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citizen science for organization studies?

As a good navel-gazing academic, I often find myself thinking about the research process: how do we discover or produce new knowledge? Naturally, I’m especially interested in how we do this in the world of org theory: Where do our questions come from? How do we experience the organizational world? How do the people and interactions our data represent speak to us? Basically, what is good research? And, while we’re at it, how can we do more of it?

About 15 years ago, with the help of the Sloan Foundation, some colleagues and I launched a project called Science and Technology in the Making (STIM) that was intended to use this new technology called the World Wide Web as a tool for research. Remember that at the time (some would say, to this day), the web was used primarily as a means for sharing what we already knew, not generating new knowledge. We tried to engage various communities to contribute their experiences so that we scholars could have access to heretofore unavailable accounts of things like the computer mouse, the New York City blackouts of 1965 and 1977, Boston’s “Big Dig” and the electric vehicle (my contribution).

I’ll spare you the sausage making (more here), but I would like to think that we were anticipating one of the most interesting recent developments in the natural sciences, the growth of so-called citizen science. Though scientists have always been citizens, citizen science refers to distributed, large-scale research projects that encourage and rely upon participation by multiple individuals. You may have heard, for instance, of Zooniverse, eBird, etc. Most of these projects ask participants to contribute their observations of natural phenomenon to online databases that could, in principle, be intepreted by anyone, but, in practice, are interpreted by professional scholars. Some, like galaxyzoo and phylo, ask participants to interpret and code visual images that require human judgment. The algorithms aren’t yet good enough to do it for us.

The knowledge production process in these projects is pretty straightforward. People participate freely. It’s educational. It probably builds support for science more broadly. I can imagine some ethical issues arising around intellectual ownership, allocation of credit, and status reinforcement, and I do not know if anyone has looked at the quality of the data (in absolute or relative terms), but on the whole, citizen science seems like a pretty positive development. Besides, Clay Shirky says we waste a trillion hours each year anyway so with more citizen science, maybe we will waste a little less on TV.

If more is better, are there examples of citizen science in the community of scholars that study organizations? I hope so. If not, can we think of projects or ideas that would lend themselves to collective effort? The fine folks at the Sloan Foundation have even sponsored the Citizen Science Alliance to help us get started. Comment or email to get the conversation going.


Written by dakirsch

September 18, 2011 at 3:10 pm

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remembering 9.11

Well, it’s September 11, 2011, or 11-9-11 for our more logical friends overseas. I was waiting for one of our hosts to weigh in, but since the day is almost over here, let me offer a few observations.

My twins were two ten years ago and naturally remember nothing. Like many kids their age across the U.S., they were asked to interview family members about their memories of 9/11/01. Both kids did their bit, but later my son—after first apologizing and making sure that I wouldn’t think he was a terrorist—asked me if there was any video of what happened that day.

I had to stifle a gasp both because (I know) he has searched for things on YouTube that he should be embarrassed about, but apparently he could never bring himself to violate a perceived taboo around 9/11 and because aside from people living in New York, Washington and a few others, everyone in the world experienced 9/11 via media. It was the ultimate horror movie, unfolding before our very eyes that beautiful September morning. Of course there’s video, I told him.

We found some selections on CNN and started poking around. To watch the initial coverage of the tragedy is to relive the moment the first observers (along with most of the rest of us) first learned of the idea that people would do such a thing as commandeer an airplane and deliberately fly it into a building. Yes, the intelligence community had considered it, but the typical early observers literally couldn’t imagine such a thing. What was a plane doing there, they wondered? Did it look like it was suffering mechanical difficulties, one anchor asked an eyewitness? Were the engines on fire at the time of the accident? Even the impact of the second plane doesn’t immediately compute. Like Simons and Chabris’ experiment where a man in a gorilla suit walking through the middle of a group of people dribbling basketballs often goes unnoticed because we’ve been asked to count the basketball passes, the second impact is still so unexpected, so out of context, that the CNN anchor doesn’t realize what’s happened.

I was reminded of a quote from Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson that appears in Melani McAlister’s early meditation on 9/11 (subscription required):

All profound changes in consciousness, by their very nature, bring with them characteristic amnesias. Out of such oblivions, in specific historical circumstances, spring narratives.

We all have our narratives of 9/11—where we were, whom we were with, how we coped (or didn’t)—but we also have our amnesias. We cannot remember what it felt like to have never known that planes could be flown into buildings to kill and terrorize. Our kids will never know that feeling, and that, it strikes me, is a great shame, part of the immeasurable cost of that day.

My second observation involves this video. It’s meant as a 9:00 minute “lowlight” reel of the days events and entitled “Look Back at How September 11 Unfolded.” My son and I started there, but soon noticed something strange. Spoiler alert. If you want to see for yourself, watch the first 90 seconds or so and see if you notice anything odd before reading on.

Did you notice? There’s a soundtrack. It’s not Wagner or Carmina Burana, but some poor sound editor at CNN had to select the music to which the South Tower of the World Trade Center would fall! Talk about a tough day at the office. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, didn’t I just say that we all experienced that day mediated and interpreted by our friends at CNN and elsewhere. Yes, but… Here I was reminded of Alan Megill’s thoughtful Historical Knowledge, Historical Error (Chicago, 2007) where he explores the difference between acts of history and acts of memory. History, according to Megill, challenges our understanding of what happened in the past, while acts of memory tend to reinforce what we already know (or think we know). BTW, I’m not suggesting that we embrace the 9/11 conspiracists, only that when we hear a soundtrack for the ultimate reality TV show, we recognize it as such.

Written by dakirsch

September 12, 2011 at 4:28 am

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the ‘better battery bugaboo’ and the (electric?) car of tomorrow

Thanks Brayden and hello… My first crack at guest blogging… I was going to start out with a slightly longer intro but as Fabio mentioned the Nissan Leaf, I’ll start there and try to bring it back to OrgTheory broadly defined, of course.

My writings on the early (1897-1925) history of the electric vehicle (article 1, article 2 and book versions, JSTOR or MUSE subscriptions required, and yes, there were electric vehicles way back then, perhaps even in your home town!) left me struggling with questions that come out in Fabio’s post and its comments.

First: the electric car is always 10 years away, plus or minus 5 years. The book contains lots of evidence of experts predicting the imminent arrival of the electric car in the late 1890s, the 1900s, the 1910s and the 1920s. Since then, working with UMD doctoral student Byungchae Jin, we’ve found similar statements from the 1960s, 1970s, 1990s, and, of course, the 2000s. I will not tar Fabio with the label of “electric vehicle expert”, but none other than Nobel Laureate and current Energy Secretary Steven Chu said the following in Cancun last year at a UN climate conference (quote and context from Reuters):

Cars that run on batteries will begin to be competitive with ones that burn petroleum fuels in about five years, the U.S. energy secretary said at the annual U.N. climate talks. ‘It’s not like it’s 10 years off,’ Chu said at a press conference on U.S. clean energy efforts on the sidelines of the climate talks. ‘It’s about five years and it could be sooner. Meanwhile the batteries we do have today are soon going to get better by a factor of two.’

So, the electric car is and always has been the car of tomorrow, but never the car of today. Why? That’s seems like an interesting question from the perspective of someone who’s curious about the interaction of technology, organization, industrial evolution, policy and consumer behavior. Fabio and the comments touch on many of these factors. Why have so many very smart people been so consistently wrong for so long?

One factor that inevitably comes up is the battery. What does it mean to say that we need better batteries or, as Secretary Chu says, that the better battery is about five years away? University of Arizona cultural archeologist Michael Schiffer has called this unquestioned belief in the transformative role of the battery of the future the “better battery bugaboo.” The BBB is the idea that the fate of the electric vehicle has been, is and always will be inextricably linked to (always, it seems) lagging developments in the science of electricity storage. But what about the social construction of technology? Isn’t it one of our hardest won intellectual battles that technology is what we as a society make it to be? How can it be that this recalcitrant thing, this stubborn artifact, has been standing in our way for so long? What does this say about our theories of technology? Is everything but the battery socially constructed?

I’ll say a little more about this in the days ahead, and I’ll also say a bit about whether I believe, as Fabio said, that it’s different this time, but for the moment, I’m curious what readers think: Is our historic inability to (re-)construct the storage battery a challenge to our understanding of the plasticity of technology?


Written by dakirsch

September 8, 2011 at 5:44 am

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