A Request for Methods: Studying the Development of Software

I just left my department’s colloquium lecture series where Dr. Virginia Eubanks from SUNY- Albany was giving an excellent talk on the computer systems that administer and control (to varying degrees) earned benefits programs like social security, Medicaid, and Medicare. The talk was really fascinating and a question from Dr. Abby Kinchy during the Q&A really stuck with me: How do we study different (and often long-outdated) versions of software? Particularly, how do we chart the design of software that runs on huge closed networks owned by large companies or governments? Are these decisions lost to history, or are there methods for ferreting out Ross Perot’s old wares?

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The Promise of Praxis

I’ve been thinking a lot about methods lately. I want to spend a few paragraphs considering the current state of affairs for social scientists interested in science and technology as their objects of analysis. What kind of work is impossible in our current universities? What kinds of new institutions are necessary for breaking new ground in method as well as theory? Think of this post as an exercise in McLuhan-style probing of institutions of higher learning. I’m going to play with a lot of “what-ifs” and “for instances.” None of this is particularly actionable, nor am I even interested in proposing anything that would be recognized as “realistic” or even “pragmatic.” Mainly, I’m interested in stepping back, considering the state of our technosociety, and asking what kinds of questions need asking and what kinds of science is being systematically left undone.

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The Mendeley Dilemma

I really love putting things in order: Around my house you’ll find tiny and neat stacks of paper, alphabetized sub-folders, PDFs renamed via algorithm, and spices arranged to optimize usage patterns. I don’t call it life hacking or You+, its just the way I live. Material and digital objects need to stand in reserve for me, so that I may function on a daily basis. I’m a forgetful and absent-minded character and need to externalize my memory, so I typically augment my organizational skills with digital tools.  My personal library is organized the same way Occupy Wall Street organized theirs, with a lifetime subscription to LibraryThing. I use Spotify for no other reason that I don’t want to dedicate the necessary time to organize an MP3 library the way I know it needs to be organized. (Although, if you find yourself empathizing with me right now, I suggest you try TuneUp.) My tendency for digitally augmented organization has also made me a bit of a connoisseur of citation management software. I find little joy in putting together reference lists and bibliographies, mainly because they can never reach the metaphysical perfection I demand. Citation management software however, gets me close enough. When I got to grad school, I realized by old standby, ProQuest’s Refworks wasn’t available and my old copy of Endnote x1 ran too slow on my new computer. So there I was, my first year of graduate school and jonesing heavily for some citation management. I had dozens of papers to write and no citation software. That’s when I fell into the waiting arms of Mendeley.

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