Problems with British Broadcasting – Not Just the BBC

There are serious problems with broadcast news in the UK and other nations that merit discussion and systematic research. In many respects, the coverage of ‘partygate’ and new developments around the BBC License Fee highlight these issues, but could also narrow the discussion. It is not only about ‘partygate’ or only about the BBC. In my viewing experience, it seems to be a problem across the major TV news broadcasters in the UK, including Channel 4 as well as BBC News, somewhat less so with Sky News. And it is not at all a problem with BBC World Service.

What problems? In announcing a proposed freeze of the BBC’s license fee, the Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries, cited ‘groupthink’ and impartiality.[1] While these concerns pre-dated partygate, the BBC’s treatment of this topic highlighted both issues. The consistent way in which all BBC journalists tended to prosecute the Prime Minister for his actions with respects to parties at Number 10 in 2020 seemed to fail any test of impartiality. Interviews with individuals across the country focused on how do you feel about what the PM did or said? However, this was true for Channel 4 as well – nearly identical editorial briefs.

Courtesy Arthur Berger

I have called this ‘pack journalism’ in line with the seminal work by Timothy Crouse (1972), entitled The Boys on the Bus, which captured the groupthink that developed among the journalists literally on the bus following Kennedy’s campaign. As they shared impressions and insights, they were led to identify the story of the day.

In the digital age, it is not surprising that journalists are increasingly networked in and across newsrooms in ways that lead them to arrive at the same news story rather than a more diverse array of stories. No journalist wants to miss the story, or have the wrong (different) take on the story. I’ve discussed that as digitally networked pack journalism.[2] So my impressions are in line with the rise of a groupthink but not only within the BBC but also across the channels. It is a bigger and more serious issue. The very fact that a Whitehall veteran, Sue Gray, was asked to investigate ‘Partygate’ speaks volumes about the inadequacy of contemporary news coverage.

Similarly, it is not simply a partisan or anti-Boris Johnson issue. While the BBC License Fee might create a view of partygate as simply a partisan controversy, the same type of prosecutorial versus impartial coverage typified news coverage of antisemitism in the Labour Party, with its prosecution of Jeremy Corbin.

Of course, partygate is a story, but it is not necessarily the story – more important than issues involving Ukraine, Russia, China, inflation, cost of living, and so on. But partygate overwhelmed coverage of other issues on televised news. Print news was far more diverse as there was very little real news to report on the issue. But on television, there were many testimonials ranging from individuals on the street to members of parliament about such questions as how they felt about people partying while others were isolating.

In such ways, pack journalism or groupthink is not only about how an issue is covered but what issues are covered. Media researchers have long argued that the most important effect of the media is not focused on what you think about an issue, but what issues you think about. Media have a strong role in agenda-setting. Rather than discussing a cyberattack on Ukraine in the context of Russian provocation, the media are focused on parties in the UK and a tennis player in Australia.

If you can see these patterns of pack journalism or groupthink and biased versus impartial reporting, the key question becomes: Are these patterns occurring more frequently and, if so, why?  

The answer seems to be that they frame simple, cheap, and entertaining stories to cover. No investigative journalism required. No research needed. The public understand the issues. Just pose a simple question to many individuals and choose the most engaging and entertaining mix of responses to fill much of the news. This is the journalistic equivalent of throwing red meat to the viewers. It is like moving BBC ‘Question Time’ into the nightly news. Audience ratings go up. Costs go down. Information goes down!

It is possible to develop many other examples such as around NHS coverage, over-reliance on care homes in the pandemic, the Royal Family and more, but my only point is that these issues of groupthink and impartiality have not been dealt with adequately either by the researchers, politicians, or news providers.[3] Moreover, the problems could be growing more acute. The days of chiding American news coverage seem to be fading. Instead, UK news coverage is earning a right to be more critically questioned. I hope academic colleagues take this as a serious challenge for marshalling more systematic research and analysis, and not just a political or partisan issue.


[1] See her statement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IvlogLdqhIs

[2] https://billdutton.me/tag/networked-journalists/

[3] For example, I find the ten points of a BBC impartiality plan to be incredibly general: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-59088800

The Correct Lesson on Hype from the Theranos Verdict

Looking at the verdict of the court in the case finding Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes guilty of fraud, Brooke Masters (2022) argues that ‘there is a crucial difference between rosy optimism and outright fraud’. I agree that an entrepreneur is unlikely to enrol investors and colleagues into a venture that the entrepreneur does not believe in and effectively sell. So it is difficult to imagine innovation without some level of hype. On the other hand, hype needs to be questioned and hype can be negative as well as positive.

For decades, social research on technology has warned against utopian and dystopian hype. Perhaps most famously, Emmanuel Mesthene (1969) alerted us to people tending to view technology as an ‘unalloyed blessing’, an ‘unmitigated curse’, or something that deserves ‘no special attention’. In my field of internet studies, such as current debate about social media, technological hype comes from both directions, painting both utopian and dystopian scenarios.

The basis of this is a belief in one or another technically deterministic perspective as opposed to a belief balanced by systematic empirical research, which often brings positive and negative hype down to earth. For example, if you look at empirical research, social media is not going to democratise the world, nor is it going to drive people to tear down democratic institutions. We should be leery of such extreme techno-deterministic hype and look carefully at empirical evidence.

Courtesy of Arthur Berger

Of course, investors are needed before evidence might be available on the ground. But that does not mean that historical, comparative, or experimental evidence cannot be used to be analytically critical of claims made about technologies – whether positive or negative.

Expect hype. Enjoy the hype. But be analytically sceptical and anchor expectations in research on the actual use and impacts of technologies in society. People can foster rosy optimism or dismally pessimistic scenarios so we need to look at the actual realities through systematic research. This may seem like common sense, but it is so often lost in the excitement of innovation.

References

Masters, Brooke. (2022), ‘Theranos verdict is a cautionary tale for failing entrepreneurs’, Financial Times, 5 January, p. 23.

Mesthene, E. G. (1969), ‘Some General Implications of the Research of the Harvard University Program on Technology and Society’, Technology and Culture, October.

Steven A. Peterson (September 10, 1947–December 10, 2021)

Loss of a Team Leading Pioneer in Politics and Public Policy: A Memoriam to Steven A. Peterson (September 10, 1947–December 10, 2021) by William H. Dutton

Steven A. Peterson died suddenly at home on December 10, 2021 at the age of 74. Steve Peterson and I were both born in 1947 and over half a century ago, in 1969, both of us entered graduate school in the department of political science at the University of Buffalo (then SUNY-Buffalo). For decades he has been my old graduate school colleague, but also a wonderful friend, and a seriously influential academic across a variety of fields in political science and policy studies.

In 1969, Steve graduated magna cum laude from Bradley University, a top ranked private university in Illinois, before moving on to graduate studies in political science at the University of Buffalo. He went from graduate school to Alfred University in 1973, where he rose through the ranks of promotion from Assistant to full Professor and for a time chaired the social sciences division of the university.

In 1997, after two decades of a successful career, Steve left Alfred University to accept a position of Professor of Politics and Public Affairs and Director of the School of Public Affairs at Pennsylvania State University Harrisburg, Penn’s ‘Capital College’. With over thirty faculty from multiple disciplines and located close to the capital of Pennsylvania, and not far from Washington DC, Penn State Harrisburg is an attractive location for teaching students for careers in public policy and administration at local and federal levels. Professor Peterson served as director for nearly two decades, until 2015, which is an impressive term for such a demanding role, returning to his professorial role. He retired a few years ago retaining his link to the university as an emeritus professor.

Steve Peterson at Penn State Harrisburg

While a graduate student, Steve began collaborating with Professor Al Somit on studies of biopolitics, a field for which he and Al Somit were arguably among the founding pioneers. Among their many publications in this area, their book, Darwinism, Domiance, and Democracy (1997) is an example of being ahead of the field. They were asking why democracies often seem to fare less well than autocracies, a question now being asked around the world. They found novel answers in the evolution of human nature, such as in possibly creating an affinity for hierarchy. This biopolitics thesis challenged most theorizing that relied more exclusively on cultural and institutional factors.

Biopolitics also provided Steve with a perspective on political behavior – another focus of his research – in ways that challenged and supplemented more conventional interpretations, such as those based on theories of political socialization and partisan identification. His 2012 book, entitled Political Behavior: Patterns in Everyday Life, continues to be well cited.

Another area of focus as a graduate student, was on state politics. Professor Peterson continued to research American political institutions, particularly at the state and local level, throughout his career. He not only taught courses in this area, but published innovative perspectives on public policy, such as a book with others entitled The World of the Policy Analyst, which went to three editions.

More generally, as an academic, Steve Peterson accumulated a remarkable track record of book and journal publications in his areas of research. I started counting his publications, and then moved to counting the pages of his list of publications. His stature in the field is also reflected in the colleagues he worked with, such as Albert Somit, who was not only a noted political philosopher, but also rose to become President of Southern Illinois University. He was one of Steve’s mentors and one of Steve’s fellow pioneers of bio-political studies. Other figures in political science who worked with Steve included Glendon Schubert, Robert Heineman, James Schubert, and Stephen Wasby. He also collaborated with colleagues in criminal justice (Shaun Gabbidon, Barbara Sims, and William Hall), Psychology (Robert Lawson), and Public Administration (Denise Thompson, Amy Brofcak, and Thomas Conlin).

With his move to Penn State Harrisburg, his work had to shift from research and teaching to more administrative and leadership roles within the School of Politics and Public Affairs. Nevertheless, Steve remained an active, innovative, and productive scholar and continued to teach one course per year because he wanted to stay connected to the students at his school and loved to teach. Reflecting on his leadership role at Penn State Harrisburg, the former Chancellor, Madlyn Hanes, captured it well, writing:

“Steve’s legacy, in addition to his outstanding scholarly accomplishments, most certainly include his contributions to academic leadership. Steve was a kind and thoughtful leader— patient and empathetic. He was especially considerate of colleagues beginning their academic careers as professors. Steve helped facilitate their upward trajectory, guiding them with care, and providing constructive feedback and mentorship to further their professional development. He set high standards for students and helped them successfully navigate higher education’s challenging learning environment. Steve was particularly proud of the quality of the programs offered by the School of Public Affairs — the School he led for nearly 20 years. He was moreover an engaging and insightful colleague, working collaboratively to advance the mission and vision of Penn State Harrisburg, the Capital College. Steve will be remembered fondly for all these attributes and achievements; but for those who knew him best, he will be remembered always as a good friend who was greatly admired.”

Madlyn Hanes, Senior Vice President for Commonwealth Campuses and Executive Chancellor Emerita at Penn State University, and former Chancellor of Penn State Harrisburg

Steve Peterson viewed himself as a generalist, such as by having taught forty-five different courses through his career. He is very broad and multidisciplinary also in the reach of his publications. He enjoyed focusing on the synthesis of work in a subject area, consciously seeking to avoid becoming siloed in a particular academic specialization. However, he became one of the most widely cited pioneers in biology and the social sciences, a field which has grown dramatically in recent years, such as in areas around the rise of neurosciences. Steve was there when the field was in a very nascent stage and helped shape its development.

While modest almost to a fault, Steve was a truly innovative, convivial, thoughtful, respected, and esteemed political scientist who could work across multiple disciplines, such as the life sciences. His edited book with Somit, entitled Biopolicy: The Life Sciences and Public Policy (Emerald 2012), is an example of his reach. In addition to books and published journal articles, Steve did it all. He always presented his work at conferences. He was a strong citizen within his profession and universities, but also in his community.

Steve’s colleague, Omit Ansary, found his death to be a tragic loss for the School, saying that Steve was:

“… a true gentleman, a role model for his students, faculty and … administrators (like myself). He was a stellar and renown scholar, a superb human being, with a huge heart full of love and care for everyone, a humble individual, exceptionally calm under any situation, who treated everyone around him with the highest respect and professionalism, a person with high integrity, and a great friend and wonderful colleague that we will all deeply miss.” 

Omid Ansary, Ph.D., Sr. Associate Dean for Academic Affairs & Professor of Electrical Engineering, Penn State Harrisburg

In his profession, his universities, and communities – Steve created and led teams. I can remember Steve organising, coaching, and leading an intramural touch football team as a graduate student. I only mention this because you can see this initiative throughout his career. Steve was a founding member of the Association for Politics and the Life Sciences. He was recognized as a hero in his community by being named an ‘Olympic Torch Bearer’ in 1996. He was an assistant scout leader. He coached little league. It is part of his ‘team-DNA’ to serve as a director of his school for nearly two decades.  

While students in Buffalo, Steve and I would go together every year to Chicago for the annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association. Most recently, from 2014-18, I directed a center at Michigan State University. Before I returned to my home in Oxford in July 2018, Steve and I met back in Chicago on a day trip. I came from East Lansing, and Steve from his home in Hummelstown, Pennsylvania.

During our conversation in Chicago, I convinced him that he should be sharing more of this thinking online, such as on social media. He had a lot to say about any topic, and he took me up on this and started posting on Twitter and created a blog on WordPress. He had posted online less than an hour before he passed away.

It was a sentimental journey and the last time we were together. I am so glad we found the time to meet when we could. Many of his colleagues have told me what I already knew: Steve was not just a strong academic. He was also a very kind, sociable, and trusted friend to those fortunate enough to have known Professor Peterson.

Steve Peterson and Bill Dutton in Chicago, July 2018

A family obituary for Steven A. Peterson is available online here:

https://www.hooverfuneralhome.com/obituaries/Steven-Ames-Peterson?obId=23418367

Douglas Engelbart in a Flow of Inspirations

Douglas Carl Engelbart (1925-2013) is cited most prominently for his 1968 “Mother of All Demos”. He introduced his team’s research program by using of an early time-sharing computer system, what he called an “oN-Line System” (NLS), that used a “mouse” to support human interaction with the computer. For example, as you can see from his demonstration, he showed his audience how he could cut and paste words he highlighted with his mouse and how he could create a shopping list and so on. He was decades ahead of his time.

Douglas Engelbart’s NLS – History Computer

The mouse was one concrete invention that arose from his Augmented Human Intelligence Research Center – later called the Augmentation Research Center –  based at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), where he and a small group of colleagues began developing the NLS. This was in line with his focus on the use of computing to complement human intelligence, what he called “augmented intelligence” rather than artificial intelligence (AI). He credited Vannevar Bush for inspiring his vision, such as through Bush’s paper ‘As We May Think’. When he visited the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) in 2004, he told us about how a member of his team thought the device they were using looked like a mouse, with tail and all, so they used that term as a placeholder until they came up with a proper name for it. The mouse stuck.

Just as Engelbart was inspired by Bush, Engelbart inspired many others, such as Ted Nelson (1987), who coined the concept of hypertext and his visionary work on the Xanadu project. Ted was with us at the OII in 2004 and helped host Doug Engelbart’s visit. The concept of hypertext was clearly an influence on the development of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee and his colleagues at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN) in Switzerland. The Web’s development in the open innovation culture of CERN has been critical to countless other developments of the Internet and Web and related digital media (Dutton 2013: 9-10).

Arthur Bullard photo of Bill Dutton, Doug Engelbart, and Ted Nelson in 2004, courtesy of the OII

Many colleagues are beginning to document and archive the course of developments and their interrelationships in the short but incredible history of information and communication technologies (ICT) like the internet and web, such as the Engelbart Archive and the UK’s Archive for IT, as one I have only begun to follow more closely. It may be too early, but perhaps we can someday begin to track the course of innovations in Internet studies as well, as I began to describe in The Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies (Dutton 2013).

References

Dutton, W. H. (2013; 2014 paperback) (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nelson, T. (1987), Literary Machines. Swathmore PA: Mindful.

Hobbesian World of TV News in Britain

The Hobbesian World of Broadcast TV News in Britain

As an American, I often find broadcast TV news in Britain to be completely out of character with my expectations. For example, as I would expect, BBC World Service is almost always polite, civilized, correct, and informative, while also entertaining. In contrast, all too often, BBC One TV news broadcasts fall into shockingly nasty, brutish, self-righteous, and mean-spirited coverage.  

The most recent example is coverage this week of the so-called ‘partygate’ scandal in which the PM is accused of knowing about and permitting a party at Number 10 Downing Street during last year’s Christmas season, that breached his own lockdown restrictions. It resurfaced when a video was leaked of his former press secretary being amused, laughing, last year while rehearsing how to answer questions about these accusations. The point is one of hypocrisy, fair enough, but the coverage this past week has been extraordinary.

2 minutes hate from Orwell’s 1984

Each BBC anchor and presenter took turns attacking the PM and the former press secretary, even after she resigned. And most journalists interviewed aggrieved members of the public who were enraged by the banter or the breach of the rules. (Apparently, if a member of the government risks their health and safety in violating rules, then we all should be able to put our lives at risk.) And if someone laughs at a rehearsal, there are no other explanations for it – not stress, struggling for words, or other human reasons for banter – than being disrespectable of those in the public who have suffered from COVID. No one in the broadcast studio seemed to miss an opportunity to kick the victims while they were down. I was reminded of mob and vigilante behaviour, where everyone must demonstrate anger for others to witness their virtue.

A saw a post by a professor who said no one will trust the government in the wake of this scandal. That is the conventional story. Perhaps it is a minority opinion, but I wonder if anyone will respect the press after this disproportionate trashing of public officials.

Why were they treated in such a nasty and self-righteous way? Maybe it was personal. Many of the press elite know the people in this saga, so maybe they just have grudges or personal animosities to vent. Is it what broadcasters must do to please and gain an audience?  Maybe it is a model of accepted professional practice in a rather unrestrained Hobbesian world of UK TV broadcasting.

From my perspective as a viewer, the degree that the TV anchors and journalists worked to build up anger towards the culprits of this scandal reminded me of Orwell’s two minutes hate in 1984. Extreme, yes, I accept that, Orwell did work at the BBC during the war, and I find it fascinating that he captured this cathartic behavior. It is not a world away from what I saw the anchors and journalists orchestrating on BBC One.

The COVID 19 pandemic has been a worldwide catastrophe and people are angry about how their normal lives have been undermined by this epidemic. Given this inevitable frustration, I would think all of us – particularly journalists and TV anchors – would be wise not to provoke and anger others. Spending a huge proportion of time whipping up anger over a petty scandal while neglecting major developments in Afghanistan, Ukraine, China, and other news hot spots around the world just seems nuts and potentially dangerous.

Public-Private Tensions in the UK

UK Business and Government Tensions: Towards a More Functional Relationship

The handwringing over sleaze accusations and the fuss over Peppa Pig referenced as an example of a major business success are just two recent manifestations to what I’ve sensed to be a long-term, awkward, and dysfunctional relationship between business and government in the UK. The public and private sectors do not seem capable of developing a productive relationship, even though a good relationship seems obviously valuable for advancing the national economy and its social benefits.  

You can dismiss my views since I am an academic and an American, and the US certainly has its examples of dysfunctional relations between public and private sectors, such as during the Trump administration. But as an American academic who has spent many years in the UK, the cultural differences seem remarkable.

Peppa Pig

Comparatively speaking, the UK has a more skeptical if not anti-business culture in relation to the US. For example, in the US, business leaders are often very promising candidates for office. They are viewed as people who have done real work, had to hire and fire people, get things done, and who are capable of ‘running government more like a business’, meaning more efficiently.  In the UK, business is more often viewed as relatively wasteful, inefficient, more expensive, and even a corrupting influence on government.

Many of the best graduates from US educational institutions go into high paying jobs in business and industry. Many of the best graduates from the top UK educational institutions go into one or another area of public service, such as a career politician. I’m not sure if the UK even has a degree equivalent in stature to the Harvard MBA, for example.

Maybe I am wrong, but if this is a generally valid comparison, at least something should be done by business schools in the UK, even if no one else takes responsibility for mending this relationship. Productive and positive relations between the public and private sectors must be of benefit to all. In the past, this might have been a role played to some degree by the gentlemen’s or private members’ clubs in London, but something more needs to be done.

Might this problem be a great theme for a seminar series, if not a research project or research program at a major business school? Perhaps some joint programme supported by the UK’s Economic and Social Research (ESRC) council could fund illuminating research in this area. If this is being done or has already been done, then it is under-achieving and needs to be ratcheted up or revisited. If not, I think it would be a valuable contribution.  

COP26 Signals Progress on Climate Policy and Practice

Disparaging press preceded and followed the 26th UN Climate Change Conference, the Glasgow COP26 summit, focused on implementation of the 2015 Paris climate accord. News outlets forecasted an unsuccessful summit and then told us it did not achieve all its aims. However, denigrating the progress made at COP26 was wrong and foolish. Despite the forecasts of failure, much more was achieved than the forecast by the critics, despite the dire press narratives.

Arthur Asa Berger self-caricature

A deal versus no deal was reached, provided a stronger basis for further negotiation, available here: https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/resource/cma2021_L16_adv.pdf

The 1.5C aim of the Paris accord still lives as a target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by 2030. 

It signalled the beginning of the end of coal power.

Coal has been dramatically showcased as a [maybe the] primary mandate for further action. Global public awareness on the centrality of coal to emissions has been made clear.  Despite the negotiated wording of “phase down” rather than “phase out”, I agree with the UK PM Johnson’s view that it marked the “beginning of the end of coal”. As he put it, this was a “decisive shift … Glasgow has sounded the death knell for coal power”. And as the US Climate envoy John Kerry said: “You have to phase down coal before you can end coal.” 

It put China, India, and the USA in the spotlight for further negotiations. India and China for insisting on compromising on coal power, and the USA for being among the three largest contributors to greenhouse gases. 

Other areas of progress included steps to address deforestation, methane, fossil fuels, financing, and zero-emission vehicles. 

The world should congratulate the UK cabinet minister Alok Sharmon, president of the summit, for orchestrating a summit based on multilateralism that brought real progress to negotiations among sovereign nations over halting global warming. That is a major move in the right direction. 

#COP26 #TogetherForOurPlanet

Could History be the New, New Thing? Archiving

Could History be the New, New Thing: Archiving

Could it be that the digerati are beginning to wonder about the origins of such ‘innovations’ as video communication, AI, remote work, and more? Are they discovering that all these innovations have a long history in the development of information and communication technologies (ICTs)? 

These questions arose as I’ve become aware of a variety of initiatives to better document the history of communication and information technologies and the people associated with the communication revolution. It is arguable that most individuals focused on new advances in media and ICTs have no historical perspective at all. I’ve called it ‘innovation amnesia’. Some think video is new, for example, but have little or no knowledge of the many efforts to launch video communication since the late 1960s. 

Pre-IT Archives

Most recently I was interviewed by the individuals behind the development of Archives of IT. These developers are realizing that many of those associated with the emergence of information technologies have either passed away or may not be around many more years. The Archives are collecting oral histories of those closely associated with IT and the IT industry in the UK and worldwide. As they began to look at those studying the societal implications of IT, they interviewed me, as the founding director of the OII, among a number of others to begin tracking its study. See: https://archivesit.org.uk/interviews/professor-bill-dutton/

This experience reminded me of my own work in archiving the papers of James H. Quello, one of the longest serving members of the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC). When I was Director of the Quello Center at MSU I put together the James H. Quello Archives, which is being supported and up-dated by the Quello Center.

Similarly, an old colleague from my USC days (A. Michael Noll) has assembled an archive of William O. ‘Bill’ Baker, who was the vice president for research at Bell Telephone Laboratories from 1955 to 1973, retiring as Chairman in 1980. Bell Labs was critical to the revolution in communication technologies.

Teaching and research could be supported by new materials such as these. Might these be traces of a new interest in the history of ICTs and their implications for society? Possibly, and for two basic reasons.

First, there is an increasingly interesting and cumulative history to document.

Secondly, the gathering of information and conduct of interviews, for example, are increasingly possible anywhere in the world. ICTs have democratized the process of archiving so we no longer have to rely only on special collections in libraries. Individuals and civic minded associations have the wherewithal to archive.

So, as we see people talking about old enduring topics as if they are genuinely new, more of us can see the value of better documenting and preserving the social dynamics of past successes and failures – and we have the means to do it – archiving.  

Links:

Archives of IT: https://archivesit.org.uk

Interview with me on the Archives: https://archivesit.org.uk/interviews/professor-bill-dutton/

James H. Quello Archive: https://quello.msu.edu/quello-archives/

William ‘Bill’ O. Baker Archive: http://williamobaker.org

Robots: Commentary by A. Michael Noll

REIN IN THE CLOUD

REJOICE IN THE ROBOTS

[The following commentary is authored by A. Michael Noll, and posted with the permission of the author. It illustrates the disagreement among experts on the social implications of new technologies, such as robotics, AI, cloud computing, and the Internet, demonstrating the value of continued research on the actual implications across different contexts and applications.]

The article “Rein In The Robots” by Kate Crawford (TIME, Vol.198, Nos.7-8, Aug.23-30, 2001, p.95) advocates “protection against the unchecked growth of artificial intelligence.” There is nothing new in her position. There have always been those who oppose any new technology or medium.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is decades old, and today has become a buzzword wrapping itself around such old concepts as computerization, pattern recognition, automation, robotics, and machine learning. It is hard to know what to fear when AI seems to encompass nearly everything.

A. Michael Noll

Robots are machines. Robots do not have feelings, and thus it is tempting to attack them with headlines like “Rein In The Robots.” Actually, robots perform the heavy and tiresome work that humans are not equipped to perform. Robots clean floors tirelessly. Robots help the elderly overcome isolation. Robots entertain children. But they also scare us, such as the robot in the classic movie “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”

People fear what they do not understand. I made sure that my students understood the process of converting a signal to a digital representation. That way my students did not fear the digital revolution – they understood digitization and were not prey to all the hype. AI is a lot of hype – and that leads to fear and misunderstanding – and conspiracy theories.

Crawford mentions a “small, homogenous group of very wealthy people based in a handful of cities without any real accountability” as those driving the growth of AI. In expressing her conspiracy theory, she fails to accept that she, as an employee of Microsoft, is one of those people.

The real threat, in my opinion, is to computer security and our privacy from information stored centrally in computerized files – what today is called “the cloud.” Unknowingly, and willingly, all the information on our smart phones and computers is stored in the cloud, where it has the risk of being accessed and analyzed without our knowledge or approval and used against us by governments and others.

John R. Pierce (the father of communication satellites) liked to espouse that he was more concerned, not with artificial intelligence, but the natural stupidity of humans! Indeed, it is the latter we need to fear.

Way back in 1961, my article “Electronic Computer – Friend or Foe” expressed the dangers that might occur when “the computer is used to make logical decisions.” I suggested caution “before the axe and sledgehammer” becomes the only remedy. I guess little has changed – be ready to pull the plug!

August 16, 2021

A. Michael Noll is Professor Emeritus at USC Annenberg. John R. Pierce and he are the authors of SIGNALS: The Science of Telecommunication.

Get Back to the Classroom

Get Back to the Classroom

Given continuing uncertainties about the COVID pandemic and its variants, it is understandable that many universities are not in a position as yet to commit to in-person, face-to-face, teaching and a return to normality on college and university campuses. This is particularly the case for those individuals – teachers and students – with medical conditions that would leave them more at risk. However, in some statements, news coverage, and between the lines of pronouncements, there appears to be a strong sentiment to transform teaching in light of the perceived successes and advantages of online teaching.[1] Some see a new normal. 

Personally, I have retired from teaching, so perhaps my opinion should not count. Nevertheless, I have taught for decades, have taught a few courses online as well, and have done research on computer-mediated communication and online education.[2] Based on my experience, I would urge universities to return to the old normal of face-to-face classroom teaching as soon as possible (ASAP). Why? 

New Normal?

From the student’s perspective, in-person teaching is critical for two basic reasons. First, a key objective of teaching is not simply to transfer information, but to motivate and interest students in the subject matter, specifically, and learning, generally. Face-to-face teaching has a greater potential for such psychological arousal or motivation. It is true that online education and basic reading materials have an arguably equivalent or better role in simply transmitting information. But instructors can assign readings and video lectures to supplement but not replace their teaching. Any student would be wise to go to a university offering maximum exposure to in-person classes, and when there, to take every opportunity to be physically and attentively in class.  

I understand the vision that students might be better located in a workplace, such as a production studio or engineering division, where they can apply what they are learning. This has been an aspect of distance education for decades and that should continue. However, in traditional undergraduate and graduate education, the teacher and other students are arguably the most important people to interact with to foster interest and engagement in learning. Certainly not from a student’s home.  

Secondly, my best experiences in education have been the result of a teacher becoming a mentor or role model for my own learning and education. Teachers can have a powerful impact on students, such as by commenting on their work, providing encouraging feedback, or helping them understand the strengths and weaknesses of their oral and written contributions to a class. My reflections about my education quickly move to a teacher who inspired me to do better or follow a line of research or study. 

From the teacher’s perspective, online teaching is possible. I understand that when a teacher first tries online teaching that they can be pleasantly surprised by its potential. Once they understand the process, it is easy to do, it can be recorded and seen again by students, and even reused, like old lecture notes. That said, you are probably fooled by the technical achievement, as you have little idea how motivational or informative your productions are for your students. They can be listening or not listening with their audio and video muted, while they do other things, like checking their social media. Yes, students can sometimes daydream in class and pretend to pay attention, but if that is true, imagine what they will do online. You need to hold their attention and get them excited about what they are reading and learning from the class, and this is less likely to happen online. 

But let’s assume that for a small percentage of the most gifted students, an online lecture is potentially better than the average lecture produced by the average teacher. This was the logic behind an initiative I was involved in during the late-1990s in online education involving consortiums of universities in the US. Working in collaboration, it would make no sense for every university in the consortium to have its own lecture on every topic when the universities could select the best teachers for any given topic and enable all the universities to share that lecture – along with thousands of other lectures. It didn’t work in 2000, but it could work in 2025. So unless you are a gifted online producer, you as a college or university instructor will be selecting readings, selecting lectures from your consortium, and maybe leading or moderating online discussions of these materials. In short, most instructors will transform themselves into teaching assistants as the lecturing and teaching moves to the top performers to produce lecture materials. 

When I was a freshman in a large state university in 1960s, I took an introduction to psychology course at 8 am in a large lecture hall with over 200 students. It was delivered on televisions in black and white by a professor who had passed away several years before. It didn’t work for me – I usually fell asleep. I recall the class, but not the teacher. It was not inspiring, not motivating. My fear is that we really are thinking of going back to the future here and failing students, teachers, and universities in the process.

Get back into the classroom as soon as it is safe to do so.  


[1] This morning’s The Sunday Times provides an apt example: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/universities-refuse-to-end-online-lessons-h5v3mcmwj

[2] For example, see: Dutton, W. H. and Loader, B. D. (2002) (eds.), Digital Academe: New Media and Institutions in Higher Education and Learning, London: Taylor & Francis/Routledge.