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.

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

 

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

 

Essays in Honour of Jay G. Blumler

I have just received my copy of a new and wonderful book, entitled Can the Media Serve Democracy? Essays in Honour of Jay G. Blumler (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), edited by Jay’s colleagues at Leeds, Stephen Coleman, Giles Moss and Katy Parry. What a fitting tribute to Jay. The volume focuses on the question that has driven Jay’s work over the decades, and the essays assemble some of the luminaries in the field, including Elihu Katz, Paulo Mancini, Denis McQuail, James Curran, David Weaver, and Sonia Livingstone, along with an interview with Jay himself.

The book was the centerpiece of a Festschrift held for Jay in Leeds this month, February 2015, organised by the editors. I could not be there, as I was attending a conference in celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Comparative Communication Research at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. You can imagine my pleasure when the first paper and panel of the conference provided a review and citation analysis of literature in this field and Jay G. Blumler was noted as perhaps the most prominent, and influential communication scholar of comparative media studies. Moreover, Jay continued to be praised throughout the conference, including his role as President of the ICA and an editor of Comparatively Speaking (1992). What great illustration of the global impact and longevity of his work? In sync with the message of influence provided at the Hong Kong conference, James Curran’s essay in the Festschrift book is entitled ‘Jay Blumler: A Founding Father of British Media Studies’.

This is a book that is must reading for any media and communication scholar. It grapples with the fundamental question of media studies, including studies of the Internet, social media and related new media. Jay stayed focused on the big questions, whether studying British election coverage, the emergence of wired cities, back in the 1980s with me, or the rise of new media since the turn of the century. And the range of contributions from key scholars in the field make this book one of the best contemporary treatments of the media and democracy available, not only for scholars of the field, but also for students, who can see through this book the potential of an individual to shape major fields of communication. My thanks to the editors for such an outstanding collection.

References

Blumler, J. G. (1992), Comparatively Speaking. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Coleman, S., Moss, G., and Parry, K. (2015), Can Democracy Serve Democracy? London: Palgrave Macmillan.

 

Malaysian Airlines MH17: Studies of Information Disasters

Evidence is only beginning to develop about what led to the disaster that beset Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 over the Eastern Ukraine. However, it is likely to be compared with other military and large technical system disasters, such as when the USS Vincennes accidentally shot down a domestic Iranian Airline, Iran Flight 655 on 3 July 1987. These have been called ‘information disasters’ by myself and colleagues, who have looked at studies of this and other related cases. See our chapter: Peltu, M., MacKenzie, D., Shapiro, S., and Dutton, W. H. (1996), ‘Computer Power and Human Limits,’ in Dutton. W. H. (ed.), Information and Communication Technologies – Visions and Realities, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 177-195. Specific treatment of the USS Vincennes is provided by Rochlin, G. (1991), ‘Iran Air Flight 655 and the USS Vincennes: Complex, Large-Scale Military Systems and the Failure of Control’, pp. 99-125 in La Porte, T. (ed.), Social Responses to Large Technical Systems. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

In the case of MH17, there seems to be mounting evidence that it was shot down by mistake. A domestic airliner was not the intended target. However, debate is huge over who shot the plane down, and who supplied the weapons. Needless to say, the analysis of such cases often deals with more than the specific information disaster – the mistake, such as in the earlier case: Why did the domestic Iran Flight 655 come to be perceived as a military aircraft descending toward the USS Vincennes, when it was actually climbing? In this respect, such studies do not always deal adequately with the broader political and military issues over responsibility. These broader questions have been the primary and immediate focus of debate over MH17. Rather than understand why MH17 was shot down, people worldwide are wondering who was responsible for putting particular weapons into the hands of the Russian separatists who are widely suspected of firing the missile that took down MH17.* But academics can and should devote their own talents to see if lessons can be learned from such disasters at any level of analysis.

*See the Financial Times: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/a1dcc628-1010-11e4-90c7-00144feabdc0.html#axzz386tsBcsR

Society and the Internet: a new reader for courses

A new book edited by Mark Graham and myself is in print and available for courses: Society and the Internet: How Networks of Information and Communication are Changing Our Lives. It is published by Oxford University Press, and material about the book is available on their website at: http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780199662005.do

How is society being shaped by the diffusion and increasing centrality of the Internet in everyday life and work? By bringing together leading research that addresses some of the most significant cultural, economic, and political roles of the Internet, this volume introduces students to a core set of readings that address this question in specific social and institutional contexts.

Internet Studies is a burgeoning new field, which has been central to the Oxford Internet Institute (OII), an innovative multi-disciplinary department at the University of Oxford. Society and the Internet builds on the OII’s evolving series of lectures on society and the Internet. The series has been edited to create a reader to supplement upper-division undergraduate and graduate courses that seek to introduce students to scholarship focused on the implications of the Internet for networked societies around the world.

The chapters of the reader are rooted in a variety of disciplines, but all directly tackle the powerful ways in which the Internet is linked to political, social, cultural, and economic transformations in society. This book will be a starting point for anyone with a serious interest in the factors shaping the Internet and its impact on society.  The book begins with an introduction by the editors, which provides a brief history of the Internet and Web and its study from multi-disciplinary perspectives. The chapters are grouped into five focused sections: (I) Internet Studies of Everyday Life, (II) Information and Culture on the Line, (III) Networked Politics and Government, (IV) Networked Businesses, Industries, and Economies, and (V) Technological and Regulatory Histories and Futures.

A full table of contents is below:

Society and the Internet How Networks of Information and Communication are Changing Our Lives

Manuel Castells: Foreword

Mark Graham and William H. Dutton: Introduction

Part I. Internet Studies Of Everyday Life

1: Aleks Krotoski: Inventing the Internet: Scapegoat, Sin Eater, and Trickster

2: Grant Blank And William Dutton: Next Generation Internet Users: A New Digital Divide

3: Bernie Hogan And Barry Wellman: The Conceptual Foundations of Social Network Sites and the Emergence of the Relational Self-Portrait

4: Victoria Nash: The Politics of Children s Internet Use

5: Lisa Nakamura: Gender and Race Online

Part II. Information And Culture On The Line

6: Mark Graham: Internet Geographies: Data Shadows and Digital Divisions of Labour

7: Gillian Bolsover, William H. Dutton, Ginette Law, And Soumitra Dutta: China and the US in the New Internet World: A Comparative Perspective

8: Nic Newman, William H. Dutton, And Grant Blank: Social Media and the News: Implications for the Press and Society

9: Sung Wook Ji And David Waterman: The Impact of the Internet on Media Industries: An Economic Perspective

10: Ralph Schroeder: Big Data: Towards a More Scientific Social Science and Humanities?

Part III. Networked Politics And Governments

11: Miriam Lips: Transforming Government by Default?

12: Stephen Coleman And Jay Blumler: The Wisdom of Which Crowd? On the Pathology of a Digital Democracy Initiative for a Listening Government

13: Sandra Gonzalez-Bailon: Online Social Networks and Bottom-up Politics

14: Helen Margetts, Scott A. Hale, Taha Yasseri: Big Data and Collective Action

15: Elizabeth Dubois And William H. Dutton: Empowering Citizens of the Internet Age: The Role of a Fifth Estate

Part IV: Networked Businesses, Industries AND Economies

16: Greg Taylor: Scarcity of Attention for a Medium of Abundance: An Economic Perspective

17: Richard Susskind: The Internet in the Law: Transforming Problem-Solving and Education

18: Laura Mann: The Digital Divide and Employment: The Case of the Sudanese Labour Market

19: Mark Graham: A Critical Perspective on the Potential of the Internet at the Margins of the Global Economy

Part V. Technological And Regulatory Histories And Futures

20: Eli M. Noam: Next-Generation Content for Next-Generation Networks

21: Christopher Millard: Data Privacy in the Clouds

22: Laura Denardis: The Social Media Challenge to Internet Governance

23: Yorick Wilks: Beyond the Internet and Web

Let us know what you think of our reader, and thanks for your interest.

Web Science 2014: CALL FOR PARTICIPATION

The 6th ACM Web Science Conference will be held 23-26 June 2014 on the beautiful campus of Indiana University, Bloomington. Web Science continues to focus on the study of information networks, social communities, organizations, applications, and policies that shape and are shaped by the Web.

The WebSci14 program includes 29 paper presentations, 35 posters with lightening talks, a documentary, and keynotes by Dame Wendy Hall (U. of Southampton), JP Rangaswami (Salesforce.com), Laura DeNardis (American University) and Daniel Tunkelang (LinkedIn). Several workshops will be held in conjunction with the conference on topics such as Altmetrics, computational approaches to social modeling, the complex dynamics of the Web, the Web of scientific knowledge, interdisciplinary coups to calamities, Web Science education, Web observatories, and Cybercrime and Cyberwar. Conference attendees will have an opportunity to enjoy the exhibit Places & Spaces: Mapping Science, meant to inspire cross-disciplinary discussion on how to track and communicate human activity and scientific progress on a global scale. Finally, we will award prizes for the most innovative visualizations of Web data. For this data challenge, we are providing four large datasets that will remain publicly available to Web
scientists.

For more information on the program, registration, and a full schedule please visit http://WebSci14.org and follow us on Twitter (@WebSciConf) or like us on Facebook
(https://www.facebook.com/WebSci14).