The Future of Social Informatics

Out now!  The new book on Social Informatics that should become a key statement on where the field is headed in the future.

Though the book contains thoughts on the past, present, and future, you’ll find my arguments in the ‘future’ section, in the chapter on “Social Informatics and Business Reform”.  Technology is completely intertwined with the structure and institutions of global business, affecting everything from wealth inequality to environmental unsustainability.  The strength of the Social Informatics tradition is in identifying value choices where people tend to see monolithic forces of technological or institutional change that can only be adapted to, but cannot be changed themselves.

Social Informatics research recognizes that every major technological change requires mobilizing significant social movements.  And for every movement, there can be a counter-movement.  I think an understanding of the global economic order is incomplete, and therefore the possibilities for reform are reduced, without an understanding of how technological change really works.

(By the way, the book is a better deal at the publisher site than at Amazon.)


My first month with the ZTE Open and Firefox OS

Looks great on MUNI.

Now that the “totally democratic” ZTE Open is about to be released in the U.S. ($80 unlocked at the ZTE eBay Store), I can reveal how truly cutting edge I am.  I bought a ZTE Open phone in San Sebastián, Spain over a month ago.  Take that, anarcho-hipsters!  The price for showing my Mozilla love was 39 Euros for the phone, and a 4 Euro per week data plan.  Now that I’m home, I’m back on the cheapo prepaid SIM with no data, just wifi-ing it everywhere.

Would I recommend the ZTE Open and Firefox OS?  Sure, especially for the price, but it does have its quirks.  The core phone and messaging features work just fine.  Word guesses when typing are usually close.  The Firefox mobile browser is snappy, as you’d expect.  Some have complained about sluggishness of the interface.  I haven’t noticed it much, except when opening and browsing the app store.

I would mention two unresolved issues though.  One is the use of web apps, rather than native apps like iOS and Android.  I’m a supporter in principle, but there are too many Firefox OS apps that grind to a halt where there’s no internet.  Does a world clock or a solitaire game really need a constant internet connection?  If Firefox OS phones are truly meant for the old feature-phone crowd, I don’t think these people want to be forced into an expensive always-on data plan.  More apps that work offline please!

A second issue is the fiddly-ness of the touch interface.  It’s good that Firefox OS is providing a sophisticated feature set like the other guys, but my fat fingers often find themselves reaching into small spots in corners or edges of the screen.  Pulling down notifications, by running my finger from the top of the screen down, gets me the right result about half of the time.  A small area in the lower right corner pulls up a toolbar, which can be tricky to get at too.  If Firefox OS is serious about being the phone for late adopters, they should consider an optional simplified interface with larger, more obvious touchscreen buttons.

When the touchscreen isn’t working the way I want, my first instinct is to touch the screen again with a longer press, kind of the same idea as talking to someone more slow-ly and loud-ly if they don’t speak your language.  But the correct response seems to be tapping the screen more quickly and lightly.  I’m not sure if Grandma is going to figure this out.

In sum, I’m sticking with my ZTE Open.  Nice phone, OK battery life, and looking forward to the growth of the Firefox OS platform.  One final observation about the boot-up screen:  there’s a fine line between a fox with a fluttering tail, and a fox with a giant flame coming out of its rear end.  Did the focus groups really not catch that?

Information Systems graduates now have the highest unemployment rate—Finally the evidence we need to change course?

The Hard Times 2013 employment report from Georgetown University has the usual laments about how tough it is for recent college graduates to find a job.  Political Science majors have high initial unemployment rates from ages 22 to 26, as do Film majors, Anthropologists, and Architects.  But one undergraduate major tops them all, with a 14.7% unemployment rate.  It must be something wildly impractical, with no relevance to our highly competitive, globalized job market, right?

It’s Information Systems.

How could things be this bad?  Aren’t the tech giants and the Bureau of Labor Statistics both screaming that the US faces a 70k per year shortfall of Computer Science bachelor’s students through 2020 (see slide 88)?

It could be that the study is counting majors the wrong way–there’s always some ambiguity about who’s really an IS major vs. Computer Science, Information Technology, or Information Science.

It could be that initially high unemployment is simply part of the game for technical majors.  Even Computer Science majors had relatively high initial unemployment at 8.7%, higher than general business students or even liberal arts.  By mid-career (ages 30 to 54), however, both Information Systems and Computer Science majors have very low unemployment (4.4% and 4.7%) and relatively high salaries, though CS makes more.

I’d agree that Information Systems and Computer Science both put more of a premium on practical experience than many other majors, explaining some of the initial unemployment.  But to explain an unemployment rate through age 26 higher than Film majors and Anthropologists, there has to be something more going on.

I love my discipline–Information Systems has been very good to me–but I have to come out and say it:  our curricula and our research are outdated.  We are not doing enough to help Information Systems professionals, particularly our youngest ones, be effective.

We’ve known for years that students don’t find introductory Information Systems education interesting or useful.  I agree completely with recent critiques of IS education as lacking useful project work, and that teaches low-level skills such as spreadsheets, database design, and systems analysis diagramming rather than how to deliver great digital products and services.  That’s why we’ve been experimenting at USF with new ways to teach technology to business students for years.

As for our research being outdated, that is a tougher claim to prove, because Information Systems research is so diverse.  Rather that repeat the arguments that we have put academic rigor on a pedestal at the expense of practical results, I will instead suggest that our ‘big question’ has been wrong.  What has been our ‘big question’?  We recently did a textual analysis of the 100 most cited articles in Information Systems research.  The top phrases are things like ‘systems’, ‘use’, ‘information’, ‘users’, ‘usefulness’, and ‘acceptance’.  What I’m trying to say here is that the ‘big question’ for Information Systems research has been:  how can we get people to use technology?

Well, as Dennis Rodman might say, Guess what?  Getting people to use technology isn’t really a problem anymore.  Even my MUNI bus ride to the office this morning would prove to you that no one has a problem getting people to use technology–everyone’s head is buried in a screen.  The real problem is, is there anything new and valuable coming out of that screen time?  How do we take all this digital capability and make some valuable and great out of it?  That’s the new ‘big problem’ we need to focus on.  Graduates who can do this might be in more demand.

I hope this new unemployment data will shake up my discipline, and focus some attention on whether the things we do are working or not.  In the meantime, of course, being an academic and all, I can reveal to you that I have the answers to all our problems.  I’m happy to share, if there’s any interest…


Democratizing SMB Networking: Why I’m excited about Pertino

pertinologoHere’s some exciting news:  I’ve joined the advisory board of high-flying cloud networking startup Pertino (a company worthy of ‘betting your career on’ according to one source).  Why am I so excited about working with Pertino?

First, I believe in their vision.  Pertino is making the next generation of networking technology accessible for small- and medium-sized businesses (SMBs).  Allowing non-IT specialists to easily create secure, business-strength networks available from anywhere with an internet connection, while accommodating all the latest mobile and tablet devices that people want to connect with, is part of the “democratization of IT” trend that Pertino is making a reality.

Second, I think they can deliver on their vision.  The team is really good.  The product works.  They’ve got funding.  So there’s a real shot at changing the world.

And third, as a long-time student of digital history, I know that technology revolutions don’t just happen.  Digital technology is incredibly flexible, and its development can take different paths depending on what happens at a few key moments in history.  Just because applications and infrastructure are moving to the cloud, or open standards are making the next generation of networking technology more widely available, doesn’t guarantee that smaller companies can suddenly compete on a level playing field–the Internet didn’t suddenly make big business obsolete.

Pertino is deliberately aiming at SMBs, with a product that in many ways surpasses the current enterprise state-of-the-art.  The main technology that Pertino is based on (SDN, or Software Defined Networking), was originally designed for shaping network traffic in huge data centers.  It takes skilled visionaries to shape a larger technology trend such as SDN into a platform simple and elegant enough for whole new populations to use.

Update:  The editors at have already rated Pertino as ‘excellent’ in their first review, and that’s just for the Limited Release version.

Democratizing Business Software: WordPress and Small Business WordPress ecosystem, now powering over 17% of the web, has been successful beyond even my wildest expectations when I started working with it over 5 years ago.  As one of the best-known examples of open source software with business applications, it’s natural to ask what’s behind its success.

My study of the WordPress ecosystem, published in the Communications of the AIS, looks at the rich contributions to WordPress in the form of extensions.  Extensions include plugins that add new functionality, and themes that change the look and feel, many of which are freely available.  My research found that individual volunteers and enthusiasts contribute many high quality extensions, as you might expect in an open source project, but also a surprising number of contributions from small businesses.  WordPress consultants and service providers do give back to the platform, but even some of the non-technical businesses (including bunk bed retail, real estate, and motorcycle repair) make contributions.  In WordPress, the democratization of business software lies not just in the free use, but also in the widespread contribution of extensions, which are much less intimidating to offer up to the community than software updates to the core of the platform.

Not only do small businesses contribute, but they naturally form an ecosystem with at least two other types of contributors:  pure volunteers, and hobbyists who hope to make a little money on the side with ads or donations (I call them ‘quasi-commercial’).  Individual volunteers tend to contribute the more glamorous front-end extensions that provide new user features, small businesses tend to contribute less flashy back-end extensions that integrate systems and work behind the scenes, and the ‘quasi-commercial’ players lie somewhere in between.  Interestingly, Fortune 500 firms, many of whom use WordPress, were nowhere to be found on the list of contributors.

I wonder what will be the next business software category to be democratized, with the help of small business?

Price fixing on travel sites

I love searching online for travel deals. But what if the biggest travel sites have become so powerful they can force hotels never to sell their inventory to competitors at a lower cost? Then online travel sites would only be providing the illusion of savings, while actually dictating prices behind the scenes.

That’s what a recent class-action lawsuit in California is claiming. You can see my comments to the local news media in this KTVU video, while it lasts.  (You need to scroll back to the “EMERYVILLE: Bargain travel and hotel sites” video.)

One of my goals in life has been to be mistaken for a Hospitality industry expert–they always get the best treatment around town. Mission accomplished.

Enterprise Systems are entering a new phase – Join our AMCIS 2012 Seattle mini-track

Wait…don’t we already know everything about Enterprise Systems adoption?  Why would I want to submit a paper by March 1st, 2012 to the Enterprise Systems Adoption and Business Models track (Call for Papers here) at AMCIS 2012 in Seattle?

Because Enterprise Systems are entering a dramatically new phase of cloud-deployment, software-as-a-service, and open technologies that are much more deeply connected to the outside world.  The traditional problem of matching complex enterprise system to complex organizations is being transformed by new options that transcend or supplement the usual SAP and Oracle offerings.  It’s an exciting time to re-open the traditional adoption and implementation questions, with an eye towards a future of fundamentally different Enterprise Systems business models that could change everything.

So don’t miss out.  Check out our Call for Papers, and consider this range of possible topics.  Questions?  Ask me, or any of our fine co-chairs.

· motivation and justification for ES adoption,
· alignment between ES and adopting organization,
· barriers and impediments to ES adoption success,
· risk factors in ES adoption,
· critical failure factors for ES adoption,
· critical success factors for ES adoption,
· understanding of ES adoption success,
· evaluation and benchmarking of ES projects,
· multi-cultural and multi-national issues,
· multiple stakeholder perspective in ES adoption and use,
· business model frameworks,
· impact of new trends within the software industry on business models,
· business model innovation for standard software companies,
· implications of shorter product lifecycles on business models,
· SaaS related business models,
· open source software related business models.

The IJEC journal gets a new board member, and a new website

I recently joined the International Journal of Electronic Commerce as an editorial board member, and its new web editor.  Which is cool, because IJEC is still the #1 rated e-commerce journal in the universe.  But it’s also cool because I had the chance to relaunch IJEC’s online presence with its first new website since the late 1990’s.

The new IJEC website.

So far, it’s a somewhat minimalist update.  It uses open technology (WordPress), making it easy to add new capabilities as we go along.  It gets a modest 1000 or so monthly visitors from 70 countries.

It’s the largest content-based site I’ve ever done – almost 500 pages – so previously unknown bulk import and backup plugins have become my good friends.  I even get that little pang of nervousness in the pit of my stomach when I hit the ‘update’ button, so you know it’s for real.

Except for much better search engine results on article and author names, there’s no dramatically new power yet.  I look forward to hearing from you about what interesting new capabilities we should add.  We technology academics are famous for always having the worst, most outdated technology (I’m not naming any names, um, AIS) but let’s break that cycle, shall we?


Mr. Jobs – a revolutionary who embodied the American dream – design was his weapon

The Steve Jobs story has something for everyone.

He was a revolutionary who embodied the American Dream; design was his weapon.

He was a self-made man whose success came from building products, not by gaming the system.  He was counter-cultural; a dropout; a drug user; the darling of Wall Street; and the arbiter of good taste.  He was somehow able to hold together earnest working class values, engineering values, elitist values, and Buddhist values.

It was not just his success, but how he succeeded.  Entrepreneurship, innovation, building a better mousetrap, the startup in the garage–this was what America was supposed to be good at.  Apple was a story of disaster and salvation.  Maybe America is yearning for this particularly strongly right now.

I think his biggest achievement was how he made the revolutionary potential of digital technology real.  That’s hard to do.  Entire industries–technology, music, movies, personal communications–have been remade for the better.  It’s not obvious that without the interventions he personally led, these revolutions would have happened.

His legacy will last longer than his products if the digital revolution continues; if the industries and institutions that desperately need re-inventing are revolutionized in Chairman Jobs fashion by his disciples and admirers.  In the days to come, perhaps it will be TV, or financial payments, that are turned inside-out.  Will commerce, education, government, or health care eventually follow?

His uniqueness and rarity, so celebrated over the past few days, illustrates how long and difficult a road it will be for America to revive its traditional hopes and dreams.  There aren’t many Mr. Jobs lying around.

Thanks Mr. Jobs for letting me play with one of your Apple II’s when I was 15, and a 128K Macintosh when I was 17.  That was awesome.

Happy birthday to me, the atomic bomb, and the web

Strange coincidence:  The two technologies that influenced my life the most were born on the same day.  As me.

The Bomb

On August 6, 1945, the first atomic bomb attack was unleashed on Hiroshima.  Nuclear weaponry, and the stranger-than-fiction doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, was one of my first sustained intellectual interests.  I remember a presentation in a 10th grade essay contest on “How to Survive a Nuclear War for Less Than $10,000” (it lost to an elucidation of the joys of stamp collecting, my first taste of intellectual martyrdom).  I volunteered for UCSC’s Nuclear Policy Program (run by this guy) as an undergrad, and became a bit of an expert on tactical and battlefield nuclear weapons.  I dragged my wife to Cold War locations around the country–Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, the Titan missile silo in Arizona, even the first nuclear power plant in Idaho.  Thank goodness the Trinity detonation site in New Mexico is only open twice a year, or I would have dragged her there too.

First Website Ever!

On August 6, 1991, the first website was published.  The Internet in general, and the Web in particular, were the technologies that elevated my childhood obsessions with TRS-80 pocket computers, VIC-20s, and Apple IIs to the level of world-changing forces.  I signed up for my Ph.D. in Computers, Organizations, Policy, and Society at UCI a few years before the Web began, but by the time I left the Internet was open to everyone, and the Web was big money.  My Ph.D. work was still pre-Web (ethnographies of manufacturing information systems being the hottest topic I could think of in those ancient times), but then moved on to mobile technology, open technology, and my current obsessions with online business.  Launching a new website to 2 billion+ people still gives me a thrill, and showing others how to do it is one of my most satisfying teaching tasks.

As all early historians and players of Civilization know, for human society in the long run it’s always about technology–the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Industrial Age, etc.  Digital technology dominates and shapes our world, through globalization, financial markets, social networks, and surveillance, with a force even greater than nuclear technology in its day.  As I get older, I think more about how digital technology supports, and could possibly change, the most powerful human institution for shaping our future:  for-profit business.

When I was a kid reading my International Herald Tribune from cover to cover, or writing my Model United Nations resolutions, I didn’t have an inkling of the kind of societal challenges we’d face in the United States–environmental unsustainability, a threatened middle class, corruption of the democratic process, financial speculation, and perpetual warfare to name a few.  When the Cold War finished, I too thought it might be the End of History.  Incorrect.

On August 6, 2011, I spent the day hiking in the Mokelumne Wilderness.  Not that long ago, at least part of our society was wise enough to realize there are places where technology (and business) shouldn’t apply.  I wonder if our society is wise enough today to make those decisions.  Maybe it’s darkly appropriate that my spouse gave me Vonnegut’s Slapstick, or Lonesome No More to read on my birthday, an autobiography of the future last President of the United States.

Happy birthday to me.

JP's work on the new internet, business, and society.