In Praise of Academic Engagement

I am just back from a stimulating symposium at Northwestern University focused on rethinking scholarship on online news, which led me to reflect on the value of such events, and a related seminar series we have an MSU for the Media and Information Department. Of course, the Quello Center that I direct organises many seminars, roundtables and lectures as well. While I appreciate these experiences, their very success leads me to worry about how to sustain a culture of academic engagement in the face of a developing – what should I call it – production culture. We might not fully appreciate and need to continually reinforce the significance of such opportunities for academics to engage each other face to face in constructive debates about issues and research.

Academics continue to enjoy a wonderful work environment, in my opinion, but we sometimes take these opportunities for listening to our colleagues, and discussing issues, theories and methods as just another event on our calendars. Instead, these occasions are an important part of the lifeblood of a university – something that makes the university and its academic units worth their existence. When academics are facing metrics on a number of fronts – publications, citations, outreach, impact, course evaluations, papers delivered and more – it is easy to view the seminar or conference as a distraction from the real work. You can almost hear colleagues thinking: ‘I better stay in at my computer screen and work on my paper / book / review / lecture.’

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The last thing we need is another metric for participation in seminars. That would kill the real payoffs of academic engagement, which are largely tacit learning that stimulates and broadens your own thinking about your research and teaching. The traditional Oxford colleges can bring their fellows together everyday for lunch. A social scientist will be sitting by a physicist or Buddhist scholar, and explaining their work to each other. We don’t have such regular opportunities as most American universities, but we do have the department seminars and related academic events that bring us together to engage with colleagues from different perspectives.

Fight against the academic metrics of the production culture by pushing away from the computer screen to sit down with other colleagues and discuss, critique, support and otherwise engage with their work. The more distant from your own focus, the better to connect with ideas you never imagined to be of value to you and whatever sits waiting for you on the computer screen.

Lisa Nakamura's Lecture
Lisa Nakamura’s Lecture

Thanks to my colleagues for organising the events that provide such opportunities.

UNESCO’s Connecting the Dots: Options for Future Action, 3-4 March 2015

UNESCO’s CONNECTing the Dots conference will reflect on a report of UNESCO’s Internet Study, entitled ‘Keystones to foster inclusive Knowledge Societies: Access to information and knowledge, Freedom of Expression, Privacy, and Ethics on a Global Internet’. Representatives from 180 Member States will be present to present and discuss the major themes of this report. It will be held at the headquarters of UNESCO at 7, place de Fontenoy, Paris, 75007, France. As a contributor to this study and the report, I will be there to help moderate, report, and summarize the conclusions of the two-day meeting.

My policy class at the Quello Center at MSU is reading the report, and will join the live stream of the conference. I hope you will do the same. Information about live streaming of the event will be on the conference Web site, so consider joining the conversation. UNESCO’s is doing all it can do to ensure that this is truly a multistakeholder consultation on how UNESCO can contribute to fostering an inclusive, global, open and secure Internet in the coming years.  UNESCO2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes:

Report available at: http://www.unesco.org/new/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/CI/CI/pdf/internet_draft_study.pdf

Conference Web Site at: http://en.unesco.org/events/connecting-dots-options-future-action

Quello Center Launch of Network Neutrality Impact (NNI) Study

On the day the FCC voted 3-2 for net neutrality rules, the Quello Center announced the launch of our ‘Net Neutrality Impact’ (NNI) study. After years of speculations and predictions about the implications of network neutrality, we will be able to study the actual consequences through a natural experiment created by the FCC’s ruling. So remember what you have claimed to the likely consequences of net neutrality, write them down, let us know, and follow our project at the Quello Center. Of course, we also welcome the involvement of other policy researchers who are as curious as we are about what will flow from this decision and how to capture these impacts in the most reliable and valid way.

Follow the project and the Quello Center on Twitter @QuelloCenter

See our announcement of the launch at: http://quello.msu.edu/launching-the-net-neutrality-impact-study/

Celebration of Net Neutrality Vote at FCC
Majority of FCC Celebrates Their Vote for Net Neutrality

 

ICA Award Nominations for Communication and Technology Division (CAT)

Please take some time to consider this last call for nominations to the Communication and Technology (CAT) Awards Committee for three different awards. CAT is a division of the International Communication Association (ICA):

First, we request nominations for the Frederick Williams Prize for Contributions to the Study of Communication Technology. Send nominations by 2 March 2015. http://www.icahdq.org/about_ica/awards/frederickwilliams.asp

Secondly, please nominate dissertations to be considered for the Herbert S. Dordick Prize. http://www.icahdq.org/about_ica/awards/dordick.asp We will receive nominations sent by 2 March 2015.

Finally, the CAT Awards Committee has been asked to recommend members of CAT to be considered for nomination as ICA Fellows. There is nothing to prevent members nominating individuals on their own, but if you’d like the CAT Awards Committee to consider nominating individuals, please send us your nominations. See: http://www.icahdq.org/about_ica/fellows.asp

Thank you for your help. Send any nominations for any of these awards to Quello@msu.edu and indicate the ICA Award in the subject heading.

Regards,

Bill Dutton, Quello Center, MSU

Chair of CAT Awards Committee

Members include:

Monica Bulger, Data & Society Research Institute, New York City, and Oxford Internet Institute, Oxford University, UK

Leah Lievrouw, Department of Information Studies, UCLA

Joseph Walther, Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, NTU, Singapore

Ran Wei, School of Journalism & Mass Communications, University of South Carolina

Simeon Yates, Institute of Cultural Capital, University of Liverpool and Liverpool John Moores University, UK

 

Efforts to Challenge the ISIS Narrative: Relevant Research

Good to see the article in today’s NYTs, entitled “U.S. Intensifies Effort to Blunt ISIS’ Message’: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/17/world/middleeast/us-intensifies-effort-to-blunt-isis-message.html?_r=0 Focusing on changes afoot at the US State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterriorism Communications, there was an emphasis on building on the scale of efforts underway to respond to radical messages online, which is fully warranted. This need for greater scale along with other related issues for addressing efforts to join the conversation online and challenge the narratives and misinformation about US policy and practice in the online environment was the focus of a research paper of mine with Lina Khatib and Mike Thelwall that was published in 2012 (citation and link are below). I believe it is still relevant and maybe informative for those seeking to bolster the role of this digital outreach team, which has many strengths, such as using Arabic on Arabic Web sites, and identifying members of the outreach team by name – it is completely clear that they speak for the State Department.

Khatib, L., Dutton, W.H., Thelwall, M. (2012), ‘Public Diplomacy 2.0: A Case Study of the US Digital Outreach Team’, Middle East Journal, 66(3), Summer, pp. 453-472. A penultimate version of the paper is available online at: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1734850

The War on Information and the Fifth Estate

Peter Pomerantsev, speaking about the role of the mass media in Russia, coined a valuable phrase, arguing that President Putin was not involved in an information war, as much as a ‘war on information’.* This is certainly seems to me to be an apt characterization of the Russian President’s strategy in debates over Ukraine. His book, entitled Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia, was published in 2014 (NY: Public Affairs). It now seems to be rightfully receiving a good deal of media coverage.

You can see the impact of this strategy on many within the Western media, who seem to be unable to say anything definitive about the conflict in the Ukraine – completely at a loss over basic issues, such as whether Russian troops and arms have crossed the border, when continually denied by President Putin and other spokesmen for the regime.

In such wars on information, the sourcing of information by netizens becomes ever more valuable. Rather than confusing the realities on the ground, netizens – the Fifth Estate – become ever more valuable and trusted sources of what is actually happening. Somehow, the elite press have put themselves in a position where claims and counter-claims disable them as they are kept from the actual fields of the conflict. Their responsible journalistic practices seem to have become easy prey in the war on information. For months, the NYT seemed unable to speak definitely about Russian incursions into Ukraine, although recent articles in the NYT increasingly make this observation.

We need networked individuals sourcing their own material, and we need networks of individuals working to synthesize and communicate this collective intelligence to a global community of those interested in making their own sense of conflicts sources of information.

Of course, I would certainly welcome thoughts on how to best cope and respond to this ‘war on information’ and whether it is indeed a useful perspective on the current illustration of being lost in information about Russia and Ukraine.

*Castle, S. ‘A Russian TV Insider Describes a Modern Propaganda Machine’, NYT, 14 Feb 2015: A6. See: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/14/world/europe/russian-tv-insider-says-putin-is-running-the-show-in-ukraine.html?_r=0

 

Also, see: http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/01/putin-russia-tv-113960.html#.VN-PlSn2wQQ

Bringing Data Down to Earth: Christine Borgman’s New Book

I interviewed Professor Christine Borgman last year for Voices from Oxford about issues covered in her forthcoming book, which has now been published. Entitled Big Data, Little Data, No Data: Scholarship in the Digital Age (OUP 2015), it represents a very clear eyed, mature, and incredibly informed perspective on the real opportunities and problems facing the treatment of data across the sciences, social sciences and humanities. I have a personal interest in Christine’s work, as she was a Visiting Fellow at the OII and then an Oliver Smithies Visiting Fellow at Balliol College during my time at these Oxford centers for scholarship. Moreover, she critically looks at OxIS, the Oxford Internet Surveys, which I helped shape. But you don’t need my endorsement. Her book has glowing endorsements from major figures in the field, including Jonathan Zittrain, John Leslie King, and Gregg Gordon, President and CEO of the Social Science Research Network.

Prof Borgman at the OII
Prof Borgman at the OII

I may not agree with every aspect of all of her key arguments, but these issues are genuine points of controversy within the scholarly community, such as around appropriate standards, and trivial in relation to her basic thesis, which is brilliant. What I would like to point out are two truly remarkable aspects of her book.

First, she has provided one of the first and only books that offer a critical perspective on big data at a time when this subject remains high on the hype cycle, dominated by breathtaking perspectives on the future prospects of mining this new resource. Borgman certainly does not dismiss the real value of big data, but she provides a methodologically and information-science informed perspectives on the problems confronting the effective use of big data, which is juxtaposed with other kinds of research, even research that does not claim to use any data. Very few critiques of big data have the breadth of comparative coverage across all kinds of data, from ethnographic to survey to big data sets. Most of us are steeped in one or the other approach, but all of us should welcome insights that flow from looking across the range of data used in scholarly research.

Secondly, Professor Borgman is able to cover the humanities, social sciences and sciences in equally informed ways. As an information scientist with tremendous breadth and experience, she is able to speak with as much authority on issues of the digital humanities as on digital social research and e-Science. But its broader than that: Think of the matrix of methods covering all kinds of data in the humanities, social sciences and sciences and start naming the authorities who could give keynotes in each field. Christine will be one of the few on your list. As Christine points out, even C. P. Snow left out the social sciences. (Thanks, Christine, for covering the social sciences, and in such an equivalent way.)

I hope this book is incorporated in courses beyond the information sciences, and include methods courses across the sciences, social sciences and humanities. It could be a key book for courses on the philosophy of science as it provides a rich understanding of how scholars actually do their work across these contrasting substantive and methodological fields.

See my VOX interview with Christine at: http://www.voicesfromoxford.org/video/data-in-the-digital-domain/228