Epistemological Movement and [ Web-Scale ] Ambient Research

I've recently been invited to an NSF-funded workshop at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute on Examining Web-Scale Research Collaboration. Not only am I very much looking forward to working with and learning from an interdisciplinary group of prominent scholars, I'm excited by the recent convergence of events and opportunities around my development of the notion of ambient research.

In addition to the workshop, my thinking through the particulars of ambient research and the movement of knowledge is reflected in my recent presentation at the Conference on College Composition and Communication and a manuscript that's being considered for what I think will be an important edited collection in technical and professional communication. These events are buttressed by my ongoing collaborations with Christa Teston in Rhetoric and Writing Studies research methodologies and practices and Paul Gestwicki in computer supported collaborative work and information visualization. Interestingly, this work also coincides with my forthcoming Computers and Writing panel, where I'll present on digital collaboration and mentorship with Derek Mueller, Steve Krause, and Ryan Trauman.

In short, I'm moving toward exciting in situ and empirical research and practice of the kinds of things I've been discussing for the last 18 months or so.

Participants at the NSF workshop were asked to circulate abstracts detailing their work ahead of the event, and I've provided mine here. This abstract reflects some of the ideas I discuss in the manuscript I mentioned above, so if some constructs seem to receive short shrift it's because I didn't have the space to expound on them the way I would have liked in a one-page abstract.

As always, I welcome feedback and conversation!


Much of my work is motivated by the desire to better understand distributed, collaborative knowledge work in hybrid spaces. Swarts and Kim (2007) define hybrid spaces as the "meshed and material places" where "information is not only a commodity; it is a frame on the world around us" (p. 212). My research, then, considers the following lines of inquiry: what do hybrid spaces look like in everyday organizational practice? How are they comprised, and what holds them together? How does knowledge move within these spaces as we move within them, and as they in turn move and shift around us? What practices enable meaningful “thinking and doing” (Haas, 1996, p.19) for knowledge workers in such spaces?

I draw on theories of knowledge work developed primarily in Professional and Technical Communication. Both Johnson-Eilola (2005) and Swarts (2007) explicitly link concepts in distributed knowledge work to Reich's (1992) figurations of the symbolic-analytic, where professionals work "within information, filtering, rearranging, transforming, and making connections to address specific, specialized problems" (Johnson-Eilola, 2005, p. 19). Johnson-Eilola (2005) argues that "symbolic analysts are people we might think of as technical rhetoricians working in the datacloud" (p. 19). Spinuzzi (2006) suggests that knowledge work “tends to be organized in distributed, heterogeneous networks rather than in modular hierarchies” (p. 1). A key component of knowledge work then is its distributed quality; Spinuzzi (2007) argues that "distributed work is the coordinative work that enables sociotechnical networks to hold together and form dense interconnections among and across work activities" (p. 268). He notes that this kind of work is "deeply interpenetrated, with multiple, multidirectional information flows" (2007, p. 268).

Following Grabill and Hart-Davidson (2010), my research is interested in "what writing does, not in what it means" (p. 1) in knowledge work environments. In other words, surfacing and tracing the literate activity of knowledge work can help us determine writing's formidable role in enabling "sociotechnical networks to hold together" (Spinuzzi, 2007, p. 268). For Grabill and Hart-Davidson, writing practices and activities are "epistemologically productive" (2010, p. 1), an assertion that foregrounds writing as heuristic, actionable, and explicitly social in the organizational and networked ecologies (Nardi and O'Day, 1999; Spinuzzi, 2003) of knowledge work. Attention to the practices of rhetoric and writing—what writing does—is paramount to our understanding of the ways knowledge moves at web-scale.

Movement, then, is a key characteristic of knowledge work in hybrid spaces. Though we have come to accept a burgeoning "ambient awareness" (Thompson, 2008; Spinuzzi, 2009) as a function of always on, always connected devices and networks in hybrid spaces, I argue for more intentional practices of situating knowledge work within heuristic frameworks of ambient informatics for the purposes of research and production. What does writing do at web-scale, how does it draw and hold people together, and how might it be leveraged?

I argue that our understanding of knowledge work in hybrid spaces is productively yoked to our ability to accept and manage continual movement, which I explore as a function of distributed and collaborative knowledge flows. Epistemological movement—manifested most often in and through writing work—not only articulates and holds together the material and ephemeral components of hybrid spaces, many of its strongest connections are often found in the interstices, and thus remain invisible for knowledge workers not attendant to the continual movement characteristic of hybrid spaces. Drawing on ambient informatics, my work suggests ways that the knowledge worker can practice ambient research, taking advantage of knowledge flows at the interstices of hybrid spaces.


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