Loving Resistance Fighters

Sounds like a cool name for a band.

But it isn’t. It’s an idea from Neil Postman’s ‘Technopoly (Postman, 1993).

Loving Resistance Fighters are those of us who do not succumb to the euphoria surrounding new digital tools and the accompanying techno-utopianism (which sounds like a top night out in the company of Sven Vath, but isn’t). Loving Resistance Fighters are those who maintain a skeptical view (example). Postman suggests that:

A resistance fighter understands that technology must never be accepted as part of the natural order of things, that every technology – from an IQ test to an automobile to a television set to a computer – is a product of a particular economic and political context and carries with it a program, an agenda, and a philosophy that may or may not be life-enhancing and that therefore require scrutiny, criticism, and control. (Postman, 1993)

Why are they loving? Well when Postman wrote the book he was referring to the US, as he considered that to be the only true technopoly, but these days we are pretty close, so forgive me if I amend his text:

By ‘loving’ I mean that, in spite of the confusion, errors, and stupidities you see around you, you must always keep close to your heart the narratives and symbols that once made the United Kingdom the envy of the world and that may yet have enough vitality to do so again… (Postman, 1993)

So you wanna join up? Here’s what Postman says you need to do:

  • pay no attention to a poll unless you know what questions were asked, and why;
  • refuse to accept efficiency as the pre-eminent goal of human relations;
  • free yourselves from the belief in the magical powers of numbers, do not regard calculation as an adequate substitute for judgment, or precision as a synonym for truth;
  • refuse to allow psychology or any ‘social science’ to pre-empt the language and thought of common sense (in particular give cultural studies PhDs the intellectual middle finger);
  • be suspicious of the idea of progress, and do not confuse information with understanding (so you can find out everything that’s ever been known in the blink of an eye – so what? What does it all mean?);
  • do not regard the aged as irrelevant;
  • take seriously the meaning of family loyalty and honor, and when you ‘reach out and touch someone,’ expect that person to be in the same room;
  • take the great narratives of religion seriously and do not believe that science is the only system of thought capable of producing truth;
  • know the difference between the sacred and the profane, and do not wink at tradition for modernity’s sake;
  • admire technological ingenuity but do not think it represents the highest possible form of human achievement.

It’s a lot to ask – and much more of a manifesto for an ethical life in general – than merely exercising skepticism about social media utopianism or what e.g. facebook, apple and Google are up to with your personal information.

But that isn’t a bad place to start, and when you’ve left facebook, and decided putting all your eggs in the apple basket isn’t such a great idea, and switched all of Google’s creep you out ad personalisation off, then start asking some bigger questions – like is reducing all human intelligence to one (hopefully) 3 figure number a good idea?

If you want to limit your techno-skepticism for now, then consider these four questions when looking at any new medium:

  • To what extent does a medium contribute to the uses and development of rational thought?
  • To what extent does a medium contribute to the development of democratic processes?
  • To what extent do new media give greater access to meaningful information?
  • To what extent do new media enhance or diminish our moral sense, our capacity for goodness?
    (Postman, 2000)

It is pretty clear that social media make a significant contribution in each of the first three areas as they amplify each of those factors across time and space – but in the last case, I would say good in, good out and bad in, bad out – it is just a tool, and tools will only do what we make them do…

For me they are a far more useful set of questions to ask, than McLuhan’s Tetrad of media effects:

  1. What does the medium enhance?
  2. What does the medium make obsolete?
  3. What does the medium retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
  4. What does the medium flip into when pushed to extremes?
    (McLuhan & McLuhan, 1988)

These are a much more media determinist (Chandler, 1995) set of questions, as you might expect from McLuhan.

You can find a (somewhat utopian) social media tetrad here.

References:

Chandler, D. (1995). Retrieved January 31, 2012, from Technological or Media Determinism: ttp://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/tecdet/tecdet.html

McLuhan, M. & McLuhan, E (1988). Laws of Media: The New Science. University of Toronto Press

Morozov, E. (2010). The Digital Dictator. Wall Street Journal Online, 20/02/10.

Postman, N. (1993). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. Vintage.

Postman, N. (2000). The Humanism of Media Ecology. Proceedings of the Media Ecology Association, 1, pp. 10-16. New York.

Turner, F. (2006). How Digital Technology Found Utopian Ideology. Critical Cyberculture Studies

Is social media changing you?

Or is just that people are inherently social?

Seems like a bit of a no brainer when put as simply as that, but the media is awash with technologically or media determinist views like the one in the blog title.

Is the Internet changing the way you think?

Is facebook making your child depressed?

Is Google making us stupid?

Good grief! It’s enough to make me want to throw my Interweb out of the study window ;)

The issue of whether or not I think deterministically is one that I must consider upfront in my thesis because if I am determinist then that position may lead to me introducing positivist bias when conducting my research – claiming benefits for social media that may not be there. Taking a more humanist approach is a source of bias too, but one which is less likely to bias findings in this study.

If you regularly research the effects of technology, or make decisions based on technology research, you might want to consider this too. It’s a bit Meejah Studies 101 but the issue comes up every time some bit of new technology or media comes along…

Technological determinism vs. symptomatic technology

At the heart of this project is an argument of media determinism (McLuhan, 1964) or technological determinism (Veblen, 1921), (Chandler, 1995), versus a more humanist theory of media evolution.

Levinson’s anthropotropic theory seesmedia increasingly selected for their support of pretechnological, human communication patterns in form and function.” (Levinson, 1999, p. 41). But who other than a media academic, social media guru or Wired writer “logs onto the Web with the deliberate intention of being part of a new interactive global village that is obsolescing the voyeuristic village engendered by television?” (Levinson, 1999, p. 200).[1]

For this thesis technological versus social determinism is about trying to understand if the activity comes first or is the activity technology-driven? Does a ‘creative’ or ‘innovative’ person find an interesting technology and then work out how to use it – or are they actively searching for tools to help them work in new, and better, ways?

A hypothetical view such as ‘Social media is changing the way I make programmes.’ would be technological determinism.

A hypothetical view such as ‘I want to involve my audience in my editorial decision-making and am interested in technology that might help.’ is an opinion of technology that is symptomatic.

In ‘Television: Technology and Cultural Form’ Raymond Williams summarised the determinist view on television “If television had not been invented… certain definite social and cultural events would not have occurred.” (Williams, 1975, p. 12).

Williams also argues “If television had not been invented, we would still be manipulated or mindlessly entertained, but in some other way and perhaps less powerfully.” (Williams, 1975, p. 12)

If we substitute ‘social media’ for ‘television’ in the two quotes above then they both continue to make sense. A determinist would argue that the invention of the Internet, and subsequent social networking tools, has created a new set of conditions for social change and progress.

Someone taking the symptomatic view would argue that other forces are driving social change – for example what we refer to as postmodernism or the Information Age – and that the Internet has only acquired truly “effective status since it has become used for purposes which are already contained in this known social process.” (Williams, 1975, p. 13) – it has done this by evolving into what is commonly referred to as Web 2.0 or the social web.


[1] In the last 12 months, the social media conversation accompanying many television programmes, suggests a significant number of viewers wish to logon on to global, interactive, voyeuristic village…

Works Cited

Chandler, D. (1995). Retrieved January 31, 2012, from Technological or Media Determinism: http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/tecdet/tecdet.html

Levinson, P. (1999). digital mcluhan. Routledge.

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media. Routledge.

Veblen, T. (1921). The Engineers and the Price System. Kitchener.

Williams, R. (1975). Television: Technology and Cultural Form. London: Schocken Books.

The Social Origins of Good Ideas Pt Two

This is the second part of a post on a 2003 paper by Ronald S. Burt.

Silo Mentality

The paper identifies a number of issues and behaviours which contribute to and reinforce what is commonly known as a silo mentality, this time in the pejorative sense :). These are:

  • Managers who are part of dense, closed networks were more likely to have their ideas dismissed or seen as low value, so have learned not to express ideas. They then withdraw into the closed group to wait for orders, thus continuing the isolation of the group.
  • Groups controlled by task focussed senior leaders are less likely to develop ideas through brokerage even if the organisation incentivises and rewards this. Here is an example quote from the study:

“I don’t want my people even thinking about alternatives. They spend two weeks thinking about an alternative, only to learn what we have is 90% as good. The result is that they wasted two weeks and I’m behind schedule. I get some complaints about stifling creativity, but all I want is to be good enough and on schedule.”

  • If this kind of attitude is then reinforced by a high degree of value being placed on personal loyalty, then it is easy to imagine an organisation riddled with silos.
  • Social convenience is a large factor in determining who a manager discusses ideas with, even among both local and enterprise brokers, so if ideas are taken up, they spread in a way that continues segregation between groups.

Impact on Performance and Reward

There is not much to add to Burt’s summary finding:

“… the company rewarded managers for building relations across structural holes in the organization. Brokerage is linked with promotion, positive job evaluations, and high salary relative to peers.”

Get brokering people!

Informal Bosses

The majority (69%) of managers excluded their boss from the discussion they had around their idea. This reinforces the concept of networks, and not hierarchies being how work gets done in organisations (Bryan et al, 2007). Instead managers sought out the most central person of higher rank in their network – who Burt refers to as the “informal boss”.

Criticism

Burt acknowledges two issues with the research. The first is one of methodology – he only knew about the people with whom managers had their most detailed discussions about their idea and not ALL the people they contacted.

The second is a less a criticism, more just a reflection of the difference between ideas and action. On revisiting the company he found that of the 100 top ideas, only 16 were being worked on. Of course this may just be a reflection of resource constraint. Not surprisingly, the factors which lead to those 16 being perceived as being good, also related to their chances of being selected for resource.

My own criticism of the research would be that Burt always takes the view that social networks lead to good ideas, when this could be a chicken or egg situation, that is good ideas give an individual the ability to create extensive bridges and extend their networks. This often seems to be the case in the media where powerful ideas will open many doors, sometimes even for those with little relevant network capital.

Nevertheless an excellent paper which to an extent succeeds in quantifying concepts which are often just presented as manifesto or anecdote.

The Social Origins of Good Ideas

This is the title of a 2003 paper by Ronald S. Burt. The paper is listed with 41 citations on Google Scholar which suggests it is not as well-known as it should be. The paper attempts to demonstrate a link between a worker/manager’s network capital and the perception within their organisation of how good their ideas are. In my opinion it does this with a convincing degree of success. It is a lengthy and involved piece of research, so here are the edited highlights…

Hypothesis:

“…people who live in the intersection of social worlds are at higher risk of having good ideas… people connected to otherwise segragated groups are more likely to be familiar with alternative ways of thinking and behaving, which gives them the option of selecting and synthezing alternatives.”

Key Findings:

“Managers whose discussion networks more often spanned structural holes were more likely to express their ideas, less likely to have their ideas dismissed by senior management, and more likely to have their ideas perceived as valuable.”

“social capital created a vision advantage”

“… good ideas were discussed in a way that reproduced the existing social structure. Good ideas emerged from the intersection of social worlds but spread in a way that continued segregation between the worlds.”

Brokerage

Burt’s main point is that people who bridge gaps across structural holes have better ideas.

Although… it’s not quite like that, it seems to me that the research says they are perceived as having better ideas by senior management. This is quite an important distinction – you probably know very bright people in your organisation who are specialists and experts and quite happy doing what they are – a positive silo mentality (ignoring the fact that silo is generally a pejorative term) – and have no interest in climbing the corporate pole.

From my experience, a good example of this would be the Natural History Unit at the BBC, the idea of the Head of the NHU becoming Director General is laughable – why would they want to? But the idea that a group of this kind does not create huge value for the beeb is similarly ridiculous.

It seems that what the senior managers in Burt’s study value (within the scope of the study) is the ability of people to act as brokers within an organisation bridging gaps between business units. He identifies four types of brokerage:

  • Awareness – simply providing news and info about the other side(s) of a structural hole
  • Transferring best practice
  • Drawing analogies between seemingly irrelevant groups
  • Synthesising new beliefs and behaviours that combine elements from multiple groups.

Thus it is quite easy to understand how brokers are critical to organisational learning and creativity, and are key to driving and embedding change in organisations.

In Part Two of this post (tomorrow) I will look at:

  • How a silo mentality takes hold and sustains itself
  • Impact of networks and ideas on performance and reward
  • The role of the ‘Informal Boss’
  • Criticism of the research.