Monday, October 20, 2008

The Intellectual World as Magazine Shop

Just back from "Family Weekend" at MIT (very well done, BTW) and catching up on things. The following appeared in the American Sociological Association's newsletter this month. It reminded me of the stunning fragmentation of intellectual discourse -- the number of mutually exclusive conversations going on at one time, even among those who claim membership in one discipline in one country.

Just when you thought it was safe to start reading again....
An Interdisciplinary Collection of Essays on the Zombie seeks proposals for an interdisciplinary volume discussing the zombie from a variety of perspectives and within a range of contexts. Submissions from all disciplines are invited. In addition to theoretical essays on zombies, we also welcome critical discussions of specific zombie films, novels, and graphic novels, including those both pre- and post-Romero. Proposals should be between 200 and 300 words. Include brief author biographical details with their submissions, including name and academic affiliation. Submit proposals either electronically or by regular mail. Deadline: October 31, 2008. Contact: Cory James Rushton, Dept. of English, St. Francis Xavier University, PO Box 5000, Antigonish, Nova Scotia, B2G 2W5, Canada;; or Christopher M. Moreman, Dept. of Philosophy, California State University-East Bay, 25800 Carlos Bee Blvd., Hayward, CA 94542;

My title refers to the fact that the value of targeted advertising can make it economical to publish magazines aimed at extremely small niche readerships. If you scan the titles in a magazine shop it's easy to start thinking, "there can't be that many people around here interested in moose hunting!" And you're right, there aren't. But the ones that are out there love reading that magazine and the sellers of moose hunting paraphernalia really need to reach them, not you. It's a small world with lots of villages.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Who Knows What Everybody Knows?

A few months ago I was hanging out with a group of folks from National Public Radio's "Next Generation Radio" Project. Participants were sitting around a room editing stories on their laptops. At some point one, who didn't strike me as a techie, showed one of the real tech whizzes that you could change the case of text in MSWord with a single command. He thought this was the coolest thing he had seen in a while.

I sat their trying to figure out how this guy who seemed like he knew way more about computers than I did could possibly not already know this. It reminded me of a bit from the Devil's Dictionary: "self evident -- evident to the self and no one else."

Relevance for the sociology of information? Any bit of information we possess potentially has a "meta-informational wrapper" that tells us who else knows it. We experience this wrapper along a continuum from, say, "I've got a secret" to "duh, everybody knows THAT." What's interesting, though, is how hard it is to achieve anything like 100% accuracy on this meta-informational front.

I was motivated to think about this while reading David Pogue's blog/column in the NYT the other day ("Tech Tips for the Basic Computer User"). In it he listed a few tips that are useful for those of us using computers -- things like "you can select a word by double clicking it." He doesn't come out and put it like this, but I think a take-away from the piece is that these are things that if we know them we don't think of them as "tips" -- they are just things one knows about the machines one uses. It's actually another cognitive step to recognize these taken-for-granted bits of know-how as things that lots of other people might not know. Nobody, after all, wants to pass along a tip that's not really a tip ("duh" hurts!).

Interestingly, the blog turns out to be a great vehicle for eliciting tips from folks without the disincentives of (1) worrying that the person you give the tip to will not think it is a tip, or (2) having to make the observation that the recipient does not know something so as to be "safe" in giving the tip. If you read the 1000 plus tips people have sent in, you will no doubt find some of them to be "obvious" and "well known" but others will provide an "aha" moment.

He suggests at one point that of all the stuff you know that "everybody probably knows" probably only 40% of everybody actually knows. I don't know about the numbers, but the point is a good one. Most of us are probably not very good estimators of how much of what we know is idiosyncratic, local, general, or universal knowledge.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Silence on the Soc of Info Front

Week's worth of silence here was due to a quick trip to Paris in the company of my partner, Gillian Hadfield, who was talking at a conference on new institutional economics. Sociologists spend a lot of time attacking their straw-person version of economics, but I find that I learn a whole lot from them, especially these smart institutional economists. Prediction: I'll probably start investing some serious time in learning more game theory. That probably sounds like apostasy to some of my sociology colleagues, but so be it; I find a catholic approach to things intellectual, and a disregard for disciplinary boundaries to be the most fruitful approach to understanding the social world. It's a hard nut to crack and we need all the tools we can find.

So, I'll be back on the information trail soon.

Oh: Paris was great. What a city!