Tag Archives: Higher Education

Interdisciplinarity and the Iron Cage

James Monroe's Iron Cage and Concrete Sarcophagus by Tony the Misfit

James Monroe's Iron Cage and Concrete Sarcophagus by Tony the Misfit

When Max Weber portrayed bureaucracies, he characterized them as iron cages (Max Weber, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. University of California Press, 1978: 1403). This metaphor reflected his belief that, because bureaucracies were so efficient, all organizations would have to conform to them, if they were to survive in a competitive, capitalist environment. Organizations would become isomorphic as a result. And so they did!

Thinking about this argument in today’s terms, we might view Weber as an early complexity theorist, based on his claim that changes in the socioeconomic environment, or as we might say now–(the fitness landscape)–require appropriate adaptations in organizational behavior.  On the other hand, the very notion of an iron cage, secured by rule-based self reinforcing feedback, suggests that bureaucracies are especially prone to lock in.  One must wonder, then, how present day bureaucracies will successfully adapt to the changing nature of capitalism and the complexity and uncertainties it entails.

One must wonder, then, how present day bureaucracies will successfully adapt to the changing nature of capitalism and all the complexity and uncertainties it entails.

Dealing with complexity requires continuous feedback from, and adaptation to, an uncertain and rapidly changing environment. For this reason, Beinhocker, in his book The Origin of Wealth suggests that the best way for organizations to cope with complexity is to incorporate it within. However, this is a daunting task. Bureaucracies tend to be relatively closed systems, in which behavior is reinforced through daily reenactment. For this reason, many businesses employ monitoring systems and change mechanisms, such as benchmarking, large scale interventions, and the use of outside consultants. 

Video Spiral Feedback by flight404

Video Spiral Feedback by flight404

But what about universities, a type of organization that–as one might imagine–is very close to my heart? Universities exemplify many features associated with bureaucracies: roles are highly differentiated; rules are rigidly reenacted; boundaries are well defended, and politics prevail. As a result, change is incremental, at best.

Universities exemplify many features associated with bureaucracies: roles are highly differentiated; rules are rigidly reenacted; boundaries are well defended, and politics prevail.

In their book, The Social Life of Information, Paul Duguid and John Seely Brown warn against assuming that resistance to organizational change is evidence of Luddite behavior. Doing so, according to the authors, will lead to unintended, and undesirable, consequences. They suggest, instead, to look at the substance of resistance for clues about how to build upon the existing organizational context to better design a plan for change.

How might this insight pertain to universities? Let’s consider disciplines. Perhaps nothing is more entrenched in the university setting than academic disciplines. Functioning much like communities of practice, academic disciplines provide a shared sociocultural environment (habitus to use Bordieu‘s terminology) that serves to govern and maintain a set of beliefs and code of behavior. Efforts to relax the boundaries separating disciplines have typically focused on fostering collaboration among them. However, in an increasingly complex environment, in which enhanced feedback is critical, perhaps collaboration around points of interdisciplinary agreement is not what is needed. Instead, we might look to academic disciplines to challenge each other’s assumptions, and thereby enhance the  overall pool of knowledge–what Beinhocker call the design space. Organizations such as the Santa Fe Institute have demonstrated the rewards of this kind of cross training. Ironically, efforts such as these have typically taken place outside of the university environment. It is time to bring complexity inside!

Technology Assessment to the Rescue

Over the past several months, as it appeared that we might get a new Administration, support for, and speculations about, reviving the Office of Technology Assessment have been on the rise. In Congress, New Jersey Congressman Rush Holt has been carrying the flag.

But support is growing even at the grass roots level. Take, for example, the new online support group, Hey, hey–let’s reopen-the ota-with citizen input, which gets considerable play on my facebook page. The group has also set up a predictive market that allows members to wager on OTA’s future.

My prediction is that OTA will be revived, and–putting my money where my mouth is–I am prepared to bet heavily on it. But my rationale is not analytically grounded. As in any betting situation, it is a gut reaction, made in the face of uncertainty. Given my hopes and passions about a revived OTA, I would vote based not on a careful analysis of all the complex variables but rather in response to the excited signals coming from the emotional center of my brain.

It's a Gamble (Courtesy of MarkyBon


This is just what Dan Ariely, author of Predictable Irrationality would predict–even in the case of experts. As he points out, individual predictions about uncertain events are rarely based on rational assessments; moreover, because they are typically ladened with considerable emotional baggage, such predictions are typically way off the mark.

If–as I suspect–others are like me, it would behoove OTA’s supporters to rethink the rationale that they use to promote the revival of OTA. Responding to critics from the past, who argued that OTA’s reports were untimely and therefore unresponsive to Congress’ day-to-day legislative needs, OTA’s supporters have generally sought to demonstrate OTA’s positive impact by linking its reports to subsequent Congressional legislation. Perhaps that is not what is most important. Reading recent books about uncertainty–such as Leonard Mlodinow’s The Drunkards’ Walk and Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, I’m more and more convinced that what decision makers need today, in this age of complexity and high uncertainty, is a way to think holistically and creatively about the possibility of future outliers and unanticipated events–metaphorically described by Taleb as Black Swans. As he emphasizes, we are fooled by our belief that we can make sense of the world by reducing problems down to what we know. The demon in all of this, he says, is:

not just the bell curve and the self-deceiving statistician, nor the Platonified scholar who needs theories to fool himself with. It is the drive to ‘focus’ on what make sense to us. Living in our planet, today, requires a lot more imagination that we are made to have. We lack imagination and repress it in others (The Black Swan, p. xxvii)

Ironically, anticipating the future was one of OTA’s original goals, and holism was the method used to achieve it. In fact, many of our studies were highly successful in this regard. Speaking of my own work, for example, I would point to Intellectual Property Rights in An Age of Electronics and Information, which anticipated how networking technology might undermine the copyright and patent systems; Electronic Enterprises: Looking to the Future which pointed out how network architecture would determine the future of the networked economy; Global Standards: Building Blocks for the Future, which identified the need for a global standards strategies long before the Chinese decided to become major players in this arena.

No doubt, these are uncertain times. Today, we are trying to make sense of recent, unanticipated disasters, such as the outcome of the war in Iraq and Afganistan and the recent colossal market crash. These events are Black Swans; Could they have been anticipated? I doubt it, given the way knowledge generation is organized in bureaucratic universities and disciplinary silos, where creativity and the cross fertilization of ideas and methodologies is generally inhibited. But OTA was designed to identify Black Swans. To this end, it fostered an interdisciplinary culture, a more relaxed research methodology, and reached out to a broad array of thinkers and publics. Would not a refunded OTA be best suited to address the present situation?

Recognizing that people are becoming more and more anxious in the face of uncertainty, and highly unanticipated events, I propose a new narrative for marketing OTA. Technology Assessment to the Rescue! This is not only a good idea; it gets you right in the guts.

The University and Its Future

Today is a good day to blog. Outside the weather is gray, dank, and windy; time to stay close to the Hearth. Even more compelling, I am laying in bed, my dog Sparky at my side, nursing a wicked cold that the man, sitting in front of me on the plane coming back from Hungary, generously bestowed on me. Alternating between conscious and semi-conscious states, I have been day dreaming about the presentation I made in Budapest at the Central European University, entitled Complexity and the University of the Future .

Linda Garcia lecturing on Complexity and the University of the Future

Linda Garcia lecturing on Complexity and the University of the Future

In particular, I have been thinking about how I might extend my analysis by building on the readings that I had assigned for my Wednesday and Thursday classes. These include Michael Storper’s and Andres Rodriguez-Pose‘s paper Better Rules or Stronger Communities? On the Social Foundations of Institutional Change and Its Economic Effects ( Economic Geography 82 (1); 1-25, 2006) as well as Chicago University law professor Cass Sustein’s Infotopia (2006).

Just as other organizations must adapt to their rapidly changing complex environments, so too must universities.

My original presentation drew upon evolutionary and complexity theory (draft paper forthcoming). It argued that, just as other organizations must adapt to their changing complex environments, so too must universities. As Rogers 1995, Uzzi 2006; Burt 2005; and Beinhocker 2007 might argue, one way of facing this challenge is to transcend existing university boundaries, both internal as well as external, so as to internalize complexity and thereby generate new, and hopefully more adaptive, ideas. This strategy might be problematic in a university setting, however. For universities adapted so well to the changing environment of the industrial age–which called for bureaucratic hierarchies as well as specialization and the division of labor–that their ivory tower culture and their disciplinary silos might have become locked-in over time. As Douglass North has emphasized, just like network technologies, organizations and institutions experience positive externalities and increasing returns, so they tend to become path dependent.

Sustein’s and Storper’s works raise questions about how such change might take place. Although these authors stem from very different disciplinary backgrounds, they both focus on governance, leading me to ask whether or not university governance structures will facilitate or retard adaptive behavior.

leading me to ask whether or not university governance structures will facilitate or retard adaptive behavior.

Faculty Meeting (courtesy of Michael Wu)

Faculty Meeting (courtesy of Michael Wu)

Recall that universities are, to a large extent, self-governed through processes of deliberation. But, according to Sustein, deliberation only works in keeping with democratic theorists’ analyses (such as those of Aristotle, Rawls and Habermas) under very particular circumstances. Specifically, for decision making groups to effectively aggregate diverse sources of information and transform them into good ideas, these bodies must be comprised of an accurate representation of people who are relatively equal in terms of status and power, and who adhere to norms that encourage open discussion and information sharing. When such is not the case, lower status individuals are likely to either be reticent or defer to their superiors. As a result, deliberative outcomes will be narrowly conceived, rash, biased, and polarizing.

One must wonder, then, how decisions will unfold in a university context, where benefits and rewards are allocated to a large extent on the basis of rank in a hierarchy of roles

One must wonder, then, how decisions will unfold in a university context, where benefits and rewards are allocated to a large extent on the basis of rank in a hierarchy of roles. Storper and Rodriguez-Pose suggest one possible way of assuring more positive deliberative outcomes, which might well apply in the case of universities. In their article looking at how societal institutions constrain community-based groups and vice versa, the authors argue that communities and societal institutions are complementary rather than antagonistic. In fact, when well conceived, formal institutions and societal norms can serve to inhibit–if not prevent–the type of co-optation of deliberative bodies by influential and powerful members as described by Sustein in Infotopia. In the university realm, the most powerful, influential actors are likely to be deeply embedded in its established culture, and so favor the status quo. Thus, if adaptation is to be successful, and Storper is correct, change will need to be inspired, not only by pressure from the outside, but also–and as importantly–from leadership at the highest level that formally determines the institutional rules of the game–that is to say, the procedures and processes by and through which university deliberative bodies operate.

Our CCT Program is presently undergoing a process of self reflection. We are actually considering the question of ‘What do we want to look like in the future?” With Storper, Rodriguez-Pose, and Sustein in mind, I will not only be participating actively in this process but also–along with my dog Sparky–be thinking about it from an analytical perspective as well.

Technology Indeterminism

the question I wrestle with is about agency–when it comes to technology, how much agency do we have? 

For me, being a professor is very refreshing. It is an occupation that never gets stale. For, even when I work with the same material year after year, I get to share it with a new class of students each of whom has unique interpretations to offer. If I am too provocative, or appear too certain, no doubt I will be challenged. Questioning whether my thoughts and ideas hold up in the face of this kind of scrutiny, I am thoroughly reengaged.

In the Communication Culture and Technology Masters Program, at Georgetown University, the topics I most frequently address revolve around technology. More specifically, the question I wrestle with most is how much agency do we have? At what points are technologies brought into question, and how can they be influenced most effectively?

This question has dominated my thinking ever since my days at the Office of Technology Assessment, when I first read Langdon Winner’s opus Autonomous Technology. Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 1977). Surveying the range of positions that major thinkers have adopted with respect to the march of advancing technologies, Winner challenges us, not to be technology somnambulists, but rather to develop our own philosophical positions with respect to technology. I try to pass this challenge on to my students.

I am a Technology Whore (courtesy of Theiss)

I am a Technology Whore (courtesy of Theiss)

To be sure, developing a coherent philosophy of technology requires a sound theoretical understanding of the relationship between technology and society. This relationship is the focus of my CCT course Technology and Society. In this class, we employ different theoretical lenses through which to consider how technology affects society and vice versa. In examining these theories, I encourage my students to approach them the way they select their clothes–that is to say, try them on for size. Each theory has its own strengths and weaknesses, but some are more suitable than others for the purpose at hand.

The Dressing Room (Courtesy of Eric Photostream)

The Dressing Room (Courtesy of Eric Photostream)

Thus, for example, theoretical approaches associated with technology determinism, such James Beniger’s The Control Revolution, can help us understand the big picture–that is, what underlies technological momentum and unintended consequences, but it says little about how and by whom technology decisions are actually made. On the other hand, while the SHOT approach (Society for the History of Technology) hones in on how concerned interests and decision-makers arrive at a consensus, it give short shrift to the role of power and the institutional and cultural environment in which decision makers act. Like the SHOT approach, Actor-Network Theory (ANT)–developed by French philosophers Michel Callon and Bruno Latour, discounts the social frame of reference. Its focus, instead, is on how actors (including technology) employ their power and resources to create networks in support of technology outcomes. Most comprehensive of all is evolutionary theory, which conceives of technology outcomes as emergent and indeterminate –the product of complex, cumulative forces.

Teaching a class on Technology and Society, I want to be able to assure my students that–yes–they can make a difference.

Teaching a class on Technology and Society, I want to be able to assure my students that–yes–they can make a difference, whatever their views about technology. And I certainly hope that they go on to do so. As well, I think that, when viewed together, the theoretical perspectives outlined above suggest a number of entry points where they might intervene successfully on behalf of technology-related issues. So I am not a pessimistic, technology determinist. But neither am I an optimistic somnambulist, ready to stand aside and give way to whatever forces come my way. After years of engaging with my students around these issues, I am existential in the face of technology. That is to say, I am–for lack of a better word–a technology indeterminist. Recognizing the complexity of the problem, and the unintended consequences of technology that are strewn all around us, I know I need to act, even if the outcome of my actions is uncertain. I draw comfort from the idea that, in a complex social environment, small changes at the local level give rise to large scale repercussions at the level of the whole.

Linking for Interdisciplinary Learning

Michael Wesch’s short video, A Vision of Students Today, associates the gap in relevance between student’s interests today and educational practices at a traditional university to the widespread availability of new, and more captivating, modes of learning and interaction, now available in the digital age. My own educational experience, which began over 60 years ago, suggests that this disconnect is not necessarily a new phenomena, nor solely a product of digital technologies. John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid might agree. As they argue in a paper entitled, ” The University in the Digital Age, the weaknesses in today’s educational system are due primarily to a fundamental pedagogical failure. According to the authors, the problem is that we treat education as a matter of delivering scientifically vetted content to students, rather than engaging them in an on-going shared practice of discovery.

the problem is that we treat education as a matter of delivering scientifically vetted content to students, rather than engaging them in a situated, on-going shared practice. of discovery.

The authors’ paper certainly resonates with me personally, especially their characterization of the typical approach used to teach math. In my case, two seminal experiences come to mind. The first occurred when I was in seventh grade. My teacher, Mrs. Milford, posed the following question in our class: If an airplane is traveling at 500 miles and hour, and the wind is blowing at 40 miles an hour, how fast is the plane moving? When she revealed the right answer–540 miles per hour–I was perplexed. I asked: “If the wind is traveling at 40 miles per hour, how can it catch up with a plane flying at 500 miles per hour? No doubt, a reasonable question for a seventh grader? Not according to Mrs Milford. In response to my perceived impertinence I was sent to the principal’s office where I was assigned the task of putting the top 500 U.S. cities in alphabetical order. Talk about a disconnect! Needless to say, it was some time before I raised another math question. In fact, the next occasion occurred years later, in my college algebra class, when I asked why one could not divide by zero. The answer, I was told, was because, if I did so, I would fail. Enough said!

In their paper, Brown and Duguid describe how math might be taught in the context of a community of practice. They suggest that if knowledge is to be meaningful to students, the teacher must make explicit the thought process that he or she goes through in generating a question, and seeking an answer for it. By participating in the learning process–that is to say, the practice and, yes, the culture of doing math –students will develop an intuitive sense of how to generate solutions to such problems on their own.

By participating in the learning process–that is to say, the practice and, yes, the culture of doing math— students will develop an intuitive sense of how to generate solutions to such problems on their own.

Duguid and Brown do not discount the role of technology in the educational process. To the contrary, they consider a number of ways in which technology based tools can support their vision. Having recently experimented with “blogging,” and found it very satisfying, I too would like to build it into my classes, in the form of e-portfolios. I agree with Duguid and Brown that education should prepare students for the real world by engaging them in a form of disciplinary practice. And it would seem to me that blogging within the classroom can help students and faculty achieve such a goal. However, in an interdisciplinary educational program such as CCT, a somewhat different approach might be required. Interdisciplinarity is its own unique practice. It has no-bottom line text: rather it emerges and evolves in the process of engaging with complex problems. The kind of blogging exercise that would most be most relevant in this regard would be one that links students not solely to each other, and to their faculty, but also to the non-academic groups–outside the ivory tower–wrestling with real life problems. University roles and boundaries have traditionally been relatively fixed, so these three groups have typically been remote from one another. Were they to interact around problem solving, just imagine the practice they might engender!

Congratulations, Dr. Rheingold

An Image from Howard Rheingold's presentation as VP at De Montfort University, UKI was happy to read on his Smart Mobs weblog that tomorrow, Wednesday, July 15th, my friend Howard Rheingold will be awarded an honorary Doctorate of Technology by De Montfort University in Leicester, UK. De Montfort is fast becoming an important site of hybrid thinking about technology: Prof. Rheingold, D.Tech., is currently a visiting professor of at the Institute for Creative Technologies there; and the University has apparently just contributed 1 million pounds, as part of a novel partnership, to the innovative Digital Media Centre in Leicester.

Less than a year ago, Howard was gracious enough to come to our Program at Georgetown to speak to our students at length about some of his passions. They loved him.

Our online journal, gnovis, sat down with Howard after lunch to talk about new media technologies and democracy.

Congratulations, Howard.