesting as little as an hour of your time. All you need to do is help read
unstructured posts about missing or found persons, and then add the relevant data to a database through a simple online form.

To get started please click here:

Questions? Email katrina-people (at)


The Katrina PeopleFinder Team

Monday, September 05, 2005

Site for students after Katrina

This site is providing up to date information for students affected by Katrina who may need assistance, including offers to be placed in alternative higher educational facilities while recovery operations are underway. It is being updated regularly according to an academic mailing list I subscribe to.

According to posts I've read, there have
been dozens if not hundreds of great offers for students - the info just needs to get out to students...

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Creative Collective

A creative collective response to the disaster of Hurricane Katrina:

One web site,, is attempting combat the lack of information about what is happening in New Orleans by encouraging users to annotate a Google Map of New Orleans with information about specific locations.

Collectively, the community is creating a collaborative map Wikipedia. Anyone with something to add can enter a street address and leave a marker on the map at that location, providing a few lines of text about conditions at that spot.

"Never flooded, typical wind damage, passable street 8-31-05," reads one tag.

"Trey and April's We are OK ppl,"reports another.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Two dogs again

First up, my condolences to all those who have been affected by Hurricane Katrina. It's hard to imagine what it must be like to experience something like that. It is incredible too, to see the range of human responses to the disaster, the inventiveness and resilience, the loving acts of kindness and generosity and also the acts of complete disregard and selfishness. People never cease to amaze me.

You would think I'm doing my PhD on dogs by the many entries about dogs in this blog... No, but talk of dogs is such a therapeutic aside to the day to day practice of reading, writing and thinking something so 'serious' as a PhD that I really do enjoy just writing about dogs from time to time on the ol' blog. Excuse the self indulgences...

Well, today I have two dogs. My partners parents are away for the weekend and so their little foxy has come to visit. By my feet are two warm mounds of fur, one with short hair; white with black spots and the other with medium length coarse hair; white with ginger spots. They are curled up next to each other on the same bed which is next to the heater and are dozing lightly. Occasionally a dog with human walker or parent with squeaky pram (I almost wrote pram with squeakly parent!) walks past and both dogs wake instantaneously and simultaneously from their slumber and lunge for the front door in a frenzy of barks and flying fur.

On the PhD front, I happened upon a very exciting find yesterday. A book by Julian E. Orr called "Talking About Machines: An Ethnography of a Modern Job". Julian studied a group of Xerox Photocopier Technicians as they went about their work in the late eighties. He wrote up his findings in his dissertation (1990) and it was then published as a book (1996). Oh geez. I think he has written my PhD - a point both exhilirating and dreadful to discover. Exhilirating because every word I have read so far I recognise and have thought about as important to articulate and he has done it so elegantly. Dreadful because I also recognise how much work - thinking and hard research, has gone into the final opus and my thoughts and articulations seem so unformed in comparison and of course I have to come up with something fresh and different. Aargh.

The book is all about how the work of technicians is constructed and improvised in practice and largely through narratives of 'sensemaking' by triangulating with the machines and the customers. Their work practice is not, as you might expect much technical service work to be, the routine and rote following of instructions and procedures but as Orr writes,

"Technicians' practice is...a response to the fragility of available understandings of the problematic situations of service and to the fragility of control over their definition and resolution. Understanding is fragile in that accurate information about the state of the machine is only sometimes available, and the meaning of available information cannot always be found. Control is fragile both because the technicians come to work when the relationship between the customer and machine is already askew and because the technicians cannot keep the machines working and the customers satisfied; they can only restore that state after the fall. Work in such circumstances is resistant to rationalization, since the expertise vital to such contingent and extemporaneous practice cannot be easily codified." (Orr, 1996, p2)

He goes on to explain how the process of narrative gives form and definition to the problem which then enables diagnosis. The work involves making coherent that which has no sense (initially) and it is through talking about the problem as it perceived by them, the customer and what the machine is telling them, that the technician gains mastery over the machine. These narrative accounts also have another function. The circulation of such stories and information make up the discourse of the community of technicians. It is this discourse that makes up the body of knowledge of the community giving definition to the technicians job and a sense of identity through participation (p2-3).

I have a strong emotional response to his descriptions because they resonate so much with my own experience of being a computer technician and also in my role as trainer of computer technicians. I have not read enough of his book to identify what some of the experiential differences might exist between his group of photocopier repairers and say a group of computer support workers but I'm sure there will be some. For instance, I imagine one might be working with photocopiers as singular machines versus computers as part of a network, and another might be the remote aspect of much computer support work resulting from the integration of the telephone based help desk model into computer support and the
capacity to provide remote support over networks. Oh well, read on...