I found this text to be interesting and a bit disconnected.  I think that J.E. is grappling with similar themes that have been brought up by other theorists in the past couple of years; most notably, I see the work of articulation as a response to complexity and the multiple enacted subjectivities of the postmodern object.  J.E. says as much in his book; however, I think had he worked closer with some Actor-Network theorists like John Law and Bruno Latour he might have gotten a bit more mileage out of his articulation.

I guess my criticism of J.E. here is rooted in the fact that he invokes a neo-Marxist theory to explain multiplicity without attending to the class structures/theories that undergird that invocation.  What I mean is that J.E. is discussing a particular kind of professional: the Symbolic-Analytic worker.  This worker doesn’t look like the sort of worker I’m terribly familiar with (unless from books or slick retirement-program advertisements from AIG); in fact, the “architects, systems analysts, investment bankers, research scientists,” etc. that J.E. describes as the worker bee in the information economy occupy an admittedly small sector of the overall workforce.  This is especially the case if one considers the web page manipulating computer lab student worker who lacks systems thinking (at least in this articulation of his workspace) and whose work is characterized as “routine production” (75).  These new harbingers of capital in a shifting economy that values instead of production are a cultural myth propagated by proponents of globalization instantiated a little over a decade ago by Bruce Lehman and the Clinton administration.  Before you call me a crazy-man, here me out.

Working under the advice of then Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan and international economic advisors for the Clinton administration (like J.E.’s favorite Labor Secretary Robert Reich), Bruce Lehman (who I actually think is a pretty nice person) orchestrated a movement to shift the U.S. economy toward an ideas-based model of production.  As a result, the manufacturing sector of the U.S. economy would be outsourced to other nations around the world.  In exchange for all the lovely new manufacturing work that would be coming to their “developing” nation, the government of the country would need only obey by U.S. intellectual property standards and serve as export economies to our support economy.  The idea is pretty fantastic as it allows the population of the U.S. to engage in consumptive practices that disassociate the material consequences of those practices while developing Symbolic-Analytic work to sustain the economy of ideas.  Other international organizations like the WTO and WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization – the U.N.s IP monitor) would push the ideas economy model in other countries of the West while countries in the “Global South” would be coaxed into the manufacturing economy with promises of trade alliances and “Development” incentives.  All the while, the ideas economy – where power lives – would remain in the control of postindustrial nations like the U.S.

I know I’ve been really shorthanded and probably overly simplistic in my description of this process; however, I draw out this long line of connections to demonstrate that sometimes I feel as though some technical communications scholars don’t pay close enough attention to the damaging practice of reifying Symbolic-Analytic work in light of multiple factors including:

  • The unfortunate position of the Global South in relation to the ideas economy of the post-industrialized West.
  • The employable number of symbolic-analytic workers in the ideas economy is incredibly small compared to the number of workers who will need paychecks in the post industrialized U.S.
  • The fact that an ideas economy is really itself unenforceable in light of communication technologies that allow for the illicit trafficking of intellectual property over disparate, untraceable communication networks.  This illegal trade results in counterfeits thereby removing the need for an ideas-economy overlord in the first place.

So, despite the fact that I think J.E. makes some really smart observations about the role of the interface and workplace ecologies in the life of the Symbolic-Analytic worker, I’m a little miffed by the lack of articulating that worker in larger socio-cultural networks; further, a recognition of those larger socio-cultural networks might move technical communication in a direction that encourages a more reciprocal relationship amongst all of the actors involved in the reality of globalized intellectual and material production.


Johndan Johnson-Eilola – Datacloud

Chapter O – Introduction

  • In the new information age, we don’t merely interact with information, we live it and inhabit it’s spaces – it is our primary environment and resource (3).
  • Datacloud defined – a shifting and only slightly contingently structured information space (4).

Chapter 1 – Rearticulations: The changing Shapes of Computer Spaces

  • J.E. notes that the U.S. economy has shifted from a model based on the material production of products via industry to an economy of ideas that promotes (well, not really promotes) the circulation of information.  In other words, we’ve moved from an industrial economy to an information and knowledge economy (11).
  • In the section on breakdown and recombination J.E. seems to be coming up against the problems of multiplicity – or at least what happens when single subjects perform multiple subjectivities.  In this view our lives are structured by the continuous and dynamic processes of construction and reconstruction.  Echoing Latour J.E. notes that “There is no core, dispassionate self, but only a network of social and technical forces constructing the I as an ongoing, contingent process, a useful fiction” (18).
  • To understand how humans make their way in data saturated environments, J.E. uses two frames – the theories of articulation (Stuart Hall) and symbolic-analytic work (Robert Reich).
  • The goal of J.E.’s work is to explore a range of situations, technologies, and users in the process of articulation as symbolic-analytic workers (20).

Chapter 2 – Tendential Forces:  A Brief Primer on Articulation Theory and Symbolic-Analyltic Work

  • J.E. wants to understand the process of communication as an exercise in breakdown – a breakdown that is productive, not destructive to the communicative process because it requires rearticulations through new ways of saying/doing/meaning (24).
  • Articulation describes the ideological formation of symbolic-analytic workers whereas the symbolic-analytic describes the materiality of work.  So, to some degree the articulation is the ideological thrust behind globalized distributed capitalist economy whereas the symbolic-analytic explores the actual processes of carrying out that work in the world.
    • Articulation theory – people are constructed as subjects in particular ways by particular ideological imperatives; however, most individuals also push up against multiple constructions at all times.  The tension that arises from these brush-ups creates articulations of multiple subject positions – subjectivities – that allow human beings to occupy multiple and conflicting subjectivities (25).  Against strict postmodernity
      Things have no anchored meaning
      Meaning is made in things by contextual engagement.
      Key aspects of articulation:

      • Conceptual objects (articulations) are contingent and open to change
      • Change involves struggle among many different and competing forces
      • Conceptual objects are never separate from the forces that construct them – objects are always in the process of articulation
      • Different concrete contexts construct articulations in different ways
      • Fragmentation and destabilization doesn’t mean failure as new social networks and beings in those networks work to restabilize articulations into a possibly possible new articulation of subjectivity
    • Symbolic Analytic work – work that traffics in information.  Some typical actions of the symbolic-analytic worker
      • Experimentation – forming and testing hypothesis about information and communication.  So, in other words, work contexts are constantly changing.
      • Collaboration – this skill helps s.a. workers complete complex tasks across complex disciplinary domains.
      • Abstraction – this skill is a way for s.a. workers to discern patterns, relationships, and hierarchies from large amounts of information
      • System thinking – this skill emphasizes the s.a. workers ability not to break a problem into multiple parts to fix but to actually contextualize the problem in a larger set of relations to determine an answer (is this merely a tautology?  In other words, what of scale?)

Chapter Three – Toward Flatness:  Changing Articulations of Interface Design

  • In this chapter J.E. looks at the microcontext of user work and learning – that is the location of information about learning to work with a computer.  He also considers the social and political implications of those different social constructions (35).
  • As the computer progressed from an automating device that required apprenticeship for use (really use was a matter of recording, not manipulating) to the conception of computers as complex objects, computer interfaces became much more surface oriented (surface = GUI for example, everything happens on the screen, not in deep computing backends of programming, etc.). 
  • This move toward flattening the work surface in computing encourages ease of use and discourages broad, complex forms of learning (45).  The tensions that have developed as a result of the asocial experience of work in a flattened environment vs. the need for workers felt need to break out of an interfaced experience creates the sort of luddite approach exemplified by many new s.a. workers (51).  That being said, social software is changing this dynamic.
  • Social software such as MOOs (for J.E.) and Ning (para mi) demonstrate this move toward social work environments. 

Chapter Four – Interface Overflow

  • The takeaway from this chapter is that J.E. sees complex, richly layered workspaces as symptomatic of s.a. work; however, there are times when work with interfaces and software aren’t as considered s.a. work because they require little complex, systems-oriented thinking.
  • A great quote:  During the last five decades of the 20th century, the computer began to absorb and contain not merely the objects being worked on but also the meta-information about those objects, including structures, and procedures for learning and working.  In other words the computer and space around it began to absorb and then reflect back context.  In many instances, the reflections have taken on significations divorced of any originary context – the ‘crop’ tool, for example, in PageMaker emulates a physical device used by graphic artists. . .” (68).
  • In the discussion of his two buddies at college, the computer lab student worker, and his own work in the wired collaborative classroom J.E. is trying to demonstrate how we exist within information spaces rather than on the periphery looking – gazing – at them.
  • To understand these new spaces, you can think of computing in two separate (but inseparable in practice) ways
    • Virtual reality – mirrors the real world and is supposed to be something of a replication of the meatworld.
    • Ubiquitous computing – the small, disruptive (read positively disruptive) articulations that allow for both productive and distractive communicative practices.  These are small and require far less attention than virtual realities.

Chapter Five – Articulating (in) the Datacloud

  • Articulations are suggestions about acceptable meanings (89).
  • J.E. discusses the effects of IM on his pedagogy practices on 92. (I wonder about asynchronous communication in this section as J.E. only discusses IMs and MOOs)
  • The fragmentation that occurs through IM is a strength in many work contexts and can allow for fragmentation as a model for education and work emerging in our culture.
  • J.E. is dreaming of the read-write web discussed by other theorists on 101 – in essence, he is wanting a place where s.a. workers are able to produce and consume information.  He calls this “transformative consumption.”
  • The process of articulation involves both historical and spatial aspects – nothing is predetermined by history; however, history still matters (102).
  • The takeaway from this discussion is that those who produce media work with it in more spatial ways than those who consume it.

Chapter Six – Other Stories, Other Texts:  Other Ideas About Work

  • This chapter recognizes the remix as a creative form despite it’s lack of what we often think of as “originality” and linearity.
  • The work of s.a. workers requires the skills of digging, mixing, and programming (114).  How is this different from writing (I know it is, but a question for discussion?)
  • J.E. sees deconstructionist architecture as “information spaces that communicate doubly:  they both support and are composed of communication” (119).
  • Traditionally information architecture could be viewed as “traditional work” because it takes the simplification and linearization of data as it’s primary goal.
  • J.E. says that “deconstructive architecture succeeds on two key levels:  material and symbolic.  Although battles rage over the appropriateness and aesthetic appearance of much of the contemporary architecture, the fact remains that these architects have taken up core principles of deconstruction and postmodernism and made them work (125).
  • Some core concerns and strategies for interfaces that support s.a. work:
    • The emphasis on breaking down artifacts is important work in the information age.
    • S.A. workers require support for maintaining and organizing large volumes of data
    • Texts are participatory and contingent on context.
    • Choices about information have moral consequences the S.A. should not strive to be neutral and invisible because that stance ignores that artifacts have politics (126-7).

Chapter Seven – Some Rearticulations:  Emergent Symbolic-Analytic Spaces

  • Blogs are an example because they allow for interaction and read-write processes.
  • Intense interfaces that are “dense” usually allow for development across media.  These are examples of what he sees as S.A. spaces.
  • The hyperlinked document allows information to be taken in at multiple levels of abstraction – in other words, this is a non-preference of production and consumption because documents of this sort encourage working through and around information by rearranging it yourself – not simply consuming.
  • Big ideas from the book:
    • We must learn to understand learning and work in new ways – creativity isn’t original, but a remix
    • As interfaces have shifted from an emphasis on depth to surface, users have begun to work with information in new ways.
    • Information is always associated with political and cultural meanings.  Our use of media to disrupt those tendential meanings is a political social act.
    • Surfaces must be translated into working spaces if we are to begin working along the lines suggested by symbolic-analytic work.  This means making spatial environments that are social.
    • The new spaces where social work will happen require contingency, information overload, and ongoing re and deconstruction.  As such, information architecture will need to change to meet the needs of the S.A. worker.

One Response to “CCR760 – Datacloud – My Indictment: Dug the Book, What About that Broader Context?”

  1. Luce

    I agree that this work could have gotten more mileage had it itself juxtaposed with some different sources. I was thrown by a lack of discussion about how turntabilism, digging, mixing, scratching and even studio work, have been the love-labor of artists who do not comprise the group of symbolic-analytic workers that Johnson-Eilola describe. This adds a new layer to his explanation that “these skills–digging, mixing and programming–represent an emerging space for symbolic-analytic work, one richer than most of us experience on a daily basis” (114). The type of labor we choose to highlight seems to be the real divide between the experience of artists and the “us” that is deprived of this daily experience.

    I can’t help but think back to Social Histories at this moment…

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