Chris Anderson’s Inaugural Lecture, University of Leeds

I had the pleasure of attending Professor Chris Anderson’s Inaugural Lecture at Leeds University on 24 October 2018. I won’t attempt to summarise what was a wide-ranging, historically rich, and engaging lecture on journalism in our contemporary political context. However, I would like to provide a few points that most resonated with me. The title of his talk was “Who Cares About Journalism? Facts and the Anaesthetised Public in an Irrational Era.” I’ll look for any text from his talk and share on this blog.

C. W. Anderson, from his Blog

If you do not know Chris, he describes himself as an ethnographer who studies the news. Professor Anderson was awarded his PhD from Columbia University in 2009, studying with two of the major figures in the communication field, Professor James W. Carey and Prof. Todd Gitlin. He worked as an Associate Professor from 2009-2018 in Media Culture at the City University of New York, when he left to join Leeds’ School of Media and Communication – a School for which I am presently a Visiting Professor.

From the introduction to his lecture, it seems Chris may have started a tradition for the School in presenting an inaugural lecture. Before joining Leeds, I was involved with Chris in a conference he organised with Pablo Boczkowski at Northwestern University that led to an excellent book, edited by Boczkowski and Anderson, entitled Remaking the News (MIT Press 2017). I am delighted to be associated with him again through my visiting position at Leeds.

But to the lecture: The most obvious point is that Chris cares deeply about journalism. He spoke of his first attraction to journalism through his exposure to community newspapers during his childhood, and then to the alternative activist media. He later became an observer of journalism and the media broadly, with a recent focus on data journalism in some of his work.

His talk touched on his own intellectual history of research on journalism, before moving to his current question about the role of journalists in our polarised world – presumably anaesthetised by the 24/7 rancorous coverage of contentious issues around the American presidency, Brexit, and more. Should journalists be focused on shinning a light on events – illuminating problems in all sectors of society, or in supporting democracy, or trying to reduce political cruelty. This latter theme he developed on the basis of work by Judith Shklar on the ‘Liberalism of Fear’ – that government needs to address cruelty of the powerful to the powerless, and this also be the role of journalists.

This would clearly be a role journalists might seek to play, but my sense is they don’t have the power to address these problems directly. That said, their traditional normative role in exposing wrongs wherever they might lie is an indirect route to addressing such problems. Holding a mirror up to our political system. However, the role of journalists is in some senses far more varied. I can’t help of thinking of the community newspapers and alternative media, and the degree that journalists at these local and alternative media are not so often addressing wrongs as they are simply trying to convey life and events in their communities.

Gillian Bolsover & Stephen Coleman, Leeds University

That said, Chris has me thinking harder about not only about what the role of journalists should be in this age of tribalism, but also the role of academics. Looking forward to any text or related materials coming out of this talk.

As it happens, the occasion also allowed me to meet many faculty at Leeds and also to reconnect with two former OII colleagues: Professor Stephen Coleman, a former Visiting Professor of E-Democracy at the OII, and the recently hired as a Lecturer in Politics and Media at Leeds, Gillian Bolsover, who was a student and co-author of mine at the OII.

So this inaugural lecture was valuable to me on several fronts.

 

 

Just Say ‘No’ to Completing a Form: Another Bane of the Digital Age

I’ve complained before about the growing demands online for us to complete forms to do just about anything – I called it trapped in a Web of forms. Well, my writing about it has not solved the problem. Just today I agreed to do a book review, only to then get a formal thank you, and note which basically said I must submit my review through the publisher’s central manuscript site. OK, I cannot just write the review and email it to the book review editor, as that would be too much trouble for the editor.

Predictably, I will now be required to log into this central manuscript site. I have almost certainly used it before, for some paper or journal submission, but who knows when and I can assure you I will not remember the passwords etc. So I will need to fill out the joining instructions once again, and probably have difficulty, with notes like, this email has been used before, etc. I will spend useless time getting set up, formatting my review in a manner that the site likes (not me), and submitting it. So all the fun of reading the book and writing a review is lost already – well before I’ve received the book.

Why do I say “yes” to such offers – let’s say requests? I need to set up a form for any request to me with something like the following questions: Name, other information I do not need, then “Will I need to fill out a form in order to satisfy your request?” If yes, then I might add the question: “Can you complete the form for me?” If no (inevitably it will be no, as these folks do not take their own medicine), then the tick box should not permit the person to tick “No”. The requester will become so frustrated that s/he will decide to stop wasting his/her time on this bloke, and go on to ask some other sucker.

Just today, I am sure I had to complete at least four forms, and most required me to fill out other forms to complete the present form. I understand why people want others to do their work for them as they have simply too many things going on to do the work themselves. This should scream to them that they are trying to do more than they can do, and stop or slow down. This template society we are creating is clearly the road to madness. … Must blog about this!

Internet Don by Arthur Asa Berger

A Problematic Plan for Development of the City of Oxford

I am worried that the City of Oxford is poised to approve a long-term plan for the development of the city that will not accomplish its objectives. Reviews of the Oxford Local Plan  have complimented the drafters for how well it is written. Reviewers have been impressed by the vision it portrays which promises to balance the various tradeoffs inevitably faced in land use planning. However, the critics do not call out the serious risks that the plan poses for what is valued in Oxford by current and future residents and visitors.

Think of the fundamental physical realities of its proposals: The city is limited by the ring road and the green belt to a constrained physical space. Already, the city is seriously congested. In that context, the Council proposes to add thousands of additional households. Inevitably, the results will be:

  • Even greater congestion;
  • Reduced restrictions on the height of buildings and households with inevitable diminishment of the Oxford skyline behind taller buildings;
  • The loss of parking spaces, and diminished garden spaces, when parking and gardens are already quite limited, and the loss of sunlight blocked by developments higher and closer to existing structures;
  • A potential loss of families, who will choose to move to areas where they can drive their children to schools and sporting events;
  • Building on a large proportion of the ‘buildable’ green belt (land that is not in flood plains that could not be built upon in any case).

There is likely a tipping point in growing Oxford at which the congestion and over-build will truly undermine its special character, and make it what the Council envisions – a ‘grown up’ city that is no more special than other cities. That might bring a reduction in housing prices but also a growth of the problems facing other grown up cities, such as further deterioration of businesses, tourism and housing in the central city.

Almost everything that we value in the City of Oxford today is at risk for the promise of a vision that appears to me to be overly optimistic, such as moving hotels in neighbourhoods like Summertown in order to shift activity outside the city central core. That has been the dream in so many cities, and has never worked to my knowledge. It will simply add to the capacity of hotels across the city and enable more people to visit Oxford’s core city. Good but not at the cost of undermining the quality of these neighbourhoods.

So why is the Council proposing what seems will inevitably undermine the quality of Oxford?

It could mean ‘£215m of new funding in order to support Oxfordshire’s ambition to plan for and support the delivery of 100,000 homes by 2031.’  That is for all of Oxfordshire from central government, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, for meeting their agreed housing targets. Whatever proportion the City receives would be significantly less, but could be important when the City is stressed for funding.

However, compare this sum to the sums of other developments. Over £400M was invested in the development of Oxford’s Westgate shopping centre. So, one new shopping centre in the city has attracted far more money than the City’s long-term plan will attract from the central government. Surely there will be additional revenues from the development of more housing, new hotels, but at what cost? Moreover, the shopping centre added value to the city, and renovated a deteriorated area, while the plans threaten to diminish the value of our entire city.

So I am worried that the Council is putting the character of Oxford at risk for less than the price of a modern shopping centre. The outcomes of implementing this plan are unknowable. There are likely to be unanticipated and unintended and indirect outcomes as well as any of the intended outcomes that are envisioned. The Council cannot possibly know the consequences of their plans, even if written with the best of intentions, beyond the promise of money from central government.

What should be done? In my opinion, the city should slow down. Don’t strap the City with this Oxford Local Plan that is so problematic. Instead, focus on affordable housing, and move more incrementally. Make decisions based on considering the details of particular cases. Insure that key constituencies are involved, such as the Oxford Preservation Trust, and residents – genuinely listening to the public, including the many schools, colleges, universities, businesses, and residents in the city. Have a rolling, evolving plan that is revisited continually and does not set Oxford on a potentially harmful long-range course at a moment in time filled with uncertainties. There is too much to lose, and too little to gain, for the city to commit to the current, overly optimistic and ambitious plan, however well-written.

That said, I would welcome comments, criticisms, or corrections of any aspects of this plan that I failed to understand.

Respectfully,

Bill Dutton

Resident of Oxford

 

Oxford Local Plan: https://www.oxford.gov.uk/info/20067/planning_policy/743/the_local_plan

Staying Connected to the States

Staying Connected to Media and Information Policy in the States

I may have left the USA and Michigan State University (MSU) to return to my home in the UK, but my days at MSU’s Quello Center have left me with a continuing interest in following developments in media and information policy worldwide, and in the US, in particular. With that in mind, I have been so pleased to have been invited to participate in two networks that are key to my interests:

The Quello Center Advisory Board

I helped build the Advisory Board of the Quello Center while Director from 2014-2018, so I am very pleased to have the opportunity to joining as a member of the Board. The Center has put together a very strong network of individuals from academia, business and industry, and government to keep the James H. Quello Center alerted to the key issues on the horizon. My education on the Board will hopefully be one unintended consequence.

 

2016 Meeting of a Subset of our Quello Advisory Board

The TPRC Board of Directors

TPRC stands for the Telecommunications Policy Research Conference, which puts together an annual conference, more recently entitled ‘Research Conference on Communication, Information and Internet Policy’. The conference has been held for over 45 years, and needless to say, it has successfully evolved with the times and the issues around media, information, and communication technology and associated issues of public policy and regulation. The Board is a virtual wish-list of people to stay in touch with about new developments, and I look forward to participating in its meetings both remotely and at their annual conference.

I would not have been invited to join either group had I not directed the Quello Center for four years. So I’m grateful to my colleagues at the Center and MSU for that opportunity, and I’ll do my best to actively stay in touch with initiatives at the Center, where Johannes Bauer is Director, and Laleah Fernandez is Assistant Director, and also follow initiatives across the US communication and technology and policy arena more generally.

My thanks to the members of both organizations for these invitations.

 

Getting to a Brexit Strategy: Focus on the Process

Press coverage of Brexit negotiations is focused on the politicians in support of different exit strategies, from a no-deal Brexit to no Brexit at all. As one consequence, the debate then focuses on whose right or wrong and why. All very newsworthy, but not an approach to reaching any consensus on the approach the UK or the EU should take. It is an approach to cementing divisions.

In today’s climate of polarization, and the normalization of hate from each side, it might be difficult to recall, or even give some thought to, a literature focused on resolving differences of opinion. One of my favorite treatments of this issue was a book entitled ‘Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In’ by Roger Fisher and William Ury of the Harvard Program on Negotiation  (Fisher, Ury and Patton 2011 [1981]). It spoke to the processes likely to support a negotiated resolution of conflicting positions, which identified some general rules that could help reach a consensus on contentious issues, such as focusing on the interests of different stakeholders rather than their positions in the debate – whose right and whose wrong.

Decades ago, I read this book when puzzling over how to make sense of my study of how computer models were being used in the policy process (Dutton 1982; Dutton and Kraemer 1984). My colleagues and I were looking at how computer models were shaping urban development decisions in the US, since local governments were adopting models that purported to project the fiscal impact of alternative decisions, such as urban infill versus sprawl. Such decisions were in no way as major as Brexit, but they were nevertheless very contentious, promising to reshape everything from the economic vitality of the city to the racial composition of neighborhoods.

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My colleagues and I were skeptical of the role that models could play in such a contentious process. We realized it was naïve to expect models to simply enable a more rational decision by providing more reliable forecasts of the outcomes of different alternatives. At the same time, we were not convinced that modeling was simply a tool for supporting partisan political decisions, using models to provide support to positions and decisions that had already been made.

What we found was far more interesting. The modeling process was inherently political, but political in ways that helped the contending parties to reach a negotiated consensus on the likely outcome and therefore to help reach a decision. For instance, the modeling process helped focus debate on the assumptions of the model, rather than on the positions of parties to the debate. Stakeholders began to focus on what outcomes should be forecast, rather than which decision they supported. In such ways, the modeling process provided a boundary spanning object and a process for stakeholders to understand the likely outcome of alternative decisions.

The success of this approach was evident is some unanticipated consequences. For example, by the time the modeling process was near completion, all the stakeholders tended to agree on the likely outcomes. This was so much the case that no one was really interested in reading the final report – the stakeholders already knew what should be done. If all the major stakeholders are represented in the modeling process, then they are brought along through this process such that the final report is old news.

My sense from a distance – informed only by press coverage – is that the proponents of different Brexit strategies are marshalling evidence and arguments for their own positions. They are not sitting around the same table trying to understand the likely outcomes of alternative strategies. Getting the right stakeholders within and across the EU and UK around a single modeling process could be one way to gain some level of consensus on the most sensible way forward.

A major limitation of such an approach is the degree that democratic and ethical concerns can be more critical than information about the outcomes of any decision. However, at this moment, most debate is focused on the Brexit strategy, and not whether or not to exit the EU, which is the decision most fraught over respecting the outcome of democratic process, regardless of the purported outcomes. So to the degree that this remains the case, and the focus remains on strategies for exiting the EU, then all parties in the EU and the UK should have a major stake in getting to yes.

References

Dutton, W. H. (1982), ‘Computer Models in the Policy-Making Process,’ Information Age, 1 (2), 86-94.

Dutton, W. H. and Kraemer, K. L. (1985), Modeling as Negotiating: The Political Dynamics of Computer Models in the Policy Process, Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

Fisher, R., Ury, W., Patton, B. (2011) [1981]. Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (3rd ed.). New York: Penguin Books.

Visiting Leeds University and Jay G. Blumler

I had a short but pleasant visit to the School of Media and Communication at the University of Leeds that provided me an opportunity to catch up with new and old colleagues. The School has made some brilliant new hires, such as Christopher Anderson. Chris is finishing his first year at Leeds with a new and timely book, forthcoming in 2018 through Oxford University Press, entitled Apostles of Certainty: Data Journalism and the Politics of Doubt.

The University of Leeds is also home to one of my oldest and enduring colleagues, mentors and friends in the UK, Professor Jay G. Blumler.  Jay first took a position at Leeds as Granada Television Research Fellow in 1963, going on to direct his Centre for Television Research. He has taught at a number of universities since, but continues his affiliation with Leeds today as an Emeritus Professor.

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Jay and Bill, 2018

On my very first trip to Leeds in the early 1980s, I stayed at Jay’s home, and recall watching Top of the Pops with his family. Lo and Behold, a rerun of that classic was on television decades later, when I walked back into Jay’s home after dinner this past Friday evening. But a more important, enduring feature of my return, was Jay’s continuing pursuit of creating – not just listening to – music, a charming aspect of his entire career. For example, Jay often entertains his academic audiences with brief refrains from a wide range of songs. He has a clear, baritone voice that led to him being involved in, and most often organizing, all sorts of singing groups throughout his life – a topic we discussed that evening.

Even before I was born (if you can imagine that), in 1944, Jay was part of a quartet of American servicemen studying Russian language at Georgetown University. They called themselves ‘The Four Freedoms’, playing off of FDR’s Four Freedoms speech, given in 1941.  A colleague who heard them sing arranged for Jay and his quartet to perform at a recording session for the Folk Song Division at the Library of Congress (photo below).

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In 1946, while still stationed in Berlin, Jay was Chair of the American Veterans Committee, a group he helped found and organize in Berlin. In that role, he was invited to have tea with Eleanor Roosevelt when she visited the city. She had heard of some of the charity work the committee had done and asked to meet with them. A diary of her day in Berlin mentions her conversations at a ‘soldiers club’ in the last paragraph.

After the service, Jay taught Social and Political Theory at Ruskin College, Oxford, serving several years as Resident Tutor at the Rookery, later called the Ruskin College Academic Building. As the tutor, he formed another group, called ‘Jay and the Rooks’ (photo below).

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Jay and the Rooks

If you ever have the opportunity to visit with Jay, don’t hesitate to ask him if an appropriate tune comes to mind. It will. I am delighted that Jay decided to pursue an academic rather than a singing career, as he has done so much to advance the field of communication, such as in serving as President of the ICA, and advancing studies of political communication in particular. However, I am so happy that he has found ways to spice up his and others’ academic presentations with an occasional song.

Notes

Jay G. Blumler on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jay_Blumler

Pick up the phone!

Ofcom reports that fewer people are using their mobile phones for making phone calls (Williams 2018). The use of smartphones for calls is declining while their use for texting, emailing, searching and using social media is rising. Clearly, this trend is not unique to the UK, nor is it simply limited to the use if smartphones. But I fear this interesting trend masks a more fundamental shift in communication: Put simply, more people are choosing not to speak with others – by phone or in person.

To illustrate, here is a typical conversation I would have with a former office assistant (OA) in my former university. She was a valued member of our team and went off for an exciting move when her husband was offered a better job. But here was a typical scenario:

Me: Has the approval for our research travel come through?

OA: No. I sent an email two days ago. No word yet.

Me: Could you check, and try to nudge them? We need to move ahead.

OA: OK. I’ll send another email.

Me: Maybe it would be easier if you just picked up the phone? Actually, the office is close – maybe you could pop in a speak to the grant officer.

OA: Its easier to email, and she’ll see it.

Me: OK.

I stew for a moment and then walk the few minutes to the grant office, speak with the officer, and get the approval. All the time I am wondering why no one wants to simply pick up the phone or walk down the hall. Perhaps (undoubtedly) it is more efficient for the OA to email, but not for me waiting for approval. Perhaps the OA doesn’t want to disturb or interrupt the grant officer, but my work is effectively stalled. Am I simply being selfish or is my OA simply following a rational path that is not only the easy way but the contemporary way to do things?  Unknown

Of course, this is a simple anecdote, but it happens so often that I cannot help but wonder how pervasive this style of communication is becoming. When I have shared this view with administrators, they acknowledge this as a growing pattern. And it is not just email, but also so-called enterprise platforms for conducting all sorts of financial, administrative, and personnel matters. Ask about health benefits, and I’m told to check or enroll on our enterprise business system. Of course, these systems are designed to permit fewer administrators to handle more personnel. But ironically, it might also lead to inefficiencies and ineffectiveness, such as sending an email rather than picking up a phone or speaking with the right person.

Maybe I am wrong. Video and voice over IP enables applications like Skype, Google Hangouts, and FaceTime that are permitting more interpersonal conversations to occur among people distributed around the world. And since the 1970s, when people expected electronic telecommunications to enable tradeoffs with travel, research has found that telecommunications tends to reinforce travel as we telecommunicate with those we meet with face-to-face before and after meetings. If we email someone, we are more likely to meet them face-to-face, and vice versa.

But I wonder if we have reached some tipping point where this might well be changing – a point when it is getting increasingly difficult to speak with anyone face-to-face or even on the phone.

Reference

Zoe Williams, ‘It’s so funny how we don’t talk any more’, The Guardian, Friday, 3 August 2018: 5.