Dec 05 2008

Last minute revisions

Published by at 12:33 pm under Communities of Practice,General

January 1st, 2009 has been the target publication date for the book for a while, but that now seems to be slipping.  We’re working as hard as we can on type faces and layout details and all of that.  At the same time we’re using chapters of the book in a CPsquare workshop called “Connected Futures.”  The discussion with workshop participants last Monday convinced us that the separate and occasional problems we’ve had talking about the polarities in this slide really needed to be addressed:

So Chapter 5 is getting a quick rewrite to talk more carefully about the togetherness / separation and reification / participation polarities.  We hope the rewrite won’t affect the final publication date, but it’s an example of the complications and risks on the way to press.

Coincidentally, I’m reading a thesis from CPsquare’s research and dissertation fest titled “A system that Works for Me – an anthropological analysis of computer hackers’ shared use and development of the Ubuntu Linux system” by Andreas Lloyd.  He gives a precise and insightful observations of how a community of practice deals with the polarities through their technologies and their relationships at the same time. Referencing the thesis or discussing it is out of scope because that would delay publication!  But Lloyd’s work is a good reminder that seeking to be precise about the polarities in Chapter 5 is really worth the risk of taking extra time. The following extended quote starts on page 55:

The Jargon File describes how the importance of not being interrupted is deeply engrained in hacker etiquette:

    … if someone appears at your door, it is perfectly okay to hold up a hand (without turning one’s eyes away from the screen) to avoid being interrupted. One may read, type, and interact with the computer for quite some time before further acknowledging the other’s presence (of course, he or she is reciprocally free to leave without a word). The understanding is that you might be in hack mode with a lot of delicate state in your head, and you dare not swap that context out until you have reached a good point to pause.

I experienced this several times in my visits and interviews with Ubuntu hackers, whose partners and friends over time have come to allow room for and be forgiving of these programming­ related eccentricities. In turn, the hackers themselves often take care to balance their time on the computer in relation to their family’s needs, when they reach one of those “good points to pause.” I have found that this duality is also very characteristic for the way that hackers interact with each other on­line where you can’t assume that people are communicative at any given moment. As Ellen Ullman points out, this inability to be interrupted makes hackers somewhat asynchronous to one another – at least in the short term (Ullman 1995:132). This is reflected clearly by the fact that all of the Ubuntu hackers’ preferred on­line communicative means are textual and thus – at least to some extent – asynchronous. Email, newsgroups and web forums postings and bug tracker comments are all based on users reading and replying asynchronously. Even real time communications such as IRC chat channels and Instant Messaging bend to this rule as developers “ping” each other, and if there’s no immediate response, they can ask their question and let the other answer when he has time or attention to spare:

    09:00 carlos pitti: ping
    09:07 pitti carlos: pong
    09:08 carlos pitti: I did a mistake yesterday night and latest Edgy export has the plural form bug (bug #2322)
    09:08 Ubugtu Malone bug 2322 in rosetta “Truncated plural forms” [Critical,In progress]
    09:09 carlos pitti: I’m exporting a new version with that fixed, but it would take around 23 hours
    09:09 carlos am I late to have it in the prerelease version?
    09:09 pitti carlos: ah, then I’ll rebuild the edgy packs this afternoon
    09:09 pitti carlos: it won’t go into RC anyway
    09:09 carlos ok
    09:09 pitti carlos:
    the plan is to upload the final packs tomorrow
    09:10 pitti carlos: thus I’d like to have today’s in perfect shape
    09:10 carlos I see
    09:10 carlos ok
    09:10 carlos pitti: I will ping you when the new version is available

Here, Carlos needs to notify Pitti of a new bug which he needs to take into consideration when building a group of packages for upload. Since Pitti is busy, the conversation doesn’t continue until Pitti is able to respond and they can coordinate their work. Most of the Ubuntu hackers’ day-to-day interaction takes place on IRC where they can pick up on interesting discussions and be available if someone needs to ask a question. The hackers deftly navigate back and forth between conversations, fluidly participating as the IRC client automatically notifies them when someone “pings” them or even just mentions their online moniker. And even if they miss something, they can always go back to check the chat logs or mail archives as all interactions within the community are recorded and publically archived online. At times, IRC is such an easy and non-intrusive way of quick communication that it supersedes conversation even when developers are in the same room. Mark Shuttleworth enjoys relating the story of how he went out to buy beer during one of the first gatherings of the core Ubuntu developers at his London flat. When he came back he found 18 hackers sitting in his living room, working in silence, exchanging textual information on IRC. [20] This anecdote illustrates how the work environment provided by the system takes precedence over face-to-face discussions simply to avoid breaking the flow state afforded by the computer. [21]

[20] I saw the same trend again and again at conferences, one time even witnessing two hackers quietly sitting in opposite ends of a conference room, having a furious argument on IRC about who should be responsible for fixing a troublesome piece of software, and it didn’t end until one of them looked up and saw the other hacker sitting at the far end of room and contentiously shouted: “Stop being such an arsehole!”

[21] This asynchronous sociality is not only a norm well suited to hackers’ mode of collaboration, but it is at times also a necessity as the Ubuntu hackers are spread across the multiple time zones, mostly in North America, Europe and Australia, making exchanges such as this common:

    15:56 mdz good evening
    15:57 zul afternoon
    15:58 ajmitch morning
    15:58 mdz good UTEvening

It is easy to forget that the Ubuntu community spans the entire globe, since it mostly becomes an issue when it comes to finding IRC meeting hours that fit all members of the community, and meetings typically rotate between being early morning, late afternoon, or late evening to accommodate as many time zones as possible.

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