Sunday, November 19, 2006

Bransford and McCarrell, "Cognitive Approach to Comprehension"

Bransford, John D., and Nancy S. McCarrell. "A Sketch of a Cognitive Approach to Comprehension: Some Thoughts about Understanding What It Means to Comprehend." Cognition and the Symbolic Processes. Walter Weimer and David Palermo, eds. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1974. 189-229.

Bransford and McCarrell set out to "raise particular questions about comprehension that may provoke further discussion and research" (189). How does one comprehend? What is the relation of object perception to comprehensible event? What is the ratio of perceptual experience to recall or memory in the meaningful event? Bransford and McCarrell key on the notion of a "click of comprehension." The "click" rests at the crisis point between aporia and epiphany: a moment of meaning-detonation. Bransford and McCarrell work through contextual constraints on meaning (missing or missed cues). They also explain the crucial role of relations among objects (195). That is, isolates (whether words or "brute things") do not mean in quite the same way when their relationality is diminished or altogether ignored. Their strong emphasis on comprehension as an orchestration of relations (perception, new knowledge, existing knowledge) matches well with Gibson's discussion of affordances (and also Fuller's discussion of Gibson's affordances).

In one example, Bransford and McCarrell speculate about what they term "abstract invariances" (197). They refer to walking as a relative class of events which, in specific cases, might vary. The "different particulars" involved with walking, then, might make is seem a novel event; however, there remains an abstract class of invariable information--abstract invariances--that apply to all (most!) instances of walking (or that function to distinguish walking from non-walking at the level of comprehension). The article goes on to consider relations and "entities involved" (an environmental or ecological consideration) and a few of the ways these ideas might be generalized to linguistic comprehension (201). That which is "directly expressed" in sentences (204) can only be comprehended in concert with whatever other information is available, including what Bransford and McCarrell "alinguistic information" (204). They also consider the "instigating force" of an unnamed, unseen entity that impacts comprehension despite its absence from the context, be it syntactic or scenic (211).

Other strong examples include the function of "submerged" in a paragraph about a man abandoning his car and walking toward the city (214). When the word is missing from the paragraph, comprehension is much more difficult. When added, however, the entire sequence of events as well as their motivations is comprehendible. A second example involves ambiguity in a confusing word, like "nog." "[The] ambiguous sentence The boy was found by the nog can be disambiguated as a function of our knowledge of nogs. If nog is assumed to refer to a monument in Central Park the sentence will be understood as a paraphrase of The boy was found near the nog; but if it refers to a furry animal with a good nose for tracking, the sentence will be understood to be a paraphrase of The nog found the boy" (219).

Sum: "Our approach to comprehension focuses on the comprehender's ability to use his general knowledge to create situations that permit the relations specified in input sentences to be realized, or to postulate situations (e.g., instigating forces) that allow perceptual events to be understood. In short, the ability to create some level of semantic content sufficient to achieve a click of comprehension depends upon the comprehender's ability to think" (220).

Key terms: click of comprehension (189, 200, 210, 215), meaningful entities (191), brute things (191), Piaget's "assimilation" (192), Bartlett's "effort after meaning" (192), affordances (193), abstract invariances (197), ecological niche (200), grasping of relations (200), sufficient alinguistic information (204), special assumption sentences and self-contained sentences (208), elaboratives (209), constraints (210), instigating force (211), categories of information (216), single lexical equivalents (216), labels for relations (218), nog (219), storehouse of images (220).

"Similarly, our perception of the world is rarely confined to identification of an individual object in isolation, but instead includes perception of an object's role in events" (190).

"Perception affords more than information about the characteristics of individual objects; it affords information about the spatio-temporal relations among entities that characterize the dynamic perceptual events (cf. E.J. Gibson, 1969; J.J. Gibson, 1966)" (191).

"That physical properties may have meaningful implications is important for consideration of perceptual learning, because it suggests that relational information that allows objects to become meaningful also affects what perceptual characteristics are learned" (194).

"The preceding discussion suggests that knowledge of entities arises from information about their relations to other knowledge, and that knowledge of relations distinguishes a meaningful object from a 'brute thing'" (195).

"Isolated objects cannot be taken as the basic unit of analysis when one seeks to understand how they become meaningful. Objects become meaningful by virtue of their interrelations with other objects (including the knowing organism); and objects are not always identified as mere objects" (197).

"Knowledge of entities and relations also interact to allow the comprehender to understand implicational significances of events which involve more information than is momentarily present" (199). ^Like Bruner?

"These examples illustrate how relational information about objects and information about abstract invariants characteristic of events interact to affect one's ability to comprehend novel situations" (199).

"The basic paradigm [for "a detailed analysis of relational information derived from perception"] is the 'ecological niche.' It consists simply of a film of a set of artificial entities that can be made meaningful to an organism as a function of his perception of their interactions in the perceptual mini-world" (200).

"These studies suggest that information 'directly expressed' by sentences cannot always be equated with the information available to the comprehender. Comprehenders do not simply store the information underlying sentences, but instead use linguistic inputs in conjunction with other information to update their general knowledge of the world" (204).

"Reasonable evidence suggests that the comprehender must frequently do considerable work to create situations that allow him to grasp the relations specified in input sentences, and that at least some specifications are necessary for the click of comprehension to occur" (210).

"We have proposed that knowledge of language might fruitfully be conceptualized as knowledge of abstract cues or instructions that guide the comprehender. The semantic content of a particular linguistic message is created only as the comprehender, guided by the linguistic cues, specifies conditions under which the abstract relations can be realized given his knowledge of the world" (215).

"Organisms must have information about an entity's relations to other aspects of his knowledge system to understand it. It follows that an image of a word's referent cannot be equated with its meaning, and similarly, the meaning of a whole sentence like The man made a touchdown cannot be equated with an image of a man crossing the goal line" (221).

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Syverson, Wealth of Reality

Syverson, Margaret. The Wealth of Reality: An Ecology of Composition. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Press, 1999.

Syverson's The Wealth of Reality--revised from her dissertation, which won the Berlin and Burns awards in 1995--calls for a reconceptualization of writing activity as radically situated in the interest of moving us away from reductionism (182) and the idealized atomistic-individual writer (synecdochic relationships fail to explain complexity). That is, an ecology of composition affords us greater explanatory power (203) in an era when the increasing presence of technology is adding complexity to the environments in which writers write (205-206). Understanding the rich ecologies of composition depends on a methodological framework drawn from complex systems thinking and distributed cognition influences. The writing environment is integral, and our understanding of "writers, readers, and texts" must take the environment into account.

Syverson's method involves a blend of ecological perspectives on situated and distributed cognition and case study. In the opening chapter, she introduces the terms that constitute a simple graph (the analytical tools for this ecological method).

Four attributes of ecological systems:

Five dimensions or manifestations of "every object, process, fact, idea, concept, activity, structure, [and] event" in an ecological system:

The "matrix" at the convergence of these two lists grounds us in a more complex (counter-reductive; expansive) framework for studying writing in situ.

Note: Six challenges to the ecological model (202).


ecology: "a larger system that includes environmental structures, such as pens, paper, computers, books, telephones, fax machines, photocopiers, printing presses, and other natural and human-constructed features, as well as other complex systems operating at various levels of scale, such as families, global economies, publishing systems, theoretical frames, academic disciplines, and language itself. For my purposes, then, an ecology is a kind of meta-complex system composed of interrelated and interdependent complex systems and their environmental structures and processes" (5).

emergence: Syverson offers three senses of emergence: structural, dynamic, and integral or combined. The first applies to the structure of hierarchical organization; the second applies to history or processes of change. "Emergent properties suggest that all of our classificatory systems arte actually open-ended, explanatory theories rather than closed, deterministic containers" (11).

distributed cognition: "the way cognitive processes are shared, that is, both divided and coordinated among people and structures in the environment" (9).

situated cognition: "cognitive processes are always embedded in specific social, cultural, and physical-material situations, which determine not only how cognitive processes unfold but also the meanings they have for participants" (9).

Key terms: metasystems (xv), complex systems (xv, 2), ecological systems (xv, 5), wealth of reality (1), complementarity (1), ecology of composition (2), unit of analysis (3), complexity (3), case studies (3, 187), adaptive (4), mechanistic explanation defied (4), complex adaptive systems (5), textual ecologies (16), power law (142), reductionism (182), new technologies (185), research, pedagogy, and assessment (187), Learning Record (192), developmental scales vs. idealistic rubrics (195), analytical tools (203), areas of study (domains of scrutiny) (204).

"Suddenly [with Syverson's discovery of Hutchins] thinking was revealed as not simply a matter of logical processing neatly managed by a brain in splendid isolation but as a complex ensemble of activities and interactions among brains, hands, eyes, ears, other people, and an astonishing variety of structures in the environment, from airplane cockpits to cereal boxes to institutions" (xiv).

"Technological advances have proven to increase rather than reduce the complexity and difficulty of our work. We cannot hope to understand these situations by studying individuals in isolation; we need an ecological approach that considers the dynamics of systems of people situated in and codetermining particular social and material environments" (xv).

"In a complex system, a network of independent agents--people, atoms, neurons, or molecules, for instance--act and interact in parallel with each other, simultaneously reacting to and co-constructing their own environment" (3).

"Complex systems are also distributed across space and time in an ensemble of interrelated activities" (7).

"Away from this familiar supportive environment [full of tools and resources, see p. 10], writers think and write differently; when writing while on vacation or at a conference, for example, they may feel either stripped and helpless or liberated and refreshed" (10).

"Embodiment grounds our conceptual structures, our interactions with each other and with the environment, our perceptions, and our actions" (13).

"Vision is enacted--what we see is brought forth (emerges) through the coordination of our physical structure and our cognitive and physical activity" (15).

"Composing practices such as freewriting, invention heuristics, diagramming, outlining, sketching, and marking manuscripts for revision also structure the form and content of what is written" (17).

"The five dimensions outlined here [physical, social, psychological, spatial, and temporal] are not categories of classes of objects; they are five aspects of every object, process, fact, idea, concept, activity, structure, event, and so on. Thus, although we can distinguish these dimensions, they cannot be 'separated out' because they are independently specified. As in geometry, single-dimension objects can only exist theoretically, in the imagination" (22).

"I am not arguing for a mathematical approach to composing, but I am trying to get at complexities in ecological systems that have not been addressed by theorists in rhetoric and composition" (23).

"As contexts and technologies for writing continue to change at an ever accelerating pace, we cannot cling to our familiar, comfortable assumptions about writers, readers, and texts, or we will find ourselves increasingly irrelevant and obstructive" (27).

"Composition does not consist in transferring what is inside the head onto paper or a computer screen. It is a manifestation of the coordination between internal and external structures, which are constituted by and expressed through cultural and cognitive dimensions of every human activity" (183).

"In my opinion, the real value in taking an ecological perspective is that it compels us to ask a better set of questions about the dynamic relationships among writers, readers, and texts and drives us toward a deeper understanding of composition" (206).

Related sources:
Bak, Per, and Kan Chen. "Self-Organized Criticality." Scientific American. Jan. 1991: 46-53.
Bateson, Gregory. Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. New York: Bantam, 1979.
Goodwin, Charles, and Marjorie Harness Goodwin. "Professional Vision." American Anthropologist 96 (1994): 606-33.
Hutchins, Edwin. Cognition in the Wild. Cambridge: MIT P, 1995.

Thursday, November 2, 2006

Brooke, "Forgetting to be (Post)Human"

Brooke, Collin Gifford. "Forgetting to be (Post)Human: Media and Memory in a Kairotic Age." JAC 20.4 (Fall 2000): 775-95.

Rather than lumping posthumanism with the other post-isms, Brooke draws on frameworks pursued by Hayles in How We Became Posthuman and Latour in We Have Never Been Modern as a way to resolve rhetoric's exceptional role in patching the nature/culture rift (Hayles' corollary, "we have always been posthuman" catalyzes this path of inquiry). Rhetoric, a "posthuman rhetoric" according to Brooke, is repositioned in the space of Latour's hybrids. Turning next to ancient rhetorics, Brooke points to Gorgias as one whose rhetoric enacted the imbroglio that resisted the polarization toward designations of artificial and natural. Like the Gordian knot Latour wishes for us to re-tie (it was unraveled by modernist purification), the Gorgian knot suggested by Brooke draws on posthumanism to furnish a both/and compromise that, rather than viewing memory as natural (as in orality; see Plato) or artificial (as in writing, electracy, secondary orality [?]), instead views it as doubly applicable to our "hypermediated society" (788). In other words, posthuman rhetoric would keep us cognizant of the error involved in tipping too far toward either a presumption of memory's naturalness (truth in mediation, such as Rodney King film footage segmented into individual images) or its artificiality (the rhetoric of antirhetoric). Brooke uses the counterparts of kairos and chronos to explain that the disembodiment of information (e.g., w/ King and the Challenger explosion) should call back into question the material manipulation of media that taken to be natural.

Key terms: hermeneuts of suspicion (776), convergence (776), Hayles' semiotics of virtuality (777), novelty (778), biotechnology (782), Gorgian knot (783), Valesio's rhetoric of antirhetoric (784), mimesis (785), Ong's secondary orality (787), Ulmer's electracy (787), discursive ecology (787), chronos and kairos (790), posthuman rhetoric (791).

"Bailiff's citation of both the postmodern and the posthuman, however, marks a distinction I want to pursue in the first part of this essay by claiming that the posthuman is not simply the latest in our academic procession of post-isms. In the first section I turn to the work of Katherine Hayles and Bruno Latour in an effort to articulate a space for posthumanism that is distinct from the modern/postmodern complex" (776).

"I transpose Hayles' own 'semiotics of virtuality' to the field of rhetoric, suggesting that the revision of memory that results may provide us with our best hope for tempering the will to knowledge that is one of our modernist legacies, an inheritance that has been intensified with recent advances in technology" (778).

"In fact, the network of relations among speaking and being spoken, nature and culture, and agency and determinism might seem to us the very sort of Gordian knot Latour seeks to retie" (783).

"From its inception, rhetoric does not claim to be anything but artificial; indeed, it is its artificiality that renders it transferable and teachable" (784).

"After Plato, rhetoric is an artificial construct, one that encourages us to conceive of our relationship to language as one of production and control" (784). ^Valesio's rhetoric of antirhetoric.

"Whether or not the shift from orality to literacy carries with it a corresponding change in mental faculties, it has a radical effect on the environment in which we think and act, which amounts to the same thing, according to Edwin Hutchins. Hayles glosses Hutchins' point: 'Modern humans are capable of more sophisticated cognition than cavemen not because moderns are smarter...but because they have constructed smarter environments in which to work' (289)" (786).

"As our memories and technologies have become more artificial, they have done so only as far as they circle back and approach the appearance of the natural" (787).

"We must reconceive the canon of memory, complicating the binary that Plato provides and reopening a space within our hypermediated rhetoric for the recognition of experience" (790).

"Why a postmodern rhetoric might privilege kairos over chronos, a posthuman rhetoric would find room for both" (791).

"As our technologies tempt us with the possibility of absolute (patterned) knowledge via the purified technologies of mediation (absence), a posthuman rhetoric would require us to temper that possibility with the materially situated emergence (presence) or opportunities (randomness)" (791).

Related sources:
Hutchins, Edwin. Cognition in the Wild. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 1995.
Valesio, Paolo. Novantiqua: Rhetorics as a Contemporary Theory. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1980.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Hayles, How We Became Posthuman

Hayles, Katherine N. How We Became Posthuman : Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: Chicago Press, 1999.

In this extended effort to explain the events and conditions leading up to posthumanism, Hayles manages to protect the flesh (defending embodiment and bodies from dispersing into information constructs) and plucking the thorns from posthumanism's rep as dehumanizing or anti-human (this plays especially in the conclusion on terror and pleasure stemming from pohu). The story of posthumanism, for Hayles, dates back to WWII; she accounts for three narrative strands: how information lost its body, how the cyborg was created as a technological artifact and cultural icon, and how a historically specific construction called the human is giving way to a different construction called the posthuman (2). How We Became Posthuman accounts for the theoretical tides (information theory, autopoiesis, the Macy conference), technological shifts (the audio tape and various wares--wet, soft, hard), and the narrative undercurrent (literary parallels and influences).

The three waves of cybernetics

Basically, the emergence of posthumanism is traced through three periods that constitute the episteme of cybernetics:

Wave One: (1945-1960): chiefly characterized by homeostasis and a focus on information as the primary key operating in the human-machine equation (51). The basic arguments pursued at the Macy Conference on Cybernetics were information, information dynamics in human neural activity, and rendering informational flows observable and, therefore, real (50). Reflexivity became a factor late in this wave and carried over into the second wave.

Wave Two (1960-1985): characterized by an interest in reflexivity and focus on the observer in situ. Autopoiesis, or self-making, keeps the focus on the autonomous individual whose boundaries are complicated, but autopoeisis accomplishes relatively little in rel. to language and enaction (development, impact on environment, etc.). Second wave, in part, responded to humanist tradition's skepticism of mathematical pronouncements (Weiner's contention that cybernetics is fundamentally mathematical).

Wave Three: (1985-present): the observer shifts from center to periphery and narrates (223); The spiral best represents this wave for the way it indicates an ability to evolve in new directions. Emergence, as a concept, bridges (blurs the distinction between) humans and intelligent machines. Though embodiment remains a distinction, virtuality has altered what it means to be human.

Posthuman point of view (suggestive rather than prescriptive):

  1. "the posthuman view privileges informational pattern over material instantiation, so that embodiment in a biological substrate is seen as an accident of history rather than an inevitability of life" (2);
  2. "the posthuman view considers consciousness, regarded as the seat of human identity in the Western tradition long before Descartes thought he was a mind thinking, as an epiphenomenon, as an evolutionary upstart trying to claim that it is the whole show when in actuality it is only a minor sideshow" (3);
  3. "the posthuman view thinks of the body as the original prosthesis we all learn to manipulate, so that extending or replacing the body with other prostheses becomes a continuation of a process that began before we were born" (3);
  4. "the posthuman view configures human being so that it can be seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines" (3).

Incorporating practices (198-205) and five characteristics (205):

  1. retains improvisational elements
  2. deeply sedimented into the body and highly resistant to change
  3. partly screened from conscious view
  4. able to define the boundaries within which conscious thought takes place
  5. often linked with new technologies that affect how people use their bodies and experience space and time.

^Hayles ends by suggesting connections to what Latour does in WHNBM (291): we have always been posthuman (based on the "seriated history"). How does this work with Hayles' extensive use of dialectics (25, 247)?

virtuality: "Virtuality is the cultural perception that material objects are interpenetrated by information patterns" (13).
skeuomorph: "a design feature that is no longer functional in itself but that refers back to a feature that was functional at an earlier time" (17).
informatics: "the technologies of information as well as the biologics, social, linguistic, and cultural changes that initiate, accompany, and complicate their development" (29).
autopoiesis: "the circularity of its organization that makes a living system a unit of interactions"; "self-making" (136)

Key terms: cybernetic unit (xiv), distributed cognition system (xiv), possessive individualism (3), liberal humanist subject (4), postbiological (6), three epochs: homeostasis, reflexivity, virtuality (7), Platonic forehand and backhand (12), informational patterns (14), material objects (14), seriation (14), information theory (25), virtual reality (26), presence and absence (27), medium's materiality (28), informatics (29), flickering signifiers (30), tools (34), information narratives (35), Kittler's medial ecology (48), neural nets (58), embodied complexity (61), singing condition (65), structural coupling (85, 100, 138), purpose and teleology (94), organization (138), enaction (155), incorporating practices (199, 205), subvocalization (207).

"To the extent that the posthuman constructs embodiment as the instantiation of thought/information, it continues the liberal tradition rather than disrupting it" (5).

"Rather, I view the present moment as a critical juncture when interventions might be made to keep disembodiment from being rewritten, once again, into prevailing concepts of subjectivity" (5).

"In a sense, autopoiesis turns the cybernetic paradigm inside out. Its central premise--that systems are informationally closed--radically alters the idea of the information feedback loop, for the loop no longer functions to connect a system to its environment. In the autopoietic view, no information crosses the boundary separating the system from its environment" (10).

"My strategy is to complicate the leap from embodied reality to abstract information by pointing to moments when the assumptions involved in this move were contested by other researchers in the field and so became especially visible" (12).

"The contemporary pressure toward dematerialization understood as an epistemic shift toward pattern/randomness and away from presence/absence, affects human and textual bodies on two levels at once, as a chance in the body (the material substrate) and as a chance in the message (the codes of representation)" (29).

"Using tools may shape the body (some anthropologists have made this argument), but the tool nevertheless is envisioned as an object that is apart from the body, and object that can be picked up and put down at will" (34).

"Homeostasis won in the first wave largely because it was more manageable quantitatively. Reflexivity lost because specifying and delimiting context quickly ballooned into an unmanageable problem" (57). This, the problem of complexity, plentitude, and a method's limitations.

"Of all the implications that first-wave cybernetics conveyed, perhaps none was more disturbed and potentially revolutionary than the idea that boundaries of the human subject are constructed rather than given. Conceptualizing control, communication, and information as an integrated system, cybernetics radically changed how boundaries were conceived" (84).

"The flip side of drawing analogies is constructing boundaries. Analogy as a figure draws its force from the boundaries it leapfrogs across" (93).

"One of the most frequent criticisms made of cybernetics during this period was that it was not really a new science but was merely an extended analogy (men are like machines)" (97).

"The danger of cybernetics from Wiener's point of view, is that it can potentially annihilate the liberal subject as the locus of control. On the microscale, the individual is merely the container for still smaller units within, units that dictate actions and desires; on the macroscale, these desires make the individual into a fool to be manipulated by knaves" (110).

"In first-wave cybernetics, questions of boundary formation were crucial to its constructions of subjectivity. Boundary questions are also important in autopoietic theory" (141).

"[In the advanced stage of second-wave cybernetics] A status report, then: information's body is still contested, the empire of the cyborg is still expanding, and the liberal subject, although more than ever an autonomous individual, is literally losing its mind as the seat of identity" (149).

"This chapter suggests a new, more flexible framework in which to think about embodiment in an age of virtuality. This framework comprises two dynamically interacting polarities. The first polarity unfolds as an interplay between the body as a cultural construct and the experiences of embodiment that individual people within a culture feel and articulate. The second polarity can be understood as a dance between inscribing and incorporating practices" (193).

"But the posthuman does not really mean the end of humanity. It signals instead the end of a certain conception of the human, a conception that may have applied, at best, to that fraction of humanity who had the wealth, power, and leisure to conceptualize themselves as autonomous beings exercising their will through individual agency and choice. What is lethal is not the posthuman as such but the grafting of the posthuman onto a liberal humanist view of the self" (286).

"In this account, emergence replaces teleology; reflexive epistemology replaces objectivism; distributed cognition replaces autonomous will; embodiment replaces a body seen as a support system for the mind; and a dynamic partnership between humans and intelligent machines replaces the liberal humanist subject's manifest destiny to dominate and control nature" (288).

"Rather, the distributed cognition of the emergent human subject correlates with--in Bateson's phrase, becomes a metaphor for--the distributed cognitive system as a whole, in which 'thinking' is done by both human and nonhuman actors" (290).

"Writing in another context, Hutchins arrives at an insight profoundly applicable to virtual technologies: 'What used to look like internalization [of thought and subjectivity] now appears as a gradual propagation of organized functional properties across a set of malleable media' (p. 312)" (290).

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Latour, We Have Never Been Modern

Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, 1993.

Latour carves through the layers of the "modern" episteme in an effort to back his argument that we have never been modern. "Moderns," he contends, have so eagerly pursued the polarization of ideas unto Nature and Culture (science and the social) that they have rendered the mediators (in translation, i.e., networks) invisible, concealed, mere and inconvenient intermediaries. As the two poles diverge, spanning them becomes exasperating (Hobbes and Boyle are representative figures here, splitting authority into the civic domain and the laboratory); Latour wants us to "retrace our steps" and "stop moving on" (62). Following a propensity for "purification," the so-called moderns have neglected networks, the imbroglios of quasi-objects and quasi-subjects, and thereby "drained [the modern world] of its mysteries" (128). According to Latour, the four bases for modernist critique allow these conditions to persist: "naturalization, sociologization, discursivization, and finally the forgetting of Being" (67, 88).

Purification and Translation

What accumulates is a kind of archeology of contemporary epistemologies (reminds me of The Order of Things, faintly), and Latour takes to task not only the moderns, but the antimoderns and the postmoderns as well. Eventually, after a biting critique of the postmoderns, however, he points out that all need not be abandoned. Latour wants to retain and reject selected precepts from the premoderns, moderns, and postmoderns (reflexivity and desconstruction/constructivism) (135).

While there's a whole lot more here, Latour ends with a pronouncement on behalf of things. In the final chapter, "Redistribution," humanism is recast as "a weaver of morphisms" (137) and "the networks come out of hiding" (139). With too many hybrids, the network is now stabilized (with objects like the air pump), and "[a]t last the Middle Kingdom is represented. Natures and societies are its satellites" (79): "In its confines, the continuity of the collective is reconfigured. There are no more naked truths, but there are no more naked citizens, either. The mediators have the whole space to themselves. The Enlightenment has a dwelling-place at last. Natures are present, but with their representatives, scientists who speak in their name. Societies are present, but with the objects that have been serving as their ballast from time immemorial" (144).

Key terms: nature-culture (7, 41), critical tripartation (7), translation and purification (10), constitution (14), inert bodies (23), social context (25), representation (27), modern critique (38), nonmodern and amodern (47), quasi-objects and quasi-subjects (51), dialectics (55), phenomenologists (58), polytemporal (74), mediators and intermediaries (77), silent things (83), skein of networks (120), micro and macro (121), size (113).

"To shuttle back and forth [between nature and culture], we rely on the notion of translation, or network. More supple than the notion of system, more historical than the notion of structure, more empirical than the notion of complexity, the idea of network is Ariadne's thread of these interwoven stories" (3).

"Our intellectual life is out of kilter. Epistemology, the social sciences, the sciences of texts--all have their privileged vantage point, provided that they remain separate" (5).

"In the eyes of our critics the ozone hole above our heads, the moral law in our hearts, the autonomous texts, may each be of interest, but only separately. That a delicate shuttle should have woven together the heavens, industry, texts, souls, and moral law--this remains uncanny, unthinkable, unseemly" (5).

"Either we have to disappear, we bearers of bad news, or criticism itself has to face a crisis because of these networks it cannot swallow" (6).

"The double separation is what we have to reconstruct: the separation between humans and nonhumans on the one hand, and between what happens 'above' and 'below' on the other" (13).

"No science can exit from the network of its practice" (24).

"In other words, they are inventing our modern world, a world in which the representation of things through the intermediary of the laboratory is forever dissociated from the representation of citizens through the intermediary of the social contract" (27).

"Here likes the entire modern paradox. If we consider hybrids, we are dealing only with mixtures of nature and culture; if we consider the work of purification, we confront a total separation between nature and culture" (30).

"A nonmodern is anyone who takes simultaneously into account the moderns' Constitution and the populations of hybrids that that Constitution rejects and allows to proliferate" (47).

"The antimoderns, like the postmoderns, have accepted their adversaries' playing field. Another field--much broader, much less polemical--has opened up before us: the field of nonmodern worlds. It is the Middle Kingdom, as vast as China and as little known" (48).

"How did the modern manage to specify and cancel out the work of mediation both at once? By conceiving of every hybrid as a mixture of two pure forms" (78).

"In following the pump, do we have to pretend that everything is rhetorical, or that everything is natural, or that everything is socially constructed, or that everything is stamped and stocked?" (89).

"By learning of Archimedes' coup (or rather, Plutarch's) we identify the entry point of a new type of nonhuman into the very fabric of the collective" (111).

"The two extremes, local and global, are much less interesting than the intermediary arrangements that we are calling networks" (122).

"So the strength of the error that the modern world makes about itself is not understandable, when the two couples of opposition are paired: in the middle there is nothing thinkable--no collective, no network, no mediation; all conceptual resources are accumulated at the extremes. We poor subject-objects, we humble societies-natures, we modest locals-globals, are literally quartered among ontological regions that define each other mutually but no longer resemble our practices" (123).

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Bateson, Steps To An Ecology of Mind

Bateson, Gregory. Steps To An Ecology of Mind. 1972. Chicago: U. of Chicago P., 2000.

Steps To An Ecology of Mind is a collection of lectures and essays from Bateson's career, ranging widely in topics from philology and evolution, to genetics and anthropology. Bateson is generally interested in deep structures and patterns (rather than substances); though it's difficult to synthesize, his concern with form and epistemology surface repeatedly in his work. If a larger point can be summarily gleaned from this collection, it involves the dramatic changes to epistemology wrought by cybernetics and information theory.

In select pieces, Bateson is especially forthright about this "Epistemology of Cybernetics" (this, a subsection in his essay on "A Cybernetics of 'Self': A Theory of Alcoholism" (309)). In "Epistemology of Cybernetics," Bateson discusses a phenomenon that resembles distributed cognition in which mind, his term of terms, coalesces in brain, body, and environment: "Similarly, we may say that 'mind' is immanent in those circuits of the brain which are complete within the brain. Or that mind is immanent in circuits which are complete within the system, brain plus body. Or, finally, that mind is immanent in the larger system--man plus environment" (317). To explain this concept, Bateson uses the example of a man cutting a tree with an axe. The total system of "tree-eyes-brain-muscles-axe-stroke-tree" "has the characteristics of immanent mind" (317).

These ideas are most germane to the exam on tools-in use: ecologies and affordances. They receive further elaboration and clarification an essay near the end of the book called "Form, Substance, and Difference" (454), in which Bateson seeks out ways to discuss "organism plus environment" (455). He contends that epistemology has shifted because of cybernetics and information theory, and that rather than turning to hard science for explanations of human psychology and behavior (458), we must understand the co-adaptive complex systems of the human individual, the society, and the ecosystem (435). In this chapter, he notes that the relationship between thought and emotion (469) must be revisited in light of his view of epistemology. Also, in the end-note, he mentions that mind includes actions and tools (473). Here are two of the more pithy quotations that connect the chapter to methodological delineations (the limits of systems) and the scalability of mind (its multiple rings of immanence):

Key Terms: ecology of mind (xxiii), ecology of ideas (xxiii), metalogue (1), outlines (27), analogy and homology (80), "feel" of culture (81), ethos and cultural structure (83), deutero-learning (167), transcontextual (272), feedback loops (274), governor (316), territory and map (455)

"The questions which the book raises are ecological: How do ideas interact? Is there some sort of natural selection which determines the survival of some ideas and the extinction or death of others? What sort of economics limits the multiplicity of ideas in a given region of the mind? What are the necessary conditions for stability (or survival) of such a system or subsystem?" (xxiii).

"In fact, the phenomenon of context and the closely related phenomenon of 'meaning' defined a division between the 'hard' sciences and the sort of science which I was trying to build" (xxv).

"I stressed the fact that 'data' are not events or objects but always records or descriptions or memories of events or objects" (xxv).

"Be that as it may, the central--but usually not explicit--subject matter of the lectures which I used to give to psychiatric residents and of these essays is the bridge between behavioral data and the 'fundamentals' of science and philosophy; and my critical comments above about the metaphoric use of 'energy' in the behavioral sciences add up to a rather simple accusation of many of my colleagues, that they have tried to build the bridge between form and substance. The conservative laws for energy and matter concern substance rather than form. But mental process, ideas, communication, organization, differentiation, pattern, and so on, are matters of form rather than substance.
Within the body of fundamentals, that half which deals with form has been dramatically enriched in the last thirty years by the discoveries of cybernetics and systems theory. This book is concerned with building a bridge between the facts of life and behavior and what we know today about the nature of pattern and order" (xxxii).

"As I see it, the advances in scientific thought come from a combination of loose and strict thinking, and this combination is the most precious tool of science" (75).

"All biological systems (organisms and social or ecological organizations of organisms) are capable of adaptive change. But adaptive change takes many forms, such as response, learning, ecological succession, biological evolution, cultural evolution, etc., according to the size and complexity of the system which we choose to consider" (274).

"The weaving of contexts and of messages which propose contexts--but which, like all messages whatsoever, have 'meaning' only by virtue of context--is the subject matter of the so-called double-bind theory" (276).

"Thus, in no system which shows mental characteristics can any part have unilateral control over the whole. In other words, the mental characteristics of the system are immanent, not in some part, but in the whole" (316).

"In a word, schizophrenia, deutero-learning, and the double bind cease to be matters of individual psychology and become part of the ecology of ideas in systems or 'minds' whose boundaries no longer coincide with the skins of participant individuals" (339).

"Similarly, from the cybernetic point of view, a word in a sentence, or a letter within the word, or the anatomy of some part within an organism, or the role of a species in an ecosystem, or the behavior of a member within a family--these are all to be (negatively) explained by an analysis of restraints" (406).

"All that is not information, not redundancy, not form and not restraints--is noise, the only possible source of new patterns" (416).

"Occasionally actual pieces of the external environment--scraps of potential nest-building material, 'trophies,' and the like--are used for communication, and in these cases again the messages usually contribute redundancy to the universe message plus the relationship between the organisms rather than to the universe message plus external environment" (424).

"I refer to the 'semipermeable' linkage between consciousness and the remainder of the total mind. A certain limited amount of information about what's happening in this larger part of the mind seems to be related to what we may call the screen of consciousness. But what gets into consciousness is selected; it is a systematic (not random) sampling of the rest" (438).

"The unit of survival is a flexible organism-in-its-environment" (457).

Friday, October 27, 2006

Norman, The Invisible Computer

Norman, Donald. The Invisible Computer: Why Good Products Can Fail, the Personal Computer Is So Complex, and Information Appliances Are the Solution. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.

Norman introduces an expanded typology for ushering the computer industry beyond its adolescent stage (27). As an improvement to the feature-bloated, single-user PC as the default model for information technology, Norman argues for "information appliances," a designation that privileges simplicity and modularity. Norman focuses his discussion on business and industry rather than academe. Because "[c]omputers today [1999] are too difficult," (89) he implores the technology industry to "[b]uild special purpose devices, information appliances, where each device is tuned especially for an activity" (85). Often in a manifesto-like style, Norman makes a hard case against personal computers; he also decries particular terms, such as "applications," (82) and tropes, such as metaphors (180).

Norman prefers simplicity to both difficulty (outer workings) and complexity (inner workings). Creeping featurism, or featuritis, is, as it was in The Design of Everyday Things, the chief hindrance affecting new computer technologies. A 1:1 relationship between appliance (or device) and task is better, according to Norman, than an all-in-one integration that loads expansive functionality into a single item. It's not clear, however, whether this applies only to the desktop PC of the late 1990's or whether is also an overarching principle applicable to things like iPod cameraphones. Choose simplicity over complexity, without compromising on flexibility (presumably, the simple is more flexible?).

The account of a technology's life cycle is one of the more salient pieces of the project. Norman explains Progression from technology-centered youth to consumer-centered maturity: five categories: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, laggards (31). See charts pp. 32, 33.

Three axioms for information appliances: simplicity, versatility, pleasurability (67)
Five proposed solutions to the difficulty of use problem: speech recognition (96), three-dimensional space (100), intelligent agents (104), networked computer [primarily for ease of maintenance] (107), and small handheld devices (109).
Six disciplines of user experience (189): field studies, behavioral designers, model builders and rapid prototypers, user testers, graphical and industrial designers, technical writers (190-191).

Norman again brings up affordances, this time relative to computers (a complicated turn). He says that media have affordances (124), but it's not clear how well this jibes with what Gibson says about the environment and ecological optics.

Norman also praises the design of modern cars where specific features are seamlessly, often invisibly, integrated (76). Problem: if you can't see it, can you work on it? Case against technicity? For consumers as worry-free and oblivious?

Late in The Invisible Computer, Norman explains his preference for a human-centered view rather than a machine-centered view (160). It's not clear why these are the only two orientations to choose among. Also, he argues strongly for conceptual models to guide the design process, and he also accounts for widespread processual constraints to design, production, and circulation of information appliances. Finally, corporate restructuring will be necessary to accommodate his plan for human-centered development and the expansion of information appliances as computers fade from their explicit, visible role.

Key terms: life cycle of technology (ix, 24), technological revolutions (3), Edison and phonograph (5), infrastructure (6, 113), market share (14), everyday object (16), information appliance (20, 53), disruptive technology (23, 232), early adopters (25), technology (27), human-centered development (39, 185), complexity barrier (53), families of appliances are systems (62), creeping featurism (80), rampant featurism (81), distributed systems (95), substitutable and nonsubstitutable goods (116), affordances (123), technology-free zones (131), Taylor's "scientific management" (149), conceptual models (154, 177), human error (158), complexity and difficulty (167), contextual design (187), rapid ethnography (194), contextual inquiry (195).

"The first lesson is that there is a serious mismatch between the properties of machines and of people" (xi).

"The ideal system so buries the technology that the user is not even aware of its presence" (xii).

"Today's technology imposes itself on us, making demands on our time and diminishing our control over our lives. Of all the technologies, and perhaps the most disruptive for individuals is the personal computer. The computer is really an infrastructure, even though we treat it as the end object. Infrastructures should be invisible: and that is exactly what this book recommends: A user-centered, human centered humane technology where today's personal computer has disappeared into invisibility" (6).

"Why is everything so difficult to use? The real problem lies in product development, in the emphasis on the technology rather than on the user, the person for whom the device is intended. To improve products, companies need a development philosophy that targets the human user, not the technology. Companies need a human-centered development (39). The product depends equally on technology (43), marketing (44), and user experience (47).

"Information appliance n.: An appliance specializing in information: knowledge, facts, graphics, images, video, or sound. An information appliance is designed to perform a specific activity, such as music, photography, or writing. A distinguishing feature of information appliances is the ability to share information among themselves" (53).

"Any single set of tools is a compromise when faced with a wide range of tasks.... Try to make one device do many things and complexity increases" (70).

"People are analog and biological; information technology is digital and mechanical. Being digital may be good for machines, but it is bad for people" (87).

"There are two kinds of economic markets: substitutable and nonsubstitutable. Substitutable goods are products like groceries, clothes, and furniture. Nonsubstitutable goods are invariably infrastructures" (116).

"The ultimate goal is simplicity. Make things fit the task, make the difficulty of our tools match the difficulty of the job to be done" (183).

"The vision is clear. Move to the third generation of the personal computer or, if you will, a generation of personal technologies, the generation where the technology disappears into the tool, serving valuable functions, but keeping out of the way. The generation where the computer disappears into tools specific to tasks. The generation of the invisible computer" (259).

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Turkle, The Second Self

Turkle, Sherry. The Second Self : Computers and the Human Spirit. 1984. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005.

Working in the early 1980's, Turkle undertakes an extended ethnographic study over six years to explore the relationships between people and computers (and other electronic devices). Involving graduate students from her "Computers and People" seminar at MIT, Turkle interviewed over 400 people, while working toward a more nuanced understanding of computers not as mechanistic instruments or tools, but as psychological machines that defy commonplaces distinctions between object and subject. Turkle seeks to challenge status quo conceptions about computers as analytical engines and instead introduce models of mind with much subtler gradations between human and computer, between the mental and mechanical. First published in 1984, the volume was re-released for its 20th anniversary.

In the first third of the book, Turkle works primarily with young people and in so doing, she explains three stages of computational development (or sociomechanicognitive development related to interactions with computers): metaphysical, enactive (toward control and mastery), and identity-based. In chapter one, Turkle interviews young "philosopher" children who are attempting to make sense of the life-presence in intelligent games. She revisists theories of animism and aliveness. Setting out from Piaget's classical model of physical motion (and sometimes speech) as an indicator of life, Turkle suggests that computers challenge children to involve psychological criteria for explaining their encounters with electronic devices (48). Specific examples include frustration resulting from the Speak and Spell "bug" (39) and removing the batteries to kill or crash the machine (41).

In chapter two, Turkle discusses the "holding power" of video games. She touches on addiction, offers a brief history of gaming (75), and mentions ties to Dungeons and Dragons and pinball. Chapter three returns to the stages. Here, she discusses the enactive or mastery stage of development, interviewing child programmers and exploring the factors affecting computers in formal educational settings. The final stage--identity--figures into chapter four. Turkle takes up issues of identity and play, suggesting that adolescents tend to be more consumed with control in the microworlds supported by computer technologies.

In the middle third of the book, Turkle keys on 1975 as a catalyzing moment for the personal computer boom (156). Chapter six is devoted to hackers and hacking culture (more on passion, mastery, and identity). Chapter seven covers artificial intelligence and emphasizes emergence as a glue-concept that complicates the extreme positions on AI as plausible or faulty. She also mentions a Dartmouth Conference (the "other" Dartmouth Conf.?) on AI in the summer of '56 (221). Nuanced discussions of AI, Turkle argues, blur the distinctions between objective and subjective.

Key terms: computational metaphors (3), second self (5), sense of self (5), emergence (8, 253), transparency (9), anxiety (15), V. Turner's "liminal moment" (15), instrumental computer (19), subjective computer (19), metaphysical machine (21), psychological machine (21, 62), technological determinism (26), marginal objects (34), animism (37), clouds (44), Piaget (45), novelty bias (51, 320), cognitive/affective distinction (57), emotion (63), holding power (66), video games (66), simulated worlds (80), styles of mastery (101), bricolage (102), microworld and control (141), computer models of how people think (223), anthropomorphization (248), models of mind (267, 271), Norman on slips (273), object relations (287), relational artifacts (288), boundary objects (290), Polanyi against "objectivity" (281).

Machinym: The Sims (13), Merlin (33), Speak and Spell (38), ELIZA (42-43), Asteroids (63), Pac Man (68), pinball (70), Joust (74), Dungeons and Dragons (78), Adventure (205), Tron (251), Tamagotchis (289), Furby (290), Aibo (290), Real Baby (290).

"The Second Self documents a moment in history when people from all walks of life (not just computer sciences and artificial intelligence researchers) were first confronted with machines whose behavior and mode of operation invited psychological interpretation and that, at the same time, incited them to think differently about human thought, memory, and understanding. In consequence, they came to see both their minds and computational machines as strangely unfamiliar or 'uncanny' in the sense that Sigmund Freud had defined it. For Freud, the uncanny (das Unheimleiche) was that which is 'known of old and long familiar' seen anew, as strangely unfamiliar" (1).

"In The Second Self I was writing against the common view that the computer was 'just a tool,' arguing for us to look beyond all the things the computer does for us (for example, help with word processing and spreadsheets) to what using it does to us as people" (3).

"Most considerations of the computer describe it as rational, uniform, constrained by logic. I look at the computer in a different light, not in terms of its nature as an 'analytical engine,' but in terms of its 'second nature' as an evocative object that fascinates, disturbs equanimity, and precipitates thought" (19).

"My style of inquiry here is ethnographic. My goal: to study computer cultures by living within them, participating when possible in their lives and rituals, and by interviewing people who could help me understand things from the inside" (25).

"For me, one of the most important cultural effects of the computer presence is that the machines are entering into our thinking about ourselves" (29).

"The physical is used to understand things, the psychological to understand people and animals. But the computer is a new kind of object--psychological, yet a thing" (34).

"Children are not always sure whether [computers and other interactive electronic objects] are alive or not alive, but it is clear, even to the youngest child, that movement is not the key to the puzzle. Children perceive the relevant criteria not as physical or mechanical, but as psychological: Are their electronic games aware, are they conscious, do they have feelings, do they play fair, to they cheat?" (47).

"It is difficult to imagine [Jarish, one who expresses his "love" for games] playing anything like Pac-Man or Joust when he is thirty" (77).

"With adolescence, there is a return to reflection, but this time reflection is insistently about the self. The questions of the first stage, What is this machine?, and of the second, What can I do with it?, give way to Who am I?" (131).

"[T]he idea of emergence is a key element that breaks down resistance to seeing mind as machine" (254).

"The computer is a new mirror, the first psychological machine. Beyond its nature as an analytical engine lies its second nature as an evocative object" (279).

"Computers, with their reactivity and interactivity, stand in a novel and evocative relationship between the living and the inaminate" (288).

"Relational artifacts ask their users to see them not as tools but as companions, as subjects in their own right" (289).

"Relationships with computational creatures and immersion in computer games put us in closed microworlds that are nowhere near as complex and full of contradiction as the worlds of human interaction. To say that computational microworlds do not teach us what we need to know about empathy, ambivalence, about life in shades of gray, does not diminish their contribution. It only puts them in their place" (298).

"The study of child animism has two aspects: the study of children's judgments about the 'aliveness' of objects and the study of how the attribution of aliveness (or properties of life) to inanimate objects enters into children's thinking" (315).

Related sources:
Dreyfus, Hubert. What Computers Can't Do: The Limits of Artificial Intelligence. 2nd Ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.
Hofstadter, Douglas. Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. New York: Basic Books, 1978.
Piaget, Jean. The Child's Conception of the World. Totowa, N.J.: Littlefield Adams, 1975.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Winner, The Whale and The Reactor

Winner, Langdon. The Whale and The Reactor: A Search For Limits In An Age of High Technology. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1986.

Winner launches a strong indictment of overzealous framings of technology as inherently good, progressive, and responsible for widespread social improvements. His approach is deliberately hyperbolic and polemic in many places; drawing on historical examples of technology's unfulfilled promises and working to concretize the slick vocabulary preferred by the most vocal and uncritical advocates of technological "revolutions," Winner is forthright about his position as a technology critic. The book stitches together pieces he published from 1980-1985; Winner's most pointed emphases are the limits of technological promises, the impact of technological encroachments on the natural environment, and social justice--the effects of technology for those who don't have access or resources enough to participate in the sweeping changes. He is deeply skeptical of the progress narratives that pit technology as inevitable or altruistic.

Rather than anchoring his strong critique in technological determinism, Winner establishes a slight variation: technological somnambulism or sleep-walking, which results from simplistic perspectives of tools as culturally neutral and value-free. He works at a relatively high level--large-scale effects rather than the hands-on encounters with specific artifacts.

In answer to the question titling chapter 2, "Do Artifacts Have Politics?," Winner develops his most memorable example: the low-clearance bridges in certain Long Island communities were designed to prevent the access of busses and, thereby, to block the access of any who would make use of low-cost public transportation. Winner explains that all made things are infused with political values; technology design is often used for gate-keeping (preserving social order) and union busting (worker replacement). The blend of techne (efficiency, as Winner frames it) and politeia is largely responsible for this. Winner explains the history of this fusion of politcal and instrumental efficiency as the faulty promise of capitalist civil society. Notably, he polarizes authority and democracy (31), suggesting that techne aligns with authority (rather than participation). Furthermore, everything made is embedded with motivation, and to a degree, such motivations are materially taxied into the future, always leading unto unforseeable effects (a perlocutionary effect of things).

Lingering bits:

Mythinformation: "the almost religious conviction that a widespread adoption of computers and communications systems along with easy access to electronic information will automatically produce a better world for human living" (105).

Key terms: technological somnambulism (sleepwalking) (5, 10), artificial realities (3), philosophy of technology (4), progress (5, 171), technological determinism (9), forms of life (13), inherently political technologies (22), artifacts (38), efficiency (46, 53), regime of instrumentality (54, 55), appropriate technology (63), demonstration models (76), "the shoddy" (77), mousetrap (78), New Age (80), decentralization (85), "atomistic" (93), participatory democracy (94), revolution (98), mythinformation (105), ideology (113), ecology (123), naturalistic fallacy (129), shallow environmentalism (131), deep ecology (131), ecological conscience (132), risk assessment (138), conservative drift (148), moral limits (155).

"Writers who venture beyond the most pedestrian, dreary conceptions of tools and uses to investigate ways in which technological forms are implicated in the basic patterns and problems of our culture are often greeted with the charge that they are merely 'antitechnology' or 'blaming technology'" (xi).

"The basic task for a philosophy of technology is to examine critically the nature and significance of artificial aids to human activity" (4).

"If the experience of modern society shows us anything, however, it is that technologies are not merely aids to human activity, but also powerful forces acting to reshape that activity and its meaning" (6).

"The construction of a technical system that involves human beings as operating parts brings a reconstruction of social roles and relationships" (11).

"At issue is the claim that the machines, structures, and systems of modern material culture can be accurately judged not only for their contributions to efficiency and productivity and their positive and negative environmental side effects, but also for the ways in which they can embody specific forms of power and authority" (19).

"Histories of architecture, city planning, and public works contain many examples of physical arrangements with explicit or implicit political purposes" (23).

"In many instances, to say that some technologies are inherently political is to say that certain widely accepted reasons of practical necessity--especially the need to maintain crucial technological systems as smoothly working entities--have tended to eclipse other sorts of moral and political reasoning" (36).

"The prevailing consensus seems to be that people love a life of high consumption, tremble at the thought that it might end, and are displeased about having to clean up the messes that modern technologies sometimes bring" (51). ^i.e. anxiety in technological change.

"We should try to imagine and seek to build technical regimes compatible with freedom, social justice, and other key political ends" (55).

"But this eloquence of criticism--and perhaps this is a property of criticism--is matched by a poverty of practice" (67). ^Applies to most/all criticism? Winner's included?

"[Enthusiasts] employ a metaphor of revolution for one purpose only--to suggest a drastic upheaval, one that people ought to welcome as good news. It never occurs to them to investigate the idea or its meaning any further" (101).

"Current developments in the information age suggest an increase in power by those who already had a great deal of power, an enhanced centralization of control by those already prepared for control, an augmentation of wealth by the already wealthy" (107).

"The efficient management of information is revealed as the telos of modern society, its greatest mission" (115).

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Polanyi, Personal Knowledge

Polanyi, Michael. Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. Chicago: UChicago Press, 1974.

Polanyi's Personal Knowledge, from 1958, integrates several of the perspectives he'd developed in articles between 1952-1958 toward the rejection objectivism as the ultimate aim of scientific inquiry. Further, he advances his arguments that personal participation doesn't necessarily result in subjectivity. The scientist's way of knowing is always inherently personal; even the scientific method, which Polanyi breaks down and suggests to be subject to probability, chance, propositions, and gradations of confidence, is lodged in personal knowledge through and through.

Personal Knowledge is a precursor to Polanyi's more direct account of tacit knowledge in The Tacit Tradition. Personal Knowledge begins to get at matters of felt sense (hunches, intuition, and guesses), but as an argument for a renewed and expanded epistemology of science rooted in the personal construction of knowledge (often inarticulable knowledge), it is chiefly concerned with the earliest stages of the larger arguments for tacit knowing: exposing the faulty grounds of objectivism.

Returns: Sum section I (63), Tools and Frameworks (58), Wholes and Meanings (57), articulate and inarticulate intelligence (70).

Key terms: personal participation, personal knowledge (18), probability statements (20), touch (50), subsidiary awareness (55), focal awareness (55), articulation (70), inarticulate intelligence (71), motility (71), perception (73), latent learning (74), heuristic passion (142).

"At all these points the act of knowing includes an appraisal; and this personal coefficient, which shapes all factual knowledge, bridges in doing so the disjunction between subjectivity and objectivity. It implies the claim that man can transcend his own subjectivity by striving passionately to fulfill his personal obligations to universal standards" (17).

"I shall take as my clue for this investigation [of skills] that the aim of a skilful performance is achieved by observance of a set of rules which are not known as such to the person following them" (49).

On wholes and parts: "Gestalt psychology has described the transformation of an object into a tool and the accompanying transposition of feeling, as for example from the palm to the tip of a probe, as instances of the absorption of a part into a whole. I have covered the same ground in somewhat modified terms in order to bring out the logical structure in which a person commits himself to certain beliefs and appreciations, and accepts certain meanings by deliberately merging his awareness of certain particulars into a focal awareness of a whole. The logical structure is not apparent in the automatic perception of visual and auditory wholes from which Gestalt psychology has derived its prevailing generalizations" (57). Rel. to studium and punctum in the perceptual field? Is the difference between Gestalt and connectionism their alignments with percepts and concepts, respectively? [Probably not, but it's a question I should work out.]

"Our appreciation of the externality of objects lying outside our body, in contrast to parts of our own body, relies on our subsidiary awareness of processes within our body" (59).

"We may test the tool for its effectiveness or the probe for its suitability, e.g. in discovering the hidden details of a cavity, but the tool and the probe can never lie in the field of these operations; they remain necessarily on our side of it, forming part of ourselves, the operating persons. We pour ourselves out into them and assimilate them as parts of our own experience. We accept them existentially by indwelling in them" (59).

"The tracing of personal knowledge to its roots in the subsidiary awareness of our body as merged in our focal awareness of external objects, reveals not only the logical structure of personal knowledge but also its dynamic sources" (60).

"Yet personal knowledge in science is not made but discovered, and as such it claims to establish contact with reality beyond the clues on which it relies. It commits us, passionately and far beyond our comprehension, to a vision of reality" (64). In section I summary (63-65).

"Technology teaches action. This is made plain when it speaks in imperatives, as it often does in cookery books or directions for the use of machinery.... All technology is equivalent to a conditional command, for it is not possible to define a technology without acknowledging, at least at second hand, the advantages which technical operations might reasonably pursue" (176). In "Intellectual Passions: Science and Technology," 174-184.

"[This book's] aim is to re-equip men with the faculties which centuries of critical thought have taught them to distrust. The reader has been invited to use these faculties and contemplate thus a picture of things restored to their fairly obvious nature. This is all the book was meant to do" (381).

Monday, October 23, 2006

Heft, Ecological Psychology in Context

Heft, Harry. Ecological Psychology in Context. Mahwah, N.J.: Erlbaum, 2001.

Heft undertakes an ambitious project: to account broadly for the formation of ecological psychology as a viable and distinctive area of inquiry in the human sciences generally and in psychology more specifically. He reads the formation of ecological psychology through several figures: William James, James Gibson and Roger Barker are most notable and included in the subtitle. Basically, Heft sees James' radical empiricism as a suitable bridge to connect Gibson's work on ecological optics and affordances with more recent and pocketed uptakes of "ecological psychology" in various disciplines. According to Heft, this is needed work because it begins to resolve experimental psychology's scientific compulsions, ironing out some of the core suppositions that lead to "theoretical conflict."

Heft frames the motivation for ecological psychology in terms of three tenets: an overhaul of cause (not simply taken as "mechanistic antecedent-consequence relations" (xxiv)), revision of the mind/matter split, and repairing the dichotomy between organism and environment. From a stream of perceptual abundance, selectivity is a key in understanding the relationship between experience and knowledge in EP. Also, there is a clear--if not excessive--emphasis on functional relationships, rather than critical or rhetorical relationships (to adopt Selber's troika).

There's a lot here, and I've focused mainly on Hefts explanation of concept and percept, his expansion of affordances by explaining them in terms of James, and his distinction between tool and artifact (let the record select this selectivity). Gibson explains that affordances paradoxically are both subjective and objective. Heft sorts out Gibson's ambiguity by using James' idea of the "double-barreled nature of conscious experience," which eliminates the thought-object split. Also, to explain the relativism of affordances, Heft uses an anecdote about a child in a daycare for whom the door does not afford passage like it does for an adult (132). Tools, for Heft, are distinct from artifacts:

It will be more fruitful to employ a distinction offered by Ingold (1993) between tools and artifacts: "A tool, in the most general sense, is an object that extends the capacity of an agent to operate within a given environment; an artefact is an object shaped to some pre-existent conception of form." (p. 433). Ingold was proposing here a distinction between materials (tools) that have not been designed by an individual for a particular purpose, but instead have been selected for the purpose of extending action possibilities, and designed materials (artifacts) that have been explicitly fashioned with their role in carrying our some task in mind" (341).

Revisit chapter 9, "Ecological Knowledge and Sociocultural Processes" for exam.

Key terms: sciences of the inanimate (physical) (xxii), mechanistic foundations (xxii), adaptive agents (xxiii), knowing and selectivity (28), James' radical empiricism (37), percepts and concepts (38), optical flow (119), occluding edge (122), affordance (123), affordances as percepts (129), affectional experiences (129), ecological optics (147), cognitive maps (186), ecological knowledge, dilated bodies, networks (356).

"At the level of human experience, animate beings, unlike inanimate things, are (a) ceaselessly active and b) continually in the process of engaging their surroundings in a selective manner. Environmental conditions are in flux, and animate beings monitor these ongoing conditions, make functional adjustments with respect to them, and engage environmental features in relation to their own goals and interests. For these reasons, (c) animate beings exist in relation to a flow of events, and their functioning is best understood as that of dynamic, organismic processes in context. Animate beings selectively engage environmental features and selectively enter places in order to benefit from the functional opportunities things and places offer. And more than this, (d) animate beings participate in the modification of many of these very features and places. In these respects, (e) animate beings are adaptive agents" (xxiii).

"From the outset, experimental psychology has been caught between, on the one hand, following successful paths established in the physical sciences and, on the other hand, recognizing the necessity of grounding its concepts in evolutionary theory" (xxix).

"Significantly, ecological psychology suggests an approach to meaning from a third-person perspective, thereby offering a way of making this issue amenable to experimental study" (xxiii). How to reconcile this with the discussion of objective/subjective and affordances? (James' double-barrel experience)?

"To back up for a moment, in radical empiricism, knowing refers most fundamentally to a functional relation in experience between a knower and an object known" (37). ^Heavy emph. on functional.

"Perceiving, then, is a direct, unmediated, selective discovery of structure in immediate experience. And it is a selective process that transpires continuously over time: Percepts 'are singulars that change incessantly and never return exactly as they were before' (p. 253)" (39).

"Thinking or conceiving entails, in turn, selecting and fixing particular parts of this perceptual flow. Through this process concepts are carved out of immediate perceptual experience at a remove from action and are abstracted from it" (40). This happens without a relation to language? Is this "carving" a symbolic process? Iconic? A blend?

"What is the relation between percepts and concepts? For the most part, conceptual orders to not replace or override the intrinsic structure of perceptual experience. Instead, percepts and concepts imperceptibly merge together. The experience of our mental life is largely an interweaving of the immediate structure of perceiving and the abstracted systems of concepts" (49). Absent an account of the role of language, it's difficult to follow how percepts trump concepts.

"An affordance is the perceived functional significance of an object, event, or place for an individual" (123). Event? Also, no collective affordances.

"Affordances are claimed to possess two distinctive and seemingly contradictory characteristics: First, they are relational properties, and second, they are properties of environmental features existing independently of a perceiver" (124).

"One last point concerning James' analysis of the double-barreled nature of experience: For James, the kinds of experiences that most clearly reveal this double-barreled quality are what he called 'affectional experiences.' Whereas in most cases through the selective process of knowing, an experience is readily classified as 'objective or subjective' in terms of its relations to one or another context, this possibility is much more difficult with experiences that have a particularly strong evaluative character" (129).

"The objects and events of the environment are embedded in a rich web of relations. Critically, these relations can be perceived by the knower; they are 'in' the environment and not imposed on it" (143).

"As independent objects, tools reside potentially within an individual-environment relation. They are environmental features that can become appropriated into the goal-directed action of the individual; and in doing so, they extend or amplify actions, and they alter the body's phenomenal boundary during their use" (342). Never before or after their use? This definition of tool precludes language, no?

Related sources:
Heider, F. (1959a). Thing and medium. On perception and event structure, and the psychological environment, Psychological issues, 1, Monograph 3, 1034. (Original work published 1926).

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Wertsch, Mind as Action

Wertsch, James. Mind as Action. New York: Oxford, 1998.

Sociocultural analysis is best understood by taking into account "mental functioning" as it relates to "cultural, institutional, and historical context[s]" (3). Toward an integrative methodology for the human sciences (set against the APA's 49 divisions and much disciplinary wrangling), Werstch proposes mediated action as a the pervasive object of study: an agglutination of agent (subject/person) and agency (instrument/mediational means/cultural tools). Furthermore, he draws on Burke's pentad and urges us, as Burke did, to think in terms of ratios, rather than reducing any element to isolated treatment (15). The pentad provides a method, a "tool for conducting inquiry about human action and motives" (14). Like Bronfenbrenner, Werstch is concerned with the "individual-society antimony"; he responds to a similar problem in the tendency of controlled inquiry to sequester individuals from contexts ("there is a general tendency among many psychologists to focus exclusively on what Burke would call the agent" (16)).

Next, Werstch sets out ten properties of mediated action. It is especially important to him that "analyses of action not be limited by the dictates of methodological individualism" (23). The analytical framework focuses on three central considerations: 1. agents and their cultural tools, 2. mediated action or "agent-acting-with-mediational-means", and 3. the link between action and broader cultural, institutional, and historical contexts. The ten basic claims or properties of mediated action (25):

  1. Mediated action is characterized by an irreducible tension between agent and mediational means (25): agent is redefined. Ex. pole vaulting (27).
    Like Latour's hybrid, no?
    Also, Werstch introduced "semiotic mediation," like a multiplication problem. ^See problem below.
  2. Mediational means are material (30). Even when spoken (acoustic "sign vehicles"), mediational means are material.
  3. Mediated action typically has multiple simultaneous goals (32).
  4. Mediated action is situated on one or more developmental paths (34).
  5. Mediational means constrain as well as enable action (38).
  6. New mediational means transform mediated action (42).
    From Vygotsky: "by being included in the process of behavior, the psychological tool alters the flow and structure of mental functions" (43).
  7. The relationship of agents toward mediational means can be characterized in terms of mastery (46). W. prefers "mastery" and "knowing how" over "internalization." ^Consider this alongside Nardi and O'Day's emphasis on both know-why and know-how (IE 70).
  8. The relationship of agents toward mediational means can be characterized in terms of appropriation (53).
  9. Mediational means are often produced for reasons other than to facilitate mediated action (58). Spin-offs.
  10. Mediational means are associated with power and authority (64).

Werstch goes on to explore the function of narrative as semiotic mediated action that represents the past (ch. 3) (W. is especially interested in turning this toward constructions of national history). In chapter four, he takes up mediated action that is more socially involved (unlike pole vaulting, multiplication, and recounting past events). For this, he suggests the co-presence and co-evolution of intersubjectivity (shared perspective) and alterity (generative digression).

Finally, because Werstch expands mediated means to encompass language (like Bruner's "instruments of thought", the combination of tools and language) and also contends that mediational means are always material. Because he also invokes Gibson, this brings up a quandary rel. to affordances, which Gibson says must be substantive. That is, how does language as a mediational means work relative to the concepts of affordance and constraint? It's not clear to me that language as a mediational means can yield affordances in quite the same way Gibson sets it up.

Key terms: connectionist (8, 51), individual-society antimony (10), dramatism (12), circumferences (14), mediated action (17), ratio (17), mediational means and cultural tools (interchangeable) (17), appropriation (25, 53), anti-reductionistic stance (26), semiotic mediation (28), affordances (29), illusion of perspective (41), internalization (48), utterances (73), narrative (78), social interactional and intermental (interchangeable) (109), individual and intramental (interchangeable) (109), intersubjectivity (111), alterity (111), reciprocal teaching (124), microdynamics (167).

"People often seem to think of the environment as something to be acted upon, not something to be interacted with" (21).

"The major point to be made here is that mediated action can undergo a fundamental transformation with the introduction of new mediational means (in this case the fiberglass pole)" (45).

"In contrast to the univocal function, which tends toward a single, shared, homogenous perspective comprising intersubjectivity, the dialogic function tends toward dynamism, heterogeneity, and conflict among voices" (115).

"The general point to be made about intersubjectivity and alterity, then, is not that communication is best understood in terms of one or the other in isolation. Instead, virtually every text is viewed as involving both univocal, information-transmission characteristics, and hence intersubjectivity, as well as dialogic, though-generating tendencies, and hence alterity" (117).

"In reciprocal teaching, students as well as teachers take on the role of guiding other members of a group through the processes required to understand texts (usually written texts)" (125).

"In the terminology of Burke's pentad, social reductionism amounts to focusing exclusively on the scene and failing to take the agent into account" (141). ^This is a reversal of the methodological trap concerning Bronfenbrenner.

"So in the end, the discussion of the microdynamics of appropriation in this case draws on at least three pentadic elements: agent, instrument (i.e., cultural tools), and scene (i.e., context)" (176).

"Methodological individualism assumes that cultural, institutional, and historical settings can be explained by appealing to properties of individuals, and social reductionism assumes that individuals can be understood only by appealing to social fact" (179).

"Indeed, one of the reasons for choosing mediated action as a unit of analysis is that it does not carve up phenomena into isolated disciplinary slices that cannot be combined into a more comprehensive whole" (180).

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Bronfenbrenner, The Ecology of Human Development

Bronfenbrenner, Urie. The Ecology of Human Development. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1979.

Bronfenbrenner doesn't do much to discuss tools explicitly as such, but he presents a theoretical and analytical framework for the radical localism emphasized in activity theory. He's not an activity theorist per se; instead, he sets out to correct tendencies in experimental psychology (particularly that line concerned with studying, through observation, the development of young children) that takes the setting for granted. The Ecology of Human Development argues strongly for rejuvenated attention to scenic variables when studying developmental psychology. Typical laboratory settings strip away too much of the local environment; experimental controls meant to respond to the sheer breadth of complexity ultimately undervalue the richness of "development-in-context" (12).

Scrape 1.03

Bronfenbrenner pursues a method for psychological study that is both experimental and descriptive. He sets out from a concern that too much developmental psychology attends "to the properties of the person and only the most rudimentary conception and characterization of the environment in which the person is found" (16). Because such studies seek to impose controls in an effort to extrapolate probabilities ("scientific status" finds that human behavior is "invariant across contexts" (30)), environment (and social, contextual complexity), he argues, has received too little consideration. "From this perspective, it can be said that much of developmental psychology, as it now [1979] exists, is the science of the strange behavior of children in strange situations with strange adults for the briefest possible periods of time" (19). Fix: the ecology of human development, which is concretely situated, phenomenologically astute, longitudinal, and immensely attentive to development-in-context.

Specifically, Bronfenbrenner studies (and reads studies about) scenes of early childhood development (ages 3-5): home, pre-school, day care, playground, etc. The book is heavily structured; lists of definitions, propositions, and hypotheses constituted the core structure. Between the offset list items, Bronfenbrenner explains and gives readings of selected studies. In the chapter on "Interpersonal Structures," he introduces basic terms and concepts for what he calls social networks (81). The dyad (a person-person tie) is further characterized into the following classes: observational dyad, joint activity dyad, and primary dyad. From there, he discusses clusters of subjects, using N+2 (68) and N+3 (71). In his discussion of roles, Bronfenbrenner refers at length to Milgram's Obedience to Authority (Eichmann) experiments (92-98).

Microsystems (22): "the immediate setting containing the developing person" (3); Microsystem elements: activity, role, and relation (33).
Mesosystems (25, 209): looks "beyond the single settings to the relations between them" (3)
Exosystems (25, 237): "development is profoundly affected by events occurring in settings in which the person is not even present" (3)
Macrosystems (26, 258): the broadest level; "a striking phenomenon pertaining to settings at all three levels of the ecological environment" (4)

Limitations to studies of day care settings and preschools:

  1. The empty setting (164) [no ecological orientation]
  2. Ecologically constricted outcome measures (164)
  3. Fixation on the child as the experimental subject (165)

Selected definitions, propositions, and hypotheses:

Keywords: descriptive psychology (vii), "nomothetic" psychology (ix), dyad (5, 56), ecological transitions (6), role (6), molar activities (6), microsystem (7), proximal domain (10), development-in-context (12), reciprocity (22), ecological environment (22), observational dyad (56), joint activity dyad (56), reciprocity (57), balance of power (57), affective relation (58), primary dyad (58), reciprocal development (65), N+2 system (68), N+3 system (71), social network (81), role transition (103), multisetting participation (209), linking dyad (210), indirect linkage (210), intersetting communications (210), intersetting knowledge (210), weak linkage (211).

Lewin's psychological field: ongoing activity (24), perceived interconnections (25), roles (25).
Ecological validity (28): "an investigation is regarded as ecologically valid if it is carried out in a natural setting and involves objects from everyday life"

"Approximately one hundred years ago a number of scholars began to think that it would be possible to understand human psychological processes by conducting experiments, modeled on the precision and explicit, quantitative, data-analytic techniques that had propelled the physical sciences to such prominence in human affairs" (vii).

"All of these commonsense suggestions entail a reorientation of the way we think about psychological processes, which must come to be treated as properties of systems, systems in which the individual is but one element" (x).

"Most of the building blocks in the environmental aspect of the theory are familiar concepts in the behavioral and social sciences: molar activity, dyad, role, setting, social network, institution, sub-culture, culture" (8).

"Development is defined as the person's evolving conception of the ecological environment, and his relation to it, as well as the person's growing capacity to discover, sustain, or alter its properties" (9).

"In sum, this volume represents an attempt at theoretical integration. It seeks to provide a unified but highly differentiated conceptual scheme for describing and interrelating structures and processes in both the immediate and more remote environment as it shapes the course of human development throughout the life span" (11).

"First, the development involves a change in the characteristics of the person that is neither ephemeral nor situation-bound; it implies a reorganization that has some continuity over both time and space" (28).

Engeström, "Activity Theory and Individual and Social Transformation"

Engeström, Yrjö. "Activity Theory and Individual and Social Transformation." Engeström, Yrjö, et al., eds. Perspectives on Activity Theory: Learning in Doing: Social, Cognitive & Computational Perspectives. New York: Cambridge UP, 1999. 19-39.

The introduction to this collection, Perspectives on Activity Theory, and Engestrom's opening chapter, "Activity Theory and Individual and Social Transformation" together offer a reasonably thorough, if condensed, introduction to some of the central tenets of activity theory. Basically, activity theory grows out of Marx-influenced researchers in sociology and psychology who found limited explanatory power in the traditional frameworks for making sense of socioeconomic structures (typically top-down and "stable, all-powerful, and self-sufficient" (19)). In many of the contemporary, interdisciplinary applications of AT, Marx recedes from center stage, while activity theory continues to pursue a kind of "radical localism" (36) as a departure from mechanical materialism or idealism (mentation as its own domain detached from physical substance).

In an effort to explain what he means by a "dynamically evolving cell concept of activity," Engestrom identifies and defines six dichotomous themes related to activity theory.

  1. Psychic processes versus object-related activity (21)
  2. Goal-directed action versus object-related activity (22)
    Analysis across levels (scales) risks an "individualist and ahistorical" orientation/bias (23)
  3. Instrumental tool-mediated production versus expressive sign-mediated communication (23)
    Risks (as in Leont'ev) "prototypical forms of activity" (23)
  4. Relativism versus historicism (25)
    "Any conceptual framework that postulates a predetermined sequence of stages of sociohistorical development will easily entail suspicious notions of what is 'primitive' and what is 'advanced,' what is backward and what is good" (25).
  5. Internalization versus creation and externalization (26)
  6. Principle of explanation versus object of study (27)

Next, Engestrom synthesizes three questions that draw together the six themes:

  1. "First, how can we depict the cell of activity theory or, more specifically, what would be a viable way of modeling the structure and dynamic relations of an activity system?"
  2. "Second, how can we incorporate historicity and developmental judgment into activity-theoretical analyses, yet take fully into account the diversity and multiplicity inherent in human activities?"
  3. "And third, what kind of a methodology is appropriate for activity-theoretical research--one that could bridge the gaps between the basic and the applied, between conceptualization and intervention?"

Engestrom goes on to attempt to answer each of these questions after he strongly emphasizes mediation as a pivotal term/concept for activity theory. Gaining control of artifacts, he explains, is akin to gaining control of one's future (29). In the next section, "Modeling the Activity System," Engestrom presents two variations of a triadic model (subject-object-mediating artifacts) also a systemic model (see Spinuzzi for application), calling attention to the value in being able to move across scales from individual action to large-scale or organization-level activity.

Key terms: [From the Introduction: activity theory (1), idealism (3), mechanical materialism (3), distributed cognition (8), monocausal (9), interactive system model (9), mediating artifacts (9), Wertsch's mediated action (11), Lave & Wenger's community of practice (12), mediation as "germ cell" (13)], psychic process (21), object-related activity (21), goal-directed activity (22), activity prototypes (23), relativism (25), historicism (25), internalization (26), externalization (27).

[From the Introduction: "In the post-World War II decades, activity theory was mostly developed within the psychology of play, learning, and child development. It was applied in research on language acquisition and experimental development of instruction, mainly in the context of schools and other educational institutions. Although these domains continue to be central, activity-theoretical research has become broader in the 1980s and 1990s. It now encompasses such topics as development of work activities, implementation of new cultural tools such as computer technologies, and issues of therapy" (2).

"Activity theory has a strong candidate for such a unit of analysis in the concept of object-oriented, collective, and culturally mediated human activity, or activity system. Minimum elements of this system include the object, subject, mediating artifacts (signs and tools), rules, community, and division of labor (Engestrom, 1987; Cole & Engestrom, 1993)" (9).

"Activity system as a unit of analysis calls for complementarity of the system view and the subject's view. The analyst constructs the activity system as if looking at it from above" (10).

"Activity theory recognizes two basic processes operating continuously at every level of human activities: internalization and externalization. Internalization is related to reproduction of culture; externalization as creation of new artifacts makes possible its transformation" (10).]

"If anything, the current societal transformations should teach us that closed systems of thought do not work. But monism does not have to be interpreted that way. Human activity is endlessly multifaceted, mobile, and rich in variations of form and content" (20).

"In most of these [goal-directed] theories, individual action is regarded as the unit of analysis and as the key to understanding human functioning. The orienting function of goals and plans, the sequential structure, and the levels of regulation of actions have received a lot of attention. But these theories seem to have difficulties in accounting for the socially distributed or collective aspects as well as the artifact-mediated or cultural aspects of purposeful human behavior" (22).

"Mediation by tools and signs is not merely a psychological idea. It is an idea that breaks down the Cartesian walls that isolate the individual mind from the culture and society" (29).

"The idea is that humans can control their own behavior--not 'from the inside,' on the basis of biological urges, but 'from the outside,' using and creating artifacts" (29). i.e., Vygotsky's auxiliary stimulus

"In this sense, it might be useful to try to look at the society more as a multilayered network of interconnected activity systems and less as a pyramid of rigid structures dependent on a single center of power" (36).

Related sources:
Engestrom, Yrjo. Learning, Working, and Imagining: Twelve Studies in Activity Theory. Helsinki: Orienta-Konsulit, 1990.
Giddens, Anthony. The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984.
Hutchins, Edwin. "The Technology of Team Navigation." Intellectual Teamwork: Social and Technological Foundations of Cooperative Work. Galegher, Kraut, Edigo, eds. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1990.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Nardi and O'Day, Information Ecologies

Nardi, Bonnie A., and Vicki O'Day. Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999.

Nardi and O'Day make a case for the ecological metaphor as it is suited to studies of technology in situ. This preference combines concerns about enframing metaphor, methodology, and scene as each relates to technology studies. Invoking Shakespeare, they emphasize "local habitations" while seeking to moderate the sharp divide (especially acute in works like Postman's Technopoly) between technophiles and neoLuddites. Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart is an effort to articulate a middle position that improves on metaphors of technology as tool, as text, and as system. Information ecologies introduce scalability (and other factors), while navigating the extreme positions by placing value on participatory design. For Nardi and O'Day, there is a vested emphasis on discussion and questioning because "new technologies tend to be mystifying" (13).

The book opens with reference to Rotwang the Inventor, a character from the film Metropolis (1927), who developed a perfect robot. The workers revolt, dashing the machines to pieces, and in so-doing, the film confirms a moral about the relevance of "heart" in technological development. This project seems to grow out of the technological booms of the 1990's, when the ratio between control (choice/agency) and technological determinism was generating high anxiety, particularly for those who felt they weren't keeping up with change. Nardi and O'Day cite Jacques Ellul, who suggested the powerful, if low profile, wave of technological determinism could be found in "the accretion of thousands of small decisions" (42) leading unto "a boundless kind of feedforward" (43): more+more=moreanxiety.

Information Ecology: "a system of people, practices, values, and technologies in a particular local environment" (49). Ex.: a library, a hospital ICU, a self-service copy-shop. The emphasis here is on site and scope: "An ecology is complex, but it does not have the overwhelming breadth of the large-scale systems and dynamics Ellul and others describe" (50).
Ethnographic case studies constitute the second half of the book: observations of sites and activities-in-situ.
Critiques of Norman (28-30) on technology as tools and of Latour (31) on technology as text appear in chapter three, "A Matter of Metaphor."
Technique: "a cultural mindset in which pure, unadulterated efficiency is the dominant human value" (34).

How to evolve information ecologies? 1. Work from core values (67); 2. Pay attention (68); and 3. Ask Strategic Questions (70).

Qualities of information ecologies:

Information ecologies inhere a certain urgency because, like their biological counterparts, they are alive (see Steven Johnson on web 2.0 as rain forest).

Key terms: local habitations (ix), inattentional blindness (15), invisibility of work and informal collaboration (16), inevitability (17), tool (27), affordances (28), text (31), system (33), technique (33), Winner's "reverse adaptation" (38), Winner's "technological drift" (41), participatory design (43), local settings (47),

"Technology development and use must be mediated by the human heart" (x). Emph.: an ethic of caring.

"Social understanding, values, and practices become integral aspects of the tool itself" (21).

"Metaphors matter because they suggest particular avenues for action and intervention" (43).

"However, we can argue that the view of technology as system washes out the distinctions among different local settings" (47).

"We urge people to get involved in the evolution of their information ecologies--jump into the primordial soup, stir it around, and make as many waves as possible" (58). Emph.: agency. But what's odd is that there's no accounting for an ecology-free zone. In other words, what's not an information ecology? Even the in-between spaces are subject to the information ecology as scene (or as a concatenation of scenes).

"There is a complex dance between two nonneutral forces at work here: technology with its texts and affordances, and people with their values and choices. The choreography of the dance is up to the human side of the equation, but only if we choose to 'overcome necessity' by engaging our values and commitments as we shape our information ecologies" (64). Emph.: freedom and determinism in dialectical relation (64).

Related sources:
Ellul, Jacques. The Technological Society. New York: Knopf, 1965.
Postman, Neil. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Bruner, Beyond the Information Given

Bruner, Jerome. Beyond the Information Given: Studies in the Psychology of Knowing. New York: Norton, 1973.

Beyond the Information Given is an edited collection of Bruner's work. It compiles selected essays and addresses. For the purposes of the tools-in-use exam, I'm focusing on four chapters. Bruner sought to study childhood development through what he called three modes of representation: enactive representation (action), iconic representation (imagery), and symbolic representation (language). The first two selections concern the enactive representation in infants. The second two essays discuss the representative modes.

"The Growth and Structure of Skill" (245) - 1971
During the first eighteen months of life, how do visually guided hand movements evolve into more advanced tool use? Skill, or "skilled action," typically begins with the "hand or hands under visual guidance." (246). Infants develop "functionally adequate serial orders" that allow them to accomplish basic goals. Eventually, they are able to substitute the rules for particular orders with other means-ends sequences, even internalizing processes of analysis, anticipation, and feedback (rel. to Norman, 249). Furthermore, "modularization" of sub-processes enables greater range in the combinations of serial orders (252). Bruner's research studies involve, in one case, infants attempting to open a lid and grasp a toy relying on "complementary two-handedness," and, in another case, the use of a screen and a toy to test "detour reaching" (visually guided reaching behind the screen, with barriers, in effect). Eventually, task activation involves the merger of known and unknown: "Experience also serves to shape them; but it does not create them. Indeed, the anomaly is this; it is at the point where the old system begins to work smoothly and achieve goals sought that it is most likely to be superseded by a new, initially more clumsy one" (266).

"All writers on skill would agree that the secret of such smoothly flowing action is not only anticipation of what is coming next, but a sense of how what one is doing now and what one anticipates next fit into the objective of the serial program in operation" (248). Too teleological?
"Vygotsky (18) was fond of an epigram from Bacon, "Nec manus, nisi inellectus, sibi permissus, multum valent" (Neither hand nor intellect left each to itself is worth much)" (247).
"Skilled activity is a program specifying an objective or terminal state to be achieved, and requiring the serial ordering of a set of constituent, modular subroutines" (247).

"Eye, Hand, and Mind" (270) - 1969
Tools and language converge as "instruments of thought" (270), and this suggests that we can account for the "growth of mind." Bruner wants to establish an experiment that can deal with the following: self-initiated learning, failure and awkwardness, the organization of perception and attention, and the "orchestration" of "previously separate enterprises synergically" (271). During early infancy, many goals are guided-to-mouth (mouthing), but infants move beyond the small, isolated efforts-toward-goal, and "[l]earning during this stage leads to better anticipation, a more integrated act, and finer differentiation" (278).

"What is interesting, once visually guided reaching achieves some rough competence, is that attention enters a new phase in its development" (275).
"The burden of all this is to suggest that there develops first, before visually guided reaching, an orientative visual matrix in which the seen movement of the hand can be appreciated" (273).

"The Growth of Representational Processes in Childhood" (313) - 1966
Bruner explains and reiterates the three representative modes--enactive, iconic, and symbolic (316)--while introducing a study concerned with symbolic representation as "the most mysterious of the three" (317). Basically, while controlling for imagery (iconic), enactive and symbolic variables were introduced (specifically manipulation and labeling (321)). When manipulation (enactive) and labeling (symbolic) modes were incorporated with a basic test (clay objects), "conservation" was much higher. When modes combine, "growth" is more probable: "It is not the whole story of growth and increased competence, but it is, I believe, very close to the center of what is involved when a human being equipped with gifts of action, imagery, and symbolism, comes to know and to master his world" (323)

"Growth involves not a series of stages, but rather a successive mastering of three forms of representation along with their partial translation each into the others" (317).
"Perhaps the psychology of conservation, indeed, all forms of invariance, involve a recognition that the same thing can take many guises and still be the same thing" (323).

"The Course of Cognitive Growth" (325) - 1964
This is a longer piece, and there are several important ideas here that mobilize a vocabulary specific to cognitive psychology. Here, too, Bruner makes a case for the integration of the three representative modes, suggesting that as they come together, the mind become more adept at problem solving. Rather than being hard-wired for responses, we develop techniques that are infused with the technological and cultural surrounds: "In short, the capacities that have been shaped by our evolution as tool users are the ones we rely upon in the primary task of representation" (327). The three modes are developed here; between them, Bruner finds "translation difficulty" to lead to error (in moving from mode to mode) (340). Ultimately, Bruner is interested in the sequencing of the three modes (their interplay, shifting preferences, etc.) and the eventuality of the language/symbolic mode as it is internalized and becomes a "program for ordering experience" (350).

"Once the child has succeeded in internalizing language as a cognitive instrument, it becomes possible for him to represent and systematically transform the regularities of experience with far greater flexibility and power than before" (330).
"There are, first, what Vygotsky (29) has called 'heaps,' collections put together in an arbitrary way simply because the child has decided to put them together that way" (342). Heaps. Nice.
"As language becomes more internalized, more guiding as a set of rules for organizing events, there is a shift from the associative principles that operate in classical perceptual organization to the increasingly abstract rules for grouping events by the principles of inclusion, exclusion, and overlap, the most basic characteristics of any hierarchical system" (344).

Key terms: visually guided reaching (242), modules of action (241), visual scanning (246), serial order (247), substitution rules (247), chaining (251), modularization (252), embedded action (257), activation (263), instruments of thought (271), representation (311), enactive-iconic-symbolic (316), conservation (322), integration (325), "evolution-by-prosthesis" (326), translation difficulty (340), Vygotsky's "heaps" (342).

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception

Gibson, James J. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1986.

In his discussion of the affordances of tools in the environment, Gibson up-ends commonplace distinctions between the objective and subjective and between the human being and the surrounds. That is, he describes affordances (a concept he introduced in 1977) as neutral: the perceived physical properties of objects in the environment, much like an "invitation character" from Gestalt psychology). With affordances (particularly in his discussion of tools), Gibson begins to get at extensibility--the ways in which the skin-as-boundary commonly expands into composite hybrids (connect with Latour in Modern). Affordances can be altered, and it "is equally a fact of the environment and a fact of behavior" (129). Other dimensions of affordances include the medium (130), the substances (131), the surfaces and their layouts (131), the objects (133), other persons and animals (135), and places and hiding places (136). They are also potentially (but not inherently) beneficial or injurious (137).

The book is divided into three sections: one about the environment, one about information for perception, and one about the activity of perception (2). The chapter on affordances appears in the second section on information for perception. Gibson's description of the environment is highly unitized or atomistic, but he backs away from assigning a classificatory weight to affordances: "The theory of affordances rescues us from the philosophical muddle of assuming fixed classes of objects, each defined by its common features and then given a name.... They have only a 'family resemblance.'" (134). As a unit of study, Gibson introduces "ecological events" (100), which subdivide into primary realities, matters of recurrence and nonrecurrence, reversible and nonreversible, nesting (101), and affordances (102). The affordances of optical, ecological events (like their nestedness) sound almost kairotic, like a rhetorical occasion.

Near the end of the monograph, Gibson suggests that visual information is internalized much like speech is internalized. Though the connections aren't explicit in Gibson's writing, this connects with Vygotsky, even complicating Vygotsky's stance on speech as it shifts from egocentric and social to inner. Gibson proposes that pictures and picture-making (non-discursive forms) are also internalized (What would this mean for Vygotsky?).

Niche: a set of affordances (128)
Physical vs. phenomenal value (140)
Connection to Gestalt psychology and Koffka (138)

Key terms: ecological optics (48), tools (40), occluding edge (80), affordances (127), locomotion and manipulation (224), theory of information pickup (239), nonperceptual awareness (tacit) (255),

"This capacity to attach something to the body suggests that the boundary between the animal and the environment is not fixed at the surface of the skin but can shift. More generally it suggests the absolute duality of 'objective and subjective" is false" (41).

"The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill" (127).

"An important fact about the affordances of the environment is that they are in a sense objective, real, and physical, unlike values and meanings, which are often supposed to be subjective, phenomenal, and mental" (129). Affordances are environmental facts and behavioral facts. Agency with affordances is physical (?) and extralinguistic.

"Any substance, any surface, any layout has some affordance for benefit or injury to someone. Physics may be value-free, but ecology is not" (140).

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Vygotsky, Mind in Society

Vygotsky, Lev. Mind in Society. 1978. Cole et al., eds. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006.

Mind in Society is an edited collection of Vygotsky's papers on the dialectical entanglement of sign and tool toward more complex psychological processes. Dialectics figure prominently in Vygotsky's inductive methods. In addition to the link between tool and sign (a link accounted for by "mediated action"), Vygotsky is ultimately interested in the combinatorial effects of nature (biological tendencies) and sociocultural forces as they blend together in processes of psychological development in human beings. He moves beyond unidirectional behaviorist (stim-response) models to bi-directional models that account for the coordination of developmental currents in children, usually between the ages of 3-6.

Because speech plays a vital role in higher psychological functions (eventually oral speech turns inner and eventually recedes as written language emerges), the distinctions between egocentric speech, inner speech, and social speech bear on this model of developmental psychology (27). According to Vygotsky, "children solve practical tasks with the help of their speech, as well as their eyes and hands." Egocentric speech (this self-talk that supports practical tasks) is distinct from social speech, in which the child's talk-while-acting is interactive with others. Eventually, social speech turns inward; inner speech becomes the basis for the "child's practical intellect" (27). Vygotsky acknowledges--even emphasizes--that this process advances unevenly, sporadically.

For Vygotsky, signs (internally oriented (55)) and tools (externally oriented (55)) aid knowledge, becoming increasingly intertwined in higher psychological processes. Signs are also tool-like in that they affect behavior, but their internal orientation distinguishes them as a characteristic of human psychology as distinguished from animals. Mediated activity joins tools and signs (54).

Chapters 1 (19), 4 (52), and 8 (105) are most relevant for discussions of tools, signs, writing, and internalization.
Mind in Society also includes Vygotsky's well-known stances on play (c. 7, 92) and the Zone of Proximal Development (84-91).

Key terms: Gestalt psychology (4), developmental (7), egocentric speech (12), alloy of speech and action (30), visual field (31), mediated remembering (45), dialectical materialist (60), experimental-developmental method (61), latent period (68), revolution (73), evolution (73), involution (106), the functional method of double stimulation (74), auxiliary means (74), zone of proximal development (84), gesture (107), mnemotechnic stage (115),

Tool use and internatlization relates to mental models (22b)

"In one important respect, however, [behaviorists] agreed with their introspective antagonists: their basic strategy was to identify the simple building blocks of human activity (substituting stimulus-response bonds for sensations) and then to specify the rules by which these elements combined to produce more complex phenomena" (4). Atomistic tendencies continue to be a problem in the research. Gestalt, phenomenology, and process' triumph over product/isolate are presumably better for studying complexity (in behavior or systems).

"A central tenet of [Vygotskian] method is that all phenomena be studied as processes in motion and change" (6).

"In this effort [Vygotsky] creatively elaborated on Engels' concept of human labor and tool use as the means by which man changes nature, and in so doing, transforms himself" (7).

"But Vygotsky believed (and ingeniously demonstrated) that the experiment could serve an important role by making visible processes that are ordinarily hidden beneath the surface of habitual behavior" (12).

"The students of practical intelligence as well as those who study speech development often fail to recognize the interweaving of these two functions [symbol and tool use]" (24).

"Although practical intelligence and sign use can operate independently of each other in young children, the dialectical unity of these systems in the human adult is the very essence of complex human behavior" (24).

"Once children learn how to use the planning function of their language effectively, their psychological field changes radically" (28). Rel. discursively structured activities (Bazerman) and genre systems.

"The possibility of combining elements of the past and present visual fields (for instance, tool and goal) in one field of attention leads in turn to a basic reconstruction of another vital function, memory" (36). This matches with Norman's discussion in The Design of Everyday Things. The visual field, for Vygotsky and Norman, is "integral" (Norman mentions sound for "visibility"; Vygotsky addresses oral speech cues and their lessened role in higher psychological processes).

Gist: "Within a general process of development, two qualitatively different lines of development, differing in origin, can be distinguished: the elementary processes, which are of biological origin, on the one hand, and the higher psychological functions, of sociocultural origin on the other. The history of child behavior is born from the interweaving of these two lines" (46). In some ways, ZPD gets at the difference between the two. These two lines of development also mean that age-based stages (as suggested by Piaget) become uneven.

"The very essence of human memory consists in the fact that human beings actively remember with the help of signs" (51).

"To study something historically means to study it in the process of change; that is the dialectical method's basic demand" (65).

"We believe that child development is a complex dialectical process characterized by periodicity, unevenness in the development of different functions, metamorphosis or qualitative transformation of one form into another, intertwining of external and internal factors, and adaptive processes which overcome impediments that the child encounters" (73).

"Over a decade even the profoundest thinkers never question the assumption; they never entertained the notion that what children can do with the assistance of others might be in some sense even more indicative of their mental development than what they can do alone" (85).

Friday, October 13, 2006

Norman, The Design of Everyday Things

Norman, Donald. The Design of Everyday Things. New York: Basic Books, 2002.

Norman lays a groundwork for design considerations related to ordinary, everyday objects. His examples include touch-tone telephones, analog clocks and digital watches, VCRs (confusing!), doors, switches, remote controls, stove-top burners, microwaves, water faucet handles, and keyboards. Rich with illustrations and examples, The Design of Everyday Things proceeds primarily on lament and critique: so much is bad with design. Norman sets out to explain why. He draws on formalist conventions, however, usually preferring the simple and plain to the ornate and complex: utility before beauty, put yet another way.

This is a revision (toward popularization) of The Psychology of Everyday Things (1988), a project motivated by questions about ordinary human error, its causes, its remedies (compared with I.A. Richards' def'n of rhetoric as the study of misunderstanding and its resolve, this could be a rhetoric of everyday things, I suppose). Norman approaches design problems from the standpoint of cognitive psychology. That is, he tries to understand the convergence of things-as-used, things-as-designed, and the many variables that create problems (constraints, on one hand, and errors, slips, and mistakes, on the other hand).

The first two-thirds of the book is what I would describe (in fairness, at a very general level) as utopian (design is perfectible) and formalist ("good" design follows reductive principles). But the final third of the book opens more explicitly to design as a complex process of the evolution of things within systems. In other words, the extent to which things are made by users whose knowledge, memories, contexts, needs, and such vary considerably, failsafe design is something of a crapshoot. Certain examples also position design as a scapegoat for user ineptitude.

What could I write about related to this?

Finally, the book is organized by a number of lists. Each item typically accompanies a brief section explaining what it means and how it applies to design.

Knowing what to do: constraints and mappings are key, as are visibility and feedback (99).
Seven stages of action (48): forming the goal, forming the intention, specifying an action, executing the action, perceiving the state of the world, interpreting the state of the world, evaluating the outcome.
Knowledge in the head and in the world (55): Information is in the world; Great precision is not required; Natural constraints are present; Cultural constraints are present.
Classification of everyday constraints (84): physical, semantic, cultural, logical.
Categories for slips (107): capture errors, description errors, data-driven errors, associate activation errors, loss-of-activation errors, and mode errors.

Seven design principles (188):

  1. Use both knowledge in the world and knowledge in the head.
  2. Simplify the structure of tasks.
  3. Make things visible: bridge gulfs of Execution and Evaluation.
  4. Get the mappings right.
  5. Exploit the power of constraints, both natural and artificial.
  6. Design for error.
  7. When all else fails, standardize.

Key terms: "visibility" (4), "natural design" (4), "mapping" (5, 23), "psychology of materials" (9), "psychology of causality" (9), "conceptual models" (12), "mental models" (17), "system image" (17), "naive or folk understandings" (36), "learned helplessness" (42), "taught helplessness" (42), procedural and declarative knowledge (57), "natural mappings" (75), "forcing function" (132), "physical anthropometry" (161), "creeping featurism" (172), "modularization" (174)

"POET [The Psychology of Everyday Things] is an outgrowth of my repeated frustrations with the operation of everyday things and my growing knowledge of how to apply experimental psychology and cognitive science" (x).

"Other clues [in addition to conceptual models] to how things work come from their visible structure--in particular from affordances, constraints, and mapping" (12).

"We have now encountered the fundamental principles of designing for people: (1) provide a good conceptual model and (2) make things visible" (13).

"Mental models, our conceptual models of the way objects work, events take place, or people behave, result from our tendency to form explanations of things. These models are essential in helping us understand our experiences, predict the outcomes of our actions, and handle unexpected occurrences. We base our models on whatever knowledge we have, real or imaginary, naive or sophisticated" (38).

"Affordances can signal how an object can be moved, what it will support, and whether anything will fit into its crevices, over it, or under it" (82).

"What are not everyday activities? Those with wide and deep structures, the ones that require considerable planning and thought, deliberate trial and error: trying first this approach, then that--backtracking" (124).

"For understanding mistakes, social structure is every bit as essential as physical structure" (129).

"The designer shouldn't think of a simple dichotomy between errors and corrective behavior; rather, the entire interaction should be treated as a cooperative endeavor between person and machine, one in which misconceptions can arise on either side" (140).

"In their work, designers often become expert with the device they are designing. Users are often expert at the task they are trying to perform with the device" (156).

"Creeping featurism is the tendency to add to the number of features that a device can do, often extending the number beyond all reason" (173).

"Imagine that this book was in hypertext. How would it work? Well, I've used several devices that relate to hypertext: one is the footnote, another is parenthetical comments, and yet another is contrasting text" (212).

Related sources:
Alexander, C. The Timeless Way of Building. New York: Oxford UP, 1979.
Gibson, J.J. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston: Houghton Miflin, 1979.
Simon, Herbert. The Sciences of the Artificial. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1981.

Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Russell, "Rethinking Genre in School and Society"

Russell, David R. "Rethinking Genre in School and Society: An Activity Theory Analysis." Written Communication 14 (1997): 504-54.

Russell proposes that the convergence of activity theory and North American genre theory (read largely through Bazernman's genre systems) yields a useful blend for researchers concerned with accounting for the ties between writing in school settings and writing in the (mostly professional) world. In effect, Russell is making a case for scalability in these systems. In other words, to understand the dynamics involved in the writing classroom, researchers must understand the various orders or spheres of discursive structures impinging on the most local context: students writing in school. By connecting activity theory and genre theory, Russell offers a framework for description and analysis. Recognizing scalability in dialogism (metaphors of conversation) helps us account for the mid-level relations in heteroglossia.

Russell begins by noting his concern about the limitations in dialogism's conversation metaphor (emph. utterances and oral language events) for its neglects of "nonlinguistic tools." Dialogism also focuses perhaps too locally on interactions between pairs of communicators at a local scale. His version of activity theory prefers metaphors of interactivity and networks over conversations. Also, it is not concerned as much with deep structures to explain behavioral phenomena. Russell claims he is trying to build a model for analysis of style and motivations. There are multiple co-operating activity systems converging at a given site--the classroom.

Russell's example's include the biology classroom and the mundane genre of the grocery list (in his interactions with his daughter, Madeline).

Activity theory's basic units of analysis: individual, collective, and behavior.
Tools: mediational means.

Toward the merger of activity theory and genre theory, we must account for the following:

1. go beyond the conventional notion of genre as a set of formally definable text features that certain texts have in common across various contexts, however defined, and consider genre in relation to social action and social motives;
2. see discourse (vocalizations and inscriptions) as one kind of tool among many others and to relate genres to other kinds of material actions;
3. look at the ways written genres help mediate the actions of individuals with others in collectives (activity systems) to create stabilized-for-now structures of action and identity;
4. understand the concept of genre as operationalized social action helps account for change as well as stability.

"In this article, I set out to synthesize aspects of Y. Engestrom's (1987, 1993) systems version of Vygotskian cultural-historical activity theory with aspects of Bazerman's (1994a) theory of genre systems to understand the relation between writing in school and writing in other social practices, particularly disciplines and professions and the powerful institutions they serve" (para. 1).

"I suggest that this synthesis further expands in three ways what I believe is the most elaborated current theory of context--dialogism. It provides (a) a broader unit of analysis than text-as-discourse, (b) wider levels of analysis than the dyad, and (c) an expanded theory of dialectic that embraces objects and motives of collectives and their participants to explain reciprocal interactions among people through texts, which dialogism dialogism as the heteroglossic interpenetration of social languages. By tracing the intertextual relation of a disciplinary or professional genre system to an educational genre system, through the boundary of a classroom genre system, the analyst/reformer can construct a model of the interactions of classroom with wider social practices" (para. 2).

"These dialogic theories explain discourse, including writing, not in terms of some bracketed underlying conceptual scheme but as a dynamic, functional, intersubjective process of reciprocal negotiation among writers and readers, in which discourse mediates interactions among conversants" (para. 4).

"By substituting metaphors of conversation and dialog for metaphors of context and its contents, dialogism expands theories of writing to allow a more dynamic and interactive--or ecological--approach, in which one can pursue a more thorough and symmetrical analysis of the relation between writing in schooling and society than is possible with theories that depend on some underlying conceptual scheme" (para. 5).

"The ongoing social practices in which speaking and writing operate also use a host of nonlinguistic tools: buildings, machines, demarcated physical space, financial resources, data strings, and so on" (para. 5).

"I hope that analysis of genre systems may offer a theoretical bridge between the sociology of education and Vygotskian social psychology of classroom interaction, and contribute toward resolving the knotty problem of the relation between macro- and microstructure in literacy research based on various social theories of context (Layder, 1994)."

"Like social constructionism, activity theory traces cognition and behavior, including writing, to social interaction."

"An activity system is any ongoing, object-directed, historically conditioned, dialectically structured, tool-mediated human interaction."

"Tools (mediational means) refer to material objects in use by some individual or group to accomplish some action with some outcome--that is, tools-in-use, as I will sometimes refer to them, to remind us that a material thing is not a tool unless it has been put to some use, and the uses of a single material thing may differ over time and across different actions and activity systems."

"The use of tools mediates the behavior of people in activity systems in specific and objective ways that are realized historically, through a developing cooperation and/or competition in the specialized use of tools arising from the social division of labor (Leont'ev, 1981). Activity systems can stretch out in space and time and multiply through social division of labor to become large, powerful, and immensely varied, as their histories are played out dynamically through the use of a vast range of tools--often including inscriptions as discursive tools."

"Genres predict--they do not determine--structure."

"The activity system of an intermediate cell biology course, like any other course, forms a complex, stabilized-for-now site of boundary work (Gieryn, 1983) between the activity system of a discipline/profession (cell biology) and that of the educational institution."

"If we have a principled way of tracing the dynamic circulation of genres, the intertextual links between classrooms and families and ethnic neighborhoods, disciplines and professions, business and government and advocacy groups, and so on, then the role of writing in selection may be clarified."

"Bazerman (1994a) defines genre systems as "interrelated genres that interact with each other in specific settings" (p. 80)."

Bazerman, "Discursively Structured Activities"

Bazerman, Charles. "Discursively Structured Activities." Mind, Culture, and Activity 4.4 (1997): 296-308.

Bazerman is concerned with accounting descriptively for the roles of discourse in structuring systemic activity. He notes that discourse is a fundament to social structure; it provides a "regularizing force." As such, Bazerman folds together Vygotskyan principles of situated cognition with Activity Theory in an effort to reframe more common approaches to structuring in the social sciences. Interest in structuring applies here both to the cause of regularities in the technosciences and to "the discursive organization of fields of knowledge production [i.e., disciplinary formations]" (10).

Because the existing model of the case study tends to deal very little with tradition and because ANT (in Bazerman's reading of it, at least) tends to focus too much on the individual agent, we need better descriptive tools to account for the structuring of social systems. For this, Bazerman proposes the language of genre (as it in turn is used to articulated expectations). While "dismantling dominations," Bazerman concludes, we are put upon to come "up with some order we can tolerate and perhaps trust" (12).

Terms: "verbal coordination" (1), "regularizing force" (3), "actant-network theory" (6), "descriptive tools" (7), "conscious categorization" (7), "systems of genre" (9), "agenda-setting documents" (10),

"Because the produced discursive objects are in a sense concrete, although symbolic--an actual utterance, a physical book, an interactive computer program that can be run repeatedly on a computer--they provide a concrete locus for the enactment of social structure" (1-2).

"The fact that written and archived material (whether in print or on an electronic server) can travel to different groupings of people, over geographic distances, and over time, means that their structuring influence may be widespread and persistent" (2). Rel. this to the structuring force of the writing prompt?

"To clarify, the problem is one of describing the organization, structure, or order that exists within those activities identified as scientific and technological, the processes by which that order is created and maintained, the forces which influence the shape of that order, and the consequences of that order for the activity carried our within it" (4).

"Studies of localities tend to lose sight of the historical processes by which individuals and groups attempt to provide continuities among locales, attempt to draw together moments across time and space (as through organizations, training, institutions, forums, communication)" (5).

"Unlike earlier theories of scientific and technological structure actant network theory foregrounds individual agency, foregrounds an historical account of current arrangements, and foregrounds the creative response of individuals to complexity and contingency in order to create novel arrangements" (6). Bazerman suggests that ANT (is this the same ANT Latour writes about in Reassembling?) centers on the individual actor.

"What I am suggesting is little more than providing a structurationist balance to our accounts of the social construction of technoscience, but the problem remains of what terms to use to describe the persistent, though changing, social landscape which we must come to terms with and act within, if we are to act effectively" (7).

"That is, by looking at the symbolic tools of a discipline we can see what it is the tools can do, while keeping in mind that individuals always find new uses for tools" (10).

"Socialization can be seen as a series of concrete tool/concept/artifact/mediation integrations into personal relations organized within activities" (11).

Monday, October 2, 2006

Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology

Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. 1954. New York: Harper, 1986.

Heidegger questions the nature of technology, seeking a corrective to instrumentalism or treatments of technology that focus merely on the technical or the treat it as neutral or destined. He winds through a sequence of analytical claims set up to distinguish an essence of technology: enframing. Heidegger wants to resist both instrumentalism (means to an end) and anthropological (human activity) perspectives on technology. Questioning, he contends, will open "our human existence to the essence of technology" (311). To explain causality in technology, Heidegger examines a silver chalice. He presents four causal aspects that can be separated or categorized for any produced thing: materialis (matter from which it is made), formalis (shape), finalis (end), and efficiens (the effect). In the four causes we find instrumentality (314). Efficiens or the occasion is the most complex of the four because it connects with responsibility and also combines both poiesis and physis (which lead toward enframing?).

Unless we question technology, "we remain unfree and chained to technology" (311). This is why we should recognize technology as being about "bringing forward" or revealing, or, that is, emphasize agency in shaping technology through production and presenting (poiesis). Enframing, as the essence of technology, introduces both danger (destining or destining of revealing) and opportunity. Also, enframing endures or persists: this is something like a perlocutionary effect of technology (if we could widen speech acts to something like technological acts): made things have a long life inflected (even determined by) production and presentation, provided we encounter them with an understanding of the poetic (and rhetorical). Basically, with a call for questioning technology, Heidegger affirms poetics (the creative power of language). "Questions Concerning" might also be read as an argument for humanized technology or critical perspectives on technology that call into check its ubiquity or fervor about it being destined/predetermined. There is also a subtext of agrarian nostalgia, longing for preindustrial days.

Terms: "telic finality" (314), "standing reserve" (322), enframing (324)

On how to read "Questions Concerning": "We would be advised, therefore, above all to pay heed to the way, and not to fix our attention on isolated sentences and topics" (311).

"Accordingly, the correct instrumental definition of technology still does not show us technology's essence" (313).

"The principle characteristic of being responsible is this starting something on its way into arrival" (316): to occasion (as we approach enframing as essence). The occasion ties in with poiesis and physis.

"The modes occasioning, the four causes, are at play, then, within bringing forth" (317).

"Technology is therefore no mere means. Technology is a way of revealing" (318).

"The revealing that rules throughout modern technology has the character of a setting-upon, in the sense of a challenging-forth" (321).

"Modern technology, as a revealing that orders, is thus no mere human doing" (324)

"For idea names not only the nonsensuous aspect of what is physically visible. Aspect (idea) names and also is that which constitutes the essence in the audible, the tasteable, the tactile, in everything that is in any way accessible" (325).

"The word stellen [to set] in the name Ge-stell [enframing] does not only mean challenging. At the same time it should preserve the suggestion of another Stellen from which it stems, namely that producing and presenting [Her-und Dar-stellen], which in the sense of poiesis, lets what presences come forth into unconcealment" (326).

"The merely instrumental, merely anthropological definition of technology is therefore in principle untenable" (326).

"[Enframing] is nothing technological, nothing on the order of a machine" (328).

"The essence of modern technology lies in enframing. Enframing belongs within the destining of revealing. These sentences express something different from the talk that we hear more frequently, to the effect that technology is the fate of our age, where 'fate' means the inevitableness of an unalterable course" (330).

"But enframing does not simply endanger man in his relationship to himself and to everything that is. As a destining, it banishes man into the kind of revealing that is an ordering" (332). Rings of Foucault in TOOT.

"Enframing is a way of revealing that is a destining, namely, the way that challenges forth. The revealing that brings forth (poiesis) is also a way that has the character of destining" (335).

"Thus enframing, as a destining of revealing, is indeed the essence of technology, but never in the sense of genus and essentia" (335).

"Everything, then, depends upon this: that we ponder this rising and that, recollecting, we watch over it" (337).

"The essence of technology is in a lofty sense ambiguous" (338).

"The closer we come to the danger, the more brightly do the ways into the saving power begin to shine and the more questioning we become. For questioning is the piety of thought" (341).

Cooper, "The Ecology of Writing"

Cooper, Marilyn. "The Ecology of Writing." College English 48.4 (1986). 364-375.

Setting out from Hairston's 1982 embrace of "a process-centered theory of teaching writing" to "process, not product," what happens when writers write has been reduced, hazardously, to a simplistic cognitive process. The cognitive process model idealizes the solitary author, isolating the author from the social world. Cooper emphasizes a social turn: language is essentially social.

Ecology does not equal context, which, read through Burke's pentad, concerns individual language acts. An ecologist, on the other hand, takes into account the systemic effects of writing. Ecological systems are "inherently dynamic" (368). The systems are concrete (distinguishable) and also interwoven. Intimacy and power are two determinants of the interactions between writers. Ecological systems are also moderated by cultural norms and textual forms (370).

Cooper introduces the primary metaphor for ecological systems: the web. She begins to discuss audience in terms of such a model. Audience becomes real in an ecological model.

Terms: "writing theory" (365c), tyranny of the solitary author ideal (366), writing as a "way of acting" (373).

"Like all theoretical models, the cognitive process model projects an ideal image, in this case an image of a writer that, transmitted through writing pedagogy, influences our attitudes and the attitudes of our students toward writing" (365).

"Such changes in writing pedagogy indicate that the perspective allowed by the dominant model has again become too confining" (366).

"What I would like to propose is an ecological model of writing, whose fundamental tenet is that writing is an activity through which a person is continually engaged with a variety of socially constituted systems" (367).

"Thus, though the grammar allows one to assign labels to important aspects of a situation, it does not enable one to explain how the situation is causally related to other situations" (368).

"An ecologist explores how writers interact to form systems: all the characteristics of any individual writer or piece of writing both determine and are determined by the characteristics of all other writers and writings in the system" (368).

"The systems are not given, not limitations on writers; instead they are made and remade by writers in the act of writing" (368).

"As should be obvious, the perspective of the ecological model offers a salutary correction of vision on the question of audience" (371). It renders audience real rather than imagined--the outcropping of a mental construct.

"Writing, thus, is seen to be both constituted by and constitutive of these ever-changing systems, systems through which people relate as complete, social beings, rather than imaging each other as remote images: an author, an audience" (373).

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension

Polanyi, Michael. The Tacit Dimension. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966.

Working from the nexus of philosophy and science, Polanyi presents three lectures in The Tacit Dimension: Tacit Knowing, Emergence, and A Society of Explorers. He leads with concerns about the nature of human knowledge and opens with the precept that "we can know more than we can tell" (4). A "missing principle" (88), tacit knowledge, accounts for indwelling (empathy) and interiorizations (assimilation?) that informs our personal felt sense--the hunches, intuitions, and guesses that underscore our pursuit of open-ended forms of knowledge. With an overt emphasis on passion, Polanyi develops tacit knowledge as an alternative to the predominance of dogmatic, objectivist science.

Emergence: "Thus the logical structure of the hierarchy implies that a higher level can come into existence only through a process not manifest in the lower level, a process which thus qualifies as emergence" (45). Here, Polanyi is working toward a distinction between the mechanistic and the organismic. The hierarchy and stratification of entities from larger structures is best described as an emergence. "The relation of a comprehensive entity to its particulars was then seen to be the relation between two levels of reality, the higher one controlling the marginal conditions left indeterminate by the principles governing the lower one" (55).

In the third lecture, "A World of Explorers," concerns the moral imperative of the scientific "explorer" who proceeds without foreclosing on conclusions. That is, neither positivistic (moral skepticism) nor Marxist (moral perfectionism) (58), the explorer accepts the reliability (has "confidence in authority" (62)) of antecedent knowledge: "We have here the paradigm of all progress in science: discoveries are made by pursuing possibilities suggested by existing knowledge" (67).

Key terms: Gestalt psychology (6), subception (7), performance of a skill (10), functional structure (10), phenomenal structure (11), indwelling (16), interiorization (17), marginal control (40), ideogenesis (48), hybrids (58)

"The declared aim of modern science is to establish a strictly detached, objective knowledge. Any falling short of this ideal is accepted only as a temporary imperfection, which we must aim at eliminating. But suppose that tacit though forms an indispensable part of all knowledge, then the ideal of eliminating all personal elements of knowledge would, in effect, aim at the destruction of all knowledge. The idea of exact science would turn out to be fundamentally misleading and possibly a source of devastating fallacies" (20).

"Tacit knowing is shown to account (1) for a valid knowledge of a problem, (2) for the scientist's capacity to pursue it, guided by his sense of approaching its solution, and (3) for a valid anticipation of the yet indeterminate implications of the discovery arrived at the end" (24).

"The meticulous dismembering of a text, which can kill its appreciation, can also supply material for a much deeper understanding of it" (19).

"In the last few thousand years human beings have enormously increased the range of comprehension by equipping our tacit powers with a cultural machinery of language and writing. Immersed in this cultural milieu, we now respond to a much increased range of potential thought" (91).

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Gibson, "Theory of Affordances"

Gibson, James J. "The Theory of Affordances." Perceiving, Acting, and Knowing. R.E. Shaw and J. Bransford, eds. Hillsdale, N.J.: Elrbaum, 1977.

Gibson's seminal essay introduces the term, affordances, and articulates the nuances in its application to ecological psychology. An affordance, according to Gibson, is "a specific combination of the properties of its substance and its surfaces taken with reference to an animal" (67). Affordances are species-specific; they are functionally generic, in this sense, applying differently according to the physiological tendencies of an animal.

Affordances are those perceived aspects of the environment that suggest suitability to habituated action (action likely to be carried out in kind by others of the species). Objects, substances, and events all afford activities (^events afford exigence). Niche, for Gibson, is a set of affordances (how one lives rather than where, rather than habitat). And while niches are not, strictly speaking, places, they involve occupation and suitability (even sustainability?). They also take root in a middle space between the subjective and objective, according to Gibson (69). An affordance is not wholly dependent on the observer's perspective nor on the absolute physical properties of an object. Niche, however, guides us toward an understanding of affordances as real--constitutive of the phenomenal environment (70).

Gibson further develops the concept of affordances using a series of question-guided subsections:

What do substances afford? (71): ripeness and pleasure
What do surfaces and their layouts afford? (72): obstacles and locomotion
The Affording of Concealment (73): from ecological optics, concealment involves positioning relative to layout
What do detached objects afford? (74): manipulation and tool-use
What do other animals and other people afford? (75): interaction, animation and othering
Summary: Positive and Negative Affordances (76): "There has been endless debate among philosophers and psychologists as to whether values were physical or phenomenal, in the world of matter or only in the world of mind. For affordances as distinguished from values the debate does not apply. They are neither in the one world or the other inasmuch as they theory of two worlds is rejected. There is only one environment, although it contains many observers with limitless opportunities for them to live in it" (77).

In the section titled, "The Origin of the Theory of Affordances," Gibson situates affordances in work by Gestalt psychologists. He invokes valence, a concept he attributes to Lewin which applies to the behavioral object rather than the geographical object. The phenomenological object is entangled with the intensities of the user. But Gibson wants to qualify affordances as something more persistent than vectors and valences (78).

In the final section of the essay, Gibson distinguishes between perceiving and misperceiving affordances. The need for perception means that affordances can also be misperceived. : "No wonder, then, that quicksand is sometimes mistaken for sand, that a pitfall can be mistaken for solid ground, that poison ivy is sometimes mistaken for ivy, and that acid can be taken for water" (81).

"Now just as surfaces are stand-on-able and sit-on-able so also are they bump-into-able or get-underneath-able, or climb-on-able, or fall-off-able" (68).

^Is Gibson's a modernist project dependent on restrictive (or regular) patterns of human behavior?  What, if not an affordance, is the experimental edge of the thing-in-use? Are affordances incompatible with singularity? Given the ties to perception (and ecological optics), this is an interesting pairing with VV's "Seeing in Third Sophistic Ways."

Key phrases: Koffka's "demand character" (77), Kurt Lewin's "invitation-character" (78), valence (78), vectors (78),

Related sources:
Koffka, K. Principles of Gestalt Psychology. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, Inc., 1935.