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Effective cultural change

2013-04-25 16:16:45.875034+00 by Dan Lyke 11 comments

I have a question, and as I put words to pixels I realize it may be intractable, but it requires a bit of a preamble:

I was reading a piece yesterday, I think it was NY Times: Wikipedia’s Sexism Toward Female Novelists, which is rehashed in Guardian: Wikipedia bumps women from 'American novelists' category. The issue is that apparently the culture of Wikipedia is moving various authors from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:American_novelists over to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:American_women_novelists .

Short version: Wikipedians have decided that "American novelists" is too broad a category, so they're moving the female authors over to "American women novelists". Long-time readers know where I'm gonna come down on that discussion...

But the issue this raised with me is... when I was appointed to the Petaluma Technology Advisory Committee, I ran into a number of places where I didn't see value in something, in fact I saw negative value, but the overall process, and the commitment of the other participants in the process, led to something that wasn't all bad, so I was reluctant to be the sand in the AstroGlide for things that...

...well, for things that could be like this. Things that are entrenched flaws in the culture. Things that we have glossed over a million times before and we've stopped raising a stink over because serious systemic flaws are there, and what are you going to do besides eye roll for the "trivial shit"? Except that it isn't really trivial, not deep down.

So has anyone written about effective ways to go into a culture and educate it? How would one go about having an account with two or three Wikipedia edits over the years, and going in and effectively finding another taxonomy to split "American novelists" along? How does one show fellow committee members that yeah, the non-profit has worthy goals, and was formed by the PUC laying some smack-down on companies we all like to hate, but really ends up being a promotional arm for those same companies?

How does a newcomer most effectively go into an entrenched community and create change? Not change the world, just raise consciousness. How do we do this without threatening the established order?

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comments in ascending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment Re: made: 2013-04-25 17:20:40.299558+00 by: Medley

"How does a newcomer most effectively go into an entrenched community and create change? Not change the world, just raise consciousness. How do we do this without threatening the established order? "

Hypothesis: You can't. You have to put in the time, build the relationships, and become an insider. Comes with its own risks (of co-optation and entrenchment), but so it goes.

#Comment Re: made: 2013-04-25 17:56:08.270022+00 by: Dan Lyke

Okay, then perhaps the other way is: How do we build communities that are open to such change?

Because, unfortunately, that answer drives me back closer to the politics of non-engagement of my 20s: The payoff for effort at that point becomes low enough that government, and even community, becomes a service, if it isn't working it's easier to switch jurisdictions than it is to try to fix it. At least for any sort of entrenched social structure.

And similarly, the barrier to entry makes me roll my eyes and say "well, Wikipedia will be useful for a while, and then I'll go find the next thing".

Charlene and I have had some back and forth recently over my belief that communities need to support the deliberately transgressive, and I think this may tie in. Will have to think about this further.

#Comment Re: made: 2013-04-25 19:20:00.072012+00 by: Medley

"How do we build communities that are open to such change?"

Start with building individuals that are open to change. This is a basic challenge of human nature.

And where we part ways on first principles is that I think it goes back to how we educate people. For most people, comfort with ambiguity, flexibility, ability to incorporate new/unexpected information, resilience to failure, etc., are learned skills. And often hardwon.

#Comment Re: made: 2013-04-25 19:20:20.65654+00 by: topspin

For giggles I wikied "George Sand" and discovered this and several of those women chose those pseudonyms because the publishing business AND readers have been gender biased for centuries.

My girlfriend, a poet and English professor, sneered and rolled her eyes at Wikipedia previously, but I'm expecting a full snarl when she sees this.

In fairness, however, it appears Wikipedia might have reversed itself. "American Novelists" appears to have MANY female novelists whose surnames begin with A.

#Comment Re: made: 2013-04-25 20:08:40.778686+00 by: Dan Lyke

Topspin, I think the assertion is that the conversion to "American women novelists" is in-progress. I will note that right now http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:American_men_novelists is a scant list that says:

This category is being considered for merging into Category:American novelists.

More on education and basic challenges of human nature after I ponder this some more.

#Comment Re: made: 2013-04-25 22:34:56.460126+00 by: Medley

Organizational theorists and sociologists have studied this sort of question. Examples (from wikipedia for convenience):



Also: http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/1...change_the_culture_stop_try.html

Almost every study I've done lately has a component that talks about the need for cultural and organizational change to address 'problem X' and without exception it is always noted as the hardest part - harder than whatever the nominal technical problem at hand is (and those are often quite hard.)

#Comment Re: made: 2013-04-26 06:13:53.850715+00 by: ebradway

You need to let go of the need to "debug" social systems. Flaws may exist/persist because of the worst reasons (cronyism, ignorance, prejudice, etc.). But flaws may also just be a characteristic of the community. Removing those flaws may destroy the community.

I used to study the tension between the US national mapping agency (USGS) and OpenStreetMap. The USGS grounds it's processes in the highly formalized, academic process, of establishing authority. OSM Mappers buy into asserted authority. But authority has two distinct meanings: acknowledged expertise in a field and legal jurisdiction. The USGS had the advantage of both kinds of authority. OSM mappers had no real claim other than some technical know how and the desire to describe the world around them.

If you compare the two as knowledge production communities, you'd see that the USGS is highly inefficient. Because of their authority, they are strongly resistant to change. OSM, on the other hand, can hardly seem to keep it's head screwed on straight. Things are constantly in flux. Databases are forked into new communities. And like Wikipedia, the only constant seems to be change.

But the one thing that the USGS does well and OSM fails at miserably is developing an "ontology" for their maps.The USGS starts with "we are going to map these 25 kinds of points of interest, nothing else will be on the map". OSM, on the other hand, starts with the ability to drop a point anywhere and start assigning arbitrary tags. If you want your points to show up with everyone else, you have to play along with their tagging scheme. And the OSM tagging scheme is full of oddities like "building=yes".

What is most valuable about "building=yes" or American women novelists is that there is a community of people really interested in the process. The information is not getting lost. New information is being gathered and friends are being made along the way.

#Comment Re: made: 2013-04-26 11:15:08.167444+00 by: stevesh [edit history]

"There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things."

Niccolo Machiavelli, so the problem's been around for a while.

#Comment Re: made: 2013-04-26 17:54:59.997592+00 by: Dan Lyke

Steve, yeah, the more I thought I had a nicely bounded issue here, the more...

Two notes Eric's comment:

First: If the ontology isn't well specified, the culture forms it. If the ontology is well specified, then that structure provides ways to think about the data, and forms the culture. Obviously there are feedback loops, and there are queries you want to be able to do easily (presumably to further the goals of the culture). On the other hand, if additional complexity is pushed out to the entities querying the data set, then all of those entities have to embrace the additional complexity; if they don't then the curators of the ontology get to define the culture.

So there's a weird continuum between "we don't know what the ontology should be yet" to "we know what searches to apply to the ontology" to "we have to jump through hoops to apply unexpected searches to the ontology", which sort of loops back to "we don't know", but also provides quite a bit of friction because everyone who wants to use the data in a new way has to re-implement their own interpretation.

If you define gender as binary, then you have a quick easy search for people looking for dating partners for whom binary gender is the simplest set divisor, but you lose a lot of nuance for how people might relate in non-dating contexts. In some social situations, "butch" or "femme" is far more useful than "has penis" or "has vagina", and yet we do most of our categorization by the latter dichotomy.

So, say, Metafilter's free-form gender field makes a conventional dating site hard, but the lack of a strict ontology opens up huge possibilities in potential ways to discover new correlations between gender perception and other social structures.

This thought could be refined.

Second: The other example that I was thinking about in trying to half-form this idea was my struggle with trying to tell my fellow Technology Advisory Committee members why we shouldn't rubber-stamp the proclamation that the California Emerging Technology Fund was asking us to push through to the council. The fund came about...

As a condition of approving the mergers of SBC/AT&T and Verizon/MCI, the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) ordered SBC/AT&T to commit $45 million and Verizon/MCI to commit $15 million ($60 million total) over five years to the California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF).

Hey, $60 million bucks to help expand broadband adoption and bridge the digital divide! What's not to like? Well, essentially this ends up being $60M spent towards maintaining the market dominant position of these two companies, spent through a non-profit corp.

But in the overall scheme of things, how many hours of me being obstructionist and trying to educate my fellow members on the nuance of this is the belated endorsement of one small city with 97% broadband coverage worth? So I raised a few objections, introduced an email with a lot of cites about why this wasn't what it seemed, and in the end... well... the motion carried, with a few minor changes, and I ended up thinking that getting in the way there wasn't a good use of my time.

So in abandoning that mission at that level I've essentially said of my local government "yeah, whatever, it's good enough, I've got other concerns", and yet I've also endorsed horrible TV masquerading as broadband Internet for everyone.

And there's more, and thank y'all for helping me beat my ideas against the air.

#Comment Re: made: 2013-04-26 19:57:38.500924+00 by: Nancy

wait, wait --- Topspin has a girlfriend? new thread, please. ;-)

#Comment Re: made: 2013-04-30 14:08:22.570791+00 by: Dan Lyke

And a follow-up on that novelists and Wikipedia issue.