Category Archives: Society

The World Turned Upside Down

my mother (left) preparing-the-beans

my mother (left) preparing-the-beans

My mother was a fine artist, always painting, sculpting, or making woodcuts. Although she maintained a studio-like setup in our basement, she and her work always seemed to make their way upstairs, giving rise to a world of clutter.

Worse still, as a youngster, I wasn’t sure my mother was presentable: knock on our door and you would fine a handsome women, wearing her red plaid flannel work shirt atop a pair of well-worn jeans, a pencil behind her ear, and the remains of paint and printers ink lodged under her nails. If that wasn’t enough! Just consider what was, perhaps, my most embarrassing moment, when I brought a school friend home for lunch, only to find my mother “cooking” her etchings on the kitchen stove.

I wasn’t sure my mother was presentable. 

Given my mother’s interest in art, one can understand why, as children, we spent a lot of time in museums, as well as browsing through the numerous art books that my mother collected. Whereas most parents spend a lot of time reading to their children, my mother spent much of our quality time sharing her thoughts about paintings and art.

The World Turned Upside Down (Jan Steen ca 1660)

The World Turned Upside Down (Jan Steen ca 1660)

One of these paintings is still vivid in my mind–The World Turned Upside Down, painted by the Dutch Master Jan Steen sometime around 1669. Relating it to my own family life, and envisioning my world falling apart, I was horrified by it, so much so that the painting is still engraved in my memory. Of course, I now know that I needn’t have worried. As with most of Steen’s works, this painting not only characterized daily life in Holland; as importantly, it employed humor and allusions to proverbs, symbols, and myths so as to depict a moral parable. In fact, this particular painting became a trope in Dutch life, as burgers came to describe a lively, untidy home–such as the one I had been raised in–as a “Jan Steen Household.”  Still very young at the time, I was too innocent to appreciate the duality in Steen’s painting: I saw the chaos, but I failed to see the spirited activities that gave rise to it.

The World Turned Upside Down

The World Turned Upside Down

Revived during times of trial, this schematic of the world teetering on the edge of chaos has endured for centuries. Not surprisingly, it accompanied the revolutionary era, appearing first in England and then in the United States. (See Chris Hill, The World Turned Upside Down; radial ideas during the english revolution, Penguin Books 1991.) In 1643, for example, a broadside first published the English ballad The World Turned Upside Down, whereafter it was sung as a protest against Parliamentary policies, which sought to outlaw traditional Christmas Celebrations. Rumor has it, moreover, that American troops also played this tune during the American Revolution, when General Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington at Yorktown in 1781.
The World Turned Upside Down

The World Turned Upside Down

Most recently, the author/journalist Melanie Phillips has borrowed on this theme, attributing todays absurdities–such as climate change, the war in Iraq, fraud, bank failures, etc.–to a world run amok. According to her, science has been overturned by ideology.
Network Economy Dinner (courtesy of Isaac Pacheco

Network Economy Dinner (courtesy of Isaac Pacheco

Having become far more cosmopolitan over the years, I can now see the world in complex terms. What to earlier generations was considered a world upside down, now looks to me like a phase transition. Fortunately, for me, growing up in a bohemian household has helped me to deal with ambiguity, such as is depicted in the paintings and tropes I have mentioned. Better still–although there is no paint or printers ink under my nails–the way of life I learned from my mother has prepared me to follow in her footsteps, and enjoy complexity to the fullest.

Maddening Mishaps

Spills (from jahn)

When I was a child, my father used to warn me about excessive desires. It’s paradoxical, he said. But sometimes, when you obsess about a goal, you can undermine your chances of achieving it. And then my father would tell me the story of the skates–a story that, some fifty years later, still brought tears to his eyes.

Let me regress. When my father was a boy, a movie experience was a far cry from what it is today. Imagine a world without television, movies on-demand, CDs, NETFLIX, and Utube! Fortunately for my father, there was a local movie house in his hometown, Newark, New Jersey. To attract customers, the theater offered live entertainment along with the film. Even more important, from my father’s point of view, was the prize that the movie house awarded to the patron whose ticket stub had a number matching that on the ticket from a drawing.

 Ice Skates and Snowflakes ( from Sublime Stitching)

Ice Skates and Snowflakes ( from Sublime Stitching)

The prize my father hankered for was a pair of skates. Daydreaming about them, he could imagine himself wearing those skates and gliding across Hawthorne Lake, the place where his family vacationed in northern New Jersey. (The place where, in fact, he taught me to ice skate many years later). The day finally came when the prize was a pair of skates. On hearing the news, my father dashed to the movie theater, perhaps not even knowing what film was being featured. Full of anticipation, he was primed in his seat, clutching his ticket stub and paying little attention to the action on the screen. Finally the show was over, and the drawing about to begin. My father sat forward in his seat, certain that his lucky day had arrived.

My father sat forward in his seat, certain that his lucky day had arrived.

Then the number was called out, and–believe it or not–it was his! He raced to the stage, grasping the ticket in his hand. But, when the manager of the theater inspected the ticket, he stood dumbfounded: there is no number on this ticket, he said. So preoccupied had my father been with winning, he inadvertently rubbed off the ticket number as he squirmed restlessly in his chair. That night, my father went home crestfallen, and without skates.

My father’s story came to mind the other day, when I opened my weblog, only to find a major mishap. All of the comments on my blog posts had disappeared–even the ones I treasured most, ie. those from the Provost. In fact, much to my horror, I realized that the comments had been PERMANENTLY DELETED. How could this happen? I soon found out. As was the case with my father’s skates–it had to do with excess zeal. While I love getting comments, I hate getting spam. Yet, everyday, like clockwork, I find entries from the same annoying spammers, who go by such names of Heel, Dominic, Jane, Hero, Bill, etc. Arg**/# So I went on a rampage, and tried to wipe them out. Unfortunately, there was collateral damage, and along with the spam, I destroyed all my comments. My apologies to all who took the time and thought to provide me this feedback.

Keep your eye on the ball (

Keep your eye on the ball (

My father was right–we are subject to unforeseen consequences when we focus too intensely on the main ball. Life is complex, so we need to look at the ball in context. Hmm. Isn’t that what I teach in my classes?

Creating a Creativity Curriculum

My Muse Sparky

Believe me! Never in my life have I had to turn so much to my muse– my ever faithful dog, Sparky. The reason for seeking his inspiration on this occasion was my decision to teach a new course on Networks and the Creative Process.

As in all creative efforts (Austin 2003), this decision was, to a large degree, a matter of chance.  Initially, I had planned to teach a course on networks and cooperation–a topic that, with hindsight, seems relatively bland. However, flying home from a trip to Utah, I began reading Keith Sawyers insightful book Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation. Deflating prevailing myths that circumscribe present-day thinking about creativity, Sawyer lays out the case for viewing creativity as an emergent, collaborative process, in which the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts.

My heart raced, as thoughts of complexity, networks, and emergent processes came to mind.

Reading Sawyer’s book, I was enthralled. My heart raced, as thoughts of complexity, networks, and emergent processes came to mind. I intuitively knew that a course on creativity would bring all my interests together in the context of complexity science. However, gut feelings aside, I knew very little about the subject of creativity. Nonetheless, I eagerly signed up to teach the course.

Operating in the dark, I delved into whatever literature I could find, contributing significantly–I think–to Amazon’s profit margin. There I sat, in my office chair, piles of books strewn all around me, in the vain hope that I might absorb some of the content through osmosis. To no avail! So I began to read, and read and read–books about neuroscience, personality disorders, flow, improvisation, serendipity, audience reactions, the new, creative economy, Florence and the Di Medici, and more.

Old Woman Reading

Digesting all of this reading, I learned that creativity required passion and hard work in mastering a field; an open mind able to tolerate ambiguity; a willingness to take on risk, and to persist, even as an outsider; curiosity when confronted with anomalies; as well as flexibility to capture the opportunities afforded by chance and serendipity. And so, inspired by this charge, I moved on. . .

When the time came for me to put together the syllabus, I had a skeleton of an idea. Building on the work of Sawyer and his mentor Mihaly Csikszentmihali, I looked at creativity as an ongoing, iterative process in which the creator is but a single element within a larger system, which includes the creator, a field, and an authoritative domain. My hope, however, is to go beyond Csikszentmihali’s characterization of a system, and to flesh out each element–beginning with the brain and extending outward to the cultural arena–showing how each element is itself a complex system, nested and linked within a larger complex system.

My syllabus is, however, a working document at best. It serves, merely, as a starting point and set of guidelines for a classroom improvisation. My students are highly creative, each in their own ways. They not only bring their own diverse experiences to class; they also actively participate in developing the evolving narrative. Truly, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Or so says my dog Sparky!

Ring Out The Old. . .

Happy New Year from Lake.Sider

Having made our New Year’s resolutions, my husband and I sat down to our New Year’s breakfast–eggs benedict–which Brock had specially prepared for the occasion.We held up our glasses, filled with champagne, and toasted the New Year: “Welcome Yule.”

While this is an annual event for us, I was struck on this occasion by the passage of time.

I was struck by the passage of time. 

The old song, “
Ring Out the Old, Ring in the New
,” came to mind, and hearing the words resound in my brain, I was taken aback. The tune goes like this:

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow;
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Perhaps my surprise reflected my feelings about aging and the totality of life. For unlike Father Time, I am not prepared at my ripening age to take my leave as yet .  In this, I am reminded of my mother who–especially as she got older–would recite Lewis Carroll’s poem from Alice in Wonderland, “You Are Old Father Williams.”, as if to mock her fate and give herself permission to simply be herself.  As each day passes, I come to appreciate the poem’s significance–as well as my mother–more and more.

You are old, Father William’, the young man said,
   ‘And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head —
   Do you think, at your age, it is right?’

‘In my youth’, Father William replied to his son,
   ‘I feared it might injure the brain;
But, now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,
   Why, I do it again and again.

Nonsense poems are no longer in vogue. So I wonder, what might my mother say, were she here today. How would she phrase her pleasure in being alive.? Assuming that she had read all about complex systems, she might have taken great pleasure referencing all the non-linearities that such systems afford. As well, she might have pointed to the works of Brian Arthur and Stuart Kauffman, recalling that life is full of synergies and increasing returns, And, of course, she would have mentioned fat tails–that is to say how the richer get richer, and the elders have more fun!
Dip's fat tail. by caysee

So before lifting my glass and having another sip of champagne, I will take a brief respite. The first thing I will do is to stand on my head. Then I will ride down the fat tail slide. Want to come along? All Aboard!

Those Far Away Places

come with me on a Magic carpet...from Lollygagging

come with me on a Magic carpet...from Lollygagging

Only a few weeks ago, I travelled across the globe from New York to Beijing in half a day. I felt like I was on a magic carpet–here one minute, and there the next. To be sure, this was not the first time I had engaged in flights of fancy. In my childhood, such experiences were commonplace. You see, my home on Lafayette Avenue, in Hawthorne New Jersey, was literally just a hop, skip, and jump from our local library. So it was there that I spent many afternoons, transporting myself to far away places via the books on the library’s shelf.

Three books, in particular, inspired my Wander Lust as well as my life long interest in learning about other cultures. All about China, they included Oil for the Lamps of China by Alice Tibert Holbart, and Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth and The Imperial Woman. The latter book, which recounted the story of how a concubine became the Dowager Empress, raised the librarians’ eyebrows, who then reported to my father that I was reading books far too advanced  for my years.

the librarians reported to my father that I was reading books far too advanced for my years. 

But it was not my father who brought an end to my China fantasies. Always supportive of any efforts on my part to learn, my father assured the librarians that I could handle emotionally any book that I could read.  The damper on my literary choices resulted, instead, from the political reaction in the United States to the Yalta Conference, Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare.  China was no longer an acceptable agenda.

It was only in the late 1980s that I finally got to go to Asia–in this instance to Taiwan. Having recently completed the OTA study, Intellectual Property Rights in an Age of Electronics and Information, I was asked to join a group of lawyers from The Asia Foundation, to speak to the justices of the Taiwanese Supreme Court about intellectual property rights. No matter that OTA’s position was in opposition to those of the other lawyers; for the Agency’s report was, in fact, strongly opposed to copyrighting software. Before taking off, I asked my son what he wanted me to bring home from Taiwan–imagining, of course, some kind of inspiring cultural object. I’d like a counterfeit Rolex watch, he said, in all sincerity. At a loss to explain how this might belie the purpose of my trip, I was resigned to disappointing my 13 year old son.

I’d like a counterfeit Rolex watch, he said, in all sincerity. 

Arriving in Taipei, I was in for a shock. Where was the China of Pearl Buck, I asked myself? Lit up in neon lights, Taipei rustled and bustled like 42nd street. But this was not my only surprise; although I failed to convince my colleagues and the Supreme Court Justices that copyright protection was inappropriate for software, I did achieve my secondary objective. I managed to purchase not one, but two, counterfeit rolex watches–one for my son and one for me! 2144842814_baf390604a_m How, you might ask, did this happen? It was out of the blue. Walking back to the hotel one day, a man accosted me: “Lady, do you want to buy a Rolex watch,” he asked? I hesitated in disbelief, but, before I could reply, he gracefully guided me inside a doorway, and then through another, into a room where counterfeit watches, including all the name brands, were neatly laid out, one next to the other, across the entire room. That night our group went out to dinner. To my surprise, we were accompanied by an Asian representative of the US Chamber of Commerce, Worse yet, I was wearing my counterfeit Rolex, and –of all things–he sat right next to me. I managed to eat my dinner with my right hand and the watch hidden in my lap, while keeping a conversation going, even as my food spattered every which way. The axiom is true; Crime doesn’t pay.

Years after my Rolex had petered out, I had the good fortune to return to China, this time to speak to the Global Forum, on the subject of the digital divide. My colleague and friend Tonya accompanied me. We both were eager to wander the streets and engage directly in the local life. And so we did, far more than we had anticipated. One evening, we went for a stroll in search of a ‘bar’ where we might get a beer. Closing the Bar Door, by Puffett As we sat there, drinking our beers, we noticed that most of the clients were male.

“Sorry, no money, no honey.” 

Naive as we were, we did not realize that we were in a red light enterprise until one of the bar maids, who had been playing cards with a young man across the bar, told him most emphatically: “Sorry, no money, no honey.” Not long after, Tonya and I strolled back to our hotel, but not before we got a photo of the bar door, a signal we had missed when entering, in our eagerness to find a bar. So much for local culture.

Three weeks ago I returned to China; this time to Beijing to make a presentation on the challenges of global standard setting. Fortunately, I was able to mix business and pleasure–for my student Ming, who had taken a semester off, met me at the airport, and guided me around the city, chatting all the while, to places and back streets I might never have otherwise seen. But best of all was the evening I spent with Ming’s  family, which was–to say the least–true quality time.Ming and Me  After so many years, I was grateful to engage in an authentic and intense dialogue with a real Chinese family, each member so delightful and fascinating.   It was a dialogue that I hope will go on for many years to come. As you might imagine, after such a special time, there were tears in our eyes when we said goodbye.

Flying home I reflected on my life-long fascination with China. As I visit China, and engage with my Chinese students, I am struck by the many similarities among our peoples. Pearl Buck seems but a shadow in the past. Could it be that it is the remembrance of me, at age 11, sitting on the floor in the library on Lafayette Avenue in Hawthorne New Jersey, the tantalizing books arrayed on the shelves above, that is today what is so long ago and far away.

Coming to Closure

Lifehack from manu contreras

Lifehack from manu contreras

Making the most of the last days of summer is like squeezing the tube of toothpaste until there are no squeezes left. This was our intent, in fact, the Thursday before Labor Day, when–on a whim–my husband Brock and I decided to head back to the Lake. We were looking for closure. We wanted to gather our wonderful summertime experiences together, and wrap them up, so we could leisurely unpack, and savor them, at some later time.

Having assembled together at Lake Hawthorne on the Forth of July to welcome in the summer, so too we gathered in early September, along with the katydids, to bid it goodbye. As in all such comings and goings, there were rituals involved–in this case, rituals designed to build social capital and hold the community together over the long winter months.

As in all such comings and goings, there were rituals involved.

The weekend was chockfull, to say the least. An evening cocktail party mellowed us before the annual business meeting on the following day, when we joined in a circle on the meadow to discuss and debate the thorny issues entailed in jointly managing a 450 acre commons. A community picnic followed, along with the raffling of prizes, boat races, and more. But, for me, the main event was the treasure hunt!

Let me emphasize, this was no ordinary treasure hunt. The groundwork was laid the evening we arrived, when my son Steve greeted us by quickly ushering us out the door. Armed with a chest of jewels (or so they seemed to the innocent eye), he explained the plan: on the next day, the lake children would search for the treasure by following clues, written by Steve in elaborate verse, and deposited in significant sites around and in the lake–Sunset Rock, The Ice House, Table Rock, etc. As we followed Steve into the woods, we came to the point where four trails converged. Depositing a clue on the branch of a nearby tree, Steve then paced out forty steps to the right, where he buried the chest, marking the spot with crisscrossed deer bones shaped as a cross. Brock and I, feeling depleted after our long drive, headed back to the house for a swim and a cocktail, while Steve traipsed on, depositing the rest of the clues.
21treasure hybt

The real fun began the following day, when the children, escorted by a few adults, set out together in search of the buried treasure. They were not alone. Along the route were a few of Steve’s friends who, dressed in unbelievable costumes, helped interpret the clues.

Fortune Teller in the Attic from Brock Evans

Fortune Teller in the Attic from Brock Evans

The next-to-last stop was our house, where the children climbed the stairs up to the dormitory (reputed for generations to be the home of ghosts) only to find a fortune-teller who–in exchange for the coin sequestered at their last stop–provided the final clue. Not long after, among shrieks of delight, they were divvying up the treasure.

It is times like these that make farewells so bitter sweet. The more enjoyable the experiences, the harder it is to bring them to a close.

Wrangler Jeans From Way Out Texas

Wrangler Jeans From Way Out Texas

Driving home from the lake, and contemplating the new school year, I thought about my next point of closure–resigning as Director of CCT. I leave the program in excellent hands–those of Dr. David Lightfoot, my former dean and mentor–who without a doubt will bring the program to new heights. And, as a member of the faculty, I shall have more time to do what I love best, pursuing with my students the treasure of seeking greater knowledge and understanding. Nonetheless, I am grateful to the students, faculty and staff who–given the special times we have shared–have made this, for me, a tender moment indeed.

Playing Around

Grandson Kaydon Playing Around (by Sarah Moffett)

Grandson Kaydon Playing Around (by Sarah Moffett)

In today’s scandal-ridden environment, one might think that the title of my blog refers to the recent tales of our politicians’ sexual machinations, which reporters and bloggers have so voraciously been fleshing out (no pun intended). In fact, the inspiration was wholly otherwise. 

It so happened that this adorable picture of my youngest grandson, Kaydon, arrived just as I was reading Johan Huizinga‘s Homo Ludens (1971). In this book, Huizinga makes the case that play is not a reflection of culture, but rather culture is the outcome of play. As evidence, he points out that all animals play, even though no one teaches them the rules of the game: to the contrary, the rules–that is to say cultures–evolve in the course of the play.

Playing elephant calves

Playing elephant calves

An interesting argument–but for me, the picture of Kaydon, with the spoon affixed with oatmeal to the end of his nose, was more telling. I could imagine his mother Sarah laughing at the silliness of it all, which made me wonder, what is this game? Don’t all children play it? How was it invented? As well, who in this situation is making up the rules–Kaydon or his mother? Don’t you suspect it was both?

I had to wonder, where did this game come from; who is making up these rules?

It wasn’t much later that my grandson Ben tramped through the woods to our porch, clenching a water pistol in his fist, and looking suspiciously all around. What’s up, I asked? “Nothing much,” he said. “We are playing Cops and Robbers.” Having fun, I continued? Oh, it’s okay, he said. The problem is that Brody is breaking the rules. He’s supposed to be a Cop, but he is playing on the Robbers’ team. Hm, I thought–what rules? Where did they come from–culture? Which comes first, the culture or the game? The truth be told, they must emerge, co-evolving together.

Light reading.  The lightest of them....(courtesy jamwithsand)

Light reading. The lightest of them....(courtesy jamwithsand)

As one might deduce from the content of my blog, as well as the previous one, I continue to play around with my colleague Garrison Le Masters trying to find a good way to relate standards to play and virtual worlds. For my part, it requires testing the waters of cultural studies, reading outside my field, and translating an entirely new vocabulary into something that I am familiar with. So far Garrison and I seem to be converging around some of Durkheim’s ideas: For Garrison, it’s the notion of wholeness, integration, what he calls the sacred. For me, its quite similar. I am drawn to the concept of emergent holism–the outcome of symbolic interaction (R. Keith Sawyer)

For now, we are still thinking it through–book by book. In the meantime, thank goodness that I have my grandchildren to help me sort out what play is really all about! .

Games People Play

Video Game Collage (courtesy bobfoldfive)

Video Game Collage (courtesy bobfoldfive)

On the recommendation of my colleague Garrison Le Masters, I brought the book, Dionysus Reborn: Play and the Aesthetic Dimension in Modern Philosophical and Scientific Discourse, by Mihai I. Spariosu, to read during my vacation at Lake Hawthorne. Garrison and I had spent many hours over the last few years comparing our common interests through different disciplinary perspectives–he from a cultural studies perspective and I through the lens of social science. Often engaged in these endeavors, we decided to collaborate on a project that would build on both our strengths–a paper that explored whether the criteria typically used for evaluating standardization at the lower levels of ICT networks served well for applications at the highest levels such as, in our chosen case, video games and virtual worlds. We plan to present the paper at this year’s Telecommunication Policy Research Conference (TPRC). 0801423279

Not knowing very much about the subject of play–at least from an academic perspective–I decided to get up to speed by reading Spariosu. Despite all of the playful moments in my childhood–catching turtles, trying to beat the boys at king of the mountain, acting out various fantasy roles such as homemakers, storekeepers, librarians, and even fairy queens transported by eggshells in a magic kingdom–I had never systematically thought about play; at most I viewed play as an adventure, or exploration. Thus, I often associated play with excitement and risk (even if imaginary); for in my experience a playful romp might start out innocently enough, but eventually it could lead to trouble–as, for example, when as children we developed an elaborate plan to track down the rumored ghost in an abandoned house down our street, only–upon entry–to be greeted by the police.

By any measure, reading Dionysus Reborn here on my porch abutting the lake–where once I listlessly day dreamed reading Ivanhoe, Lorna Doon, and Vanity Fair, is anything but play. Rather, it is extraordinarily hard work. I am lucky if I can read fifty pages in a day. Only now do I understand why my cultural studies colleagues assign such a limited number of pages to their students. “Its all about interpreting the text,” they say. I must agree! The problem is not so much the numerous references in German and French–I can manage these. No, it’s the long unfamiliar latin-based English words, which make references to references on top of even more obtuse references.

Yellow Wheel Barrow (David Cooke)

Yellow Wheel Barrow (David Cooke)

To proceed I have to follow my father’s advice to me when I was learning to read–substitute the word wheel barrel for every word I can’t understand. No surprise, then, that I am beginning to think the subject of this book is more about gardening than about play. At the end of the day, I ask myself whether Garrison might not be playing with me.

At the end of the day, I ask myself whether Garrison might not be playing with me. 

It is on this basis that I have decided to become more light hearted about this whole affair. I will use my blog to explore this subject further, that is to say, to play with some ideas. As in all games, It’s risky, but it also should be fun. Where do I stand at this point? From my readings to date, I understand there is an on-going historic conflict between a pre-rational, free-wheeling notion of play (as characterized by Schopenhaur, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Deleuze and Derrida) and a more rational conception of play (as understood by Plato, Aristotle, Kant and Schiller). Moreover, these two perspectives parallel what many past ‘thinkers’ believe to be an underlying conflict between the forces of chance vs. those of necessity. I have an inkling that this conflict can be reconciled within the framework of complexity theory and Stuart Kaufman‘s concepts of fitness levels and fitness landscapes, which in turn can also be linked to standardization and standards. But, to sort it out will take a lot more playing on my part.

Blogging in the Interstices

Interstice by gregory lee

Interstice by gregory lee

I have been thinking about interstices a lot these days–that is, ever since one of the Chinese students in my Networks and International Development Class protested that, given institutional lock-in, reforms could never come about in China. I gently begged to disagree. As I told her, and as we had discussed in class, in a networked society, small changes in any one part of the system can have major ramifications throughout. As important, by focusing on these small changes in the interstices of a social order, reformers could remain under the radar, and thereby circumvent the powers that be. The key for those of us who want to bring about change today is to identify the most promising interstices.

The key for those of us who want to bring about change today is to identify the most promising interstices.

Somewhat skeptical, the student persisted, asking for examples. So I provided an account of how the rise of cities in the Middle Ages helped to undermine the European feudal order (Braudel 1992).

It so happened that I was well prepared for the task, having listened only a few days before to a lecture on tape by Professor Teofilo F. Ruiz, in the series Medieval Europe: Crisis and Renewal, which was sponsored by The Teaching Company. As the lecturer had pointed out, although late Medieval cities originally emerged as an off-shoot of feudal land holders, they eventually took on a new, and transformative, life of their own.

Middle age alley by Vincent Giraud

Middle age alley by Vincent Giraud

In fact, with the rise of commerce and the city merchants that promoted it, Europe was never the same. This new merchant society, which was based on the accumulation of wealth and industrial performance, gave rise to a new class–the bourgeoise–as well as new institutions –such as the guilds– that sought not only to restrict the powers of the nobility but also to extend the social order outside of the parameters of the feudal world itself.

Where are the critical interstices in our global society today? Recent events in Iran provide a clue. Just as, during the Middle Ages, cities went relatively unnoticed as they developed the commercial resources that allowed them to overturn the prevailing social order, so today Iranian hackers have managed to develop the kinds of net-savvy skills required to create a protest movement in an interstitial, virtual space, making it possible for them to outwit a very powerful and seemingly entrenched regime. As described by Murad Ahmed, writing in The Times Online, June 18, 2009:

It has come as a surprise to many, not least to Iran’s regime, just how effectively the country’s young population has been able to articulate and organize [an] opposition protest on the web. New technologies have turned yesterday’s flashmob into today’s political rally. With elements of the Iranian mobile phone system disabled, the internet has become the organizing medium for the opposition and Facebook and Twitter the tools of choice to communicate and organize dissent.

Further contemplating the notion of interstices, I see a new link between some of the ideas that we discuss in my Networks and International Development class and those that we focus on in my class on The Networked Economy. In the latter, we read Ron Burt, and discuss the resources gained by an organization when it develops structural autonomy by bridging structural holes (that is, the gaps in social structure). With the recent events in Iran in mind, it seems that Burt’s notion of structural autonomy is also apropos for describing that situation. For it would appear that the interstices that I speak of in my development class are non other than Burt’s structural holes where– with a little bit of strategic networking–formidable resources and power can be cultivated.

Standardization: Reveries and Retrospectives

October Daydream! / Rêverie d’octobre! by Denis Collette...!!!

October Daydream! / Rêverie d’octobre! by Denis Collette...!!!

If you’re like me, you often leave a discussion, or conference, getting your best ideas after the fact. Having mulled the conversation over, again and again, you wake up in the middle of the night with the most inspired thought, but instead of feeling satisfied, you berate yourself for having missed an opportunity to make a great point.

If you’re like me, you get your best ideas after the fact. 

Last night, I did just that, but instead of feeling poorly about it, I realized–perhaps for the first time–that my idea had been latent. As such, it could not have been used to provide an input into the discussion; rather it was a direct output of the discussion with my colleagues, as well as of the nocturnal dialogue that took place inside my brain.

The occasion for this insight was a conference on Standards Education, sponsored by the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST). The aim of the conference was to encourage universities to incorporate a standards curriculum within their course offerings. The focus, for the most part, was on engineering and business schools. My panel, the last of the day, was designed to be a little provocative–that is, to think about standards education in the context of a dynamic future, in which educational institutions are themselves in flux, the boundaries of their ivory towers crumbling in the face of an increasingly complex environment. By all accounts, we were successful, thanks to the inputs of our four panelists Michael Spring, Mark McCarthy, Peter Lord, and Laura DeNardis.

The discussion with some of my colleagues continued on the drive home, but when I reached my door I was ready to put it aside, and just relax. And so I did, taking my dog for a walk; having a glass of wine and eating a pizza with my husband; and–before falling asleep–reading a chapter of an excellent biography of Schumpeter, Prophet of Innovation, by Thomas K. McCraw. However, after a few hours, I woke up with a start, as well as an idea about why engineering schools have so few courses dedicated to standard setting. It must be that when the body is in a dream-like state, the neurons in the brain are free to fire, and to roam every which-way, generating new and interesting ideas as they create new paths and explore unknown territories.

I woke up with a start, with an idea about why engineering schools have so few course dedicated to standard setting 

In retrospect, I suspect that my brain was reaching back into my memory to a book I had read and admired a long time ago, entitled Machine-Age Ideology: Social Engineering and American Liberalism, 1911-1939. Written by John M. Jordan, the book tells the story of the American engineer, and how–during the first part of the 20th century–he became a hero in American life, celebrated in movies, novels, and popular culture. This hero-worship reached its apogee with Herbert Hoover’s election to the presidency.

1959 American Standard bathroom by 50s Pam

1959 American Standard bathroom by 50s Pam

According to Jordan, what made engineers so respected, as well as unique, was their disregard or–better still–disdain for politics, a perspective increasingly shared by the American public during this period. This was the thought that struck me in the middle of the night: it is this engineering mentality, this desire to circumvent values and politics, that accounts for engineering schools’ lack of enthusiasm for incorporating standardization in their curricula. For, anyone who has studied US standards setting–as I have–will attest to the highly contentious and politicized nature of this process.

I often get ideas when I awake in the middle of the night. Some are less noteworthy than others. But this one, I believe, stands up in the light of day!