Beyond physical networks

Actor-network theory has given us lots of new ways to observe complexity in the connections among us. The theory takes us beyond the strange hybrid called "social networks" where people are nodes and connections appear tangible. Both physical and social networks can be quantified and studied empirically. They exhibit the properties of persistent objects which supports the subject/object dichotomy robustly. They transmit some kind of tangible evidence which can be traced and graphed.

According to Bruno Latour in Actor Network Theory and After, the use of the term "network" in actor-network theory is the opposite of it's meaning for physical and social networks. Actor-networks defy conceptualization, oppose objectivity and dismantle persistent objects. Connections between interests in flux are neither singular or enduring like physical linkages. They overlap, combine and intertwine. Connection "points" are passing assemblages, enrollments, mobilizations and alliances. They do not resemble nodes in physical networks. They are imagined places or spaces where transformations occur and circuits realize completion.

Today I've been pondering the qualities that may be inherent in non-physical networks. Here's a few ideas:
  • They place emphasis on the impermanence and intertwining of what comes together - rather than persistent objects and established connections
  • They invite perceptions of "well-placed" concreteness in non-forms and no-things - not "misplaced concreteness" in objective forms and facts
  • They're about relatedness that gets found, uncovered and realized in the face of wonder - not networked, outreached or linked up anew
  • They're organized by the convergences upon unknowns, possibilities and mysteries - not positions, stances and opinions
  • The movement along connections involves inquiries, explorations and pursuits -- rather than negotiations and persuasive arguments
  • They expect news of a difference emerge from complexity - not result from manufacture by objective efforts

These ideas suggest an opportunity to visualize non-physical networks more imaginatively. They involve far more space than physical networks. They make sense through intertwining of interests rather than forming of connections. Plenty here for me to play with further :-)


Rife with double binds

When I read the original texts of actor-network theory, I feel like I'm being trapped by a variety of double-binds. Books about actor-network theory like Clay Spinuzzi's or Graham Harman's, seem to liberate me from those double-binds. They put the theory in other contexts, make comparisons with other theories and show actor-network theory being put to use. Here's a few of the double-binds in actor-network theory texts that "drive me crazy":
  • As you develop your comprehension of actor-network theory, dismiss models you've been using to characterize your development and comprehension.
  • As you equate yourself with others having their own sociology to see their situations on their own terms, don't use your own sociology to see what they're not seeing.
  • As you conceptualize the actants and alliances in an evolving situation to interest others in you as their "passage point", don't apply concepts.
  • As you take an interest in others' interests, don't reveal your own interests in either assemblage of interests.

I've wondered about the purpose of these, and other, double binds in actor-network theory. There are several alternatives I've considered:
  1. It's possible these are "zen koans". They are intended to stump the mind that has fallen for object-subject dichotomies. The frustration they induce is intended to breakthrough linear thinking into the both/and paradoxes that offers no contradiction.
  2. It's possible these are no-win situations that result from experiences of powerlessness among the powerful. Their inherent opposition to winning may pose a challenge to fight this adversity, become stronger and oppose this futility.
  3. It's possible these are miscommunications resulting from written words published with ink on paper. They convey the wrong impression because they are not dialogical and conversant with the responses of tormented collaborators and commentators.
  4. It's possible these double-binds are schizophrenic. They simply share the experiences of authors who have been set-up to be right in the wrong way, loyal while labeled as disloyal or compatible in incompatible ways.
By holding these double-binds in the context of these four different possibilities, I avoid their trap. The double bind is not an objective fact which I'm subjected to. I've found a point of view that perceives the double binds from a more powerful place than being effected by them. I'm practicing what is preached rather than joining in the preaching. I can enact the reverse these double binds: wrong in the right way, disloyal in a loyal way and incompatible in a compatible way.


Being right or being effective?

Sometimes it's in our best interests to be right. We align ourselves with strategies and models which support our interests in being right. We look for ways to assert our stance convincingly, defend our position, substantiate our claims and win arguments with opponents.

Other times, it's in our best interests to be effective at serving others. We align ourselves with numerous ways to make a difference to others who are in need of strategies and models. We look for ways to make sense to others frames of reference, get applied in a variety of contexts and set up the realization of desired outcomes.

These two interests are usually mutually exclusive. Being right will come across as ineffective to anyone who does not agree with our position. Being effective will seemingly compromise the validity, integrity and purity of the righteous stance. The distinction between being right and being effective appears to be a divisive issue.

When we pursue our interests in being right, we find that we're compelled to make others wrong. We frame others as our enemies, rather than as our customers, end users or fellow designers. Being right is not effective at winning their hearts and minds or their trust and respect.

When we're being right, we presume we're being effective. We conflate the two alternatives. We dismiss the evidence that we're being ineffective, depleting the trust account or dishing our disrespect. We appear hypocritical to others who receive the mixed messages from what we're saying and and how we come across to them.

When we're being effective, we discern the high cost of being right. We see the choices to voice for others to catch themselves being ineffective, toxic or contrary to their best interests. We perceive the effects we can have on others' interests by acting in their interests ourselves.

In actor-network terms, we function as intermediaries when we're being effective. We redefine others' interests as worthy of our respect and alignment which redefines ourselves as respectable and effective. We define roles for them and us where the effects on each other and shared situations will be enhanced or even transformed.


Choose your poison

All the buzz this month about Clay Shirky's post: The collapse of complex business models -- got me thinking about patterns of collapse. There are many different ways to bring an end to an enterprise, society, government or civilization. Here are the eight that came to mind quickly:
  1. Bureaucratic stagnation: A complexity of rules & regs or policies & protocols can burden an organization with distractions from adapting to changing environments. This is how I take Joseph Tainter's argument that Shirky quotes. This also relates to the problem of sedimentation identified by actor-network theory.
  2. Inadequate complexity: According to the cybernetic principle of "requisite variety", an organization needs to be as complex as its environment to survive. As the populace becomes more networked, interdependent and free to be different, public and private enterprises need to match that complexity. As Harold Jarche observed, complicated models are not complex enough to be sustainable.
  3. Positive feedback systems: A system that is closed to negative feedback runs away with itself. It guides itself with self congratulations. It cannot steer clear of dangers because it does not see the bend in the road, dangers ahead or changes "since the map was printed". These closed systems are given to unrestrained excess as I explored in Patterns of economic collapse and The anatomy of self restraint.
  4. Exploitation of dependent citizens: When customers are continually exploited, they eventually rebel from, overthrow or pull the plug on the power hungry institution. They realize they've been fed artificial stimulants that offer no real value or benefit. They experience the side effects of the betrayals, poisoning or depletions that infuriates them enough to break their dependency on the "too big to fail" institutions.
  5. Erosion of confidence: A parade of weak leaders, bad decisions and flawed strategies will disenchant loyal followers. It will become impossible to trust, respect and follow the leadership, governance and policy changes. Cohesive conduct will disintegrate into chaos.
  6. Susceptibility to invasions: Enterprises who are blinded by their own success do not see troubles on the horizon. They function as their own worst enemy when an enemy shows up with any of Jared Diamond's trio: guns, germs or steel. Their long established track record with legacy practices causes them to sabotage their own disruptive innovations. To outsiders, they appear as easy prey, predictable predators or foolish rivals who can be ambushed.
  7. Excessive efficiency: According to panarchy theory, collapse becomes imminent when an ecology becomes too efficient. There is a loss of redundancy, novelty and diversity. The adaptation is betting on no big changes in the environment. A similar prediction is made by socio-technical systems theory that argues a core technology will collapse when the buffers cannot absorb the environmental turbulence. The protections are too simplistic to handle the unusual changes and unexpected variety.
  8. Cultural rigidity: When any gathering suffers from "hardening of the categories", their future is doomed. They put their faith in one right answer, one way to live and one form of respectability. They adopt a rigid, "stick in the mud" approach to strength which is ultimately shattered. The gathering breaks in two when it tries to bend or cracks when it seeks to accommodate diversity.
With so many choices of poison, it's no wonder leaders are not even considering these options. They assume "all is well" when "hell is about to break loose". And so goes recorded history ad infinitum.


Assemblages of interests in flux

Actor-network theory tells us to get between someone and their interests. When we can make ourselves indispensable to where they want to go, we become an "obligatory passage point". They come to us, go through us and get where they are going with us as intermediaries. We then have put ourselves in a position to enact our definition of the problem, enroll them in scenarios which resolve the problem and mobilize them in their roles. (Spinuzzi, Network pp. 88-90)

I previously explored one obstacle to following this advice: the resistance some people display when we take an interest in their interests. Another obstacle is the complexity of people's interests. It may be possible to interpose ourselves with single-minded researchers in focused pursuit of a scientific breakthrough. Their extreme convergence of interests would make it possible to become an "obligatory passage point" in their quest. However, most of us present a far more diverse and complex assemblage of interests to anyone seeking to interpose themselves between us and our interests. Here's some of that complexity I explore when I teach the practices of negotiation.
  1. We often have a main interest that comes across to others as a demand, an ultimatum or something we cannot live without
  2. We usually maintain secondary interests as a fallback position when our main interest makes us vulnerable to getting rejected, shot down or manipulated
  3. We've had experiences with prior negotiations which have given us interests in repeating, or avoiding a repeat of, previous tactics
  4. We're operating in a context of other obligations which spawns interests in slowing it down or getting it done quickly
  5. We may be conducting this negotiation under the scrutiny of our constituencies which gives us added interests in looking good, protecting our pride or avoiding particular criticisms
  6. We may want others to make the final decision for us rather than burden us with total responsibility in situations where we lack authority, control or adequate information
  7. We can get backed into a corner where we need to be right at all cost or win at others' expense regardless of the long term consequences
  8. We are continually making assessments of the others' trustworthiness, integrity and honesty which updates our interests in being deceptive, manipulative or dishonest
  9. We're always making predictions about future developments which can result in our losing interest in working a deal or revising our interests in the middle of negotiations
  10. We may experience cognitive dissonance when faced with an unforeseen opportunity that contradicts our chronic victim story or justifications for personal limitations
  11. We may get a hot button pushed by an interaction which gives us an urgent interest in lashing out against others or intimidating the opposition to get them to back off
  12. We may become interested in seeming like a doormat, pushover or easy mark in order to generate others' sympathy, guilt feelings or entanglements
These complications give us a picture of others' interests as a rhizome. The assemblage of interests is "running off in every direction". The interests are in flux and highly interdependent. There's no way to approach the challenge of interposing ourselves with objectivity or a single interest in becoming an "obligatory passage point". The process of mutual intermediation, interacting with other interests, will transform us and them.


What every aspen grove knows

An aspen grove is one of the largest organisms in the world. The root system is sufficiently intertwined and interactive to constitute a single creature called a rhizome. Up above, there are individual trees tied into the single rhizome underground. The trees exhibit tree-like growth while the roots go crazy. The trees above create sugars from sunlight while the roots below deliver minerals and moisture. The inter-relationships are both symmetric and asymmetric. Aspen groves know they "have it together". They wonder what our problem is that makes for such contentious models of growth among humans.

Actor-network theory is giving us a way to incorporate rhizomatic growth models into our techno-mediated culture. As with any change, it's necessary to begin with a positional stance against the established order. So it seems to the aspen groves that actor-network theory is saying "down with trees" and "branching growth is wrong". Of course, aspen groves know their own rhizomes are in the dark and cannot see the light either.

Nowadays there are rhizomes seated in every college class and conference session. There's a robust, rhizomatic back channel of communication among those formerly known as the audience, attendees, students or enrollment. But somehow the trees and rhizome are disconnected. Instead of feeding each others' growth, the tree-like presenters of front channel content are getting drained by the boredom, disinterest and distracted attention of the back channel rhizome. It's as if everyone is enacting a role of zero-growth "rocks in my head" instead of the dynamic of "porous surfaces nurturing continual growth".

This will change when presentations get subjectively mediated by the end users. Instead of getting objectively mediated by expert content, presentation hardware and scheduled sessions, the content, timing and end uses will get co-created through collaborative interactions. The back channel will support the front channel and vice versa. The trees and roots will grow together. Aspen groves will take interest in this "pattern that connects" them and us.


Being an emergent actant

This writing thing I'm doing at this very instant is something that comes and goes. I don't always have something to say or the clarity to express what I have in mind to say. I'm not always reading, reflecting and journaling in the ways that usually give me more to say. I don't always have the time to take away from all my other alliances, obligations and pursuits to do this thing. I'm not always seated at my objective mediator (a.k.a. my web-connected computer) to assemble typed text for publishing in html for web pages and XML for RSS feeds.

So when it comes together for me to be doing this writing thing (or enacting an author role for the time being), a lot ties in relationally. I don't get a picture of contradictions propelling me to create a blog post. I don't imagine that I'm dealing with persistent objects. I don't see myself engaged in activities supported by tools in hand and in mind. I'm not making irreversible progress toward some desired outcome. That makes this network of alliances into bad news for dialectical materialists and activity theorists who frame this production of writing in all those ways.

What comes together comprises an emergent actant. The assemblage will disassemble once I return to everything else. In the meantime, there are these many alliances that give me something to say, the clarity to say it, as well as the time and mediational means to say it. I'm not functioning in isolation or by indulging in heroic individualism. I'm teaming up with everything else that comes together. This is a collaboration with every contributing alliance that can fall apart at any moment or continue until news of another difference reassembles my alliances of the moment.


Changing forms of mediation

This morning I've been having fun using Clay Spunizzi's book to refine my understanding of the TIMN framework. Having been introduced to Activity Theory, I've been pondering "mediated action" and changing mediators as it applies to epochs of social evolution. I have yet to clarify the fourth phase that has been labeled "Network" by David Ronfeldt, but the Tribal, Institution and Market forms are getting clearer. Here's my first pass at how this is all coming together in my mind.

The activities within tribes are mediated by the tribe itself, as I explored in Tribal Activity Theory. The tribe's mediator get experienced as omnipresent. This supports the tribe thinking it is the center of the universe and anything beyond the tribe is a "no-man's land. To be excluded from the tribe is regarded as a "fate worse than death". The tribe's inclusion of deceased ancestors and nature spirits in this pervasive mediator keeps internal actions from becoming antisocial, divisive or violent. There is no escape from watchful eyes on all activities, as well as support, guidance and accommodations for their activities. The experience of mediators in rocks, trees, animals, and weather obstructs the emergence of rationality, objectivity and detachment from their surroundings. They are devoted to immersion in their immediate experience due to the mediation by their omnipresent unity. The tribe naturally accounts for acts of honor and dishonor toward its own tribal members, traditions and roles. By taking actions to honor the honorable and dishonor the dishonorable actions by tribal members, omnipresent ancestors and attentive spirits, tribal cohesion, stability and continuity get maintained.

Pervasive mediation of all tribal activities eventually loses its exclusive role. Tribes realize there are other tribes in that "no-man's land". This renders that outside territory as really somewhere beyond their omnipresent tribal mediator. The sacred bond with their land can now be invaded, violated and dishonored by those with no interest in cohesion, stability and continuity of the tribe. The time-honored activities for dealing with ever-present evil spirits do not stop these opposing tribes from acting dishonorably. The transition from pervasive to objective mediation has begun. Tribes develop physical weapons, defenses and trained warriors. Activities get mediated by allies and enemies as well as the traditionally pervasive mediators. The tribes are caught between two epochs. The institutional phase is making inroads into their "participation mystique" experience. They are losing their hold on being the center of the universe around which all of life revolves.

Objective mediation replaces pervasive mediation with the advent of walled encampments and protected cropland. Subjects observing objects become clearly separated from each other. Situations call for realism, pragmatism and rationality. The prior phase appears delusional, impractical and irrational from this epoch's frames of reference. It becomes possible for the rule of law to replace codes of honor. Administration becomes formalized which allows for expansion, colonization and empire building. Actions get recorded, filed alphabetically and referenced by clerks assigned by the division of labor into jobs. Actions get mediated by hand tools, powered technologies and specialized settings. They also get mediated by those with jobs to oversee, police or recompense the activities. The mediators are the opposite of pervasive. They have to be located, borrowed, acquired or stolen. Either you have it to use or you don't. You find out if it works for you or not, and if not, whether there's something wrong with you or it. There's tons of objectivity called for when objective mediators are used.

Objective mediation begins to fade from dominance with the introduction of design. The subjects begin to consider the objective uses, functions and work involved in using the objective mediators. The hand tools, powered technologies and specialized settings become more user friendly, functional and easy to use. The mediators get more done in shorter time or at less expense. The designers become more considerate of the users, laborers, workers and customers. There is now much more to be subjective about which eludes the "one size fits all" and "one right answer" solutions endemic to objective mediation.

Subjective mediation replaces objective mediation with the emergence of market forms. Designers become more empathic, sensitive to multiplicity and open to cognitive dissonance. Discoveries get made about different users' uses for what was assumed to be the correct and universal applications. New interactions arise as if the customers were the designers and the end users were consultants to the institutionalized and professionalized processes. Design and production activities get mediated by people the activities are intended to serve. Instability gets introduced into established institutions as the systems become far more responsive, innovative and exploratory. Objectivity now appears delusional, impractical and irrational from this epoch's frames of reference. The center of gravity shifts from inside the experts institutions to the market of highly subjective, individualized and contextualized users finding new uses and unmet needs on their own.

That's all for now. To be continued at a future date ...


Problematizing a communication breakdown

Communication breakdowns take many different forms. There may have been a promise made and then broken to keep the others informed of developments. Initial attempts to coordinate schedules, efforts or plans failed to realize any follow-thru. A conversation about collaborating to find a mutually beneficial solution never got past the talking stage. Independent initiatives to keep the customer satisfied lacked coordination in order to eliminate contradictory messages. You get the picture.

There are many ways for a disconnect to get problematized (diagnosed, redefined, framed). Actor-network theory has given me several new ways to perceive a communication breakdown:
  1. The breakdown may be "black-boxed" so everyone takes it for granted and never looks into it free of prior concepts, agreements and sedimentation
  2. The process of changing alliances may have to go through someone with no interest in this breakdown but with a consuming interest in being a clearinghouse for changes
  3. The outlooks of the participants in the disconnect are maintaining objectivity which refutes their interrelatedness and the complexity of their shared situation
  4. The current alliances, roles and scenarios in use work around this disconnect rather than remedying the implicated texts by first problematizing them
  5. The participants take an asymmetric view of the breakdown as an inferior concern compared to their superior, non-negotiable interests
  6. The breakdown is misperceived as a persistent object instead of emergent from the symmetric interdependencies among transitory phenomena
  7. The disconnect is an enrollment and mobilization from previous negotiations where they agreed to distance themselves in order to translate their other obligations
  8. The breakdown functions as an intermediary which redefines the participants as powerless to change it which recursively defines the breakdown as inevitably persistent
  9. The challenge of interesting others in better communication provided test of their strengths which in turn exposed their weaknesses
  10. The breakdown has transformed cooperative intentions into politicized rhetoric about their opposing interests, incompatible projects and conflicted alliances
  11. The breakdown has been problematized with a reductionistic model which presumes that communication can be switched on/off without vast repercussions
  12. The opportunity to improve communication has been framed idealistically as neither perfect or perfectible, rather than pragmatically as an assemblage of interests in doing what works
  13. The actors have presumed to possess centralized power over their constituencies instead of parts to play in serving the distributed power of those constituencies
  14. The participants in the breakdown are getting mediated by demanding physical networks which preempts mediation by emergent actants, end users and beneficiaries of better communication
Writing this out has helped my get this bounty of new models to be more deployable in my mind. These problematizations strike me as supportive of much more complexity than my familiar frameworks for diagnosing communication breakdowns. They avoid the usual linear rationalizations which misrepresent both social and wired networks. They challenge me to use fewer concepts and more process diagrams when conveying a communication breakdown to others. In other words, they look effective, useful and valuable to me.

Revisions added 4/24/2010


Realizing the best of both

When we're relying on our eyesight to organize our experience, we entertain an illusion of objectivity. We see separate objects that are certainly cut off from ourselves. The connections are minimal like physical contact when we touch them, breathing the same air in their proximity or being supported by the same surface under our feet.

When we combine our eyesight with our biased perceptions, we switch from objectivity to subjectivity. We've left Modernism for Post-Modernism. We regard objectivity as a dominant narrative in need of deconstruction. We get a sense of relating to physical evidence with our own filters, frames of reference and enduring narratives. We subject the objects of our attention to our inability to be objective.

Both of these abuses of immersive experiences are asymmetric. They privilege our objective or subjective point of view over what we're immersively experiencing. We're somehow different, separate and special compared to whatever needs our point of view to experience it as it really is.

When we lose the subject/object distinction, we can no longer think about our experiences logically. We're left to experience them as interrelated, interdependent and interconnected. Whatever seems to be separate arises from the interwoven fabric of life. We are symmetric with whatever we experience.

With this symmetry comes negotiations. The others-than-us have interests in common and different from us. The connections afford opportunities to work a new and/or better deal. We may be facing a no-win double bind or an irresolvable dilemma. We may perceive a zero-sum game where winning can only occur at the expense of the loser. We may recognize an opportunity to sacrifice for the greater good whether the other's winning brings about a mutual change for the better. We may even capture one of those win/win paradoxes where interests synergize into a combination of benefits instead of conflicting in mutually exclusive agendas.

When these negotiations emerge from experienced symmetries, interests become objects that we subject to our inquiries and understandings. We take an interest in other's interests to find common and compatible interests. We can achieve an objective without indulging in objectivity. We realize particular benefits with our own point of view without subjecting the experience to relentless subjectivity. We realize the best of both: common & different interests, objectivity & subjectivity, as well as asymmetry & symmetry.


Taking an interest in others' interests

For actor-networks to grow, constituent elements cannot be entirely self absorbed. Their attentions need to be, at least partially, amassed at the border. Outlooks need to be concerned with others' outlooks. Interests need to be shown in others' interests. Concerns with whatever is concerning others need to be considered. Or as I explored yesterday, they need to be feeling some compatibility pressures.

This outreach to grow a network is easy with actants that put their interests on display for all to see. The plants I care for are quick to show me whether I'm too generous or stingy with water. My cutting tools will let it be known whether I've been neglectful about sharpening them. Engines will announce their "dissatisfaction" with their levels or oil or fuel. Perishables will give me a strong indication about the efficacy of my food storage tactics.

Actors present a different story. They can make it very difficult for us to take an interest in their interests. They may put up barriers to finding out what interests them. They can react to our show of interest as a threat to their composure; as if they have a hot button that gets pushed by anyone's attentiveness. They may even launch an attack on those who want to understand them better in order to punish others for being nosy. In short, our attempts to make a deal may prove to be a "deal breaker" in itself.

As I pondered the underlying psychology to these ways that actors stifle the growth of networks, I came up with the following possibilities:
  1. Some us of us assume our own interests cannot be interesting to others. We've learned from convincing experiences that our interests will never find common ground with others and will always experience distance in relationships.
  2. Some of us experience envy when exposed to others who can show an interest in others. We've learned that we cannot stop being self absorbed due to crippling insecurities, neediness or inhibitions.
  3. Some of us have developed very high control needs to handle our inner turmoil. We experience the situation as getting very out of control when others take an interest in our interests.
  4. Some of us have experienced nightmarish situations by letting others in. We've become sensitized to the dangers of getting manipulated, betrayed or put-down when we've put ourselves in the vulnerable position of trusting others.
  5. Some of us take pride in being productive, focused and wary of distractions. We're feeling confident when keep to ourselves and reveal nothing of our interests in order to accomplish more in the available time.
  6. Some of us have a history of others being extremely clinging, possessive and annoying. We now withdraw the instant it appears others' attention is not really in us, but rather in using us as a listener or antidote to their loneliness.
  7. Some of us relentlessly compare the latest inquiries to previous ones in search of unattainable perfection. We find that any show of interest in us is never good enough because we've never been satisfied with others' interests in our interests.
These insights into underlying "deal breakers" ought to inform our "rhetorical practice in network formation". Persuading others to link up will succeed more often when consider how they may be opposed to our show of interest in their interests.


Using actor-network theory as an ontology

Actor-network theory imagines the social world as a buildup of sedimentation as alliances appear to become irreversible and asymmetric. The processes of interesting and enrolling others get replaced. As I played with this image in my mind, I got to wondering about the varied pressures involved. While sedimentary pressures explain a portion of this phenomena, I came up with three others to round out the picture. Here's a taxonomy of four varieties of pressures involved in alliance formation and perpetuation.

Sedimentary pressures: When we're looking for patterns of alliances, interconnections and mediations, sedimentary pressures become obvious. Agreements become settled and remain the same over time. Pressures to honor traditions and execute legacy practices keep situations "set in cement". On a personal level, sedimentary pressures result in habits that are hard to break and deeply held beliefs that defy attempts to change them. We settle into routine roles, reactions and categorizations which show up in organizational settings as "bureaucratic stagnation", "resistance to change" and "failed attempts to revise policy, culture or strategy".

Performance pressures: When we're looking for results. progress and successes, performance pressures become readable. Pressures arise from rival efforts, time & budget constraints or self imposed targets. We're feeling pressured to get ahead, get closer to goals and get better at moving forward. We're keenly aware of the passage of linear time which can be wasted, lost or misused. We're captivated by a game to play by the rules, a contest to win or a challenge to endure victoriously.

Compatibility pressures: When we're looking for benefits of interacting, valued realized from cooperating or differences made by relating, compatibility pressures stand out. There are pressures to become more tolerant, accepting of differences and open to diversity. There are pressures to lose rigid opinions, to let go of grudges and to abandon our attempts to be in control. Likewise the others are pressured to accommodate our potential contributions, understand our different outlooks and work with our set of resources. When these compatibility pressures take hold, the space is created to become interested in others interests and find they are interested in our own interests. We become enrolled in their projects and they in ours.

Transformational pressures: When we're enjoying the fruits of collaborations, rapport and mutual respect, there are transformational pressures to renew the situation with this energy. There are opportunities to revise underlying beliefs about what always and never happens. There are ways to explore previous unimagined solutions to chronic problems. There are expectations that the collaborations can take lasting effect in others lives which have been touched by these examples of working together effectively. The growth then becomes contagious and rhizomatic.

One impression I got from these this taxonomy is how pressures can be good. Another is how one kind of pressure leads to the next. There also appears to be sense where added pressures expand the awareness of the participants. This could result in becoming more inclusive, relational and symmetric which would add connections with other mediating & translating actants. Actor-network theory would then be used as an ontology that shows us a way to be in this world.


Tribal Activity Theory

In his book Network - Theorizing Knowledge Work, Clay Spunizzi introduced me to Activity Theory. I was previously familiar with Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development and some facets of dialectical materialism, but not their combination in Activity Theory. By contrasting that model with actor-network theory, I gained a far better grasp of ways I can use ANT in my projects.

One of those pursuits is applications of David Ronfeldt's TIMN framework to smaller scales than societal evolution. With that as my frame of reference, I've considered which of the Tribe, Institution, Market or Network phases that Activity Theory applies to. I've tentatively concluded there is a good fit with the Institution phase. That raised a question of how the Activity Theory triangle might get modified to fit a Tribal Activity Theory. I marked up a "Institutional" triangle in red to identify facets that do not fit tribal dynamics. Here's my summary of my modifications to arrive at a Tribal Activity Theory triangle.

When interpersonal communication was entirely oral, it's been widely argued that no one had a concept of being an individual separate from others or their surroundings. The identification with everything in their midst did not support causal, logical reasoning. Happenstance seemed to occur magically which engendered what we now label superstitions, irrationality and paranoia. There was no separate subject to observe, define or work toward an object of attention, desire, intention or pursuit. There would have been no sense of "mediational means" such as tools to use in hand or in mind.

Marshall McLuhan's studies of scholarly analyses of pre-literate cultures suggest there were no jobs to get done until print cultures came along. There was no division of labor or separate responsibilities. There were rituals to reenact that utilized weapons, headdresses, costumes and totems. But these were likely perceived as facets of the community, not as individual items, private property or separate responsibilities. Likewise, there were honor codes and traditions to maintain, but nothing was written down. Conformity was perpetuated with stories, threats of rejection and celebrations of traditions.

Mircea Eliade's research explored other facets of pre-literate cultures. He discovered that progress and the passage of time were regarded as profane, the opposite of sacred. The facets of life that seemed real where repetitious. They honored the ways the orbs in the sky and repeat of changing seasons maintained the myth of eternal return. They would not pursue objectives or deem it necessary to make improvements.

When print cultures emerged, it became possible for institutions to manage large locations, inventories, infrastructures, populations and borders. Technologies were developed to aid construction of buildings, roads, aqueducts and bridges. Tools enhanced the arts of defense, agriculture and governance. Putting "mediational means" at the top of the triangle makes perfect sense once technologies created a stream of dramatic improvements. Putting triangles into chains also fits the emphasis on linear progress "as the new sacred realm". Modeling advances as the result of resolving contradictions fits this technological progress against natural resources, other cultures and past traditions. Prior to those institutions, the tribe itself remained supreme among it's honorees. It was their means to survival and their protection from adversities. The community orchestrated the rituals to remain in the good graces of potentially avenging spirits. The community mediated everything that got done.

All this suggests how Tribal Activity Theory could model those tribal dynamics comprehensively with a simple triangle in spite of our current complexity and sophistication. Nowadays the conformity pressures of a tribal community would seem oppressive to most. We forget how unaware of exploitation the illiterate peasants were prior to Paulo Freire bringing literacy and liberation to their lives. The tribal freedom from production and schedule pressures may seem luxurious to us, but at a high cost in the array of technological advances we take for granted. We almost cannot conceive of getting mediated by an all powerful community of no individuals, separate interests or political strife.

When the community mediates all activities, everyone gets what they need to survive, multiply and reenact traditions. What needs doing gets done without job descriptions, policy requirements or managers. People play the essential parts as needed. What needs doing is routine and easily learned by imitating others who've been doing it repeatedly for as long as anyone can remember. The numbers are small so everyone is on a "first name basis" and accepted within the close knit community. The community mediates all the roles that fulfill the full array of timeless traditions. It's that simple.


Mediated by transitory objects

I've recently been rereading parts of Marshal McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy while I continue to integrate actor-network theory into my mental models. Here's how I've been able to articulate the intersection of those two great conceptualizations in my mind thus far.

There's a pervasive world we can perceive that seems reversible, impermanent and symmetrical. It captures our attention by flirting with us, alluring us and captivating us. It does not hold still or stay the same in other ways either. This world makes sense to us as a cacophony of sounds, a jumbled up bunch of aromas or a tantalizing combination of tastes. It does not require that we pay focused attention for long on one thing and thereby miss out on all the other attractions. This world invites us to take it all in and let most of it remain unexplainable. We use it and it uses us. We are observed and observing or getting read and reading. Objectivity is inconceivable in this relational world. We feel our actions are getting mediated by transitory objects.

There's a modern world we can perceive that seems irreversible and asymmetric. Things that appear do not disappear. We're predisposed to perceive this world of persistent objects when we're adept at reading texts. Strings of letters on pages or screens do not sway in the breeze, bend toward the sunlight, fly like the birds or grow off the page or shrivel up at night. Texts also do not make a sound, give off an odor or leave a taste in our mouths. They privilege our visual sense to reign supreme over all the other four or five senses. They help us see the arrangements of things as linear, causal, persistent and ordered just like lines of text on a page. We do the observing, analyzing or reading, and the evidence gets observed, analyzed or read. It's never the other way around that would compromise our objectivity, detachment and "realism". We assume actions are getting mediated by persistent objects.

Bruno Latour tells us "we were never modern". The pervasive world has remained available for
perceiving, interacting with, relating to and experiencing immersively. This world makes the modern world of visual dominance seem unreal. Objectivity appears to be a setup to trash the environment, exploit the pervasive world and feel unrelated to surroundings. The concepts to explain tools, technologies and progress seem self serving, inconsiderate, alienated and hostile.

This pervasive, never-modern world got a foot in the door of the modern world via electricity. Starting with the telegraph, phonograph and light bulb, we've begun to change our minds. While we were getting modernized by ink on paper and mediated by persistent objects, we acted strangely. We're now coming back to our senses. We're getting mediated by transitory objects like the baby bunny at my door. We're immersed in film, television, computer games, and messages on handhelds. We're making sense of all those instantaneous and transitory inputs like we were letting in all those sounds, smells and tastes. It seems like a constantly changing flux of flirtations that needs no big explanation, just lots of fascination and relations.

So I'm like "whatever" when some modern dude gets all strung out on explaining some specific change, like everything isn't always interchanging or what?


Amassed at the border

In Network- Theorizing Knowledge Work, Clay Spinuzzi recognized a pattern at his research site where everyone in the organization appeared to be amassed at the border. The organization appeared to have "no interior" with so many employees devoted to the interfaces with outsiders. This image resonated with me deeply. My careers have been immersed in similar experiences. As a project engineer, I was coordinating my work with customers while keeping the production plant fed with the resulting documents. As a management consultant working in the clients premises so my time was devoted exclusively to their conflicted agendas. As an adjunct instructor for a local college, my time was spent with the students or for the students. That image of "no interior" fits perfectly.

As I reflected on other situations where this "amassed at the border with no interior" pattern might apply, I came up with the following list:
  1. brokerage outfits interacting with both buyers and sellers of investments, real estate, consignment goods or used vehicles
  2. local retailers serving customers with goods that have been negotiated with distributors, wholesalers or manufacturers
  3. field sales representatives interfacing with business customers and the home office, factory or sales support functions
  4. restaurant wait staff caught between their patrons seated at tables and the kitchen staff who are "up in arms"
  5. first responders always on call, dealing with victims, the endangering facets of their situation and the overloaded support services for the victims
  6. contractors on film projects, convention staging or touring companies who are required to coordinate their work on the fly
  7. design professionals caught between their clientele and the contractors who are building, assembling or installing the designs

Anyone in these situations would experience being a hub in a network with many incoming and outgoing linkages. Interactions would be chronically intense, demanding and consuming. There would be no timeouts to collect one's thoughts, regroup or change strategies. The pressures would preclude much concurrent documentation for later use. When pushed to keep a better record, frustrated replies would include "do you want the work or the paperwork?" Turnover of the most talented staff would remain high. Those that stick around would have learned to minimize their own initiative, curiosity and responsiveness in order to control the frenetic network of interactivity.

This "no interior" pattern contrasts with it's opposite where employees have gone into a huddle and never come out of the all-consuming interior. These personnel appear to always be in meetings, unable to return phone calls, incapable of making decisions on their own and under constant scrutiny by internal watchdogs. Their internal politics seem so tense and distracting that those who are expected to serve outsiders cannot: focus on the troublesome issue, take the time to reconsider it or get enough cooperation internally to respond resourcefully. Meanwhile, every internal move would get documented. Paperwork gets prioritized over actual work. Abstractions like "mission", "policy" or "reorganization" would be under constant review by standing committees. Outcomes would ultimately be delayed by the insular dynamics that appear so indifferent to outsiders.

I suspect the "all consuming interior" occurs when an organization seems "here to stay". This may result from a huge investment in a physical plant, a distribution system or a network of affiliates. The organization would get regarded as irreversible and asymmetric. There's "no way to pull the plug on the thing". It has exceptional staying power, consensus among diverse constituencies and interwoven dependencies on it. The enduring stability comes from the network encompassing it.

Then it fits that the "amassed at the border with no interior" pattern occurs when an organization is agreed to be an interim arrangement. Its days are numbered by changing economy, technologies, market rivals, scarce resources or fashion conscious consumers. For cadres of employees in this pattern, the end is imminent because it a limited scope project, a temporary assignment or a high turnover position. There is no incentive to invest in "interior functionality" under these provisional arrangements. Its investment in networking, alliances and outreach does not parlay into longevity. It lacks the staying power produced by a robust interior.

Finally, I wondered how there could be a "best of both" combination that avoided the perils of these two extremes. What if employees amassed at the border could:
  • occasionally retreat into a war room in person or online?
  • discuss with colleagues a visualization of the changing terrain, imminent threats, movement among rivals, and forthcoming invasions on the horizon?
  • formulate projects to prevent chronic problems, alleviate rework and improve anticipation of consequences?
  • projects could be tracked on a wall in person or online so individuals could maintain a sense of where things stand, how they could help others out or make recommendations on particular projects?
  • communities of practice met regularly to learn from each other, think out-loud about concerns and share solutions to problems that others could utilize?

When an enterprise implemented these approaches to "providing an interior", I believe the responsiveness "at the border" would be enhanced. These additional "actors" would mediate the actions of those employees to become less stressful, more collegial and better for the constituencies in the long run. The impression on outsiders would change from "passing ships in the night" to "enduring organizations that offer exceptional service". In other words, the best from a balance of reaching across the border and coming inside for a change.


Caught in the crossfire

Activity theorists and actor-network theorists have been sniping at each other. They been saying "no" to each other's position. In his book: Network- Theorizing Knowledge Work, Clay Spinuzzi placed himself in their crossfire and said "yes" to both positions. He found common ground between the two positions as well as valuable ways they differ. Rather than invalidate their differences, he found uses for them like a practicing pragmatist. Rather than indulge in a reductionism of their positions to simplify their attacks on each other, he allowed for each to be complex and multifaceted. Blessed are the peacemakers.

Actor-network theorists have been caught in a different crossfire between modernism and post-modernism. While those two positions have been saying "no" to each other, Bruno Latour has gotten in the middle and said "no" to both. Rather than identifying common ground, he has defined a third position that refutes both of the others as lacking realism. Both added layers of conceptual baggage which obscure the flat reality of subtle tracings, changing alliances, reversible agreements and symmetric interactions. Latour restores innocence, wonder and fascination with each immediate occasion. Blessed are the meek.

As I've entertained both of these strategies in my mind, I've been to see a pattern to the variety "interstitial arguments". Here's the possible framework for considering our options when caught in the crossfire of opposing positions:
  • It's possible the positions remain opposed because they occur in a causal or developmental sequence. One leads to the other, provides preliminary "sedimentation" or lays the groundwork for the other to follow. Then it can be argued the two are different phases, stages or developments of a shared process. Acorns and oak trees cannot be the same size, enact the same growth patterns or relate to other trees in the same ways.
  • It's possible the positions remain opposed because they need each other as rivals, enemies or missing halves. Together they form vicious which go round endlessly. They perpetuate dramas of reacting to each other's prior reactions in order to compensate for each other's shortcomings. Then it can be argued there is no end in sight until the need for each other enters into the squabbling and exposes the perpetual uses made of the disagreements.
  • It's possible the positions remain opposed because they need to be redeemed by an outsider position. Both lack the perspective to recognize interaction patterns, possible exit strategies or reversals of single-minded pursuits. Then it can be argued that it takes both to achieve the overall effect as if they are two sides of one coin or two ingredients in one concoction.
  • It's possible the positions remain opposed because it's time for a transformation. Both positions are constituents of the emergent disintegration which is getting replaced or facing it's imminent extinction. Then it can be argued the two have taught us how to experience the "worst of both" alternatives while we're learning how to realize the "best of both" paradoxically.

A framework like this changes how we problematize getting caught in the crossfire. Our actions are mediated by these possibilities to become more pragmatic and strategic. Our effects on the opposing positions will be improved. We will have argued effectively for different definitions of positions, players and interactions.


Network - Theorizing Knowledge Work

Yesterday I finished reading Clay Spinuzzi's latest book: Network - Theorizing Knowledge Work in Telecommunications. Last night I brainstormed insights I gleaned from the book that I want to explore further here. I usually get between six and ten ideas from a good book. My list from reading Clay's book has 21 items on it. What a treasure trove of inspirations I've found!

I learned of Clay's work a few weeks back from an email that pointed out his review of The Firm as a Collaborative Community. I had written seven blog posts last year on my comprehensive review of that book. As I explored Clay's blog archive, I discovered he values David Ronfeldt's TIMN and Netwar models that I've explored here. He's been reflecting deeply on Bruno Latour's and John Law's: Actor Network Theory which I've read two books about so far. His research for the book delved in a phone service provider that reminded me of some of my management consulting circa 1988, shortly after the breakup of the Bell System. Clay is thinking rhetoric is changing as the explosion of connectivity impacts work styles and forms of organization. The reviews of his book on Amazon celebrate his search for common ground between Activity Theory and Actor Network Theory. All that clarified my interest in reading his book. I was not disappointed.

As the diagram shows, I've been anticipating many different overlaps between Actor Network Theory (ANT) and my many interests. Clay's extensive reading, combined with his rhetorical skills has made ANT far more accessible than it seemed to me last year. His book is functioning as an intermediary in my pursuit of making more connections to ANT. It can be said that ANT has been transformed in my experience and I've been changed too. I had previously been defined as someone who has difficulty grasping ANT in spite of my anticipation of it's applicability. I am now defined as someone who has more access to ANT's insights. As I continue to translate ANT and Clay's own insights into my pursuits, both ANT and Clay will become more real. Stay tuned.


Getting used by our tools

We use our tools and our tools use us. Our actions get mediated by the tools we use. Our tools get mediated by those users of the tools. The effects our tools have on our minds, efforts and outcomes results from the combination of our using our tools and our tools using us.

If our relationships with tools were unilateral, we could use them without being affected by them. We could safely assume we had not adopted the outlooks, sensibilities and premises of a tool by using it. We could delude ourselves into an asymmetrical view of being superior to our tools, in control of our technologies and responsible for their effects.

If our tools relationships with us were unilateral, they could get used by us without getting misused, overused, under-utilized or abused. They could perform without getting handled, applied, interpreted or deployed creatively. They could maintain an asymmetrical picture of being extremely reliable, rational and predictable while we were being unreliable, moody and impulsive.

Our relationships with tools are symmetrical. We reciprocate, accommodate and cooperate beyond reason. We define them and they define us. They meet our needs and we adapt to their requirements. When we don't meet their needs, they don't meet ours. They teach us to comply with their wishes in order for them to comply with ours.

We think about how to use our tools and they're designed with thought about how we will use them. When we think differently than the thought that when into them, we end up with better or worse results. When we fail to think about using them, they can use us without thinking. We become slaves to the machine, pawns in the mechanistic game or tools for others use. When we're wise to this symmetry, we can use our tools to make a difference and make new tools to make a different difference. We become effective and creative just like our tools.


Where we find the motivation?

Having reflected more deeply on all I've recently learned about our varieties of personal motivation, I'm now seeing a pattern in it all. It seems we find the necessary motivation in different ways depending on the situation. Here's a brief look at that pattern:

  1. When we're living in desperate situations, we call upon our instincts to take the necessary actions. We may be living on the street like the homeless and runaways, in a war zone or failed state or even living in the wilderness. In each case, we will be driven by our survival instincts. We'll feel the urges to do whatever keeps us fed, watered and rested. We also get energized by our herding instinct which seeks safety in numbers when ganging up on others or providing us protection from dangers. Our mating instincts will increase the population for the sake of safety and continuity.
  2. When we're living in stabilized situations, we rely on extrinsic rewards to take the required actions. We may inhabit a cubicle in a big enterprise or work station in a factory. We may own some property and vehicles. We may also keep a full schedule of familiar routines. We do what we're told to do by higher ups, policies or legal systems. We do what we're obligated to do by others relying on us. We comply with requests that pay us to put out the effort. We dismiss those temptations that get penalized severely. We look for ways to cheat and game the system so we get rewarded for less effort or escape the punishment for indulging in a temptation. We make ourselves do what needs has to get done, since our self motivation has been compromised.
  3. When we're living in competitive situations, we rely on our intrinsic motivation to make the extra effort. The chance to excel in comparison to rivals fuels our self motivation to do our best. The set-up to prove to ourselves how good we can become inspires us to take on new challenges. We're motivated to take initiative, stretch ourselves and explore new possibilities. With so much inner drive, we're likely to be overworked and underpaid. Like starving artists, we'll receive much praise and little compensation for our excellence. We'll get taken advantage of for our generosity, willingness to take initiative and sense of responsibility to see things through to completion. We'll make the sacrifice of extrinsic rewards to follow our intrinsic motivations to our heart's content.
  4. When we're living in collaborative situations, we realize the best of every kind of drive in us. We do what we feel like doing because that's how we do our best, get creative about problems and provide the most benefit to others. We receive more than enough extrinsic rewards to prevent them from becoming an issue, distraction or deterrent to self motivation. We find our herding instincts get deeply satisfied by the dynamics of collaboration making compatibility, safety and sustainability a reality. We develop a strong sense of rectitude which preempts any inclinations to cheat, take advantage of others or profit at others' expense.
With this pattern in mind, it seems to me we're equipped with the right kind of drives for every situation we might encounter. When we have motivation problems, we're failing to call upon the appropriate kind of motivation within us. When we're experiencing a flow state, we're finding the right kind of motivation we need for the situation.


Disdain for questioning authority

Alfie Kohn has written many books about problems in education that tie into the effects of extrinsic motivation in. Like myself, he advocates students thinking for themselves, finding their own motivation and questioning authority. Those of us who encourage each student's independence from authoritative sources will hear complaints from learners like "please don't make me think" or "just teach us what will be on the test". In his essay: Challenging Students... And How to Have More of Them, Kohn relays his own experience:
As a brand-new high school teacher some years ago, I resolved to let my students know that this passivity was not what I was looking for. On my very first day, I proudly — and, given the culture of the school, somewhat defiantly — pinned a yellow button to my shirt that said QUESTION AUTHORITY. Alas, this concept was so unfamiliar to the students that some of them assumed the phrase was a descriptive label rather than an exhortation. One girl wanted to know who had appointed me the school’s question authority.
I'm currently reading a new book: The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar. Her research reveals a wonderful reason for this inability to question authority. She has found that many cultures are founded upon the premise that everything works out for the better when others make choices for us. These cultures arrange marriages for their offspring. They set up the parental figures as authority figures that dictate the conduct of children and less privileged adults. They instill a sense of duty toward and respect of elders. They cultivate dependence on others choices, rather than independence to make one's own choices. Consensus and conformity are far more important than self fulfillment or self expression in these cultures.

Iynegar's research also discovered that a few cultures do not fit this pattern: notably the Brits Aussies and Yankees. We want to make choices for ourselves. We lose motivation, dedication and creativity when others impose their choices on us. We are predisposed to question authority because we are becoming authorities ourselves. We get raised and socialized to become independent, individualized and intrinsically motivated. We assume everything will work out better when everyone is free to explore and express themselves.

I question whether this disdain for questioning authority fits entire cultures. Just as teachers find the consensus/dependence culture in Anglo classrooms, management consultants find it in executive board rooms. It appears prevalent to me in gangs, cults and religious communities. So the applicability of her findings may not be applied as broadly as she proposes, but it has been eye opening for me to realize that large percentages of the global population want others to choose for them.


Driving on a full tank

Dan Pink's latest book, Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us, builds on some great ideas from four other books worth reading. Each of these other authors give us advice for driving on a full tank of our own energy. Here's how I'd paraphrase each of these other books' inputs into our thinking about extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.

Flow - The Psychology of Optimal Experience / Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi Whenever we're anxiety ridden about what we're trying to make ourselves accomplish, we going against the flow. We're turning life into a struggle and getting tunnel-visioned out of our frustration with the difficulties. We're already maxed out on the existing challenges and freak out in the face of additional obstacles. We're relying on those "carrots on the table" to get us fired up in order to get through this,. There never seems to be enough carrots.
--- When our body-minds are equally serene and energized, our powers of observation increase. We not only see more, we sense when to respond in ways that turn out to be "spot on". We feel like we're connected with the others involved and any changes unfolding. We welcome more challenges because we're handling them stress-free in this "flow" state of mind. We're feeling blessed by the experience which amounts to receiving an abundance of intrinsic rewards in the moment.

Mindset the New Psychology of Success / Carol Dweck When we think our amount of intelligence is a given learning is something we try to avoid. Anytime we're struggling with comprehension or execution, we think we're exposing our deficient amount of intelligence. It can only be bad to make mistakes and there's no sense in taking risks that could result in blatant blunders. The only way we can get motivated to learn is from the grades and fulfillment of requirements that lead to graduation. The "grade and grad" game is the only game that can be won with fixed amount of intelligence.
--- When we think our intelligence grows as we learn more, learning is inherently rewarding. Struggling to accurately comprehend or execute new understandings will be rewarded with the successful accomplishment. Mistakes are part of the process that help to fine tune approaches and to clear up mistaken assumptions. The greater the risk taken, the greater the reward realized as the result adds to personal confidence, expanded curiosity and deepening satisfaction with the self-motivated exploration.

Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It: No Schedules, No Meetings, No Joke -- the Simple Change That Can Make Your Job Terrific / Cali Ressler & Jody Thompson When we work in a place where we're getting managed, we're obligated to comply with commands, structure and policies. The use of our time is left to other's discretion since we're being paid to show up. We think work is a place we go to, not something we do. We become dependent on the pay and perks to appear dedicated, willing and eager to perform on the job. Meanwhile we're paying a high price in relationships, personal interests and self respect. We may occasionally let our resentment show, but we mostly repress it because "we know what's good for us".
--- When we work in a "results only work environment" (ROWE) how we get a job done is our responsibility. We're given the freedom to work from home, on the road or at odd hours. There's no need to show up for boring meetings since all communications can be handled via cell phones, PDA's and laptops. This approach goes far beyond flex time or employee empowerment. It restores the ability of individuals to do their best work when respected, trusted and admired for getting it done as they see fit. Self motivation soars with resulting increases in coordination, cooperation, communication and commitment.

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions / Dan Ariely When we're operating under market norms, we're available for a price. We wonder what others will cost us to cooperate with our intentions. We assume they can be bought like ourselves. We will seek a fair price while becoming vulnerable to irrational comparisons. We'll have no concept of cheapening the relationship or reducing others' genuine initiative to our successful manipulation of their incentives.
--- When we're operating under social norms, we do things out of the goodness of our heart, consideration for others and our genuine commitment to the common good. We express our self respect through what we do for others in respect for their needs, outlooks and limitations. We take offense when someone introduces market norms while we're happily self motivated, generous and satisfied.


Use it or lose it

One of my favorite principles of effective instructional design has always been "use it or lose it". When we fail to use something we presume we have already learned, it's not there when we need it later. We forgot it because it seemed useless at the time we were exposed to it. Much like a library that pitches the books that no one has checked out for a decade, our long term memory acts as if cognitive housekeeping is routinely required.

Use if or lose it also applies to cramming for tests. The immediate use of the new knowledge involves coming up with it under test anxiety in order to get a good grade with it. Our minds can handle those short term uses on the basis of usefulness, just like they approach long term retention. However, that cramming use is obviously temporary and the knowledge is soon forgotten. College students agonize when it gets announced the the final exam will cover the entire semester, not just the second half. They've just become aware that all that "useless" stuff from 6 weeks ago is going to be useful for another crucial hour during the final week of class.

Learning by doing, praxis or social interaction is a different story. The "context of use" is immediate. The value in knowing it is evident and convincing. When that practiced use gets reapplied in another situation, retention is effortless and enduring. There's no cramming required. Our memories work superbly. We've learned the way that works for our minds, our conduct and our reputation.

This principle implies that instructional design ought to create "contexts of use" rather than contexts of informative content delivery, required reading or contrived memorization. It's much more difficult to create situations where the information gets used when starting from a bunch of expertise to deliver. It's much easier when starting with problems to solve, crises to alleviate or conflicts to resolve. Then the content will either be presented as tools or deleted because it's not applicable to those use cases. Then use it or lose it applies to editing the content of an instructional design, not just the retention strategy of the participants.