Invitation to Participate

I am starting into my dissertation research, which will explore the different ways that people who are involved in the design, development and deployment of API-based software think and talk about these sorts of systems.

The end goal will be to move toward a common language/mental model that can be used by multiple stakeholders who work with software that includes an API. In preliminary conversations with people who have worked on API’s, different stakeholders have referred to API’s as a sort of “door,” a “language,” a “piece of software,” a “platform.” As a result, many have described confusion between stakeholders around the process.  In an email conversation with one of the founders of NetBeans, he explained that “it was really hard to convince [the business folks involved in the project] about the importance of compatible public APIs during the first five years. At that time the credit we get back by doing it was not that visible.”

For my research, my plan is to start by interviewing some teams from different organizations who are working with API-based software to find out how they talk about it. The initial steps would be a series of 30-60 minute interviews with a few stakeholders. This would ideally include one person focused on the technical design, another focused on the coding, another on the user experience, and another focused on the business/organizational side of things. Ideally, it would also include interviews with one or two of your external stakeholders who use one of your API’s.

Are you and your team be willing to participate? The goal would be to take a minimum of your time, and the benefit to you will be some insights into your process.

If you are interested, please contact me at chmbrigg[at]indiana[dot]edu.

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Short vs. Long-Term Morality in Democratic Discourse

In democratic discourse, is it morally acceptable for a person to violate their moral code in the short-term to avoid a longer-term ill, and where is the threshold that makes acceptable? I had a conversation yesterday with a friend about this, and after some thought, i have what i think is an acceptable answer.

To start off with a simple example of this dilemma, it might help to recall the scene toward the end of the movie The Sound of Music when a nun steals parts from Nazi cars (stealing is a clear violation of her professed moral code) in order to let the Von Trapp family escape from almost certain imprisonment and possible death. The nun then says to her superior: “Reverend Mother, I have sinned.” But did she? She clearly violated her own moral code in the short-term, which forbids stealing and lying. And we are all fairly sure that she prevented a longer-term ill from occuring.

In American democratic discourse, people seem to be faced with a similar dilemma. Glenn Beck, for example, violates his own moral code* in the short-term by stating at least partially untrue, inflammatory things like “This president I think has exposed himself over and over again as a guy who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture,” presumably because Glenn feels that doing so will help to avoid what he feels is a larger ill in the long-term. Sarah Palin also violates the same moral code in the short-term by stating inflammatory, at least partially untrue things like “The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel..Such a system is downright evil,” presumably because she also feels that doing so in the short-term will help to avoid what she feels is a larger ill in the long-term. I could also violate the same code by making up lies to discredit both Beck and Palin because i feel that doing so in the short-term will help to get them out of the public consciousness and avoid a larger ill in the long-term.  But how do we figure out which of these dilemmas might warrant violating one’s own moral code?

Note: The reason i am choosing Beck and Palin as examples here is because they profess to be Christians, who have fairly standard written moral code. Many other people in all parties seem to be violating their own moral codes in the way they conduct democratic discourse.

There are two facts i thought of when considering this:

  1. Keeping the short-term moral code is the only course of action which guarantees that there will be some morality involved. In other words, if i tell the truth about Beck and Palin in a civil, upright manner, then even if they go on to create ills in our country, then the situation has included some level of moral action.
  2. Violating the short-term moral code is the only course of action which guarantees that there will be immorality involved. If i make up lies about Beck and Palin, even if that action helps to undermine their ability to create ills in our country, then there has been immoral action in the situation from the start. If i make up lies and they are still able to create ills in our country, then the whole situation is fraught with immorality from start to finish.
  3. The justification for breaking a moral code in the short-term must be related, then, to a person’s ability to foresee the likelihood that doing so will prevent a future ill.

The nun in The Sound of Music could foresee that the Nazis would have done horrible things to the Von Trapp family. If i were placed in her situation, i would feel fully morally justified in taking the actions that she did.  As for me, can i foresee that Beck and Palin are going to hurt our democracy? No. There are too many variables involved. So would i be morally justified in trumping up lies to discredit them? Absolutely not. In fact, i am called to “..be kind and compassionate” (Ephesians 4:32) to them.  Can Beck and Palin foresee that Obama’s administration is going to lead to bad things in our country? No. Far smarter people are unable to foresee such things. So are they morally justified in telling half-truths? Probably not.

* Each of the people in the examples are professing Christians, who are smart enough to know that our statements are at least partially untrue, which means that making such statements is a clear violation of the biblical code which calls for them to “..put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body” (Ephesians 4:25), and for them to “.. not give false testimony against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16).

Formal vs. Informal Learning

I have been a spectator in a number of drawn out discussions and debates over the last year in which learning and development, education and business folks have come together in an effort to define and determine the differential value of “formal” and “informal” learning. (for a more theoretical opinion on these debates, see this)  I have remained mostly silent, not because i don’t have opinions, but because it seems that these debates are not serving the goals of this group, which are, i presume, to improve the triple-bottom lines in and around the organizations they serve:

1) increase profit
2) make people’s lives better
3) improve the world by ensuring that the people within them develop as human beings.

Rather than write a long polemic here, i’d like to make a short statement, and offer a very particular example.

The Statement:
Spending more than 30 seconds arguing about the difference between formal and informal learning is a waste of time. If we must distinguish between the two at all, then we must conclude that they always happen simultaneously, as any reflective person who has taught something to a person or group knows.   Ignoring one or the other (again, if we must distinguish between the two) in any learning situation always results in sub-optimal outcomes.

The Example:
Me teaching a 300-level course in new media theory at the Indiana University School of Informatics:

Some of the “formal” learning occurring in this moment:
I’m guiding students through a series of readings and theories on the mass effects of the electronic revolution (first photo) and on the notion of identity construction and stereotypes (second photo) that they would not likely encounter in their “informal” interactions with other students, popular media, or other technology classes.

Some of the “informal” learning occurring in this moment:
I am letting my passions for serious study, inquiry, media and playful exploration of ideas show through, mindful of the fact that i am both being authentic and modeling these passions for my students. It’s not something i plan ahead of time, but it tends to come out in my classes. Also, notice that i am forsaking the many-thousand-dollar computer/projector setup in the room, and using a chalkboard to teach a new media theory class to students in Informatics. I do this for many reasons, one of which is to informally demonstrate that media isn’t all about tablets, screens, bits and bytes.

Why Distinguishing Between the Two Is A Waste of My Time:
Simply put, if i were to teach hard theory without showing my passion, the learning outcomes would be pretty crappy. Students would get a bunch of great information without any sense of how to integrate it into their lives. On the other hand, if i were to demonstrate my passion without a formal syllabus and some sort of academic rigor, the learning outcomes would also be pretty crappy. Students might be excited about new media theory, but have gained no useful tools to put into practice.  Instead, i let the two mix as i go (really i am mostly oblivious to the distinction), continually reflecting on how both are affecting the established and emergent learning goals for the class.

A Poem for a Poet

This week we lost a dear friend Ann Walton back in Wayland, Mass.  She had been a childhood neighbor of my wife and a very close friend of the family for decades.  I only met her in the last couple of years, but we forged an instant deep connection.  One piece of this connection was our mutual love for words.  Ann was a fantastic poet, and had a brilliant knack for quick-witted phrases in conversations that would instantly disarm people.  She wrote and read a poem for our wedding.  She said that she didn’t think it was very good, but it meant the world to us, especially when read by Ann at our reception, in her faintly-South Carolinian way:

Here is the poem (i hope Ann would approve of my sharing it here)

New Hampshire
At our wedding I carried roses
in the shadow of gentle mountains
encircled by firs,
reaching for meadows tucked in fog.
It was our beginning
..
Indiana
We settled in an inviting condo,
freshly painted,
Kitchen counters adorned with shards–
memories of friends left behind
I watch you studying,
a pile of books stacked by the couch–
You look up and say you have waited
all these years to live this life,
then embrace me with a poem.
I’m planning a late garden,
simple this year.
I hope you’ll agree on the roses
for remembering.
.
In our last phone conversation a few days before she died, Ann pointed out that i had not yet written her any poetry, and wondered if i would do so.  I agreed to write one that night, to which Ann replied, in her typical wise-crack way, that i should “..only send it along if it is good.”  At first i set out to write something honoring Ann and the joy she’d brought to my life, but in the end after much pacing and hand-wringing, i thought the best way to honor Ann would be to follow her lead, writing about the complex, rich world of the present moment.  Here is what came out:
.
i’m cursing the cursor
blinking blankly at me
the watched pot
winking, waiting for me
to offer it a word
.
“but i have more august ideas than you can apprehend..”
i say aloud to the blinking line
“..of the Bow Road Poet..”
blink, blink
“..whose words light..”
blink, blink
“..whose quips disarm..”
blink, blink
“..whose spirit inspires..”
blink, blink
“..who says this poem has to be really good..”
.
the cursor line lingers a moment, i think
maybe mocking
but not nudging me nearer to completion
of any sort
“perhaps pencil and paper next time”
i say a little too loudly
to the cursor
blink, blink
blink, blink
.
I sent it off in an email to be read to Ann the following day by one of her children. I never received a reply. I have no idea whether or not Ann ever heard my poem. But i have a feeling she would have appreciated the existential gravity of just such a situation and would probably have written about it, so i’m leaving it alone. I will miss Ann immensely.

Fluency and Card Games

Last night i was reading Pierre Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practice, and happened upon his very effective use of a card game as a metaphor to explain the very complicated sociology of a Kabyle marriage process.  I think the metaphor might be a helpful way to explain some of the things SociaLens found in our research.  Though our results are excellent (we’ll be sharing much more very soon), this card game metaphor is going to be a bit rough.  I’ll put it out here so that you all can let me know if it seems like a useful way to frame some of the current confusion around organizations and people’s use of social media within them.

Our research at SociaLens has led us in a very interesting direction.  We’ll be sharing a lot about this very soon, but in the interim, i’ll give you a teaser: the ability to use new forms of communication like social media is heavily dependent on a set of literacies and fluencies that go beyond what you might expect when talking about media.  It’s helpful to mention first that “literacies” are the basic abilities to use a language, a technology, etc. to do basic things.  “Fluencies” go beyond this and are characterized by what Bourdieu might call a “feel for the game” which allows a person to transformatively use a language, a technology, etc.   

In order to understand how a person or group of people act in a situation and the eventual outcome, one must understand multiple factors.  This is especially true when dealing with complicated things that involve groups of people, technologies, rules, social interactions, etc.  Business is one of these things, and so is the use of social media.

Okay, so here goes with the card game metaphor:

Remember that uneasy feeling you had the last time you sat down to learn a new card game? That’s a lack of fluency.  I’ll use myself as an example. I am a terrible card player.  Or to put it another way, i am not very fluent in many card games.  I know how to cut a deck and deal (literacy), and i can learn the basic rules of a card game (literacy), but the minute we jump into the actual game, i realize that i don’t know the first thing about the unwritten rules (lack of fluency), the strategies, etc. that will help me to succeed (lack of fluency).  In fact, until i’m more familiar with the game and the social situation in which it is played, i can’t even be sure what “winning” really is (serious lack of fluency). Once i start to understand and internalize these things, i can start to enjoy the game, and even come up with my own novel strategies and tricks (fluency), but until that point, i will be hesitant, apologetic, and will often avoid playing the game altogether.  

Now, here’s how the card game metaphor helps me to understand the relationship of literacies and fluencies to communications technologies and organizations:

a) Lots of people have assumed that social media is just a simple next step after the adoption of email.  In other words, they think:  The elements are the same: a group of people, a computer, a piece of software, so why is it so difficult for people to adopt?  But this assumption is analogous to the assumption that the game of Bridge should be the next logical step up from War or Slapjack because it’s still just a bunch of people, 52 cards, and a table and chairs.  If you’ve ever tried to learn the game of Bridge, you KNOW that this is a false assumption.

b) The outcome of any card game is always dependent on lots of different factors: the deal, the written rules, the unwritten rules, the players’ ability to cut a deck and hold cards (literacy), their deeper feel for the game (fluency), the cultural context, etc.  It is almost never the case that one of these factors completely trumps (pun intended) the others.  Even the best hand can be squandered by a non-fluent player (me), and a crappy hand can be made the most of by a great player (anyone else, when compared with me).  It may be useful to think about the use of communications technologies in an organization this way.  Success never depends solely on the technology, the people, the situation, the incentives, etc.  It is always a combination of these factors.  Success also depends on how one defines success.  Some people play cards/use social media to win prestige, and some play to socialize.  Still others play for intellectual stimulation or for money. 

c) It is possible to develop the literacies necessary to play a card game (the rules, how to cut the deck) by yourself, but to develop the fluencies requires playing the game with other people.  Working with an experienced player at first will help a person develop the fluencies a lot faster, and with much less pain ans suffering, than if they just sat down and started playing cold.

d) Not every card player is fluent in all parts of the game.  Some are fluent in reading non-verbal signs, while some are fluent in keeping track of the deck.  But a good team (if i understand team games like Bridge enough to say this) will have a good balance of these fluencies.  Similarly, a good organization has a balance of the fluencies we’ve identified through our research like innovation and the ability to find information, though all of these fluencies don’t necessarily need to be equally strong in every person.

I could continue with the metaphor, but i won’t.  I’d love to hear your feedback.  Does it help to frame some of your experiences with your organization, colleagues, and your use of communications technologies to get things done?

Twitter, Power and Fluency

Robert Gibbs recently used Twitter to give a shout out to a local bike store.  Here is the original tweet, which reads:

#FF @CraigatFEMA so you know the latest @RevCycles a great bike store & special thanks to Ken and others there for helping me with my bike

This has been spun as an abuse of power by the right, of course, and i haven’t taken the time to see how the left is spinning it, but leaving the power issue aside for a minute, this gets me thinking about fluency.  

Generally, when people do something which looks like it violates a norm or a rule, there are three different reasons for it: 

  1. They are not fluent in the norms or rules, and accidentally violated those norms or rules
  2. They are fluent in the norms or rules, and intentionally violated those norms or rules because they don’t really agree with the norms or rules
  3. The are fluent in the norms or rules, and intentionally violated those norms or rules to undermine the norms or rules

This tweet on the official white house Twitter account seems to me to be a violation of a norm if not a rule that people in a position of power, as we currently conceive of the notion of governmental power, should be extremely careful not to promote one commercial enterprise over another when speaking/writing/tweeting on behalf of the institution (it might be a similar violation for me to promote one of my students’ side business ventures on an official university website).  

Assuming for a moment that it is a violation of a norm or a rule, which of the three reasons do you think accounts for it? And if it was a lack of fluency, was this a result of a misunderstanding of Twitter as an official channel? Or do you think it was not a violation of a norm or rule at all?

Easy?

I just posted the following comment to a post by Guy Kawasaki on his blog about the premise that people favor cognitive fluency – the idea that people prefer things that are easy to think about compared to those that are not.

Here was my comment: “I presume you may want to include a chapter on the contexts in which “easy” has the opposite effect. During the course of my firm’s (socialens.com) recent research on the adoption of new media in organizations, an executive suggested (i’m paraphrasing heavily here) that one of the biggest reasons that C-Level folks have a hard time taking new media seriously is the simplistic names like “Twitter”, “YouTube” etc. She jokingly suggested that, if they were to have been named with acronyms or something like “Ascendant Video” C-Level folks would have been all over these new technologies. I think she is probably correct, and if so, the counter-intuitive fact is that publicly espousing or using things which seem too easy is often associated with either a real or perceived loss of institutional or symbolic capital within the group.”

I think the concept of cognitive fluency is interesting, but i wonder what happens to people’s decisions when we marry cognitive fluency with social pressures?  In my experience, humans do lots of cognitively, physically, and otherwise very difficult and uncomfortable things in the presence of others that they do not do when no one is watching.  For example, many of the women i know will wear uncomfortable high heels in public, but take them off the minute they get home.  Also, many academics do amazing work in their profession, but when they have some down time the first thing they watch is 80’s television re-runs.

I have no specific answer to this question, but it bears consideration, i think.

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