Thursday, August 21, 2008

Notification Norms in the News

An article in the NYT today ("Welcome, Freshmen. Have an iPod" by J. Glater) would seem to be an "information" article because it was about colleges and universities giving students Iphones and trying to figure out how to use them in instruction and other college related activities. Yes, but since the story didn't really give us much in the way of ideas about how that would happen it was mostly just an empirically interesting story: "Hey, did you know this was going on?"

Buried in the piece, though, was a little bit of "information behavior":
It is not clear how many colleges plan to give out iPhones and iPods this fall; officials at Apple were coy about the subject and said they would not leak any institution’s plans.

“We can’t announce other people’s news,” said Greg Joswiak, vice president of iPod and iPhone marketing at Apple. He also said that he could not discuss discounts to universities for bulk purchases.
Nothing earth-shaking here, but reminder that there's another meaning of "property" when it comes to information and that information is often entangled with relationships.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Still Reaching Out to Touch Someone

On several occasions during the Olympics medal winners were observed to whip out their cell phones as soon as the final results were in to call home and let friends or family members know they had just won a medal. The information could get there through other channels (and maybe even faster if the event was broadcast live), of course, so it wasn't always about the simple transmission of information. The fact is, it does a lot for a relationship when it comes right from the source and right away. And you get to say a lot when you pick a particular friend out as the one you call first. The fact that a cell phone is small enough to have on hand, that international plans make it relatively inexpensive to call halfway around the world, and, maybe, the fact that the events ARE being broadcast live, create an imperative for competitors to make that quick call to those who really matter. One can imagine a mother in the Ukraine saying "I can't believe you let me find out about your gold medal on the TV news!" I think AT&T was just a little bit ahead of its time when it used to say, "reach out and touch somebody."

Telling Practices in the VP Selection Process

One part of Barack Obama's campaign strategy has been to build a network of supporters unlike any that's been built before in the U.S. An oft noted component of the organizational effort is the use of text messaging. One purpose of this is, of course, mobilization, and, specifically, rapid mobilization of supporters to rallies or to quash rumors and such. In addition to this, though, there is a symbolic function that almost certainly enhances the solidarity of the network: via the text messaging functions of their cell phones, supporters can be the first to receive campaign news. According to today's NYT ("Obama Ready to Announce Running Mate" by Adam Nagourney and Jeff Zeleny), within the next few days, if all goes according to plan, they will find out about his choice of running mate directly from the campaign (maybe even directly from him) rather than having to "read about it in the papers" or "hear it on the evening news." This is a great example of using technology to achieve a profoundly social accomplishment on a massive scale—using notification to build social relationships.

There's an interesting tension between the ordinary hierarchical structure of the campaign organization and it's more egalitarian mass base. The VP vetting committee consists of a small inner-circle at the top. Under "ordinary" circumstances, we would expect some initial spreading of the news through a few other levels of inner-circle, but, apparently, that won't be quite how it works:

"…Mr. Obama’s deliberations remain remarkably closely held. Aides said perhaps a half-dozen advisers were involved in the final discussions in an effort to enforce a command that Mr. Obama issued to staff members: that his decision not leak out until supporters are notified."

And even the future VP nominee is not in the loop:

"Mr. Obama had not notified his choice — or any of those not selected — of his decision as of late Monday, advisers said."

Some of these considerations are purely instrumental attempts to maximize media impact, of course, but there's relational information in them thar hills too: each player learns where s/he stands in the information order and can decode this to ascertain where s/he stands in the pecking order.

Friday, August 08, 2008

For the "Organization of Ignorance" File

News reports (e.g., Daily Journal, alas, by subscription) and blogs today mention the lawsuit brought by UCLA economist and law professor Richard Sander and others (including the California First Amendment Coalition) against the State Bar of California to obtain race tagged info on bar exam results. He wants the data for a research project testing his hypothesis that minorities who are admitted to elite law schools because of preferences are done a disservice and that they'd be better off going to mid-tier schools where they were admitted without preferences.

Why mention it here? Chances are most readers of the story will have strong opinions one way or another based on their political position on affirmative action. Well enough, me too. The story is filed here under "the organization of ignorance," though, as an example of information that exists and that could enlighten society about itself but that one group or another has specifically organized to keep "unknown." Debates about what data the census should or should not collect are another example.

Ironically, some of the players in the debate over this particular issue were also active in the so-called "racial privacy initiative" campaigns of a few years back. That proposal, which failed, would have made the collection of race-based data illegal. What all these efforts have in common is the fact that they are attempts to deliberately create blindspots in the information order. The motives may differ in each case (and may appeal to different political positions), but the form is the same: for one reason or another, we think we'd be better off if we did not know.

Note that this is an entirely different issue from when we decide that something would be too expensive and not cost-effective to find out (as when legislators decide not to spend money on a big physics experiment that might uncover the nature of the universe).

Background Links

September 2007 article on

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Democracy and the Information Order

Gillian Hadfield (USC Law) and I just gave a paper at the annual meetings of the American Sociological Association called "Democracy, Courts and the Information Order." The paper brings together Gillian's work on the 9/11 victims' compensation fund (VCF) and my work on the information norms that govern social relationships.

What does the latter mean? Imagine, for a moment, that you get fired one day. You head home at the usual time, though, and greet your partner as usual, have a drink and a nice dinner and watch some T.V. Then, around 10 p.m. you say, "Oh, by the way, I got fired today." Your partner is furious: "how could you just sit there for the last three hours and not say anything?" "What difference would it make? It's not like you can get me my job back. I just wanted to enjoy a nice dinner with you." And you are right. But so is your partner. Anyone who understands what a spouse is will tell you: spouses have implicit expectations about the sorts of information that they share with one another and when. Sitting on the fact that you got fired for several hours is simply unacceptable. The argument that inevitably follows the above event will, in part, be a debate about what kind of information obligations are implicit in any spousal relationship -- not just yours.

And all the rest of our social relationships come with socially defined and constantly negotiated "notification norms" too. All day long we get feedback on where we stand in our various relationships through what kinds of information we are given and what kinds of messages come along with it ("I shouldn't be telling you but..." or "You're the only one I've told" or "Just don't let him know you heard it from me."). In particular, when we experience relationships as equal, there are symmetric expectations. We don't have to swap identical information, but a friend who keeps an ear out for information related to, say, my hobbies, would expect that I would pass along similar information (although perhaps on some other avocation). When the expectations and performances are not symmetric, we recognize that our relationship is not an equal one. The boss, then, might tell the secretary that she will be out of the office for a few hours but the secretary needs to explain why she needs to take an extra hour for lunch. The parent can ask the teenager where he is going for the evening and when he will be home, but the teen cannot demand the same information of the parent.

In the 9/11 VCF data (and in many other cases -- plentiful enough that examples are in the news almost every week -- some (1, 2, 3) have been written up on this blog), victims' families expressed a high level of ambivalence about accepting a cash payout but giving up their right to go to court. Over and over again one hears "It's not about the money -- I just want to find out what happened -- I just want to be able to ask why this happened."

In the paper we argue that the conventional interpretations of such statements (dismissing them as disingenuous or as "merely" emotional) misses the mark. They point, we claim, to an important function of courts in democratic societies that can be lost if the focus is exclusively on the financial damages. We argue that private law (that is, civil suits between persons as opposed to either criminal cases or cases between the state and individuals or corporations) courts serve a democratic function in society insofar as they provide an arena in which formal equality is experienced through the implementation of information norms that characterize equal relationships. Though in everyday life the more powerful routinely say to the less powerful "I don't have to tell you," in court they may not. As soon as a suit is filed -- importantly NOT only when there has been a judgment of wrongdoing -- the parties to the suit are transformed into abstract actors who get to ask, and are compelled to answer, questions relevant to the legal issue that underlies the case. We contend that the existence of an arena in which empirically unequal actors can experience the formal equality they are promised in a democracy (where all are equal before the law) is a critical component of a democratic society.