Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A Few Thoughts about the Social World

Now that the discussions on confused of calcutta are beginning to recognize the social world, this seems like a good time to sort out a couple of key observations.

First of all, I think that the best way to understand the nature of the social world is in terms of motivated interpersonal actions. In the Kantian spirit of breaking a topic down into its components, that means we need a theory of action (a major topic in social theory), a theory of motives (which has occupied literary theory as much as social theory), and a theory of interpersonal dynamics (which I happen to think is still beyond our grasp because most of our abstractions involve statics rather than dynamics). In other words we have a long way to go before we understand the social world well enough to take a theoretical approach to managing the impact of new technologies on it!

Furthermore, in my own efforts to develop a better understanding of interpersonal dynamics, I have been revisiting the concept of "legitimate peripheral participation," which constitutes the subtitle of the book Situated Learning by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger. However, while Lave and Wenger try to argue the distinction between legitimate peripheral participation and apprenticeship, I am becoming more and more convinced that the former is just “newspeak” (thank you, George Orwell) for the latter. The world that now revolves around enterprise software is also a world of educational institutions that have devalued the practice of apprenticeship as some antiquarian artifact from the days of craft workers. I find it sad that, in order to convey its relevance to “knowledge work” (whatever that may mean), we have to dress this practice up in new terminology!

1 comment:

America Jones said...

I have concerns that an organization with a panoramic view of how enterprise software is deployed may have a proprietary insight into the "dynamics" component you've identified.

I'm certain all sorts of interesting sociological data could be derived from changes in user behavior observed every time Google updates its relevance ranking heuristic.

I wrote the following on a somewhat different topic, but I think the last paragraph is especially relevant here (I wrote this the other day, but for some reason I think I may have already posted it as a comment on your blog; I apologize in advance should this prove to be duplicitous):

What I really don't understand about incentivised education is this: the ideology is premised on the assumptions that:

1) competition breeds innovation
2) our schools need innovation
3) innovation can be measured as "progress" statistically

But why do we want competition among entities that are supposed to be standardized? You've taken standardized tests, no? Henry Ford? It doesn't quite make sense to me how this is in the interest of the public good.

Maybe this is more of a problem for "No Child Left Behind" than it is for incentivized education in general. I guess it's a matter of who benefits from the incentives and whether the methods used to evaluate performance are valid.

But I'm generally concerned about the potential of making an economic commodity out of knowledge. If "knowledge" is "true justified belief" (as many people are taught in Philosophy classes, a definition over which statisticians seek to lord with their dark arts), competition in such a commodity market means that producers will select among multiple sources of justification, according to whichever yields the greatest return on investment. In such an environment, incentivizing education runs the risk of simply outsourcing certain ethical considerations that ought to be discussed more openly and directly now more than ever. Not to mention creating a whole new market for oligarchs to manipulate wholesale.