You Spin(uzzi) me Round, Round, Baby, right round …

The featured image reflects another way of “monitoring traffic.” Just as Spinuzzi’s research subjects were analysts who monitored, queried, reported, and took action regarding traffic  and various accidents on the Iowa state highways, a router “monitors traffic” on a network. It can be configured to record and report all traffic on the network, as well as what actions were taken by the router.  The router truly is a genre as well as a node, and performs the function of Spinuzzi’s ALAS system but with information packets on the interweb superhighways rather than vehicles on physical roads. In both cases, an analyst interpreter is needed to make meaning of the information denoted and collected.

 New Jersey public employees created user improvisations that led to “BridgeGate”. This “subversive interaction” threw Jersey traffic on the GWB into an irrevocable snare and several of these employees under the bus. How would Spinuzzi map this dynamism between nodes? How would “The Boss” sing about being stuck in the Gov. Chris Christie Fort Lee Traffic Jam? (Hint: “it’s killing the working man”). The scandal and the song remind us that discrete actions taken by individuals in an activity system have positivistic discourse with (and physical effects on) actors beyond the boundaries of the original system. The artists here, speak for the users of the bridge, who had already enacted their own modifications while navigating the traffic problems. Springsteen and Fallon don’t necessarily see themselves as “designer-as-hero” and those caught in the traffic jam and political machinations as “user-as-victim” but they do use the reach of their medium, broadcast television, and the currency of their fame to bring greater attention to the issue. Springsteen is connected to being a “voice of the people” in the Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie tradition, so his music is an expected and encoded genre for protest against organizational and political interests creating problems for the workers.

I’d like to comment on this course objective related to Spinuzzi:
#2: “Understand the value of visualizations for conceptualization processes.”

20-sided die

20-sided die resembling a 3-D representation of Spinuzzi’s Activity System

Spinuzzi is certainly a “visualizer”  with his D&D dice-looking diagram showing movement in various directions (His activity system diagram introduced on p. 37 and continued throughout, pp. 90-91 for example). He also uses many charts and screenshots and figures with different symbols (pp. 141-143) to denote different actions taken and be able to visualize the way that they are “lumping together” around certain frequencies. He has created interesting artifacts that make tangible the actions over time of the study participants and allow for comparisons between employees. I am blown away by the methodology that is developed here: developing a way to encode actions and “see” the activity system, which, as Spinuzzi notes, can be “investigated by triangulating the graphs with field notes, videotapes, and interviews” (140). This will allow for a reconstruction of a moment in time, a kind of detective work that  investigators use to solve crimes by piecing together testimony, surveillance footage, cell phone use, credit card transactions, etc. What Spinuzzi does in this work is not only apply several theoretical lenses to develop his own theory (a feat worthy of publication itself and an explanation for why his work became so quickly renown) but he also articulates a methodology for the kind of synthesis he advocates. He moves it from theory into practice, at both the methodological and methods level. While I use visualizations to help me explain things to myself and to my students, in reading Spinuzzi and looking at how he uses visualization not merely as another or different way to explain what has been articulated in language and can be read in the text, but as an integral and integrated sign system.

Spinuzzi’s work is a hybrid genre itself where “separate historical layers and perspectives meet and interact” (Hasu and Engeström, qtd. in Spinuzzi, p. 161). Spinuzzi is importing his study, a mixed-methods, experiential field study, into the genre of a printed scholarly book, and must “make it fit the logic and connotations of the genre with which it mingles” (p. 161). The visualizations help him to cross from one contextualized and historicized rhetorical situation into another, they help him to capture ephemera that would have been lost, and they help him bridge the theoretical models he is integrating.

Spinuzzi says,

“a design approach based on genre tracing would … be decentralized; would invite workers to be true codesigners rather than clients or informants; would break down official-unofficial distinction by providing workers with the means to develop, promulgate, reflect on, and collectively stabilize their own genres; and would encourage workers to develop stable communities and civic structures along with the genres used to support their activities” (pp. 222-223).

 I am struck by how these words, written a little more than a decade ago, now describe the process of Open Educational Resources or Open Online Publication. Wikipedia is one such collective of volunteers who find meaningful work in codesigning the site, and they have developed a stable genre and self-policing community while staying true to the original open and collaborative vision. It also describes Writing Commons, the free, peer-reviewed, open source composition textbook. What Spinuzzi does not say in his book, though, is that design approaches based on genre tracing are inherently disruptive to the Forms (especially in the Bakhtinian sense of being “congealed”) and systems already in place, ones that many powerful entities are heavily invested in maintaining. Hierarchical structures and presumed superiority over “worker bees” is an inherent part of the business structure in the United States, and even American society in general, as it is so based on capitalist, consumerist principles. Decentralized open-access,  open-content, open-designed systems are hard to turn into profitable business models, and they threaten those monetized models with their actual existence and their ideological underpinnings. A Corporate model is, by its nature, Structuralist and Formalist, rationalist, determinist, and centrally controlled (p. 7) with just enough agency for branch offices or workers to provide the illusion of autonomy. The US Business Consulting model is based on the idea of “designer/consultant-as-hero” and “worker/user-as victim.”  The business model IS one of efficiency, replication, and standardization, so analysis of productivity or design will always have to locate a “crux” or a “problem” — something to be able to implement that will “fix” or “optimize” the identified issue. If a consultant does not identify such a problem to be fixed, then s/he isn’t worth the cost of bringing them in. Furthermore, Spinuzzi challenges the outsider position of a designer vs. a user, reasoning that users’ will bring valuable co-creative methods and information to a collaborative model. Again, the business model values the outsider position, which calls for a consultant or designer. They “see with fresh eyes”, they are not “wearing the blinders” of the worker, who is seen as a “doer” not a thinker. A consultant/outside designer *must* be seen in the position of expert, or else they are not worth the money spent on them. Their value lies in this rhetorical positioning. Spinuzzi can point that out, but outside-intervention is a core business value not likely to change any time soon. I’d like to see Spinuzzi’s theories applied by someone who knows and understands the business culture. Perhaps Genre Tracing becomes the methodology of the new 21st century post-Spinuzzi consultant, who uses it to provide value to the organization in terms of seeing how users’ produce the work of the organization. I can see it being particularly valuable with governmental organizations, who are interested in how their public interacts with their official documents and genres, at least they are if they are trying to create public engagement with the civil discourse and political process.

Radar O'Reilly pic

Radar O’Reilly, as played by Gary Burghoff, attempting to understand how his paper pushing is a scholarly object of study.

That said, I leave with Radar O’Reilly and his astonished face. Every time Spinuzzi said Ottumwa, I couldn’t help but envision Radar. Grab a Grape Nehi and think about how genres, such as those omnipresent military forms always on Radar’s clipboard for Col. Blake or Col. Potter to sign is the courier and currency of the organization itself, embodying “traditions of producing, using, and interpreting artifacts” that “represent the development and stabilization of worldviews” (p. 41). Surely Radar’s forms would offer an interesting trace of the US involvement in Korea, demonstrating the “values, ethics, and other humanistic concerns” of that specific rhetorical situation (p. 41).


Works Cited

Fallon, J. (2014, January 14). Bruce Springsteen & Jimmy Fallon: “Gov. Christie Traffic Jam” (“Born To Run” Parody) – YouTube. Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Retrieved from

Spinuzzi, C. (2003). Tracing genres through organizations: a sociocultural approach to information design. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Feature Image from:

Die image from:

Radar O’Reilly (Gary Burghoff) image from:

2 Responses to You Spin(uzzi) me Round, Round, Baby, right round …

  1. I love your weaving together of popular culture references to make meaning of and connect together the various texts. I’m sure your classmates enjoy it as well.

  2. It’s not my week to comment, but 80s music and D20s demanded acknowledgement. It’s a critical hit baby.

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