Wednesday, June 20, 2007

knowing enough about enough

Thanks for the compliments, Kristin: you gave me two. The first is that the book covers a lot of theoretical ground without oversimplifying, which was something I was trying very hard to do. The second is that, if you're asking me how I maintain a firm grasp on the legal and technical details, it means you haven't found any glaring, amateur errors -- at least through the chapters you've already read. That's a relief.

I agree that keeping up with the domains of law and technology, not only because of their pace but because of their complexity, is not an easy task. I don't have the benefit of a co-author like Anuj, but I do have a set of people who've been generous enough to read the work in various stages, who have a firm grasp on those domains: Siva Vaidhyanathan, Dan Burk, and Julie Cohen have been especially generous about this. (Dan and I did co-author an article together, a part of which appears in the last chapter. Having his legal expertise, knowing he would have found any glaring errors, was reassuring.) So checking and rechecking the work in various informal ways, from having it read by colleagues, to presenting it at different kinds of conferences, to thinking about it as I read others' work, has been crucial.

I think I also made a decision along the way that this book could/should not be a precise intervention either in the intricate legal debate or in the specific engineering questions. It couldn't be that, both because I'm not trained to do either, but also because it might then lose sight of what I did want it to be: a sociological analysis of these debates with an eye for their political and cultural implications. That meant I could be a bit more generalist about the legal and technical details -- though still having to toe the line of knowing enough to really get it, and not make mistakes in characterizing what was going on or what was possible. There's an additional advantage to this move: I think it's quite easy, if you get too immersed in the engineering or the legal discourse, to begin to embrace a set of paradigmatic frameworks common to those fields that tend to write off certain possibilities, to take certain presumptions as normative and inevitable, when in fact they may be viable but fall outside the current discourse of that domain.

There is some kind of tactic common to interpretivist social science, and I'm not going to say it here as well as it has been said before by others, where you can adopt an investigator's distance, a medium proximity to your object, that's close enough to get it right without having to be a native. Maybe I'm talking about something like what Harry Collins calls "transactional expertise." That makes it sound a bit more sophisticated than it feels, though; its also about being modest about what you can and cannot know, and what kind of contribution you're actually able to make.

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