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"Humans and machines are competing"


RESEARCHER’S PORTRAIT: Barbara Czarniawska.The growing market for storage rental, coffee tables loaded with chips and candy on Fridays, and the never-ceasing stream of news. What do these three phenomena have in common? They are all signs of overflow. A researcher since 1970, since 1996 at the Gothenburg Research Institute, Professor Czarniawska has studied management and organization in a variety of contexts. The present research program concerns the ways overflows are managed. In this interview she talks about overloaded bookshelves, the accelerated pace of news production and other kinds of overflows. And about robots.

In Barbara Czarniawska's office bookshelves are everywhere. They are full indeed, but they do not seem to be overflowing – the books are rather tidily ordered. No loose papers sticking out or shelves about to fall. But when one realizes that an entire wall in the neighboring office is also covered with shelves full of books that she has accumulated over 45 years as a researcher, it is obvious that this is the case of overflow: the topic she studies together with several researchers at the Gothenburg Research Institute.

- In economics one talks mostly about scarcity, about the fact that there is too little of something, usually money. But in contemporary societies the situation is quite the reverse. There is too much information, too much work, too much stress, and too much stuff. Thus we thought that it would be interesting to shift the focus from deficit to surplus, from scarcity to abundance, says Barbara Czarniawska.

She has managed the overflow books by moving the frame – expanding it by including a part of her colleague’s office. Because a frame is needed – she points out – in order for something to flow over. It must flow over some limit, like water over a dam. This is why an overflow is always a question of definition: Who draws the limit? Who decides that something overflows?
In the projects, that are included in the Managing Overflow program at Gothenburg Research Institute, a variety of overflows has been studied: at present, the studies concern overflow of people in stations and airports, overflow of diagnoses in neuropsychiatry, overflow of things in households and more.

- We are asking, who decides when there is too much of something – it is the state? customers? the media? And how such overflows are being managed.

One example is the growing number of companies offering storage for rent. Helene Brembeck, director of the Center for Consumer Science is now studying Shurgard. They have established themselves even in countries that for many years suffered from real shortage, like those in Central and Eastern Europe.

Czarniawska herself wanted to study the overflow of information arriving to news agencies, so she approached the national agency TT in Sweden, the international agency ANSA in Italy, and the global news agency Reuters. Soon it turned out that there was no such thing as overflow of information. On the contrary, news producers often complained about shortage of news and were doing their best to create more information by calling people, asking them for comments and seeking additional sources. They produced overflow themselves.

Understanding that their clients are flooded by the 24/7 newswire, they tried to help them to manage this overflow by creating codes that were to help selection and classification. Soon, however, there was an overflow of codes! The news producers realized this but complained that they do not have time to reflect upon the situation or to change anything. Speed was everything, and the only changes that were taking place were caused by changes in technology.

In her book Cyberfactories (2012) she presented her conclusions: News production is increasingly characterized by what she calls cyborgization and cybernization. People become more and more dependent on machines in their work, and machines play an increasingly central role in news production.

What kind of news do those cyborgs produce then?
- The news becomes more and more standardized. As news agencies compete with each other in speedy news production, they imitate each other, and develop – separately – practically the same software. This despite of the fact that in the three news agencies I studied almost nobody had any contact with another agency – they imitated each other deducing the production process from the product, that is, from the newswire. I thought that was fascinating.

How machines are affecting work is a topic that Czarniawska is curious about and wants to study more. Robots and machines not only takes place in the news business, but everywhere, and the debate about this phenomenon extends from the fear that artificial intelligence will lead to human destruction to the hope that robots will save us.

- I would like to analyze representations of robotization in popular culture from the 1920s when the word ”robot” was first coined until today, and to look at how the fears and hopes has changed since then. As usual, there are two groups of people: those who are truly afraid and those who are truly enthusiastic. Research tends to show that there is reason to be both. For example the journalists are afraid that algorithms will replace them. As Evgeny Morozov, journalist and author exclaimed: "A robot stole my Pulitzer!"

Do you think such fear is legitimate?
- I don’t know. Perhaps. As I wrote in Cyberfactories the technology makes it possible for everybody to produce news, and send them to the Big Algorithm, which will decide what is proper news and what is not. The journalists will not be needed anymore. Else, the algorithm can perform all boring and routine tasks, which would give journalists more time for explanations, comments, questions – real journalism. If the robot can handle the speed requirement, journalists will have more time to think. Robots and mechanical parts of human body (thus cyborgs) were supposed to be taking care of the mechanical work, and free people up for more creative activities.

But the situation you describe in your book is not like that.
- No, it seems that nowadays humans compete with machines. I believe that everyday users must become better at controlling their machines. But the majority of news producers I met believed that the machines are just mechanical; they forgot that people produce both hardware and software, and that those people include their own beliefs and ideas in the design of the machines. What is more, even if the news producers themselves are allowed to cooperate with software designers, they see only that which is helpful; they do not notice disadvantages. It is more traditional journalists who are afraid of losing their Pulitzers.

Back to overflow: two edited volumes have already resulted from the research program: Managing Overflow in Affluent Societies (2012) and Coping with Excess (2013). The third (as yet untitled) will come out sometime in 2017. Apart from those, there are articles, book chapters and books on the topic of overflow management. Academic publications to one side, the goal of research is also highly practical.

- Everyone is looking for methods and technologies that allow managing overflows. So instead of just complaining what an awful problem they are, we wish to describe methods and devices that help to manage them. And if we can popularize certain techniques that are not yet well known, we would be very pleased, says Czarniawska.

On my way out, she stops me:
- By the way, if you have any idea what I should do with all of these books, let me know.