Friday, December 15, 2006

Information labor and cultural exchange - a former student of mine speaks out

This morning I was pleasantly surprised to find an email from a former undergraduate honors thesis student of mine, John Pederson, who is currently working in Indonesia on a Fulbright English Teaching scholarship. That in itself reveals a form of information labor and cultural exchange that, although overshadowed in the popular imagination today by stories of military occupations and the hunt for "terrorists," at least some young people in the US (not to mention around the world) still find rewarding and important. But more than simply teaching English and learning Bahasa Indonesian, John is helping construct a local information infrastructure in other ways:

Luckily, I've had the help of an entire village to help me with this and lay the foundation, literally, for the first student radio station in Sekayu, Indonesia!

The tower looks more like student science fair project than the future of free speech for a young democracy. But once up and running, the tower will broadcast the opinions, interests and ideas of a generation to an audience of about 6 kilometers—more than enough to cover the entire village.

John also impresses me with his efforts to bring his work and the work of the people in his village to the global public through a rich web site he created at -- a nice example of the way personal publishing and the public interest can coincide, and in more than one cultural environment besides.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Producing, disseminating, and critiquing information in the Iraq War

Haven't had the time or the itch to blog here for awhile, but this piece caught my attention. An article in the Washington Post cites the (bipartisan) Iraq Study Group report in noting that "U.S. military and intelligence officials have systematically underreported the violence in Iraq in order to suit the Bush administration's policy goals":

In its report on ways to improve the U.S. approach to stabilizing Iraq, the group recommended Wednesday that the director of national intelligence and the secretary of defense make changes in the collection of data about violence to provide a more accurate picture.

The panel pointed to one day last July when U.S. officials reported 93 attacks or significant acts of violence. 'Yet a careful review of the reports for that single day brought to light 1,100 acts of violence,' it said."

I recall that when the war started in 2003, it was official military policy not to report civilian casualties and/or "collateral damage" as well. This may still be official policy, but certainly the debate over the number of Iraqi civilians killed, injured, and displaced as refugees has intensified over the last three years -- with public health experts in the Lancet citing numbers of deaths in the hundreds of thousands, and the US administration having to contest these estimates.

The situation reminds me of the "closed world" of self-perpetuating Cold War discourse which Paul Edwards discusses in his book of the same name. Not only the terms of the debate, but the institutional and technological structures of information-gathering and validation are tied from the very start to a particular worldview, ideology, or set of assumptions about political-economic power and the inevitability of military engagement. With the limited and slanted informational tools at hand, it becomes impossible to argue against power and its policies.

When the most basic of measures -- "acts of violence," civilian casualties, scale of the refugee problem -- are not only in dispute, but possibly under active cloak and at the very least removed from official responsibility, how are policymakers, watchdog journalists, members of NGOs, and interested citizens supposed to form opinions and push for action?

Thursday, June 15, 2006

The 24/7 time and space of information labor

Today a news item on Inside Higher Ed discusses the wisdom of keeping university library and computing sites open 24/7 to meet student demand for round-the-clock resource availability:

Each new year seems to be marked by a flourish of excited press releases and announcements regarding expanded hours of operation at libraries and technology centers at colleges and universities across the nation.

While many administrators boast that such developments are part of their efforts to be responsive to student desires, many health professionals, especially those focused on sleep research, say that the extra hours may actually be harming the well-being and health of students. At a recent meeting of the American College Health Association several professionals were abuzz about sleep issues in the college-age population that they feel aren’t getting enough ettention, but many see the problems only growing larger.

“We are living in a commercial world that goes 24/7,” says Michael McNeil, coordinator of the Health Empowerment Office at Temple University. “My colleagues in higher education may not like this, but we’re fostering procrastination and cramming — time management skills should be put first.”

Alison Beaver, director of health promotion at the University of Virginia’s Elson Student Health Center, says that she wouldn’t be surprised to one day learn that the prevalence of mental health issues reported by many of today’s students are correlated with a lack of sleep. Research is currently ongoing in this area.

The article does suggest that perhaps late-night noise in dorms and apartments leads students to seek out-of-home study and work sites, even if they have broadband internet connections in their bedrooms. But overall the piece neglects the question of what might be driving student patterns of 24/7 resource demand and use. Is it simply "procrastination and cramming," or might this demand be related to the difficulty of students finding open computer terminals and/or study spaces during peak hours of demand? Perhaps professors are demanding more and more online reading and research as components of classwork (I know I am). Or perhaps library and computing resources are actually being used more for leisure -- gaming, chat, web-surfing, and collegiality -- during the extended hours, thus contributing to mental and emotional health.

More research on this would be great. There's probably academic library "uses and users" research out there already on the topic. It would be nice to see this research about changes in undergraduate information labor time/space pattern correlated with research in the time/space patterns of information in the corporate, government, and non-profit worlds of post-college employment, too. Perhaps that's where the real speedup is happening ... and perhaps, like it or not, 24/7 information sites, resources and labor habits in college are preparing our students for their ultimate high-tech and high-stress careers.


Rob Capriccioso, "Sleepy hollow," Inside Higher Ed (15 June 2006)

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Cycles of knowledge production, consumption, and contestation

I work in two academic departments at once, one which we might call a "journalism school" and the other a "library school". Part of my job entails finding connections between these two, which I conceptualize as two different (but related) "positionalities" for viewing the overall circuit of knowledge production, consumption, and reproduction in society at different (but related) "moments" in the overall dialectical process. (Whew.) So when I find an interesting and accessible example of all this -- a situation in which the moments of journalism and librarianship overtly connect -- I want to talk about it.

Milwaukee-based newspaper columnist Joel McNally wrote a recent column which provided me with just such an example. The column concerns the evolving debate over the production, consumption, marketing, economic profitability, and economic externalities of "fast food" in American society. Investigative journalist Eric Schlosser has most recently reenergized this debate with his 2001 book _Fast Food Nation: The dark side of the all-American meal_, a work of "muckraking" reporting which evolved out of an earlier two-part article of his in _Rolling Stone_. Since then, a popular film and DVD _Super Size Me_ has taken up the same theme (including an interview with Schlosser on the DVD edition) and former president Bill Clinton has negotiated a deal with major soft drink distributors to stop placing sugared soda in schools. Now Schlosser and a co-author, Charles Wilson, have taken their message to a youth media audience with their new children's book _Chew on This: Everything You Don't Want to Know About Fast Food_ -- a clear candidate for widespread dissemination in public and school libraries.

Controversey has followed this iteration of knowledge from journalism to bookseller to cinema to library. As McNally writes,

Front groups with names that imply they are promoting "freedom" or "liberty" are, in fact, attempting to demonize Schlosser to prevent him from getting his message to the book's target audience of middle school students and young teenagers, who are in the process of developing lifelong, unhealthful eating habits.

The instantly manufactured controversy upon publication of the book was foreshadowed by a story in the Wall Street Journal about an internal memo circulated within McDonald's management preparing them to deal aggressively with the publication of "Chew on This" and the release of an upcoming film based on "Fast Food Nation."


Some of the tactics reach ever further back to the red-baiting days of Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy. A right-wing group that calls itself the Heartland Institute accuses Schlosser of "tricking young people into fearing the world's finest food supply in order to entice them into his web ... to lead them away from capitalism into his failed socialist ideology."


The most vicious attacks accuse Schlosser of being a racist who wants to deny choices to minorities. This is a reporter who has documented the industry's exploitation of minority communities and disregard for the lives of black and Latino workers. The motive behind the smear tactic is as transparent as the accusation he is subverting the young.

One of the efforts to refute Schlosser's arguments is the website "Best Food Nation", an industry umbrella group (sponsored by the American Meat Institute, the National Potato Council, the Snack Food Association, etc.) which claims to offer "the facts about the U.S. food supply, which is among the safest, most affordable and most abundant food supplies in the world":

Simply put, America is the Best Food Nation. From safe, abundant and affordable food choices to
jobs and economic growth for our communities, the people working in the U.S. food system provide innumerable benefits not only to Americans, but consumers across the globe. Unfortunately, critics
of our food system want consumers to think otherwise and are promoting their agendas using
information that is inaccurate, misleading and incomplete.


We have always invited public discussion on issues related to our food supply. But we feel those discussions should be based on facts, and invite you to explore the information contained within
this site and form your own opinion.

As one might expect in a debate like this which involves not simply personal life choices, but questions of science, medicine, and technology, both sides appeal to the "facts" and deride their opponents as "promoting their agendas." Of course, if Schlosser's "agenda" is to make a career as a reputable and influential journalist, and the food industry's "agenda" is to make the greatest profit producing and distributing food, we might very well factor this into the construction of "facts" on each side. As reported on the PR Watch website recently, tracking the "agendas" of the various interest groups (and front groups) mobilized in such a debate -- such as the "Heartland Institute," the "American Council on Science and Health," and the "Center for Individual Freedom" -- is in itself a full-time job for organizations like SourceWatch.

For example, McDonalds corporation is funding anti-Schlosser campaigns both on its own and together with other food industry partners. I say anti-Schlosser, and not pro-fast-food, because it seems that the tactics not only defend industry practices, but attempt to discredit Schlosser as a voice of authority. According to an article on the debate in the Wall Street Journal,

McDonald's Corp. has been trying to counter Mr. Schlosser's message with a public-relations campaign that plays up the chain's new healthy offerings and spotlights workers who have climbed through the Oak Brook, Ill., chain's corporate ranks.

The nation's largest fast-food chain is also funding TCS Daily, an arm of the Washington lobbying and public-relations firm DCI Group, that is making more pointed attacks against Mr. Schlosser and his work. Last week, TCS Daily launched a Web site called Fast Talk Nation that called his theories "rhetoric" and argued that he wants to decriminalize marijuana, based on excerpts from one of his other books, "Reefer Madness," about sex, drugs and cheap labor in the American black market.

Last Friday, TCS Daily abruptly closed the Fast Talk Nation site two days after its launch. James Glassman, who says he "hosts" the TCS Daily site, says he closed the Fast Talk Nation site because he wanted to pool his resources with the broader industry's Best Food Nation site.

But for me, this debate is interesting because it is being played out at so many different points along the circuit of social knowledge production -- in letters to the editor, in bookseller and film protests and boycotts, in corporate trade association and think tank press releases, and now, quite possibly, schools and libraries. McNally gets it right, I think, when he pinpoints the current focus of the campaign against Schlosser as schools and libraries which are both prone to local community pressure and dependent on local community support:

In a way, it doesn't even matter how patently absurd or easily discredited the attacks against Schlosser are. They will succeed if they somehow turn Schlosser, a talented journalist writing about important subjects, into a "controversial figure."

One of the goals, obviously, is to keep Schlosser (and his book) out of our schools. School administrators today are easily intimidated into censoring everything from books in the library to plays students are permitted to perform to the T-shirts kids wear.

Professionals from the positionalities of both journalism and librarianship need to be involved in debates like these -- indeed, they can hardly avoid them. Journalists can offer a perspective on the quality of Schlosser's reporting: Is it clear? Well-sourced? Is the evidence he uses credible? Are his methods transparent? And does he have a history of quality reporting for quality media outlets that can bolster his legitimacy? Similarly, librarians can offer a perspective on the quality of Schlosser's translation of this reporting for a youth audience: Is it unique? Have teachers and administrators been seeking such resources? Does it resonate with children? Is it transparent? Does it lead the classroom to open a debate, or to forclose it? Teaching our future journalism and library professionals to wade into such controversies bravely and competently is one of our greatest responsibilities at the university level, I think.

But when confronted by such a coordinated and, to my mind, non-transparent attack on the kind of knowledge claims that Schlosser is making across various media, across various institutions, and across the various moments of the knowledge production-consumption-reproduction cycle, it is not enough to view such controversies only from one's own vantage point. Journalists and librarians, teachers and professors, scientists and doctors, government officials and non-governmental activists alike -- in fact, anyone who makes their living (and draws their legitimacy) from the professional production of quality knowledge -- need to coordinate as well. We need to understand the points where power is applied in society in such debates over not only knowledge "facts," but methods of knowledge production themselves.

All this is not to say a teacher, a scientist, a politician should or will agree, in the end, with Schlosser -- or with any other sincere individual trying to push the boundaries of knowledge in society from his or her own professional position. But what it does say is that all knowledge professionals have a stake in how knowledge is produced, consumed, and contested across the whole cycle. In some parts of the cycle, corporate wealth carriers with it great power to influence debate (sometimes even shut down debate). In other parts of the cycle, grassroots experience, opinion and, yes, even ignorance can be mobilized in powerful ways. And sometimes sincere, transparent, peer-reviewed, non-profit knowledge production carries a powerful weight in and of itself. But if those involved at each different moment never take the time to consider the source and extent of their power in the cycle -- both as individual professionals and together as collaborative professions -- that cycle itself threatens to "short-circuit" through the path of least resistance.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Embodying information artifacts and information labor

There's an interesting little essay over at Inside Higher Ed today by anthropologist Alex Golub on a topic that my class on US library history has been debating recently: the benefits and drawbacks of paper-based information artifacts (like books) versus digital information artifacts (like online journals). Golub nicely points out that one might reasonably appreciate both physical and virtual modes of information production, distribution, and consumption, for differing reasons:

I am a digitally-enabled, network-ready scholar. I check e-mail and browse the Web. I read RSS feeds. I leverage Web 2.0’s ambient findability to implement AJAX-based tagsonomy-focused long-tail wiki content alerting via preprint open-access e-archives with social networking services. I am so enthusiastic about digital scholarship that about a year ago I published a piece in my scholarly association’s newsletter advocating that we incorporate it into our publications program. The piece was pretty widely read. At annual meetings I had colleagues tell me that they really like it and are interested in digital scholarship but they still (and presumably unlike me) enjoy reading actually physical books. This always surprised me because I love books too, and it never occurred to me that an interest in digital scholarship meant turning your back on paper. So just to set the record straight, I would like to state in this (admittedly Web-only) public forum that I have a deep and abiding passion for paper: I love it. Love it.

But the thing that interests me about Golub's essay is that he speaks not only of information artifacts, but of information labor with and through those artifacts -- how labor itself has qualities both virtual and embodied, which we often take for granted:

Paper has a corporeality that digital texts do not. For instance, have you ever tried to find a quote in a book and been unable to remember whether it was on the left or right hand side of the page? This just a trivial example of way in which paper’s physicality is the origin of its utility.

And of course professors have bodies too. This is another way that scholarship is embodied — we often do it while in libraries. Here our bodies are literally in a vast assemblage of paper with its own unique form of usability. And as scholars achieve total communion with the stacks, they find books based not just on catalog number, but on all of their senses. The fourth floor of the library I wrote my Ph.D. in sounded and smelled differently than the second did. How many of us — even the lab scientists — with Ph.D.’s will ever be able to forget the physical layout of the libraries where we wrote our dissertations?

Golub goes on to point out that information artifacts -- especially physical, print artifacts -- help us structure and define the very space and time of our work and leisure environments, and become wrapped up with our identities as information consumers and information producers:

Our collections of physical, paper texts do not only help explain who we are to ourselves, they signal this to our visitors. When my guests first enter my apartment and make a beeline to my shelves they are actually learning more about me. When they admire my copy of Roscher and Knies I am learning something about them. When they spot my first edition of Ricky Jay’s Cards as Weapons or Scatological Rites Of All Nations I know that I have found a true soul mate. I am convinced that this is somehow more important than finding out that the professor in the office next to me reads the same cat blogs that I do.

It seems to me that considering issues like these of labor, space, and even identity constitute a much more productive way of thinking about the dialectic between print and virtual information than the "either-or" arguments that are so easy to engage in (and which, admittedly, sometimes I foster in my own classes on the subject).

For example, Nicholson Baker's popular and controversial (at least within library, information studies, and archival fields) book _Double Fold_ seems to be in a sense entirely about the same print-based versus screen-based personal identity construction that Neil Postman talked about in his book _Amusing ourselves to death_. Baker talks mainly about the battle for space and funding in libraries and the rationalization for microfilming and then destroying printed texts in order to secure that space and funding. And Postman is mostly interested in the effects of consuming screen-based information rather than print-based information, especially the effects on the public's ability to engage in rational debate. (Much of this debate could probably be traced back to McLuhan, in fact.)

But both of these texts raise questions about information production as well -- the way moving among printed materials itself becomes part of our conception of ourselves as knowledge producers, knowledge "miners," knowledge organizers. That's not to say one can't produce, "mine," or organize knowledge in a virtual environment as well. But we are bodies in space and time, like it or not, and I have to believe that over the long term the way we work, and the way we build individual and collective meaning from that work, must change in relation to the spatiality, temporality, and materiality of that work.

P.S. As I'm writing this I'm also proctoring a final exam in a basement classroom which has become a temporary holding pen for books being moved out of a small department library which is itself being transformed into more of a "wired workspace" than a set of print stacks. I am not at all against this transition, which is being performed carefully and professionally. But ironically, the colleagues who teach regularly in this classroom tell me they want the rejected books to stay here -- not only for their sound-deadening properties, but because they give the room a different "feel." I guess it takes a trained anthropologist to recognize that the "feel" of such spaces might really matter in substantive ways to the value that is produced in and through those spaces.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Spanish-speaking workers in the US and the technological training products which target them

As the debate over undocumented Latino immigrant workers in the US has unfolded over the last month here in the US, I've been trying to think about the ways in which concepts of "information labor" are wrapped up in this issue. Marc Cooper, a journalist and "Senior Fellow for Border Justice at the USC Annenberg School’s Institute for Justice and Journalism," had two weeks ago written a nice summary at TruthDig of how immigration reform bubbled up to the top of the news agenda in the last few weeks -- along with some revealing statistical and historical context to the debate.

The root cause of the immigration surge, of course, has nothing to do with a broken U.S. border but everything to do with a ruined Mexican economy. The wage differential between the U.S. and Mexico is about 11 to 1. Some studies suggest that in the agricultural sector there’s a 20-to-1 differential. The passage of the 1994 NAFTA agreement further depressed Mexican rural wages and further accelerated the immigration wave. No one knows the exact figure, but something like 15 million Mexicans have emigrated to the U.S. in the last 20 years. An equal number are expected over the next two decades.

An estimated record 12 million undocumented —or illegal aliens if you prefer—now reside in the United States, more than double the number of a decade ago. Undocumented Mexican workers, once found primarily in the fields of the Southwest, now occupy the front lines of the service labor market in almost every state of the union.

So the time/space geography of undocumented Mexican labor in particular seems to have diversified from seasonal work in rural agricultural regions to year-round service work in urban and suburban regions -- particularly in the hotel and restaurant industry, if the sources I'm reading are any indication. Certainly those industries have taken "informatizing" measures over the last two decades in order to consolidate their business processes, from just-in-time ordering of food and supplies to fragmenting the time and space of handling take-out orders (such as the McDonald's experiments with having remote English-speaking drive-through workers speak to customers in restaurants with largely Spanish-speaking on-site labor). So certainly information tools and telecommunications links are now intimately tied up in the corporate environment which employs so many Spanish-speaking Americans and would-be Americans.

But there are other ways in which this labor force is being targeted by vendors of information products -- especially for high-tech English language training. I found a 2004 story from the Dallas Morning News which was reprinted on the site of the restaurant-industry-sponsored Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance that talks about some of these new training efforts:

Dallas-based Brinker International Inc. is launching one of the largest initiatives combining technology and English lessons.

In February, the nation's second-largest casual dining company plans to launch an at-home program called Sed de Saber (roughly "thirst for knowledge" in Spanish).

Workers will use durable interactive touch-pads, similar to the popular LeapFrog toy.

They'll study a Mexican novella to learn restaurant terms and concepts in English, said Jose Gomez, director of diversity for Brinker. More than a third of Brinker's roughly 95,000 restaurant employees are Hispanic.

Interestingly (or ironically) Brinker International is the parent company of the very profitable Mexican-themed chain restaurants "Chili's" and "On The Border Mexican Grill & Cantina".

The "Sed de Saber" system, which does in fact use licensed LeapPad technology (designed for infants to highschoolers), is produced by Newport Beach, CA-based Retention Education, LLC. Manuals for both employees and their "program managers" can be found on their web site. Although the system is promoted as an "English language learning program" which is "designed to help your Hispanic employees learn English language skills that can improve the quality of their lives," many of the topics listed in the manual concentrate on food service job tasks like "understanding schedules," "being a prep cook," "taking orders," "handling money," and "being a shift manager." Still, other more general topics are included like "shopping for groceries," "talking to the pharmacist," and "finding community resources."

At the beginning of the program manager guide is a warning of sorts that there are legal standards for how this four- to six-month training must be offered. If it is a mandatory training program, employees must be paid for their participation time; if it is voluntary, employees must not be penalized for choosing not to participate, and must not use the system during work hours. Retention Education even suggests that employers might want to offer Sed de Saber for employees to purchase themselves, perhaps "through a payroll deduction." The retail version of Sed de Saber costs $300 (plus shipping and handling), so a weekly payroll deduction over the suggested six-month training period would be at least $12.50/week if the employee paid all costs. I wonder how Brinker and other restaurant owners, large and small, are handling these legal nuances. (The MF&HA piece indicated that Brinker's use of the program was as an "at home" training, suggesting that it is voluntary/unpaid.)

I wonder what Latino/a, Hispanic and Chicano/a advocacy groups think about such training programs. My brief web search hasn't revealed anything, but I'm going to keep following this thread. Of course, the corporate rhetoric around such training programs, no matter what their merits or risks, never talks about using them to facilitate the hiring of undocumented labor. These are training programs for "Americans" to learn English. Amidst the current charges that undocumented Mexican immigrants in particular are some sort of "drain" on the economic resources of the US (charges which I think are ridiculous if one counts not only the economic value these workers add to the economy, but also the sales taxes, SSI taxes, and property taxes they pay), perhaps it could be useful to highlight these persons as not only eager to learn English -- and to pay in terms of their time and possibly their money for the opportunity -- but also as a huge consumer market targeted by the leaders of high-tech education ventures.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Informatics, information science, and information studies, oh my

On a lark, I decided to search for "information studies" on Wikipedia today. Now, before people interpret this as some kind of blanket endorsement (or critique) of the quality, purpose or value of Wikipedia, let me say that the reason I was curious about the Wikipedia entry for "information studies" was that I presumed that the kind of people who claim to practice "information studies" might actually be showing up as authors on Wikipedia.

But, sadly, there was no Wikipedia entry for "information studies" as of today. This intrigued me even more. I figured that maybe the field of "information studies" would be cast instead as "information science" (for all the typical contradictory reasons relating to the valuing of scientific knowledge as supposedly value-free). But the Wikipedia entry for "information science" is merely a disambiguation page which points to either "informatics" or "library and information science". So I followed up these two categories and here is what I found:


Informatics is a sub-genre[1] of information science, which is the study of information. It is often, though not exclusively, studied as a branch of computer science and information technology and is related to ontology and software engineering. Someone who practices the profession of informatics is called an informaticist, an informatician, or simply an informatics scientist.

Informatics is primarily concerned with the structure, creation, management, storage, retrieval, dissemination and transfer of information. Informatics also includes studying the application of information in organizations, on its usage and the interaction between people, organizations and information systems. Within informatics, attention has been given in recent years to human computer interaction (HCI), value sensitive design, iterative design processes and to the ways people generate, use and find information.

Informatics focuses on understanding problems from the perspective of the stakeholders involved and then applying information (and other) technology as needed. In other words, it tackles the problem first rather than technology first.

library and information science

Library and information science (LIS) is the study of issues related to libraries and the information fields. This includes academic studies regarding how library resources are used and how people interact with library systems. These studies tend to be specific to certain libraries at certain times. The organization of knowledge for efficient retrieval of relevant information is also a major research goal of LIS. Basic topics in LIS include the acquisition, cataloging, classification, and preservation of library materials. In a more present-day view, a fervent outgrowth of LIS is information architecture. LIS should not be confused with information theory, the mathematical study of the concept of information, or information science a field related to computer science and cognitive science.

Programs in LIS are interdisciplinary, overlapping with the fields of computer science, various social sciences, statistics, and systems analysis.

Finally, I found this sparse but intriguing category separate from the rest: social study of information systems

Most simply The Social Study of Information Systems is interested in people developing and using technology and the "culture" of those people.

SSIS studies these phenomena by drawing on and using "lenses" provided by social sciences, including: Philosophy, Sociology, Social Psychology, Organisational Theory, Political Science.

Of the three categories, "informatics" was by far the most eclectic, listing various subfields such as "social informatics," "community informatics," "legal informatics," "discovery informatics," and more. By contrast, the "library and information science" entry was primarily concerned with distinguishing itself from "librarianship," or "the application of library science" which "comprises the practical services rendered by librarians in their day-to-day attempts to meet the needs of library patrons."

As a member of a School of Library and Information Studies, who himself studies labor and information/communication technology, you can imagine my frustration at this point. Perhaps I should endeavor to create a subfield of "labor informatics" by staking out some space in Wikipedia. Perhaps I should author a "library and Information Studies" page and challenge the division between "informatics" and "library and information science". But I don't think that waging these boundary battles through Wikipedia would be a very productive use of my time. Yet I was intrigued enough to delve into some of the comments which lurk behind each Wikipedia article, to see if the article authors (and readers) themselves had any insight into the difficulty of conceptualizing these related areas of interest.

In the "library and information science" discussion, one reader commented, "There is no treatment of the history of library science or librarianship, nor an adequate explanation of the evolution of the discipline and its programs into modern-day Library and Information Science." Another asked, "Is there a link I missed that takes one to a discussion of the theoretical foundations of the field? I mostly see a discussion of librarianship (which is fine on its own), but perhaps this could use a bit of discussion about the various "paradigms" (if I may use that loaded word) such as the focus on systems, the cognitive focus on the individual, and the more social constructionist and/or domain analytic views?" So it seems that the current Wikipedia entry for "library and information science" is under considerable criticism already and is ripe for some enterprising LIS graduate student to revise.

The "informatics" discussion is even more interesting -- and more contested. One reader argued, "I do not agree with the equivalence of Informatics and Information Science in general. They might be used syonymously in some contexts, but in my experience they are considered different but related fields. I'm not going to make any edits to the page until I can back up my statements here with some sources to cite, but I wanted to bring this up. I am an "informatics scientist" in a global pharmaceutical company, and the group that utilizes the 'information science' skill set is separate with distinct tools, methodologies, and responsibilities." Another pointed out the rather amusing contradiction that "Currently Computer Science is listed as a sub-category of Information Science and Information Science is listed as a sub-category of Computer Science." And a third reader pointed out that perhaps what the overall field needs is a more historical/geographical analysis of its origins and meanings: "Informatics (US) / Information science (EU) evolved out of computer science, just like software engineering. Therefore subjects studied by computer scientist a decade ago, like human-computer interaction, are now studied by information scientists." This kind of "archeology" of informatics would indeed be useful, since according to Wikipedia the field itself somehow split into half a dozen different subfields. Sadly, the subfield article on "social informatics" lacks discussion entirely.

I'm still not sure what to make of all this, if anything. But a cursory glance at the mission statements of various graduate programs in "information science," "information studies," and "informatics" (all flavors) reveals little consensus on this terminology -- even though, as I mentioned in the last post, the study of "information" in social life has been going on for at least half a century now. Right now I'm trying to spec out a historical/geographical study of my own that would consider the post-Memex, pre-WWW debates over technology, labor, and libraries in the US, a story that intimately involves this struggle over the defnition of "information science" and "library science" in academic settings. I enter this research with the assumption that discursive battles like these can carry real risks and rewards, especially in the competition for scarce research funds, scarce faculty positions, or even scarce technological infrastructures. If Wikipedia is any indication -- and frankly, maybe it isn't -- that competition is far from resolved today

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Invisibility of information studies

Not only is "information labor" often invisible in society these days, but the very scholars in academia who study it are also quite often invisible. This morning, for example, I was alerted to a National Research Council project meant to assess US doctoral programs:

The National Research Council has launched its latest project to assess U.S. research doctorate programs. Like previous efforts in 1983 and 1995, the new study is designed to help universities improve the quality of these programs through benchmarking; provide potential students and the public with accessible, readily available information on doctoral programs nationwide; and enhance the nation's overall research capacity. Data will be available in late 2007.

The problem lies with the research taxonomy that the NRC is apparently going to use -- an organized set of valid fields of doctoral study which quite completely ignores both new and old areas of social science study of information and society such as "social informatics," "library science," and "information studies." The NRC taxonomy leaves only the so-called "emerging field" of "information science" under the category of "physical sciences, mathematics, and engineering." Information science is certainly not an "emerging" field -- it's been around for more than half a century -- but more than that, information science doesn't capture the related but quite distinct work that I and my colleagues do to understand the dialectical relationship between information products, processes, and philosophies throughout society as a whole.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Divisions of information labor in the fast-food industry

From today's New York Times comes an article on a new spatial, technological, wage, and task division of labor at McDonald's, which allows the fast-food giant to gain greater control over time by extending its operations across space:

Like many American teenagers, Julissa Vargas, 17, has a minimum-wage job in the fast-food industry — but hers has an unusual geographic reach.

"Would you like your Coke and orange juice medium or large?" Ms. Vargas said into her headset to an unseen woman who was ordering breakfast from a drive-through line. She did not neglect the small details —"You Must Ask for Condiments," a sign next to her computer terminal instructs — and wished the woman a wonderful day.

What made the $12.08 transaction remarkable was that the customer was not just outside Ms. Vargas's workplace here on California's central coast. She was at a McDonald's in Honolulu. And within a two-minute span Ms. Vargas had also taken orders from drive-through windows in Gulfport, Miss., and Gillette, Wyo.

Ms. Vargas works not in a restaurant but in a busy call center in this town, 150 miles from Los Angeles. She and as many as 35 others take orders remotely from 40 McDonald's outlets around the country. The orders are then sent back to the restaurants by Internet, to be filled a few yards from where they were placed.

The people behind this setup expect it to save just a few seconds on each order. But that can add up to extra sales over the course of a busy day at the drive-through.

The managerial efficiencies of such an arrangement don't only come from the time savings, however. There is both greater surveillance and control over empolyees and greater specialization of labor tasks:

Software tracks her productivity and speed, and every so often a red box pops up on her screen to test whether she is paying attention. She is expected to click on it within 1.75 seconds. In the break room, a computer screen lets employees know just how many minutes have elapsed since they left their workstations. [...]

Its workers are experts in the McDonald's menu; they are trained to be polite, to urge customers to add items to their order and, above all, to be fast. Each worker takes up to 95 orders an hour during peak times. Customers pulling up to the drive-through menu are connected to the computer of a call-center employee using Internet calling technology. The first thing the McDonald's customer hears is a prerecorded greeting in the voice of the employee. [...]

The call-center system allows employees to be monitored and tracked much more closely than would be possible if they were in restaurants. [The manager's] computer screen gives him constant updates as to which workers are not meeting standards.

Finally, this system also serves to reinforce and reproduce greater polarization between the language and job skills available in various local labor markets:

Often, in California in particular, he said, the employee may primarily speak Spanish, while the customer speaks only English — a problem that can be eliminated with a specialized call-center crew. "We believe we raise the customer-service bar by having people who are very articulate, have a good command of the English language, and some who are bilingual," he said.

Specialization at a centralized call center means there is no need to invest in language training -- either in English or in Spanish -- or customer-service training at local McDonald's sites. Is there also no need to worry about a literate work force at such sites? How much might the distancing of mental and manual labor through realtime information technology be pushed? What might the effects be on the already-limited employment experience that working in such a commercial organization confers on its workers?

No mention is made in the article of the other dangers of such a geographic displacement -- such as that local consumers will feel out of touch with the distant language coming out of the drive-through speakers as opposed to the face they see in the drive-up window, or that the corporation will use such technologies to move its labor force into areas of the globe with few labor protections and poverty-level wages.

I wonder, if McDonald's sets a precedent with such disembodied retail customer interaction services, which companies and industries will follow next? Telepresence at the checkout counter in the supermarket? Or at the Gap? How far is far-fetched here?

Friday, March 31, 2006

Interdisciplinarity, sub-disciplinarity, and inter-topicality

I attended the kickoff event to a conference on interdisciplinarity at my Big State-Supported But Increasingly Privately-Funded university last night. This was an event of keen interest to me, as I consider myself "interdisciplinary" in several different senses and I wondered how the presenters would define and interpret and value interdisciplinarity themselves.

Why do I call myself "interdisciplinary"? First, I have earned degrees in several different "disciplines". I have a Bachelor's and Master's in "computer science," I have a second Master's in "liberal studies," and I have a hybrid Ph.D. in both "history of technology" and "human geography" (I was a member of both departments during my graduate study). Some might say this is a "multidisciplinary" background, not an "interdisciplinary" one. My response would be that if I wrote LISP code on Monday, engaged in discourse analysis on Tuesday, did some history work on Wednesday, and acted like a geographer on Thursday, you could accurately call me "multidisciplinary". But since I combine different aspects of the different disciplines I was trained in throughout my week and work, I call myself "interdisciplinary".

Really, though, each of these disciplines is sort of a subdiscipline itself of a larger set of what many might consider more "fundamental" disciplinary domains. Obviously, "history of technology" is a "history of ..." just like other history specialties which focus on a single era, a single region, a single population, or a single social issue. Similarly, "human geography" competes with the "geography of ..." cast in several different ways. The field of "liberal studies" might not even be considered by many to be a real discipline, though I think of it as a subfield of American Studies these days (I didn't when I was earning the degree). And even "computer science" may be a sort of subfield of "computer engineering" (from the point of view of the engineers) or a subfield of "information science" (from the point of view of the information scientists).

A trickier question might be trying to specify what makes these sub-disciplines -- or their parent domains -- "disciplines" in the first place. Many choose a topic-focused definition: computer science is the study of computer software; liberal studies is the study of ideas within liberal societies; history of technology the study of technological change; and human geography the study of human patterns of settlement. But I think the real key to conceptualizing a discipline is to consider not the topic under study, but the "ways of knowing" (methods, standards, and norms of value production) involved in that discipline. In computer science, the production of efficient, effective, even elegant "code" was proof of expertise. Liberal studies demanded quick facility with the texual analysis of works in history, literature, and policy. History relies upon the discovery, analysis, and organization of primary and archival source material. And geography demands conceptions of space, time, and scale, in both absolute and relative senses, and the ability to use these conceptions to demonstrably inform the core of one's work. Practitioners in different disciplines don't just investigate different things -- they see those things in entirely different ways.

This splitting apart claims about "ways of knowing" (methodologies, concepts, theories, epistemologies) from claims concerning "things worth knowing about" (topics of study) is important enough to warrant an additional set of terms beyond "interdisciplinarity," I think, for those of us who foolishly attempt to know about more than one thing at a time. Maybe academics who research several different topics independent of each other should be called "multi-topicial"? And maybe the research of two or more different topics in an integrated, intertwined way should be called "inter-topicality?" Myself, I claim to study both information/communication technologies and the human labors that emerge and adapt in concert with these technologies. The fact that I claim a special relationship between the two topics makes me "inter-topical" rather than "multi-topical," I think. And the fact that I study this inter-topical relationship from multiple ways of knowing -- crucially, trying to relate those ways of knowing together rather than applying them separately or in sequence -- makes me an "interdisciplinary inter-topical" researcher rather than a "multidisciplinary inter-topical" researcher.

If you're still with me, I appreciate it, because all this was actually leading up to something.

That interdisciplinarity conference I mentioned started off with a mini history of several longstanding interdisciplinary programs on our campus -- one dealt with environmental studies, another with poverty studies, a third with women's studies, and a fourth with international studies. All were described as organizational arrangements meant to focus on a single problem through the use of teams of scholars, each of whom came from a different discipline. This is a couple of steps away from the plight I find myself in, as a single scholar who studies multiple problems together from multiple disciplines at once.

But it gets worse (or better). I also happened to be employed in two departments at once (the two different "disciplines" of "information studies" and "communication studies"), each of which could itself be seen as an "interdisciplinary" program in its own right (single problem, many scholars each from different home disciplines).

You can see now why maybe I was hoping to find some answers from this two-hour session I attended. Alas, answers don't come that easily anywhere in academia. But the session helped me generate a new set of questions that I want to articulate here before I forget them. The questions deal with that relationship between the production of "interdisciplinary (and single-topic) centers" (like a science/technology studies department hiring many faculty each trained in a different discipline) and the production of "interdisciplinary (and multi-topic) scholars" (like me). Does the funding of one lead (through generations of research collaboration and graduate student training) to the production of the other? Are interdisciplinary or inter-topical academics more likely to be hired by interdisciplinary units on campus, or are they now coveted by (or targeted toward) "traditional" disciplinary departments which need to be "diversified"? What are the power relations at work when "disciplinary" and "interdisciplinary" scholars must fight for a zero-sum-game of decreasing funding as states pull resources from universities? Do these power relations play out differently within "interdisciplinary" units versus "disciplinary" departments? And finally -- what do we do about the real contradictions that emerge in this system, such as when departments such as mine (or scholars such as myself) find themselves sometimes claiming "disciplinary" tradition, and other times claiming "interdiscipilnary" innovation?

Thursday, March 23, 2006

The myths of "merit" in information labor?

A new book by Harvard University law professor Lani Guinier entitled "Meritocracy Inc.: How Wealth Became Merit, Class Became Race, and College Education Became a Gift from the Poor to the Rich," argues that "what we're calling individual talent is actually a function of that individual's social position or opportunities gained by virtue of family and ancestry." For Guinier, the notion of "merit" needs to be problematized because, paradoxically, we rely on it as the litmus test for entrance into the one institution which is designed to allow people of different cultural backgrounds, socio-economic power positions, and ideological beliefs to enhance and demonstrate their "merit" by acquiring professional skills, wrestling with complex ideas, and building a record of scholarly achievement: higher education in the form of prestigious public and private colleges and universities. Guinier explains:

I became interested in the 1990s as a result of looking at the performance of women in law school. A student and I became interested in the disparity between the grades that men and women at an Ivy League law school were receiving. Working with Michelle Fein and Jean Belan, we found that male and female students were coming in with basically the same credentials. The minor difference was that the women tended to have entered with slightly higher undergraduate grades and the men with higher LSATs.

The assumption at that time was that incoming credentials predicted how you would perform. Relying on things like the LSAT allowed law school officials to say they were determining admission based on merit. So several colleagues told me to look at the LSAT scores because they were confident that I might find something to explain the significant differences in performance. But we found that, surprisingly, the LSAT was actually a very poor predictor of performance for both men and women, that this "objective" marker which determined who could even gain access was actually not accomplishing its ostensible mandate.

I then became interested in studying meritocracy because of the attacks poor and working class whites were waging against affirmative action. People were arguing that they were rejected from positions because less qualified people of color were taking their spots. I began to question what determines who is qualified. Then, the more research I did, the more I discovered that these so-called markers of merit did not actually correlate with future performance in college but rather correlated more with an applicant's parents' and even grandparents' wealth. Schools were substituting markers of wealth for merit.

One of Guinier's goals in writing this book is to complicate arguments about affirmative action in higher education, showing that while much of the rhetoric is about race-based preference thwarting an idealized "meritocracy," in reality many admissions formulas premised on merit are actually discriminating on the basis of class even before questions of race and ethnicity enter the picture:

Sheryl Hopwood was a white working-class woman who applied to the University of Texas Law School and was denied admission. In 1996, she sued the university for racial discrimination, arguing that less-qualified blacks and Latinos had taken her spot. Thirty-nine years after Central, she sued in the district court and then in the Fifth Circuit and won, but the problem with the court's analysis was that they did not look behind the school's claim that all slots, except for those bestowed through affirmative action, were distributed based on merit.

It actually turns out that the school's own formula for determining merit disadvantaged Sheryl Hopwood. She went to a community college and the University of Texas Law weighted her LSAT scores with those of other applicants from her school and graduating year. Because her community college drew from a working-class population, Hopwood's own LSAT score was negatively weighted. So Hopwood's chance of attending the University of Texas was diminished because of class status not because of her race.

Such systems are reproduced in part because of another information indicator, according to Guinier, since "schools are so committed to the annual issue of U.S. News and World Report that ranks educational institutions according to the their students' standardized test scores." The "merit" of the institution (a problematic measure itself when reduced to a single-number ranking) is drawn not only from the "merit" of its faculty and staff, but from the "merit" of its incoming class. The result, Guinier argues, is that " Education is becoming about providing credentials to obtain high-paying jobs rather than training people for a thriving democracy."

More details of Guinier's book can be found in this interview with the author posted on AlterNet. This whole debate initially struck me as interesting because I'm wrestling with my own professional understanding of how "merit" calculations are devised, defended, and deconstructed at all levels of the university, from awarding student scholarships to recommending faculty raises. The democratic, egalitarian, and open nature of university decision-making paradoxically makes "merit" a more contentious issue than it might be in a more closed or hierarchical or autocratic corporate setting. Yet I, like many of my peers, I imagine, have benefitted from a system where "merit" has in recent history been defined with SAT, ACT, and GRE scores on standardized tests.

But more than this, I feel like this is an opening to ask what might seem to be an obvious question: how in an "information economy," the production and reproduction of "merit" may be -- should be? -- increasingly entwined with the consumption and production of knowledge. In trying to measure and quantify merit, we are processing and valuing information. In trying to define and demonstrate merit, we value the accumulating and manipulating of information. But if different ways of knowing are contradictory or incommensurable -- different epistemologies, worldviews, or definitions of "rationality" itself -- then aren't measures of merit similarly at odds? Can we analyze some of the debates over risk and reward in our society in these terms, alongside terms of (say) class, race, age, and gender?

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Information organizations that profit from information ignorance?

An article today in the New York Times about a state-backed lawsuit against a well-known consumer tax-preparation service firm has got me thinking:

H&R Block, the nation's largest tax-preparation service, was accused yesterday of selling inappropriate savings plans to hundreds of thousands of income tax filers, in the latest attack on the company's push to offer other financial services.

The New York attorney general said in a lawsuit filed yesterday that the company steered clients, many of them low income, into individual retirement accounts that were "virtually guaranteed to lose money" because of low interest rates and high fees. The suit also contended that H&R Block did not fully disclose its fees.

"The conduct described in today's complaint is particularly appalling because many of those hardest hit were working families who struggle to save," Eliot Spitzer, the New York attorney general, said in a statement.

The company said it would defend itself against the allegations.

The firm has had similar legal troubles in other states, related to other "services" it offers to its clients:

[L]ast month, the company was accused by the California attorney general of illegally marketing and selling high-cost loans as "instant" tax refunds. The company agreed late last year to pay $62.5 million to settle four class-action lawsuits related to refund-anticipation loans.

Additionally, the law firm of Lerach Coughlin Stoia Geller Rudman & Robbins filed a class-action lawsuit in Kansas City, Mo., against H&R Block yesterday, citing similar accusations.

As I understand it, this firm's brand image is based around the idea of selling professional information labor -- knowledge of tax laws, expertise in bureaucratic government procedures, and facility with mathematics -- to two market segments: (1) household and small-business consumers who feel they lack such information knowledge and skill to the degree that they are either unable or unwilling to complete their government-mandated tax forms themselves; and (2) household and small-business consumers who feel they _could_ prepare their own taxes, but trust the expertise of the firm to bring them greater savings on their taxes than they themselves would be able to reap.

In light of the lawsuits, it seems to me that this firm is, in a way, exploiting the "information ignorance" of its clients (not the best term, but bear with me) in two ways: first, it relies on clients who don't feel competent or comfortable in preparing their tax forms on their own; and second, it relies on clients who won't question the fine print of "instant refund" and "long-term savings" plans which, according to the lawsuits, are little more than high-interest and high-fee loan-sharking schemes.

This line of analysis got me to thinking about some of the other organizations and institutions in our political-economy which rely on, profit from, and perhaps even work to reproduce, this "information ignorance" in its various forms -- not just lack of information about and familiarity with legal and bureaucratic knowledge and procedures, but various fundamental "illiteracies" such as mathematical illiteracy, print illiteracy, media illiteracy, computer illiteracy, scientific illiteracy, and the like. For example, for all their talk about being part of the "entertainment" industry, I believe that gambling/gaming firms (and state-backed lotteries as well) require a certain amount of mathematical illiteracy among their markets in order to entice consumers to give over their money to a "house" which nearly always wins. Ponzi schemes, "multi-level marketing" firms, and get-rich-quick "informational seminars" of all sorts rely upon mathematical illiteracy of a different sort.

More than the fringes of the economy such as loan-sharking, gambling, and pyramid schemes are implicated here, though. Sometimes profiting from "information ignorance" might mean engaging in the organized concealment of product and price information from consumers, such as in efforts of the real-estate industry to keep the "multiple listing service" operating as a closed system (perhaps akin to the failed defense of closed systems of travel agents and stock brokers a decade ago). Multinational corporations like Wal-Mart or McDonald's which rely on an advertising image of "home town connection" have no interest in revealing the true global nature of their commodity, labor, and profit flows; neither do they work reveal the conditions under which their products are produced, marketing instead the single-minded benefits of "low price" or "great taste" to their consumers. In other words, "commodity fetishism" is in itself a form of information ignorance -- ignorance of the space and time, material and labor, conditions of production of commodities.

Once we extend the definition of "information ignorance" in these ways, though, certainly such profit-seeking firms aren't the only ones to blame. Ignorance can perhaps be a willful state to exist in on the part of consumers, or a convenient condition to foster on the part of the state. I like to think that our institutions of education -- from mandatory public schools to competitive private unversities -- have as their core mission the elimination of such ignorance, not only among their immediate clients (students), but throughout the societies in which they operate. Other civic institutions, like public libraries and public media, seem to share such values. Private information agencies and media outlets depend on the existence of the particular market segments that they target, so may be in a more contradictory position. Some might reap increased revenues from an audience hungry for knowledge; others might depend for their revenues on an audience deprived of experience.

In all of this analysis, however, I'm not sure I'm really comfortable with the terms "ignorance" and "illiteracy". They seem too monovocal -- "you are ignorant if you don't know what I know, or believe what I believe, or make decisions in the way I make decisions" and all that. But if there's a new and useful way to connect disparate forms of "information prodution" and "information consumption" together through an analysis of the power position of both the producers and the consumers -- getting beyond "owning the means of production" vs. "willing to pay for products and services" and instead delving into the specific conditions for knowledge valuation, production, and reproduction in society -- then I'm willing to play with those ideas for a while to see where they lead.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Wired cities, livable cities, and "rooted cosmpolitans"

I had the pleasant opportunity to speak on the topic of "livable cities and wired cities" as part of the UW-Madison Humanities Center "Rooted Cosmopolitans" speaker series tonight. The venue was appropriate: the Central Library in downtown Madison. I shared the stage with the smart and funny Mike Ivey from the Capital Times, and met a bunch of movers and shakers in both Madison and Milwaukee technology policy (unfortunately, Mayor Dave had to leave before I could shake his hand). Sounds like I'm gushing a bit but it was fun to serve as a public intellectual for an inquisitive audience. If you're finding this blog as a consequence of that talk, hope you enjoyed the event and if there are points you'd like to continue to discuss, feel free to comment on this post. If you missed the talk but want to see some of the charts I used and points I raised, my slides are posted on the web.

Friday, February 03, 2006

The telegram is dead; long live the messenger

A graduate student in my program recently pointed me to the interesting news blurb that Western Union had ceased its telegram service effective January 27, 2006. He thought I might be interested in this fact of trivia because I myself have written a book on telegraph messenger boys, entitled, creatively enough, Telegraph messenger boys: Labor, technology, and geography, 1850-1950 (Routledge, 2002). In that book, I argued that, over its century-long history of active use, the meaning of the telegram itself was dialectically tied to the meaning of the messenger boy who carried it. Perhaps that's one reason the telegram died a lonely and anonymous death last week ... if you ordered a "telegram" in the late 1990s, your text would be entered through a web page, your account charged through a credit card, your telegram pounded out by laser-printer, and your envelope finally delivered to its recipient by an Airborne Express carrier. No human "messenger" was involved in any kind of brand-related sense -- the Airborne Express fellow who came to my door certainly didn't care that he was carrying a "telegram" and didn't ask me for a "reply" as they do in old movies, for example. But more than that, the company taking your money was not even really "Western Union," although it did own that brand name. The original Western Union Telegraph Company changed its name to New Valley Corporation in the early 1990s and spun off its only profitable division, its money-transfer service, to First Data Corporation about a decade ago. All this trivia is simply to say that our information commodities can become intimately bound up with our information labors. Maybe we don't really notice, though, until they're gone.

The labor of updating a weblog regularly ...

... increases in difficulty when one has to manage weblogs for one's university classes as well. But here are some other spaces you can visit where I and my students are discussing "information labor":

- LIS 569, History of American librarianship

- J 201, Introduction to mass communication

More soon, I hope.