Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Why narrative inquiry?

The other day somebody asked me for the "top ten" reasons narrative inquiry is preferable to direct questioning. It was an interesting challenge, and this is the result. I've grouped the ten reasons into three groups.

Human-social aspects of narrative inquiry

Social function. People act differently and expect different things when they tell and listen to stories than when they talk normally. This gives the sharing of stories both a unique function in society and a unique advantage when one wants to understand feelings and beliefs. When a person tells a story in a group, that person is given both the floor and the attention (and silence) of the party. Asking people to tell you stories sends them the message that you have given them the floor and your attention. It sets up the situation "I am listening" rather than the situation "I am interrogating" and thus triggers a different social response.

Emotional safety. The separation between narrative events (storytellings) and narrated events (what takes place in stories) provides an emotional distance that creates the safety people need to disclose deeply held feelings and beliefs. As a result, people often reveal things about their feelings or opinions on a subject while they are telling a story that they wouldn't have been willing or able to reveal when talking about the topic directly. A story is a socially accepted package in which people have learned from a young age to wrap up their feelings, beliefs and opinions. People know that they can metaphorically place a story on a table and invite others to view and internalize it without exposing themselves to the same degree as they would if they stated those feelings, beliefs and opinions directly.

Providing a voice. Most people are very used to being asked for their opinions in standard surveys, and they get out their well-practiced poker faces for that game. Asking people to tell stories gives them a sign of respect by legitimizing their experiences as valuable communications. Respect is also communicated by giving people the freedom to choose what story they will tell and how the story will take form. The mere fact of saying "we really do want to know what has happened to you" is something many people have rarely experienced. Many respondents in narrative surveys have expressed gratitude for the chance to tell their story.

Cognitive aspects of narrative inquiry

Engagement. A story has a natural situation-tension-resolution shape, and people usually find it difficult to "leave" the story before the resolution has occurred, whether they are telling it or listening to it. The story pulls them in and engages them until it has completed its course. In the context of inquiry, this reduces the frequency of respondents answering questions without giving them much thought. Even if people had meant to ignore the inquiry, they are sometimes captivated by the storytelling aspect and stay longer (and say more) than they would have otherwise.

Articulation. When people tell stories, they sometimes reveal feelings and beliefs of which they themselves are not aware. When the answer to a direct question is "I don't know," asking for a story may provide the contextual triggers that bring out the tacit knowledge and relevant experience required. After the story has been told, the storyteller may still not know the answer to the direct question. However, if you collect hundreds of narrative answers, a coherent response will usually take shape.

Interpretation. When you ask people to tell stories, and then ask them questions about their stories, you are asking them to interpret rather than opine. This displacement gives people both the freedom to say forbidden things -- it's about the story, it's not about myself -- and the safety to admit fault or place blame. Also, people tend to have stronger reactions to hearing stories, in terms of the emotions they show, than they have to hearing factual information. For example, listeners tend to fidget less and lean in more when a story is being told than when someone is giving opinions or relating information. This makes asking people to interpret their own stories a useful means of surfacing their feelings about important issues.

Authenticity. When the goal of the project is communicative, whether this means communicating a message to customers or communicating the needs of customers to producers, stories convey complex emotions with more ground truth than any other means of communication. Direct questioning may generate more precise measurements, but story elicitation ensures greater depths of insight and understanding into complex topics and complex people. The act of listening to a story told by another person creates a suspension of disbelief and displacement of perspective that helps people see through new eyes into a different world of truth.

Imagination. When a topic is complex and many-layered, the best course is to increase diversity, generate many ideas, think out of the box, and prepare for surprise. Asking a diverse range of people to tell you what they have done and seen enlists their imagination along with your own. This both broadens the net of exploration by opening the inquiry to the varieties of human experience and increases its flexibility by capturing multidimensional context which can be plumbed again and again as needs emerge. In contrast, direct questioning, though precise, is narrowly focused and produces unidimensional content that can provide only one answer.

Information-gathering aspects of narrative inquiry

Contextual richness. When you ask direct questions, it is easy to guess wrongly about what sorts of answers people might have and even about what sorts of questions might lead to useful answers. This is often a problem when exploring complex topics. Asking people to talk about their experiences can sometimes lead to useful answers even if the wrong questions were asked, because the contextual richness of stories provides information in excess of what was directly sought. In fact, being surprised by the questions posed (and
answered) by collected stories is a standard outcome of narrative inquiry.

Redirection of non-responses. A well-constructed story elicitation results in fewer non-response behaviors (answering without considering, manipulating the survey to promote an agenda, trying too hard to do what seems to be expected, and so on) than direct questioning. These behaviors don't go away when people tell stories, but they are both reduced and more obvious when they do occur. Because telling a story pulls in both teller and listener, the reluctant pay more attention, those with agendas reveal their true thoughts (even while promoting their agendas), and performers have a harder time guessing what they are supposed to say (and switch to telling the best story they can). Also, non-responses are easier to spot in narrative results, because the texts of the stories themselves provide clues to why people gave the answers they did.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Gems: Studying Those Who Study Us

Here I begin another series of blog posts, this time on resources I've found (mainly books) that have been so useful to my understanding of organizational and community narrative as to call them "gems." As usual it's far too long, and again I beg your tolerance.

Cases and stories

When people start exploring what has been said and done in the area of stories and organizations, the field of case-based reasoning usually comes up. Case-based reasoning, or CBR, is an offshoot of cognitive science and artificial intelligence having to do with making decisions using cases, or stories about previous events. CBR is similar to organizational narrative in that bodies of stories are used to help people make decisions and share knowledge. However, CBR databases are very different from what I will call "story collections" in these ways:
  1. CBR databases, as expert systems, are compiled only from interviews with experts in an area, whereas story collections include storytellers with a wide range of expertise and experience, and even deliberately juxtapose different and sometimes competing perspectives.
  2. CBR databases are compiled from interviews in which only the most knowledgeable experts are asked to talk specifically and directly about knowledge, with the view of passing on how things are done. By contrast, story collections ask people to tell stories about their work (or any topic) as a whole. Story collections treat as valuable the most personal, emotional, and idiosyncratic aspects of the story -- pride, disappointment, pain, joy, confusion -- whatever resonates deeply with the storytellers. Questions are aimed obliquely and ambiguously in order to reveal not only how things are done but also how things may not be done, what things are like, how they got to be that way, and what it all means.
  3. CBR databases are indexed by cognitive elements such as topic, task, goal, plan, lesson learned, and so on. Indexing is typically done by experts in the CBR field. Story collections are not indexed but interpreted for meaning and emotional content by the storytellers themselves.
  4. CBR databases are used by indexing critical elements of the situation at hand, zeroing in on the relevant cases, and offering up solutions to fit needs. Story collections are sometimes used to find solutions to problems, but they are more often used when people don't know what they need to know - when they need to uncover biases, reveal trends, hear voices, discover paradoxes, improve self-awareness, and ask new questions.
Case-based reasoning works by what I call the "noun way" of getting an answer: the answer you get is the answer you need. Zeroing in, closing down and narrowing the field of possible answers are required for this process. In contrast, sory collections work by the "verb way" of getting an answer: the answer you get is not the answer you need, it is what triggers what goes on in your mind to get you closer to the answer you need. For this purpose, broadening things out and shaking things up are what is required.

The point I want to make in this essay, and the point of the "gem" I want to tell you about, is that CBR and other systems of knowlege representation are excellent tools for collecting and organizing how-to manuals for simple and complicated situations, such as repairing engines or designing load-bearing structures. But story collections are the tool of choice when your aims and issues are complex. And surprisingly little of human knowledge is not complex, even if it seems simple.

What is common sense?

To illustrate the differences in ways of looking at knowledge among the different fields concerned with it, let us consider the concept of common sense. Reading about common sense has always confused me, because people in different academic traditions use it in different ways (and with great confidence in their local meanings). As far as I can make it out, the term can mean any of six different things.

First, as it was used in antiquity, common sense referred to a fusion of the inputs coming from the five senses. To say "use your common sense" meant "use all of your powers of observation." That use has been pretty much abandoned, so I will also set it aside.

Later, the "common" in "common sense" changed to refer to what is common among a group of people instead of within one person. After that it splintered into five possible meanings. I list them here moving from least to most complex.
  1. Common sense is what a system moving and working in 3D space needs to know. In this sense, the phrase refers to the body of knowledge limited to statements like "things that are let go of in space fall towards the earth" and "objects that are piled up sometimes fall down again." Those who speak of common sense in this way tend to be designing autonomous robots that need to move around and manipulate objects.
  2. Common sense is what the common people believe to be true. This meaning is similar to "naïve physics" or "folk knowledge." It refers to what people know about something when they have no specialized knowledge about it -- what a banker knows about making shoes, what a shoemaker knows about banking. This sense of the term is more exclusive than inclusive, since it defines people more by what they don't belong to (the ranks of those with specialized knowlege, which is often synonymous with the ranks of power and prestige) than by what they belong to. This use of the term is similar to the use of "common" to mean "commoner," or not of noble birth. People who use this sense of the term tend to be writing about psychology and studying how people think and reason.
  3. Common sense is what every human being believes to be true. This sense of the term is used primarily by people who work in the area of knowledge representation and build common-sense knowledge bases.  Major projects in this area include Cyc, the Open Mind Common Sense project (OMCS) and MindPixel. These projects claim to represent the knowledge every human being uses in daily life. The Wikipedia page on the OMCS project gives example statements that include "A coat is used for keeping warm," "The sun is very hot" and "The last thing you do when you cook dinner is wash your dishes."
  4. Common sense is what a society believes to be true. This is the sense in which most anthropologists and sociologists use the term. In the anthropologist R.M. Keesing's famous statement, culture is "...not all of what an individual knows and think and feels about his world. It is his theory of what his fellows know, believe and mean, his theory of the code being followed, the game being played, in the society into which he was born." In this sense common sense is contextual, situated, idiosyncratic, and subject to change over time. Dictionaries and thesauri, though they do build knowledge bases, tend to see knowlege as more culturally situated and subject to change than do projects more closely aligned with the artificial intelligence field.
  5. Common sense is what our society should believe to be true. This is the sense politicians and activists use when they talk about "common sense" as a call to political (or literal) arms. The message of such uses is "if you are with us, you will believe this." Thomas Paine's pamphlet Common Sense is a famous example of this use. Says Paine: "Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages are not yet sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favor; a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom." Paine later asks of his reader "that he will put on, or rather that he will not put off the true character of a man, and generously enlarge his views beyond the present day." Note the terms used here: fashionable, favor, habit, appearance, outcry, custom, and the most obvious nod to identity politics, "true character of a man."
If you look at who uses each sense of the term "common sense," a pattern emerges: builders of simple "mindless" robots at the simplest level, then cognitive scientists interested in artificial intelligence, followed by anthropologists, and at the apex of complexity, politicians and activists. Also notice that as complexity increases, breadth of coverage decreases: from anything capable of moving about, to the uninformed, to people in general, to those in one society's culture, to those in one political party. (Why do I place "the uninformed" as more broad than "people in general?" Because from what I've seen, and as I'll explain, the view of "people in general" embedded in most "universal" knowledge bases is far from universal.)

Definitions of common sense 

These meanings of the term are not easily separated. Dictionary definitions often lump two or more meanings together without distinction. WordNet (which has mixed aspirations as both a knowledge base and a dictionary/thesaurus) defines common sense simply as "sound practical judgment" (my sense three above). calls it "sound practical judgment that is independent of specialized knowledge, training, or the like; normal native intelligence" (my senses two and three above). The Merriam-Webster online dictionary says it is "sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts" (senses two and three). Microsoft's Encarta dictionary calls it "sound practical judgment derived from experience rather than study" (more two than three). 

The definition on is the most interesting of all:
Common sense. Ordinary good consciousness, awareness or understanding of something, arrived at though taking in account recent events and thoughts of others involved, used for the greater good of all involved.
This combines senses two (ordinary), three (good), four (others) and five (greater good). Add in gravity and you have the whole mix.

Wikipedia does the best job of giving a nuanced definition of the mixed meanings in the term (my additions show the senses referred to):
Common sense (or, when used attributively as an adjective, commonsense, common-sense, or commonsensical), based on a strict construction of the term, consists of what people in common would agree on: that which they "sense" as their common [three, four] natural [three] understanding. Some people (such as the authors of Merriam-Webster Online) use the phrase to refer to beliefs or propositions that — in their opinion — most people would consider prudent and of sound judgment [three], without reliance on esoteric knowledge or study or research [two], but based upon what they see as knowledge held by people "in common" [four]. Thus "common sense" (in this view) equates to the knowledge and experience which most people allegedly [four] have, or which the person using the term believes [four] that they do or should [five] have.
Some "definitions" of common sense clearly reference particular meanings, often the fifth, aspirational meaning alone. From a blog post with a list of postmodern definitions as "a useful gauge to see how academics construct their sentences" (which may or may not be satirical):
COMMON SENSE: In postmodernism in general, common sense is considered a fiction created by those in power to convince the oppressed that ideology is simply the way things really are. See ideological effect, myth.
Here is a hilarious (and again, possibly satirical and possibly straight-faced) definition of common sense from, a site that sells legal advice:
Common Sense. The presence of mind and general caution and concern that the law imputes to all persons, i.e., sense everyone should have. Everyone owes a duty to use common sense. The breach of this duty may give rise to a cause of action.
And one from a religious web site:
The term refers to that KNOWING which is within all of us, as a characteristic of the mature human mind, which does have access to any and all KNOWING of the dimensions of consciousness beyond the self. Although anyone can certainly have an instance or episode of such common sense, such KNOWING, unfortunately if one is "lost" to the negativity of Satan's influences upon humanity, even then, that person's maturity of mind is being blocked by the Veil of Unknowing and their consequently immature mind (of whatever age) does not have this attribute of common sense.
One pattern I've noticed is that the attempts to build universal human common-sense databases (such as Cyc, WordNet, and so on) tend to speak only of senses one, two and three (the least complex and cultural). It is surprising that WordNet, for example, lists only one sense for the term "common sense" even though it lists no fewer than nine senses for the adjective "common" (and they cover all five meanings listed here). Could this be a blind spot in such knowledge bases, something they prefer not to admit about their own definitions of what they are doing and what they represent?
The gem

With that preparation, the gem to which I would like to introduce you is Diana Forsythe's 2001 book Studying Those Who Study Us: An Anthropologist in the World of Artificial Intelligence. Tragically, publication of this work was posthumous, as this groundbreaking researcher died in 1997 in a rafting accident. This audacious work, in which Forsythe reports on observations made during years of participant observation with working cognitive scientists, is a fascinating journey through the minds of people who think they know what we know. The researchers Forsythe studied are the "knowledge engineers" who create common-sense knowledge bases and talk about common sense in the all-human-beings-know-this sense (third in the list above).

According to Forsythe's field work, knowledge engineers operate on the basis of three essential assumptions that influence their work. She contrasts these assumptions with those made by social scientists, who primarily use the cultural definition of common sense (fourth in the list above).
  1. Knowledge engineers believe that knowledge is a structured, static thing that can be extracted, acquired, cloned, and stored. It is something that experts have and novices don’t. These engineers call the elicitation of knowledge a bottleneck, express frustration that it is inefficient, and hope that someday it can be automated. Experts who are offended at the idea that their knowledge can be so easily transmitted are termed "prima donnas" and "cantankerous" and are avoided. In this view knowledge is also seen as individually held, having no social dimension. In contrast, social scientists see the extraction of knowledge as impossible, since it is a dynamic and contextually situated phenomenon of shared construction. They also believe that the expert-novice distinction is relative, not absolute: every human being is an expert in some things and a novice in others, depending on the context.
  2. Knowledge engineers see knowledge as entirely conscious. Thus they believe that experts can fully articulate their knowledge and that there are no differences between what people say they do and what they do. They see no reason to visit an expert in their workplace or to observe the expert doing normal work tasks; they believe that asking the expert what they know, straight out, is sufficient. Social scientists, on the other hand, believe that a large portion of knowledge is tacit and not easily surfaced, and that the relation between self-representation and observed action is tenuous.
  3. Knowledge engineers see knowledge as universal and absolute. Thus they "prefer if possible to use themselves as experts," since anyone can capture "the world’s knowledge" simply by introspection. (Says Forsythe: "I have come to think of this style of thought as 'I am the world' reasoning.") Social scientists believe that knowledge is inherently contextual and relative, and cannot be transplanted from one brain to another. Forsythe noted, for example, that nearly every AI researcher she studied was a white Western male, and that they were perfectly comfortable assuming that whatever they knew was what every human being needed to know. 
Again according to Forsythe, these beliefs create three characteristics of knowledge bases created by knowledge engineers.
  1. Knowledge bases depend on a non-representative sample of experts or even introspection as their sole source of information, and thus are narrow in scope. No evidence of conflict or diversity of thought is permitted, and the knowledge codified within them contains no negotiated, contextual, or organizational elements. Also, because of the belief that knowledge can be extracted, experts tend to be interviewed out of the context of their expertise, so the knowledge they are able to articulate is only a portion of mature thought in the field. For example, Forsythe recalls how an expert system built to support worldwide geological exploration failed when it went into production because the expert interviewed had only local knowledge of one geographical area.
  2. Because the organization of knowledge bases is set in advance, they are brittle and cannot easily adapt to new uses. Expert system builders claim that indexing mechanisms should be based on first principles about how people think about narrative and experience. However, because of the belief that knowledge is universal, most of the indexing mechanisms used have been based on introspection, not on empirical evidence – thus they correlate more with the way researchers believe they themselves think than with the way people actually think. Also, because of the belief that knowledge has no social dimension, indexing is thought of entirely within one mind. The idea that there might be socially relevant indexes does not appear. 
  3. Because knowledge bases are set up to store knowledge as a thing, they are static. They are like vaults in which information is locked up, never again to enjoy a life of discourse with the world. Such systems quickly become out of date or even nonsensical as the world around them changes.
 Forsythe ultimately warns that:
Those whose ways of knowing and doing are classified as "knowledge" and "expertise" by the builders of expert systems will find their view of the world reinforced and empowered by this powerful emerging technology. Those whose perspectives and practice are not so classified are likely to find their voices muted still further as the world increasingly relies upon intelligent machines.
Obviously I wouldn't be suggesting this book as a "gem" if I didn't agree with Forsythe's conclusions. Reading Forsythe's book (alongside cognitive science books and papers) had a large influence on my research on building story collections. That doesn't mean I think case-based reasoning is not useful. For some domains it is undeniably useful and appropriate. Narrow, brittle and static knowledge bases are just the thing when you need to look up engineering specifications and automate factory production. What concerns me is when I see case-based reasoning applied to complex areas such as education, medical diagnosis and decision support. That's where the gem shows its real value.

Why is an umbrella?

There's a little game I play when looking at books and papers about knowledge representation. I find an example about how computers need to be told things about "everyday" life and "universal human" knowledge, and then peel away the layers of assumptions about culture and context inherent in the statement.

One of the canonical examples that often comes up in the knowledge representation and CBR literature is this one:
"If it is raining, carry an umbrella."
The first time I encountered this statement -- which is rendered in so many places and with such confidence that it sounds like "the night is dark" in its universality -- I was taken aback. I'm not much of an umbrella user myself. If I'm caught in the rain I run or walk. On a very rainy day I might put on a raincoat, but as often as not I don't mind getting wet. Besides, umbrellas are awkward and sharp when you are walking with a small child (you might put somebody's eye out!). One thing I've learned living in the forest is that during that wonderful/awful time of the year when everything is blooming and growing, and the blood-sucking blackflies are out in full force, rain is your best friend. Blackflies hide in the rain, so we take full advantage of every rainy day and soak ourselves in it. (In mosquito season the rules reverse and rain requires a retreat to safety.)

There have been times in my life when umbrellas were important, but it was never because of anything as simple as rain. When I used to go to New York city all the time, I carried an umbrella for protection. After I hurt my back, I supported myself for a while with a long, cane-like umbrella because it didn't look as much like a cane as a cane would. Long ago when I went through an all-black-clothing period (don't ask) I used an ancient umbrella to heighten the sense of mystery and interesting alienation.

Once I was in New York city on my way to a workshop, and the sky opened up and simply dumped rain on the streets. I had no umbrella, or raincoat either, so I ran between awnings. Sometimes I tried to sneak under the huge, elaborate, expensive umbrellas some well-dressed people were carrying. The looks I got made it clear that walking in that part of town without an umbrella was a clear sign that I was of a different category of people, a category unfit to share an umbrella with a holder of a huge, elaborate, expensive umbrella.

I've always found that canonical statement about umbrellas to be strangely sterile and foreign to the world I live in. I seem to have been born to attest to the reality of alternative perspectives, being a "few out of the few" in several dimensions (to choose one: left-handed and ambidextrous). I take this as a message from [insert your belief system here] to act as a social gadfly and say "that's not the only way to see it" whenever possible. Which explains some of my attraction to story listening.

So lately I've been reading about umbrellas and their history and uses, just to see if I could find more inside the canonical umbrella statement to peel away. (There are many other such statements in the knowledge representation literature, but the umbrella one is used so often that it simply begs to be challenged.)

A brief history of the not-so-humble umbrella 

It is unclear whether the Chinese or the Egyptians first came up with the idea of the umbrella, and whether protection from sun or rain was the purpose. But umbrellas were never only about protection, at least not of the physical kind. As with many human solutions, the history of umbrellas is soaked with references to status, power and class. The earliest umbrellas were so large and heavy that they were owned only by the wealthy (or gods) and carried only by slaves or servants. Says the Wikipedia page on umbrellas:
In Persia the parasol is repeatedly found in the carved work of Persepolis, and Sir John Malcolm has an article on the subject in his 1815 "History of Persia." In some sculptures, the figure of a king appears attended by a servant, who carries over his head an umbrella, with stretchers and runner complete. In other sculptures on the rock at Takht-i-Bostan, supposed to be not less than twelve centuries old, a deer-hunt is represented, at which a king looks on, seated on a horse, and having an umbrella borne over his head by an attendant.
Umbrellas were used as signals to broadcast authority and to maintain control in uncertain social situations. This history of umbrellas at the "big site of amazing facts" says:
In the fifteenth century, Portuguese seamen bound for the East Indies brought along umbrellas as fit gifts for native royalty. Upon landing on a strange island, the seamen immediately opened an umbrella over their captain’s head, to demonstrate his authority.
Did indigenous people use umbrellas? Do they now? It seems that people do use leaves, whether singly if they are large or woven into mats, to shield their heads from both sun and rain, and have for many years. But when I find umbrellas mentioned with respect to indigenous tribes the uses are symbolic and social. This article on umbrellas made from Pandanus (poro) leaves in the Solomon Islands says that "Pandanus leaves are woven into hoods by women, who wear them when a taboo relative is present or during special occasions." The "Asante umbrella" is, again, used for symbolic meaning: according to this article, an early explorer who met with the Asante said that the "umbrella is the outward and visible sign of the dignity and importance of its possessor" and that "the glory and social prestige imparted by an umbrella varies with its size." (This is also true in certain parts of New York city.)

Umbrellas have at times been taboo. In the Middle Ages, Europeans considered umbrella use heretical, possibly because their use was confined to ceremonial religious processions. Later, only women used them; a man using an umbrella was considered effeminate. According to William Sangster's fascinating Umbrellas and Their History (ca. 1871), Jonas Hanway was the first Englishman "who ventured to dare public reproach and ridicule by carrying an Umbrella." (He was excused, to some extent, on account of having picked up bad habits in his travels to Persia and because of his ill health.) After Hanway's death in 1786, after he had carried an umbrella in public for some thirty years, men began to carry what they called "Hanways" and the umbrella grew in popularity among British men as well as women.

Umbrellas today 

Enough history; let's consider umbrella use today. First, let's look at some advertisements, which offer no end of amusement. Here's a little quiz for you. Is this advertisement intended to entice you to buy (a) a man's umbrella, (b) a woman's, or (c) a child's?
There’s nothing like a prop to bring out [your] inner diva. Whether vamping it up with a feather boa or flirting coyly with a painted fan, a [person] becomes positively magnetic with the addition of just the right accessory. Though a bouquet is a [person’s] traditional best friend, daring [people] are reaching for parasols and umbrellas to best set off their ... charms.
How about this one?
Rugged design features titanium reinforced ribs that provide strength and durability while still being lightweight and portable. Automatic Open and Close mechanism opens and closes the umbrella at the push of a button. Measures 11 in. collapsed and opens to a full 40 in. diameter umbrella canopy.
 Or this?
This cute ... umbrella features a see through water-proof cover for extra rain protection, pinch-proof runner and covered safety tips, fun tinted bubble style with matching color handle. Because the canopy is see through, [the owners] will be able to see where they are going and see traffic while using this umbrella, which is a great safety feature.
Are you laughing? Do I even need to tell you the answers to this quiz? And do umbrellas still seem perfectly utilitarian after reading these?

Now, how would you say the targeted buyers of this umbrella see themselves?
Humor and surprise are two of [a designer's] hallmarks, as witnessed by this [design]. [This] witty umbrella ... is known and enjoyed throughout the world. Designed by [a company] for [a museum] with [a] design by [an artist], the collapsible umbrella has an automatic open-close mechanism. Made for [the museum] with nylon exterior and lining. Size: 38" span. Proceeds from the sale of these products are used to support [the museum's] programs.
Or this one?
How can [a company] offer such decadent and sexy fabrics for their umbrellas? Well, we choose only sumptuous fabrics, and unsual prints for our umbrellas. Then, we have the fabric commercially treated for water repellency. We are also importing small quantities of truly unique umbrella fabrics from Milan. That's why a [brand name] makes a statement. Dare to be different! We're not for everyone! Are we for you?
How about this?
Whacks just as strong as a steel pipe but it weighs only 1 lb. and 11 oz. (775 g).... Our Unbreakable Umbrella has no unusual parts, no more metal than an average umbrella, it does not arouse suspicion, can be carried legally everywhere where any weapons are prohibited, unlike a walking stick it does not cause strange looks if carried by an able-bodied person, and it does protect from rain. Anyone who can use a stick for defense can use this umbrella.
So, are umbrellas for keeping off the rain? It's becoming increasingly complex, isn't it?

Umbrellas and social norms

How do people feel about umbrellas today? Is using an umbrella more commonsensical than other approaches to dealing with rain? What do people tell each other about umbrellas and rain? To look at this question it is easy: just type in "If it is raining, carry an umbrella" into Google. Evidently this is an issue about which people have questions, because there are "should I use an umbrella" and "do you use an umbrella" questions all over the web.

For example:
When it rains, do you use an umbrella? Or, like me, do you just get wet because it's too much hassle? I just get wet but is not because of the hassle. It is because I love rain and the way it feels when raindrops crash on your skin. The sensation is just amazing, beyond words.
Do you use an umbrella when it rains? There are times, when I do use an umbrella. But there are times, when I don't, for whatever reason. I think that it just depends on the mood that I am in, on that specific day, and such.
Reading through these comments, there is an unmistakable scent of authority and social norming to umbrella carrying. Clearly some people avoid umbrellas to challenge authority, to assert their individuality, and to thumb their nose at the way things are supposed to be done. Here's a quote from a randomly accessed blog:
I have a disdain for umbrellas... You see, I have my own unique way of dealing with what Mother Nature threw at me.
Not carrying an umbrella is associated not only with uniqueness, but with freedom, with the carefree life of childhood. From another blog:
At one point in our lives, we all wanted to play in the rain again. Getting wet, run and splatter each other with those colds drops of water is truly an enjoyable experience. It makes us forget all our problems; all our worries in life; and every inch of the negative emotions inside us are miraculously washed away – even just for a mere period of time.
And another blog post called "Utopia is being able to act like a kid":
All of a sudden, the rain poured and I ran to avoid it. Soon, I stopped, realizing I haven’t been in the rain in a long, long time. Being an adult doesn't mean I need to avoid being wet with a rainfall. I decided to get drenched. A few of my friends and I decided to play soccer in the rain. Although hard-hit by the icy cold rain, I happened to have, for the first time in a long time, one of those times when you feel simply wonderful. Getting lost in a 'mature' world we don’t realize that we are missing the best days of our lives.
At an online poll called "Do you always carry an umbrella?" the results (I get to see them because I voted) are roughly equally distributed between "Yes", "Sometimes," and "No, I always forget." (Note that the "no" vote has a bit of social obligation clinging to it.)

Some people carry umbrellas in a bid to succeed, to do things the right way, to conform, to prove they are "one of us." Their statements, often given as advice, usually include references to authority, conformity and the "proper" way of doing things. The best way to find conforming umbrella statements is to search not for "do you use an umbrella" but "should you use an umbrella" and "how to use an umbrella." When you do that, you find statements like this, from How to Choose An Umbrella at
Everyone needs an umbrella! Whether you're searching for a basic, collapsible rain umbrella or an umbrella with artistic flair, read on to make an educated purchase.
One difficulty is that many of the sites offering authoritative advice on umbrella use sell umbrellas (reference my earlier post on "I am the answer").

Other useful search terms to combine with "umbrella" are "idiot" and "stupid" and "clueless." There's a funny and widely traded picture of former US President George Bush being outsmarted by an umbrella in windy weather that is really cruel in its unfairness. Or, in a random personal blog you find:
I join two fellow ... travelers beneath a tree. The difference between them and me is an umbrella; they've each got one and I don't. I stupidly attempt to shield myself from the rain beneath the tree as the wind shakes more dew upon me than necessary. Really, tree? ... And the bus must be chugging slowly slowly slowly because it's past its prime functioning hours. But it arrives. I probably look like a wet umbrella-less idiot, standing there beneath the tree. My co-travelers must be judging me. I would, even if the situation is comical. 
There are even regional differences in cultural patterns of umbrella use. This article goes into great detail on the myth that people who live in Seattle don't use umbrellas in order to look "in the know." A blog post called "Should guys carry an umbrella" goes into detail on umbrella-related social norms in five cities. (This also points out that the effeminate charge has not disappeared.)

It also turns out there is a lot to know about how to use an umbrella. Believe it or not, "umbrella etiquette" is a term in use. This advanced etiquette web site has a full page on how to use an umbrella in public. Evidently umbrella owners must "learn the dance of the umbrella" -- meaning, don't poke people in the head with your umbrella or drip water onto them. This is evidently very important for short people who are more likely to have problems with umbrella heights and head heights. This funny blog post on "that famous Vancouver rain" says it well:
[L]earn how to use your freaking umbrella. I’ve got news for you…it’s wider than your head, dumbass. Don’t swing the shit around and don’t force people to dodge the stines. And to all you little 4 foot 10 ladies… most everyone on the street is taller than you! Your stupid umbrella is eye level people, and when you swing and bob it around you run the risk of poking some poor sap in the eyeball. Not me, cuz I wear glasses, but someone else. Have a thought for the people around you, please.
If you are not completely sick of umbrellas by now, here and here are two more blog posts that link to new ideas in umbrella design, including: an inflatable model with cloud-shaped bubbles; a hands-free model (not for the claustrophobe); an umbrella that covers sixteen people ("receptions were varied"); one that incorporates a squirt gun for fun or defense; one that lights up and says "don't forget" when you put it on a table; one that locks onto a pole so you can't lose it ("Do not lose your key."); one that incorporates a paintbrush for whimsical mud paintings; one painted like a GPS location dot (" if it is saying: 'Hey, I’m right here!'"); the "unbrella," which converts any sheet of flat material, such as a newspaper, to an umbrella-like object; and finally, one that exists only of a sheet of forced air that propels raindrops away from the head (and onto other heads?). Clearly the gargantuan imaginative force of our collective social genius is readily apparent in the world of rain and umbrellas.

Why is rain?  

Now, let's peel off the final layer. What is rain anyway, and what does rain mean, and what does getting wet mean? Does every human being consider keeping dry in the rain a high priority? Is keeping dry in the rain "common sense"? Is it a universal human trait? Does it enter into every village in every corner of every place on earth? This article, on how different cultures view rain, says:
For many in the Western World, rain is viewed as a negative thing. Children's rhymes like Rain Rain Go Away present the depressing rain as a stark contrast to the bright, happy, warming sun. But this way of thinking is not [the] norm for the Eastern World, such as Africa and the Middle East. Due to the agricultural nature of their society, rain is viewed as a soothing, joyful, sometimes beautiful gift. In fact, in drought-ridden Botswana, the word for rain, "pula" is also the name of the currency, which helps to solidify the position of importance rain holds in this agricultural region. 
Judeo-Christians look to the story of Noah to base their beliefs of the negativity of rain. In the story of Noah, God was angry and brought his anger down in the form of forty days and nights of unceasing rain, choosing only to spare the favored family of Noah. The tradition was picked up in Shakespearean literature. For example, the rainstorm in King Lear marked the high point of Lear's madness. Throughout the whole of The Tempest, rain is seen as a negative thing, a sign of trouble. Even in modern weather reports, the negative connotations of rain holds firm. When a storm is on the way, weather reporters sound almost apologetic when bringing this news to us. To be "in the eye of the storm" is to put oneself in great danger. To experience "the calm before the storm" is to know that danger is coming.

Native American culture, again a largely agricultural society, views rain differently. To the Anasazi tribe, rain is a sacred gift from the Rain God. Artwork from the tribe shows the Rain God as a benevolent figure who lovingly bestows rain on his loyal followers.
And so on. One cultural change is that as fewer and fewer people are involved in agriculture, societies view rain as a more negative thing than previously. While the term "rainmaker" retains its positive meaning, it has shifted to refer not to physical rain but to currency (as has "as right as rain"). I've noticed this negativity surrounding rain myself and found it disconcerting. In everyday conversation, people talk about rain as though it is some kind of scourge. But I view rain as a blessing, both because my soil is sandy and drains quickly and because I live in a forest, where the greatest danger is drought and the spectre of forest fire.

All right, all right, I'm done with rain and umbrellas. But as you can see, it's a fascinating exercise to compare these contemporary social negotiations about rain and umbrellas with the audacity of Jonas Hanway "who ventured to dare public reproach and ridicule." What was sensible is now heretical and what was heretical is now sensible. Common sense and heresy have changed places, as they have always done and will continue to do as long as there are people. Will there be umbrellas on the moon? Who knows?

The official story on umbrellas 

Now, here is our final test. After all of that messy, vibrant, funny, very human exploration, here is the entry for "umbrella" in the OpenCyc "common sense" knowledge base:
A mechanical device used for protection against certain elements of nature.
And here are the top three most populous statements in the Open Mind Common Sense database about umbrellas:
  1. an umbrella is for protection from the rain
  2. an umbrella is for keeping the sun off you
  3. an umbrella is a device to protect something 
In comparison to what we've been pondering -- and I'm sure we've only scratched the surface of the place where people and rain and umbrellas come together -- these statements seem like nothing but crude caricatures, jokes, even insults to the immense complexity of human common sense. Well, a joke is one thing, and an insult can be ignored, but I'm afraid things have gone further than that. A mother I know told me that her child "failed" an assessment test for placement in some kind of official educational setting. Can you guess at one of the most critical questions on the test that determined this child's inadequacy? You can see it coming, right? The question was what do you do in the rain. The child's answer? Run. Wrong. Fail. Out of the group.

What I worry about is that Diana Forsythe's warning that "those whose perspectives and practice are not so classified are likely to find their voices muted" is already happening. Attempts to capture human knowledge as a static, narrow, brittle thing are already having an impact on social norms. The saddest thing about that placement test story is that the child did show common sense. Many people do run when it rains. The child's mother does. I do. (I asked my son the same question, out of the blue one day just to see, and his answer was the same.) But the child's response did not match the narrow, brittle, static caricature of common sense that the test makers had entered into the acceptable responses to the question. That's scary.

One of my favorites of Dave Snowden's many metaphors for the complicated-complex distinction is that of a mechanic walking up to an airplane with a toolbox. The complicated airplane doesn't react to the toolbox, no matter how large or authoritative it is. But people do. By the time the mechanic has arrived the human airplane is a whole different machine. It's like we are conducting a giant Heisenberg experiment with human knowledge, and the electrons aren't where they were before. One of the places where this shift in authority is most dangerous is in the area of storytelling. When the official stories become the only stories, our capacity to innovate, our collective imagination, our resilience in the face of change, is reduced. That's what worries me.

In practice

When I write I always imagine a canonical reader who has been collecting or listening to stories and using them to help an organization or community. This reader is not only friendly and approachable (otherwise I couldn't write) but also amazingly tolerant of abundant detail (otherwise I couldn't write). When I say "bear with me" they always respond "No, no -- go on! I'm fascinated!" But my canonical reader does insist on relevance. They want to know how what I am showing them can help them in their pursuit of effective story listening, and they do not tolerate off-topic diversions that never come round to anything in the end. They say things like "What do I care if you are left-handed?" and so on. This section is for you, dear on-topic reader.

Why should you care about case-based reasoning, and knowledge representation, and the aims of people who build robots? For two reasons. First, be aware that formal knowledge representation systems are creeping into all aspects of our lives, with effects both good and ill.

Second, when you collect stories, be aware that you are guaranteed to be attracted to the sweet fruits of simplicity, and that simplistic knowledge representations are among those fruits. Beware of strangers selling simple narrative solutions that reduce stories to lists of goal statements and facts. Reducing stories to one perspective, throwing away messiness and artificially resolving conflicts and paradoxes leads you down the scale of meanings of "common sense" into "I am the world" thinking. A while back I wrote about ways people sabotage their own narrative projects in order to avoid confronting uncomfortable truths. This is one of the ways in which they do it. Sliding down the complexity scale can be as simple as paying more attention to the factual elements of stories, such as location and official roles and subject matter, and less to things like emotion and conflict and confusion. It's also easy to slide down into "just the facts" without meaning to, which is why having an outside eye look over your questions can be helpful.

As I've said above, bridge engineers should be dealing with simplicity and order. But most people who collect stories do so because they need to grapple with complex, messy, social, cultural, emotional and sometimes painful issues. That's what people use stories for. It's where they belong. Moving down the scale of cultural complexity is calm, safe, controlled. It's like using an umbrella in the rain. But if you need to know anything about human beings, you can't find out what you need to know if you aren't willing to get wet.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Spam, spam, verbs and spam

Honestly, I don't know how people do this blogging thing. My thoughts are not blog thoughts. They are not many and short, they are few and long. Every time I try to write a short snappy post it turns into an extended essay. I wonder if blogging can work for all types of thinkers. While some people are moving into microblogging, there should be a place for those of us with slower-moving gears. Maybe if regular blogging (a few paragraphs) is mesoblogging, long and less frequent essay-blogging could be called macroblogging. Or sloth blogging, or elephant blogging, or owl blogging, or something.

Anyway, I'm working on what will probably be a cool blog post (but may equally well end up in the trash) and of course it's long. So here are just two tidbits from last week's post (on narrative divination for sensemaking) that I forgot to say then.

First, I forgot to say that spam is another untapped divination tool. (No, wait, come back!) Of course I agree that spammers deserve a special level of hell where they are forced to eat nothing but their own spam forever. But you have to admit, these spam people certainly have their finger on some kind of pulse. It's amazing how the spam I get tracks my current concerns so well. When I'm worried about money I get more spams about inheritances and lotteries. When I'm worried about my business I get more spams about business offers. When I'm feeling lonely I get spams that say "You haven't called me in a while." When I'm writing software I get spams about software promotion. When I was using, then leaving, Facebook I started getting spams with titles like "You didn't comment on my post." It's uncanny.

So here's a fun thing to do. If you happen to have a spam folder, before you clear it out you can use it for divination. I just tried it. I looked across the room and into the bathroom and remembered that I would someday like to put in a shower instead of that irritatingly useless double sink. (Why in the world do people need two places to wash their hands? Do they use one on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays?) I used the ancient look-away-scroll-click divination method and landed on a spam about getting an advanced degree online. Immediately I begin thinking that if I did things to improve my business acumen, I might be able someday to afford that wonderful upstairs shower. And, that if I were to learn more about plumbing, maybe I could reduce the cost. And so on.

If you think about it, spam makes a great narrative database. It's little stories about what somebody thinks you will click on. I'm going to make you rich, I can save your sex life, I'll teach you new things, I need your help disposing of my money. If you mix all those stories together you have something that can trigger sensemaking. The banality of it actually helps with the serendipitous associations. I use the books on my living room shelves in the same way. I think of a vexing situation, then run my eyes over the titles and see what thoughts spring up. It works with lots of collections, as long as they are diverse and thought-provoking. (And yes, I'm aware that book titles are not stories; but the need to be careful about whether things are fully-formed stories or just references to or fragments of stories varies with the context of use.)

This leads into the second point I forgot to make before. There are two ways to get an answer to a question: the noun way and the verb way.

The noun way of getting an answer is, well, being given an answer. A noun. A measurement, a fact, a pixel of information. The length of the Amazon river is 4,132 miles. The noun way is the best approach when dealing with the known and knowable (or simple and complicated) side of things.

Usually. Mostly. From the Wikipedia page on the world's longest rivers:
The length of a river is very hard to calculate. It depends on the identification of the source, the identification of the mouth, and the scale of measurement of the river length between source and mouth. As a result, the length measurements of many rivers are only approximations. In particular, there has long been disagreement as to whether the Amazon or the Nile is the world's longest river.
The verb way of getting an answer is not getting an answer, but going through a process that nudges your thoughts into new patterns that would not have been possible otherwise. Narrative divination, and most sensemaking, is a verb way of getting an answer. It's the harder way, but when the things you want to think about are complex, the verb way is the most valuable. The verb way relies on analogy, indirection, diversity, assumption breaking, perspective shift, serendipity, and yes, even a bit of spam-like absurdity.

The noun and verb ways are not mutually exclusive: you can do both at once. Sometimes one will lead into the other, as my grab-a-topic-at-random search for the length of the Amazon river did. (Who knew river length was a political topic?) It's probably best to maintain an open mind and try both options in all situations rather than decide on either a priori. When you are seeking an answer, try mixing up your nouns and verbs.

That's a bite-sized post, I hope.