söndag 28 september 2014

Books I've read (July)

I didn't keep to my ordinary reading schedule at the end of my stay in the US and I instead read books at an unusually leisurely pace this past summer. The three books below all have something to do with "economy". Here's the previous blog post about books I've read. The asterisks below refer to the number of quotes from the book (further below).

****** I have read two of Barbara Ehrenreich's books before; I read "Smile or die: How positive thinking fooled America and the world" (2009) two years ago and wrote about it here on the blog. I also read Ehrenreich's most well-know book, "Nickel and dimed: On (not) getting by in America" (2001) the better part of a decade ago. "Bait and switch: The (futile) pursuit of the American dream" (2005) was written in-between and I can see how the themes from the other two books are reflected in this book. In "Nickel and dimed", esteemed author Ehrenreich went undercover (like Günther Wallraff), created a new persona and tried a variety of blue-collar jobs that were open to a middle-aged women without any education (Wal-Mart clerk, cleaning woman, waitress etc.). Her conclusion was that it's exceedingly hard for the working poor to get by in the US. In "Bait and switch" she again goes undercover, but this time creating an alternative persona with a degree, but who has stayed home taking care of kids and now tries to find her place (e.g. a job) in corporate America.

Ehrenreich's original idea was to get a job and write a reportage both about the journey to that job as well as (perhaps) scathing critique from the bowels of corporate America. It turned out to be a lot harder to get hold of that job - and the concordant oh-so-elusive position in the US middle class. "Bait and switch" in the end instead turned out to be (only) about the hunt for a job and the auxiliary service industry of career coaches and motivational speakers that has been erected around the cash-strapped but not-destitute white-collar workers who for the most part are walking the tracks of the downwardly mobile. The connection to "Smile and die" lies in Ehrenreich's unveiling of the culture of near-compulsive positive thinking that she again later encounters as a recovering victim of breat cancer. The scramble to network, the tendency to blame oneself, the insecurity and downward mobility of the (white-collar) middle class and the pure fakery of having to plaster a smile on your face (when you have very little to be happy about) are themes she comes back to in "Smile or die". Her description of corporate America is very bleak: "only one kind of personality seems to be in demand - one that is relentlessly cheerful, enthusiastic and obedient ... Cheerfulness, upbeatness, and compliance: these are the qualities of subordinates - of servants rather than masters".

Her conclusion is that there are a lot more hard-working qualified people around than there are stable, well-paying jobs (with health care benefits etc.) - and so the competition for a good job is fierce. People can thus be chewed up and thrown out of corporate America for whatever reason or for no reason at all. Out in the cold and with large holes in the social security net, they have to fend for themselves - all while projecting and trying to convince both themselves and others that they are "winners" that any company would do well to snatch up. It's indeed a bleak, uncharitable and cruel world that Ehrenreich describes. Once you are out out in the cold, you would be very happy and very lucky to find your way back to the warmth (as it is) of corporate America. That "warmth" refers to having an income, but it can easily come without decent working hours, without job security, without a good health insurance so also people who do have jobs are under a lot of pressure.

I was struck by how unforgiving corporate America is described in the book. While it would be possible to "do your thing" for a couple of years in Sweden and still (perhaps with difficulty) find your way back to a good white-collar job, it seems you for the most part are quickly cut from the herd and left to die if you ever leave, or are ejected from a good-paying white-collar middle-class job in the US. It is also interesting to reflect on the fact that this book was written before the 2008 financial meltdown and the subsequent recession:

"The economy may be looking up, the company may be raking in cash, and still the layoffs continue, like a perverse form or natural selection weeding out the talented and successful as well as the mediocreSince the midnineties, this perpetual winnowing process has been institutionalized under various euphemisms ... to which we can now add the outsourcing of white-colar functions to cheaper labor markets overseas."

Ehrenreich is a good storyteller and a good researcher. Going undercover for the better part of a year, her book says as much as half a dozen academic tomes on the same topic. I very much recommend this bleak and harrowing but eminently readable book.

I read "Freakonomics" years ago and thought I would have another go at that genre of literature, e.g. economists explaining the hidden rules behind "how the world works". I have come across "the undercover economist" now and then (for example in podcasts) and bought Tim Harford's "The undercover economist" (2005) on a whim. He has written several follow-up books if this is your thing. I found the book depressingly conventional in its explanations of "how the world works". A free market and trade is always good ("The environmentalist movement should be manning the barricades to demand global free trade immediately") and money (e.g. what people are willing to pay) is the best - if not the only - way to understand and change the world ("a price system will transform a high willingness to pay for good schools into a lot of good schools, just as surely as it will transform a high demand for coffee into a lot of cappuccino"). Bring in an economist and he will tell you how to run the world (i.e. more or less the way it is run now). Equality, justice, beauty, fairness and functioning ecosystems just aren't on the map (unless people with buying power are willing to "vote with their wallets"). Harford is just too conventional and too boring for me. He just repeats "what everyone (e.g. every economist) knows" and that just doesn't cut it for me. A provocative ecological economist such as Herman Daly is ten times more interesting to me.

At one point, Harford discusses matters that relate to sustainability. The immaturity of his thinking is staggering:

"It seems likely ... that the richest countries in the world are just reaching the point where even energy consumption per head is about to stop rising. After all, our cars and domestic appliances get more efficient every year, and when we all have two cars and a large air-conditioned house, it's hard to see where extra energy demand will come from."

Comment: These two sentences are wrong on so many accounts that it drains my energy just to point them out. A few examples: 1) "two cars and a large air-conditioned house" is unattainable for most people on earth - there just aren't enough resources since an American level of consumption assumes 4 planets instead of just one (Earth overshoot day happened on August 19 this year and the vast majority of people live with a lot less than the average American - or the average Swede). 2) It is not difficult but exceedingly easy to see where extra demand will come from - you just compare what you have with what your richest neighbour has (e.g. more). 3) Appliances might get more efficient, but we have more appliances in our households and we buy new appliances faster today than ever before.

"If we are honest, then, the argument that trade leads to economic growth, which leads to climate change, leads us then to a stark conclusion: we should cut our trade links to make sure that the Chinese, Indians, and Africans stay poor. The question is whether any environmental catastrophe, even severe climate change, could possibly inflict the same terrible human cost as keeping three of four billion  people in poverty."

Comment: I don't think Harford is up to date on what "severe climate change" implies. In short, I think most people would prefer poverty over death, and stability over chaos. However, why would these two be the only alternatives we can choose between? Alleviating (their) poverty by limiting (our) consumption and wealth could for example be another alternative. Mahatma Gandhi and the appropriate technology movement proposed some very interesting ideas for how to alleviate poverty without jumping on the modernisation bandwagon with both feet. And so on.

Let's just say that I will stay away from Harford's later books. I will probably avoid the genre of economists-as-cheerleaders for the incumbent economic system altogether from now on. In short, this book felt like a waste on my time and I retroactively regret that I picked it up.

Although published by a Axl Books, Helena Csarmann's "Berg-och-dalbanana: Jakten på den heliga G-kraften" (2007, pdf file) [The roller coaster: The hunt for the holy G-force] is her ph.d. thesis in industrial economy from KTH Royal Institute of Technology. It felt appropriate to read this book while on a sabbatical in the US since there are more than just a few amusement parks there. We almost went to Six Flags Magic Mountain north of LA before I figured out that the rides there are for youths rather than my pre-teens (we went to Knott's Berry Farm instead).

This thesis is an easy read. It provides insights into several aspects of "the roller coaster economy"; from the point of view of premier engineering firms who do research on and plan roller coasters according to customers' wishes, construction firms that build them, amusement parks who buy them and the enthusiasts who ride them. The roller coaster economy fuses engineering, business and fun in "the hunt for the holy G-force".

The book is an excellent primer into many aspects of amusement parks and the roller coasters that are their premier attractions. The layout (and lots of nice pictures) added to the pleasure of reading it. As a ph.d. thesis, I don't think it's equally successful in terms of drawing on and using theories to explain "what it's all about". It doesn't feel very methodologically strong either, but that might be an effect of the for the most part non-academic style of writing. It's easy to get the impression of someone "doing stuff" and interviewing people without having had a clear plan of what to look for in advance. Still, it was a pleasurable read - especially compared to other ph.d. theses.

---------- QUOTES: ----------

----- On the *real* function of personality test -----

"The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, possesses not a shred of scientific respectability ... 'there is no evidence that [Briggs's] sixteen distinct types have any more validity than the twelve signs of the zodiac.' So why is the corporate world, which we think of as so fixated on empirical, in fact, quantifiable, measures of achievement like the "bottom line," so attached to these meaningless personality tests? One attraction must be that the tests lend a superficial rationality to the matching of people with jobs. ... if you failed at one job, it is probably comforting to be told that it was simply not a good "fit" for your inner nature. ... 'There's no bad worker and no bad workplace, only a bad fit between the two.'
if the function of the tests is really ideological ... they do not have to be in any way accurate as predictors of performance or satisfaction. They serve more as ... allowing employers to rationalise rejection or dismissal in terms of an inadequate "fit."
Ehrenreich (2005). "Bait and switch", p.33-35.

Comment: The quotes within the quote comes from Annie Murphy Paul's book "The cult of personality" (2004).

----- On looking for a job as a full-time job in itself -----

"job searching is not joblessness; it is a job in itself and should be structured to resemble one, right down to the more regrettable features of employment, like having to follow orders - order which are in this case self-generated. ... Everyone agrees on the necessity of managing oneself much as a real boss might
Imagining one's search as a "job" must satisfy the Calvinist craving to be doing something, anything, of a worklike nature, and Americans may be especially prone to Calvinist angst. We often credit some activity with the phrase "at least it keeps me busy" - as if busyness were a desirable state regardless of how you achieve it."
Ehrenreich (2005). "Bait and switch", p.45-46.

 ----- On "networking" as an anti-social activity -----

"'the whole networking thing' ... feels "fake" because we know it involves the deflection of our natural human sociability to an ulterior end. Normally we meet strangers in the expectation that they may truly be strange, and are drawn to the multilayered mystery that each human presents. But in networking, as in prostitution, there is not time for fascination. The networker is always, so to speak, looking over the shoulder of the person she engages in conversation, toward whatever concrete advantage can be gleaned from the interaction - a tip or a precious contact. This instrumentalism undermines the possibility of a group identity, say, as white-collar victims of corporate upheaval. No matter how crowded the room, the networker prowls alone, scavenging to meet his or her individual needs."
Ehrenreich (2005). "Bait and switch", p.62.

  ----- On career coaching and blaming the victim -----

"It seems inexcusably cruel to tell people who have reached some kind of personal nadir that their problems is entirely of their own making. ... But from the point of view of the economic "winners" - those who occupy powerful and high-paying jobs - the view that one's fate depends entirely on oneself must be remarkably convenient. It explains the winners' success in the most flattering terms while invalidating the complaints of the losers. [The people who] came to the [executive] boot camp prepared to blame their predicament on the economy, or the real estate market, or the inhuman corporate demands on their time. But these culprits were summarily dismissed in favour of alleged individual failings: depression, hesitation, lack of focus. It's not the world that needs changing, is the message, it's *you*. No need, then, to band together to work for a saner economy or a more human-friendly corporate environment, or to band together at all."
Ehrenreich (2005). "Bait and switch", p.85.

 ----- On turning to religion to find meaning in the vagaries of the labour market -----

"In the testimonies I have heard so far at Christian gatherings, God is always busily micromanaging every career and personal move: advising which jobs to pursue, even causing important e-mails to be sent. ... Thus everything happens "for a reason," even if it is not immediately apparent, and presumably a benevolent one.
What we want from a career narrative is some moreal thrust, some meaningful story we can ... tell our children. The old narrative was "I worked hard and therefore succeeded" or sometimes "I screwed up and therefore failed." But a life of only intermittently rewarded effort - working hard only to be laid off, and then repeating the process until ageing forecloses decent job offers - requires more strenuous forms of explanation. Either you look for the institution forces shaping your life, or you attribute the unpredictable ups and downs of your career to an infinitely powerful, endlessly detail-oriented God.
So this is the new ideal Christianized, "just in time," white-collar employee - disposable when temporarily unneeded and always willing to return with a smile, no matter what hardships have been endured in the off periods. Maybe one of the functions of this evangelical revival sweeping America is to reconcile people to an increasingly unreliable work world: you take what you can get, and praise the lord for sending it along."
Ehrenreich (2005). "Bait and switch", p.142-146.

----- On corporations as medieval courts; are what is needed corporate jesters (truth-tellers)? -----

"It's the internal culture of the corporation ... that fascinates me. The picture he paints resembles one of the royal courts of Europe, circa 1600, as described by Castiglione or, closer to our own time, the historian Norbert Elias. We, the PR people, are the courtiers who both despise the king and eagerly press around him, anxious for a moment of royal attention. We must learn to speak in low, quite tones, always framing our advice "strategically" and never wasting words on everything he already knows. Only if we can insinuate ourselves into his confidence can we hope to save the country - I mean, the company - and of course all the credit will go to him."
Ehrenreich (2005). "Bait and switch", p.161.


torsdag 25 september 2014

Björn Hedin's ph.d. defense

I attended Björn Hedin's Ph.D. defense earlier this week when he presented/defended his thesis "'Exploring opportunistic use of mobile devices for studying in higher education" (available online here). The basic question Björn asks is how we (e.g. students) better can use "inter-time" - e.g. low-quality time in-between different activities. Instead of reading Facebook updates or playing Candy Crush Saga, could our students use mobile technologies to study when they commute or when they wait for the bus?

The opponent was professor Urban Nuldén from the Dept. of Applied Information Technology at the University of Gothenburg and the Chalmers University of Technology. The grading committee consisted of three persons; Professor Marcelo Milrad from the Linnaeus University, Associate professor Johan Lundin from the Dept. of Applied Information Technology at the University of Gothenburg and the Chalmers University of Technology and Dr. Ester Appelgren from the Dept of Journalism at Södertörn University.

I had to leave after two hours due to teaching duties, but it felt like Björn got off the hook pretty easily. The opponent was very "nice" and didn't really ask any difficult questions. I think it would have been "fun" to hear a few questions that were a little bit more difficult, critical and pointed (I have full confidence in Björn's ability to answer them).

I've been one of Björn's assistant supervisors. My colleague Stefan Hrastinski has been the main supervisor and Olle Bälter has been the other assistant supervisor. My assistant supervisorship has been a pretty small part of my relationship with Björn though - we have worked with quite a large number of smaller projects together during the last few years and we now also have a larger, three-year long project that is just now starting up. I thus very much look forward to several years of fruitful collaboration with Björn!

The most significant aspect of Björn's thesis is that he has been working with it for so long. He changed the topic after some years and started with a clean slate, and he has since had to conduct his research and complete his thesis at spare moments - and nowadays also with two young children at home. I'm really happy that Björn can finally put the thesis behind him and I imagine it must be a huge relief for him when this finally sinks in and he can direct his energies at new projects instead of continuing to drag the ball-and-chain thesis of his along...

Björn and I have collected a large amount of wonderful empirical material together, but actually doing something with this material (working with it, writing up papers) has been on hold due to his thesis. I have been very reluctant to take the lead on working with the collected material since it makes a lot more sense for Björn to be the main/first author - the area we are working on together is my side interest but his main research interest. I now really look forward to write articles and climb up the academic food chain together with Björn.

One of the six articles included in Björn's thesis is indeed one of the shorter (Swedish-language) articles we wrote a year ago together, "I'm gonna study now! I just have to color-code my books first".

söndag 21 september 2014

Advice to young researchers

One of the senior researchers at my department took the time to write up a few pages of tips and tricks for budding researchers (ph.d. students who are finishing up their dissertation or newly minted ph.d.) on how to shape a great c.v. and make an academic career.

I wish I had had such a list when I finished up my own ph.d. In retrospect I think I was supremely ill prepared and I don't think that my advisor gave me nearly enough advice and guidance to help me make sense of what I was supposed to do to make an academic career. At the same time though, there was something I couldn't quite put my finger on and that rubbed me the wrong way when I read the list of tips and tricks, and, I guess I wasn't the only one. A colleague said it was great checklist for how to "level up" in academia (he added "...if that's your goal"). Someone else left an anonymous one-page manifesto at the coffee tables with advice that substantially contradicted the list of tips and tricks. I also understand the list has been a source of some stress for some of the ph.d. students, but it could equally well be framed as a source of support or at least a source of practical knowledge that is important for every ph.d. student to know, i.e. "everything you have ever wanted to know about an academic career but where too afraid to ask". The advice is very goal-oriented (mission: stay in academia) and instrumental.

When reading the tips and tricks, my thoughts went to a recent article by Mats Alvesson (2013), "Do we have something to say? From re-search to roi-search and back again". We all know what "research" is but what is "roi-search"? ROI stands for "return on investment" and roi-search is the "science" of how to optimally spend your time as a researchers to make the biggest impact in lists and in rankings. Roi-search tells you what to spend your time on and it transforms research into an instrumental activity. It's quite clear that Alvesson detests it and thinks it leads in the wrong direction (despite the utility for an individual researcher to adopt such a perspective). The tips and tricks that were circulated at our department are very much in line with the basic ideas of roi-search; this is how to go about to get a great c.v., to secure a position and to make an impact in the community of your choice (pick a community, position yourself in that community and stick to it). Here's a quote from Alvesson's article:

"Let me point at some orientations that may limit the creation and communication of meaningful knowledge for academics.
“I am a real researcher”. Habitus-ism. This could also be referred to as scientistic ritualism or the competent craftsperson. This orientation is one of embracing scientific rationality or, more generally, of being capable of mastery of journal publishing, either in a quantitative or a qualitative mode. Demonstrating one’s competence and value as a person who is able to write an academic article worthy of being published in an ‘A journal’ is here salient. Journal writing seems to be the key skill for many people to develop these days. Knowledge should be competently packaged in 8 000–10 000 words or text displaying all the skills needed to impress a specific journal’s reviewers and editor."

One example of the instrumental character of the tips and tricks is the advice on publishing: don't waste your results. "Make sure to frame it properly, publish it in the right "order" - that is, the key concept first, and then only later the method, the various materials you used to build the concept, and whatever". This makes eminent sense from the individual's point of view but, is it not at the same time dangerously close to suggesting we should all practice academic "salami-slicing" - dividing and packaging our research into the "least publishable unit"? And who is going to read all the papers we write? Perhaps that's a naive or at least an irrelevant questions. Perhaps academia is not about "having something to say" (Alvesson) but about bombarding journals and fellow researchers with academic papers and hope that some of what we write "stick" and is read and quoted by someone, somewhere? It is interesting to contrast this with a recent plea in the Chronicle of Higher Eduction to "stop the avalanche of low-quality research":

"Consider this tally from Science two decades ago: Only 45 percent of the articles published in the 4,500 top scientific journals were cited within the first five years after publication. In recent years, the figure seems to have dropped further.
As a result, instead of contributing to knowledge in various disciplines, the increasing number of low-cited publications only adds to the bulk of words and numbers to be reviewed. Even if read, many articles that are not cited by anyone would seem to contain little useful information."

Another example of the instrumental character of the tips and tricks is the part about community service. It states that you should not "selfishly focus on your own research", "you also have to be seen doing stuff for the community". Volunteering "makes you known outside the close-knit circle of peers focusing exactly on your topic". These tips redefines volunteering into something you kind of incidentally happen to do "for the community", but that you in the end really do in order to raise your profile and get recognition. The advice does not state that you "should" or that you "have to" do stuff for the community but that you "have to be seen doing stuff for the community". This raises the question of whether it's ok to pretend to do stuff for the community or to under-perform but over-promote your contributions to the community (etc.)?

Community service could on the other hand be framed very differently, as something you selflessly do for the community in order to support it and because you think the field you are active in is important and merits you support no matter what you get back from it (or don't get back). That is not the angle chosen here and roi-search could thus be a more suitable lens with which to analyse these tips and tricks, e.g. how should you husband your time to get the maximum bang for the buck? Perhaps the advice on finding and integrating (or ingratiating?) yourself into a tight community can be seen as a way to ensure that at least some people read and cite your work in a world that is saturated with research results but has too few readers?

One interesting (and depressing) second-order effect of current practices could be that "The pace of publication accelerates, encouraging projects that don't require extensive, time-consuming inquiry and evidence gathering". The above-mentioned article in The Chronicle of  Higher Education lists a large number of negative effects both for the individual, for the community and for Science in its entirety as the publish-or-perish ethos takes hold:

"Aspiring researchers are turned into publish-or-perish entrepreneurs, often becoming more or less cynical about the higher ideals of the pursuit of knowledge. They fashion pathways to speedier publication, cutting corners on methodology and turning to politicking and fawning strategies for acceptance."

Alvesson and The Chronicle is just the appetiser though. The real beef comes from Schwartz and his research on human values. I've come across his model before, but it all came together when I listened to a guest lecture by Pella Thiel earlier this week. Based on cross-cultural studies in several dozens of countries and with tens of thousands of respondents, psychologists have identified a number of human values that occur consistently. These values have been divided into no less than 10 different groups:

These groups can then be placed spatially, in a circle:

Using this model, it is easy to see that the tips and tricks for the most part relate to motivations that can be found in two of the groups, namely "achievement" and "power". Motivations in the former category are for example "influential", "ambitious" and "successful" and examples of the latter are "social recognition", "authority" and "social power". The thing is that people can be motivated by variety of different reasons to do research (or any other human endeavours for that matter). A few important features of this model though is that:
  • People can harbour many values but when one specific value is engaged, people opportunistically (then and there) tend to frame things in terms of that value and the group of values it comes from. If I make an argument for the importance of, say, self-discipline, or pleasure, or helpfulness, what I say will influence the listener then and there. The more often a certain set of values are engaged, the more important that set of values comes to be for my worldview. If I repeatedly talk about research in terms of authority and social recognition, I will over time strengthen those motivations and will tend to evaluate my own and others' research in these terms.
  • There is a bleedover effect in that values that are close to each other are reinforced when their "neighbours" are invoked (see the circle above). Engaging hedonistic values (pleasure, self-indulgence) will tend to strengthen also values having to do with stimulation and achievement and engaging universalistic values will tend to strengthen also values having to do with self-direction and benevolence.
  • While neighbouring values are compatible and strengthen each other, values that are opposite to each other are on the other hand hard to engage simultaneously. Engaging certain values tends to suppress opposing values in the circle (above). If self-direction is engaged, conformity and tradition tends to simultaneously be suppressed, and, if power is engaged, universalism tends to simultaneously be suppressed.

As stated above, the tips and tricks for the most part appealed to values having to do with achievement and power. What values and motivations do these tips and tricks miss out on then? Using Schwartz' model, it is possible to see that values having to do with "self-direction" are if not opposite, then at least perpendicular to values having to do with "achievement" and "power". Adhering to the advice given in the list of tips and tricks, a budding researcher might thus miss out on becoming a researchers who is primarily motivated and directed by "curiosity", "creativity", "independence" and "freedom". Being curious and independent might not necessarily be a hindrance to becoming a successful researcher, but it does on the other hand perhaps not help much if your goal is to maximise your H-index. Being too creative and craving too much freedom might obviously impede a more straight approach to having an impact and making a name for yourself in a specific academic (sub-)community.

Using Schwartz' model, the more worrisome part about the list of tips and tricks are the values that are suppressed by focusing on achievement and power, e.g. universalistic values such as "wisdom", "inner harmony", "broadmindedness", "social justice" and "equality". That sounds wishy-washy so how could that be translated to research-speak? A radically alternative perspective of what a researcher "should" do could be to start with the simple assertion that almost all Swedish researchers get their salaries from the state and from the taxpayers, and most of the research grants also come from "the people". Does that not imply that we are, or should be accountable to them in some way? Just as politicians are said to serve the people, perhaps researchers should too? An alternative advice to a budding researcher could thus be to choose an area of research that helps make our society a better, more just society or that holds great promise of being beneficial for humanity. How does your research, or, the area you do research in support peace, beauty, equality and justice? How does your research contribute to making the world a better place for both humans and the planet? It goes without saying that if you start asking questions such as these, you might end up doing something that is intensely meaningful for you, but might at the same time have a have a harder time acquiring the c.v. you need to secure a position in academia. That's a tough one and there is no simple answer that once and for all resolves this "tension". One of my very first blog posts, "Clueless AI researcher", was written in affect and was a reaction to listening to someone I felt had made The Wrong Choice in terms of his area of research.  

Having an interest in sustainability, such a perspective probably comes easier for me than for many other researchers. I live with the tension of constantly asking myself both what and where I should publish and what research (and teaching) I should conduct to do my bit for "saving the planet". I am of course not saying that everything I do, I do to make the world a better place. I don't live in the woods (like Jorge :-) and I'm also part of the academic system and the "rat race" to publish things and increase my status and my recognition. But being able to change perspectives and see things from another angle can also be a check on not adapting at too instrumental view of what I do and why I do it. 

It is interesting to note that achievement and power belong to the "self-enhancement" part of Schwartz' circle (above) while universalism and benevolence belong to the "self-transcendent" part of the circle. Self-enhancement is also part of being motivated by extrinsic values, i.e. values that are centered on external approval and rewards such as prestige, material success, social status etc. Self-transcendence is instead part of being motivated by intrinsic values, i.e. values that you find inherently rewarding to pursue such as self-acceptance, concern for others, social justice etc.

Do note that values are universal. They are not character traits and each of us is motivated by all values, but to different degrees. Do also note that you can choose to engage certain values rather than others and by doing so you will over time strengthen these and neighbouring values. We would thus all do well to now and then stop and challenge, encourage or even force ourselves to engage the pro-social values having to do with benevolence, universalism and self-direction in-between writing articles and shooting them off in the direction of prestigious journals that will increase our H-indexes and the glory of the university we work for in the increasingly important university ranking lists!

Comment: For more on applying Schwartz' model to HCI, do have a look at Bran Knowles' CHI 2013 paper "Re-imagining persuasion: Designing for self-transcendence”. 

torsdag 18 september 2014

Our proposed master's specialisation - Sustainable Information Society

The KTH Media Technology engineering programme has been around for 15 years by now and the original ideas for the program were thus developed during the second half of the 1990's. With an original emphasis on industrial-era mass media production - an area that has been "hollowed out" or partly overshadowed by developments in the digital arena during the last decade - the current masters level specialisations have step by step gotten further and further away from what the students want to study (and work with), what the faculty can and wants to teach, and what the industry requires.

The KTH master’s programmes in human-computer interaction, media technology and media management will therefore change over the next few years as these three programmes will be merged into one master’s programme in "mediated communication". Instead of current structures, different “tracks” (specialisations) will be developed and these tracks will be more tightly coupled to ongoing research at the Department of Media Technology and Interaction Design (MID). The tracks will more specifically be tied to different constellations and teams of researchers at the department of Media Technology and Interaction Design (MID).

As part of the new, yet-to-be-developed two-year long master’s program in mediated communication (corresponding to 120 ECTS), each student will get to choose to specialise in two different tracks, and each track will encompass two advanced/master’s level courses (7.5 ECTS each). Students will then get to choose one of these two tracks and continue to study an advanced project course (15 ECTS) as well as write their master’s thesis (30 ECTS) within that track. That means students will spend half a term on their "minor" track and no less than a full year on the "major" track.

The MID for Sustainability (MID4S) team handed in a proposal for new track, "Sustainable information society", earlier this week. At this point in time it was actually more of a draft than a full proposal and we will continue to work on our proposal if we get a go-ahead to take it to the next level. Except for our proposal, no less than 12 other ideas for tracks have been floated:
  • Behavioural design using mediated communication
  • Graphics and multimedia
  • HCI digital work
  • Interaction techniques
  • Interaction design
  • Media production
  • Media technology for health and well-being
  • Media technology, culture and society
  • Music, video, gesture, motion
  • Sound and music computing
  • Visualisation
  • Wicked problem vs social system
I don't know if all these 12 suggestions made it all the way to full (draft) proposals, but I do know that 13 tracks are way to much. It wouldn't make sense economically to offer such a broad bouquet of courses and specialisations to our students, so in one very concrete sense there is a competition of sorts going on right now. I suspect that proposals that harbour one or several courses that we currently teach might have an advantage (based on inertia) compared to proposals like ours that suggests that brand new courses should be developed... A colleague of mine also suggested that while these proposals are forward-looking to some extent, they also take as their starting point a conservative view of what our department should do in the future that is based on who happens to work at our department right now and what we/these people want to do. There might be promising future-oriented potentially super-popular topics that would be great for a track, but that none of the current faculty takes responsibility for formulating.

As to the proposal from the MID4S team, I think we have an advantage because of our connection to the Center for Sustainable Communications (CESC). Several team members are involved in different research projects at CESC and we thus have personal contacts with many researchers outside of our own department who can be of use in broadening and supporting our proposal.

Another thing that is close to my heart is to better integrate our master's students in our research. Instead of treating master's students as "advanced students", they could be treated as "junior researchers". In this, I was very inspired during my stay in the US during the spring and by how seamlessly and skilfully master's students are "slotted in" to the research being conducted by faculty and ph.d. students. Students who chose to do their major in our specialisation should thus be welcomed to the MID4S team meetings, should get information and about sustainability-related activities at KTH, should be offered master's thesis topics in our research projects or in relevant companies etc. In short, they would become legitimate peripheral participants in the MID4S team. I think it would be great for the students and the relatively fast turn-over of students would also ensure that the team regularly would get an influx of new ideas from new, more "temporary" members.

The process of developing and winnowing out new master's track will (hopefully) be an ongoing process that I will come back to in new blog posts later.

söndag 14 september 2014

Articles I've read (May)

Below are articles I read earlier this year, in May, on my sabbatical at UC IrvineHere is my previous blog post about the articles that I read in April.

This month's catch represents a grab bag of articles on different topics. I read and reviewed quite a few conference submissions (most of them not that great), see the previous blog post on how I will treat conference papers I have reviewed. Even though I read these articles four months ago, I'm actually catching up with writing blog posts about read articles since I'm so busy with teaching right now that I don't have the time to read any articles at all at the moment (except course-related stuff).

Each asterisk before the name of an article implies that there is a quote from that article further down in this blog post!

Batch/week 1 - mixed papers, mostly reviews of conference submissions
Comment: The first two papers are written by people I met at UCI, the rest are NordiCHI 2014 conference submissions. All but one out of these five papers were rejected.
    • Tomlinson, B. (2008). A call for pro-environmental conspicuous consumption in the online world. Interactions, 15(6), 42-45. */ A short paper with a powerful idea. If people (as social animals) crave status, how can we satisfy that craving without using a lot of resources (like buying a BMW)? "Perhaps we can look to biology for inspiration once again and design systems that satisfy our evolved needs." "If people are going to engage in conspicuous consumption, they may as well do it in a way that is sustainable. We need online social tools that can help enable pro-enviornmental conspicuous consumption." /*
    • Boellstorff, T. (2013). Making big data, in theory. First Monday, 18(10). */ I went to the workshop Tom organised about Big Data and felt the urge to read a text of his. This article is an anthropologist's attempt to twist and turn big data around and regard it from several different angles. /*
    • van Turnhout et. al. (2014). Design patterns for mixed-method research in HCI. Paper reviewed for (and accepted to) the NordiCHI 2014 conference. */ Impressive paper that "describe common mixed-method approaches, and ... identify good practices for mixed-methods research in HCI. ... we aim to lay a foundation for a more thoughtful application of and a stronger discourse about mixed-method approaches in HCI." /*
    • Paper reviewed to the NordiCHI 2014 conference (rejected). Keyword: "Craft".
    • Paper reviewed to the NordiCHI 2014 conference (rejected). Keyword: "Personalization".
    • Paper reviewed to the NordiCHI 2014 conference (rejected). Keyword: "Game design".
    • Paper reviewed to the NordiCHI 2014 conference (rejected). Keyword: "Gamification".

      Batch/week 2 - mixed papers, mostly reviews of conference submissions
      Comment: The first two papers are again written by people I met at UCI, the rest are CSCW 2015 conference submissions. I don't yet know which of these papers were accepted or rejected and I might at a later point update the reference to any paper(s) that were accepted.
        • Silberman et. al. Next Steps for Sustainable HCI */ "This paper, written by the 26 attendees and organizers of the CHI 2014 sustainability workshop ... reports an emerging consensus on next steps for sustainability research in HCI ... based on lessons learned over the last seven years." I don't know if I will be an author in the end, I didn't do much and Six might have assigned most of the 26 to the role of "signatories" rather than co-authors. /*
        • Draft (unpublished) paper by an acquaintance, ”Sustainability begins in the streets”. Keyword: ”Transition Towns” */ Draft paper by a ph.d. student. I hope it gets finished and published soon! /*
        • Paper reviewed to the CSCW 2015 conference (status unknown). Keyword: "Open source software".
        • Paper reviewed to the CSCW 2015 conference (status unknown). Keyword: "Eco-feedback".
        • Paper reviewed to the CSCW 2015 conference (status unknown). Keyword: "Virtual worlds".

        Batch/week 3 - mixed papers
        Comment: My co-author Elina Eriksson told me to read the first two papers (we refer to them in our own paper).
          • ** Sterling, S. (2004). Higher education, sustainability, and the role of systemic learning. In Higher education and the challenge of sustainability (pp. 49-70). Springer Netherlands. */ Great article on the (huge) challenge of transforming higher education so as to take sustainability seriously. "The possibility of reorientation of higher education in the context of sustainability depends on widespread and deep learning with the higher education community and by policy makers - and this has to both precede and accompany matching change in learning provision and practice." Universities teach, but how good are they at learning? /*
          • * Wals, A. E., & Jickling, B. (2002). “Sustainability” in higher education: From doublethink and newspeak to critical thinking and meaningful learning. Higher Education Policy, 15(2), 121-131. */ I for the most part did not agree with the concept of sustainability that was presented in this article (or rather, the attack on sustainability that was presented in this article). "the idea of sustainability is conceptually flawed. Literally it means to keep going continuously. Yet, it provides no inherent clues about how one should mediate between contesting claims between advocates of incompatible value systems. ... education for sustainability ... conflicts with ideas of emancipation, local knowledge, democracy and self-determination. I think this is a "straw man" argument"/*
          • * Lillemo, S. C. (2014). Measuring the effect of procrastination and environmental awareness on households' energy-saving behaviours: An empirical approach. Energy Policy, 66, 249-256. */ An article that treats two very disparate topics that I'm interested in; energy and procrastination! "people who state that they have a higher tendency to procrastinate are significantly less likely to have engaged in most of the heating energy-saving activities ... measures aimed at reducing procrastination are needed to realise energy-saving potential. It is important to either bring future benefits closer to the present or to magnify the costs of delayed action." /*
          • **** Alvesson, M., & Spicer, A. (2012). A StupidityBased Theory of Organizations. Journal of management studies, 49(7), 1194-1220. */ This article is awesome! I have always thought that the praise of corporate "intelligence" is fishy - since my own experiences (not the leaste as a customer) often hints and oceans of stupidity at play. With this article, I finally get the confirmation that knowledge oftentimes is countered by equal amounts of stupidity in organisations. I highly recommend this article! /*

          ---------- QUOTES ----------

          ----- On sustainability as a add-on to the curriculum or as something more -----

          "sustainability does not simply require and 'add-on' to existing structures and curricula ... sustainability is not just another issue to be added to an overcrowded curriculum, but a gateway to a different view of curricula, of pedagogy, of organisational change, of policy and particularly of ethos.
          The common perception is often that little more than a change in teaching or curriculum is necessary - that is, an adaptive adjustment in learning provision. A full response, however, commensurate with the size of the challenge, implies a change of educational *paradigm* - because sustainability indicates a change of cultural paradigm which is both emergent and imperative."
          Sterling, S. (2004). 
          Higher education, sustainability, and the role of systemic learning

          ----- On more education as the solution or as part of the problem? -----

          "the answer to the crisis of unsustainability cannot be a simple tweaking of educational policy and practice ... This is an issue that E.F. Schumacher ... pondered nearly thirty years ago:

          'the volume of education has increased and continues to increase, yet so do pollution, exhaustion of resources, and the dangers of ecological catastrophe. If still more education is to save us, it would have to be education of a different kind'
          All this leaves us with a profound paradox: the agency that is charged with the provision of education and learning ... is largely part of the unsustainability problem it needs to address. The fundamental challenge then, is how to achieve significant rather than superficial orientation of higher education."
          Sterling, S. (2004). 
          Higher education, sustainability, and the role of systemic learning, p.52-54

          ----- On "eco-totaliarian" vs "eco-emancipatory" regimes and ecological vs social sustainability -----

          "If we juxtapose more instrumental views of "education for sustainability" with more emancipatory views of "education for sustainability" we can imagine, on the one hand, and "eco-totalitarian" regime that through law and order, rewards and punishment, and conditioning of behavior can create a society that is quite sustainable according to some more ecological criteria. Of course, we can wonder whether the people living within such an "eco-totalitarian" regime are happy or whether their regime is just, but they do live "sustainably" and so will their children. We might also wonder if this is the only, or best conceptualization of sustainability. On the emancipatory end of the continuum we can imagine a very transparent society, with action competent citizens, who actively and critically participate in problem solving and decision making, and value and respect alternative ways of thinking, valuing and doing. This society may not be so sustainable for a strictly ecological point of view as represented by the eco-totalitarian society, but the people might be happier, and ultimately capable of better responding to emerging environmental issues."
          Wals, A. E., & Jickling, B. (2002)
          “Sustainability” in higher education: From doublethink 
          and newspeak to critical thinking and meaningful learning, p.225

          ----- Fight procrastination and make the world a better place! -----

          "procrastination might work against the capacity to execute environmentally friendly behaviours. ... procrastination could be one of the more important barriers in fighting climate change at either a policy level or in people's daily practices. Environmental issues such as climate change are often concerned with future costs or benefits. If people put too much weight on the present moment, it will make the benefits from environmentally friendly behaviour look small from today's perspective.
          the government not only needs to motivate people to save energy, but it also needs to help people follow up on or execute their saving plans. In particular, the measures aimed at increasing households' investments in energy savings should focus on reducing procrastination rather than increasing environmental awareness.
          Lillemo, S. C. (2013). 
          Measuring the effect of procrastination and environmental awareness on 
          households' energy-saving behaviours: An empirical approach. p.253-254

          ----- Do YOU work in a functionally stupid organization? -----

          "In this paper we question the one-sided thesis that contemporary organizations rely on the mobilization of cognitive capacities. We suggest that severe restriction on these capacities in the form of what we call functional stupidity are an equally important if under-recognised part of organizational life. Functional stupidity refers to an absence of reflexivity, a refusal to use intellectual capacities in other than myopic ways, and avoidance of justification. ... This gives rise to forms of stupidity management the repress or marginalize doubt and block communicative action. ... This can have productive outcomes such a providing a degree of certainty for individuals and organizations ... The positive consequences can give rise to self-reinforcing stupidity. The negative consequences can start dialogue, which may undermine functional stupidity.
          Alvesson, M., & Spicer, A. (2012). 
          A StupidityBased Theory of Organizations

          ----- On intelligence and stupidity in organizational life -----
          "Researchers take it for granted that 'the foundation of industrial economies has shifted from natural resources to intellectual assets'. ... Underpinning all this is the assumption that the intelligent mobilization of cognitive capacities is central to the operation of (successful) organizations. ... It creates a one-sided, widely-shared, and rather grandiose portrait of the smart, knowledge-based firm and its employees. This picture ... misses ... qualities that do not easily fit with the idea of smartness.
          Stupidity resonates with many anecdotal accounts of organizational life. ... we find intelligent and knowledgeable people actively refraining from using their cognitive and reflexive capacity. ... in many cases, stupidity is a normal feature of organizational life. ... most managerial practices are adopted on the basis of faulty reasoning, accepted wisdom, and complete lack of evidence. This is also emphasized in studies of management fashion. ... [this] invites the suspicion that ... stupidity needs to be taken seriously, as part of organizational life.
          Taking these ideas further, we can view what we refer to as *functional stupidity* as being characterized by an unwillingness or inability to mobilize three aspects of cognitive capacity: reflexivity, justification, and substantive reasoning.

          Alvesson, M., & Spicer, A. (2012). 
          A StupidityBased Theory of Organizations, p.1195-1199

          ----- On manipulation and stupidity management in organizations -----

          "functional stupidity is prompted by the contemporary *economy of persuasion* which emphasizes symbolic rather than substantive aspects of organizational life ... often in the form of attempts to develop strong corporate cultures and identities, corporate branding, and charismatic leadership, exercised often through *stupidity management*.
          *stupidity self-management* ... helps ... marginalize doubt and focus on more positive and coherent understandings of reality. Ambiguities are repressed and ... This can give rise to a false sense of *certainty* that produces *functionality* for both the organization as a whole and the individuals within it. Such positive outcomes can have self-reinforcing effects byt further encouraging *stupidity management* and *self-studpidity management*.
          Employee-focused campaigns indicated appropriate feelings, convictions, and identities. They can take the form of corporate culture initiatives, branding programmes, organisational identity building, efforts to infuse spirituality into the workplace, linking work to the pursuit of social good, a focus on exciting activities, such as leadership, rather than mundane administration, and use of increasingly hollow status markers such as pretentious titels, impressive policies that are decopule from practice, and other grandiose representations. While the precise content of these programmes may differ, they are all efforts to persuade and seduce employees into believing in something that improves the image of their organizations, their work and, ultimately, themselves.
          Alvesson, M., & Spicer, A. (2012). 
          A StupidityBased Theory of Organizations, p.1202-1203

          ----- On academia as a hothouse for functional stupidity -----

          "We see functional stupidity as a general condition that pervades many spheres of social life, including academia. Contemporary academia could be seen as a hothouse for functional stupidity. In academia, huge amounts of time and energy are expended on writing papers for publication in top ranked journals, in our bid to ’play the game’. These papers may be read or used by very few, and mainly by those eager to pad out the reference lists attached to their own papers. Rarely is there any serious discourse around the meaningfulness of this enterprise. … Perhaps this is because publication … are also seen as an expression of our intelligence and knowledge. The result of an article being accepted for publication … ’proves’ how smart we are.
          This can make researchers into willing journal paper technicians who focus on writing papers for leading journals within a narrow subfield. This may detract from broader scholarship with slower and less predictable results and, perhaps, with a greeter likelihood of saying something really interesting and/or socially useful."
          Alvesson, M., & Spicer, A. (2012). 
          A StupidityBased Theory of Organizations

          måndag 8 september 2014

          New academic year, new courses

          It's that time of the year again. Between Sept 1 and the middle of October is the time of the year when I have my heaviest teaching load. As usual, or at least for the third year in a row, both my master's level courses run in parallel and they both started last week. This is always a busy time of the year and the fact that I was away from Sweden for six months means that I am more busy than ever this time around.

          The one course I have taught for the longest of time is my fifth-year project course "Future of Media". It runs during the whole autumn term (Sept-Dec), but changes character in mid-October when the students' project groups get going. That means the period up until mid-October will be very busy for me and the period after less so.

          This is the 12th time the course is given and it's the 10th time that I am responsible for it. We change themes every year and last year's theme was "The Future of News/News of the Future". This year's theme is "The future of the digital commons, the sharing economy and collaborative consumption". It's a much harder topic to grasp than many more straight-forward futures (book, cinema, computer games, radio etc.), so I gave a lecture earlier today where I outlined my thoughts on the topic (after having prepared for the course by reading half a dozen book). I hope my lecture clarified some things for the students but there is still much work that remains to be done I hope that our excellent series of guest lectures will help.

          The second course is mine and Elina's course on "Sustainability and Media Technology". We give it for the third time and we noticed that we have given the course quite a big re-haul as most of the lectures have been exchanged this year. This is the course where we played the Carbonopoly/Gasuco game in our classroom last year (we're doing it again this year). It's is also the course that me and Eline have written no less than two scientific papers about (and we plan to write a third paper later this year). New for the year though is the fact that our new ph.d. student Hanna Hasselqvist will help us out in the course; while me and Elina will be responsible for one seminar group each, Hanna will be responsible for the remaining two seminar groups. That will be a great help to us.

          All of this teaching means that during the next month I will both be more busy and have less time than usual to write these weekly/bi-weekly blog posts, and, at the same time have more things to write about than usual. We'll see how that turns out.

          tisdag 2 september 2014

          Crises-proofed lifestyles

          One year ago the sustainability research team at my department (MID4S) handed in two applications for research grants to the Swedish Energy Agency. One of these applications, "Improved energy counseling and energy habits by Quantified Self Assisted Advisory" became fully founded and that project has just started up with my colleague Björn Hedin as the Principal Investigator (PI). The other project, "Green lifestyles for reduced energy consumption" with me as the PI was unfortunately rejected.

          We thought it was a great application and in our post-rejction analysis we concluded that it couldn't have been the basic idea that was flawed but that it instead must have been the way we expressed (or failed to express) that idea in the application. When the same research program on "Energy, IT and Design" (Energi, IT, och Design) opened up for new application we quickly decided to make a new attempt. The timing was unfortunately not the best - the deadline for the application was the very first day that both of my master's level courses started... I will have to scramble to catch up during the rest of the week! Also, I sat with the application yesterday almost until the very end and submitted the application at 23.30 - barely half an hour before the deadline.

          We have worked with application and made some changes but we have for the most spent our energy on more clearly clarifying and communicating the basic idea of the application. One of the changes we made was to come up with a new name for the application - it is now called "Krissäkrade livsstilar: Alternativa livsstilar som designmaterial för tjänster i ett hållbart energisystem" ("Crises-proofed lifestyles: Alternative lifestyles as design material for services in a sustainable energy system"). Another change was to emphasise our cooperation with Transition Sweden and especially our cooperation with IKEA more. The application is written in Swedish with the exception of this 1000-character project summary:

          Crises-proofed lifestyles:
          Alternativ lifestyles as design material for services in a sustainable energy system.

          Most people today agree that it is necessary to reduce energy consumption as well as CO2 emissions. Moving from insight to action has however proven to be difficult for individuals. In this project we aim to study lead users who have chosen to proactively change their lifestyles in order to reduce their energy consumption and increase the sustainability of their daily lives. We work with interviews, ethnographic studies and with workshops to work with the material collected and to develop innovative concepts.

          The project aims at "embodying" the potential for changed behaviors in the products that services that are developed. The goal is to thereby reach a larger market of "ordinary" people and give them increased possibilities of changing their energy habits, use energy more efficiently and reducing energy consumption both in Sweden and globally. With IKEA of Sweden AB as a partner, the conditions to realize these ambitions goals are excellent.