Boundary Objects and good advice.

You know the old joke – “I’m a sex object. I ask for sex, and people object”? No, well, now you do…
Boundary objects are, according to wikipedia – “In sociology, a boundary object is information, such as specimens, field notes, and maps, used in different ways by different communities. Boundary object are plastic, interpreted differently across communities but with enough immutable content to maintain integrity. The concept was introduced by Susan Leigh Star and James R. Griesemer in a 1989 publication (p. 393)”

So, it’s a very clever name for a bunch of new doctors…

Boundary Objects was founded in the summer of 2013 by a group of recent PhD graduates. Life outside of the Ivory Tower can be difficult: publishing our research, finding work, staying in the academic ‘loop’. We decided that we needed a support group. Boundary Objects is an international network for early career researchers working with museums and collections, run by and for its members. It is free of any institutional affiliation, allowing it to operate purely in the interests of its members.

We seek to support members in three key ways:

by facilitating research and collaboration by providing opportunities online (and hopefully in the future) in person, for members to meet, share ideas and develop new projects together;

by campaigning for the interests of early career researchers;

by offering informal guidance, mentoring, a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on when academic life gets tough.

The network is (yet) unfunded and run on an entirely voluntary basis. Our passion is to support those with similar concerns to our own.

And they have some corking advice about how to raise your profile in and outside academia.

Planes, Claims and Automobiles – #masculinity, #cars and #advertising

Two adverts have been on the idiot’s lantern at the gym (I am one of those tremendous bores who doesn’t have a television and lets you know at every opportunity)

Briefly, the plots; In one, a generically handsome (quietly athletic, mid-30s, stubbly; basically the male equivalent of the beige cheeky-boney woman you see in the other ads) is awaiting the arrival, by plane, of his gorgeous wife at their own isolated house in what might be the Canadian north (pine trees, lakes). There’s a (comedic, but unintentionally so) accident with the generator and the runway lights go out! OMG, She’s about to die!!! He leaps into his car, and because he can waggle the LED lights independently of the car, he guides her plane down. They exchange a steely, stoic and oh-so-sexy look, and the car logo comes up. Buy this car. You can be rich enough to own a plane, your own runway, and sang froid.

In the second, a generically handsome man (see above) is driving his sexy car. Over some ice. Suddenly a helicopter bristling with air-to-surface missiles appears, and starts to attack. He swerves and dodges among the explosions. Then (and this is dreamlike) the car is racing down on of those toboggan luge things. It flips up out of the luge, and circles over the helicopter. When it is directly above, the chopper pilot looks up and sees the car driver, smirking and in slow-mo, doing that points-fingers-at-own-eyes-then-points-at-pilot thing (i.e. “I own you.”) The car lands safely back in the luge chute, having done a complete circuit. The helicopter pilot, clearly distraught, doesn’t see a low-hanging powerline and is snagged, blowing up. The car pulls to a stop… Think that opening sequence in Top Gun, or perhaps Die Hard 4.0 and the “you killed a helicopter with a car” thing.

So far, so normal/outrageous/ridiculous/sinister and silly. I’ve wasted more time typing this up than I should have. What’s going on, under the surface?
I think there are claims about masculinity (I know, such insight!!)
Men are famously under attack (all those crazed feminazis out there, setting up roadblocks and burning their bras and calling for an end to everyday sexism via projects like Everyday Sexism . It’s the Handmaid’s Tale in reverse! We cis-men are oppressed!!)
And cars have been constructed as (sold as) places of virility for a century or so. (anything longer than wide is, after all, a phallic symbol).
What are these two adverts are claiming is that, via a halo effect, if you own the car you will have –
Mastery/competence, being able to improvise, and to cope when over-matched by either accident or malice. I’ve a friend who says that part of the attraction of James Bond is that he is able to become uber-proficient at whatever gadget Q gives him, and often literally shreds the instruction manual.

And you will be showing that you want to/are able to
Protect womenfolk
Defeat adversaries on the battlefield, especially ones with more firepower (one is reminded of Rambo and his exploding arrows in Afghanistan, or the Wolverines in Red Dawn. Nobody wants to win as the over-dog…)

See also

Decoding Advertisements by Judith Williamson
Mythologies by Roland Barthes

Book Review: “Innovation For A Low Carbon Economy”

innovlowcarbonFoxon, T, Kohler, J. and Oughton, C. (2008) Innovation For A Low Carbon Economy Economic, Institutional and Management Approaches Cheltenham: Edward Elgar

This one is a corker, if you like that sort of thing.

There are nine chapters, including the introduction, and every single one of them is worth some or a LOT of attention.  It’s rare that you can say that about edited volumes, no?

The authors of the various chapters are careful to define their terms, and if you take notes (pro-tip; take notes) then by the time you finish reading, you’ll have yourself a very handy glossary of terms for understanding the vast and ever-expanding literature on innovation, technology, socio-technical transitions etc.

I probably shouldn’t pick a favourite chapter, but one that particularly resonated, because of personal experience, was chapter 7;

Evolutionary Innovation Systems of Low Carbon Electricity: Insights about Institutional Change and Innovation in the Cases of CHP and Wind Energy by Marianne van der Steen, John Groenewegen, Martijn Jonker, Rolf Künneke and Eeke Mast

Packed full of important definitions (they matter) and historical examples (they matter too), this bit – “better to ask forgiveness than permission” – leapt out –

Meanwhile, the small-scale, decentralized wind energy market gained momentum from a bottom-up process of change. In 1972, Riisager, a carpenter, developed a small stall-regulated turbine, which he connected to the grid in 1975 without permission (van Est, 1999). After consulting with his neighbours to confirm that they had had no negative effects in their electricity supply, Riisager went to the local electricity company for official permission. Another important experiment was conducted at one of the Danish folk high schools; an education system designed by Grundtvig to educate the local community. In 1978 the folk high school Tvind built a 2MW turbine together with help of other high schools and volunteers. The size of the turbine certainly was remarkable, especially since this machine was developed as a community endeavour.
Page 191

But, to re-emphasise, there’s great stuff in chapters 1 to 6 and 8 and 9 too.

Social Media Advice for Conferences

A while back I went to a “how to ‘do’ social media for (academic conferences).  Typed up stuff and… left it on my desktop…

Good advice includes;

  • start early
  • have a separate email address (also makes it easier to get a twitter account)
  • don’t overcommit to stuff (if you’re not populating a blog/updating a twitter feed, then it’s worse than useless…)
  • don’t bother with facebook for academic purposes
  • Interesting decision to just have a hashtag, rather than an account – could work!

They talked about

  • blogging/websites – weebly, wordpress, blogspot
  • then facebook, twitteresque then eventbrite
  • Finding images – discussion of permissions (online and meatspace being different beasts)
  • Flickr, John Rylands Library Image service

Stuff I didn’t know well/at all

That list of what we knew

facebook, twitter, tumblr, instagram, pinterest, pblobspot, googleplus, linkedin, wordpress, mendeley, snapchat, youtube, ,

I didn’t mention Grindr

Happy Days are here again (aka “don’t kick the Beckett)

I’m the “Potsie.” And I’ve got to figure out a way for happy days….

Potsie was the dweeb. Nice, but dim. And in the May 15, 1979 episode of Happy Days, he is about to flunk out of college, because he just can’t get things right. He can’t remember his anatomy.

But his friends (including the Fonz) realise he can easily remember song lyrics. So they get him to write his homework as song-lyrics. Problem solved.

(Warning. This song is dire)

So, I am going to need to write my PhD dissertation as activist rants/blogs and then convert it to academese…

Book Review: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Duhigg , C. (2012) The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and businessNew York: Random House

powerofhabitThis is one of those books by a middle-class middle-aged American where (Gladwell, Gawande, Hertsgaard etc etc). They interview lots of people, they read lots of academic literature, they write very well (with knowingess that plays a game of tag with cynicism, avoiding the C word, generally [but not in the example below!]) and bish-bosh, you have a 250-ish page book. It will contain, in some ratio, some stuff that is banal, much that is obvious (but was hidden), a little that’s tendentious and two or three killer anecdotes that you can use as they were intended or twist to your own purposes.

Here Duhigg is looking at routines that we live by, at the personal level, the organisational level and the social level. He writes fluently, and is good on Paul O’Neill and how his safety culture transformed Alcoa, thanks to unexpected fringe benefits. Here’s his take on O’Neill’s first speech as CEO.

The audience was confused. These meetings usually followed a predictable script: A new CEO would start with an introduction, make a faux self-deprecating joke – something about how he slept his way through Harvard Business School – then promise to boost profits and lower costs. Next would come an excoriation of taxes, business regulations, and sometimes with a fervor that suggested firsthand experience in divorce courts, lawyers. Finally, the speech would end with blizzard of buzzwords – “synergy,” “rightsizing,” and “co-opetition” – at which point everyone could return to their offices, reassured that capitalism was safe for another day. Page 98

O’Neill believed that some habits have the power to start a chain reaction, changing other habits as they move through an organization. Some habits, in other words, mater more than others in remaking businesses and lives. These are “keystone habits,” and they can influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate.Page 100

Duhigg is good on how Starbucks helps employees deal with ratty customers, and he’s excellent on the 1987 Kings Cross Tube fire, a story that they should be teaching in kindergartens everywhere. [Here’s a blog post on that.]

His section on Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott should be required for every 21st century facebooker who casually uses Parks and the Black Civil Rights movement to prop up their own sense of self-righteousness and deluded hope for easy social change.

What is missing? A strong sense that we live in a reality distortion field. Power is about making people see just what is needed for them to see. Those who can force others to act (and therefore, usually, ultimately see) in the prescribed ways, end up with the spoils, at least in the short term. Lukes and all that. And the underlying question of what to DO about that is tricky indeed. I fear we are always pack animals, dependent on the tribe for both physical and “psychological” (the term can be misused, anachronistically) safety.

The costs of telling the truth are high, and fall on individuals. It is “safer” to keep schtum, even when everybody knows the ship is sinking, and everybody knows the captain lied.

See also:

Margaret Heffernan Willful Blindness

Geoffrey Martin Hodgson(born 28 July 1946) is a Research Professor of Business Studies in the University of Hertfordshire, and also the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Institutional Economics.

Committee on Food Habits (1941-43)

Of Leviathans, the Tube and #climate crisis.

The last post was about what happens to technologies that challenge the “Leviathan” – of hierarchy, class, habit and the external and internal oppositions. It’s worth a read, and I can say that because there are big slabs of quotations from two brilliant articles (about the 1970s industrial-policy-from-below Lucas Plan, and the present problems of Wikipedia).

This isn’t abstract though. When an elephant can’t tapdance, when people are silo-ed, and refuse to see what they need to because of the turf battles, then 31 people can die.

See these quotes from Chalres Duhigg’s excellent “The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business.”

The Underground was governed by a sort of theoretical rule book that no one had ever seen or read – and that didn’t, in fact, exist except in the unwritten rules that shaped every employee’s life. For decades, the Underground had been run by the “Four Barons” – the chiefs of civil, signal, electrical, and mechanical engineering – and within each of their departments, there were bosses and subbosses who all jealously guarded their authority. (p. 168)

Duhigg makes the point that for the trains to run on time (and it’s a VERY complex thing), you need there to be a “truce” between groups that would otherwise be trying to jockey for position, and causing havoc. In normal times, therefore, a “truce” can be a Good Thing.

But – and Duhigg also makes the point using a hospital A and E in the United States – when staff are “trained” not to step outside their very strictly demarcated (more than my) job (is worth), then they train themselves not to see things. Things that matter, like burning material at the bottom of an escalator on a November evening in 1987…

The London Underground’s routines and truces all seemed logical until a fire erupted. At which point, an awful truth emerged: No one person, department, or baron had ultimate responsibility for passengers’ safety. (p. 175)

fennell front coverDuhigg then goes on to point out that the period after a disaster, where everybody is shook up, and the ability (or willingness) to defend turf is shaken, is the time where things MIGHT be up for real change. He recounts what happened when the appointed investigator tried – on the basis of interviews with people in the Tube hierarchy who had known for years that “fire safety was a serious problem” – to fix things.

When Fennell began suggesting changes of his own, he saw the same kinds of roadblocks – department chiefs refusing to take responsibility or undercutting him with whispered threats to their subordinates – start to emerge.

So he decided to turn his inquiry into a media circus. (p. 179)

Sometimes, you need the klieg lights to keep things warm. It shouldn’t have to be like that, but it’s the world we live in, eh? But what do you do when things need to change, but the media just isn’t interested, because it’s not something that affects/scares its readers and therefore sells eyeballs to advertisers? What do you do about long, slow, unsexy emergencies in which we are all complicit, not just faceless “barons”? Like, to pick an example entirely at random, climate change?

References/further reading

Duhigg, C. (2012) “The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business.” New York: Random House

Fennell, D. (1988) Investigation into the King’s Cross Underground Fire London, UK: Department of Transport

Gawande, A. (2011) The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right London: Profile Books

“Technology versus the Leviathan”. But does it need a Leviathan? #innovation #democracy

TLDR: It’s a dilemma that has never gotten old. How do you overthrow an ossified system of control without becoming that same thing? “Met the new boss,” and all that. Or, worse and more likely, you run out of steam, lose heart, your best ideas get “borrowed” and prop up the thing you were trying to get rid of. Or – even more sinister – you do have a liberatory technology that “works” – but there are so many other inhibiting factors that you still can’t get out of the ‘ghetto’.

After posting about Shell and their awfully big ship, I have received, from its author, a stonkingly interesting paper about the history of “participatory technology” experiments in England in the 1970s and 80s (from Lucas, to the Greater London Council). It really is very very rich on a variety of topics. It’s called Technology Networks for Socially Useful Production.

Here’s a quote about how difficult it is to get tacit knowledge and skills shared. There are real cultural/class/gender/age barriers. of which we may be only dimly aware (at best).

Workshop practices, attitudes and expectations needed open reflection to overcome unintended exclusions. GLEB appointed Boards overseeing the networks were accused of having “employed high numbers of technically experienced trade-union men whose language, bureaucratic ways of working and emphasis on the product rather then the community process act to exclude even technically qualified women” (Linn 1987 121). The practicalities of bringing diverse communities together with engineers, machinists, and designers proved considerable. As Mary Moore put it, “You will not find this group coming together naturally after a CND [3] demonstration or a football match, for a quick drink or an exchange of ideas” (quoted in (Mackintosh & Wainwright 1987) (214). Democratising decisions involves the negotiation and resolution of conflicts, between different groups of workers, between producers and consumers, between professionalised expertise and grassroots knowledge, and across other divisions including class, gender and race (Blackburn et al. 1982).

I read that with great interest. Partly for its own sake, but also it so resonates with something I read just yesterday about Wikipedia, the online website that we all know, love, and cite when we want to get in trouble with our supervisors. It’s by David Auerbach, and its called “Encylcopedia Frown.”  As with the Smith paper, you should read the lot.

The encyclopedia that anyone can edit” is at risk of becoming, in computer scientist Aaron Halfaker’s words, “the encyclopedia that anyone who understands the norms, socializes him or herself, dodges the impersonal wall of semiautomated rejection and still wants to voluntarily contribute his or her time and energy can edit.” An entrenched, stubborn elite of old-timers, a high bar to entry, and a persistent 90/10 gender gap among editors all point to the possibility that Wikipedia is going adrift. Because Wikipedia is so unprecedented, I cut it a lot of slack, but precisely for that reason, it faces unanticipated dangers and no easy solution.

Auerbach was trying to get a page about him changed, since it claimed he held views which he most definitely did not. The gory details are very gory. Here’s his summation;

I am not exaggerating when I say it is the closest thing to Kafka’s The Trial I have ever witnessed, with editors and administrators giving conflicting and confusing advice, complaints getting “boomeranged” onto complainants who then face disciplinary action for complaining, and very little consistency in the standards applied. In my short time there, I repeatedly observed editors lawyering an issue with acronyms, only to turn around and declare “Ignore all rules!” when faced with the same rules used against them.

And what seems to be needed? For a Leviathan – a “visible power to keep them in awe, and tie them by fear of punishment to the performance of their covenants” – to step up  and to do some Leviathaning.

“I tried to correct the misinformation, several recalcitrant editors attacked me until Wales himself stepped in and saner editors prevailed and fixed the error. (To them, I am grateful.)”

And once you’ve invited the Leviathan in, what are the odds he (it’s usually a ‘he’) will become the new boss?

So the take homes are ;

  • you should definitely read the Smith paper
  • social change is bloody difficult. You have to get almost all of your ducks in a row. You need the “technology” duck and the “social movements” duck and the “how to hold good meetings and begin to create good relationships with busy/poor/disillusioned people” duck and a dozen other ducks you barely know the names. All of them quacking from the same hymn-sheet, flying in formation. Meanwhile, you have to dress each of your ducks in Kevlar, because, as happened in an earlier experiment in socio-technical change and cybernetics, the forces of darkness come in blast away at close range with a shotgun.

And what is to be done? I can’t say it better than Smith, so I’ll quote him

“A key lesson from this history is that radical aspirations invested in workshops, such as democratising technology, will need to connect to wider social mobilisations capable of bringing about reinforcing political, economic and institutional change. Otherwise, as … in the case of Technology Networks, diminished versions of these ideas and practices will become captured and co-opted by incumbents….. Grassroots fabrication needs to link to social movement, just as the Lucas shop stewards and Collective Resource Approach attempted when linking to workers movements. And any cultural shift needs to translate into political and economic reinforcement.”

Further Reading

Two of Cory Doctorow’s novels for young adults – Homeland and Little Brother – are both excellent page-turners, while also highly educative about the possibilities of technologies as a way of linking people, sharing knowledge and abilities.

William Golding Lord of the Flies, natch

The only way is ethics – principles for scientists

Seems about right to me.

The topic of having professional ethics for scientists isn’t new. Here is a list of principles proposed by the then chief scientific adviser in the UK, Professor Sir David King – in 2007:

  • Act with skill and care, keep skills up to date
  • Prevent corrupt practice and declare conflicts of interest
  • Respect and acknowledge the work of other scientists
  • Ensure that research is justified and lawful
  • Minimise impacts on people, animals and the environment
  • Discuss issues science raises for society
  • Do not mislead; present evidence honestly

Prelude in LNG major: Of Shell, #climate change and innovation

Innovation is double plus good? Well, depends…

preludestoryThe oil giant Shell is building a new ship, the BBC reports. Half-way through the story, after manfully capturing the scale of this big boy (it’s the biggest ship EVER. Over 400m long) we get, as they say in Hollywood, the “reveal.”

It’s going to be the FNG of fossil fuel extraction. It’s going to be a FLNG platform. That is, it’s going to be the world’s first Floating Liquefied Natural Gas Platform. It will, perhaps, “solve” pesky problems about pipelines and planning permission. And as with BP’s “Deep Water Horizon”, the clue is in the name.  And the name is… Prelude.

< Historical digression>

Shell got its corporate fingers very very badly burnt in 1995. It was trying to create a precedent where it could tow old oil rigs out into the deep Atlantic and sink them. Cost effective.  The first, as older readers may recall, was to be Brent Spar.  Greenpeace – and the car drivers of Europe who began to boycott Shell – scuttled the plan before Shell could scuttle the vessel (see Jeremy Leggett’s racy “The Carbon War for more details.)

</ Historical digression>

This ship-building project raises some interesting questions. We have what the European Union likes to call some “Grand Societal Challenges” (demographic shifts, food security etc). Maybe we will rise to those. But more likely, it seems, “we” instead will focus on some grand technological challenges, such as getting fossil fuels from the places that other technologies can’t reach.

Innovation is one of those words that has a halo around it, at least for people doing nicely out of technological intensification. It’s not quite “democracy”-good, but it’s not far off. Only luddites and hypocrites are opposed to “innovation”, right?

But halo words are by definition words with baggage. And we should be accustomed to checking what’s in the baggage before we let it travel with us. There are questions we should always ask.

Who is doing the innovating? For what purpose? What is the “opportunity cost”? That is, what ELSE could “we” be doing with all that money, all that steel, and – most of all – all that intelligence, ingenuity, enthusiasm and technical ability?  Is there a “lock-in” by pursuing some types of infrastructure?

And who is this “we” that I keep invoking, anyway?  It’s worth bringing up the story of the Lucas Aerospace Factory, which should be taught in primary schools.

In the mid-70s, a UK weapons company, Vickers Lucas, was planning to shut one of its factories. The workers did more than strike – they came up with a worked through plan for the factory to start making all sorts of social useful things (trams, dialysis machines etc.) And still be profitable.

It won’t do my career any harm to be quoting Adrian Smith of the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Essex Sussex. Here’s a bit from a Guardian article he penned in early 2014.

The Financial Times described the Lucas Plan as, ‘one of the most radical alternative plans ever drawn up by workers for their company’ (Financial Times, 23 January 1976). It was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. The New Statesman claimed (1st July 1977) ‘The philosophical and technical implications of the plan are now being discussed on average of twenty five times a week in international media’. Despite this attention, shop stewards suspected (correctly) that the Plan in isolation would convince neither management nor government. Even leaders in the trade union establishment were reluctant to back this grassroots initiative; wary its precedent would challenge privileged demarcations and hierarchies.

The management, perhaps not entirely comfortable with working-class people getting ideas above their station, nixed it. It’s almost as if technology has politics all the way through…

References and Further Reading

Cooley, M (1982) Architect or Bee? Boston: South End Press

Leggett, J. (2001) The Carbon War: Global Warming and the End of the Oil Era. New York: Routledge, pp. 209-13

Unruh, G. (2000) Understanding carbon lock-in [paywall] Energy Policy 28, 12 p817-830.

UPDATE 17/12/2014:  My friend John points me to this quote from start of a  2013 article in the Economist.

“IDEALLY”, said Jack Welch in 1998, when he was chief executive of General Electric, “you’d have every plant you own on a barge to move with currencies and changes in the economy.” Reality followed vision for Mr Welch, who was a pioneer of offshoring, setting up one of the first offshore service centres in Gurgaon on the outskirts of Delhi.

UPDATE 17/12/2014.  Many thanks to Adrian Smith of Sussex (not Essex!!) University for corrections.