27 September 2007

Geek Chic

I'll admit it. With all sorts of people sporting MacBooks lately, I've been suffering from a distinct lack of cool - call it Mac envy. Not that I particularly want to use a Mac, mind you - I don't think I would switch unless Windows Vista is forced on me. I simply prefer to avoid learning curves when I have a working and playing environment that is effective, efficient, and has been finely tuned over many years. Besides that, I love my sleek ThinkPad - the best engineered computer I have ever owned.

But the look of OSX is cool. What I really think I have is a case of dock envy. (That's dock envy, with an "o.") So I decided to trick out my Windows XP desktop and program launch capabilities.

Two great products, both free, and a bit of taskbar tweaking was all it took. For ease of launching, I took Lifehacker's advice and installed Launchy. It's a keyboard launcher that allows you to type the first few characters of a program or file path and, as if by magic, it figures out what you want. Any ambiguity is resolvable via a dynamically constructed drop-down menu. Hit enter and away you go.

For the cool dock effect, I installed Rocketdock, which I absolutely love. Rocketdock not only provides a Mac-like dock, it also supports small dockable applications known as docklets that are written for the non-free ObjectDock. I then picked up a bunch of cool icons and a couple of docklets from Wincustomize, and I have all the cool functionality that I want.

To complete the aesthetic, I chose the "hide the taskbar" option on Taskbar Properties, and used a great photo of fireworks over Tokyo, taken by my son, David, during his trip to Japan this summer. Here's the result:
(Click image for a larger view)

All the cool without the learning curve! Perfect.

[Technorati tags: | | ]

26 September 2007

Mr. Ahmadinejad Goes to New York

I have been trying to make sense of the circus at Columbia University yesterday, where Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was invited to speak, after previously having been uninvited from the same forum. I think the nominal arguments about so-called academic freedom in this case are more cliché than justified: academic freedom – which only exists for tenured professors – represents the freedom to pursue knowledge, no matter how unpalatable that knowledge may be to mainstream thought. Since the academic in question is nominally protected against reprisal through tenure (although there are many, many subtle and excruciating forms of reprisal that can be levelled against an academic aside from firing), s/he has the freedom to be on the fringe. But Mr. Ahmadinejad is not a professor. Nor is anyone who is interested in studying him or his ideas prevented from doing so by obtaining other of his very public pronouncements or writings, or by even attending one of his shindigs in Tehran.

Was the purpose to put him through the wringer, to embarrass the man, as Columbia University’s president did? This seems like a cheap publicity trick, unworthy of a major university, although university presidents are not above cheap publicity tricks (that occasionally backfire). You can see my problem in making sense of it all.

A recent acquaintance who has been reading McLuhan wrote to me and said,
In my view the President of the of University Mr. Bollinger was focusing in 'content' (such as the fact that Ahmadinejad denies the Holocaust) and lost the opportunity to let the guy free for us to grasp his 'message'. Iran and Ahmadinejad are the media. Anyway his message is to challenge the western.
And that got me thinking.

The message or effect of a medium is not singular, and is always relative to some ground. According to the Laws of Media, there are four effects that are common to all media – including the medium that is the construction of Ahmadinejad, President of Iran, in New York. The four effects are arranged in four quadrants of the Laws of Media tetrad (beginning at the upper right and moving clockwise) as Extension (enhancement, acceleration, intensification or enablement); Reversal; Obsolescence; and Retrieval. Here’s what I came up with, beginning with my correspondent’s suggestion, and adding some of what is known:

  • Challenge to western hegemony (I’m presuming that the challenge is to the hegemony)
  • Huntington’s (Clash of Civilizations) thesis
  • Front man who extends the fundamental, radical ideology of a non-public “Supreme Leader”Influence and power among those of essentially (or potentially) like mind
  • Reinforced hegemony, rather than the rise of a counter-hegemony via organic intellectuals, à la Gramsci
  • Multi-culturalism, pluralism
  • Front pushed to the rear; behind-the-scenes leader has no voice, losing influence
  • Apparent power becomes marginalized by those who it originally sought to influence
  • ???
  • (note: he does not retrieve Hitler as many people irrationally suggest, Godwin’s Law notwithstanding. Hitler spoke for himself, and didn’t challenge a hegemony – his was a material and territorial ambition, not the clash of cultures or ideology.)
  • Progressive agenda
  • Fukuyama’s (End of History) thesis of the universality of liberal democracy

I wasn’t able to come up with a good Retrieval at first. However, I applied my notion of the Principle of Media Equivalency – an extension of McLuhan’s “tetrad cluster.” The Principle says that any two media that can be shown to have the same quadrant elements relative to a common ground can be considered to be equivalent, and therefore may share other elements relative to other grounds.

If we consider the neo-liberal political economic ideology that is clearly dominant in many western nations – and especially powerful in the U.S. today, then it can be argued that the current administration is merely the “front man” for a neo-liberal “Supreme Leader,” whose influence is especially felt with respect to current middle east policy – and in particular, the policies that have sent 130,000 young men and women into harm’s way. Indeed, all of the quadrants can equally apply to the current administration, right down to the power and influence becoming relatively marginalized, given the dwindling support of most countries for the war, and the greenback’s nosedive.

What is the Retrieval in this case? I would say the Robber Barons of the early 20th century, those relatively few men who accumulated vast wealth and power. This is not dissimilar to those who accumulate and concentrate wealth and power among Ahmadinejad’s supporters in other mid-east countries.

The media equivalency of the respective leaders of Iran and the U.S. points to an interesting dynamic that is often characteristic of conceptual polarities: they can be considered as essentially two sides of the same coin, or one as the “evil twin” of the other, viewed from each other’s perspective. But this is not really surprising. Throughout its history, America has always defined itself (although not exclusively) in ideological opposition to its “evil twin.” The founding myth of the country was a result of religious opposition in England. Its War of Independence was waged against one of the world’s superpowers of the day. Its 20th century history and emergence as a modern superpower was shaped by its opposition to the Soviet Union. But with the fall of the USSR, America lost its governing mirror (a theme that I have explored extensively in my Reversal of America posts). Amadinejad’s visit to New York, with all the hyperbolic media coverage of his Columbia University coming out party, allowed America to once again look in the reversal mirror and stare its evil twin right in the face, thereby reinforcing its own sense of identity.

Which brings us to Huntington and Fukuyama for a closing thought. The universality of liberal democracy – Fukuyama’s contention for the so-called end of history – is problematic, since liberal democracy as it has been constructed by the western hegemony ignores the realities of marginalization, the massive influence of neo-liberal political economy, the realpolitik of corporate interests in contemporary politics, and many other similar concerns. Huntington’s clash of cultures, on the other hand – despite the seemingly overwhelming empirical evidence in support of his thesis – is, I think, temporary. It is a retrieval of the religious wars in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries that were characteristic of the break boundary disruption of epochal change. This is precisely the circumstance in which we are now living, and, as the saying goes, this too shall pass. Neither countries nor civilizations can define themselves in opposition – keeping a distance or separation – in a ubiquitously connected and pervasively proximate world. Those that insist on doing so, and cannot realize that we are now on the other side of a historic break boundary, are destined to the obsolescence quadrant. Something to think about while looking in the mirror.

[Technorati tags: | | | | | | ]

23 September 2007

Z L'v: Marcel Marceau, 1923-2007

(Yes, he was Jewish.)
Perhaps a moment of cheering and laughter would be appropriate to celebrate the life of the world's greatest mime, Marcel Marceau, who passed yesterday. A holocaust survivor, "Marceau worked with the French Resistance to protect Jewish children, and later used the memories of his own life to feed his art." He was inspired by Charlie Chaplin, and in turn, inspired countless performers, from those who perform on the world stage, to those who busk on street corners.

It is said that a Jew who dies on one of the major holidays is very special - dying on Yom Kippur, as Marceau did, is a sign of a tzaddik - a truly righteous man - manifest through his contribution to the world.

Here, via YouTube, is a commemoration:

[Technorati tags: | | ]

And Speaking About Being in the News

It sure seemed like I've been giving a bunch of interviews lately, so I decided to have a bit of a look around. Yup. I have been.

There was the Globe piece about online TV. And the CTV interview on the 10th anniversary of Princess Diana's death about public displays of grief. Then, Canada.com wondering about why Toronto has such a large Facebook network. And finally, the Kingston Whig-Standard asked me about university students connecting via Facebook to coordinate their annual "Night of Mayhem." And there's probably something that will appear in The Ryersonian within the next couple of days about privacy, revelation and consequences on Facebook.

And, in response to the most frequently asked question during these sorts of interview ("what's your title?"), here's how I see my identity being constructed lately: I am a PhD researcher at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. Generally speaking, I explore the complexity of changes in society that are emerging in an environment of ubiquitous connectivity and pervasive proximity.

[Technorati tags: | | | ]

21 September 2007

And in Other Legal News...

A mother defends her daughter's right to free speech on her blog in New Haven, Connecticut.
Avery Doninger, who returned to enter her senior year Tuesday, criticized administrators including Superintendent Paula Schwartz and High School Principal Karissa Niehoff for a perceived effort to cancel a scheduled battle of bands contest on campus in the spring. She attributed problems as "due to the douchebags at central office."
The school administrators were clearly unimpressed with the criticism. They prohibited Ms. Doninger from running for Class Secretary, a position she had held for several years. Although there is a widely accepted, school-imposed restriction on making threatening statements against people in a school, and a restriction on inappropriate speech in school newsletters and yearbooks, this comment was clearly off school property, and a protest, not a threat. However,
The school assumed a parent's right to discipline it doesn't have, she [the girl's mother] said. In one of several interviews given in the wake of Friday's preliminary ruling at U.S. District Court in New Haven, Doninger was praised by a radio commentator as the mother who told her daughter "you're grounded, and we're going to federal court to file a civil suit."
I'm reminded of the famous Lenny Bruce quip: "Take away the right to say fuck, and you take away the right to say fuck the government." Ditto for the over-reaching "douchebags" in the school's central office.

But many school administrators miss a key point about protests, complaints, and yes, even disrespect posted on weblogs, Facebook, and similar venues. Such negative commentary surface underlying problems in the dynamics of the learning environments that they are attempting to create. Rather than attempting to stifle criticism in the name of discipline (and after all, according to Foucault, there is little difference between incarceration in a prison and incarceration in a classroom), school administrators should welcome the opportunity to open conversation and dialogue among themselves, faculty and students in order to create a healthy, open, and viable educational experience for all.

[Technorati tags: | | ]

Warning to Business: Read the Fine Print on CC Licenses

Today's Star has a story about a lawsuit launched by a Texas family against Virgin Mobile Australia, for their use of a photo of their daughter in a billboard advertising campaign. The photo in question was taken by the girl's friend, and uploaded to Flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution licence. Essentially, this licence says that anyone may use the otherwise copyrighted work for any purpose, so long as they give attribution to the photographer, provide a link back to the original source of the photograph and to the licence itself. There are other, more restrictive Creative Commons licenses, including those that specify no commercial use, no derivative works, and a requirement for sharing any derivative works under the same license as the original work.

The family's lawsuit expresses many of their concerns, including an odd one (although we should remember that this is Texas): the tag line on the ad reads, "Free text virgin to virgin." The family claims that this line, "damaged Alison's reputation and exposed her to ridicule from her peers and scrutiny from people who can now Google her." I can't really see what's wrong with declaring that this 16-year-old is a virgin, unless she is attempting to establish a reputation as something else.

But that is not really the point of the conversation around the 'net on this issue. Creative Commons Australia weighs in with their opinion on the legality of the usage. They suggest that Virgin Mobile violated the Attribution licence by not providing appropriate link-backs. Much of the conversation suggests that a model release would be required (although technically speaking, not under Australian law), and that the photographer's moral rights in his work have been violated by the inclusion of the tagline (although technically speaking, moral rights only exist under British Commonwealth jurisprudence, so yes in Australia, no in the U.S.). They also point out that other images in the same campaign are clearly licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike licence (like this weblog), so Virgin is clearly in violation in those cases.

The message to businesses is clear: CC doesn't mean free-for-all. It means that you have to follow the rules of the licence, even though those rules are less restrictive than normal copyright. As well, when it comes to identifiable use of individuals in advertising, or other commercial uses, it's a good idea to get a model release. CC refers to the copyright in the photograph. It is the responsibility of the final user to ensure that they comply with all the other legal requirements for their specific use (most of which could not possibly be anticipated by the casual photographer at the time). And, just because you're in Australia, doesn't mean that your violations won't get noticed elsewhere in a UCaPP world.

[Technorati tags: | | | | | ]

19 September 2007

The Times Gets With The Times (Finally)

The "Gray Lady" at long last sings... sorry... metaphor masala...

The New York Times wakes up to find it's the 21st century, and has decided to unlock the paywall behind which lies some of its columnists, and its huge archive of news. The reason is pure business, combined with some originally poor thinking (or lack thereof), and a new realization about business in the UCaPP world that they have yet to truly make.
What changed, The Times said, was that many more readers started coming to the site from search engines and links on other sites instead of coming directly to NYTimes.com. These indirect readers, unable to get access to articles behind the pay wall and less likely to pay subscription fees than the more loyal direct users, were seen as opportunities for more page views and increased advertising revenue.

“What wasn’t anticipated was the explosion in how much of our traffic would be generated by Google, by Yahoo and some others,” Ms. Schiller said.
I like that: "what wasn't anticipated." More truthful, I suspect, would be the following admission: "in our arrogance about our unique value in the world, we thought that we could get people to pay to read us, because there is nothing as good as the New York Times." Surprise!

But this move suggests a profound change in business that has become evident in many other instances. In an world shaped and structured by the Industrial Age, factories produced commodities and consumers paid for those commodities. It didn't matter whether the commodity was a manufactured good or a human-provided service, the worldview of modern business has been akin to: "I should get paid for what I do, produce or provide on a transaction-by-transaction basis. I should also get paid an amount that corresponds to what I believe to be my value - although my belief may often be relative to some real or fictitious market. Because my value is relative to that market, what I am paid is a proxy scorecard for my relative worth in society, and intimately connected to my self-worth as a person. He who dies with the most toys, wins."

In the complex world that is created by UCaPP conditions, none of that holds (although many still believe it). People and organizations are not necessarily compensated for what they do or produce; their compensation often comes indirectly in a way that decouples revenue from product. One obvious example is ad revenue, Google Adsense being a prime exemplar of this. Google provides search capabilities, among other applications, that they "give away for free." Adsense provides the revenue. NYT provides news, opinion and credibility (most of the time), and receives revenue through advertising. I give away a great deal of my writing, the text of keynote talks that I do, course materials, press and television interviews, and receive my income through diverse channels, most of which are very indirectly related to the various commodities that I give away, nominally for free. After all, it's important to recognize what business you're really in.

[Technorati tags: | ]

17 September 2007

Welcome to the 21st Century, Grandpa

Mark and Facebook are now friends.

I've resisted joining Facebook for quite a while now, trying to avoid the addictive nature of peeking (and poking, apparently) into the lives of friends and acquaintances, acquaintances of friends, and acquaintances of acquaintances of that guy which that friend of a friend met at a party last year.

But over the weekend, a physical-presence friend mentioned that she would like me to participate in a group of interesting people that is having an ongoing conversation that overlaps my research. Party pics I can resist; opportunities to explore the future of organization I cannot. May God have mercy on my thesis!

(My daughter, by the way, is relieved that I have committed not to "friend" either of my kids.)

[Technorati tags: ]

10 September 2007

Liberal and Conservative Mindsets, Neurologically Speaking

An article in the LA Times over the weekend reports on a study published in Nature Neuroscience that shows neurological differences in brain activity between people who are relatively left- or right-wing politically.
Previous psychological studies have found that conservatives tend to be more structured and persistent in their judgements whereas liberals are more open to new experiences. The latest study found those traits are not confined to political situations but also influence everyday decisions.

The results show "there are two cognitive styles -- a liberal style and a conservative style," said UCLA neurologist Dr. Marco Iacoboni, who was not connected to the latest research. ... Frank J. Sulloway, a researcher at UC Berkeley's Institute of Personality and Social Research who was not connected to the study, said the results "provided an elegant demonstration that individual differences on a conservative-liberal dimension are strongly related to brain activity."

Sulloway said the results could explain why President Bush demonstrated a single-minded commitment to the Iraq war and why some people perceived Sen. John F. Kerry, the liberal Massachusetts Democrat who opposed Bush in the 2004 presidential race, as a "flip-flopper" for changing his mind about the conflict.
Although I have not yet read the study itself, I think that one should be very careful about assigning a value judgement on either type of cognitive processing. Equally, there is no suggestion of causality: that a person whose brain works a particular way necessarily associates with a political bent, or that a particular way of perceiving the world necessarily trains the brain to work in one way or the other. Still, as the article suggests, it may explain why a reasoned conversation between a die-hard conservative and a staunch liberal is so difficult to achieve.

Thanks Christine!
[Technorati tags: | | | | ]

09 September 2007

Spiritual Youth Returns

After a long hiatus, the fascinating Spiritual Youth blog is back in business.
I am collecting personal accounts and perspectives of people between the ages of 12 and 25 about how they are individually affected by their experiences of religion and spirituality.

I’ll be posting excerpts from the responses I receive, plus my analysis, comparisons, and my own reflections.

How have your, or other people’s, beliefs affected you?
Have you had a spiritual experience that has changed your life?
Have you ever struggled with religious identity?
Have you ever faced problems because of your beliefs or practice?
If you have lost your faith, is there a way in which you still connect with the spiritual?

I will not disclose your name or contact information, but I will use your age, gender, and religion.

Feel free to reflect, discuss, and debate the various issues and themes raised, but please keep the subject matter appropriate. Please send me your reflections, stories, thoughts, and pictures that reflect your experience of your faith or practice.
If you are, or know of, a person in the target age range, please encourage them to participate and share their reflections on religion, spirituality, or their lack thereof. If you teach religion in school, this might be a worthwhile forum to include in your curriculum. Some of the stories from Spiritual Youth's first series are fascinating.

[Technorati tags: | | ]

The Great Iraq Swindle

Are you among those who thought that the war in Iraq was about the oil? Well, think again. Rolling Stone has an article that defies credulity concerning the degree to which corruption and war-profiteering has looted the US treasury and lined the pockets of countless fraud artists.
What the Bush administration has created in Iraq is a sort of paradise of perverted capitalism, where revenues are forcibly extracted from the customer by the state, and obscene profits are handed out not by the market but by an unaccountable government bureauc­racy. This is the triumphant culmination of two centuries of flawed white-people thinking, a preposterous mix of authoritarian socialism and laissez-faire profit­eering, with all the worst aspects of both ideologies rolled up into one pointless, supremely idiotic military adventure -- American men and women dying by the thousands, so that Karl Marx and Adam Smith can blow each other in a Middle Eastern glory hole.
The article describes the waste in both matériel and people created by cascading cost-plus contracts, the outright theft of equipment and cash, and US provisioning of arms to the enemy. It details how government whistle-blowers are systematically punished for calling attention to these crimes, and how the Bush administration deliberately intervenes to prevent lawsuits against war profiteers from proceeding, and any judgments that manage to be entered from being enforced. It describes how contractors regularly break the law, including the laws that mandate medical insurance for their employees in a war zone, resulting in men crippled for life who now face medical bills totalling nearly a half million dollars, who cannot even afford painkillers. And perhaps most tragic of all is the extent of the moral decay that has permeated the heart of that which is invoked in the name of patriotism.
What happened in Iraq went beyond inefficiency, beyond fraud even. This was about the business of government being corrupted by the profit motive to such an extraordinary degree that now we all have to wonder how we will ever be able to depend on the state to do its job in the future. If catastrophic failure is worth billions, where's the incentive to deliver success? There's no profit in patriotism, no cost-plus angle on common decency. Sixty years after America liberated Europe, those are just words, and words don't pay the bills.
When President Bush talks about surges and staying the course, it is now very clear which course he wants to stay.

[Technorati tags: | | | ]

08 September 2007

Questions About Research Questions

I’m just about to begin the empirical portion of my PhD process. My research protocol calls for about five organizations of diverse types, configurations and sizes. So far, one organization has officially signed on, three others are “strong maybes,” which means that my request – together with the informed consent information – is wending its way through the organizations’ respective administrative processes. I have an introduction more or less pending with a fifth organization. If I’m very fortunate and all of the prospective participant organizations agree, I will have a research domain that is as broad and diverse as one could possibly achieve within the size and time bounds of a qualitative, constructivist ethnographic PhD thesis (which is a fancy way of saying, relatively small sample size).

Having grown up with – and mostly shucked off – the mythology of the objective researcher, some conceptual artefacts remain. One that I have been wrestling with is, how much of my valence theory model would, should, or could my individual participants know about beforehand? Traditionally, by which I mean, researcher-dominant, one-way flow of information from subject (sic) to researcher, the participants are kept relatively in the dark about the researcher’s objectives and hypotheses so that their responses aren’t tainted by any attempt to please the researcher, or feed expected answers. In this situation, the ideal would be to attach an information vacuum nozzle to the subjects’ ears, and suck out all the necessary information from their brains. The answers in this case are thought to be honest and not influenced by the researcher’s frame of reference, expected outcomes, or any critical considerations. Or so goes the mythology.

This view, of course, is diametrically opposite from my research approach and indeed, from my specific, custom methodology. In general, I believe that research participants are, in effect, co-researchers, with the ability to learn and benefit from participating in the research as I will from facilitating and enabling it. To this end, I tend to share my own experiences in what I hope is more of a conversation than an interview. But I’m still hung up on how much of my specific research questions I should share, or at least make available, beforehand – it’s hard to completely shake off one’s early conditioning.

But, let’s face it: my Valence Theory is no secret. For anyone interested in the approach I take, it’s all here on the blog, not to mention the now dozens and dozens of conversations I’ve had with all sorts of people who have taken a keen interest in what I am doing, and have contributed to my thinking by sharing their own experiences, anecdotes, insights, and relevancies. (And to each and every one of you that has granted me the privilege of listening to my ideas and sharing yours, I offer a sincere thank you!). My eventual research participants, assuming they’re interested in checking me out before sitting down to a one-to-two hour conversation with me, can gain a pretty fair idea of what I’m looking for by perusing my blog anyway. So, as the cliché goes, in for a penny, in for a pound. Here are some of the key, thematic research questions that I’m looking to explore through the empirical work over the coming months – with an invitation to you, gentle reader, to participate.
  • Identification: What valence relationships exist in organization? How are they expressed and experienced?
  • Effect-ive Theory: Are there particular configurations or interactions among valence relationships that lend themselves to an organization enacting effect-ive theories of action (that is, are the intentions of decisions actually expressed in the effects that are created, and are there feedforward processes that anticipate the effects)?
  • Reciprocity: Are valence relationships necessarily reciprocal? Are there types of effects that tend to be associated with reciprocal vs. non-reciprocal valence relationships?
  • BAH vs. UCaPP: Are there configurations of valence relationships, or characteristic complex interactions, or both, that tend to be associated with relatively more-BAH vs. relatively more-UCaPP organizations?
  • Praxis for Organizational Change: How are organizational change challenges, strategies, issues, and problems affected within an organization that is framed in valence, as opposed to traditional, terms?
  • Critical Concerns: How effectively are issues of power relations, control, discipline, resistance (anyone notice Foucault lurking here?), voice, marginalization, privilege, and subjectification surfaced, made explicit and negotiated in an organization framed in valence terms?

And now the invitation: What key thematic areas have I missed? If you were in my place, defining and investigating the nature and characteristics of Valence Theory, what would you be looking for? And, if you’re one of my research participants and are indeed checking me out, what would you ask me about if our roles were reversed? What do you think is important for me to know about, or seek out, in the process that lies ahead? Please let me know in the comments.

[Technorati tags: | | | | ]

04 September 2007

Talking About Plagiarism on CBC Spark

Tomorrow (Wednesday, September 5) at 11:30 in all local time zones, I'll be on the inaugural episode of CBC Radio One's new show, Spark. This is Nora Young's new venture that takes an "irreverent look at tech, trends, and fresh ideas." This week's show is on plagiarism in a cut-and-paste, remix (or bricolage) culture. Short version of my take on the subject: plagiarism as academic crime is an obsolesced artefact of the chronically literate. With new approaches to collaboratively constructed, emergent knowledge, educators should be focusing more on the processes, rather than the products of learning and knowledge. For the long version, you can either tune in to your local CBC Radio One broadcast, Wednesday at 11:30 (repeated Saturday at 16:00), or select an appropriate time-shifted feed here (again, 11:30 in the local time zone).

[Technorati tags: | | ]

Making Stuff Up?

This one gave me the giggles (probably because I just had a conversation with a new philosophy PhD student - sorry Devlin! :)

At least when I make stuff up, it sounds like a methodology!

In actuality, the conversation I had with Devlin was particularly interesting. He is looking to develop a contemporary ethics that feels a lot like a retrieval of the Aristotelian notion of the virtuous person. In doing so, he will be obsolescing both utilitarian and deontological ethical frames. During the conversation, it struck me that both of these forms are consistent with prior cultural epochs - the fragmented, Gutenberg era that gave us the Industrial Age, and the manuscript culture just prior. An Aristotelian retrieval may well be an appropriate ethical foundation for the UCaPP age.

Or maybe we're both just making stuff up!

[Technorati tags: | | | | ]

03 September 2007

The New Music (Business)

An interesting and revealing article in Sunday's New York Times about the new co-head of Columbia Records, Rick Rubin. I have written at great length about understanding the business you're really in. The NY Times interview with Rubin reveals some great insights about the changes in the music business from the perspective of uber-fan turned record producer turned executive (while remaining, at heart, still a fan of the music). Here are some that caught my eye:
  • "The music business, as a whole, has lost its faith in content," David Geffen, the legendary music mogul, told me recently. "Only 10 years ago, companies wanted to make records, presumably good records, and see if they sold. But panic has set in, and now it's no longer about making music, it's all about how to sell music. Of course, the music business hasn't been about making music for decades now. Its primary focus had been on manufacturing and distributing aluminum disks coated with plastic, regardless of what was on them. The major rift between producers and consumers that Napster demonstrated - and that the music industry failed to realize - was that the industry was focused on selling a product which, to the consumers, was essentially a waste by-product of what they actually wanted.
  • "Everything I do," Rubin told me earlier, "whether it's producing, or signing an artist, always starts with the songs. When I'm listening, I'm looking for a balance that you could see in anything. Whether it's a great painting or a building or a sunset. There's just a natural human element to a great song that feels immediately satisfying." ... "The most important thing we have to do now is get the art right. So many of the decisions at these companies have not been about the music. They sign artists for the wrong reasons — because they think somebody else wants them or if they need to have a record out by a certain date. That old way of doing things is obsolete, but luckily, fear is making the record companies less arrogant. They're more open to ideas. So, what's important now is to find music that's timeless. I still believe that if an artist gains the belief of the listener, then anything is possible." Although this view may defy conventional, albeit cynical, wisdom among many industry executives, it is born out by the amazing success of Paul Potts in Britain's Got Talent.
  • "The Big Red focus groups were both depressing and informative... The kids all said that a) no one listens to the radio anymore, b) they mostly steal music, but they don't consider it stealing, and c) they get most of their music from iTunes on their iPod. They told us that MySpace is over, it's just not cool anymore; Facebook is still cool, but that might not last much longer; and the biggest thing in their life is word of mouth. That's how they hear about music, bands, everything." Of course, the importance of word of mouth, and it's electronic counterpart, word of mouse, is a direct effect of our UCaPP world.
  • Seemingly overnight, the entire industry is collapsing. Sales figures on top-selling CDs are about 30 percent lower than they were a year ago, and the usual remedies aren't available. Since radio is no longer a place to push a single, record companies have turned to television and movies. ... songs that are heard on popular shows like "Grey's Anatomy" become instantly desirable. When the Columbia artist Brandi Carlile's song "The Story" was featured on the ABC show, it posted a 15 percent jump in sales and was downloaded 19,000 times in one week. Before being heard on the show, the song had been available for nearly two months without any notable interest. This makes sense. Since music has, for the most part, become environmental - devices like iPods enabling its users to create the soundtrack for their personal environment - advertising and promoting music should likely follow suit and become environmental.
  • "Until very recently," Rubin told me over lunch at Hugo's, a health-conscious restaurant in Hollywood, "there were a handful of channels in the music business that the gatekeepers controlled. They were radio, Tower Records, MTV, certain mainstream press like Rolling Stone. That's how people found out about new things. Every record company in the industry was built to work that model. There was a time when if you had something that wasn't so good, through muscle and lack of other choices, you could push that not very good product through those channels. And that's how the music business functioned for 50 years. Well, the world has changed. And the industry has not."
Rubin is pushing music sales to television and movies to promote artists' new releases. He is strongly in favour of word of mouth and word of mouse publicity. And, he is advocating for a flat-fee subscription model for music, and the music will come anywhere you'd like. In this new world, there will be a virtual library that will be accessible from your car, from your cellphone, from your computer, from your television. Anywhere. The iPod will be obsolete, but there would be a Walkman-like device you could plug into speakers at home. You'll say, 'Today I want to listen to ... Simon and Garfunkel,' and there they are. The service can have demos, bootlegs, concerts, whatever context the artist wants to put out. And once that model is put into place, the industry will grow 10 times the size it is now."

In keeping with the word of mouth promotion, Rubin's excitement with Britain's Got Talent winner, Paul Potts (now signed with Columbia) comes through in the article. Naturally, I had never heard of this amazing, undiscovered opera singer, but several millions of YouTube viewers now have. Here's his first, remarkable audition for the show, and his final, winning performance. What is surprising and telling about the Potts phenomenon, is how his chosen genre - opera - would be dismissed or marginalized by conventional pop record producers - witness the BGT judges' initial reactions in his audition video. But, as Rubin notes, "There's just a natural human element to a great song that feels immediately satisfying." ... "The most important thing we have to do now is get the art right."

The entire article is worth reading for Rubin's refreshing insights on how the music industry can retrieve its roots.

[Technorati tags: | | | | ]

02 September 2007

Hierarchy and Organizations - A Response to David Weinberger

In David Weinberger’s latest issue of his every-so-often newsletter, Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization, he responds to a query about hierarchies in organizations – specifically, are all organizations hierarchies? David replies,
A hierarchy worth the name ought to be a persistent social structure with well-defined and comprehensive power or status relationships, in which each node has exactly one superior node. We can loosen that up somewhat to accommodate the complexities of modern business, but that's what the paradigmatic hierarchy looks like.

Corporations have a legally-defined hierarchy that covers a decision-making process and the legal accountability of the system. But, even within that hierarchy, much of the work is done across and regardless of the hierarchy. In fact, many organizations in my experience are embarrassed by rank. The CEO talks about being just another worker. (See Jack Welch's "Jack: From the Gut" for an example of this.) Managers don't like to order people to do things; they'd rather pretend that we're all equals, working collaboratively. That's why we don't salute our managers in the business world. At least, not explicitly. Instead, we pretend to listen while they talk.

Organizations that aren't corporations may also have ranks and status systems, but that doesn't mean that it's right to characterize them as hierarchies. Wikipedia, for example, has an emergent hierarchy, but the hierarchy is there primarily to handle exceptions and problems. Likewise, it'd be a mistake (imo) to look at the open source movement, find the hierarchical elements ("Linus decides stuff!") and think that it's fundamentally a hierarchical movement. One could just as well find the collaborative, non-hierarchical elements and highlight those. Indeed, that would obviously be a better way of thinking about the open source movement.

His characterization is more or less correct in practice. However, I would suggest that it's not the most useful way to think about organizations, the dynamics of their multiplicity of interactions, and the effects they create in their environment of relationships. Think about the manager “working collaboratively” with her subordinates, or the Wikipedians with their “emergent hierarchy” that responds to exceptions and problems. At times when a decision that incurs responsibility and accountability is to be made, the apparently absent hierarchy appears like the genie from the lamp. The person atop the local hierarchy – emergent or not – takes bureaucratic responsibility for making the decision, governed by the administrative principles that have either been long established by policy and practice, or according to some ad hoc process grounded in mission, vision, values, and organizational culture.

The BAH way of doing things – referring to Bureaucracy, Administration, and Hierarchy – has been well-trained in all of us in Western society (and elsewhere as well). Almost every modern institution and social structure that provides the foundational elements for education, governance, economics, and religion can be traced back centuries to their roots as European BAH artefacts, emerging variously from the 15th through 19th centuries. It seems reasonable to me that people might well revert to their first, ingrained organizational language – their managerial mother tongue, if you will – when faced with critical decisions, exceptions, problems, and especially struggles for power and control.

I think David and I differ on the point of the essential nature of an organization (which is not surprising, given that David came out of philosophy that has lots to say about the nature of essential nature). For me, the essential, characterizing nature of an organization manifests in times of criticality or trouble, at times when what might pass for instinct in a human being would otherwise dominate decisions and actions. One could argue that someone must take responsibility for a decision, and be accountable for the subsequent consequences (although that point is arguable when one examines recent corporate malfeasance, foreign policy, economic turmoil, safety lapses in the food supply and manufactured goods). Even if such responsibiity-taking were so in practice, that very notion of an individual bearing ultimate responsibility has its management roots in Frederick Winslow Taylor’s scientific management of the very early 20th century, Max Weber’s bureaucracy, and Henri Fayol’s administrative model of management, the (un)holy trinity of modern management practices. Fundamentally – by which I mean, to what does one appeal when the chips are down – almost all contemporary organizations are BAH: bureaucratically determined so that there is a primary emphasis on the function or “office” rather than the individual; administratively controlled, with practices, policies and procedures to ensure consistency of nominal outcome, rather than total environmental effect; and hierarchically controlled (emergent or explicit), with rank and power overwhelmingly being the determining factors in whose voice is heard the loudest in issues of control.

In practical terms, the pure hierarchy of yesteryear is seen very rarely, even in the modern military. (See here, here, and especially Alberts and Hayes' influential 2003 Command and Control manifesto, Power to the Edge). However, the fact that we so often resort to BAH principles – even emergent BAH principles – in decision making for both corporate and non-corporate organizations inextricably ties contemporary society to industrial age principles, and the utilitarian ethics, and problematics that are so often identified with modern capitalism, neo-liberal economic policy, and globalization. David rightly points out that many, if not most, contemporary organizations do practice more collaborative, cooperative, and non-hierarchical styles of management in day-to-day activities. He also implicitly suggests that what we need is a better way of thinking about organizations – and not just unusual examples like the open source movement, Wikipedia or Craigslist.

In an interesting way, viewing these relatively young organizations as anomalies or exceptions makes the same mistake that people made when considering the Internet as “just another communication medium.” Most people who think about such things realize that the ‘net, and analogous connection technologies like mobile communication devices, are manifestations of a profound shift in human interaction and engagement. Similarly, I think it is important to shift our conception of society's structuring institutions, and that includes organizations – both the new and radical, and old and traditional – to one that incorporates the effects of this profound shift as a fundamental aspect of that conception.

David suggests that some contemporary organizations might not usefully be characterized as being hierarchical. I agree, and go somewhat farther: I think that BAH characterization (including such concepts as function, mission, vision, accountability) of any organization might have outlived its usefulness, and should be replaced – which is why I’m offering up the Valence Theory of Organization.

[Technorati tags: | | | | | | ]