Middle Tech: Software Work and the Culture of Good Enough

Book by Paula Bialski: “Contrary to much of the popular discourse, not all technology is seamless and awesome; some of it is simply “good enough.” In Middle Tech, Paula Bialski offers an ethnographic study of software developers at a non-flashy, non-start-up corporate tech company. Their stories reveal why software isn’t perfect and how developers communicate, care, and compromise to make software work—or at least work until the next update. Exploring the culture of good enoughness at a technology firm she calls “MiddleTech,” Bialski shows how doing good-enough work is a collectively negotiated resistance to the organizational ideology found in corporate software settings.

The truth, Bialski reminds us, is that technology breaks due to human-related issues: staff cutbacks cause media platforms to crash, in-car GPS systems cause catastrophic incidents, and chatbots can be weird. Developers must often labor to patch and repair legacy systems rather than dream up killer apps. Bialski presents a less sensationalist, more empirical portrait of technology work than the frequently told Silicon Valley narratives of disruption and innovation. She finds that software engineers at MiddleTech regard technology as an ephemeral object that only needs to be good enough to function until its next iteration. As a result, they don’t feel much pressure to make it perfect. Through the deeply personal stories of people and their practices at MiddleTech, Bialski traces the ways that workers create and sustain a complex culture of good enoughness…(More)”

How the war on drunk driving was won

Blog by Nick Cowen: “…Viewed from the 1960s it might have seemed like ending drunk driving would be impossible. Even in the 1980s, the movement seemed unlikely to succeed and many researchers questioned whether it constituted a social problem at all.

Yet things did change: in 1980, 1,450 fatalities were attributed to drunk driving accidents in the UK. In 2020, there were 220. Road deaths in general declined much more slowly, from around 6,000 in 1980 to 1,500 in 2020. Drunk driving fatalities dropped overall and as a percentage of all road deaths.

The same thing happened in the United States, though not to quite the same extent. In 1980, there were around 28,000 drunk driving deaths there, while in 2020, there were 11,654. Despite this progress, drunk driving remains a substantial public threat, comparable in scale to homicide (of which in 2020 there were 594 in Britain and 21,570 in America).

Of course, many things have happened in the last 40 years that contributed to this reduction. Vehicles are better designed to prioritize life preservation in the event of a collision. Emergency hospital care has improved so that people are more likely to survive serious injuries from car accidents. But, above all, driving while drunk has become stigmatized.

This stigma didn’t come from nowhere. Governments across the Western world, along with many civil society organizations, engaged in hard-hitting education campaigns about the risks of drunk driving. And they didn’t just talk. Tens of thousands of people faced criminal sanctions, and many were even put in jail.

Two underappreciated ideas stick out from this experience. First, deterrence works: incentives matter to offenders much more than many scholars found initially plausible. Second, the long-run impact that successful criminal justice interventions have is not primarily in rehabilitation, incapacitation, or even deterrence, but in altering the social norms around acceptable behavior…(More)”.

When Online Content Disappears

Pew Research: “The internet is an unimaginably vast repository of modern life, with hundreds of billions of indexed webpages. But even as users across the world rely on the web to access books, images, news articles and other resources, this content sometimes disappears from view…

  • A quarter of all webpages that existed at one point between 2013 and 2023 are no longer accessible, as of October 2023. In most cases, this is because an individual page was deleted or removed on an otherwise functional website.
A line chart showing that 38% of webpages from 2013 are no longer accessible
  • For older content, this trend is even starker. Some 38% of webpages that existed in 2013 are not available today, compared with 8% of pages that existed in 2023.

This “digital decay” occurs in many different online spaces. We examined the links that appear on government and news websites, as well as in the “References” section of Wikipedia pages as of spring 2023. This analysis found that:

  • 23% of news webpages contain at least one broken link, as do 21% of webpages from government sites. News sites with a high level of site traffic and those with less are about equally likely to contain broken links. Local-level government webpages (those belonging to city governments) are especially likely to have broken links.
  • 54% of Wikipedia pages contain at least one link in their “References” section that points to a page that no longer exists...(More)”.

Multiple Streams and Policy Ambiguity

Book by Rob A. DeLeo, Reimut Zohlnhöfer and Nikolaos Zahariadis: “The last decade has seen a proliferation of research bolstering the theoretical and methodological rigor of the Multiple Streams Framework (MSF), one of the most prolific theories of agenda-setting and policy change. This Element sets out to address some of the most prominent criticisms of the theory, including the lack of empirical research and the inconsistent operationalization of key concepts, by developing the first comprehensive guide for conducting MSF research. It begins by introducing the MSF, including key theoretical constructs and hypotheses. It then presents the most important theoretical extensions of the framework and articulates a series of best practices for operationalizing, measuring, and analyzing MSF concepts. It closes by exploring existing gaps in MSF research and articulating fruitful areas of future research…(More)”.

How Open-Source Software Empowers Nonprofits And The Global Communities They Serve

Article by Steve Francis: “One particular area where this challenge is evident is climate. Thousands of nonprofits strive to address the effects of a changing climate and its impact on communities worldwide. Headlines often go to big organizations doing high-profile work (planting trees, for instance) in well-known places. Money goes to large-scale commercial agriculture or new technologies — because that’s where profits are most easily made. But thousands of other communities of small farmers that aren’t as visible or profitable need help too. These communities come together to tackle a number of interrelated problems: climate, soil health and productivity, biodiversity and human health and welfare. They envision a more sustainable future.

The reality is that software is crafted to meet market needs, but these communities don’t represent a profitable market. Every major industry has its own software applications and a network of consultants to tune that software for optimal performance. A farm cooperative in less developed parts of the world seeking to maximize value for sustainably harvested produce faces very different challenges than do any of these business users. Often they need to collect and manipulate data in the field, on whatever mobile device they have, with little or no connectivity. Modern software systems are rarely designed to operate in such an environment; they assume the latest devices and continuous connectivity…(More)”.

Routledge Handbook of Risk, Crisis, and Disaster Communication

Book edited by Brooke Fisher Liu, and Amisha M. Mehta: “With contributions from leading academic experts and practitioners from diverse disciplinary backgrounds including communication, disaster, and health, this Handbook offers a valuable synthesis of current knowledge and future directions for the field. It is divided into four parts. Part One begins with an introduction to foundational theories and pedagogies for risk and crisis communication. Part Two elucidates knowledge and gaps in communicating about climate and weather, focusing on community and corporate positions and considering text and visual communication with examples from the US and Australia. Part Three provides insights on communicating ongoing and novel risks, crises, and disasters from US and European perspectives, which cover how to define new risks and translate theories and methodologies so that their study can support important ongoing research and practice. Part Four delves into communicating with diverse publics and audiences with authors examining community, first responder, and employee perspectives within developed and developing countries to enhance our understanding and inspire ongoing research that is contextual, nuanced, and impactful. Offering innovative insights into ongoing and new topics, this handbook explores how the field of risk, crisis, and disaster communications can benefit from theory, technology, and practice…(More)”

Applying Social and Behavioral Science to Federal Policies and Programs to Deliver Better Outcomes

The White House: “Human behavior is a key component of every major national and global challenge. Social and behavioral science examines if, when, and how people’s actions and interactions influence decisions and outcomes. Understanding human behavior through social and behavioral science is vitally important for creating federal policies and programs that open opportunities for everyone.

Today, the Biden-Harris Administration shares the Blueprint for the Use of Social and Behavioral Science to Advance Evidence-Based Policymaking. This blueprint recommends actions for agencies across the federal government to effectively leverage social and behavioral science in improving policymaking to deliver better outcomes and opportunities for people all across America. These recommendations include specific actions for agencies, such as considering social and behavioral insights early in policy or program development. The blueprint also lays out broader opportunities for agencies, such as ensuring agencies have a sufficient number of staff with social and behavioral science expertise.  

The blueprint includes nearly a hundred examples of how social and behavioral science is already used to make real progress on our highest priorities, including promoting safe, equitable, and engaged communities; protecting the environment and promoting climate innovation; advancing economic prosperity and the future of the workforce; enhancing the health outcomes of all Americans; rebuilding our infrastructure and building for tomorrow; and promoting national defense and international security. Social and behavioral science informs the conceptualization, development, implementation, dissemination, and evaluation of interventions, programs, and policies. Policymakers and social scientists can examine data about how government services reach people or measure the effectiveness of a program in assisting a particular community. Using this information, we can understand why programs sometimes fall short in delivering their intended benefits or why other programs are highly successful in delivering benefits. These approaches also help us design better policies and scale proven successful interventions to benefit the entire country…(More)”.

May Contain Lies: How Stories, Statistics, and Studies Exploit Our Biases

Book by Alex Edmans: “Our lives are minefields of misinformation. It ripples through our social media feeds, our daily headlines, and the pronouncements of politicians, executives, and authors. Stories, statistics, and studies are everywhere, allowing people to find evidence to support whatever position they want. Many of these sources are flawed, yet by playing on our emotions and preying on our biases, they can gain widespread acceptance, warp our views, and distort our decisions.

In this eye-opening book, renowned economist Alex Edmans teaches us how to separate fact from fiction. Using colorful examples—from a wellness guru’s tragic but fabricated backstory to the blunders that led to the Deepwater Horizon disaster to the diet that ensnared millions yet hastened its founder’s death—Edmans highlights the biases that cause us to mistake statements for facts, facts for data, data for evidence, and evidence for proof.

Armed with the knowledge of what to guard against, he then provides a practical guide to combat this tide of misinformation. Going beyond simply checking the facts and explaining individual statistics, Edmans explores the relationships between statistics—the science of cause and effect—ultimately training us to think smarter, sharper, and more critically. May Contain Lies is an essential read for anyone who wants to make better sense of the world and better decisions…(More)”.

Design for a “Mess”

Book review by Anirudh Dhebar: “The world is a mess,” reads the opening sentence of the blurb for Don Norman’s latest book, Design for a Better World. Compelled by that phrase, I was left wondering: Does Norman, an influential voice on user-centered design, perhaps best known for his seminal book The Design of Everyday Things, have workable solutions to offer so we can design our way out of the mess?

Thirty years ago, I read Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things, which was originally published in a hardcover version as The Psychology of Everyday Things and retitled for the paperback edition. In his preface to that new edition, the author suggested the title change was a “lesson in design.” I could not agree more—many readers may find a book on design less intimidating than a book on psychology. By changing the title, Norman was practicing what he was preaching: making its design more user centric.

In The Design of Everyday Things, Norman preached effectively. He offered a distinctive perspective on something commonplace (everyday things), with an approachable style and a persuasive pitch to casual readers who otherwise may not have given much thought to the good, bad, and the ugly of the designs of the many things they interact with in their daily lives. His message helped bring user centricity to the front and center of product design and was part of a widespread shift toward more intentional design.

In his new book, Norman shifts the focus to something much more ambitious: the role of design in transforming the world from its present “mess” into something “better”—more sustainable, meaningful, and centered on humanity. While I applaud the author’s ambition, a shift from a relatively narrow focus on the design of tangible everyday objects to something as vast as a moral reform of the economy and its relationship to the environment is a tall order and requires more than a call-for-action-on-multiple-fronts message…(More)”.

AI and Epistemic Risk for Democracy: A Coming Crisis of Public Knowledge?

Paper by John Wihbey: “As advanced artificial intelligence (AI) technologies are developed and deployed, core zones of information and knowledge that support democratic life will be mediated more comprehensively by machines. Chatbots and AI agents may structure most internet, media, and public informational domains. What humans believe to be true and worthy of attention – what becomes public knowledge – may increasingly be influenced by the judgments of advanced AI systems. This pattern will present profound challenges to democracy. A pattern of what we might consider “epistemic risk” will threaten the possibility of AI ethical alignment with human values. AI technologies are trained on data from the human past, but democratic life often depends on the surfacing of human tacit knowledge and previously unrevealed preferences. Accordingly, as AI technologies structure the creation of public knowledge, the substance may be increasingly a recursive byproduct of AI itself – built on what we might call “epistemic anachronism.” This paper argues that epistemic capture or lock-in and a corresponding loss of autonomy are pronounced risks, and it analyzes three example domains – journalism, content moderation, and polling – to explore these dynamics. The pathway forward for achieving any vision of ethical and responsible AI in the context of democracy means an insistence on epistemic modesty within AI models, as well as norms that emphasize the incompleteness of AI’s judgments with respect to human knowledge and values…(More)” – See also: Steering Responsible AI: A Case for Algorithmic Pluralism