Sunday, July 29, 2007

Planet Management and Memory Practices

Dear Book Group Colleagues:

Since I was out of town for several days surrounding our reading of Planet Management, Greg assigned me to read and compare Planet Management and Memory Practices in the Sciences by Goeffrey Bowker, a book that the group read last summer. I’ve enjoyed this opportunity to re-read Bowker, but I’m not going to assume that all of us are familiar with Memory Practices.

In understanding the origins of contemporary practices in the sciences, including scientific modeling, Bowker locates the development of these practices well before the origins of systems theory in World War II where Elichirigoity begins. The rise of state bureaucracies, and the accompanying need for information in the form of numbers (statistics), and the need to categorize and assign priorities to numbers are primarily the products of the eighteenth and nineteenth century. They are rooted in social processes and changes during these times. Over time, they have changed as priorities and perceptions have changed. Bowker challenges the “perfect”memory posited by scientific institutions, and suggests that the traces left in the world are larger and more complex than those constructed by scientific interpretations based on human-created categories. At the heart of this argument is the notion that “acts of committing to record, such as writing a scientific paper, do not occur in isolation” but occur within a range of technical, formal, and social practices. We project onto nature our modes of organizing our own affairs. These memory practices are a way of framing the present. Scientific memory acts through tools such as standardization and classification which over time have provided the underpinnings to contemporary scientific undertakings, including the activities of the Club of Rome. We need to understand the limitations of these socially-based categories and their influence on scientific thinking. As the database has become central to scientific research, we need to understand the metaphors we have imposed on this data, and avoid production of a frozen present. Both ideology and knowledge are fused in the creation of data, as well as in its interpretation.

Seen from this perspective, Planet Management provides the story of one set of memory practices in the formation of contemporary “globality”-- those produced through the development of cybernetics and computing, Bowker suggests that other global ways of thinking existed earlier, in geology and in the expansion of empires, thus globality may not necessarily be the paradigm shift posited by Elichirigoity though our understanding of it has been aided by new tools such as satellite imaging.

The set of memory practices noted in Planet Management consists of those which would view the Earth as a “system” which includes inorganic, organic, natural and technological subsystems, amenable to systems analysis. They involve a method which depends on computer simulations, based on a variety of data chosen by experts. One interesting rationale noted by Elichirigoity as leading to the process which created the Club of Rome report is the interest in “new” forms of information provided by the computerized database. Information captured in computerized databases was viewed as a break with a past in which information was stored on maps and in print. Yet, the new databases made use of geographical information which was also at the basis of traditional mapmaking, though it was enhanced and expanded by new methods of computer imaging

Elichirigoity notes other social impacts on the work of the planet managers—sociobiology, for instance, a highly contested area of scientific research in which biological factors are seen as highly significant in determining social activities. Cybernetics itself proposed to erase an older distinction between organic and inorganic All of these were transformative and led to contemporary notions of the planet as a system amenable to management. I think that Bowker might possibly regard them less as transformative, and more of a larger continuum of efforts at global thinking fueled by a variety of underlying and possibly unquestioned mindsets.

Furthermore, the process which led to the report of the Club of Rome is deeply involved in a social milieu including the need to obtain grant funding, and the consequent need to act in ways that grantors will approve, along with the need to market the final product to a variety of audiences. It is striking that the commercial success of the first Limits to Growth book almost derailed the subsequent publication of the more technical reports. The process of obtaining support and direction for the Club of Rome project, notably top-down, was also carefully staged to reflect European sensibilities. The significance of a meeting in the Accademia Nazionali dei Lincei, one of the oldest and most prestigious of scientific societies, could not have been lost on potential European sponsors, and played perfectly into the hierarchical arrangement of European society even after World War II. To me it is striking as well, now that I have been made cautious about the creation of categories and alert to their power by reading Bowker's books, Sorting Things Out as well as Memory Practices, how little questioning seemed to go into the acceptance of statistical categories and data from governement agencies.

I think it is possible to argue that the significance of the Club of Rome report might not have been as a paradigm change towards global thinking and cybernetics. I think it is possible to argue that global thinking existed long before this and influenced the formation of this approach, which was enhanced by developments in cybernetics and shifting importance of categories and classification of data.

Nevertheless, I think this is an important book. In our contemporary era as we contemplate scenarios and conflicts over global climate change, it serves to remind us how long ago some of the warnings of global problems, based on computerized models, appeared and how few actual concrete results they had. Now that we have this book, I think it might be very interesting to write the sequel: Why did the Limits of Growth and the other reports of the Club of Rome ultimately have so little impact? Why was something that was presented as “scientific” rejected by some groups, such as business and management, and embraced by others? Were there other, less obvious aspects of these endeavors that did have some significant impact? It seems to me that it is possible that at some point in the future, the efforts of the Club of Rome will be viewed as some sort of forerunners or precursors to yet another global approach which, I think, did not begin after World War II but has been with us at least since the days of expansion of empires.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Slightly Off Topic...

...but somewhat related to last Friday's discussion: For those interested, Rhetoric Society of America's 2008 Conference Theme is Responsibilities of Rhetoric and it will be in Seattle. Some of the rhetoric and new media stuff we discussed is related to the conference theme. You can reach the info from RSA's site:

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Not Late This Time!

OK, this is probably an issue of my academic background coming into play, but I’m having trouble with the seemingly promiscuous use of the term discourse. While I have an idea of how it is being used here, I’d like to see something indicating how it is theoretically grounded here. Particularly, because it seems to move between several usages of the term. For me, it unnecessarily confuses matters.

But anyway...I am interested in the ways the narratives become inscribed in simulated visions of the future, the ways these narratives are propagated and nurtured, and the ways these narratives obtain power, power that then begets new (and sometimes contradictory) narratives. I would like to hear more about the argument that the world is now more dependent on the guidance of NGOs and INGOs. I see them present, and I see them in action, but I’m concerned that it might be easy to ascribe too much power and influence to such organizations. It’s a question of who serves who, I think.

I'll have more to say tomorrow. I look forward to seeing everyone!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Our author will be joining us next Friday -- and not just in cyberspace

Just had a nice chat with our author for next Friday, Fernando Elichirigoity, and it turns out he was planning on being in Chicago next weekend anyway, so he offered to drive up from Champaign-Urbana a day early and meet with our reading group in person on the 20th! Now besides discussing an interesting book with your peers, you get to meet and chat with an interesting (and recently tenured) LIS professor from another great research university. What could be better? (Plus Greg will be buying the drinks.)

Thoughts on the historical context of planetary management, 35 years ago and today

I too really liked the book. While reading it, I was reminded of the circa-1990 atmosphere around the 20th anniversary of the first Earth Day when I first encountered Limits to Growth, and its sequel Beyond the Limits. About the same time I also read Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb which was actually published in 1968 and discussed many of the same "overshoot and collapse" issues as Limits to Growth ... however within a framework of nation-by-nation population, technology, affluence, and impact variables, rather than on an undifferentiated globalized scale (and without computer models, though with mathematical models and heuristics). Ehrlich too was criticized for his "predictions" (were they predictions or thoughtful scenarios for analysis?) and he too published a recap about twenty years later, titled The Population Explosion.

So a question for Fernando: In your interviews and documentary research, did you find any suggestion that the Club of Rome / Forrester / Meadows folks might have expected some of the criticism they received, given the earlier reception of the Ehrlich book and research?

And a question for us all to ponder: The book argues well that behind our current practices of and understandings of globalization lurk the entwined conception and technology of population, resource, energy, and environmental management on a global scale, which are enabled by new digital computer based processing, monitoring, and communication technology. But even today, many of the critics of global environmental action (say, to reduce and mitigate the effects of global warming) invoke another kind of globalization "planetary management" discourse, that of free markets and military interventions (in the name of "security" rather than "sustainability"), which seem to also have arisen in the early 1970s, when political and economic actors faced the beginning of the end of US manufacturing dominance (auto industry), US military effectiveness (Vietnam), and cheap fossil fuel energy (OPEC). To put it really simplistically, today does the dream of "planentary management" mean something broader and more contested? Does it belong to the right or the left? To the progressive or the conservative? Or does it somehow complicate and transcend these rough categories?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The limits 35 years later

Folks interested in reading an abstract of the original 1972 Limits to Growth report can download one from the Club of Rome web archive.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Special Guest Blogger: Fernando Elichirigoity

Fernando Elichirigoity, the author of Planet Management, and Associate Professor at the Univeristy of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science has agreed to guest blog with us next week as we prepare to discuss his book on July 20.

You can view Fernando's homepage at:

His research interests include: "Globalization and information infrastructures; industrial classification and transnational spaces of production and consumption; knowledge management and new forms of corporate structures; the use of the Web for personal investing and business information; Spanish-language Internet portals and the virtual construction of Latin America; history of coordination and collaborative technologies; selection and exhibition of foreign language materials in public libraries."

Fernando received his PhD from 1994 from Illinois Urbana Champaign. He worked at the School of Information Studies at Long Island University before returning to Illinois.


Monday, July 09, 2007

Planet Management - next book!

I read Planet Management a little early and wanted to let everyone know how much I enjoyed it. While the book was chosen as an "environmental" selection, I would argue it that the book is more about:

(1) rhetorical benefits of different information forms (will Natezilla and K8 agree?)

(2) how different mental models of x lead to needs for and creation of different information practices related to x (with x in this case being the global environment)

Despite the palm tree on the cover, there is no beach scene.

Computer modeling/simulation, as a epistemological endevour and as an end for data management, has become a hot topic in both information studies and science and technology studies in the recent past as issues of what counts as knowledge and who gets to make knowledge have heated up. Elichirigoity's book does a great job providing an intellectual and social history of where computer modeling sprang from. He also does a great job explaining how Club of Rome needed the particular information forms provided by modeling for rhetorical reasons and for political purposes.

Having come from a PhD program with scientific management undercurrent, I also enjoyed reading the Forrester history section to get a better understanding of where systems theory came from. My area, social informatics, was created in part as a response to the strong success of scientific management/systems thinking assumptions and methodologies described in the book and still popular today. Social informatics research tries in part to explain the failures of the scientific management approaches - why doesn't the system act as our model suggests it should? What assumptions about human behavior underlie scientific management analysis of organizations or information flows?

Those veterans from last year's group should note the link between the model's dependence on comprehensive cross national time series data on environmental trends in Planet Management (pg. 89) and Bowker's lamentations about the difficulty of producing such data in Memory Practices in the Sciences.