“Mirel argues that no matter how fine the grain, ‘knowing and learning take place in a dynamic system of people, practices, artifacts, communities, and institutional structures,’ and that such dynamic systems coconstitute even the finest grains of human activity” (29)
Welcome to the wide world Spinuzzi and genre tracing. This text was a great deal more straightforward than I thought a text would be with a title like Tracing Genres through Organizations (it surprised me as much as how easy it was to understand Susan Popham’s article on medical forms as genre boundaries). The analogy of the heroes, tyrants, and victims made me laugh, but it also highlighted the stereotypical roles designers, systems, and users are believed to play in the workflow of organizations. Spinuzzi’s aim for the book is to break down the traditional idea that workers are victims of the information design set in the workplace and that the system designers are heroic as they swoop down to save the day, even when the workers themselves have come up with innovative “workarounds” or solutions to localized problems. Instead, Spinuzzi offers up the idea (and the methods, methodology, and case studies to back up his claims) that through genre tracing in organizations, workers will be able to reclaim their sense of agency within the organizations they work as designers, researchers, and other scholars will come to recognize that the workers have been “saving themselves” with their localized solutions.
Spinuzzi does seem quite taken with the analogy he puts forth, and it is not hard to see how the analogy works so well. I have heard more than enough people (myself included) complain about information systems we have to work with that we believe are too complicated, archaic, simplistic, etc for us to be able to do our jobs well. Instead, we come up with ways to work around the technology, sometimes to complement the system, and other times to just get away from having to use the system altogether. If we look to Spinuzzi’s text to explain our tendencies to come up with alternatives to the official system, we are, in effect, rescuing ourselves from “victimhood.” But, I am talking in the abstract here. One example in his book that I really liked was that of the police officer Barbara who, as he describes in the Introduction’s epigraph, was using her own, more informal, system of data collection “for locating and analyzing traffic accidents in a particular area” (1). While it seems outdated to use a physical map to mark out locations where accidents can happen (especially since the book was written in 2003 and technology has come a long way, though online maps can also be cumbersome), it does seem that Barbara’s method of using Post-It Notes to alleviate her dependence on an unwieldy map was rather ingenious. His tracing of the evolution of accident data collection in “Chapter 3: Tracing Genres across Developmental Eras” was very interesting as it looked at how the information design altered and modified to adapt to new technologies, even if Post-It Notes could still end up being an efficient way to manage information.
In order to better understand Spinuzzi’s ideas regarding genre tracing, I found it helpful to map out the three levels of scope that he talks about at length in the second chapter (I uploaded an image of the chart he uses as an example). While I am familiar with microscopic and macroscopic, it was the first time I had encountered the term “mesoscopic.” The word has a strange feel to it, reminding me more an archaeological course than something about information design. So, in honor of this new word of mine, I give you his distinctions between levels:
- Macroscopic, also known as the organization or contextual layer — “Kuutti and Bannon prefer to call this layer the ‘contextual’ layer because it reaches beyond organizations to the cultural-historical activity in which those organizations are involved. It involves ways workers, work communities, cultures, and societies understand, structure, collaborate on, and execute their evolving cooperative enterprises” (Spinuzzi 31-32).
- Mesoscopic — “is that of goal-oriented action – the tasks in which people are consciously engaged. Actions fulfill certain goals or localized objects as part of the general activity…Leont’ev concludes that these actions constitute human activity – ‘human activity does not exist except in the form of action or a chain of actions’ (p. 64)-but at the same time these individual actions are not explicable except in the context of the activity. Field studies that focus on the mesoscopic level of action tend to examine how individuals or small groups execute routine tasks with specific tools” (Spinuzzi 33). Another interesting quote that helped me to understand this new word came at the end of his section on mesoscopic: “A field study that functions at the mesoscopic level, such as Muller’s, focuses not on the work activity but on the local goals that users set for themselves and the tools and actions they use to accomplish those goals within a cultural-historical context. These goals, tools, and actions are often seen as the crux of usability problem” (34).
- Microscopic – it is the level “of moment-by-moment operations…which are the minute practices, reflexes, and habits on which workers draw as they carry out their labor. These operations respond to conditions –that is, specific configurations of the work environment. An operation is the mode of performing an act: an unconscious step in carrying out an action within certain conditions” (Spinuzzi 34).
After reading chapter two and sorting out how the three levels work (independently and in relation to one another), it took some time to process, but the idea that what happens on one level affects the others made sense, even though Spinuzzi points out that designers are constantly addressing local problems by designing universal solutions and that they “do not examine how to relate these macroscopic and microscopic levels” (Spinuzzi 29). His choice of a sociocultural approach through genre tracing made more sense after he pointed out that “sociocultural theorists and researchers argue that relationships among activities, actions and operations coconstitute each other…work activities constitute goal-directed actions, which in turn constitute habitual operations — but operations can reciprocally structure goals and actions and shape activities” (28-29). There seems to be a ripple effect from each level, where the structure, or even an element, of one cannot be changed without the others being impacted.
Vocabulary through Key Terms:
Genre Tracing – is a sociocultural theory based in activity theory and genre theory that “draws on established methods that have been used with those theories…[and] provides a way to highlight users’ experiences with official and unofficial genres and to compare them across communities or workplaces” (22). Spinuzzi describes genre tracing as “dialogic” as it “draws on the metaphor of dialogue to examine how people interact with complex institutions, disciplines or communities; how they solve problems and disseminate solutions; and how their conversations and problem solving are instantiated in artifacts” (22)
Fieldwork-to-Formalization methodology- “examples include contextual design…; the research stage of joint application…; client-led design…; and user-centered information design,” and the methods are “meant to guide system design through the stages of gathering data from customers, modeling and interpreting that information, and designing and implementing systems based on that information…they bridge field studies (including naturalistic work observations, unstructured interviews, and analysis of artifacts used in the work) and information design through models of through categorical and sequential descriptions of the work” (Spinuzzi 11). These methods “tend to be centripetal: they tend to normalize behavior and tools to produce centrally controlled, official solutions” 21)
Method vs Methodology – method is “a way of investigating phenomena” and a methodology is “the theory, philosophy, heuristics, aims, and values that underlie, motivate, and guide the method” (Spinuzzi 7)
User-centered design - “combine(s) a humanistic mission of advocating for the audience for the audience, new empirical approaches to the ancient art of audience analysis, and strong framework for translating audience insights into design suggestions” and is “founded on social constructionist thought, which is ‘based on the concept that reality is mutable, that there are no certain truths, and that knowledge is constructed through communally created knowledge and action’…[and] technology ‘can be interpreted and reinterpreted depending on the people involved, the context or situation in which it is designed, developed, or deployed, and the historical moment it resides within’” (Spinuzzi 5 and 8)
Victimhood – “is conceived as coming from barriers to doing their jobs efficiently, and freedom consequently come through a process in which their is increasingly managed, regularized, and rationalized” (Spinuzzi 13)
Functional Empowerment vs Democratic Empowerment - functional empowerment allows workers to be “empowered to perform their tasks in a prescribed manner” whereas democratic empowerment is where workers “have a decision-making role in how their organization operates and how technology fits into their jobs” (Spinuzzi 13)
Normative Solution – “a tool or set of work practices that, once codified and optimized, can functionally empower the worker-victims” (Spinuzzi 19)
Spinuzzi, Clay. Tracing Genres through Organizations: A Sociocultural Approach to Information Design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003. Print.
For the Man Who Tweets from the Bus:
This entry on connectivity has a starting point here for your handy reference.
Connectivity is at its core a discussion of how the actual connections between devices happen, in other words how does data get from A to B, C, D, E and back again? The groups of articles including some connections to things like High Speed Dial-up and the like, but this discussion will focus either on technologies that are present or are possible waves of the future.
Ah, modems, without which you cannot connect to the internet unless you are somewhere that has a hardline (T1, T3) infrastructure. Modem is actually a contraction of the word “modulator-demodulator.” As you likely know, it sends data over phone, fiber optic, or cable lines. The modulator end of things codes the data into a signal that works with whatever line you are utilizing. The demodulator turns the signal back into data. Wireless signals do this in the form of radio signals. Early modems used gradual degradation to test phone lines and ratchet their speeds back a notice if the line couldn’t handle the faster speeds. ADSL (or asymmetric digital subscriber lines) became popular in 1999 and were asymmetric because they sent data faster in one direction, taking advantage of dedicated copper wires used by the phone company. Current modem technology used by our ISPs (internet service providers) send packets of information between you and your ISP using PPP (Point-to-Point Protocol).
Perhaps the most oft used in the U.S. for broadband connectivity, the cable modem is available over your coaxial cable that brings you hundreds of channels with nothing to watch. The coaxial cable is capable of carrying far more megahertz of signals than your cable provider currently uses for providing you with television programing. Thus, the extra signal space can be used to transfer data packets. Often the wiring prior to your household wiring is fiber optic, increasing the amount of carrying capacity available (depending upon where you live or it might be coaxial all the way down). The signal being send (downstream if into your home device) and received (upstream send from your device) require a cable modem on your end and a Cable Modem Termination System (CMTS) on the ISP end. Much like the old school dial up modems, cable modems have modulators and demodulators internally to handle encoding and decoding duties. They also include a turner which splits tv signal from data signal; a MAC which handles the interface with hardware and software bits of the internet protocols for handling the signals, the MAC is often connected with or integrated with a Central Processing Unit (CPU) because the coding processes are relatively complex because of all of the splitting up of data, and finally there is the connection into the device (router or pc). How well your cable connection can provide data may depend upon how close you are to being the first user to connect through a particular assigned cable channel. Therefore, speeds may not be as advertised.
Fiber Optics are lovely,
optically pure glass that we talk about when we discuss cable or updated phone based connectivity. They are about a hair-width and are bundled by the hundreds or thousands. They have 3 basic parts – the core through which the light carrying the signal runs, the cladding which is an “outer optical (or mirror-like) material that reflects light back to the core, ” and a protective buffer coating.The fibers must be pure so that as the light bounces along between the core and the cladding, minimal degradation occurs. Fiber optic transmission systems include the transmitter (producer and sender of signals) the fiber itself, an optical regenerator (used to boost signals) and and optical receiver (which receives and decodes). Advantages of this system are lower cost, smaller size, higher carrying capacity and less signal degradation than wire, lower power needs, non-flammable, lightweight, and flexibility.
An option for those who live in rural areas who aren’t connected or have less than optimal connections to traditional communication infrastructures. It functions through a dish-to-dish broadcast. It is slower than either cable or fiberoptic connections. The satellite system sometimes requires you to have a modem to handle the coding work and like all satellite systems is susceptible to issues with signal loss due to poor weather conditions, improper placement, and interference from blocking structures. A more full description and history can be found here.
This has a fascinating potential to reach far more people than fiber optic lines or cable lines because power lines are already a near-ubiquitous infrastructure already in place. Essentially using the same technologies power companies already use to monitor power grid function via radio frequencies, this technology would use similar frequencies to connect users to the internet. The frequencies would need to be shielded (as cable and fiberoptic lines are) because the fluctuating power current would cause disruptions. Developers claim that this has been dealt with. They have also created specialized silicon modems to separate out the data from the power current. Currently the technology is being vetted by the FCC, but both FEMA and ham radio operators have series questions about how this technology will be implemented. FEMA is working on a compromise with the FCC, but the ARRL (ham radio folks) believe that ham and shortwave radio will be greatly interfered with. So the technology is currently in bureaucratic limbo.
Also fascinating reading is the link on How an Interplanetary Internet might work. Check it out. It could be our future.
Why is this all so interesting?
The above forms of physical hardware are the stuff of the interwebs. Without them data cannot be packaged, sent, and processed by our laptops, desktops, tablets, or phones. Understanding some of the basics also helps us ask questions about access. For example, the old 56.K baud modems that operated over phone lines were slow, granted, but as infrastructure they were significantly cheaper. Did they perpetuate greater access than expensive cable modems because they relied upon infrastructure that the U.S. Government helped put into place and backed decades ago? What are the possibilities of internet satellite? People who argue against net neutrality point to them as ways of creating greater access but the subscription price per month is higher than cable, which is costly, and the reliability is questioned by some.
The choices we are able to make about modems, connection types, purchase/renting of hardware will affect our abilities to connect to the network.
Brain, Marshall. “How Modems Work.” HowStuffWorks.com. <http://computer.howstuffworks.com/modem1.htm> 21 Jan 2014.
Franklin, Curt. “How Cable Modems Work.” HowStuffWorks.com. <http://computer.howstuffworks.com/cable-modem.htm> 20 Jan 2014.
Freundenrich, Craig. “How Fiber Optics Work.” How Stuff Works.com <http://computer.howstuffworks.com/fiber-optic.htm> 21 Jan 2014
“How does satellite Internet operate?.” HowStuffWorks.com <http://computer.howstuffworks.com/question606.htm> 20 Jan 2014.
Valdes, Robert. “How Broadband Over Powerlines Works.” HowStuffWorks.com. <http://computer.howstuffworks.com/bpl.htm> 21 Jan 2014
Foucault, “Archaeology of Knowledge: Part I & II”
Clearly, Foucault is challenging to read (an understatement), yet as I progress into his text, thanks to the overarching theme of our course, I am able to see his concepts through one of the operational questions of our class: what is a network and how does it impact our thinking? Thankfully, Foucault himself uses network language to articulate his reasoning. His approach is highly rhetorical, beginning by setting us within a large context — history — as a framework for this discussion, then moving into more defined examples of discourse communities within that history. Yet the “take away” possibilities are not limited to these examples of community discourse; as I was reading the early passages, I found myself recalling a recent class (English Debates) in which discussions focused on the subject of disciplinary in the field of English Studies. In particular, I thought of how many practitioners operate in isolation, without regard to how other disciplines can offer the field of English new systems, or networks, of interpretation or operation.
Clearly, Foucault’s theories are wide reaching in terms of potential for application. So much so, that I found myself making a comparison to the way black holes function and his description on page 29 of how looking at absences or gaps (disruptions and displacements, the difference) actually help define what we see.
So, some key points from these early chapters, condensed from the pages of notes I have taken thus far:
- This work is concerned with exploring unities of discourse as a means of examining them.
- He rejects a universalist approach to analyzing discourses, in part because such an approach ignores the “exceptions.”
- He emphasizes the need to reject our preexisting “habits of synthesis” (25) in order to see our way more clearly.
- Instead, he is interested in examining these discourses through relationships, connections – NETWORKS – to allow a more productive exploration, including the areas of disruptions.
- P. 44: “a discursive formation is defined if one can establish such a group; if one can show how any particular object of this course finds in it it’s place and lot of emergence.”
- Relationships “are not present in the object. … they do not define its internal constitution.” (43) “Discursive relations are not… internal to discourse” (46)
- Page 48: “I would like to show that discourses… are not… a mere intersection of things and words: an obscure web of things,… colored chain of words” (48). This appears to be another move against a structuralist tradition that is often bound up in linguistics, a move I see woven into other passages.
- Page 49: “in analyzing discourses themselves,” we should look for “the emergence of a group of rules proper to discursive practice” in order to see them as “practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak” (49). His use of the term “rules” troubles me somewhat, and I wonder — as I progress through the reading — if that will continue. He does take great pains to preconceptualize the use of this term by distinguishing his use of the term from a more structuralist approach.
- In chapter 4 he talks about the laws of operations: (1) directs us to look at author or speaker; (2) also look at the site or location of the delivery (51); as well as look at the situation in terms of relationships to other groups (52). This is so rhetorical.
- He refers to his theory about such “laws” as a “network of sites” (55), and as “a succession of conceptual systems” (56).
And so, at this point, Foucault has my attention. His description of rhetorical habits of systematizing discursive interchanges as “object vs. relationships” is intriguing, to say the very least. His treatment of text and even “the book” early in these chapters reminded me of work by Wysocki and Johnson-Eilola on the culture of the book, which refers to our use of book-based literacy as a metaphor for much of what we do in our field of Composition (and English) Studies. Thus far, Foucault’s use of a network theory, when juxtaposed to our first set of readings on the Rhetorical Situation, is creating a definitive lens through which I anticipate re-seeing some of my early training in rhetoric.