måndag 29 augusti 2016

Visions of computing beyond Moore’s law (workshop)


I'm in Amsterdam for the 4th international ICT for Sustainability (ICT4S) conference. The main conference starts tomorrow but there are two full days of workshops before and after the conference. Today Elina and me held our workshop "Computing within Limits: Visions of computing beyond Moore’s law". I refer to the workshop as "Elina's and mine" workshop despite the fact there are officially six organisers - because we in fact did 95% of the work (not that that was an inordinate amount to start with). We are still happy for the input we got from our co-organisers and we are very happy that Lorenz Hilty was able to attend the whole workshop!

The workshop could be seen as an introduction to the background of and the ideas behind "Computing within Limits" (official website, my write-up of Limits 2016). While we have organised two workshops (small conferences) on Computing within Limits in 2015 and 2016, both of these have been held at UC Irvine and California is a loong way from Europe. Our workshop was, in other words, a chance for (primarily) European researchers to familiarise themselves with the ideas behind Computing within Limits. And, it seems the workshop was a success! Several people thanked us for organising the workshop at the subsequent reception and one person even said it was the best workshop she had ever attended.

We disseminated no less than three (relatively short) articles as well as one short story (fiction) for workshop attendees to read beforehand and that might have been (at least) one text too much. The texts (and the suggested order of reading them) were:

- Pargman & Raghavan (2014), “Rethinking Sustainability in Computing: From Buzzword to Non-negotiable Limits”. NordiCHI 2014.
- Tomlinson et. al. (2012), “Collapse Informatics: Augmenting the Sustainability & ICT4D Discourse in HCI”. CHI 2012 (read only the first 5.5 pages, skip the examples).
- Raghavan & Hasan (2016). “Macroscopically Sustainable Networking: On Internet Quines”. LIMITS 2016.
- O’Neill, K. (2012). “Bicycleman Sakhile and the Cell Tower”, in Greer (ed.), “After oil: SF visions of a post-petroleum world”.

Something that was confusing to us was that very relaxed process for registering for the workshops. I think that it might be the case that some people who attended the workshop had told the workshop organisers (us) that they would attend but not really registered (paid) for the workshop and others had registered for the workshop but that information had not reached us as workshop organisers. It for example seemed like some people who attended half-day workshops dropped in on other workshops (e.g. ours) when the first workshop was finished. That made it a little more challenging to lead the workshop but most people stayed all day and provided the workshop with the needed stability. Also we were surprised to find as many as 16 persons in the room when the workshop started! These were the workshop attendees:

- Elina Eriksson (SE), Daniel Pargman (SE) and Lorenz Hilty (CH) (organisers)
- Roy Bendor (NL), Steve Easterbrook (CA), Mine Ercan (SE), Mattias Höjer (SE), Sofie Lambert (BE), Dag Lundén (SE), Jens Malmodin (SE), Birgit Penzenstatler (US), Michaël Petit (BE), Mario Pickavet (BE), Dawn Walker (CA) (full day participation)
- Vlad Coroama (SE), Paola Grosso (NL), Norberto Patrignani (ITA), Pierre-Antoine Rappe (BE), Mahtab Sabet (CA), Daniel Schien (GB) (part day participation).

The workshop was divided into four 1.5-hour sessions with breaks (coffee, lunch) in-between:

Session 1
- Short presentation round: “who are you and what brought you to this workshop today?”
- Short introduction to Computing within Limits (I managed to present 30 slides in 15 minutes sharp)
- Discuss of the literature disseminated

Session 2
- Framing the futures
   - Post-it notes session 1: write 3-5 post-its with trends/limits that you believer will play an important role in a future of limits and that we should take into account
   - Post-it notes session 2: write 3-5 post-its with suggestions for areas where computing could make a difference (should be used) in a future of limits
- Divide workshop participants into smaller groups and start to determine/flesh out one scenario each with inspiration from the now-hastily-clustered post-it notes on the whiteboard. We got four groups with 4-5 persons each together and each group had one person who had attended Limits (Eriksson, Pargman, Penzenstadler, Easterbrook), one "technical person", one "non-technical person" and one "industry representative). That really worked out fine.

Session 3
- Continue to work on the scenarios in smaller groups
- Prepare for presenting the scenario by "instantiating it" in the form of an "avatar story" (see further below)

Session 4
- Present and discuss the proposed scenarios
- Wrap-up, discussions, informal evaluation, outstanding research questions, future events (Computing within Limits 2017) etc.

--- Outcome & reflections ---

The post-it notes sessions (session 2) were wild! There was such a breadth of ideas presented. We beforehand imagined that a lot of the suggestions would be about trends and phenomena that were closely tied to computing and while some were, most weren't. Clustering the notes was done quickly and under duress so taking that into account, the categories we "found" in the first post-it notes session were:
Monitoring & tracking (there were may examples): "Tracking emissions & accountability", "Information about problems (collect and analyse data)", "Helping to allocate resources efficiently & globally", 
Computer-mediated communication: "ICT for connecting people", "Virtual workshops (less travel)"
Knowledge & education (there were many examples): "ICT will/should support education", "Bring  awareness (educate)", "Sharing knowledge on how to fix, repair and modify technology".
Circular economy: "Circular economy", "Dematerialization".
Policy: "Creating space for policy reform", "Negotiator to facilitate public debates".
- Empowerment & justice: "We need ICT for overcoming sensorial barriers (e.g. for people with disabilities", "Social equality & inclusion".

"My" group for the second half of the day consisted of: Sofie Lambert, Vlad Coroama, Daniel Schien and (playing tag) Norberto Patrignani/Mahtab Sabet. After having wide-ranging discussion, I "forced" my group to hammer down some specifics before we headed for lunch and these were goals we aimed for: Everyone in Europe will have an average carbon budget of 3 tons/year 20 years from now (down from 10 or so today - depending on how and what you count). We further specified that while computing/ICT today accounts for about 2% of our total use of energy (200 kg/year), it would increase to 6% by 2036 but still constitute only 200 kg/year since other sources of carbon emissions would have to decrease radically. Computing/ICT would therefore also have to take on additional tasks, for example more video conferencing to make up for decreased travel.

When we started to flesh out the scenario after lunch, we slipped into the idea of having a parallell carbon currency and that each item you buy has a price in Euros as well as a carbon credits price that depended on that item's carbon footprint (locally produced cheese has a lower carbon credits price than exotic cheese from far-away countries). We then started to discuss how the system for tracking, paying for and circulating carbon credits worked. Sometime into our discussion of how to set up and track a new currency, Elina handed out two so-called "avatar stories" from a research project I myself have been involved in ("Scenario and impacts of the information society"). What I had forgotten in the heat of the moment was that one of those scenarios were very similar to the one we were now construction so we quickly changed track and decided to "add" to that scenario/avatar story. The persons in the story below belong to the more affluent parts of the population and they have enough disposable income (hard currency) to be able to buy carbon credits from others who live ultra-frugal (low carbon emissions) lifestyles are who are willing to sell their carbon credits surplus.

Valuing the environment

“Darling, I dearly love Lisa, but why does she have to give me such a hard time when their spartan lifestyle is partly made possible by us?” Erik grumbles to Airi. “You and me both work hard, we really do deserve our salaries and they still choose to donate their surplus environrights to some stupid “worthwhile cause” instead of accepting our hard-owned cash for them!”. Airi agrees with Erik and tries to calm him down. Meeting with Erik’s sister and her oh-so-much-holier-than-thou husband can often turn into a tense affair that leaves them all frazzled and drained. But Lisa’s small farm really is lovely at this time of the year and their children enjoy the countryside and the animals so much, to say nothing about living there with their cousins for a full month every summer. And the squash, the potatoes and the beets Lisa insisted they bring with them to the city look lovely and will last for a long time. But still. Lisa’s austere ultra-low-carbon-emissions lifestyle makes it hard for her family to get buy without the hand-me-down clothes and the help she gets from her more economically secure brother.
Erik and Airi’s own summer cottage is yet more austere, but they really like to spend as much time as possible there during the warmer half of the year. It is not too convenient or practical to heat the house during the whole winter, but the first trip after Easter each year leaves the children as frisky as calves that are let out to the pastures after a long winter indoors. It is so convenient to book a large vehicle through the carpool and bring everything from door to door, even if they have to pay through the nose for that one spring trip. Worse, the costs for private transportation just go up every year as their (and everybody else’s) national carbon allowances go down. Erik and Airi don’t complain too much though as everyone suffers equally under the same regiment, as they have more than most others, and, as Sweden is right on track to meet its carbon emission reduction goals. 
What most of their friends don’t know is that Erik and Airi have been on a quest for the last five years. Their goal has been to reduce their use of environrights, and, use their higher-than-average income to buy as many surplus environrights as they can afford on the open market. The plan is to spend them all visiting Airi’s relatives on a trip to Australia next year. It will be the trip of the decade and something they hope their children will remember and cherish for the rest of their lives. They both realise it might very well be the last intercontinental flight any of them every makes. Boats take an eternity but the passenger lines are conquering market shares from flight (on a shrinking market) every year with their comparatively low carbon footprint and low environrights price tag. While they regularly talk to their Australian relatives, it will be a blast to meet them in person, something only Airi has previously done.
Saving up environrights has forced them to reconsider their lifestyle and many small decisions has helped them save up. Their oldest kid wanted to practice karate, but there was no club nearby and they didn’t want to use money and environrights to book a car and give him a lift. The local judo club had to make do instead, and, the added benefit was that he made new friends there that they sometime bump into. It also really feels like a boost to the local community that people have more acquaintances, are more rooted and feel more solidarity with the part of city they live in. Judo instead of karate, but otherwise a win-win situation. If their son really wants to, he can switch to karate later, when he can use the public transportation system to get around the city by himself.
The biggest decision of theirs though has been to change their food habits. Since Erik and Airi have decent incomes, it makes sense for them to spend more money and fewer environrights buying relatively expensive products with a lower ecological footprint (and a corresponding lower price in environrights). They always buy wild game meat like boar instead of industrially produced pork when entertaining guest. Their children never drink cow milk and have seldom eaten dairy products since they have replaced it with oat milk and other suitable substitutes. The steep initial learning curve of always looking for locally produced food, this season’s food and alternative sources of protein (the children love beans) is now second nature to them. 
To the scenario above we added a few twists by writing no less than five very short "vignettes":

- I’m so worried about Vlad, he just turned 20 but he just plays computer games and never leaves home!
- I’m sure he will eventually meet a nice girl and settle down 
- No Elma, I really mean it. I worry for Vlad. He really never leaves home unless I force him to go out. He does meet people through his games but he’s very very shy around girls
- I understand. But at least his carbon emissions are really low and he isn’t costing you a fortune in carbon credits! And if he doesn’t have any kids, your retirement benefits will stay a lot higher in your old age. 

Darling, do you have any bills I need to pay?
Yes, the hospital bill just arrived. The surgery cost 1.34 tons of carbon emissions but we only have to pay for 147 kilos. Phew.

E-Tourism Wakitama
Welcome to E-tourism Wakitama, where our goal is to provide you the best vacation you’ve ever had, all with a low carbon footprint.
The best Virtual Reality designers are waiting for you to build your own customized vacation! Visit as many countries as you’d like – or even another planet!
“I loved my e-trip to Iceland! I got to camp out under the stars and see the Northern Lights – all without the cold temperatures and uncomfortable hostel stays.”
“Our week in e-Hawaii was fantastic. We got to observe an actual volcanic eruption, all from the safety of the E-Tourism Wakitama agency.”
“I have loved space ever since I was a child, but because of my epilepsy I knew I’d never get to be an astronaut. E-Tourism Wakitama let me customize my own dream vacation – exploring planets and even other galaxies! Within seconds I arrived at nearby solar systems and got to see nebulae up close. It was a very enjoyable and educational experience.”

- Eee, look at the tippies. They are so ugly and poor!
-  Yes, it’s disgusting and they smell too!
- Kids, please stop immediately. They perform a valuable social function and we should respect and cherish them for it. If they wouldn’t dig up the landfill to compost the organic waste, it would continue to ooze methane which is really bad for the climate. You really shouldn’t judge other people before you have walked a mile in their shoes and we don’t know why they lost their carbon credits. It could have been an accident, a fire that emitted a lot of carbon and they didn’t have carbon insurance. 

News flash:
The new system also brought new inner-European tensions: in the most recent scandal, Greece is suspected of having systematically underreported the carbon footprint of its islanders, in particular those of the Cyclades. 
Due to the social unrests that followed the sharp decrease in tourism, the Italian constitutional court has declared the Ghent carbon treaty non-constitutional. As a consequence, the Italian government threatens with the I-exit, including retreating its armed forces from the peace-keeping missions Sudan and Saudi Arabia. 
The so-called "Bratislava-group" (Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, and Romania) claims the non-availability of fine-grained carbon data and that it will only be able to report such data by 2040. 
The Portuguese government continues on the point that it will only participate in the Ghent treaty if its eucalyptus plantations count as carbon benefit and each Portuguese receives an extra 2 tons of yearly carbon credit. 
Finally, the French cattle farmers continue blocking Paris for the 6th week in a row, arguing that the gourmet cultural heritage should be exempt from the carbon budget.

Since "perfect is the enemy of good", I chose to stop here despite the fact that much more happened at the workshop. I have not mentioned the results (scenarios) from the other three groups, nor have I delved into some interesting comments from the wrap-up of the workshop (truth be told, my notes from the end of the workshop are pretty sketchy due to my cold and my cough catching up and depleting the very last of my energy resources). I'll be back in a few days with another blog post about the main conference.

onsdag 24 augusti 2016

Open letter to my dean - spare us from excessive administration!

Dear Dean of the KTH School of Computer Science and Communication.

As the person with the most prominent position in the KTH hierarchy that I have a personal relation to, I would like to draw your attention to a single act of administration. Not because this act of administration is large or important, but in fact because it is the exact opposite. I would like to draw your attention to this small act of administration because of its unimportance and the humdrum nature of having to force myself to learn how to catch and return (or at times dodge) such small acts of administration. Having small acts of administration lobbied at me and learning to return them on volley is part of the job I do besides the job I'm paid to do: to teach, to conduct research and to do public outreach. Having small acts of administration lobbied at me is distracting and they hinder me from concentrating on my real job. Do you care? Can you do something about it?

I would like to frame this letter by apologising in advance. I am sure that you would have preferred for me to convey the complaints below in a more discreet way, perhaps through a personal letter or in a meeting tête à tête. I feel that has already been tried by others before, but with scant results. Using political economist Albert Hirschman's terminology, I have here instead chosen the "voice" strategy (voicing my concerns) rather than the conformist "loyalty" strategy (not complaining, adapting to maladapted rules) from his 1970 book "Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. I also feel that these opinions can be expressed more forcefully in writing, where I have the luxury of carefully selecting my words and using as many of them as I need. I am sure we both agree it's a good thing Sweden is not Turkey and that we are fortunate to live in a country where an associate professor can choose the "voice" option to express his frank opinions without fear of reprisals. I finally feel I owe it to all professors in countries where "voice" is not a viable strategy to express my opinions as clearly and as forcefully as possible in an open letter and without preemptively adding too thick a layer of self-censorship.

I would finally like to take the opportunity to apologise for the perhaps at times irate tone of this letter. I can only defend that by referring to the simmering pent-up frustration and stress that made me write the letter in the first place. I know for a fact that the phenomena I write about here is the cause of various dark feelings among both me and my colleagues. Their frequency might also be increasing. See the blog post I wrote after attending our department's retreat back in June for more on that matter. I know this all is not your personal fault. I know that you know that this is a problem. I know that you, as the highest representative of the school, also suffer from the rigid application of stiff rules (for example when it comes to recruiting new faculty). I am very well aware of the fact that this is a problem that occurs not only at our school but all over KTH. It also occurs in places way beyond KTH and in many other professions (police, health care etc.) and a good read is David Bergman's Swedish-language text at The Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences on New Public Management (NPM) and "why striving for efficiency makes us inefficient"†. I know all these things and I still choose to address this letter to you personally. You are welcome to forward it to other Deans, to the University Director, to the President of the University or to whoever you think would benefit from reading it. I urge you (all) to treat this not as one problem among many, but as a prioritised problem that has to be "solved" (or at least ameliorated and then kept in check).


Me and my colleague Elina were last term asked to give a ph.d. course this coming autumn. The topic of the course is not important for the purposes of this letter, but I had in fact been bugged/invited to give that course several times before by the Director of Third Cycle (doctoral) Education ("FA") for the doctorate program in Mediated Communication (here's a useful Swedish-English glossary for various academic positions). I had been dragging my feet and it wasn't until he cornered both me and Elina at the same time that we agreed to give the course together.

Planning the course

The major part of the time spent preparing the course was spent on planning the course format and the course contentsFormat: how many credits, when will the course start and end, how often and what day of the week do we meet, how much text do we hand out before each seminar, how do we examine the ph.d. students and how, where and when do we disseminate information about the course? Contents: which seminar topics, what seminar structure and which literature? Furthermore, how do we maximise the expected quality of the course while not spending an inordinate amount of time planning it? These are issues that comes with the territory of planning and developing a ph.d. course - core tasks for a university teacher.

Anchoring the course

At the request of FA, we whipped together a 2-page course description before the summer. FA showed it to his, well, "boss" - the Director of Third Cycle Education at the School of Computer Science and Communication ("Super-FA"). Based on our course description they both approved the course within a day and we started to plan the course in ernest. We naively thought that with the approval of both Directors of doctoral studies, the only thing that formally remained to do was to "file" our course description so that a "course code" could be created. We were asked to fill out the (exceedingly simple) form for registering a third cycle course (my name, phone number, the name of the course in Swedish and English, the number of credits etc.). By sending that form to our local Educational Administration Manager, the course would be magicked into existence and exist in our computer systems. That seems reasonable and necessary to later be able to report that ph.d. student X has studied Y number of credits in partial fulfilment of a ph.d. degree as well as for the institution to later know that a course with this name had been given that year.


My colleague Elina submitted the form for registering the course on June 22, with two days to spare before my vacation started and another week to spare before Elina's vacation started. We honestly thought this was it and that we were finished with the formal side of creating the course. Our course had the approval of no less than two Directors of Third Cycle Education at our School, so what else could possibly be required?

We didn't hear anything back from the Educational Administration Manager until two weeks later, at a time when both me and Elina were on vacation (and despite the fact that mail sent to one of the School administration's "functional mail addresses" are supposed to have received a personal answer within 24 hours). In a one-sentence no-frills e-mail, the administrator informed us that "I also need the Swedish course plan in order to proceed with this matter". I have later come to realise that the English-language "course description" we wrote was aimed at prospective course participants but that we hadn't prepared (or been told that we needed to prepare) a Swedish-language "course plan" to satisfy the internal administrative needs of the School.

With both of us on vacation, Elina missed the fact that the asked-for form was attached at the very end of the e-mail and I, due to the brevity of the e-mail and the lack of contextual clues AND due to some additional (irrelevant and in this case misleading) information that had been included in the mail AND due to the particular way the request was formulated erroneously drew the conclusion that this request must refer back to some sort of mail exchange between Elina and the administrator that had happened when I was on vacation and that I had not been privy to.

Let me here point out that I, when I was a ph.d. student in Communication studies, spent considerable time at seminars where my doctoral colleagues or our elders poured over transcripts of taped recordings and used conversation analysis in their attempts to make sense of (for example) misunderstandings and breakdowns in conversations. It really shouldn't be possible for me to misunderstand and be befuddled by a supposedly simple mail exchange, but that is exactly what happened. (From Wikipedia: "Conversation analysis ... is an approach to the study of social interaction [that has later been] adapted to embrace more task- and institution-centered interactions, such as those occurring in doctors' offices, courts, law enforcement, helplines, educational settings, and the mass media.")

As apart from Elina, I did see the attachment and I concluded that the administrator must have appended the wrong document. The appended form was clearly part of of some sort of more administration-heavy process for setting up new undergraduate (first cycle) or graduate (second cycle) courses at our School and it couldn't possibly apply to us because all we wanted to do was to set up a ph.d. course that might be offered only once and with as few as half a dozen participants. Also, the form required the signature of the Director of First and Second Cycle Education at our School and that's clearly someone who would have nothing to do with Third Cycle Education and our ph.d. course. 

All of a sudden, I realised that I had no idea of what was required for setting up the course and that process seems to have become more complicated since the last time I gave a ph.d. course. Was the requested Swedish-language course plan just the first step in a longer process? And how important was it to fill out each field correctly? For example, what is the "organisational unit (code)" of the course? Or does that code refer to my department or to something else? These things are easier to figure out when at work but harder when on vacation. So how many emails would I have to send back and forth (§#@% on my vacation, dammit! &€*≈) to straighten this out? How urgent is this? So I'm trying to calculate: How much time should I spend on this? Will anyone ever actually read this document? Or will someone only glance at it, see that it nominally is a course plan and be satisfied to note that there exists information (no guarantees about the quality or accuracy) in each of the fields? Will this document just be filed on a server or in a cabinet and no one will ever look at it?

What seems eminently reasonable to the administrator who sent out the request can to the overworked recipient seem like a perfect example of the random, insatiable, capricious and inscrutable "needs" of an administration-heavy organisation. All at once my uncertainty increased and the process of setting up the course became a hassle - something that can give a calm teacher a mild headache but that hints at a sinkhole opening up under the feet of the nervous or overworked teacher. And if there is one thing I have learned during my 10+ years at KTH, that one thing is not to sink time into any administrative task before I know exactly what is being asked of me.

At that point I'm on a farm in the Swedish countryside, watering onions and mangold and herbs and taking care of rabbits and hens and kids, but I send back an answer the very same day. My answer is pure confusion and consists of three questions;
- The document is for undergraduate and graduate courses, is this really the correct document to fill out for a ph.d.-level course?
- I have not been privy to previous communication but it seems Elina submitted a course plan in English, are you asking us to translate that course plan (instead of filling out the not-quite-appropriate document we were handed)?
- Do we really need to fill out a course plan in Swedish if the course will be given in English?

All of my questions felt necessary due to a lack of contextual clues and to flawed assumptions (I for example believed that Elina had exchanged emails with the administrator and that Elina had handed in our English-language course plan). Despite my mounting irritation, I offered to translate the English-language course description Elina had handed in into Swedish if that was necessary, but this offer built on the assumption that she in fact had handed in the English-language course plan (which she hadn't). I also pointed out that both me and Elina were on vacation, that we weren't co-ordinated and that I would have little or no Internet access the following week.

The next mail from Educational Administration Manager arrives ten days later (July 14) - right when I said I would be offline. I read it later but the information in the mail does not make much sense to me due to a severe lack of shared situational awareness, so the mail goes unanswered. Individual words in the mail make sense and some sentences make sense, but others don't and it makes me feel like I'm the main character in a novel by Franz Kafka or Joseph Heller and that only a full-blooded idiot mucks around with these things because every time I ask for a clarification, things only get more confused.

I'm for example informed that "The course plan must be written in Swedish because the Swedish version needs to be approved by the [Super-]FA (the Director of Third Cycle Education at the School of Computer Science and Communication) and then be submitted for translation into English". But the Director has already read and approved our (English-language) course description, so why do we have to write a Swedish-language version that will then, most absurd of all, "be submitted for translation into English"? (And why not instad submit our English-language document for translation into Swedish?) We are also informed that "You have correctly identified that the form is suited for courses at the undergraduate and masters level, but there is no separate form for ph.d courses". This statement implies that the form I'm given is not suited for the task to which it has been put, but that it will do - for the purposes of the administrator. The form doesn't do anything at all for me, but the responsibility for filling it out has still been shifted to me. The flaws of the local administration (no suitable form) suddenly becomes my problem, but how did that happen so easily and surreptitiously?


I repeat that this is a tiny example of a random act of administration. You might think nothing of it. You might very well think that I'm making a mountain out of a molehill, but before I move on to suggestions for solutions, I would again like to emphasise that while the matter at hand is small, it points at much larger problems:

I have been persuaded to give a ph.d. course. What proportion of the preparations should be spent on working with planning the actual course and what proportion should be spent on pushing it through the administrative system? I am the first to admit that the time required for handling the administrative part probably is not that great if measured with a stop-watch, but the psychological burden of having to deal with this and other small acts of administration is disproportionate to the clock time involved. Here are a few aspects of what the psychological burden consists of:
- I get severely delayed emails right in the middle of my vacation about not having filled out a form that isn't suitable for the purpose to which it is being put. I don't get the explanations I need to fill out the form. So is this something I need to care about here and now? How much of a hurry is there, am I supposed to act on it immediately or can it wait until I'm back at work in August? And how do I un-see such a mail so as not to have it gnawing at the back of my mind when I'm on the beach with my kids?
- While this is a small matter, it represents a type of task that is a burden and that when multiplied by ten or a hundred contributes to frustration, stress, tension, fatigue and discontent. The book "Administration society" explains it better than I could:

"There is a correlation between the presence of illegitimate (unreasonable and unnecessary) tasks and stress, tension and fatigue. ... Another observation we have made is that administration seldom comes in the form of major planned changes, but consists of many small, limited tasks: an additional registration, two mouse clicks, a document or a new rule. Altogether all these small administrative tasks eventually however become a significant amount of extra work. Since this work is often invisible, it is neither accompanied by additional time to perform it or changed job descriptions, but is rather expected to be included, and tacked on top of the ordinary tasks. Increased production requirements in the public sector in conjunction with the increasing volume of administration has a significant impact on the pace and the work environment of many groups of employees" (Forsell & Ivarsson Westerberg 2014, p.239-241).

Small solutions

Small solutions are suggestions for solutions that would have made the particular problem I encountered easier, but that don't have any effect on the underlying system. Larger solutions do (see further below).

The first solution would have been for us to submit our English-language course description to the administrator who then proceeds to translate and fill out the Swedish-language course plan or to fill it out to the best of the administrator's ability and then asks us to complete whatever s/he can't.

The second and easiest solution would have been to refer to a webpage with a clear and concise checklist, a "how to create a ph.d. course for dummies" (preferably with another title though).

The third solution would be to preemptively provide better information. Nothing of what I write about above would have become an issue if the mail from the administrator had instead looked like this: 

"I'm sorry I did not have time to answer your email until now and I'm also sorry for having to bother you on your vacation. 
We are unfortunately required to file a Swedish-language course description (attached below). I know the form is not optimally adapted for ph.d. courses, but it's still the best we have. I have already filled out some fields and marked other fields in yellow (you can skip the rest). This is the only thing I need in order to be able to register the course and you can fix this when you come back from your vacation (as long as I get the form before the course starts). 
Have a nice vacation! 
Your friendly Educational Administration Manager."

The fourth solution might have solved the immediate problem at hand, but in a way that goes against what I myself believe in (and complain about in this letter). Let's say I set the timer on, well, 15 minutes. I fill out the Swedish-language course plan I have been provided with to the best of my ability. If that isn't very good, so be it. The important thing is for there to be seemingly-legitimate information in each field. Best case scenario: nobody ever reads the document and everybody is happy. Worst case scenario: The poor quality of the information I provide creates additional work for other people. This may or may not come back and bite me at a later point in time. It is not uncommon for me to feel as if this is the strategy that is chosen by (some) administrators who willy-nilly arbitrarily require me to jump through various hoops.


The suggestions above do nothing about the fact that more rules and procedures are added every year while nothing (or very little) is ever taken away. The suggestions above are useless for battling that trend and thus instead only suggest how to make the best of a bad situation. To understand how to solve the larger problem, a deeper analysis is needed.

One problem here is that the faculty are entrusted with managing their own time. That sounds good and it often is (I can choose to work from home when I like to), but it also means there are no limits. Whenever a small task is incrementally added to my job, my employer does that "for free". That small task just becomes one more thing I'm supposed to do as part of my job and does not add to the (monetary) costs of my employer. When new tasks are added to an administrator's job description, s/he still leaves the job at 17.00 and s/he will work tomorrow on what s/he didn't manage to accomplish today. If the pile of unfinished work grows, some non-essential task will have to go (for example by adding that task to each faculty member's work load). This example is not hypothetical. One colleague of mine questioned why he suddenly had to copy and archive his own receipts. Our School's Head of Administration said that this new approach "saved him half an administrator salary per year". The amount of administration was the same, but half an administrator had disappeared. So the administrative burden had just been divided into one hundred "invisible" parts and pushed in one hundred different direction to one hundred different persons (who all had higher salaries than an administrator has). Do you think this way of "solving" a problem is rational, sane, sustainable or decent? I can't do much about this because I'm just a lowly associate professor but I assume that you can, so will you?

From what I have observed, it always seem as if tasks that come from actors that are higher up or more central always take precedence over supporting the people "in the trenches" who do the actual work. That means that making sure that a form for a new ph.d. course is filled out always takes precedence over supporting the persons who will give the ph.d. course in question. Demanding that a member of the faculty provides the administrator with information tidbit X always takes precedence over supporting that person by not bothering him/her and instead looking up information tidbit X in a computer system that the administrator (or some fellow administrator) has access to. Why is that so?

I here don't shy away from comparing small act of administration to a mild form of violence or psychological terror that I as a teacher have to endure at the hands of maladjusted administrative routines and structures, lack of clear communication and most of all, an appalling lack of sufficient administrative support to help me manage my job. Instead of the administration supporting me, it often feels like I'm supporting the administration:

"the bureaucrat's ability to remain completely unaware of the university teacher's understanding of any situation, the teachers's [subsequent] inability to say [or affect] anything even when she becomes aware of some dire practical flaw in the bureaucrat's reasoning, the forms of blindness or stupidity that result, the fact these oblige the teacher to devote even more energy trying to understand and anticipate the bureaucrat's confused perceptions ... Ultimately it's about participating in the process that shuts them up."

I want to emphasise that it is not always this bad, but the quote points at an asymmetry in interpretative labor; I have to devote time, energy and imagination to try to figure out exactly what an administrator wants from me and why (see the example above), but that administrator seldom or never seems to devote any time, energy or imagination to trying to figure out what I need - not even when just a little would go a long way towards maximising the chance that the administrator would get the information s/he requires in return. Another example of this comes from America in the 1950s when "Women with no access to their own income or resources obviously had no choice but to spend a great deal of time and energy [attempting to understand] what their menfolk thought" (Graeber 2015, p.69). The euphemistic term "asymmetry in interpretative labor" basically means that the power relations between administrators and faculty are heavily skewed in favour of the administrators and in favour of the increasing elaborate systems of rules that in their turn rule the lives of administrators and faculty alike.

This is probably an important reason for why I could provide you with many examples of interaction between faculty and administrators that draw much ire from the faculty. At my department's retreat before the summer, it turned out that ""what upsets us" is closely related to (the lack of) Rationality, e.g. many of my colleagues feel that the rules and regulations we have to follow don't really help us, but rather hinders us from doing our jobs".

I thought it was an exaggeration, but one of my colleagues said (in a small-group discussion at the retreat) that "during the last 10 years, administrative functions has ceased to support our work. Now we do everything ourselves and we are slaves under the administration". It is of course absurd to compare our situation with slavery, but, I have to admit that I fudged the quote above by exchanging the word "slave" for "university teacher" and "master" for "administrator". Here's the original quote:

"the master's ability to remain completely unaware of the slave's understanding of any situation, the slave's inability to say anything even when she becomes aware of some dire practical flaw in the master's reasoning, the forms of blindness or stupidity that result, the fact these oblige the slave to devote even more energy trying to understand and anticipate the master's confused perceptions ... Ultimately it's about participating in the process that shuts them up" (Graeber 2015, p.103).

Large solutions

There are power asymmetries at play here and the greatest one is not really between faculty and local administrators (who just happen to be unwilling or unwitting "hit men"), but between on the one hand locally adapted rule sets and self-determination and on the other hand the "needs" of the larger organisation and meddlesome external stakeholders:

"Instead of looking to satisfy external stakeholders' needs or the needs of the organization, identify what the needs of the operations are and what those who work with the issues in question demand. It is rare for the personnel to ask for new control systems, measurement models or crisis management plans. Instead embrace a bottom-up rather than a top-down approach. The administrative perspective should not have the prerogative of formulating the problems to be solved. Administration should support the operations - not the other way around." (Forsell and Ivarsson Westerberg 2014, p.246.)

I have to point out that the tension between locally-adapted rule sets versus rule sets that come "from above" has been the red line that runs through the research that garnered Elinor Ostrom (1990) the 2009 Nobel memorial prize in economic sciences. She spent decades refining her understanding of how communities themselves sustainably govern their commons (e.g. the natural resources they depend on) in ways vastly superior to the alternatives of being regulated by distant state actors or by individualistic market solutions that divvied up the commons (Bradley and Pargman 2017). One example of her "design principles" for how to manage common resources is the common-sense idea that rules should be adapted to local conditions. It's doesn't have to be more complicated than that. Another great quote/advice from Forsell and Ivarsson Westerberg (2014, p.247-248) is:

"You should trust the professionals. Many professional ... have specialist university-level training, strong norms about how work should be conducted, and a relatively high degree of autonomy. In short, these are self-motivated, qualified coworkers. Controlling their work forcefully runs the risk of going against their professional standards and sends signals from management that they are not trusted. Moreover, it is possible to discuss whether their time is used correctly if the control systems that are in place generate administrative work that displaces core work tasks so that highly skilled groups of employees spend their time administering instead of using their skills ... Instead of trying to control activities that are characterized by professionalism and where those who do the work itself possess the greatest knowledge and understanding, perhaps a greater responsibility for organizational decisions should be handed over to them." (p.247-248.)

Just as this open letter is cry for help as well as an act of resistance, I ask you, in your role as Dean, to protest, fight against and resist decrees that have obvious (hidden) costs and only small or no benefits for the people "in the trenches". The costs of excessive administration is sometimes neither hidden nor small. What for example are the costs of having a colleague suffer from burnout? Beyond the personal costs that the individual has to bear, that also puts colleagues and the department into a dicey situation as resources have to be freed up and reallocated to cover for acute as well as more long-term effects. So I urge you not only to resist the gradual increase of administrative tasks in general, but to also tell us about your acts of resistance and (hopefully) about your victories. You would be our hero. Also, please read Forsell and Ivarsson Westerberg's book "Administrationssamhället" [Administration society] as well as my paper "Refactoring Society: Systems Complexity in an Age of Limits". Here's the abstract:

"Research in sociology, anthropology, and organizational theory indicates that most societies readily create increasingly complex societal systems. Over long periods of time, accumulated societal complexity bears costs in excess of benefits, and leads to a societal decline. In this paper we attempt to answer a fundamental question: what is the appropriate response to excessive sociotechnical complexity? We argue that the process of refactoring, which is commonplace in computing, is ideally suited to our circumstances today in a global industrial society replete with complex sociotechnical systems. We further consider future directions for computing research and sustainability research with the aim to understand and help decrease sociotechnical complexity."


In KTH's vision for our 200th anniversary ("Vision 2027"), the very first sentence states that KTH will be one of the leading technical universities in Europe. Let's put humbleness aside for now and state that KTH's vision is to be an elite university. An often-neglected aspect is than an elite university needs an elite administration (and elite administrators) as well as (not too many) elite rules and elite routines. How do we get there? I am personally afraid that there is an imminent risk that talk about how great we are (or will be) can replace supporting KTH faculty to actually do great things. High-level representations of what constitutes quality (as expressed by checklists, policies, reports, inquiries, audits) might replace the actual delivery of quality in our everyday operations. My apprehension draws on Alan Kay's fears about education in the 21st century:

"education in the 20th century is like being taken to the world's greatest restaurant and being fed the meny. ... representations of ideas have replaced the ideas themselves ... In the near future ... will we be able to get from the meny to the food? Or will we no longer understand the difference between the two? Worse, will we lose even the ability to read the meny and be satisfied just to recognize that it is one?" (Kay 1991).

Will we be satisfied with having a top-notch quality assurance system in place no matter what we actually measure, let alone the connection between that which is measured and "quality"? Will we come to identify quality as a matter of crossing all the t's and dotting the i (filling out and sending endless flows of forms back and forth) or as something else - something more fundamental?

You might dismiss the whole premise of this letter; "surely you exaggerate, this is just one small example". Anything more would require too much time and effort to write down, but, this one example feels fairly typical of what the interaction between faculty and administration at times can look like. Me and colleagues of mine can provide you with numerous other examples. I am sure we are all united in our commitment to doing a good jobs, but we do live in different worlds. It's not that men are from Mars and women are from Venus (as a popular book from the 1990's claimed), but that faculty lives on Earth and tries to solve acute and practical problems in the here-and-now while the administration seems to live on the far side of the Moon and also seems to have an unhealthy commitment to assuring that we all serve the alien absentee Vogon landlord-overlords from the Andromeda galaxy (Adams 1995). But let me assure you that my problem in general isn't with administrators, but with administration. If the primary allegiance of an administrator is towards the rules rather than towards the faculty, then I do have a problem with that particular administrator though.

I'm not sure it's correct, but a colleague told me you dismissively said that the majority of complaints at our School comes from one department in particular - the Department of Media Technology and Interaction Design (MID). I would suggest that many of us at MID have studied Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and Interaction Design (ID) so that we can teach our students to design and care about functional and pleasurable User Experiences (UX) as a way of making the world a better place (Bødker and Sundblad 2008). The issue at hand is therefore larger than the frustration of having to live with a deeply dysfunctional administrative system. To have to adapt to such systems is an affront to our professional selves and goes against everything we strive to instill in our students.

The Swedish Higher Education Act states that our Master of Science in Engineering students must "demonstrate the ability to develop and design products, processes and systems that take human conditions and needs into consideration as well as society's objectives for economically, socially and ecologically sustainable development". But how can we maintain our credibility and teach that to our students if our own internal processes and systems do not take the conditions and needs of the faculty into regard? And how can it be economically OR socially OR ecologically sustainable to have the whole university kneel under the yoke of an ever-increasing (no end in sight) administrative burden?

Our department was instrumental in gestating the Scandinavian tradition of HCI back in the 1970s and the 1980s (Bødker et. al. 1987). The well-known 1981-1985 Utopia project that some of your predecessors worked on (Sundblad 2010) was part of the activist vanguard at the intersection of HCI, workplace studies, user involvement and workers' rights to have access to functional and appropriate tool to be able to do their jobs. Does that not compel you to be our digital champion and the primus inter pares ("first among equals") who protects and fights for your faculty's rights to have access to functional and appropriate tool that enable us to do our jobs to the best of our abilities (and for the greater glory of KTH)?

Daniel Pargman, Associate Professor in Media Technology


Adams, D. (1995). The hitch hiker's guide to the galaxy: A trilogy in five parts. Random House.

Bradley, K. and Pargman, D. (forthcoming 2017). The sharing economy as the commons of the 21st century. Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society - special issue on "Sharing Economies? Theories, practices and impacts".

Bødker, S. Ehn, P., Kammersgaard, J., Kyng, M., & Sundblad, Y. (1987). A Utopian Experience. In Bjerknes, G., Ehn, P., Kyng, M. Computers and Democracy - a Scandinavian Challenge. Aldershot, UK: Avebury, pp. 251–278.

Bødker, S. and Sundblad, Y. (2008). Usability and interaction design - new challenges for the Scandinavian tradition. Behaviour & Information Technology, Vol.27, No.4, pp.293-300

Forsell, A. and Ivarsson Westerberg, A. (2014). Administrationssamhället [Administration society]. Studentlitteratur.

Graeber, D. (2015). The Utopia of rules: On technology, stupidity, and the secret joys of bureaucracy. Melville House.

Hirschmann, A. O. (1970). Exit, voice and loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. Cambridge.

Kay, A. C. (1991). Computers, networks and education. Scientific American, 265(3), 138-148.

Ostrom, Elinor (1990). Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge University Press.

Raghavan, B. and Pargman, D. (2016). Refactoring society: Systems complexity in an age of limits. In Proceedings of the Second Workshop on Computing within Limits. ACM.

Sundblad, Y. (2010). UTOPIA: Participatory Design from Scandinavia to the World. In IFIP Conference on History of Nordic Computing. Springer Berlin Heidelbergm pp.176-186.


This letter focuses on one small act of administration. There are many others. A current example is our department's Monday morning meetings that died due to excessive administrative demands and insufficient administrative support. The structure of tasking the department's six different teams with buying breakfast on a rolling schedule was a source of discontent and ultimately became unworkable. It did not make any sense in the first place to hold senior faculty members (research team leaders) responsible for buying bread and juice every sixth weeks and there were the inevitable slip-ups and empty breakfast tables. The demands on half a dozen research leaders (or whoever the task had been delegated to) to not just hand in receipts, but the fact that we were supposed to (for the purpose of taxing benefits) hand in lists of every person who attended each weekly breakfast meeting was beyond absurd. I never handed in a single receipts and instead sponsored KTH by paying for my colleagues' breakfast once or twice per term. I do realise that the rules in question were not invented by KTH, but by the Swedish Tax Agency, but it is especially in situations such as these that I want all the smart people who run KTH to find ways to refute, resist, avoid or minimise the damage of (such) senseless demands on increased administration. Let's face it, external stakeholders will never step back; they will always be quick to ask for more information just because they can, and they never step up and pay the multidimensional costs (time, money, frustration etc.) that follow from inventing new ways to harass KTH and its employees.

† David Bergman has also published a very relevant text (in Swedish) on "Certification hysteria". What is most interesting is however that his texts are published on the official homepage of The Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences as well as republished on The Swedish Defence Forces' official blog portal. Such analysis and critique is apparently appreciated over there and I hope that is the case also at KTH. So I would like to state that I am open to suggestions for rewriting and republishing this text in one of the KTH magazines or newsletters (KTH Magazine, Campi, Numera). I certainly hope we are allowed not only to publish "positive" and uplifting news there, because the most important step for improving an organisation is of course first to admit that there are opportunities for improvements, e.g. that there does exist problems (as all organisations have).

April 2017: Here's someone else who got tired and decided to quit for much the same reasons I complain above.

söndag 14 augusti 2016

Books I've read (mid-nov - mid-Dec)

Both books below are about social media and I read them not because I chose to but because I had to. They constituted the course literature in a course about social media that I unwillingly had to teach due to an acute "crisis" (something unexpected happened and we are understaffed... permanently, it seems). Here's the previous blog post about books I have read. The asterisks represent the number of quotes from the each book (see further below).

**** "Networked: The new social operating system" (2012) is written by Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman but despite being only three years old (when I read it last year) it already feels aged and past its peak (the students in question agreed). Also, I have for the longest of time had huge problems with sociologist Wellman's ideas about community (or "community") in the age of suburbs and community in the age of the Internet (in fact ever since I wrote my ph.d. thesis two decades ago). His ideas about community seem to be that community is whatever way we meet with relatives, friends and neighbours. If we meet seldom and most often by phone or the Internet, well then that is what community is like in the 21st century and it doesn't matter that that is a total reversal of what community has always been before modernity, urbanisation and other developments during the 20th century reshaped how we live, work, pray, socialise (etc.).

The book has some not-too-exciting statistics (from 2011 and earlier) and two "big ideas" (≠ praise); "networked individualism" and "the triple revolution". It also has an underlying rah-rah (unproblematic and unproblematizing) attitude about the benefits of the Internet. I could write (much) more about the book and almost all of it would be critical (did I mention that it was boring?) and therefore I won't. To sum it up, I didn't feel the book had a lot of depth or that it contained any particularly exciting (new) ideas. If it was up to me, this book would definitely not be used as course literature in our course any longer. From the back cover:

"Our perpetual connectedness gives us endless opportunities to be part of the give-and-take of networking. Some worry that this new environment makes us isolated and lonely. But in "Networked", Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman show how the large, loosely knit social circles of networked individuals expand opportunities for learning, problem solving, decision making, and personal interaction. The new social operating system of "networked individualism" liberates us from the restrictions of tightly knit groups; it also requires us to develop networking skills and strategies, work on maintaining ties, and balance multiple overlapping networks. Rainie and Wellman outline the "triple revolution" that has brought on this transformation: the rise of social networking, the capacity of the Internet to empower individuals, and the always-on connectivity of mobile devices."

********* I habitually think of "Spreadable media: Creating value and meaning in a networked culture" (2013, http://spreadablemedia.org) as being written by (only) Henry Jenkins (Wikipediapersonal blog) while he in fact also has two co-authors, Sam Ford and Joshua Green. This book about social media is definitely more interesting than Rainie and Wellman's (above) and I kind of think of it as the next instalment after Jenkins previous book "Convergence Culture: Where old and new media collide" (2006). The previous book is naturally somehow aged by now (but we used in our education for several years). I still think "Convergence culture" was a better book (when it came) than "Spreadable media" is, since it felt more focused and "tight" than the latter. Still, it's not bad. I especially like the ear-to-the-ground analysis of concrete events that many of us are familiar with but haven't thought as deeply about as Jenkins et. al. have. One example is the thoughtful analysis of the ugly duckling story of Susan Boyle and her unexpected breakthrough on "Britain's Got Talent". You have all probably seen the audition (currently 196+ million views) where her incredible voice trumps her decidedly humdrum frumpy-housewife look.

Where Rainie & Wellman talk about "networked individualism", Jenkins et. al. instead talk about "networked culture". Even though Rainie and Wellman's individualism is "networked", the perspective is still decidedly individualistic and focuses on how the Internet ("the triple revolution", "the new social operating system" etc.) empowers the individual. The perspective of Jenkins et. al. instead focuses on groups, on cultures, on information and on emerging phenomena which just happens to be the more fruitful and interesting perspective. From the back cover of the book:

"Spreadable media maps fundamental changes taking place in our contemporary media environment, a space where corporations no longer tightly control media distribution and many of us are directly involved in the circulation of content. It contrasts "stickiness" - aggregating attention in centralized places - with "spreadability" - dispersing content widely through both formal and informal networks, some approved, many unauthorized. ... Spreadable media argues that if it doesn't spread, it's dead. Challenging the prevailing frameworks used to describe contemporary media, from biological metaphors like "memes" and "viral" to the concept of "Web 2.0" ... the book examines the nature of audience engagement, the way appraisal creates value, and the transnational flows at the heart of these phenomena."


 ----- On the Internet (and social media) as a liberating force in society ----- 
"we wonder about the folks who keep moaning that the internet is killing society. They sound just like those who worried generations ago that TV or automobiles would kill sociability, or sixteenth-century fears that the printing press would lead to information overload. While oy vey-ism - crying "the sky is falling," makes for good headlines - it isn't true. The evidence in our work is that none of these technologies are isolated - or isolating - systems. ... People are not hooked on gadgets - they are hooked on each other. ... In the world of networked individuals, it is the person who is the focus: not the family, not the work unit, not the neighbourhood, and not the social group."
Rainie, H., & Wellman, B. (2012). Networked, p.6

 ----- We have absolutely nothing to fear from "the Internet" ----- 
"some analysts fear that people's lesser involvement in local community organizations - such as church groups and bowling leagues - means that we live in a socially diminished world where trust is lower, societal cohesion is reduced, loneliness is widespread, and people's collective capacity to help one another is at risk. While such fears go back at least one hundred fifty years, the coming of the internet has increased them and added new issues: Are people huddling alone in front of their screens? If they are connecting with someone online, is it a vague simulacrum of real community with people they could have seen, smelled, heard, and touched in the "good old days"? The evidence suggests that those with such fears have been looking at the new world through ta cloudy lens."
Rainie, H., & Wellman, B. (2012). Networked, p.8

 ----- On the Social Network, Internet, and Mobile Revolutions ----- 
"the Social Network, Internet, and Mobile Revolutions are coming together to shift people's social lives away from densely knit family, neighborhood, and group relationships toward more far-flung, less tight, more diverse personal networks. ... First, the Social Network Revolution has provided the opportunities - and stresses - for people to reach beyond the world of tight groups. ... Second, the Internet Revolution has given people communications power and information-gathering capacities that dwarf those of the past. ... Third, the Mobile Revolution has allowed ICTs to become body appendages allowing people to access friends and information at will, wherever they go."
Rainie, H., & Wellman, B. (2012). Networked, p.11-12

 ----- On physically being there but mentally being elsewhere ----- 
"One caution is that intensive ICT use means that people can be physically in one place while their social attention and communication focus is elsewhere - a state that social psychologist Kenneth Gergen calls "absent presence." This can create awkward, annoying social discontinuities as people "leave" the group they are physically a part of to take a call or respond to a text message from someone afar. "Distracted driving" has become a policy concern, with states and provinces are outlawing holding a mobile phone while driving."
Rainie, H., & Wellman, B. (2012). Networked, p.102

 ----- On media piracy ----- 
"we are reserving the term "pirate" in this book for people who profit economically from the authorized sale of content produced by others. ... piracy is as much a consequence of the market failure of media companies to make content available in a timely and desirable manner as it is a consequence of the moral failure of audience members seeking meaningful content by hook or by crook if it is not legally available. ... the appropriation and recirculation of even entire works may sometimes work in the best interest of not only the culture at large but also of the rights holders."
Jenkins, H., Ford, S., & Green, J. (2013). Spreadable media, p.16

 ----- On the tension between YouTube (or Facebook) as a sharing platform and as a business model ----- 
"many corporate practice effectively erode the line between "collective (non-market, public) and commercial (market, private) modes of production." Such efforts "cleverly combine capital-intensive, profit-oriented industrial production with labor-intensive, non-profit-oriented peer production" ... various struggles to negotiate between YouTube as a platform for sharing and YouTube as a business model - which have taken place since the plattform's genesis - encapsulate the tension that run throughout the Web 2.0 model."
Jenkins, H., Ford, S., & Green, J. (2013). Spreadable media, p.51-52

 ----- On commodity vs gift cultures ----- 
"A "barn raising" might be considered a classic example of the social exchange of labor. In this nineteenth-century social ritual, established members of a community gathered to welcome newcomers and help them establish a homestead. ... Insert commercial logic into any aspect of a barn raising, and we alter the meaning ... creating discomfort for participants. Suppose the newcomers refused to join in on the work, seeing their neighbors' labor as an entitlement for purchasing land in the area. ... Suppose they sold outside economic interest the rights to sell snacks and drinks to those who were laboring or sold information about their neighbors which would give these outside interests advantages in future economic exchanges. Or suppose they were to seek to use their neighbors' labor to complete other tasks around their property... As absurd as such exploitative arrangements seem in the context of a barn raising, they are taken for granted in the Web 2.0 model, as companies generate revenue through monetizing the attention created by user-generated content."
Jenkins, H., Ford, S., & Green, J. (2013). Spreadable media, p.63-64

 ----- On fractured organisations behind the unified corporate brand ----- 
"Often, the marketing functions of a company have little, if any, connections to IT, legal, or customer service. Each of these divisisions reports to a different part of corporate leadership and resides on a different campus; their leaders may only be vague acquaintances. To the customer, all these touchpoints constitute "one brand." Yet, internally, this fractured communications represents contradictory logics and competing measures of success with little internal alignment or collaboration. For instance, while marketing departments are charged and measured by how many ways the can "engage" the customer ... customer service departments are often measured by how quickly they can disengage with the customer, by metrics of efficiency (how many calls can be answered in an hour, for example).
Jenkins, H., Ford, S., & Green, J. (2013). Spreadable media, p.179

 ----- On appropriate technologies ----- 
"Hybrid systems of communications, especially those between higher- and lower-tech media, bridge literacy gaps i immigrant communities. To cite a historical example, Jewish immigrants working in sweatshops in New York at the turn of the twentieth century would hire someone to read books, newspapers, and magazines aloud to them while they worked. ... There is a strong tradition in policy literature about the developing world of talking about "appropriate technologies" - that is, technologies which accommodate the skills and needs of local populations, are sustainable, respect their environments, and take full advantage of the affordances of often limited technical infrastructures and resources."
Jenkins, H., Ford, S., & Green, J. (2013). Spreadable media, p.191

 ----- On particaptory culture as consumption vs cultural production/circulation ----- 
"Facebook and other social network sites often operate as the digital equivalent of gated communities, protecting participants from online contact with people outside their social circle as much as enabling easier and quicker communications with their friends and families. ... If, like som skeptics, we see participatory culture as "consumptive behavior by a different name," then we should ... see the digital divide as no more consequential than the gap in who owns fancy cars. If we see participatory culture, though, as a vital step toward the realization of a century-long struggle for grassroots communities to gain greater control over the means of cultural production and circulation - if we see participation as the work of publics and not simply of markets and audiences - then opportunities to expand participation are struggle we must actively embrace through our work, whether through efforts to lover economic and technical obstacles or to expand access to media literacies."
Jenkins, H., Ford, S., & Green, J. (2013). Spreadable media, p.192-193

 ----- On particaptory culture as consumption vs cultural production/circulation ----- 
"Traditional branding theory has valued controlling meaning rather than inspiring circulation. Some longtime Madison Avenue types are likely to sputter in rage at the idea that audiences might appropriate and rework their messages ... They worry about losing control when, in fact, they never had it. As this book has detailed, today's spreading behaviors reflect much older patterns in how people have received and discussed media texts. Only now, people's exchanges are much more visible, occurring at a greater scale and frequency as a greater portion of society taps into the online world. ... Perhaps the only way to retain complete control over the meaning of a text is never to share it with anyone. 
Jenkins, H., Ford, S., & Green, J. (2013). Spreadable media, p.201-202

 ----- On the pros and cons of media/online piracy ----- 
"Pirates' ruthless mercantilism, include a willingness to sell anything to anyone whether or not they have the legal right to do so, makes them as much advocates of capitalism as resisters of its regulatory regimes. As the Nollywood [Nigerian film industry] example suggests, pirate culture may ultimately be the founation on which legal industries and institutions are formed, allowing poorer countries a chance to gain ground without having to bear the full costs of investment in production."
Jenkins, H., Ford, S., & Green, J. (2013). Spreadable media, p.268-269

 ----- On the Internet creating connections *and* disconnections ----- 
"In some ways, it may [be] easier for the digital elites in, say, India, Japan, Nigeria, Brazil, Iran, and the United States to communicate with each other than it is for them to communicate with lower-income, rural, or less-educated residents of their own countries - in part because access to networked computers carries with it so many other implications about economic level, educational background, cultural cosmopolitanism, travel, and trade which separate "the digerati" from their fellow countryfolk."
Jenkins, H., Ford, S., & Green, J. (2013). Spreadable media, p.287

onsdag 10 augusti 2016

On writing (academic papers)

My last two blog posts have been about the texts I have worked on during the first half of this year and I have definitely upped the game compared to, well, forever. This blog post constitutes another take on writing but this time in the form of a reflection on writing in general and on my writing in particular. This text also ties back to a question I got on Facebook in relation to the previous two blog posts: "What's your magic trick for being so productive?".

Well, a first take on answering that question is that I haven't always been. I was reminded of that when I was the opponent at Per Fors' licentiate seminar before the summer. His way of writing reminded me of mine way back when I was a ph.d. student (as well as later). The "culprit" in my case (and perhaps in Per's) was excessive freedom from any constraints. This had in Per's case resulted in four articles about wildly different topics and with very little overlap (World Systems Theory, gamification, eco-ethics, entrepreneurship). I was perhaps not that wild but I recognise the pattern and the result is the same - "opening new doors" = having to read up on a new corpus for each new article you want to write. The alternative is leveraging what you already have and aiming for "pursuing the next step" (i.e. breadth vs depth). I would have wanted someone to have told me this when I was a ph.d. student because that would have saved me a lot of time (and some anguish). Not all doors are worth opening compared to returning to an already-opened door.

One example of a new door I opened happened only six or seven years ago and it is unfortunately and in retrospect a perfect example of wasted time. I happened to stumble upon this really interesting Chinese student who had been in Sweden for half a year while writing up his master's thesis about Internet censorship in China (my colleague and next door neighbour Leif Dahlberg had been his Swedish advisor/support person). I guess most people aren't aware of the fact that the Chinese state forces Internet Service Providers to hire personnel to police and censor their own Internet fora (discussion groups etc.).

This Chinese student had studied the actual censors and had interviewed them about their jobs, about their lives and about their opinions in regards to Internet content and the censorship they themselves performed on a daily basis. Most censors were recent university graduates and many had originally had high hopes for being able to "reform the Internt from within" and "raise the bar" (e.g. create more rather than less space for discussions). That didn't happen though and some had become disillusioned or even depressed. They worked and lived in dorm-like set-ups and did nothing but scan Internet discussions all day long and give each discussion a "thumbs up" or a "thumbs down" (censor, pull off the Internet). The master's student was particularly interested in the censors' self image and things like that and I do believe his thesis topic was unique. Even the hackneyed google-translated version I read had parts that were fascinating, even riveting, as were the implications.

We decided to team up and find an angle from which to write an English-language academic article together. I was super-ambitious and printed a couple of hundred of pages of texts/articles about the Internet in China and about Internet censorship in China and elsewhere, but, it became too much and nothing came out of it in the end (but I could perhaps be convinced to write a full blog post about it at some point). The whole project just demanded too much time - too much time to sink into a single article (no matter how interesting the subject matter was). That's the risk you take when you stray too far away from subject matters you have already worked on and are on top of; the cost-benefit ratio can turn sour (cost = immense amounts of time, benefit = one single article).

I nowadays try to stay away from blunders like that and the blunder in question was to do something radically different, something with little or no overlap with what I had already done before and that demanded me to become an expert on something I hardly knew anything at all about beforehand. Or rather, I would approach the whole thing differently today and my first priority would be to try to identify a third person to cooperate with and who could help make the article happen. Who do I know, or, who could I get to know that knows about and have written about these (or related) topics? I don't have to be the first (or the second) author, the important thing is rather to make sure it happen (instead of wasting time on running down blind alleys). For each writing project, each person involved should bring something to the table and we should in hindsight have invited a third person to the Internet censorship table. Since it's my great fortune to be good at the craft of structuring and crafting texts, I can more or less always bring something to the table. Writing a blog is also a great way to practice your ability to write... everybody should have one... :-)

When I was a ph.d. student I wrote almost everything by myself. That has changed totally since and I find that cooperating with others is generally a good idea. I of course realise that the chances of being able to team up with others are much better if you are a professor compared to being a ph.d. student. 1) You just have better networks and 2) a better feeling for what ideas or empirical material is exciting or "good enough" to turn into a paper. You also 3) have a much better feeling for how long it takes to write a paper and are of course also 4) better at the actual craft of writing academic papers. Since you 5) know more and have read more, you are also more versatile and better at covering (or covering up) various rather just a few academic areas and 6) on taking on various roles in a writing project. Finally you are 7) of course also much more familiar with your own strengths and weaknesses and that is in itself a strength.

Here I will shift to discuss my collaboration with Elina Eriksson since I have written numerous texts together with her by now. As I wrote in the previous blog post, we have together worked on no less than 10 texts during the spring term and we most often together take on the roles of first-and-second-author when we write texts together with others. A particularly dicy period for us happened in mid-May when we managed to submit no less than four articles to two different conferences in less than a week. We submitted two articles to the 8th conference on Engineering Education for Sustainable Development (EESD 2016) on May 15 and then submitted two more full articles to the 9th Nordic Conference on Human-Computer Interaction (NordiCHI’16) on May 19. The fact that the two latter articles were later rejected does not distract from the feat of managing to submit them both only four days after the previous deadline.

These four papers had three, five, five and fifteen co-authors respectively and me and Elina were the first-and-second authors of three of the papers and the first-and-third authors of the last paper. There was furthermore no overlap at all between the 20 co-authors we cooperated with (e.g. each person we collaborated with was a co-author on only one of these four papers). For these four papers, me and Elina were thus "the spiders in the web", pulling people together and in general just making things happen. So what's the secret sauce? There just has to be processes and habits in place to make it all happen, right? Right.

I'm not sure exactly how many "writing projects" me and Elina have cooperated on by now. Taking into account conference papers, workshop proposals, position papers and research grant applications, I estimate that we have worked on at least 20 or 25 during the last few years (as well as many other projects for example concerning teaching) and we have a process in place that is both flexible and structured and that helps us get things out of the door.

It usually starts with a shared Google document. The next step is a meta-text in the form of a list with different nested levels: "We should first do this. This consists of three things of which the first is..." Kind of like the outline of a computer program now that I come to think of it. Here's an example from a text we are working on right now:

Other things we discuss early and recurrently in the writing process is: Who is going to be the first author (will take ultimate responsibility for the writing project)? What's the core/the basic point we want to get across? Which different parts does the project (text) consist of? Do they fit together? Do they work towards the point we are trying to make with this paper? How long should each part be? Who will take responsibility for the different parts (or for having the first pass at the different parts)? Do the transitions between the different parts in the text work? What should we start working on right now and what can wait until later? When will we meet next? What should have been done by then?

While there are many parts to writing a text as well as different roles (from generating ideas to correcting spelling mistakes and working with the formatting of the paper), me and Elina can each cover several of these roles but we also have specific complementary abilities and skills. I'm more crippled by a blank sheet of paper (harbouring endless possibilities - but which should I choose and where should I start (.o0 feeling anxiety)) while Elina quickly can squeeze out something that sometimes is good and sometimes half-assed.  It has happened more than once that she jots down something I don't quite agree with, thereby forcing me to immediately engage in, clarify and correct her "outrageous" draft. She doesn't necessarily write a great text at the first pass, but it's a start and it gets us going. I am on the other hand better at producing precise and beautifully elaborated formulations that clarify, develop and embellish a sentence or a paragraph. But sometimes I overwork the text and the sentences become too long, awkward or cumbersome by making use of (too many) parentheses or obliquely sprouting obscure references to decades-old popular culture or stories from the bible or whatever. Then Elina swoops in and cleans up or just points out problematic passages or aspects of my overworked messiness. Other functions/roles can be performed by both of us, for example moving a text along from a commented meta-text (see the example above) to a perfectly functional running text.

Since me and Elina have a well-oiled process in place for cranking out texts, it is nowadays easy for us to accept the responsibility (first-and-second authorship) for a new paper or a workshop proposal. We are becoming (or have already become) a high-powered writing duo. While many parts of the process as described above is in place also when I work with others people (for example with my colleague Björn Hedin), it has not matured to the level of my writing partnership with Elina due to the simple fact that mine and Björn's research interests overlap to a lesser extent than mine and Elina's. Also (and therefore), me and Björn just haven't written anywhere near as much together as me and Elina have.

One final reflection is that I have for the longest of times noted that my way of approaching a writing project has changed radically compared to when I was a ph.d. student. Back then I just sat down and started to write. Then I went back and rewrote. Sometimes I wrote similar things in more than one place and I then had to at a late-ish point in time compare, move, edit and reconcile different parts of the text. It happened more than once that I submitted an abstract (paper proposal) that later turned out to be unworkable (too ambitious, too complicated, required me read up on new areas etc.). A lot of work went into writing each text.

Nowadays I instead spend a lot of time planning and thinking and only then progressively start to extend the text according to the plan (going from a sketch to meta-text about what I want to say in this and in that section of the text and then extending it to running text). I nowadays always plan (or at least sketch out) the whole paper before I write an abstract (see for example this and this abstract (paper). I even plan more or less how long the different parts of a text should be before I start to write them. It might sound burdensome but it in fact exactly the opposite - it is liberating! It is much easier to write the "background" or the "methods" part of the paper if you have already decided how many pages you are aiming for compared to having a blank sheet in front of you, pondering at what granularity you should describe your research methods. I have thus switched from writing (for example my ph.d thesis) in a bottom-up manner to nowadays always writing my texts by way of a top-down process. This can at times make it frustrating and difficult for me to work with people who have a more bottom-up-ish way of working. Either we work my way (structured) or their way (in which case I let go and don't contribute as much). Or we don't work together at all and that too works for me.