[EAS]Best New Year's Wishes!
peter.kindlmann at yale.edu
Wed Dec 27 17:02:21 EST 2000
Subject: Best New Year's Wishes!
Dear Colleagues -
My rather tardy best wishes for the holidays from EAS-INFO.
May the gap between semesters provide opportunity for relaxation
My reflections tend to gravitate toward education amidst all the
technological flux that surrounds us. How do we avoid froth? How do
we decide what is important?
So rather than sending you an affirmation of what is good and true,
some text of a "tablet in a church", I'm sending you an excerpt of
a mailing by Phil Agre of UCLA, whom you know to be one of my
favorite Net thinkers. Though long, I found it to provide
affirmation, good questions, in all worthy food for thought for the
year to come about cultures, institutions, research and education.
It will continue to be hard work to construct the dial of our
compass, to earn our certainties.
All the best in the New Year! --Peter Kindlmann
"We move forward and become like that which we think about. Isn't it
time we began to think about what we're thinking about?"
Don Coyhis, Mohican, 1993
American Indian Science and Engineering Association
The importance of overlapping knowledge.
On one level, an institution is a set of roles and a set of rules.
That's the formal level on which we all get defined as doctors,
patients, teachers, students, defendants, jurors, coaches, players,
and audience members in our various dealings with one another. On
another level, an institution is a body of knowledge. The people
who occupy those roles and confront those rules develop a body of
intuition, of lore, of savoir-faire, of settled practice, of maxims
and how-to's. That's the substantive level on which the collective
learning of society gets applied to practical outcomes for better
or worse. Here are some examples of the substantive level:
* * The detailed manufacturing knowledge that is accumulated by
the engineers in an industry (a phenomenon first identified by
Thorstein Veblen and recently expanded upon in the work that Alfred
Chandler summarizes in the passages I quoted the other day)
* * The highly evolved strategies for networking and career-building
in the research community that I have outlined in "Networking on
* * The skills and customs for collective problem-solving that build
up in the political culture of a democracy (see, for example, Harry
Eckstein, Division and Cohesion in Democracy: A Study of Norway,
Princeton University Press, 1966).
The two sides of an institution, formal and substantive, presuppose
one another and play off against one another. Both are part of a
big story about human activities get coordinated, and how people
manage to be so brilliant collectively even though they are so finite
in isolation. Both sides of the institutional story can become
invisible, taken for granted, because the framework of institutions
that organizes a society does not often change. So it is easy to
adopt simplistic or even destructive attitudes toward institutions.
Proponents of technology-driven change look at the gathered wisdom
of institutions and see pure reactionary resistance to the imperatives
of progress. Conservatives, at least when it benefits them to do
so, claim that only a blind reverence for tradition will enable the
accumulated wisdom of institutions to persist and society to avoid
falling into chaos. That is what conservatism means. Realists occupy
the rational middle ground between these two extremes. They realize
that the accumulated knowledge of institutions is both valuable and
a hindrance. No institution is perfectly just or perfectly efficient,
and much of the settled practice of any institution consists of hidden
interests and routinized log-rolling. We cannot go around randomly
blowing up institutions, because we do not know how to fabricate new
institutions to replace them on short order. Yet we cannot simply let
them be, since the world can most assuredly be better than it is now.
Because institutions exist largely to solve informational problems,
these things matter especially in our current times of radical change
in information technology. Yet we know so little about them that a
great intellectual vacuum is opening up. The fall of communism and
the spread of democracy created intellectual interest in the nature
of institutions. Economic analysis of industry structure is proving
a valuable tool in parsing the unexpectedly complicated patterns
of change that new information technologies are bringing to markets.
And historical studies have shown how institutional take form through
disputes between social groups. Even so, we still know almost nothing
about institutions and the ways they change.
So in reading the literature on the subject, I try to articulate useful
intuitions about institutions -- intuitive ways of explaining how and
why the social world works -- so that we can have a chance of moving
toward fairer, healthier, and more efficient institutions as the
possibilities afforded by new information technologies begin to unfold.
I want to sketch one of these intuitions, which I'll summarize using
two concepts: anamorphism and overlap.
First, anamorphism. You've seen Saul Steinberg's cartoon, "View of
the World from 9th Avenue", that was on the cover of the New Yorker in
1976. It's a map of the world, but with lots more detail in Manhattan
than anywhere else. The further away you get from 9th Avenue, the
less detail, until the American West is just a cactus and Japan is
just a blob on the horizon. In mathematical terms Steinberg's map
is anamorphic: relationships of geographic locality are more or less
preserved -- stuff that's close together in the real world is close
together on the map -- but the map is grossly deformed, as in a
fun-house mirror, so that some parts are much bigger than they ought
to be, and other parts are much smaller. The joke was on New Yorkers,
but everyone knows that the lesson applies to them as well. We all
know our corner of the world the best, and none of us knows the world
as a whole. Parochial or not, it's simply impossible to know the
whole world. We're all locals. But our knowledge is not limited to
our immediate vicinity. Every one of us has some vicarious knowledge
of many other parts of the world: through our past experiences, our
friends and family, people we meet socially, the newspaper, novels,
movies, etc. The knowledge is often sketchy and distorted, but it
doesn't vanish at the end of the block. It's an anamorphic map of
the geographic world and of the various social, professional, and
cultural worlds, including the ones we inhabit and the ones we don't.
Next, overlap. You have an anamorphic map of the world, and so do I.
Your map is centered in your home and neighborhood, your office and
profession, your social network, your reading material, your resume,
and so on. My map is centered differently. When I travel, I often
ask myself, "What's it like for this, here, to be the center of one's
world?" I chat with the elderly couple who run the dim sum shop on
the side street in Chinatown, and that's the center of their world.
They know the regulars in the shop, the politics of small business
people in Chinatown, their relatives, the news from China, their kids
at college, and so on. Of course, they also know about US national
politics and the Internet and everything else, just like anyone else
does, just like I do. It's just that the proportions are different.
Their map is deformed; so is mine. They have a 9th-Avenue knowledge
of things that are like the lone cactus in the West for me, like how
on earth people manage to stay married for fifty years. I probably
know a few things really well that they've spent maybe ten seconds
thinking about. The point is, our maps overlap. We know many things
in common. We can chat because we have a reservoir of references
that we can make in common. We don't live in different worlds -- we
live in the same world. We just have different anamorphic maps of it.
Anamorphism is a measure of our finitude and difference. Overlap is
a measure of our universality and commonality. The relations between
our maps are not random, but neither are they especially predictable.
And institutions depend on anamorphism and overlap. Take the case of
the institutions of research. The idea of research is that everyone
is supposed to do something new all the time. It's very hard to do
anything new. And it's hard to run an institution in which everyone
is always doing something new, because the institution won't work
unless it can evaluate the work, allocate resources, and create the
right incentives. The need to credit all relevant work motivates
everyone to develop an extensive map of the literature. The sheer
magnitude of the literature ensures that these maps will be anamorphic,
since nobody could ever read it all. The need to differentiate one's
work from everyone else's means that everyone's anamorphic map will be
centered in a different place than everyone else's. But the maps will
overlap a great deal. At least, everybody's map will overlap a great
deal with many other people's maps. Junior scholars typically have
very focused maps; senior scholars typically have more extensive maps.
The senior scholars, being older, have had more time to map things,
but one's role also shifts with seniority, so that one is called on
to set agendas and evaluate work that encompasses larger territories
beyond one's immediate speciality.
Anamorphism and overlap work together to keep the institutions of
research reasonably healthy. Peer review means that everyone's
work is evaluated, and feedback on it is generated, by people whose
maps overlap enough to evaluate it responsibly, but whose maps are
nonetheless different enough that fresh perspectives are brought
to bear. So I might write about the role of information technology
in higher education, but I make no claim to be a scholar of higher
education -- I've skimmed the journals in that area but am not deeply
immersed in them. A journal editor might therefore send my paper to
be reviewed by someone whose anamorphic map of the literature has its
dead center in the literature on higher education, someone for whom
the literature on higher education is three-quarters of the world,
just as Manhattan is three-quarters of the world for the people Saul
Steinberg had in mind. That limitations of that person's world view
might prevent them from fully understanding my argument, but I can
correct for that. In fact their misunderstanding will be useful,
because it will help me to unearth the unarticulated assumption that
was leading his or her interpretation of my argument onto a different
path from the one I had in mind. When this system is working right,
the institution can bring far more knowledge to bear on a question
than any individual could possibly bring alone. The institutions of
the research community provide an ordered diversity, diversity within
a common framework, so that everyone gets the benefit of feedback
from people who really know the subjects that their work touches upon.
Anamorphism and feedback are also important in social and political
terms. Two hundred years ago, people like Herder invented the idea
that people's ways of life are sorted into discrete cultures: German
culture, for example, or French, or Chinese. The historical context
of Herder's thought makes clear why this idea made sense: Germany at
that time was politically fragmented, and the idea of a unified German
culture was part of the political movement that led to a politically
unified German nation. Other nationalist movements found the idea of
a unified and discrete culture appealing as well, and in fact Herder's
ideas were anticipated in large part by an author in another fragmented
not-yet-nation, Giambattista Vico, who wrote in Naples. This idea of
discrete cultures, however, has had unfortunate consequences. If each
culture is an organic whole that expresses its totality in every word
and artifact, then overlap does not exist. Herder did believe that
it was possible to understand another culture, but only by getting
the entire culture into one's head through extensive scholarly study.
It must be said that there is some reason for skepticism about the
possibility of communication between cultures, given the capacity
of "civilizations" to stereotype one another to such an extent that
they don't even care to communicate. But the empirical fact is
that cultures are not discrete. German and Dutch cultures emphasize
their differences so strenuously precisely because they have so much
in common. There really are common themes among the Meditteranean
cultures -- overlapping elements that different subsets of the
cultures share. And the same is true for almost any geographically
adjacent cultures around the world.
Cultures, in other words, are really overlapping bundles of traits
rather than organic wholes. Cultures do work to integrate their
various traits, but in practice they can exist in contradiction and
tension as much as in organic unity. A culture is better understood
as a repertoire of themes, some of which are consistent with one
another and others of which are not. A culture's repertoire is always
available to its members, who appropriate whatever themes might be
useful for them for a given purpose, and the various themes get coded
and recoded through various movements and disputes over the course
of centuries. Once we understand all of this, the idea that cultures
are hermetically sealed from one another becomes less defensible.
Identity politics starts from this assumption of separate spheres, so
that every culture must be seen to have its own variety of science and
politics and everything else. Fortunately, the intellectual leaders
of identity politics -- if not the routinized identity movements
themselves -- have gotten beyond this simplistic view of cultures and
identities are separate worlds. By acknowledging both anamorphism and
overlap, it turns out, one can be oneself, value others, and presuppose
an extensive basis for communication and cooperation, without fearing
the return of a false conception of universality -- the impossible but
easily imagined idea of a perfect and complete map.
Anamorphism and overlap also help institutions to regulate themselves.
The legal system, for example, only works if every law lies at a point
of overlap of many different parties, each with different kinds of
interests. Most especially, each law should be monitored by diverse
interests who care mainly that the law be rational -- for example that
it be applied consistently and logically, without indefensible double
standards. Why is this abstract principle of rationality in anybody's
interest? Because they have other laws that they care about on a more
substantive level, and they want those laws to get applied in the way
they want. They need legal protection to do business, for example,
and they need to make sure that the legal system keeps working to that
end. Now, of course, the legal system doesn't always work in this
way. Every law tends create coherent classes of people whom it affects
asymmetrically, and those people will always try to pull against that
particular law on a substantive level in one direction or another.
The dangers of corruption are great, if only intellectual corruption,
and that's why it's important to have a large variety of third parties
whose interest in the issue is more abstract. People who are affected
by the law will always form large coalitions, for example to make it
easier or harder to file class action lawsuits, but the system will
only work correctly to the extent that even more players retain an
abstract interest in the outcome of the coalitions' struggle remain
rational, regardless of how it ends up substantively.
The same principle applies to every other institution. John Commons
points out that every institution has its own rules and its own
informal mechanisms for enforcing them, whatever formal mechanisms
it might also have. Institutions socialize people into their values,
or at least into their language and practices. And so long as most
participants in the institution retain a stake in its functioning,
they will act on their socialization to spontaneously enforce the
institution's rules. Again, this is not some kind of law of nature,
and we must inquire in every case to determine whether and how well
it works. If everyone is engaged in log-rolling then a new layer of
rules will emerge to regulate the processes by which people allow one
another to bend the official, public rules. Institutions that depend
on representation, delegation, and agency tend to suffer from this
sort of institutionalized log-rolling, but the result may well be more
efficient, and certainly more orderly and thus predictable, than any
known alternative. The point is that an institution's functioning is
dependent on the concerted interests of many parties whose standpoints
on a given issue differ but overlap.
The principles of anamorphism and overlap are hardly sufficient to
explain every aspect of institutions and their functioning. But they
do suggest ways to assess institutions and perhaps to improve them.
Does the institution socialize people to cultivate an anamorphic map
of the relevant world? What are those maps like? How focused or
broad are they, and how does the degree of focus or breadth depend on
an individual's location? How different are individuals' maps? Are
they randomly or systematically different? What incentives do people
have to map the world? Are there points of low overlap in the world,
such as borders between nations whose citizens know little about one
another? What kinds of mapping tools do the people have? What roles
do informal contacts play in extending people's maps, and then what
roles do formal mechanisms like journalism play? Are there adequate
mechanisms for drawing a diversity of people with overlapping maps
into the deliberations over a given issue? How do people even find
out when issues arise that fall in the middle ranges of their maps --
not 9th Avenue, perhaps, but not the single cactus in the West either?
Do overlaps in people's maps serve as the basis of systematic methods
for building social networks? If a citizen wants to know about topic
X, how easily can s/he find another citizen with an overlapping map
(so as to facilitate communication) that also includes X (so as to
facilitate learning)? Is it worth trying to make the maps explicit?
That way people could search for one another by their pattern of
knowledge. Do professions encourage their members to develop maps
that are too similar and not developed enough outside a parochical
boundary? How diverse are people's maps? Does everyone effectively
choose from a dozen stereotyped maps, or does every individual end
up with a unique map as a result of their unique interests and life
experience? What kinds of overlap is it useful for everybody's map to
have? Is intellectual diversity a scarce and dwindling resource, or
do modern knowledge institutions actually promote increased diversity
despite the leveling effects of global media and telecommunications?
What consequences do these phenomena have for the design of digital
libraries? How can we conceptualize anamorphism and overlap without
falling into the twin extremes of pretending that everybody knows
everything or that everybody knows nothing? How can people design
their own maps, aside from choosing the electives they take in school?
Can anamorphic maps be rationally designed? Is it possible to work
backward from life and career goals to the design and maintenance of
such maps? Is it possible to develop social networks that provide
access to people whose maps are complementary in the most useful ways?
Can the rationalization of anamorphic maps become an instrument of
social control? Is it good enough to have diversity in a standardized
framework, as for example in the case of the research community, or is
it also important for different people's knowledge to be organized in
quite different institutional ways?
Okay. Having sketched my intuition about the substantive analysis of
institutions, let's stop and appreciate my new phrase: "the principles
of anamorphism and overlap". Doesn't that sound impressive? A long
time ago I figured out that I could think better if I made up words
and phrases to name every intuition that started taking form in my
notebook. The very act of putting a name on an idea causes it to
take form. It causes me to notice examples of it, because you can
only see things that you have names for. It encourages me to multiply
questions about it, and compare it and contrast it to other ideas,
and so on. So I teach this to students. In fieldwork classes for
example, I send them out to interview, encourage them to explain what
they found interesting, and then we put a name on it. Sometimes I
compel them to make up their own name. They find this odd, because in
their experience names are just there, the taken-for-granted gift of
authorities, and not something that anyone can make up for themselves.
You too, I say, have a right to put names on things. In fact that's
one of the main ways that we make ourselves useful as scholars: if we
observe something and name it, then other people can observe it too.
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