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.

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