Distraction Free Reading

Knowledge Transfer, Transparency, IT: An Infrastructure Report from Co-Chairland

“Does CASTAC still serve a purpose?” “Should it continue?” This was the discussion at the first CASTAC meeting I attended at the 2006 AAAs in San Jose. It was like coming upon a cadre of fascinating people who share your intellectual proclivities only to hear tell of how this had been a most excellent and renown party—a veritable Cambrian explosion of Anthro-STS—but that was back before you got here, and there was beer.

In the 1990s, CASTAC was the only place within AAA for folks working on the boundaries of anthropology and STS. By the mid-2000s, STS was everywhere in anthropology. CASTAC had been so successful in its originating mission that it faced “an existential crisis,” as former Chair (2005-2009) Chris Furlow put it in his brief history of CASTAC.

When Rachel Prentice and I stepped in as Co-Chairs in 2009, CASTAC’s existential situation was much unchanged. Beyond a lightly trafficked announcements-only mailing list and home for the Forsythe prize, it wasn’t clear what else the Committee could or should be. Neither Rachel nor I had wanted to take on the Chair role solo, even with the prodigious help Chris promised (and delivered).

My take on the “exist or die” question was Max Weber meets thrifty peasant: Why let a perfectly good bit of bureaucracy go to waste? CASTAC already existed with a budget (however small), a seat on the GAD board, the aforementioned mailing list, and the Forsythe Prize. These structures and processes can be inhabited to serve varied ends and they don’t make a lot of them these days. Rachel and I set out to discover other would-be inhabitants and what ends they would want to pursue through CASTAC.

Rachel took over networking with other STS-in-anthropology agencies, focusing on invited sessions for AAA meetings. I focused on systems infrastructure, starting with basic IT, which soon revealed its complex, social character and eventually led, rabbit hole-style, to questions of social infrastructure and knowledge-transfer.

Screenshot of mailing list administration screen.

I heard about the CASTAC mailing list at my first business meeting but it took awhile to find out how to subscribe. I had to email David Hess at RPI and he would add me. Although emailing the author of “If You’re Planning to Live in STS…. A Guide for the Perplexed” (Hess: 1998), was an exciting prospect for me, a wildly admiring grad student, the idea of maintaining a mailing list by hand was decidedly less exciting. “Wouldn’t it be better if people could subscribe and unsubscribe themselves?”, I thought. “Shouldn’t it be easier to find out about the list and CASTAC without having to go to an AAA business meeting?”

In the technocratic manner of my people, I immediately set upon a narrative of development for CASTAC’s IT. I used the resources at hand and took the most direct, DIY route to making what I saw as needed updates. I registered castac.org, so CASTAC would have its own top-level domain, not tied to a .edu institution. The castac.org domain could be hosted anywhere and, down the line, moved anywhere, as circumstances changed. I decided to set up web hosting on my account at Dreamhost (a commercial hosting provider) because (a) I didn’t need anyone’s permission to use that server; and (b) adding castac.org to my account didn’t add any cost yet afforded all sorts of new functionality. For example, new user accounts and roles could be created and any number of wares—blogware to wikis—could be installed. CASTAC would have to keep current with domain registration fees (~ $14/year), but as far as hosting a new mailing list, and whatever else CASTAC members dreamed up in years to come, this was a no-cost option. I opted for it, a “no-brainer.”

Of course, I didn’t do this opting alone. Before migrating the CASTAC mailing list from its old host at RPI, I talked things over with my co-chair (Prentice), former chair (Furlow), and the administrator of the old list (Hess). They had to trust that I wouldn’t wreak havoc for CASTAC subscribers, and would do as I’d said. I note this consensus because, in telling how things happened, I’ve become acutely aware of the way the choices I made on behalf of CASTAC recapitulate moves toward flexibility, individuation, and privatization characteristic of network and neoliberal society. Moving CASTAC from a university to a commercial server and its own domain namespace is de-institutionalizing in that it untethers the group from any larger organization (e.g., a university, the AAA). Using my own hosting account afforded the freedom to set things up as I thought they should be, directly and speedily, and to share this power by creating accounts for others. But it also removed the option of tech support from any campus IT. We were on our own, all laboring on a volunteer basis, with neither the regulation, nor the safety net of an institution (a bit like Uber, Lyft, Airbnb).

The logic of development that informed this IT plan seemed so natural and right that it could only be the work of culture. Looking back at choices made and unconsidered possibilities, as any anthropologist of social media should, serves to render the complex cultural character, and socially significant tradeoffs involved in “simply updating” your technology.

If you’ve set-up new software, you know the part where you’re faced with all these decisions that have to be made before you can do anything else? When you’re setting-up groupware or systems that others will use, you often (have to) make decisions that amount to social design without input from these others. I bracket “have to” because it’s always a judgment call what people will regard as pesky technicalities versus what they’ll regard as vitally important to discuss as a group. In updating CASTAC, I lumped most everything into the first category, operating on the old geek homily that “it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.”

Writing this up is less about forgiveness than about making a particular cultural logic visible and reflecting on un-deliberated choices. For instance, the old mailing list had been moderated with messages going to an administrator who forwarded posts to the list. The new list, however, is set up so that any subscriber can post directly to it, see the subscription list, or view the list archive, and people can subscribe/unsubscribe themselves. None of these changes was discussed with CASTAC members. I made them operating on the techno-scientific logic of geek culture, assuming that increased access, openness, and flexibility were a standard part of upgrading the group’s IT.

Changing mailing list settings and changing mailing list usage are very different things, of course. For years after the switch, CASTAC subscribers sent me messages to forward to the list, which remains sparsely trafficked and announcements-focused to this day. Whether that’s simply inertia, or how CASTAC members like their list, I couldn’t say (though it’s under investigation in an on-going survey). Satisfied that people were finding and subscribing to the mailing list—which has grown from 137 to 243 members in the last three years—I didn’t do anything to change the dynamic. My focus was infrastructural: backend and long term.

Although the mailing list didn’t change much with our move to castac.org, CASTAC’s fortunes and presence certainly did after Patricia Lange and Jordan Kraemer proposed starting a blog. Launched in November 2012, The CASTAC Blog has become the most active part of CASTAC, publishing original writing regularly, with an 11-person editorial team, 2-person web team, and hundreds, sometimes thousands, of monthly page views. Other than installing Word Press and setting Patricia and Jordan up with administrator accounts, pointers, and words of encouragement, my role in all this has been minimal. I don’t mention that out of modesty. Quite the contrary, I regard this indirect involvement as an achievement. If you recall, my response to the phase change dynamics of CASTAC when I took office had been to focus on infrastructure—social as well as technical. Implementing systems to support member projects was itself my project.

The social infrastructures to which I refer include, not only those of what used to be called “computer-mediated-communication or “groupware” (everything from mailing lists to publishing systems), but also those of bureaucratic governance: CASTAC as a committee of GAD that is a section of AAA. In our first year as co-Chairs, as Rachel and I learned our way around the job, it’s a good thing we had each other’s counsel. It’s not that the administrative duties are especially onerous (they aren’t). Nor is it that there weren’t wise, helpful people whose counsel we might ask (there were). It’s that living systems of administration don’t come with a handbook. They require tacit knowledge, particularly in the U.S. where informality, individualism, and flux are the norm. I found the co-Chair form/structure well suited to these conditions, particularly when it came to questions of succession and turn over.

When Rachel said she wanted to rotate out of office in 2013, I proposed we put out a call at the 2012 CASTAC Business Meeting for an in-coming co-Chair. My thinking was that co-chair candidates could shadow current co-chairs for a year, then take over from one of them. Co-chairs, shadow chairs, and staggered succession were ways, I thought, to enhance participation and the transfer of tacit knowledge, perhaps even rendering some of it less tacit, more discursive.

Historically, as I learned from Chris Furlow, CASTAC had had a process of electing chairs to three-ish-year terms at the AAA Business Meeting. There had never before been co-Chairs as there had never before been two volunteers to serve. The open calls for Rachel’s successor (Jennifer Carlson) and for mine (Nick Seaver) had similar response rates. In conditions where eliciting participation, rather than winnowing it, is the challenge, the electoral process often becomes pro forma, election by acclamation. This was so much the case for CASTAC that institutional memory of elections lapsed. Chris tells me that there was a pro forma election for Rachel and me on the CASTAC mailing list but I don’t recall it and, thus, did not include such an election ritual for co-Chair Carlson at the 2013 meeting. All this attention to governance and succession and I inadvertently abolish elections. Gulp.

Even when they’re only pro forma, you don’t want to be guy who discontinues elections. So before I go further, let me say that these rituals (and discussion thereof) are on the agenda for the 2014 business meeting. Scandalous as it may sound, elections never crossed my mind. In a social field where volunteers, though excellent, are few, I took putting out an open call for would-be co-chairs as democratic process. My focus was on finding successors and knowledge transfer—on setting up a system to support increased turnover in leadership, while ensuring administrative function and continuity. In this regard, results were even better than I’d hope, both for co-Chairs to succeed Rachel and me, and for The CASTAC Blog.

As far as co-Chairs, CASTAC is in excellent hands with Jennifer Carlson, who became my co-Chair at the 2013 AAA meeting, and Nick Seaver, who volunteered at that meeting and is slated to come in as co-Chair at the next one, when I step down. I hope each will serve terms of at least “three-ish” years and mentor successors before burning out. They have smarts, vision, and skill, and enter office with a year of job shadowing, being in the loop on emails and the annual cycle of CASTAC business, including CASTAC IT, i.e., the mailing list, Twitter (@CASTAC_AAA), and on-going support of The CASTAC Blog.

Launching a new scholarly blog and publishing weekly for nearly two years is a remarkable feat. Just as remarkable, and even more rare, from an infrastructural point of view is that both the editorial and web development teams behind The CASTAC Blog have matters of turnover, continuity, and avoiding burnout well in hand. Over the last year, founding Editor-in-Chief, Patricia Lange, expanded the editorial team to ten Associate Editors, laying the groundwork for on-going publication and the training and search processes for future Editors-in-Chief and Associate Editors.

As Web Producer, Jordan Kraemer has supported editors and authors of The CASTAC Blog from initial set-up and launch through the recent editorial expansion (more people to support). At the 2014 business meeting, we put out a call for someone to handle web production and were fortunate enough to hear from Angela Kristin VandenBroek. Angela was quickly vetted as super qualified and began working with Jordan early this year. Angela will be taking over as Web Producer and will serve through the 2016 AAAs. Here, too, CASTAC has been and will continue to be in excellent hands.

A good outcome only makes for an enlightened despot, of course. By which I mean that I sometimes feel uneasy about the election skipping and other hegemonic choices, even though I acted in good faith in taking on stewardship of CASTAC IT. Perhaps this writing is a means to confess and pardon myself simultaneously, as I prepare to leave office in December. Opening up assumptions and explaining what I think I’ve been up to during my tenure as CASTAC co-Chair is certainly a goal. But critical reflection on the logic of network society is another. Within the culture that created the Internet, a central principle of governance is summed up in the phrase “rough consensus and running code.” It refers to a form of decision-making used by IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) working groups where a chairperson determines the “rough consensus” or “dominant view” and practical, working systems take priority over deliberative discourse or democratic procedure, such as voting. Much as CASTAC, these working groups are peopled and powered through labor that is both voluntary and highly distributed. This way of working has been immensely productive in techno-economic terms but the assumptions and social trade-offs entailed bear careful scrutiny. Building social infrastructures in a more inclusive way depends on increased participation and a degree of systemization in office and knowledge transfer. Recognizing the complex social character of everyday technological and bureaucratic decisions and bringing them out from behind-the-scenes is a step in this direction.

I wrote this as a blog piece because I believe the questions of techno-social infrastructure it raises are broadly relevant to network economy and society. Yet, I have also sent it to CASTAC’s mailing list because it is also a report to members, written to lend transparency and invite increased discursive participation. As genres and social practices, blogs and mailing lists imagine, call, and instantiate publics differently. Combining them is, thus, a call on all frequencies to participation in CASTAC as an on-going enterprise peopled by volunteers.

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