Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Who Uses That?

As the year wraps up I'm going over unpublished drafts of posts.  Came across this one from September that hints at (or at least resonates with) the posts on "infermation."

In our bathroom stands a toothbrush stand and in that toothbrush stand stands a gum stimulator.  It is/was mine, but I rarely use it.  It's basically abandoned property -- to the point that I sometimes look at it and wonder whose it is.

I was looking at it today and had a "take the role of the other" moment.  I wondered what other members of my household made of the gum stimulator.  I felt pretty sure that they (OK, I'm talking about one person in particular, so "she") took it to be mine;  she knows it as "Dan's gum stimulator."  There is no way she can detect the change in the object's status -- the fact that it's become an abandoned artifact, that I look at it and don't know whose it is (but at some level I remember because I haven't yet thought it was hers)  -- because if it is used, or rather when it was used, it was used in private.  Her access to the object is the same as it ever was: "not mine, only one other person routinely uses this bathroom, must be his.").

This started me thinking about the general category of things that are in plain sight, but about which one has no direct, experience based knowledge of who uses them or what they are used for because they are used by whoever it is that uses them out of our purview.

Those keyboxes at various locations in office buildings.  The number tags on utility poles.  Spray painted numbers on streets.  

This brings up a series of related socio-epistemological categories.  Equipment that's used out of sight and generally kept out of sight, is closely related to the above.  Perhaps we need a distinction between the mysterious (stuff that you just don't know who uses it how for what) about which one could become curious, but usually does not, and stuff that you presume is used by particular others for perhaps known purposes (though, in fact, like my gum stimulator it might be used for nothing by no one).  Then there are the things that I know are yours but I have no idea what you do with them (tools, perhaps) and am just comfortably ignorant.  Another category might be things that are superficially shared but that embody some of the secret side of the other.  And so on.

The point, I think, is related to Simmel's observation that one can never know the other entirely.  That's one of his a prioris of the human social condition.  This extends to objects which we know (or suspect) to be objectifications of subjectivity (made by, used by, related to) without fully grasping the subjectivity they embody.


Information about Infermation

Alas, it turns out that I (and my Bangalore colleague) may not be able to claim coinage of the term "infermation" as introduced in a recent post.  The term shows up in 2004 in LexiconWiki, a wiki for playing a variant of the Lexicon Game.  The initial definition there is different from ours:
Infermation is what we can know about something from reports of that thing.
since our definition distinguished three categories: (1)  information derived from experience,  (2) information derived from the experience of others (and reported to us and taken as the case because of trust in the provenance), and finally, (3) that which can be inferred from either of these by the application of some sort of logic -- infermation

But they add an interesting twist as their definition continues:
Infermation is most commonly available about long lost texts, and the pattern of human history means that many sources of Infermation are several generations removed from the thing under examination.
You may rightly be getting suspicious of this source as it is starting to sound odd (and it gets odder), but, let's do note that there are some things that would fit both definitions.  Two examples that come to mind are proto-languages and "ur-texts."  For historical linguists, known languages and the logic of linguistics allow us to infer the existence of proto-indoeuropean, even though no examples have ever been found.  Similarly, we sometimes posit the existence of a never found "ur-text" that must have preceded some known text.  So far so good, but their definition starts to head off into other directions after this,  progressively verging on nonsense (in the conventional, not Wittgensteinian, sense):
Sources may, obviously, vary a great deal, ranging from direct assessments, both academic and popular, of the thing in question, to notes and references, index lists, bibliographies, catalogues and assorted general remarks. The acceptance of Infermation as valid and valuable has allowed academics to make many advances that would otherwise have been impossible. The Infermatic industry, which first flourished on Alphas, has grown throughout the academic community, promoting and assessing the use of Infermation and producing dedicated Infermatics for both academic and general consumption. [read more]
From there the 2004 source veers more and more off the road.  After intense scrutiny, my confidence in our (re-)coinage has returned.  Maybe I should have typed "infermation tm"

Stop! What's going on in your head right now??

Noted with interest: "Taking Mental Snapshots to Plumb Our Inner Selves*."  A UNLV psych professor, R. Hurlburt, tries to do some systematic phenomenology by having research subjects report on their "inner states" at randomly chosen moments.

His critics say you can't expect research subjects to be honest, that they "twist" responses to conform to their biases or what they think the researcher's expects, and that the problem is you can't capture these inner state "as they happen" but only in retrospect (even if relatively short amounts of retro).  The most illuminating comment was "The experience sampling work is a reasonable first step, but only that; the claims need to be followed up and backed up by objective studies."

Objective studies these days usually means brain-imaging studies.  Another expert interviewed for the article noted "[t]he brain imaging setting is very sterile." 

What's in it for us as sociologists of information?  Nice concrete example of the epistemological clash between objectivity and introspection and question of "know-ability."  One scientist quoted in the story noted that there might be "no good way to study [the] question [of inner experience content]." Hurlburt himself notes that he may be up to what William James described as "turning up the gas to see what darkness looks like."

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Infermation : A New Concept

My tracking software tells me that a reader from Bangalore arrived here this morning from a google search for cricles and infermation. After a chuckle at the misspellings, I was intrigued by the fact that one of my posts was the second search result until I noticed that I'd engaged in a bit of SEOing by introducing the same typo into that post's title last February :"Notificational Webs in Cricles of Friends".

More importantly, though, this little bit of synergistic finger slippage has led me to (collaboratively, I'd have to say) formulate a new concept: infermation.

What is "infermation"? All that I know about the world that is neither from direct experience nor from reports from trusted sources, but is implied by all that stuff when operated on by whatever tools of logic and entailment I have at hand. These of course, will be context dependent (framing) and "mood" dependent (am I feeling hyper-rational just now?) and so on. Gives us a nice taxonomy of "my world": experience based information, received information, a set of inferential tools, and all of my "infermation."

Still lots to work out on this (and some hard thinking to do about what existing concepts it recapitulates) but it looks promising. So, thanks to that provocative mis-typer on the other side of the world.

Sexting: New Info about an Info Behavior

Pew Internet and American Life Project came out with a new report on "sexting" today. The basic findings: prevalence of sexting "ever" among teens overall is in the 10-20% range. Sexting seems to be an evolving element in teen "courtship behavior."

I was disappointed, though, with the "just-this-side-of-moral-crusading" feel of the report. The tone is not explicitly alarmist, but it is a soft ball pitch to those who will turn it into media hoo-ha.  Expect a number of misleading articles to appear in the media to be followed by researchers decrying media distortion.  But whose fault: consider the flaws in just this one report in terms of what we give the media to work with.

A Hesitance to Criticize Previous Research
As background they describe previous surveys, done by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and others. One found ~20% of teen participants had sent and ~30% had recieved a sexually suggestive picture or video of themselves to someone via email, cell phone or by another mode. In another 9% had sent, 3% had forwarded one, and 17% had received. All of these surveys seemed to have some methodological problems that would put wide-error bars on these numbers but the report just hints at these.

Slightly Fuzzy Numbers
This report is based on a survey of 800 young people plus focus groups.In the new study, the acknowledged margin of error for the full sample of 800 is about +/- 4%. For subgroups, it will be higher -- for the 1/6 sample of each age year, for example, it's about +/- 8%.

And then the report says
4% of all cell-owning teens ages 12-17 report sending a sexually suggestive nude or nearly-nude photo or video of themselves.... [among t]he oldest teens in our sample – those aged 17 – ... 8% ... hav[e] sent one, compared to 4% of those age 12.....
But given the margin of error, all we can say is that somewhere between 0 and 8% of all teens and somewhere between 0 and 16% of 17 year olds have sent a suggestive picture of themselves.  The authors do a great job of including background on the survey and footnoting margins of error and such but they leave it up to the savvy reader to make something of these.  All these numbers are pretty small -- this reader, at least, thinks responsible researchers should do a little more to drive home this point than this report does.

A Missing "Network" Angle
The authors don't make much of the fact that the number of folks who have sent is consistently lower than the number who have received. This implies, and their qualitative data seems not to deny, that the practice is not informally controlled by a norm of "just between you and me babe" and that the ease of distribution and the difficulty of detection and potential for sheer high volume make the transaction costs of informal control prohibitive.  Obvious, but important.

Percentaging in the Wrong Direction
The media pitch is furthered by doing percentages in arguably the wrong way. Consider this paragraph:
Teens who receive sexually suggestive images on their cell phones are more likely to say that they use the phone to entertain themselves when bored; 80% of sexting recipients say they use their phones to combat boredom, while 67% of teens who have not received suggestive images on their phone say the same. Teens who have received these images are also less likely to say that they turn off their phones when it is not otherwise required – 68% of receiving teens say they generally do not turn off their phones when they do not have to, and 46% of teens who have not received suggestive images by text report the same “always on” behavior (page 6).
As is, it risks being parody: those who receive naughty pictures are more likely to use their phones to combat boredom than those who do not! But presumably the point here is to compare types of cell phone users and so the percentages should be done the other way round: among boredom combatters, what percent get baudy pictures? A quick, back of the envelope recalculation* suggests it would look like this:

Use vs.
Not vs.
Received ~108

No Received ~445


That's actually a little more compelling (and certainly easier to make sense of). The rate is twice as high among the "I use my phone to combat boredom" group. But both are relatively low.

A similar methods 101 error is made when reporting what interventions make sense:
One parental intervention that may relate to a lower likelihood of sending of sexually suggestive images was parental restriction of text messaging. Teens who sent sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images were less likely to have parents who reported limiting the number of texts or other messages the teen could send. Just 9% of teens who sent sexy images by text had parents who restricted the number of texts or other messages they could send; 28% of teens who didn’t send these texts had parents who limited their child’s texting (page 12).

It is unlikely that the authors are thinking that sexting causes parental restrictions -- the sense is just the opposite -- and so the percentaging should be within the categories of parental behavior and comparison across these.  This should look like this (again, based on quick, back of the envelope, calculations*).

No Parental

Ever Sent ~3

Never Sent


Again, this doesn't overturn the take-away -- it might even be argued that it strengthens it: lack of parental cell phone restriction associated with a 3 to 4 fold increase in the behavior -- but we researchers should put our best practices forward to as we dump our results and findings into the information environment around us.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Mind the Gap

Slatest passes along a story, "Military Wasn't Told of Fort Hood Shooter's E-Mails," that appeared in today's Wall Street Journal as "Agencies See Gaps in Sharing."

The Slatest post is a great example of saying "OHMYGOD...actually might not be much of a story here," the WSJ article is a little less so. Both make out the story to be "we spent millions after 9/11 to improve information sharing but here's a clear case where information wasn't shared just like in olden days" (with the implication (though the articles admit this is not a sure thing) that things might have turned out differently if information had been shared).

Some sociology of information fundamentals at work here. The WSJ article actually describes what sounds like a pretty thorough process of assessing whether or not to pass along information. For what sound like good reasons, the decision was not to. Now, maybe they need to revisit the structure of their decision process (and this is not necessarily true as no one appears to have shown that the information would have made a difference), but that's different from the story being that agencies are not sharing information.

A senate official is quoted saying "[a]ll signs are indicating that something wasn't put together." But this might be misleading. The article uses a favorite phrase from 2001, "connecting the dots," and speaks of "intelligence gaps." I think both of these are uttered too glibly and unanalytically. These sorts of events bring out massive displays of "hindsight bias" -- the tendency to see things after the fact as a lot more predictable than they really were.

There is probably also a problem with the geometric metaphor of intelligence gaps. We might be able to distinguish topological gaps (information in one place does not reach another place) from topographical gaps (the empty spots in information that any particular knower has access to). When an event like Fort Hood occurs, we start to fantasize about a world in which the gaps pointed to by hindsight would have been bridged over. But to guarantee that we probably need to posit a world in which there are no gaps, but that's a world in which everyone knows everything and without a division of informational labor, the whole thing grinds to a halt.

We need to zero in on how humans share relevant information with those for whom the information is relevant. Competent nodes in an information network have good working models of the relevance systems of the nodes they are connected with. We don't want to eliminate intelligence gaps, we want to make the gaps (read links) more intelligent. And that probably comes most from interaction. And that's something that organizations and agencies are not naturally prone to. What the analysts should look at is what we've spent the millions of dollars on in our quest to fix the intelligence gaps rather than just implying that the effort has been wasted.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Information Abhors a Vacuum?

Great essay today by Scott Simon on NPR's Weekend Edition. He called it "The Bombastic Fog Engulfs Fort Hood."

Long story short: very quickly after the events at Ft. Hood on Thursday afternoon there were items appearing in the media providing all manner of explanation of things that might or might not have anything to do with those events.

Simon's initial diagnosis is the structure of modern mass communication itself " these days where almost anyone can find some kind of audience." A certain kind of event, such as mass killings on the U.S. Army post, "encourages people to analyze and speculate in advance of a lot of actual facts."

He goes on to give a few other examples and then zeroes in on how journalists ran with the idea of pilot fatigue when some airline pilots missed their destination a few weeks back, making the jump from the speculation of experts in the absence of direct knowledge of the circumstances and details of an event to research on the science and politics of pilot fatigue. Any number of stories along this line were produced only to be proven irrelevant (in Simon's on-the-mark characterization) when, upon investigation, it turns out the pilots were playing with their laptop computers.

This reminds me of a few things. One is the propensity of some journalists (and some social scientists, too) to decide very early on "what the story is." That's what your editor wants to know as soon as you pitch an idea -- what's the story, what's the angle? We've all been contacted by a reporter looking for a quote that confirms a particular line they've decided to take in the story or a student who is looking for some research that supports a particular conclusion she wants to draw.

The second thing is that competition for eyeballs and ears forces people who talk and write for a living to talk and write whether or not they have anything to add to our collective knowledge.  Dead air is bad.

Those are professional errors, malpractice, if you will, even if of a mundane sort.

There's probably something else going on too -- something more at the "information order" level than the professional practice level. It is fundamentally difficult for a community to learn of an "untethered" fact (unconnected, that is, to a story that grounds it in the web of our taken-for-granted worldview (Weltanschauung)) without someone stepping up to tell a story that does ground it in the known. 

And so, the urge that insiders sometimes have to not announce something prematurely "because it will lead to speculation" is probably not nearly the pathology we often make it out to be. 

After listening to the essay I began to think about thought experiments in how to balance the incentives.  If, as Simon says (that phrase was going to come up in this essay sooner or later), it's because its so easy to "find some kind of an audience" (or at least a soapbox around which there could be an audience), then maybe we (members of the chattering classes -- both amateur and professional) should give some consideration to what we'd say if there were a word tax as well as a word rate.  If what you have to say turns out to be irrelevant, not only do you not get your $2 per word, you actually have to pay the rest of us for the bit of our information universe you filled up with worthless drivel.

Notification on TV

Once you start thinking about notification, you see it everywhere. Just in the last few days, it's figured centrally in episodes of PBS's "Masterpiece Mystery: Inspector Lewis" and AMC's "Madmen" (see also 9.20.2008 and 9.8.2008).

In episode 12, "The Grownups," Pete chats with Harry with the TV turned down. The audience can see Walter Cronkite talking about a news flash from Dallas but Pete and Harry are too engrossed in their conversation. We cringe knowing what they don't know but are about to find out. Other characters then crowd into Harry's office to watch the news. Don emerges from his boss's office to see the main work area basically empty but all the phones ringing. He's beside himself trying to figure out what's going on. Then he does. Later a few of the characters talk about the fact that they "just had to call" so and and so (this even though news of the assassination was one of the most quickly diffused messages in history up to that point.

And, of course, about half of the dramatic tension of the entire show is generated by all the secrets kept by characters from one another (with the audience tipped off and forced to watch painfully as characters they care about remain in the dark).

SPOILER ALERT. In the "Inspector Lewis" episode titled "The Quality of Mercy," Lewis' Sergeant discovers some information about Lewis' wife's death a few years earlier. He gets the info on a phone call while Lewis is sitting next to him but says "oh, nothing" when Lewis asks him what it was about. When he eventually tells Lewis later that day, Lewis is furious and takes it as a sign that their relationship is really quite flawed. Sergeant Hathaway explains that he withheld the information because of their relationship, but Lewis pretty much says "we don't even have one if you thought it was O.K. to wait to tell me."

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Information Forms in Everyday Life

News in recent years have featured a wide-array of "information problems" as background story. Setting a few of these side-by-side lets us get a sense of what I mean by "informational forms."

"Stove-piping" happens when "raw information" is inappropriately transmitted directly to higher-ups without being "vetted" which refers to systematic "sifting, disambiguating, analyzing" (Wikipedia).

In news organizations and financial organizations information can threaten conflicts of interest and so "firewalls" or "Chinese walls" are maintained : an information barrier that prevents members in one part of the organization from knowing what's going on in another part (news and advertising in journalism, analysis and investment in banking).

When this effect is generated inadvertently we have "information silos" -- situations in which entities have information that one, the other, or both could benefit from sharing that does not occur because of ignorance, lack of compatible systems, or organizational jealousies.

There are also cases where the problem is neither a deficit of information in a particular organizational location nor disregard for standard procedures but variations on information overload or "too much information" (see post from 20080915). In these situations we have real world phenomena generating so much information that it's nearly impossible to construct an apparatus that is up to the task of figuring out what it means. At one extreme we have issues of transparency and democracy -- is there a point at which more information does not help voters make informed decisions because they simply can't expend the energy necessary to make sense of the information? At the other is information -- and here the financial industry is the example -- that's simply too difficult for those who need to understand it to understand.

Next, I'll work on turning these preliminary examples into a typology of information forms -- identifying the underlying dimensions along which they are arrayed with hope of completing the typology with as yet unexamined forms.

Friday, October 09, 2009

The Social Organization of Collective Blindspots

Floyd Norris has a piece in the NYT under the headline "When Law Obscures The Facts."  In it he describes a -- fill in a word that is the opposite of a loophole -- in the 1995 Private Securities Litigation Reform Act.  The law was passed at the urging of corporations to limit what they saw as "frivolous" investor lawsuits.  One of its provisions, according to Norris, is investor lawsuits that allege fraud must be highly specific and concrete about what the fraud was or be subject to summary dismissal.

This means the suit can be dismissed before the plaintiff gets to do any discovery.  And so there's this Catch-22: you can't sue unless you can detail the fraud, but you can't detail the fraud unless you can force the defendant to disclose information.

The irony that drives Norris' article is that in the wake of the 2008 collapse of the auction-rate securities market a lot of corporate investors that had purchased these securities are being excluded from settlements in which Wall Street is reimbursing other investors.

There are various theories about what happened in this market.  The guy who invented it, Ron Gallatin, thinks it was a matter of salespersons simply not understanding what they were selling.  Others think it was more explicitly fraud that led to investors buying things that they didn't know what they were.

As Norris puts it:
If there ever is a wide-ranging trial, we might get to see which issues of auction-rate securities were owned by Wall Street firms in the summer and fall of 2007, and how much they sold before the collapse. We might learn if the firms understood risks they did not mention to customers.

But that will not happen if judges continue to prevent such cases from proceeding even to the discovery process. Corporations that cheered the 1995 law may discover it keeps them from having a chance to recover their own losses.
This episode goes into the file for my chapter on "the social organization of ignorance" -- another example of  how institutions and structures can systematically reduce the amount of information available in the social world.  It's related to "democracy and the information order," as Gillian Hadfield and I have written about (also the subject of several other posts in this blog: here and here),  reminds us a bit of Robert Proctor's concept of "agnotology," and resonates at least a little  with some points raised by Mark Danner in an NYRB article about torture last spring (where he argued that we need to know the answer to the question "did it work?" in order to have a responsible political discussion)

Works Mentioned
  1. Danner, Mark.  2009.  "US Torture: Voices from the Black Sites: ICRC Report on the Treatment of Fourteen "High Value Detainees" in CIA Custody by the International Committee of the Red Cross" New York Review of Books Volume 56, Number 6 · April 9, 2009
  2. Hadfield, Gillian and Dan Ryan.  2008.  "Democracy and the Information Order"
  3. Proctor, Robert N. and Londa Schiebinger (eds.).  2008. Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance.  Stanford University Press.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Surveilance Raised to the Second Power

The following article appear about a week ago over the AP business wire. It turns out that parents who "spy" on their children may be unwittingly helping corporations to spy on them too. It's very valuable to folks in marketing to know what kids are talking about. If you believe the companies that make/sell the child surveillance software to parents, the information being collected is not associated with the kids' names but it is tagged with information about the kid (ironically, often entered by the parent when s/he sets the software up in the first place).

One easy take-away is the idea that norms about spying on kids are highly dependent on who is doing the spying and why. If you have legal custody of the kid and you are trying to protect her from predators, spy away. If you are a commercial entity who wants to listen in to the kids' chats, you're crossing the line.

Bunch of sociology of information questions emerge in what looks in the article to be real mishmosh of thinking about this phenomenon. We see talk of "targeting children" (by marketers), "putting the children's information at risk" (not really sure what that means), legal issues of collecting data from kids and having parents' permission implied if software is installed, and so on. What doesn't get thematized is that this is yet another example of trading a service for your information. In pure economic terms it can be written off as an exchange, that, if people do it, must be identifying an equivalence in value (as in, "it's worth it to me to play this game at the cost of the provider can observe what kind of music I like"). In fact, though, I suspect that these dimensions of value are more orthogonal than is being pretended. It works because of multiple slights of hand -- one isn't really sure what information one is giving up or what is happening to it or one doesn't get to evaluate those questions until after certain commitments have been made or it's just plain too complicated to find out.

Look for another post soon about FaceBook applications and quizzes and the kinds of information give-aways and grab-ups that they involve.

Web-monitoring software gathers data on kid chats

* By DEBORAH YAO, AP Business Writer - Fri Sep 4, 2009 5:16PM EDT

Parents who install a leading brand of software to monitor their kids' online activities may be unwittingly allowing the company to read their children's chat messages — and sell the marketing data gathered.

Software sold under the Sentry and FamilySafe brands can read private chats conducted through Yahoo, MSN, AOL and other services, and send back data on what kids are saying about such things as movies, music or video games. The information is then offered to businesses seeking ways to tailor their marketing messages to kids.

"This scares me more than anything I have seen using monitoring technology," said Parry Aftab, a child-safety advocate. "You don't put children's personal information at risk." [Read More...]

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The "Is More Information Always Better?" File

Monica Davey's article "Case Shows Limits of Sex Offender Alert Programs" in the NYT (2 Sept 2009)raises a number of interesting sociology of information issues.

The basic story is that sex offender registration policies did not seem to do much good in the case of a California man found out last week to have kidnapped a young girl and held her for 19 years in his back yard. The alleged perpetrator was a registered sex offender, reported regularly to a parole officer, and wore a GPS tracking device, and law enforcement officials had visited and looked around his home.

It is, I think, a bit of a red herring to argue that this case shows a weakness of the registry system as it exists. But the conversation does point to some important issues about the mechanisms by which we expect "public information" to produce "public goods."

So what are the questions here? The most obvious one, expressed in general terms, is how much prevention does tracking actually provide? Another is whether or not the zealous inclusion of every minor sex-related offense (the article cites, as an example, a one-time flasher) over-taxes law enforcement and blinds society to "the real problems." A proponent of registries who was quoted in the article said
“Look, nobody ever suggested that registering sex offenders is going to remove sex offenders from the planet, but let’s at least make sure they’re not working in your elementary school or coaching the soccer team.”
I don't think the research is entirely clear as to whether the law accomplishes this or not, but it points to an interesting question. The registries are online and searchable, with the idea that this amounts to information empowerment that keeps state officials accountable -- a kind of open-government move: if the official don't do their job, the public will find out. But, of course, "the public" suffers from the same information overload that police departments do. Knowing that there are 1500 registered sex offenders in your county may not be all that helpful in terms of making decisions about where to live, send your kids to school or how high a fence to build around your pool. Some "experts" say we should make some distinctions and prioritize rather than lumping teenage sex in the same category as a violent rape and kidnapping. But that raises 5he challenging problem of where to draw the line. I'll bet the equilibrium in that game is always over on the side of TMI -- too much information to be really useful. In other words, most collectives would opt for more information than they can "make sense of" even if it means they will "see" less than if they had less information.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Let's Take It Seriously

To my colleagues in higher education: Let's take assessment and accountability seriously AS AN INSTITUTION. There is a tendency to equate assessment with measuring what professors do to/with students. The buzz word is "accountability" and there's this unspoken assumption that the locus of lack of accountability in higher education is the faculty. I think that assumption is wrong.

We should broaden the concept of assessment to the whole institution. Course instructors get feedback on an almost daily basis -- students do or don't show up for class; instructors face 20 to 100 faces projecting boredom or engagement several times per week; students write papers and exams that speak volumes about whether they are learning anything; advisees tell faculty about how good their colleagues are. By contrast, the rest of the institution has little, if any, opportunity for feedback. It's important: one substandard administrative act can affect the entire faculty, so even small things can have a big negative effect on learning outcomes.

In the name of accountability throughout the institution I propose something simple, but concrete: every form or memo should have a "feedback button" on it. Clicking on this button will allow "users" anonymously to offer suggestions or criticism. These should be recorded in a blog format -- that is, they accumulate and are open to view. At the end of each year, the accountable officer would be required in her or his annual report to tally these comments and respond to them, indicating what was learned, what changes have been made or why changes were not made.

The important component of this is that the comments are PUBLIC so that constituents can see what others are saying. Each "user" can see whether her ideas are commonly held or idiosyncratic and the community can know what kind of feedback an office is receiving and judge its responsiveness accordingly.

Why anonymous? This is feedback, not evaluation. This information cannot be used to penalize or injure anyone. The office has opportunity to respond either immediately or in an annual report. Crank comments will be weeded out by sheer numbers and users who will contradict them. In the other direction, it is clear that honest feedback can be compromised by concerns about retribution, formal or informal. Further analysis along these lines would further support the idea that comments should be (at least optionally) anonymous.

We should note that we already do all of this in principle -- many offices around campus have some version of a "suggestion box." What is missing is (1) systematic and consistent implementation so that users get accustomed to the process of providing feedback, and (2) a protocol for using the feedback to enrich the community knowledge pool and to build it into an actual accountability structure.

The last paragraph makes the connection to a sociology of information. Information asymmetries (as when the recipient knows what the aggregate opinion is, but the "public" does not) and the atomization of polities (this is what happens when opinion collection is done in a way that minimizes interactions among the opinion holders -- cf. Walmart not wanting employees to discuss working conditions -- preventing the formation of open, collective knowledge*) are a genuine obstacle to organizational improvement. Many, many private organizations have learned this; it's not entirely surprising that colleges and universities are the last to get on board.

* as opposed, say, to things that might be called "open secrets"

Monday, August 17, 2009

Conference on Information and Networks

A Workshop on Information in Networks (WIN) will be held at the Stern School at NYU in late September. Here's how they describe what they are up to:
The increasing availability of massive networked data is revolutionizing the scientific study of a variety of phenomena in fields as diverse as Computer Science, Economics, Physics and Sociology. Yet, while many important advances have taken place in these different communities, the dialog between researchers across disciplines is only beginning. The purpose of WIN is to bring together leading researchers studying ‘information in networks’ – its distribution, its diffusion, its value, and its influence on social and economic outcomes – in order to lay the foundation for ongoing relationships and to build a lasting multidisciplinary research community.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Madoff, Courts, Information, and Reform

NPR's All Things Considered carried a piece on 29 June titled "Madoff Victim: Financier's Apology Does Nothing" that contained an interview with, Miriam Siegman, an investor who lost her life's savings to Madoff who had spoken in court at the sentencing hearing. The interviewer asks Siegman whether the experience offered any catharsis.
It did not:I guess not really and the reason I say that is...what I think all of us had hoped for was the truth that might have come up at trial. You know, when you have a trial you have subpoena power and people get on the stand and are cross-examined....
She goes on to say that she worries that there will be meaningful changes to the system.

When a comment like this is heard from someone engaged in a lawsuit we sometimes dismiss it as window dressing covering up the fact that, really, "it's about the money." But in this case the statement comes from someone who (1) is not going to receive money, (2) has, in fact, already lost all her money, and (3) who got from the court one result she wanted -- a maximal sentence for the defendant.

Two things are sociologically interesting here. First, Ms. Siegman says "I think all of us had hoped for" and she speaks of change of the system. These are not empty and platitudinous comments, I think. This is an example of "speaking for society." In fact, the judge, in explaining the 150 year sentence he imposed, spoke of the importance of symbolism, an important dimension of "the social." But Ms. Siegman's answer points us toward something important. The interviewer was asking "did the courtroom process provide you with any emotional or psychological benefit?" and she replied not just "no" but by changing the terms of the question. This is not about the emotional payoff from "having one's say" but rather about the court as a venue where we, collectively, can find out, as equals, what others, who have set themselves over us (she'd earlier said that she felt that Madoff had treated his victims like "roadkill") know. This is precisely the "informational equality" that Gillian Hadfield and I have written about under the phrase "Democracy and the Information Order" (also the subject of several other posts in this blog: here and here).

Siegman's statement is a perfect illustration of the social value of the informational role of courts. The victims got the most they could have hoped for on the vengeance dimension, but because the case was settled with a plea bargain they were denied something important. Legal efficiency was perhaps achieved -- punishment was meted out at minimum expense. But perhaps this was done at a cost: a deficit in the democratic function of law -- victims and non-victims, equal members of the democratic polity are left wondering how this happened, how this could happen. It may be that various official inquiries by the SEC, by congressional panels, by the Madoff trustee, or by investigative journalism will ferret out answers to such questions, but the victims, the people, will be passive recipients of the information produced by those processes, not equal participants in the asking.

And she may also be right on a social-efficiency dimension: reform might be more likely if the courts got to play this informational role in a case like this. But that's an empirical question.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Google, Trademarks, Society, and Information

Reports today of a potential class action lawsuit against Google on behalf of trademark holders in Texas. At issue, apparently, is Google practice of allowing companies to "buy" as search words the trademark of a competitor. Thus, Dell, for example, could pay Google so that when someone searches for "Gateway," Dell appears high in the search results or a Dell ad appears in the "sponsored links" box.

Apparently, trademark owners say that this "use" of a trademark is violation of their property rights. Audrey Spangenberg, a software company owner who filed the suit, suggested:
It is inappropriate for Google to sell my trademark for a profit. It really misleads our customers and our potential customers.
The theory here would be that a company has invested in the creation of its brand identity (which "exists" in the minds of all of us out here who recognize the trademark and have particular associations with it) and that the other company is profiting from the use of this "thing" that the trademark owner has built. The word itself is physically in an index on the Google server and when the user types it in an action is triggered and this action is potentially profitable to the other company.

(She uses the word "misleads" here because that's a key concept in the law of trademarks -- more on this idea below.)

That's fine as far as it goes, but it makes a mistake that is common in conversations about trademark, copyright, brand identity, and so on. And that mistake is forgetting to think about the substance, the "thing-ness" that's of value. That substance is an association in my head, in all our heads. If, as a consumer, I do a search for "Gateway," it is likely that I am looking for, say, a personal computer. Fortunately for Gateway Corporation, I have some association in my head between this category (what I am actually looking for) and their trademark. But what I am trying to do is get the best deal on the best computer I can find. I use a search tool called Google to pursue my goal. Will Gateway begrudge me the use of my association between their trademark and the category I'm looking for? The fact that I use "Gateway" as a gateway to "good computer"? Do they really want to suggest that my association of their trademark with a generic category should serve to obscure, in practice, other entities in that category? And that if it does not do that -- if it, in fact, leads me into the very marketplace where I can find out who else sells computers -- that it is misleading me? Do they think they own my associations? Do I mislead myself by using their trademark as a lever with which to locate many things in the category of interest to me?

In fact, I think they are renting my associations and they should be paying me for their use. Their entire "brand identity" (the value of which, by the way, they are allowed to put on their balance sheet as an asset) exists in our heads. Is my slipping and saying "xerox" instead of photocopy a whole lot different from putting a xerox logo on my car? They might pay me for the latter, but not for the former.

Why is any of this important for a sociology of information? Because figuring out what kind of property different types of information represent is a big project for the 21st century. A significant portion of the information that is valuable to corporations resides in consumer interest, practice, and their social networks. The social, in other words, is creating a lot of the value of information.

Think about this in connection with recent debates about copyright in which it is implied that all the value of, say, a Beatles song, resides in the song itself. If we, collectively lose interest, there's nothing there at all. If, on the other hand, we hum along, talk about it, dance to it, request it on the radio, play covers of it, etc. then it has value. The record company wants all the value to lie in the thing itself because that's what they control and that's what they know how to extract value from. But without the social, they got nuffin'.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Origins of Life/Information

Now you will know I'm a little loonie.

In a former life I spent a lot of time studying chemistry and mathematics and I have for some time been thinking about molecules and information. In particular, I've been puzzling over the question of how information carrying molecules like RNA and DNA came into existence and how they manage to "code" for more information than they "contain." And I've been recently urging the idea of catalysis as a metaphor for infrastructure on my partner.

And so I was quite excited to read Nicholas Wade's report in this morning's Times ("Chemist Shows How RNA Can Be the Starting Point for Life") on the work of John D. Sutherland and colleagues at the University of Manchester. The abstract of their article in Nature this week starts out like this:
At some stage in the origin of life, an informational polymer must have arisen by purely chemical means.
They go on to describe how molecules that could be present in a pre-biotic "warm pond" -- cyanamide, cyanoacetylene, glycolaldehyde, glyceraldehyde and inorganic phosphate -- can react to form the building blocks of RNA. (The chemistry of the reaction is shown in a nice series of graphics here.)

Can I say something really clever about what this really has to do with the sociology of information? No. But stay tuned. I can connect back to that comment about infrastructure and catalysis, though. The authors of the article note that the presence of phosphate not as an reactant but earlier in the process:
its presence from the start is essential as it controls three reactions in the earlier stages by acting as a general acid/base catalyst, a nucleophilic catalyst, a pH buffer and a chemical buffer.
In other words, its presence changes the environment, makes possible reactions that energetics would otherwise forbid or discourage. That seems like an interesting definition for infrastructure.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Information and Fairness

Insider trading is a classic example of the instrumental value of information and it reminds us of how markets are socially constructed (not in the sense that they are figments of the collective imagination but in the sense that they generally need the support of some social norms, rules, and laws in order to function well.)

The New York Times reported last November (in "S.E.C. Accuses Mark Cuban of Insider Trading") that Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, has been accused of selling all of his shares in a company a few hours after receiving confidential inside information suggesting the stock price would drop. At first glance it would appear that the "bottom line" is the monetary value of the information (that Cuban had but others did not), but consider how a source explained things, as quoted by the article's writer: "It is fundamentally unfair for someone to use access to nonpublic information to improperly gain an edge on the market." The "technical" reason for prohibiting insider trading is that markets can fail if people think others have private information, but this comment suggests that there's a social norm at work too: it's just not informationally fair.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Friends of Friends

I've been thinking about social networks today, and how they grow. In particular, I've noticed that sometimes when I "make" a new friend on Facebook, I comb over their friend list to see if there's anyone on it that I should try to friend.

And so, I've been trying to coin a term for this (maybe someone already has -- probably someone already has). The first candidates I considered were friend-poaching, friend-lifting (via shoplifting), and friend-pilfering (to steal in small quantities).

A focus on going through the friend lists (rather than the act of making the friend request) might be called friend-prospecting (I like the triple entendre here -- one of looking for precious minerals, the other of a salesperson sending out feelers, "looking for prospects," and lastly, the image of scanning the horizon (of your network)); related would be "friend-foraging."

I rejected words like pillage or appropriate because you don't remove them (friend as non-zero-sum phenom). That imagery pushed me to think about friend-piracy, friend-cribbing, and friend-plagiarizing. Friend-sponging has the attraction by analogy to friends using friends. Friend-riding as a variation on free-riding captures something essential, especially among those who ONLY get their friends this way (thereby contributing little to other folks' ability to do the same*).

I'm working on a simulation that analyzes how network structures change if this is the dominant mode of growth. Stay tuned for an online applet illustrating this.

Any ideas? Any of these strike you as closer to the mark to describe what you are doing when you scan friends' friend lists? Or what you think about others doing this to yours? Or friends who are only connected this way ("you didn't think of me yourself! you just saw me on X's list!")?

Thanks in advance for your thoughts. If you are interested, I also just started the "virtual focus group" blog as an experiment in collecting data on things like this.

*Important from network analysis point of view, though, is that this would not be completely true since if I forage among the friend lists of multiple friends, everyone I manage to snag becomes available to all of my friends.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Whose Information?

Robert Smith had a piece ("Sept. 11 Families Want Confidential Files Released") on NPR's Morning Edition today that dovetails nicely with a number of posts that have appeared here* on the relationship between courts and the information order. Our argument has been that courts play a role in enacting an important relational component of equality in a democracy: under certain circumstances, formal equals cannot arbitrarily withhold information from one another.

The three remaining plaintiffs are arguing that materials they've obtained during the discovery phase of their trial -- materials about airline and airport security on 9/11 -- should be made public. The defendants are claiming that the material is meant for "the lawyers' eyes only."

The case reminds us of the informational role played by courts and civil litigation. As generic members of the public who happened to have been singled out by having a relative killed on 9/11 these plaintiffs are exercising their formal informational equality before the court. They get to say "tell us what you know about that day" and the usually much more powerful organizations are not allowed, in this forum, to say, "we don't have to tell you."

Now the question is whether their right to ask (and be answered) is tied to their formal status as equals before the court as a place where information "comes to light," or whether it's interpreted in strictly transactional terms -- since their lawsuit requires the information, they may see it, but the other party gets to maintain its right to say "we don't have to tell you" to the public at large.

Even apart from how the judge rules on the contest between the public interest of disclosure and the private interest of confidentiality here, in light of the frenzied demand for "confidential corporate information" from the bailed out insurer AIG in recent weeks, we might remind ourselves that the airlines received a pretty hefty bailout from the taxpayers after 9/11. Perhaps they'll want to be careful about how vigorously they argue that the public does not have the right to know.

*See these posts:
  1. "Equality, Information and the Courts Redux: The Dan Rather Report,"
  2. "Democracy and the Information Order,"
  3. "Courts and the Information Order,"
  4. "Suing for Information"
See also:
  1. Hadfield, Gillian. 2009. "Framing the Choice Between Cash and the Courthouse: Experiences With the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund." Law & Society Review, Volume 42, Issue 3 (p 645-682)
  2. Hadfield, Gillian and Dan Ryan. "Democracy and the Information Order" (unpublished draft)
  3. Weiser, Benjamin. "Value of Suing Over 9/11 Deaths Is Still Unsettled." New York Times, March 12, 2009.

Information Rot

A whole chapter in my book on the sociology of information will be about information permanence and impermanence and so this posting by David Pogue caught my eye: "Should You Worry about Data Rot?" It's text of an interview that was a part of a video piece he did for CBS a few weeks ago. The basic idea is that we store our data on media that are subject to degradation and that require for play back hardware or software that have short lifetimes. We are left with the problem of constantly "migrating" our data to new formats.

An important observation : the pace at which data recording formats become obsolete and unreadable is accelerating. The experts cited in the piece suggest we are currently at the ten year mark -- at this point, one needs to migrate to new media every ten years.

The video piece ends with the observation that there's never been, nor ever will be, a data recording technology that lasts forever. Of course, one's first thoughts go to clay tablets from ancient Persia, which seem to have held up rather well. True, but of all the clay tablets ever produced, we have, in all likelihood, but a small fraction. But then, given what's on most of them (e.g., records of grain sale transactions or inventories of food storage), it's not clear that the information order is impoverished by their absence. Of what fraction of our current information holdings could the same be said of. One wonders, but one migrates one's own data, just in case.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Foolishness as a Fount of Robustness

It has often been said that information is at the heart of the current economic crisis: markets grind to a halt as opacity erodes trust between investors.

In many of the diagnostic dissections of the crisis foolishness plays a central role, foolishness in the form of ill-advised risk-taking. In the wake of either getting burned or seeing others get burned, the players all withdraw to the sidelines, unwilling to put their money on the line.

We envision a process of rebuilding that will involve clearing out the bad assets, replenishing reserves, rewriting regulations, finding fault and assigning responsibility. In short, we imagine that it won't be over (that is, the players won't venture back out into the game) until all the t's have been crossed and all the i's have been dotted.

But maybe we'll yet be rescued by the very same foolishness that got us into the problem in the first place. It might well be that just a few glimmers of hope, a few signs that the government knows what it is doing or is willing to step up to the plate, at least a mild indication that the loonier folks won't be allowed to demagogue, a few bright spots in terms of basic indicators, and oila, the players are out there, slightly irrationally, ready to play again. If they really were careful assessors of the status quo and careful evaluators of the odds, they'd hold back and wait for all those t's and i's. But these are the same folks who thought it was fun to play with loaded guns, blind folds, and beer. It may be that the very characteristics that got us in will be what hastens our way out.

An appetite for being "only so careful" may be evolutionarily robust. It could well be that a population of more careful actors would still get into such messes every now and then (if, perhaps, a little less frequently), but they'd have less chance of climbing back out. Populations with a plentiful supply of crazies, though, might have a better chance of getting on with things.

One might think, by way of analogy, of relationships in which friends are emotionally somewhat volatile in comparison to those in which everyone is very even keeled. The former find themselves frequently at odds and at one anothers' throats, but they rapidly make up and get on with things. The latter have far fewer blowups but have a much lower chance of recovering from one when it occurs.

We'll see how the stock market does tomorrow....

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Du-Jour-ism: The Cost of Short Term Culture

Listening to the news media parrot politicians' posturing over the AIG bonuses made me see some disturbing parallels. It seems that the search for A story consistently gets in the way of the search for THE story. Way too many reporters and their editors seem more concerned with getting something on the front page today than on zeroing in on what, in the long run, really matters.

The parallels are with the economic system and politicians. We've nearly been done in by CEOs who've been more concerned with this quarter's financial results than with long term stability, growth and profitability. And it seems almost impossible for anyone in congress to think beyond their rant of the moment.

I (though I'm probably not the first) call this tendency to be enthusiastically distracted by the short term du-jour-ism. It has caused collective blindness about the value of long term investments in education, infrastructure and institutions. Where's the concern about the number of engineers we'll be producing in 2020? Why aren't we putting our best minds to work on redesigning financial institutions and regulation (and focusing our spotlights on the importance thereof)? Why does the media allow various players (on both right and left) get away with falling back on their old hobbyhorses (e.g., "It'll be socialism!!!") rather than asking hard questions (e.g., "Our education system is not up to the tasks of the 21st century -- what are we going to do about it?")? Where are the reporters saying "Well, yes, but economists have shown that X is irrelevant."?

It'll take some brave and strong voices (and intellects) to break out of the cycle of du-jour-ism. Some commentators over the last few days have made some arguments along these lines about AIG, but so far their voices have been largely drowned out by hysteria and posturing.

Why is this about information? Du-jour-ism represents a style of thinking and communicating -- one that characterizes informal chit chat, gossip, and mobs of various kinds. It is a style of information behavior that is characterized by a focus on trees rather than forests, inconsequence rather than consequence, personality rather than substance, emotion rather than fact. It is information handling that is driven by delivering what recipients want and expect, what they already think, what is easy to receive and digest rather than what they may find surprising or disturbing or that may require re-evaluating assumptions.

An information order dominated by this sort of information behavior becomes top-heavy with convenient fictions and invites an eventual clobbering by inconvenient facts.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Why are Newspapers Disappearing

In recent weeks we've read of the demise of several major newspapers. Most of the analytical conversation about these events suggests that newspapers are getting throttled by new technology. The internet is changing their operating environment and the newspaper companies have not succeeded at changing their business model to succeed in the new environment. There have been shifts in the world out there and so media institutions need to adjust.

Certainly plausible.

But I wonder if this obvious explanation doesn't obscure things a bit. By keeping the focus on technology, we avoid asking hard questions about the product and practice of journalism. Could it be that the changes that the environment is "calling for" include new ways of producing information as well as new ways of delivering information produced using conventional practices?

I put this out there because I've noticed that the two most obvious "initiatives" carried out by media organizations are (1) delivering the same old stuff over new media and (2) spicing up delivery to make it more entertaining. I have not, though, noticed any fundamental changes in the production of information. Have journalists taken up any new analytical tools? Do we see a move toward journalists developing new levels of substantive expertise?

In the wake of the financial crisis there's been lots of "why didn't anyone see this coming?" hand wringing. Of course, if you look closely, you'll see that there WERE lots of pieces out there giving us a warning. But a big piece of our after-the-fact-wisdom is that things were just too complex for observers to decipher. So, is there any chance that this experience will provide an incentive for higher degrees of expertise among journalists? Or will we stick with the "find a source who will tell you what to write" approach (often enough balanced by some other expert who is willing to claim something to the contrary)?

Saturday, February 28, 2009

It's Never About the Content

Breaking News Alert
The New York Times
Saturday, February 28, 2009 -- 6:09 PM ET
Obama Is Said to Pick Kansas Governor for Health Post

President Obama asked Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas to become his nominee for secretary of health and human services on Saturday.

Ms. Sebelius accepted the president's invitation and will be introduced by Mr. Obama at the White House on Monday, said an administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid upstaging the formal announcement.

So, if we knew the source's name it would upstage the announcement, but knowing ahead of time the content of the announcement does not. Oh, OK, I think I get it.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Notificational Webs in Cricles of Friends

In the most recent New Yorker, a short story, "Brother on Sunday" by A.M. Holmes, opens with a woman on the phone:
“Are you sure?” she whispers. “I can’t believe it. I don’t want to believe it. If it’s true, it’s horrible. . . . Of course I don’t know anything! If I knew something, I’d tell you. . . . No, he doesn’t know anything, either. If he knew, he’d tell me. We vowed we wouldn’t keep secrets.” She pauses, listening for a moment. “Yes, of course, not a word.”
The scene is a delightful example of how notification expectations are intertwined with how we understand relationships. We get two quick "network inspections"--"if I[he] knew, I'd[he'd] tell you[me]"--that reassure the caller that silence doesn't indicate a fracture in the local information order. And the conversation ends with one more bit of meta-notification, the speaker assuring the caller that she understands the rules that attach to the information just obtained.

Sandy is the woman on the phone. Her husband, Tom, is overhearing the conversation and asks who it was.
“Sara,” she says.
“The usual.”
He waits, knowing that silence will prompt her to say more.
“Susie called Sara to say that she’s worried Scott is having an affair.”
This rather personal bit of information is being shared third-hand -- Susie called Sara who called Sandy who is now talking with Tom. Lots of talking's been going on, along with lots of meta-talking about the talking : Sara finished by extracting a promise that Sandy wouldn't tell anyone. We can assume that Susie extracted a similar oath from Sara. As I've described elsewhere, notification norms are famously honored in the breach.

The narrative takes Tom and Sandy to the beach with a circle of friends they've been seeing regularly for a long time and then, later, that day, to dinner with them at a nice restaurant. In the middle of dinner, another bit of "information sharing" goes on; Tom and a friend end up in the men's room at the same time:
When they are side by side at the urinals, the friend says, “I’m leaving Terri.”
“What are you talking about?” Tom says, genuinely shocked.
“I can’t stand it anymore. I’m miserable.”
“Terri doesn’t know.”
“About the other woman?”
“About anything. I’m telling you first. I don’t know what to say to her. We’ve been married for twenty-six years.”
“That’s a long time.”
“She’ll be fine,” he says, “once she gets over the initial shock.”
At the sink, Tom checks his face in the mirror. “When are you going to tell her?” he asks, watching himself talking.
“I don’t know,” the friend says. “Please don’t tell Sandy. The girls can’t keep a secret.”
“Not a word.”
The friend shines a light on his relationship with Tom by meta-notifying: "I"m telling you first," and this sets up one of the story's notificational punches when he suggests that it's the very length of his marriage that makes it so hard to tell his wife. And then, finally, we get the condescending bit of meta-notification -- don't tell the girls -- with a theory about how this particular network functions. But while it may read as condescending, we know from the the opening of the story that in this case, it's on the mark.