Keynote Speaker: Prof. Dr. Samer Faraj
Thank you, Michael,
It's a real pleasure to be here and to be the speaker tonight. I have CTO, or should I say OCIS, just to date myself, in the blood. That was the first real division I joined in the Academy. I have played around with other divisions, but I've always remained faithful to this division. Having different interests leads to trying to fit in in other divisions, and the fit is never the same. This is my home division, as I look around the room and I see all of you, you know what I mean? This is a place where we are all comfortable, we're all together. And I'm very grateful for this opportunity. Of course, I have a lot to say, so I'm going to try to say it in what is it - 30 minutes, Michael, that you gave me? So I may speak a bit faster than I usually do, but there are things I want to say.
So first of all, I've been a PhD program director for nine years. I've been a professor for 25 and I've been PhD program director for nine years. I do enjoy that part of the job quite a bit. I'm told I'm good at it and I do believe it's a good thing for me. I do want to waste some time - if I may call it that way, but it's never a waste - to talk to junior scholars at the beginning of their journeys, because what's important is what can be learned from my experience, and I will start with the reason I did a PhD and became a professor. It's because of this man [referring to photograph of Brian Pentland]. Many of you know him as Dr. Decade. I was a happy consultant, traveling the world, doing energy consulting for USAID, the World Bank, and helping governments set up renewable energy programs, before it was the cool thing to do, and at some moment I got tired of traveling so much and I got tired of some of the corruption I saw happening around these projects. And I decided to take a job within the US and I took a job at an energy conservation firm where all I heard was about this amazing fellow who had just left to go get his PhD. And all I can say is that I was a poor copy of this fellow. He was an amazing programmer, and I was not. I did not know they needed programmers. They hired me to be a manager in the energy field and turned out they needed programmers. So I ended up trying to duplicate the skill set that Brian has. And of course, as you know, it's a very hard thing to do. So I failed miserably. And to get out of that bind, looked around and found a PhD program and jumped in there. I was surprised that they supported you with money to do your PhD. That was something completely alien to me. I did not have much experience with it. But Brian, if you are watching, this is because of you.
So my journey... My journey was a difficult one, I want to admit. A recent study found out that if your parents have a PhD - the odds of making it through the PhD is 24 times higher if you have a parent who has a PhD. So the habitus of the family matters a lot. My parents did not have PhDs, so I was already at a disadvantage. I had worked for a number of years. I had what they call, in the business, an attitude problem. I was unwilling to be infantilized. And I saw some professors who couldn't organize their way out of a paper bag. And I had run projects worth millions of dollars and talked to ministers and amazing organizations. And suddenly I was back to this childlike position. And, you know, that a PhD program, to work well, I guess we're told that it's like the army. We have to break you down before we rebuild you. And that is difficult for people who are actually experienced. So I was told I couldn't write, even though people had admired my writing. I had been a part-time journalist and all that good stuff. It went out the window. All my competencies were not valued. And at the same time, I struggled with the concepts that were prevalent in the field. So many people were excited about self-efficacy. All these social psychological concepts, the technology acceptance problem, the stage model of IT development still kicking around. One professor told me that the future was options pricing applied to technology, and that's all I should do. So it didn't go very well that way.
Until I met my mentor and supervisor Lee Sproull. Lee was this amazing person, a real social scientist. While before I had met people who just pretended to be of the same caliber, this was off the charts. You may know Lee Sproull, as somebody who has worked with Sarah Kiesler and they have produced an amazing stream of work on computer supported communication. They were the real deal. And I want to recognize publicly that the experience of working with Lee Sproull is the one that was transformative. I learned how to write. I learned how to think. I learned how to set up an argument. All these things that are really important in academic writing.
And my first paper was with her. It's a very small paper, my first conference paper, literally. So it's in the nineties and right around the time the browser was being invented. Actually predates the browser by a few months, and it was about basically what do people do when they go online. And the expectation, the dominant theme, and that's all you could hear, was that people were looking for more channels. Like if cable TV gave you 30 channels, well the information superhighway was going to give you 500. You'll have more choices and you will consume more information. And in this, I dare call it a gem of a paper, we put out this idea that actually, no, the net was a social technology. People were looking for community, people were looking for affiliations or belonging, affirmation, and that's what the net was going to provide. And so it went counter current. It got republished in a couple books and it got me thinking about basically maybe one should go big rather than go small and just add another variable to an existing model.
When it came time for my dissertation, the advice Lee gave me was what her supervisor, James March, had given her, which is find a topic where existing theory doesn't explain it well, get angry about it. Get angry enough to make it your business to find out why, and call it your thesis. And I think that's really an important piece of advice from James March.
So for me, when I worked in that consulting firm where Brian used to be, a lot of coordination was happening. I had a manager looking over my shoulder. We had many meetings. We had lots of follow ups and schedules. But the problem with software development, if you know a bit about software, it's actually you need to exchange with people. You need to get help, you need to basically exchange knowledge. "I may have an answer for you, where it will take you weeks to find it, to figure it out. It's something I would have known or experienced and ran into before." So exchanging knowledge is really crucial. So I went against the existing mainstream in terms of coordination theory, where it was all about structure. Coordination was a big part of structure. It's all about task interdependence. It's pre-defined ahead of time. And very much - you go through administrative coordination means to get the job done, to get things coordinated. Instead I, again based on that experience I had, I said, no, it's about sharing of expertise, sharing of knowledge, access of knowledge when you need it.
And that went against a lot of the opinions of the professors I was around. I still remember having a hard time with these ideas. I was not selected to go to the ICIS consortium. It's still a sore point for me [laughs]. Even though I have been to that consortium many times. And the lesson is that sometimes new ideas, it takes a while for them to gel and to get through. And when I went to the job market, instead of having difficulty finding a job, I actually did quite well. By my seventh interview, I was sitting on six offers and I had to stop interviewing and I had to pick one and take a job. My paper out of the dissertation went to Management Science and was accepted with minor revisions immediately. It has never happened again [laughs]. I'm sorry to say, even though I think my writing has gotten a bit better. But it shows you the importance of the ideas you are pushing forward.
So I would be remiss not to talk to you about embodiment, but really it's talking about my wife Lisa. She is an amazing person who has been transformative for us. We have been married 28 years, and the air conditioner in the picture [referring to a picture in a slide] is really important to the story because it allowed me to understand embodiment. I used to live in a third floor under the eaves apartment in Cambridge and the summers in Boston were very hot and I couldn't write my thesis. And one day an air conditioner appeared in the living room on the floor. Lisa was a small person and carried this gigantic air conditioner up three floors and left it there for me. And after that, my writing improved tremendously, given me that my body was finally comfortable. And then she did something else. She started taking me to Maine. And this is a picture from our house in Maine. This is a view that from the window and I was able to take long walks and look at the sky to have slightly bigger thoughts than I would have elsewhere, in some cubicle. So it leads to embodiment, but also I want to recognize the importance of Lisa as this amazing person in my life. And this a picture of her on the beach with our youngest child.
So lessons about this path. So this is me doing field work in a trauma center, trying to look very technologically savvy here. But it's the white coat. I was very proud of that. That was something that made me feel very special being there among these people. And often I was mistaken for a doctor and asked to help intubate patients and things like that. But I did not take up that opportunity. I took a job at Maryland and I was hired by Fred Davis, who you may know as the father of TAM. The other person hired was Venky Venkatesh, who you may know as possibly the most highly cited IS scholar, who has done more TAM papers than I have hair or something like that. So it was difficult to figure out which way to proceed. So the heuristic I recommend and the heuristic I applied was I still applied today - "See where the crowd is running and go the other way." It has served me well, and I think it serves people well.
So three major themes I focus on. Basically, what's happening online? What are the motivations? Everybody was looking at motivations, taking psychological theories or economic theories, and not able to explain why people were helping strangers online. All I did was run in the direction of socialized explanations for coordination. Again, I went away from the structural aspects and look more at the emergent, participative part, and the sharing of knowledge. And when an opportunity to work in healthcare came up, I embraced it. Even though I heard from some senior colleagues that it wasn't really an IS topic, I kept going to that setting and I had no regrets. So the move, the lesson, is basically if you take these traditional explanations that are based on individual theories like utility maximization or motivation, and you expand them by looking at more socialized explanations, you can make a very good career out of it. And that's basically all I've done since.
So, I also ran into a bunch of other strange people along the way. They inhabit this division. This is just people who I met in the first couple of years of joining the division. I tried to find pictures of them early on, but Google now gets rid of old pictures and only keeps the latest pictures. So just a couple of words about a couple of them. Wanda [Orlikowski] and JoAnne [Yates] participated in a two year running seminar on online communities run by Lee Sproull. I was part of that and I got to know them real well and how they think. Pamela Hinds - we were, I guess we call that cousins - her advisor was Sara Kiesler, my advisor was Lee Sproull. They were very close, so we got to know each other. Kevin Crowston I've had lots of conversations about coordination with. Youngjin [Yoo] - we have been friends ever since I came to that job interview at Maryland and I went to one airport and he went to pick me up at another. So we have been friends since. And all the others, I'll single out Molly Wasko. She was my first PhD student. My first course at Maryland was teaching course and she at the end of that decided to move and work with me. Her supervisor at the time was the editor in chief of AMR, a big strategy name, and she chose to move to work together. And we have done some amazing things. And Molly, thank you for the trust and the willingness to take that risk. It's not something I would advise everyday. Some of the others - You know, Linda Argote also took a chance on me, when she was editor in chief at Org. Science, and I was still an assistant professor. She brought me on the board, which was highly irregular and made me a senior editor after that. Ann Majchrzak, who you all know, was an amazingly supportive person throughout my career, and we work together. Of course, there's Paul Carlisle, who you know. Then there's this fellow named Michael Barrett who I call my European connection, it's almost like a mind meld when we work together. And Marleen [Huysman], I see over there. Marleen and I go back a long way. Two days ago we were on a PDW, and basically everything she says, I feel like she has stolen my thunder, and when I speak... It's like we say the same things all the time. It's actually pretty boring when you hear us, we're very much in sync. And there are many others. But these other people I met at first. There are many newer ones, newer friends, newer colleagues, newer students. But this is kind of where we started.
So I thought I picked a smart title with "Everything Everywhere All at Once", and I realized that I've been affected by my college-age children. They forced me to go see this movie with that title, and I went against my best interests and I loved it! It's a great movie about basically relationships, people. It's an independent movie. The highest grossing independent movie ever. And I see some of the younger folks in the room recognizing that movie. And I would recommend you all go see it. The title is the best part for me, because it's about these relationships that start building between people from different universes, the multiverse, and it leads to different understandings and changes.
So for us, we're living in an era where everything is in question, everywhere, all at once. A lot is changing. And I don't mean the run of the mill. You know, the first sentence of many papers where "all firms are now operating in an ever more uncertain environment," you know the way people write these things. This is qualitatively different and I feel it's important to recognize that. [Shoshanna] Zuboff has called it surveillance capitalism. Others have called it techno feudalism. You know what I'm talking about? It's a 1492 moment in a sense that this brand new continent was discovered and was described as open for exploitation. The new continent is here and it's you. It's basically us, all of us. Our inner thoughts, our inner communications, our private interactions are all now resources for someone to make money out of it. So it's a unique moment in human history, and it's affecting all of us.
So I'll just pinpoint a couple of things. Just from the news these days. The Uber files were exposed just a couple of months ago. Some of the people who are supposed to protect consumers and protect existing industries turned out to be champions of letting Uber come in and destroy, and take what they needed from the transportation industry. President Emmanuel Macron turned out to be a chief cheerleader for them and made sure that in France they could operate quite freely. In return, Uber provided a bit of help when he needed to be elected. So you know how these things go. One hand washes the other. We have some academics, I'm sorry to say, some of our economist friends, who saw an opportunity, rushed to the Uber and told basically told Uber, we will write you a paper if you give us €100,000, and you can use the results of our paper any which way you want. This paper was not published, but the press was full of references to that paper. And these professors are are actually fairly established professors. One is at HEC Paris, one is at MIT.
We theorize about creative destruction, but is that what is going on? The question is what is it replacing? What is being put in place? So we have teams that are losing their self-image because of some Facebook policies. Hate and mistrust is rising because of the way the algorithms work. Fake news being promoted ever stronger. And we have things like the Cambridge Analytica scandal where basically without these techniques, Brexit wouldn't have happened and probably the election of Trump wouldn't have happened. So there are suits now against Facebook. The D.C. attorney general is suing Facebook over this but its a bit late, and it's unlikely to lead to much. We are all fully engaged with when AI leads to discrimination outcomes, we blame the algorithm for discrimination, and we like to talk about it and teach about it. But this is garden variety discrimination. You have homeowners or apartment owners that put up ads. And basically by using Facebook's algorithm quite naturally, quite easily, they're able to discriminate based on whether you're a parent or not. Whether you were foreign born, whether you were a non-Christian, whether you were of a certain culture, whether you came from a certain neighborhood, whether you were disabled. So it's amazingly precise information that Facebook has for us. And these people used it and deployed it. And it's only now that there's a slap on the wrist that has happened to Facebook. This is quite recent. Finally, this is probably my favorite because I studied open source and I've been involved in that for a while. Microsoft, when they bought GitHub for a sizable amount of money, we did not know what they were trying to do with that. Well, they have now come up with a product based on the GB3 learning algorithm where basically you tell the product that they call the pair programmer, but really you tell it what you want the function to be and the algorithm, by looking up all these millions of contributions from open source is able to generate the code that you need. And it's actually helpful. But it doesn't take into account the legal regime of open source where all this stuff was made available based on the principles of open source. Smartly, Microsoft did not include their own code in the source code, and any code you generate is now back to being owned by the algorithm or being used by the algorithm thus back in the possession of Microsoft.
So there are major, major changes that we need to be aware of. And this smiling gentleman [referring to a photograph of Jeff Bezos], beyond going to space and all that good stuff, has been buying companies left, right and center. Medical companies, video doorbell company so we can see who's coming and who's going and what time you're at your door. Roomba, this is just brand new. They actually bought the Roomba manufacturer because the Roomba knows exactly how your home setup is. And also if you have toys on the floor or knows you have enough furniture in your room and stuff like that. And then in addition to buying Whole Foods as a delivery service and so on. So what sector is this firm in? All of them. They are in the sector of you, basically. They're after all these aspects of your life, our lives.
And this is why traditional regulations are going to be impossible to implement. Because they're built on industries and on competition. And maybe these GAFAM type firms are too big to be regulated by now. They're the largest firms in the land, and they're already spending more money on regulation, on fighting regulation, than any other industry before. So it's going to be a tough few years.
Okay. Now, you wanted me probably to talk about this [referring to a slide: Promising Perspectives]. And I will. I have selected four things that I think are highly promising, and I'm sorry I needed time to get there because it's kind of how I got here. So there are four perspectives that I think are promising. The first one is a perspective of embodiment. Remember the AC from early? This is basically - we live in our bodies. Our bodies are in situations in the world. But most of our research doesn't pay attention to bodies. It's about cognition. It's about an instrumental view of technology, its psychological, its economic viewpoints and so on. So if you foreground the body, a lot of the things can come out of it, because we engage with the world through our bodies. So just from the images, haptic feedback. Touch and haptic is important. The middle picture on top is a medical robot of the kind I studied with Anastasia [Sergeeva] and Marlene. The drone you can see, the robot on Mars, has to be guided. Telemedicine is all about embodiment. It's not the same thing as the doctor seeing you in person, touching you, and manipulating organs and things like that. And finally, the last picture is about this, the meta universe of the future, where it's all going to depend on whether we can inhabit that space and feel natural in it, and haptic feedback is an essential aspect of it. So it's an interesting frame to study such phenomena.
My second frame is regime of knowing or regime of organizing, whichever way you want to cut it. So basically, as these changes we have described are so big and they engage with relationships, it intertwines the social, the political, the institutional, and the legal. And so we need a vocabulary to describe this, and one vocabulary is this regimes vocabulary that I've worked on with Stella [Pachidi] and Marlene and people from the Amsterdam, the VU, and Cambridge. And so this perspective is different than institutional theory, which is a bit high level. This is much more related to work, at the level of practice, of authority or legal arrangements. And it's something that I would say would be promising. The example I have here is like you look at big agriculture, you know, the higher use of fertilizer, pesticides and modified seeds and all these legal arrangements about not not being able to replant your seeds and so on and compare that to the farm to table model of agriculture. So this is kind of where this could be useful.
A third lens is performativity. I have a visual, Simone de Beauvoir, because I think she's the first performative scholar, even before Judith Butler. In 1949 she said, "One is not born a woman, one becomes a woman." Through repetition and doing, and that is for us a lot of things. So I'm not talking about just doing things with words. I'm talking about organizational contexts where words and things are constituted or become something else over time. It's a way to look at change, a transformation. So it's always tentative, it's always in flux, and it's useful to study technology, I'm going to say. There are many, many books on this stuff, including by Daniel Beunza, who won the book award here two years ago, and [Donald] MacKenzie and [Michel] Callon and so on. For us, it's how do we account for an artifact or a technology or even a piece of software? We have our own scholars that you know, and so it's a projection of the future. How do we go from the current state of affairs to a different state of affairs? And that's the way to trace it. So it's an emphasis on the journey, what gets assembled and how are things deployed and ordered over time. And its a relational ontology and it's processual and it's inherently sociomaterial. So that's something promising to understand transformation involving technology.
And my last perspective, this relational perspective of technology, is kind of a unifier of all these things. One is that we need to give up the accounts of technology as bounded entities or objects in the world, and focus more on what relations they are involved in. It's a view that does not separate between technology and organizing. It's a view that recognizes that all these actors are entwined in a constellation of relations. And the important thing is not necessarily the entities that are at play, but more the relation. The relation is everything. The relation is a starting point because what is important is not that company A is transacting with company B or with a customer C, it's more about what is being carried by those relations? What is the content of it? How is it changing over time? What is it being able to do or not do, or afford and so on. So a relational perspective on technology - we did a special issue in Organization Science this year, and that was our way to summarize where all these submitted papers were kind of headed, or hopefully headed, or maybe headed.
And so in conclusion, I want to say that it's a very bright moment for CTO scholars. You're all interested in this entanglement between technology and organizing. The rest of this conference is struggling very hard with these issues, and they lack the conceptual vocabulary to deal with it. So if you give up on the technology as a separate thing, and for some of our colleagues in this conference, if they give up on the loveliness of their abstraction, their abstract theories, such as in strategy, a lot can be done by looking at these social relations processes, performative entanglements and so on.
Prepared by Anand Bhardwaj, CTO Student Representative 2022-2024