Category Archives: diversity

Wearable Hub: Getting the Ball Rolling

Statement

After years of hype, wearable devices are happening. What wearable computing lacks is a way to integrate devices into a broader system.

Disclaimer/Disclosure/Warning

  • For the past two months or so, I’ve been taking notes about this “wearable hub” idea (started around CES’s time, as wearable devices like the Pebble and Google Glass were discussed with more intensity). At this point, I have over 3000 words in notes, which probably means that I’d have enough material for a long essay. This post is just a way to release a few ideas and to “think aloud” about what wearables may mean.
  • Some of these notes have to do with the fact that I started using a few wearable devices to monitor my activities, after a health issue pushed me to start doing some exercise.
  • I’m not a technologist nor do I play one on this blog. I’m primarily an ethnographer, with diverse interests in technology and its implications for human beings. I do research on technological appropriation and some of the course I teach relate to the social dimensions of technology. Some of the approaches to technology that I discuss in those courses relate to constructionism and Actor-Network Theory.
  • I consider myself a “geek ethnographer” in the sense that I take part in geek culture (and have come out as a geek) but I’m also an outsider to geekdom.
  • Contrary to the likes of McLuhan, Carr, and Morozov, my perspective on technology and society is non-deterministic. The way I use them, “implication” and “affordance” aren’t about causal effects or, even, about direct connections. I’m not saying that society is causing technology to appear nor am I proposing a line from tools to social impacts. Technology and society are in a complex system.
  • Further, my approach isn’t predictive. I’m not saying what will happen based on technological advances nor am I saying what technology will appear. I’m thinking about the meaning of technology in an intersubjective way.
  • My personal attitude on tools and gadgets is rather ambivalent. This becomes clear as I go back and forth between techno-enthusiastic contexts (where I can almost appear like a Luddite) and techno-skeptical contexts (where some might label me as a gadget freak). I integrate a number of tools in my life but I can be quite wary about them.
  • I’m not wedded to the ideas I’m putting forth, here. They’re just broad musings of what might be. More than anything, I hope to generate thoughtful discussion. That’s why I start this post with a broad statement (not my usual style).
  • Of course, I know that other people have had similar ideas and I know that a concept of “wearable hub” already exists. It’s obvious enough that it’s one of these things which can be invented independently.

From Wearables to Hubs

Back in the 1990s, “wearable computing” became something of a futuristic buzzword, often having to do with articles of clothing. There have been many experiments and prototypes converging on an idea that we would, one day, be able to wear something resembling a full computer. Meanwhile, “personal digital assistants” became something of a niche product and embedded systems became an important dimension of car manufacturing.

Fast-forward to 2007, when a significant shift in the use of smartphones occurred. Smartphones existed before that time, but their usages, meanings, and positions in the public discourse changed quite radically around the time of the iPhone’s release. Not that the iPhone itself “caused a smartphone revolution” or that smartphone adoption suddenly reached a “tipping point”. I conceive of this shift as a complex interplay between society and tools. Not only more Kuhn than Popper, but more Latour than Kurzweil.

Smartphones, it may be argued, “happened”.

Without being described as “wearable devices”, smartphones started playing some of the functions people might have assigned to wearable devices. The move was subtle enough that Limor Fried recently described it as a realization she’s been having. Some tech enthusiasts may be designing location-aware purses and heads-up displays in the form of glasses. Smartphones are already doing a lot of the things wearables were supposed to do. Many people “wear” smartphones at most times during their waking lives and these Internet-connected devices are full of sensors. With the proliferation of cases, one might even perceive some of them as fashion accessories, like watches and sunglasses.

Where smartphones become more interesting, in terms of wearable computing, is as de facto wearable hubs.

My Wearable Devices

Which brings me to mention the four sensors I’ve been using more extensively during the past two months:

Yes, these all have to do with fitness (and there’s quite a bit of overlap between them). And, yes, I started using them a few days after the New Year. But it’s not about holiday gifts or New Year’s resolutions. I’ve had some of these devices for a while and decided to use them after consulting with a physician about hypertension. Not only have they helped me quite a bit in solving some health issues, but these devices got me to think.

(I carry several other things with me at most times. Some of my favourites include Tenqa REMXD Bluetooth headphones and the LiveScribe echo smartpen.)

One aspect is that they’re all about the so-called “quantified self”. As a qualitative researcher, I tend to be skeptical of quants. In this case, though, the stats I’m collecting about myself fit with my qualitative approach. Along with quantitative data from these devices, I’ve started collecting qualitative data about my life. The next step is to integrate all those data points automatically.

These sensors are also connected to “gamification”, a tendency I find worrisome, preferring playfulness. Though game mechanics are applied to the use of these sensors, I choose to rely on my intrinsic motivation, not paying much attention to scores and badges.

But the part which pushed me to start taking the most notes was that all these sensors connect with my iOS ()and Android) devices. And this is where the “wearable hub” comes into play. None of these devices is autonomous. They’re all part of my personal “arsenal”, the equipment I have on my me on most occasions. Though there are many similarities between them, they still serve different purposes, which are much more limited than those “wearable computers” might have been expected to serve. Without a central device serving as a type of “hub”, these sensors wouldn’t be very useful. This “hub” needs not be a smartphone, despite the fact that, by default, smartphones are taken to be the key piece in this kind of setup.

In my personal scenario, I do use a smartphone as a hub. But I also use tablets. And I could easily use an existing device of another type (say, an iPod touch), or even a new type of device meant to serve as a wearable hub. Smartphones’ “hub” affordances aren’t exclusive.

From Digital Hub to Wearable Hub

Most of the devices which would likely serve as hubs for wearable sensors can be described as “Post-PC”. They’re clearly “personal” and they’re arguably “computers”. Yet they’re significantly different from the “Personal Computers” which have been so important at the end of last century (desktop and laptop computers not used as servers, regardless of the OS they run).

Wearability is a key point, here. But it’s not just a matter of weight or form factor. A wearable hub needs to be wireless in at least two important ways: independent from a power source and connected to other devices through radio waves. The fact that they’re worn at all times also implies a certain degree of integration with other things carried throughout the day (wallets, purses, backpacks, pockets…). These devices may also be more “personal” than PCs because they may be more apparent and more amenable to customization than PCs.

Smartphones fit the bill as wearable hubs. Their form factors and battery life make them wearable enough. Bluetooth (or ANT+, Nike+, etc.) has been used to pair them wirelessly with sensors. Their connectivity to GPS and cellular networking as well as their audio and visual i/o can have interesting uses (mapping a walk, data updates during a commute, voice feedback…). And though they’re far from ubiquitous, smartphones have become quite common in key markets.

Part of the reason I keep thinking about “hubs” has to do with comments made in 2001 by then Apple CEO Steve Jobs about the “digital lifestyle” age in “PC evolution” (video of Jobs’s presentation; as an anthropologist, I’ll refrain from commenting on the evolutionary analogies):

We believe the PC, or more… importantly, the Mac can become the “digital hub” of our emerging digital lifestyle, with the ability to add tremendous value to … other digital devices.

… like camcorders, portable media players, cellphones, digital cameras, handheld organizers, etc. (Though they weren’t mentioned, other peripherals like printers and webcams also connect to PCs.)

The PC was thus going to serve as a hub, “not only adding value to these devices but interconnecting them, as well”.

At the time, key PC affordances which distinguished them from those other digital devices:

  • Big screen affording more complex user interfaces
  • Large, inexpensive hard disk storage
  • Burning DVDs and CDs
  • Internet connectivity, especially broadband
  • Running complex applications (including media processing software like the iLife suite)

Though Jobs pinpointed iLife applications as the basis for this “digital hub” vision, it sounds like FireWire was meant to be an even more important part of this vision. Of course, USB has supplanted FireWire in most use cases. It’s interesting, then, to notice that Apple only recently started shipping Macs with USB 3. In fact, DVD burning is absent from recent Macs. In 2001, the Mac might have been at the forefront of this “digital lifestyle” age. In 2013, the Mac has moved away from its role as “digital hub”.

In the meantime, the iPhone has become one of the best known examples of what I’m calling “wearable hubs”. It has a small screen and small, expensive storage (by today’s standards). It also can’t burn DVDs. But it does have nearly-ubiquitous Internet connectivity and can run fairly complex applications, some of which are adapted from the iLife suite. And though it does have wired connectivity (through Lightning or the “dock connector”), its main hub affordances have to do with Bluetooth.

It’s interesting to note that the same Steve Jobs, who used the “digital hub” concept to explain that the PC wasn’t dead in 2001, is partly responsible for popularizing the concept of “post-PC devices” six years later. One might perceive hypocrisy in this much delayed apparent flip-flop. On the other hand, Steve Jobs’s 2007 comments (video) were somewhat nuanced, as to the role of post-PC devices. What’s more interesting, though, is to think about the implications of the shift between two views of digital devices, regardless of Apple’s position through that shift.

Some post-PC devices (including the iPhone, until quite recently) do require a connection to a PC. In this sense, a smartphone might maintain its position with regards to the PC as digital hub. Yet, some of those devices are used independently of PCs, including by some people who never owned PCs.

Post-Smartphone Hubs

It’s possible to imagine a wearable hub outside of the smartphone (and tablet) paradigm. While smartphones are a convenient way to interconnect wearables, their hub-related affordances still sound limited: they lack large displays and their storage space is quite expensive. Their battery life may also be something to consider in terms of serving as hubs. Their form factors make some sense, when functioning as phones. Yet they have little to do with their use as hubs.

Part of the realization, for me, came from the fact that I’ve been using a tablet as something of an untethered hub. Since I use Bluetooth headphones, I can listen to podcasts and music while my tablet is in my backpack without being entangled in a cable. Sounds trivial but it’s one of these affordances I find quite significant. Delegating music playing functions to my tablet relates in part to battery life and use of storage. The tablet’s display has no importance in this scenario. In fact, given some communication between devices, my smartphone could serve as a display for my tablet. So could a “smartwatch” or “smartglasses”.

The Body Hub

Which led me to think about other devices which would work as wearable hubs. I originally thought about backpackable and pocketable devices.

But a friend had a more striking idea:

Under Armour’s Recharge Energy Suit may be an extreme version of this, one which would fit nicely among things Cathi Bond likes to discuss with Nora Young on The Sniffer. Nora herself has been discussing wearables on her blog as well as on her radio show. Sure, part of this concept is quite futuristic. But a sensor mesh undershirt is a neat idea for several reasons.

  • It’s easy to think of various sensors it may contain.
  • Given its surface area, it could hold enough battery power to supplement other devices.
  • It can be quite comfortable in cold weather and might even help diffuse heat in warmer climates.
  • Though wearable, it needs not be visible.
  • Thieves would probably have a hard time stealing it.
  • Vibration and haptic feedback on the body can open interesting possibilities.

Not that it’s the perfect digital hub and I’m sure there are multiple objections to a connected undershirt (including issues with radio signals). But I find the idea rather fun to think, partly because it’s so far away from the use of phones, glasses, and watches as smart devices.

Another thing I find neat, and it may partly be a coincidence, is the very notion of a “mesh”.

The Wearable Mesh

Mesh networking is a neat concept, which generates more hype than practical uses. As an alternative to WiFi access points and cellular connectivity, it’s unclear that it may “take the world by storm”. But as a way to connect personal devices, it might have some potential. After all, as Bernard Benhamou recently pointed out on France Culture’s Place de la toile, the Internet of Things may not require always-on full-bandwith connectivity. Typically, wearable sensors use fairly little bandwidth or only use it for limited amounts of time. A wearable mesh could connect wearable devices to one another while also exchanging data through the Internet itself.

Or with local devices. Smart cities, near field communication, and digital appliances occupy interesting positions among widely-discussed tendencies in the tech world. They may all have something to do with wearable devices. For instance, data exchanged between transit systems and their users could go through wearable devices. And while mobile payment systems can work through smartphones and other cellphones, wallet functions can also be fulfilled by other wearable devices.

Alternative Futures

Which might provide an appropriate segue into the ambivalence I feel toward the “wearable hub” concept I’m describing. Though I propose these ideas as if I were enthusiastic about them, they all give me pause. As a big fan of critical thinking, I like to think about “what might be” to generate questions and discussions exposing a diversity of viewpoints about the future.

Mass media discussions about these issues tend to focus on such things as privacy, availability, norms, and usefulness. Google Glass has generated quite a bit of buzz about all four. Other wearables may mainly raise issues for one or two of these broad dimensions. But the broad domain of wearable computing raises a lot more issues.

Technology enthusiasts enjoy discussing issues through the dualism between dystopia and utopia. An obvious issue with this dualism is that humans disagree about the two categories. Simply put, one person’s dystopia can be another person’s utopia, not to mention the nuanced views of people who see complex relationships between values and social change.

In such a context, a sociologist’s reflex may be to ask about the implications of these diverse values and opinions. For instance:

  • How do people construct these values?
  • Who decides which values are more important?
  • How might social groups cope with changes in values?

Discussing these issues and more, in a broad frame, might be quite useful. Some of the trickiest issues are raised after some changes in technology have already happened. From writing to cars, any technological context has unexpected implications. An ecological view of these implications could broaden the discussion.

I tend to like the concept of the “drift-off moment”, during which listeners (or readers) start thinking about the possibilities afforded a new tool (or concept). In the context of a sales pitch, the idea is that these possibilities are positive, a potential buyer is thinking about the ways she might use a newfangled device. But I also like the deeper process of thinking about all sorts of implications, regardless of their value.

So…

What might be the implications of a wearable hub?

Energized by Bret Victor

Just watched Bret Victor’s powerful video:

Inventing on Principle | CUSEC

Simply put, watching it was a lifechanging moment, for me.

In some ways, Victor’s talk was deeply philosophical, though it’s easy to assess it as a demonstration about software engineering. It was delivered (here in Montreal) at a software engineering conference and Victor masterfully adapted his talk to a software engineering audience.

But, more than Hofstadter “philosophy book, disguised as a book of entertainment, disguised as a book of instruction” (that I consider to be a computer science book disguised as semi-academic nonfiction), Victor’s talk is a call to action disguised as a talk on software engineering. It makes a profound philosophical statement using software engineering as a launching point. In other words, it may have had more of an impact on me (as an ethnographer and a teacher, but also as a human being) than it may have had on software engineers who were present.

Quite a feat for something which seems to have had a significant impact on some software engineers.

This impact relates to how I got to Bret Victor’s presentation…

I follow John Gruber’s Daring Fireball blog. On Monday, he had a short link post about Bret Victor:

Astoundingly insightful and inspiring essay by Bret Victor. One of the most thought-provoking pieces I’ve read in a long time.

That insightful essay is on Learnable Programming.

Its starting point is a response to Khan Academy’s use of his work. In that sense, it’s a levelheaded but rather negative review of what the Khan folks did. As such, I associate it with critiques from science teachers. For instance:

Khan Academy and the Effectiveness of Science Videos | Action-Reaction

Started reading that post but context was missing, for me. Wasn’t able to really hang on to it. I then decided to look at that post in which Victor was cited.

John Resig – Redefining the Introduction to Computer Science

Victor’s impact on software engineering is clear in that post, as Resig describes a shift in his thinking after watching Victor’s thought. But the shift was based on a few elements of Victor’s talk, not on the main ideas behind it. At least, that’s what I get after watching Victor’s presentation.

Of course, I may be wrong. In fact, my reaction to Victor’s talk may be based on all sorts of other things. Maybe I’m putting into it all sorts of things which weren’t there originally. If so, that’s a sign of something powerful.

And, again, watching it was a powerful moment.

I know… that sounds big. But it’s one of those triggering moments, I feel, when things are connecting in interesting ways. In fact, I’m comparing it to another lifechanging moment I had four years ago and which became the basis of my “Happiness Anniversary”.

What happened that time is a larger set of things, but one specific point connects that date with Victor’s presentation. Four years ago, I participated in a CTLS workshop by Janette Barrington called “Writing a Personally Meaningful Teaching Philosophy Statement”. That workshop was based in part on the Teaching Perspectives Inventory (TPI), which is where the connection with Bret Victor starts.

Here are the five perspectives identified by Daniel D. Pratt and John B. Collins (summary):

  • Transmission: Effective teaching requires a substantial commitment to the content or subject matter.
  • Apprenticeship: Effective teaching is a process of socializing students into new behavioral norms and ways of working.
  • Developmental: Effective teaching must be planned and conducted “from the learner’s point of view”.
  • Nurturing: Effective teaching assumes that long-term, hard, persistent effort to achieve comes from the heart, as well as the head.
  • Social Reform: Effective teaching seeks to change society in substantive ways.

(Unsurprisingly, my highest scores were for developmental and nurturing, followed by social reform. Transmission and apprenticeship were quite low, for me.)

During the workshop, participants were teamed up according to these results. I don’t remember the exact details, but the mix of perspectives in our four-person team was optimal. We were so compatible with each other that we went to the “performing” stage of Tuckman’s classical model in no time. Haven’t heard from any of the three women with whom I was working, but it was a powerful moment for me.

Something I’ve noticed within our team is the importance of “social reform”. Though I teach social sciences, I’m no activist, but I find myself to be quite compatible with activists. In a way, my nurturing/developmental perspective is in complementarity with activism. I do wish to enable people, regardless of their goals. And these goals are often guided by deep principles that I tend to associate with activism.

Something else I’ve noticed had to do with engineers. If I remember correctly, there was a team made up of engineering teachers. They also appeared to be quite effective in their approach. But they were also quite distinct from our team. This has nothing to do with stereotypes and I fully realize that these same individuals may be quite different from one another in other contexts. But, at least in this context, they had a common perspective which, I would say, was furthest away from social reform and much closer to transmission.

Victor’s talk is doing the reverse, with software engineering. Through his presentation, Bret Victor encouraged engineers to think about the worldchanging potential of their work instead of emphasizing mere transmission of information (e.g., how to do a binary search). Given the talk’s influence on some software engineers, I’d say that it was quite effective. Not on everyone, and I’m sure there are engineers who dismiss Bret Victor in whichever way. But I find something there.

And much of it has to do with complementarity. Victor insists in his talk that it’s not about forcing people to “follow his lead”. It’s about allowing these people to understand that their lives and work can have a strong basis in deep principles. Having spent a bit of time with RMS, a few years ago, I can feel the effects of such lives and work.

So, how did Bret Victor change my life? In some ways, it’s too early to tell. I’ve watched this video and started reaching out about it, including in a long email to people I think might be interested. That email served as a basis for this post.

But there are some things I’m noticing already, which is why I call the experience lifechanging:

  • I’m finding ways to connect different parts of my life. I teach social science to people with diverse orientations to learning, often with an emphasis on problem-solving. Victor gives me a way to link problem-solving and social reform, making it easier for me to accomplish my goals of enabling people’s own goals.
  • While I’m no activist, my goals probably do relate to a core principle, which I haven’t really articulated, yet. Enabling others to action, or tummeling, gets very close to it.
  • For quite a while, now, I’ve been thinking about the role of public intellectuals. It’s something of a common theme on this blog, and I’ve been thinking about it in new ways, lately. Victor’s presentation is an exquisite (!) example of what I think a public intellectual can do.
  • More personally, this talk made me realize that I’m not so blasé after all. Lately, I’ve had times during which I couldn’t get stimulation. In fact, watching Apple’s iPad mini keynote left me with a definitive meh feeling, as if the “reality distortion field” had been turned off. Bret Victor’s CUSEC talk had more of an effect on me than did any Apple keynote, including celebrated ones by Steve Jobs.

I now feel a sense of purpose.

What else can I ask from 54″ of my time?

Open Letter: UnivCafé Testimonial

Here’s a slightly edited version of a message I sent about University of the Streets Café. I realize that my comments about it may sound strange for people who haven’t participated in one of their conversations. And there may be people who don’t like it as much as I do. But it’s remarkable how favourable people are to the program, once they participate in it.

Having taught at eight academic institutions in the United States and Canada, I have frequently gone on record to say that Concordia is my favourite context for teaching and learning. By a long stretch.

Concordia’s “University of the Streets Café” program is among the things I like the most about my favourite university.

Over the past few years, I have been a vocal participant at a rather large number of “UnivCafé” events and have been the guest at one of them. Each of these two-hour conversations has provided me with more stimulation than any seminar or class meeting in which I participated, as a teacher or as a student.

In fact, I have frequently discussed UnivCafé with diverse people (including several members of the Concordia community). As is clear to anyone who knows me, UnivCafé has had a strong impact on my life, both professionally and personally.

Given my experience elsewhere, I have a clear impression of what makes Concordia unique.

  • Emphasis on community development.
  • Strong social awareness.
  • Thoughtful approach to sustainability.
  • Seamless English/French bilingualism.
  • Inclusive attitude, embracing cultural and social diversity.
  • Ease of building organic social networks through informal events.

In a way, UnivCafé encapsulates Concordia’s uniqueness.

Yet it goes further than that. Though it may sound hyperbolic to outsiders, I would not hesitate to say that UnivCafé captures some of the Greek academia (Ἀκαδημία) while integrating dimensions of contemporary life. More pithily: ”UnivCafé is a social media version of Plato‘s Academy”.

It seems to me that academia is in a transition period. For instance, the tenure system could be rethought. With social and technological developments challenging many academic models, universities are often searching for new models. I sincerely hope that the UnivCafé model is a sign of things to come.

I have discussed this on several occasions with students and colleagues, and this notion is gaining ground.

There is something remarkable about how appropriate the UnivCafé model is, in the current context. To my mind, UnivCafé does all of the following:

  • Encourages critical thinking.
  • Gives voice to people who are rarely heard.
  • Exposes participants to a diversity of perspectives.
  • Brings together people who rarely get a chance to interact.
  • Integrates practical and theoretical concerns.
  • Allays fears of public speaking.
  • Builds valuable connections through the local community.
  • Brings academics outside the Ivory Tower.

As may be obvious, I could talk about UnivCafé for hours and would be happy to do so in any context.

In the meantime, may this testimonial serve as a token of appreciation for all the things I have gained from UnivCafé.

Reply to Alex Gagnon’s Google Paradox

[Tried adding a comment directly on Alex Gagnon's Posterous blog, but it kept stalling. So I'll post this here, which may make for a different kind of interaction. Besides, I'd like to blog a bit more.]

The Google Paradox – Marc-Alexandre Gagnon.

We seem to be finding very different answers to rather similar questions. So I sincerely hope we’ll have the opportunity to meet and discuss these things in a local café.

But still, a few thoughts, in no particular order.

Let’s be clear on what we mean by “culture.” Sounds like there’s a tension, here, between the ways the concept signifies in: “cultural industry,” “Minister of culture,” “pop culture,” “our culture,” and “nature vs. culture.” As a cultural anthropologist, I tend to navigate more toward the latter contexts, but there are significant connections through these diverse conceptual frames.

Speaking of significance… It can be a useful concept, with some links to “relevance.” Especially if we think about Relevance Theory as defined by Deirdre Wilson and Dan Sperber. Their theory is about communication and cognition, with some strange claims about semiotics. Significance can bridge the gap between their notion of relevance and what insight semiotics may provide.

Chances are, you’re not really singling out Google, right? Blekko and Bing are providing similar results for similar reasons. Google may be the target of most SEO, but current search engines share a fairly unified notion of “quality content.”

Speaking of quality… As mentioned on Twitter, we might think of quality as a social construct. Especially “now.” The modern era had a lot to do with tastemakers, which were given some “authority/influence/power” through a rather specific social process. Similar to what @ChrisBrogan and @Julien call “trust agents.” In sociology, we talk about “gatekeepers” in pretty much the same way. And Duchamp woke a few people up in showing the effects of museumization. We had similar things in music, though my courses in musical æsthetics paid relatively little attention to these.
The basic insight from most “posts” (postcolonialism, poststructuralism, postmodernism, postnationalism, postindustrialism…) is that rigid structures may crumble. Totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, of course, but also the very idea of the Nation-State with “checkbox democracy” focused on the representation of predefined “interest groups.” Self-labeled arbiters of good taste, of course, but also the notion that “quality” is an immanent feature of the art object.

And speaking of art objects… People still talk about masterpieces, great works, and cathedrals. But we may also talk about the bazaar, “the eye of the beholder,” and “life as an art form.” Life is too short for everyone to be looking at the same old “artworks.” After all, “Life, sex, and art aren’t spectator sports.”

As for our logocentrism (“language media”), it’s difficult but possible to get beyond this ethnocentric bias. Part of this was prefigured in much 20th Century philosophy (from Russell to Davidson) and popular culture (Wings of Desire). But we can have a broader approach. In anthropology, we work on several things which are directly related to this, from linguistic anthropology and the ethnography of communication to cognitive anthropology and the anthropology of senses. We may live in a “visual” society but our obsession is with language. Which has a lot to do with the fact that the Internet was set in a Euro-American context.
But “our culture” isn’t a prison. We can adopt a broader worldview.

Minds of All Sizes Think Alike

Or «les esprits de toutes tailles se rencontrent».

This post is a response to the following post about Social Network Analysis (SNA), social change, and communication.

…My heart’s in Accra » Shortcuts in the social graph.

I have too many disparate things to say about that post to make it into a neat and tidy “quickie,” yet I feel like I should probably be working on other things. So we’ll see how this goes.

First, a bit of context..

[This "bit of context" may be a bit long so, please bear with me. Or you could get straight to the point, if you don't think you can bear the context bit.]

I’ve never met Ethan Zuckerman (@EthanZ), who wrote the post to which I’m responding. And I don’t think we’ve had any extended conversation in the past. Further, I doubt that I’m on his radar. He’s probably seen my name, since I’ve commented on some of his posts and some of his contacts may have had references to me through social media. But I very much doubt that he’s ever mentioned me to anyone. I’m not noticeable to him.

I, on the other hand, have mentioned Zuckerman on several occasions. Latest time I remember was in class, a few weeks ago. It’s a course on Africa and I was giving students a list of online sources with relevance to our work. Zuckerman’s connection to Africa may not be his main thing, despite his blog’s name, but it’s part of the reason I got interested in his work, a few years ago.

In fact, there’s something embarrassing, here.. I so associate Zuckerman to Africa that my mind can’t help but link him to Erik Hersman, aka White African. I did meet Herman. [To be exact, I met Erik at BarCampAustin, which is quite possibly the conference-like event which has had the most influence on me, in the past few years (I go to a lot of these events).] When I did meet Hersman, I made a faux-pas in associating him with Zuckerman. Good-natured as he seemed to be, Hersman smiled as he corrected me.

EthanZ and I have other contacts in common. Jeremy Clarke, for instance, who co-organizes WordCamp Montreal and has been quite active in Montreal’s geek scene. Jeremy’s also a developer for Global Voices, a blogging community that Zuckerman co-founded. I’m assuming Clarke and Zuckerman know each other.

Another mutual contact is Christopher Lydon, host of Radio Open Source. Chris and I have exchanged a few emails, and Zuckerman has been on ROS on a few occasions.

According to Facebook, Zuckerman and I have four contacts in common. Apart from Clarke and Hersman, there’s P. Kerim Friedman and Gerd Leonhard. Kerim is a fellow linguistic anthropologist and we’ve collaborated on the official Society for Linguistic Anthropology (SLA) site. I got in touch with Leonhard through “Music 2.0″ issues, as he was interviewed by Charles McEnerney on Well-Rounded Radio.

On LinkedIn, Zuckerman is part of my third degree, with McEnerney as one of my first-degree contacts who could connect me to Zuckerman, through Zuckerman’s contacts.

(Yes, I’m fully aware of the fact that I haven’t name a single woman in this list. Nor someone who doesn’t write in English with some frequency, for that matter.)

By this time, my guess is that you may be either annoyed or confused. “Surely, he can’t be that obsessed with Zuckerman as to stalk him in every network.”

No, I’m not at all obsessed with Ethan Zuckerman in any way, shape, or form. Though I mention him on occasion and I might have a good conversation with him if the occasion arises, I wouldn’t go hang out in Cambridge just in case I might meet him. Though I certainly respect his work, I wouldn’t treat him as my “idol” or anything like that. In other words, he isn’t a focus in my life.

And that’s a key point, to me.

In certain contexts, when social networks are discussed, too much is made of the importance of individuals. Yet, there’s something to be said about relative importance.

In his “shortcuts” post, Zuckerman talks about a special kind of individuals. Those who are able to bypass something of a clustering effect happening in many human networks. Malcolm Gladwell (probably “inspired” by somebody else) has used “connectors” to label a fairly similar category of people and, given Gladwell’s notoriety in some circles, the name has resonance in some contexts (mostly “business-focused people,” I would say, with a clear idea in my mind of the groupthink worldview implied).

In one of my earliest blogposts, I talked about an effect happening through a similar mechanism, calling it the “Social Butterfly Effect” (SBE). I still like it, as a concept. Now, I admit that it focuses on a certain type of individuals. But it’s more about their position in “the grand scheme of things” than about who they are, though I do associate myself with this “type.”

The basic idea is quite simple. People who participate in different (sub)networks, who make such (sub)networks sparser, are having unpredictable and unmeasurable effects on what is transmitted through the network(s).

On one hand, it’s linked to my fragmentary/naïve understanding of the Butterfly Effect in the study of climate and as a component of Chaos Theory.

On the other hand, it’s related to Granovetter‘s well-known notion of “weak ties.” And it seems like Granovetter is making something of a comeback, as we discuss different mechanisms behind social change.

Interestingly, much of what is being said about weak ties, these past few weeks, relates to Gladwell’s flamebait apparent lack of insight in describing current social processes. Sounds like Gladwell may be too caught up in the importance of individuals to truly grok the power of networks.

Case in point.. One of the most useful pieces I’ve read about weak ties, recently, was Jonah Lehrer‘s direct response to Gladwell:

Weak Ties, Twitter and Revolution | Wired Science | Wired.com.

Reading Lehrer’s piece, one gets the clear impression that Gladwell hadn’t “done his homework” on Granovetter before launching his trolling “controversial” piece on activism.

But I digress. Slightly.

Like the Gladwell-specific coverage, Zuckerman’s blogpost is also about social change and he’s already responded to Gladwell. One way to put it is that, as a figure, Gladwell has shaped the discussion in a way similar to a magnetic field orienting iron filings around it. Since it’s a localized effect having to do with polarization, the analogy is fairly useful, as analogies go.

Which brings me to groupthink, the apparent target of Zuckerman’s piece.

Still haven’t read Irving Janis but I’ve been quite interested in groupthink for a while. Awareness of the concept is something I immediately recognize, praise, and associate with critical thinking.

In fact, it’s one of several things I was pleasantly surprised to find in an introductory sociology WikiBook I ended up using in my  “Intro. to Society” course, last year. Critical thinking was the main theme of that course, and this short section was quite fitting in the overall discussion.

So, what of groupthink and networks? Zuckerman sounds worried:

This is interesting to me because I’m intrigued – and worried – by information flows through social networks. If we’re getting more (not lots yet, but more) information through social networks and less through curated media like newspapers, do we run the risk of encountering only information that our friends have access to? Are we likely to be overinformed about some conversations and underinformed about others? And could this isolation lead to ideological polarization, as Cass Sunstein and others suggest? And if those fears are true, is there anything we can do to rewire social networks so that we’re getting richer, more diverse information?

Similar questions have animated many discussions in media-focused circles, especially in those contexts where the relative value (and meaning) of “old vs. new media” may be debated. At about the same time as I started blogging, I remember discussing things with a statistician friend about the polarization effect of media, strong confirmation bias in reading news stories, and political lateralization.

In the United States, especially, there’s a narrative (heard loud and clear) that people who disagree on some basic ideas are unable to hear one another. “Shockingly,” some say, “conservatives and liberals read different things.” Or “those on (the) two sides of (the) debate understand things in completely different ways.” It even reminds me of the connotations of Tannen’s booktitle, You Just Don’t Understand. Irreconciliable differences. (And the first time I mention a woman in this decidedly imbalanced post.)

While, as a French-Canadian ethnographer, my perspective is quite different from Zuckerman, I can’t help but sympathize with the feeling. Not that I associate groupthink with a risk in social media (au contraire!). But, like Zuckerman, I wish to find ways to move beyond these boundaries we impose on ourselves.

Zuckerman specifically discusses the attempt by Onnik Krikorian (@OneWMPhoto) to connect Armenians (at least those in Hayastan) and Azeris, with Facebook “affording” Krikorian some measure of success. This case is now well-known in media-centric circles and it has almost become shorthand for the power of social media. Given a personal interest in Armenians (at least in the Diaspora), my reaction to Krikorian’s success are less related to the media aspect than to the personal one.

At a personal level, boundaries may seem difficult to surmount but they can also be fairly porous and even blurry. Identity may be negotiated. Individuals crossing boundaries may be perceived in diverse ways, some of which have little to do with other people crossing the same boundaries. Things are lived directly, from friendships to wars, from breakups to reconciliations. Significant events happen regardless of the way  they’re being perceived across boundaries.

Not that boundaries don’t matter but they don’t necessarily circumscribe what happens in “personal lives.” To use an seemingly-arbitrary example, code-switching doesn’t “feel” strange at an individual level. It’s only when people insist on separating languages using fairly artificial criteria that alternance between them sounds awkward.

In other words, people cross boundaries all the time and “there’s nothing to it.”

Boundaries have quite a different aspect, at the macrolevel implied by the journalistic worldview (with nation-based checkbox democracy at its core and business-savvy professionalization as its mission). To “macros” like journos and politicos, boundaries look like borders, appearing clearly on maps (including mind ones) and implying important disconnects. The border between Armenia and Azerbaijan is a boundary separating two groups and the conflicts between these two groups reify that boundary. Reaching out across the border is a diplomatic process and necessitates finding the right individuals for the task. Most of the important statuses are ascribed, which may sound horrible to some holding neoliberal ideas about freewill and “individual freedoms.”

Though it’s quite common for networked activities to be somewhat constrained by boundaries, a key feature of networks is that they’re typically boundless. Sure, there are networks which are artificially isolated from the rest. The main example I can find is that of a computer virology laboratory.

Because, technically, you only need one link between two networks to transform them into a single network. So, it’s quite possible to perceive Verizon’s wireless network as a distinct entity, limited by the national boundaries of the U.S. of A. But the simple fact that someone can use Verizon’s network to contact someone in Ségou shows that the network isn’t isolated. Simple, but important to point out.

Especially since we’re talking about a number of things happening on a single network: The Internet. (Yes, there is such a thing as Internet2 and there are some technical distinctions at stake. But we’re still talking about an interconnected world.)

As is well-known, there are significant clusters in this One Network. McLuhan’s once-popular “Global Village” fallacy used to hide this, but we now fully realize that language barriers, national borders, and political lateralization go with “low-bandwidth communication,” in some spots of The Network. “Gs don’t talk to Cs so even though they’re part of the same network, there’s a weak spot, there.” In a Shannon/Weaver view, it sounds quite important to identify these weak spots. “Africa is only connected to North America via a few lines so access is limited, making things difficult for Africans.” Makes sense.

But going back to weak ties, connectors, Zuckerman’s shortcuts, and my own social butterflies, the picture may be a little bit more fleshed out.

Actually, the image I have in mind has, on one side, a wire mesh serving as the floor of an anechoic chamber  and on the other some laser beams going in pseudorandom directions as in Entrapment or Mission Impossible. In the wire mesh, weaker spots might cause a person to fall through and land on those artificial stalagmites. With the laser beams, the pseudorandom structure makes it more difficult to “find a path through the maze.” Though some (engineers) may see the mesh as the ideal structure for any network, there’s something humanly fascinating about the pseudorandom structure of social networks.

Obviously, I have many other ideas in mind. For instance, I wanted to mention “Isabel Wilkerson’s Leaderless March that Remade America.” Or go back to that intro soci Wikibook to talk about some very simple and well-understood ideas about social movements, which often seem to be lacking in discussions of social change. I even wanted to recount some anecdotes of neat network effects in my own life, such as the serendipity coming from discuss disparate subjects to unlike people or the misleading impression that measuring individualized influence is a way to understand social media. Not to mention a whole part I had in my mind about Actor Network Theory, non-human actors, and material culture (the other course I currently teach).

But I feel like going back to more time-sensitive things.

Still, I should probably say a few words about this post’s title.

My mother and I were discussing parallel inventions and polygenesis with the specific theme of moving away from the focus on individualized credit. My favourite example, and one I wish Gladwell (!) had used in Outliers (I actually asked him about it) is that of Gregor Mendel and the “rediscovery” of his laws by de Vries, Correns, and Tschermak. A semi-Marxian version of the synchronous polygenesis part might hold that “ideas are in the air” or that the timing of such dicoveries and inventions has to do with zeitgeist. A neoliberal version could be the “great minds think alike” expression or its French equivalent «Les grands esprits se rencontrent» (“The great spirits meet each other”). Due to my reluctance in sizing up minds, I’d have a hard time using that as a title. In the past, I used a similar title to refer to another form of serendipity:

To me, most normally constituted minds are “great,” so I still could have used the expression as a title. But an advantage of tweaking an expression is that it brings attention to what it implies.

In this case, the “thinking alike” may be a form of groupthink.

 

Groupthink in Action

An interesting situation which, I would argue, is representative of Groupthink.

As a brief summary of the situation: a subgroup within a larger group is discussing the possibility of changing the larger group’s structure. In that larger group, similar discussions have been quite frequent, in the past. In effect, the smaller group is moving toward enacting a decision based on perceived consensus as to “the way to go.”

No bad intention on anyone’s part and the situation is far from tragic. But my clear impression is that groupthink is involved. I belong to the larger group but I feel little vested interest in what might happen with it.

An important point about this situation is that the smaller group seems to be acting as if the decision had already been made, after careful consideration. Through the history of the larger group, prior discussions on the same topic have been frequent. Through these discussions, clear consensus has never been reached. At the same time, some options have been gaining some momentum in the recent past, mostly based (in my observation) on accumulated frustration with the status quo and some reflection on the effectiveness of activities done by subgroups within the larger group. Members of that larger group (including participants in the smaller group) are quite weary of rehashing the same issues and the “rallying cry” within the subgroup has to do with “moving on.” Within the smaller group, prior discussions are described as if they had been enough to explore all the options. Weariness through the group as a whole seems to create a sense of urgency even though the group as a whole could hardly be described as being involved in time-critical activities.

Nothing personal about anyone involved and it’s possible that I’m off on this one. Where some of those involved would probably disagree is in terms of the current stage in the decision making process (i.e., they may see themselves as having gone through the process of making the primary decision, the rest is a matter of detail). I actually feel strange talking about this situation because it may seem like I’m doing the group a disservice. The reason I think it isn’t the case is that I have already voiced my concerns about groupthink to those who are involved in the smaller group. The reason I feel the urge to blog about this situation is that, as a social scientist, I take it as my duty to look at issues such as group dynamics. Simply put, I started thinking about it as a kind of “case study.”

Yes, I’m a social science geek. And proud of it, too!

Thing is, I have a hard time not noticing a rather clear groupthink pattern. Especially when I think about a few points in Janis‘s description of groupthink.

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Antecedent Conditions Symptoms Decisions Affected

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Insulation of the group Illusion of invulnerability Incomplete survey of alternatives

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High group cohesiveness Unquestioned belief in the inherent morality of the group Incomplete survey of objectives

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Directive leadership Collective rationalization of group’s decisions Failure to examine risks of preferred choice

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Lack of norms requiring methodical procedures Shared stereotypes of outgroup, particularly opponents Failure to re-appraise initially rejected alternatives

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Homogeneity of members’ social background and ideology Self-censorship; members withhold criticisms Poor information search

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High stress from external threats with low hope of a better solution than the one offered by the leader(s) Illusion of unanimity (see false consensus effect) Selective bias in processing information at hand (see also confirmation bias)

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Direct pressure on dissenters to conform Failure to work out contingency plans

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Self-appointed “mindguards” protect the group from negative information

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A PDF version, with some key issues highlighted.

Point by point…

Observable

Antecedent Conditions of Groupthink

Insulation of the group

A small subgroup was created based on (relatively informal) prior expression of opinion in favour of some broad changes in the structure of the larger group.

Lack of norms requiring methodical procedures

Methodical procedures about assessing the situation are either put aside or explicitly rejected.
Those methodical procedures which are accepted have to do with implementing the group’s primary decision, not with the decision making process.

Symptoms Indicative of Groupthink

Illusion of unanimity (see false consensus effect)

Agreement is stated as a fact, possibly based on private conversations outside of the small group.

Direct pressure on dissenters to conform

A call to look at alternatives is constructed as a dissenting voice.
Pressure to conform is couched in terms of “moving on.”

Symptoms of Decisions Affected by Groupthink

Incomplete survey of alternatives

Apart from the status quo, no alternative has been discussed.
When one alternative model is proposed, it’s reduced to a “side” in opposition to the assessed consensus.

Incomplete survey of objectives

Broad objectives are assumed to be common, left undiscussed.
Discussion of objectives is pushed back as being irrelevant at this stage.

Failure to examine risks of preferred choice

Comments about possible risks (including the danger of affecting the dynamics of the existing broader group) are left undiscussed or dismissed as “par for the course.”

Failure to re-appraise initially rejected alternatives

Any alternative is conceived as having been tried in the past with the strong implication that it isn’t wort revisiting.

Poor information search

Information collected concerns ways to make sure that the primary option considered will work.

Failure to work out contingency plans

Comments about the possible failure of the plan, and effects on the wider group are met with “so be it.”

Less Obvious

Antecedent Conditions of Groupthink

High group cohesiveness

The smaller group is highly cohesive but so is the broader group.

Directive leadership

Several members of the smaller group are taking positions of leadership, but there’s no direct coercion from that leadership.

Positions of authority are assessed, in a subtle way, but this authority is somewhat indirect.

Homogeneity of members’ social background and ideology

As with cohesiveness, homogeneity of social background can be used to describe the broader group as well as the smaller one.

High stress from external threats with low hope of a better solution than the one offered by the leader(s)

External “threats” are mostly subtle but there’s a clear notion that the primary option considered may be met with some opposition by a proportion of the larger group.

Symptoms Indicative of Groupthink

Illusion of invulnerability

While “invulnerability” would be an exaggeration, there’s a clear sense that members of the smaller group have a strong position within the larger group.

Unquestioned belief in the inherent morality of the group

Discussions don’t necessarily have a moral undertone, but the smaller group’s goals seem self-evident in the context or, at least, not really worth careful discussion.

Collective rationalization of group’s decisions

Since attempts to discuss the group’s assumed consensus are labelled as coming from a dissenting voice, the group’s primary decision is reified through countering individual points made about this decision.

Shared stereotypes of outgroup, particularly opponents

The smaller group’s primary “outgroup” is in fact the broader group, described in rather simple terms, not a distinct group of people.
The assumption is that, within the larger group, positions about the core issue are already set.

Self-censorship; members withhold criticisms

Self-censorship is particularly hard to observe or assess but the group’s dynamics tends to construct criticism as “nitpicking,” making it difficult to share comments.

Self-appointed “mindguards” protect the group from negative information

As with leadership, the process of shielding the smaller group from negative information is mostly organic, not located in a single individual.
Because the smaller group is already set apart from the larger group, protection from external information is built into the system, to an extent.

Symptoms of Decisions Affected by Groupthink

Selective bias in processing information at hand (see also confirmation bias)

Information brought into the discussion is treated as either reinforcing the group’s alleged consensus or taken to be easy to counter.
Examples from cases showing clear similarities are dismissed (“we have no interest in knowing what others have done”) and distant cases are used to demonstrate that the approach is sound (“there are groups in other contexts which work, so we can use the same approach”).

War of the Bugs: Playing with Life in the Brewery

Kept brewing and thinking about brewing, after that last post. Been meaning to discuss my approach to “brewing bugs”: the yeast and bacteria strains which are involved in some of my beers. So, it’s a kind of follow-up.

Perhaps more than a reason for me to brew, getting to have fun with these living organisms is something of an achievement. It took a while before it started paying off, but it now does.

Now, I’m no biochemist. In fact, I’m fairly far to “wet sciences” in general. What I do with these organisms is based on a very limited understanding of what goes on during fermentation. But as long as I’m having fun, that should be ok.

This blogpost is about yeast in brewing. My focus is on homebrewing but many things also apply to craft brewing or even to macrobreweries.

There’s supposed to be a saying that “brewers make wort, yeast makes beer.” Whether or not it’s an actual saying, it’s quite accurate.

“Wort” is unfermented beer. It’s a liquid containing fermentable sugars and all sorts of other compounds which will make their way into the final beer after the yeast has had its fun in it. It’s a sweet liquid which tastes pretty much like Malta (e.g. Vitamalt).

Yeast is a single-cell organism which can do a number of neat things including the fine act of converting simple sugars into alcohol and CO2. Yeast cells also do a number of other neat (and not so neat) things with the wort, including the creation of a large array of flavour compounds which can radically change the character of the beer. Among the four main ingredients in beer (water, grain, hops, and yeast), I’d say that yeast often makes the largest contribution to the finished beer’s flavour and aroma profile.

The importance of yeast in brewing has been acknowledged to different degrees in history. The well-known Reinheitsgebot “purity law” of 1516, which specifies permissible ingredients in beer, made no mention of yeast. As the story goes, it took Pasteur (and probably others) to discover the role of yeast in brewing. After this “discovery,” Pasteur and others have been active at isolating diverse yeast strains to be used in brewing. Before that time, it seems that yeast was just occurring naturally in the brewing process.

As may be apparent in my tone, I’m somewhat skeptical of the “discovery” narrative. Yeast may not have been understood very clearly before Pasteur came on the scene, but there’s some evidence showing that yeast’s contribution to brewing had been known in different places at previous points in history. It also seems likely that multiple people had the same basic insight as LP did but may not have had the evidence to support this insight. This narrative is part of the (home)brewing “shared knowledge.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

There’s a lot to be said about yeast biochemistry. In fact, the most casual of brewers who spends any significant amount of time with online brewing resources has some understanding, albeit fragmentary, of diverse dimensions of biochemistry through the action of yeast. But this blogpost isn’t about yeast biochemistry.

I’m no expert and biochemistry is a field for experts. What tends to interest me more than the hard science on yeast is the kind of “folk science” brewers create around yeast. Even the most scientific of brewers occasionally talks about yeast in a way which sounds more like folk beliefs than like hard science. In ethnographic disciplines, there’s a field of “ethnoscience” which deals with this kind of “folk knowledge.” My characterization of “folk yeast science” will probably sound overly simplistic and I’m not saying that it accurately represents a common approach to yeast among brewers. It’s more in line with the tone of Horace Miner’s classic text about the Nacirema than with anything else. A caricature, maybe, but one which can provide some insight.

In this case, because it’s a post on my personal blog, it probably provides more insight about yours truly than about anybody else. So be it.

I’m probably more naïve than most. Or, at least, I try to maintain a sense of wonder, as I play with yeast. I’ve done just enough reading about biochemistry to be dangerous. Again, “the brewery is an adult’s chemistry set.”

A broad distinction in the brewer’s approach to yeast is between “pure” and “wild” yeast. Pure yeast usually comes to the brewer from a manufacturer but it originated in a well-known brewery. Wild yeast comes from the environment and should be avoided at all costs. Wild yeast infects and spoils the wort. Pure yeast is a brewer’s best friend as it’s the one which transforms sweet wort into tasty, alcoholic beer. Brewers do everything to “keep the yeast happy.” Though yeast happiness sounds like exaggeration on my part, this kind of anthropomorphic concept is clearly visible in discussions among brewers. (Certainly, “yeast health” is a common concept. It’s not anthropomorphic by itself, but it takes part in the brewer’s approach to yeast as life.) Wild yeast is the reason brewers use sanitizing agents. Pure yeast is carefully handled, preserved, “cultured.” In this context, “wild yeast” is unwanted yeast. “Pure yeast” is the desirable portion of microflora.

It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that many brewers are obsessed with the careful handling of pure yeast and the complete avoidance of wild yeast. The homebrewer’s motto, following Charlie Papazian, may be “Relax, Don’t Worry, Have a Homebrew,” when brewers do worry, they often worry about keeping their yeast as pure as possible or keeping their wort as devoid of wild yeast as possible.

In the context of brewers’ folk taxonomy, wild yeast is functionally a “pest,” its impact is largely seen as negative. Pure yeast is beneficial. Terms like “bugs” or “beasties” are applied to both but, with wild yeast, their connotations and associations are negative (“nasty bugs”) while the terms are applied to pure yeast in a more playful, almost endeared tone. “Yeasties” is almost a pet name for pure yeast.

I’ve mentioned “folk taxonomy.” Here, I’m mostly thinking about cognitive anthropology. Taxonomies have been the hallmark of cognitive anthropology, as they reveal a lot about the ways people conceive of diverse parts of reality and are relatively easy to study. Eliciting categories in a folk taxonomy is a relatively simple exercise which can even lead to other interesting things in terms of ethnographic research (including, for instance, establishing rapport with local experts or providing a useful basis to understanding subtleties in the local language). I use terms like “folk” and “local” in a rather vague way. The distinction is often with “Western” or even “scientific.” Given the fact that brewing in North America has some strong underpinnings in science, it’s quite fun to think about North American homebrewers through a model which involves an opposition to “Western/scientific.” Brewers, including a large proportion of homebrewers, tend to be almost stereotypically Western and to work through (and sometimes labour under) an almost-reductionist scientific mindframe. In other words, my talking about “folk taxonomy” is almost a way to tease brewers. But it also relates to my academic interest in cultural diversity, language, worldviews, and humanism.

“Folk taxonomies” can be somewhat fluid but the concept applies mostly to classification systems which are tree-like, with “branches” coming of broader categories. The term “folksonomy” has some currency, these days, to refer to a classification structure which has some relation to folk taxonomy but which doesn’t tend to work through a very clear arborescence. In many contexts, “folksonomy” simply means “tagging,” with the notion that it’s a free-form classification, not amenable to treatment in the usual “hierarchical database” format. Examples of folksonomies often have to do with the way people classify books or other sources of information. A folksonomy is then the opposite of the classification system used in libraries or in Web directories such as the original Yahoo! site. Tags assigned to this blogpost (“Tagged: Belgian artist…”) are part of my own folksonomy for blogposts. Categories on WordPress blogs such as this ones are supposed to create more of a (folk) taxonomy. For several reasons (including the fact that tags weren’t originally available to me for this blog), I tend to use categories as more of a folksonomy, but with a bit more structure. Categories are more stable than tags. For a while, now, I’ve refrained from adding new categories (to my already overly-long list). But I do add lots of new tags.

Anyhoo…

Going back to brewers’ folk taxonomy of yeast strains…

Technically, if I’m not mistaken, the term “pure” should probably refer to the yeast culture, not to the yeast itself. But the overall concept does seem to apply to types of yeast, even if other terms are used. The terms “wild” and “pure” aren’t inappropriate. “Wild” yeast is undomesticated. “Pure” yeast strains were those strains which were selected from wild yeast strains and were isolated in laboratories.

Typically, pure yeast strains come from one of two species of the genus Saccharomyces. One species includes the “top-fermenting” yeast strains used in ales while the other species includes the “bottom-fermenting” yeast strains used in lagers. The distinction between ale and lager is relatively recent, in terms of brewing history, but it’s one which is well-known among brewers. The “ale” species is called cerevisiae (with all sorts of common misspellings) and the “lager” species has been called different names through history, to the extent that the most appropriate name (pastorianus) seems to be the object of specialized, not of common knowledge.

“Wild yeast” can be any yeast strain. In fact, the two species of pure yeast used in brewing exist as wild yeast and brewers’ “folk classification” of microorganisms often lumps bacteria in the “wild yeast” category. The distinction between bacteria and yeast appears relatively unimportant in relation to brewing.

As can be expected from my emphasis on “typically,” above, not all pure yeast strains belong to the “ale” and “lager” species. And as is often the case in research, the exceptions are where things get interesting.

One category of yeast which is indeed pure but which doesn’t belong to one of the two species is wine yeast. While brewers do occasionally use strains of wild yeast when making other beverages besides beer, wine yeast strains mostly don’t appear on the beer brewer’s radar as being important or interesting. Unlike wild yeast, it shouldn’t be avoided at all costs. Unlike pure yeast, it shouldn’t be cherished. In this sense, it could almost serve as «degré zéro» or “null” in the brewer’s yeast taxonomy.

Then, there are yeast strains which are usually considered in a negative way but which are treated as pure strains. I’m mostly thinking about two of the main species in the Brettanomyces genus, commonly referred to as “Brett.” These are winemakers’ pests, especially in the case of oak aging. Oak casks are expensive and they can be ruined by Brett infections. In beer, while Brett strains are usually classified as wild yeast, some breweries have been using Brett in fermentation to effects which are considered by some people to be rather positive while others find these flavours and aromas quite displeasing. It’s part of the brewing discourse to use “barnyard” and “horse blanket” as descriptors for some of the aroma and flavour characteristics given by Brett.

Brewers who consciously involve Brett in the fermentation process are rather uncommon. There are a few breweries in Belgium which make use of Brett, mostly in lambic beers which are fermented “spontaneously” (without the use of controlled innoculation). And there’s a (slightly) growing trend among North American home- and craft brewers toward using Brett and other bugs in brewing.

Because of these North American brewers, Brett strains are now available commercially, as “pure” strains.

Which makes for something quite interesting. Brett is now part of the “pure yeast” category, at least for some brewers. They then use Brett as they would other pure strains, taking precautions to make sure it’s not contaminated. At the same time, Brett is often used in conjunction with other yeast strains and, contrary to the large majority of beer fermentation methods, what brewers use is a complex yeast culture which includes both Saccharomyces and Brett. It may not seem that significant but it brings fermentation out of the strict “mono-yeast” model. Talking about “miscegenation” in social terms would be abusive. But it’s interesting to notice which brewers use Brett in this way. In some sense, it’s an attitude which has dimensions from both the “Belgian Artist” and “German Engineer” poles in my brewing attitude continuum.

Other brewers use Brett in a more carefree way. Since Brett-brewing is based on a complex culture, one can go all the way and mix other bugs. Because Brett has been mostly associated with lambic brewing, since the onset of “pure yeast” brewing, the complex cultures used in lambic breweries serve as the main model. In those breweries, little control can be applied to the balance between yeast strains and the concept of “pure yeast” seems quite foreign. I’ve never visited a lambic brewery (worse yet, I’ve yet to set foot in Belgium), but I get to hear and read a lot about lambic brewing. My perception might be inaccurate, but it also reflects “common knowledge” among North American brewers.

As you might guess, by now, I take part in the trend to brew carefreely. Even carelessly. Which makes me more of a MadMan than the majority of brewers.

Among both winemakers and beer brewers, Brett has the reputation to be “resilient.” Once Brett takes hold of your winery or brewery, it’s hard to get rid of it. Common knowledge about Brett includes different things about its behaviour in the fermentation process (it eats some sugars that Saccharomyces doesn’t, it takes a while to do its work…). But Brett also has a kind of “character,” in an almost-psychological sense.

Which reminds me of a comment by a pro brewer about a well-known strain of lager yeast being “wimpy,” especially in comparison with some well-known British ale yeast strains such as Ringwood. To do their work properly, lager strains tend to require more care than ale strains, for several reasons. Ringwood and some other strains are fast fermenters and tend to “take over,” leaving little room for other bugs.

Come to think of it, I should try brewing with a blend of Ringwood and Brett. It’d be interesting to see “who wins.”

Which brings me to “war.”

Now, I’m as much of a pacifist as one can be. Not only do I not tend to be bellicose and do I cherish peace, I frequently try to avoid conflict and I even believe that there’s a peaceful resolution to most situations.

Yet, one thing I enjoy about brewing is to play with conflicting yeast strains. Pitting one strain against another is my way to “wage wars.” And it’s not very violent.

I also tend to enjoy some games which involve a bit of conflict, including Diplomacy and Civilization. But I tend to play these games as peacefully as possible. Even Spymaster, which rapidly became focused on aggressions, I’ve been playing as a peace-loving, happy-go-lucky character.

But, in the brewery, I kinda like the fact that yeast cells from different strains are “fighting” one another. I don’t picture yeast cells like warriors (with tiny helmets), but I do have fun imagining the “Battle of the Yeast.”

Of course, this has more to do with competition than with conflict. But both are related, in my mind. I’m also not that much into competition and I don’t like to pit people against one another, even in friendly competition. But this is darwinian competition. True “survival of the fittest,” with everything which is implied in terms of being contextually appropriate.

So I’m playing with life, in my brewery. I’m not acting as a Creator over the yeast population, but there’s something about letting yeast cells “having at it” while exercising some level of control that could be compared to some spiritual figures.

Thinking about this also makes me think about the Life game. There are some similarities between what goes on in my wort and what Conway’s game implies. But there are also several differences, including the type of control which can be applied in either case and the fact that the interaction between yeast cells is difficult to visualize. Not to mention that yeast cells are actual, living organisms while the cellular automaton is pure simulation.

The fun I have playing with yeast cells is part of the reason I like to use Brett in my beers. The main reason, though, is that I like the taste of Brett in beer. In fact, I even like it in wine, by transfer from my taste for Brett in beer.

And then, there’s carefree brewing.

As I described above, brewers are very careful to avoid wild yeast and other unwanted bugs in their beers. Sanitizing agents are an important part of the brewer’s arsenal. Which goes well with the “German engineer” dimension of brewing. There’s an extreme position in brewing, even in homebrewing. The “full-sanitization brewery.” Apart from pure yeast, nothing should live in the wort. Actually, nothing else should live in the brewery. If it weren’t for the need to use yeast in the fermentation process, brewing could be done in a completely sterile environment. The reference for this type of brewery is the “wet science” lab. As much as possible, wort shouldn’t come in contact with air (oxidization is another reason behind this; the obsession with bugs and the distaste for oxidization often go together). It’s all about control.

There’s an obvious reason behind this. Wort is exactly the kind of thing wild yeast and other bugs really like. Apparently, slants used to culture microorganisms in labs may contain a malt-based gelatin which is fairly similar to wort. I don’t think it contains hops, but hops are an agent of preservation and could have a positive effect in such a slant.

I keep talking about “wild yeast and other bugs” and I mentioned that, in the brewer’s folk taxonomy, bacteria are equivalent to wild yeast. The distinction between yeast and bacteria matters much less in the brewery than in relation to life sciences. In the conceptual system behind brewing, bacteria is functionally equivalent to wild yeast.

Fear of bacteria and microbes is widespread, in North America. Obviously, there are many excellent medical reasons to fear a number of microorganisms. Bacteria can in fact be deadly, in the right context. Not that the mere presence of bacteria is directly linked with human death. But there’s a clear association, in a number of North American minds, between bacteria and disease.

As a North American, despite my European background, I tended to perceive bacteria in a very negative way. Even today, I react “viscerally” at the mention of bacteria. Though I know that bacteria may in fact be beneficial to human health and that the human body contains a large number of bacterial cells, I have this kind of ingrained fear of bacteria. I love cheese and yogurt, including those which are made with very complex bacterial culture. But even the mere mention of bacteria in this context requires that I think about the distinction between beneficial and dangerous bacteria. In other words, I can admit that I have an irrational fear of bacteria. I can go beyond it, but my conception of microflora is skewed.

For two years in Indiana, I was living with a doctoral student in biochemistry. Though we haven’t spent that much time talking about microorganisms, I was probably influenced by his attitude toward sanitization. What’s funny, though, is that our house wasn’t among the cleanest in which I’ve lived. In terms of “sanitary conditions,” I’ve had much better and a bit worse. (I’ve lived in a house where we received an eviction notice from the county based on safety hazards in that place. Lots of problems with flooding, mould, etc.)

Like most other North American brewers, I used to obsess about sanitization, at every step in the process. I was doing an average job at sanitization and didn’t seem to get any obvious infection. I did get “gushers” (beers which gush out of the bottle when I open it) and a few “bottle bombs” (beer bottles which actually explode). But there were other explanations behind those occurrences than contamination.

The practise of sanitizing everything in the brewery had some significance in other parts of my life. For instance, I tend to think about dishes and dishwashing in a way which has more to do with caution over potential contamination than with dishes appearing clean and/or shiny. I also think about what should be put in the refrigerator and what can be left out, based on my limited understanding of biochemistry. And I think about food safety in a specific way.

In the brewery, however, I moved more and more toward another approach to microflora. Again, a more carefree approach to brewing. And I’m getting results that I enjoy while having a lot of fun. This approach is also based on my pseudo-biochemistry.

One thing is that, in brewing, we usually boil the wort for an hour or more before inoculation with pure yeast. As boiling kills most bugs, there’s something to be said about sanitization being mostly need for equipment which touches the wort after the boil. Part of the equipment is sanitized during the boiling process and what bugs other pieces of equipment may transfer to the wort before boiling are unlikely to have negative effects on the finished beer. With this idea in mind, I became increasingly careless with some pieces of my brewing equipment. Starting with the immersion chiller and kettle, going all the way to the mashtun.

Then, there’s the fact that I use wild yeast in some fermentations. In both brewing and baking, actually. Though my results with completely “wild” fermentations have been mixed to unsatisfactory, some of my results with “partially-wild” fermentations have been quite good.

Common knowledge among brewers is that “no known pathogen can survive in beer.” From a food safety standpoint, beer is “safe” for four main reasons: boiling, alcohol, low pH, and hops. At least, that’s what is shared among brewers, with narratives about diverse historical figures who saved whole populations through beer, making water sanitary. Depending on people’s attitudes toward alcohol, these stories about beer may have different connotations. But it does seem historically accurate to say that beer played an important part in making water drinkable.

So, even wild fermentation is considered safe. People may still get anxious but, apart from off-flavours, the notion is that contaminated beer can do no more harm than other beers.

The most harmful products of fermentation about which brewers may talk are fusel alcohols. These, brewers say, may cause headaches if you get too much of them. Fusels can cause some unwanted consequences, but they’re not living organisms and won’t spread as a disease. In brewer common knowledge, “fusels” mostly have to do with beers with high degrees of alcohol which have been fermented at a high temperature. My personal sense is that fusels aren’t more likely to occur in wild fermentation than with pure fermentation, especially given the fact that most wild fermentation happens with beer with a low degree of alcohol.

Most of the “risks” associated with wild fermentation have to do with flavours and aromas which may be displeasing. Many of these have to do with souring, as some bugs transform different compounds (alcohol especially, if I’m not mistaken) into different types of acids. While Brett and other strains of wild yeast can cause some souring, the acids in questions mostly have to do with bacteria. For instance, lactobacillus creates lactic acid, acetobacter creates acetic acid, etc.

Not only do I like that flavour and aroma characteristics associated with some wild yeast strains (Brett, especially), I also like sour beers. It may sound strange given the fact that I suffer from GERD. But I don’t overindulge in sour beers. I rarely drink large quantities of beer and sour beers would be the last thing I’d drink large quantities of. Besides, there’s a lot to be said about balance in pH. I may be off but I get the impression that there are times in which sour things are either beneficial to me or at least harmless. Part of brewer common knowledge in fact has a whole thing about alkalinity and pH. I’m not exactly clear on how it affects my body based on ingestion of diverse substances, but I’m probably affected by my background as a homebrewer.

Despite my taste for sour beers, I don’t necessarily have the same reaction to all souring agents. For instance, I have a fairly clear threshold in terms of acetic acid in beer. I enjoy it when a sour beer has some acetic character. But I prefer to limit the “aceticness” of my beers. Two batches I’ve fermented with wild bugs were way too acetic for me and I’m now concerned that other beers may develop the same character. In fact, if there’s a way to prevent acetobacter from getting in my wort while still getting the other bugs working, I could be even more carefree as a brewer than I currently am.

Which is a fair deal. These days, I really am brewing carefreely. Partly because of my “discovery” of lactobacillus.

As brewer common knowledge has it, lactobacillus is just about everywhere. It’s certainly found on grain and it’s present in human saliva. It’s involved in some dairy fermentation and it’s probably the main source of bacterial fear among dairy farmers.

Apart from lambic beers (which all come from a specific region in Belgium), the main sour beer that is part of brewer knowledge is Berliner Weisse. Though I have little data on how Berliner Weisse is fermented, I’ve known for a while that some people create a beer akin to Berliner Weisse through what brewers call a “sour mash” (and which may or may not be related to sour mash in American whiskey production). After thinking about it for years, I’ve done my first sour mash last year. I wasn’t very careful in doing it but I got satisfying results. One advantage of the sour mash is that it happens before boiling, which means that the production of acid can be controlled, to a certain degree. While I did boil my wort coming from sour mash, it’s clear that I still had some lactobacillus in my fermenters. It’s possible that my boil (which was much shorter than the usual) wasn’t enough to kill all the bugs. But, come to think of it, I may have been a bit careless with sanitization of some pieces of equipment which had touched the sour wort before boiling. Whatever the cause, I ended up with some souring bugs in my fermentation. And these worked really well for what I wanted. So much so that I’ve consciously reused that culture in some of my most recent brewing experiments.

So, in my case, lactobacillus is in the “desirable” category of yeast taxonomy. With Brett and diverse Saccharomyces strains, lactobacillus is part of my fermentation apparatus.

As a mad brewer, I can use what I want to use. I may not create life, but I create beer out of this increasingly complex microflora which has been taking over my brewery.

And I’m a happy brewer.