Value Tradeoffs for a Cashless Society

A recent news story (Sunday Times 6 June 2021) highlighted the potential for Sweden to lead the way to a ‘cashless’ future.[1] Not surprising in the context of so many observable trends moving in this direction. However, it reminded me of the early forecasts of a cashless society that were debated in the 1970s, and sense, particularly to the work of my former colleague and pioneer of social informatics, the late-Rob Kling, who died in 2003.[2]

PPRO Colleagues 1979

Early in my research on the social aspects of information and communication technologies, I had the opportunity to collaborate with Professor Rob Kling at UC Irvine, when we were both involved with the Public Policy Research Organization (PPRO), directed by Professor Kenneth Kraemer. I joined this team that also included John Leslie King, Jim Danziger, Alana Northrup, and others, in 1974 to work on the URBIS Project. Supported by the US National Science Foundation, URBIS was one of the first systematic evaluations of the role and impact of computing in American governments.[3]

In 1976, Rob published one of his early critiques of what were then called ‘electronic funds transfer systems’ that pioneered in raising some of the social and ethical issues for society, namely around privacy. Here is the abstract of this piece, entitled ‘Passing the Digital Buck: Unresolved Social and Technical Issues in Electronic Funds Transfer Systems’:

“Over the last decade, plans for using computer-based systems to automate the transfer of debits and credits have moved from a technologist’s pipe dream to an emerging reality. During the last few years, several components of this technology have been developed in prototype form and have begun to be implemented on a large scale. While such systems promise financial benefits for the institutions that exploit them, they also raise significant social, legal, and technical questions that must be resolved if full-scale Electronic Funds Transfer Systems (EFTS) are not to cause more problems for the larger public than they solve. Few of these problems have been systematically articulated. This paper describes the mechanics of EFTS, and the benefits it should provide its promoters. But it emphasizes a variety of the problems that EFTS raises and places them in context.”[4]

Like many others, I’ve followed the development of electronic payment systems over the decades. Three simple but notable reflections repeatedly come to mind from this work. 

One is the degree to which some thoughtful thinkers really can provide valuable forecasts of future developments. I most often find myself marveling at how wrong forecasting can be, but yes, there are some clear examples of individuals, like James Martin, clarifying the social and technical dynamics of likely trends and their future development. Rob’s discussion of the social and value tradeoffs of EFTS is one that we are seeing played out today – 4 decades later. The trick is to sort out the forecasts that are truly prescient as they have a sound empirical basis in the history and underlying dynamics of their development from those that are silly, simply technologically deterministic extrapolations, or based on a limited and possibly misleading example. Of course, even the best of forecasts need to be understood as problematic given the many factors shaping the use and impacts of technical innovations. 

The second is that everyone needs to be skeptical of forecasts as long-range expectations about the future are most often overly optimistic or pessimistic. Even forecasts that are on target are often a decade or two further in the future than originally forecast. Video telephony was forecasted in the 1960s and marketed in the early 1970s but is only recently flourishing. 

The third is the unpredictable fluctuations in these trends. It is not just a straightforward linear, non-linear or slower curve of development, but often entail major perturbations over time. For example, in the case of digital payments, the automated teller machines were an early development that seemed to be a gift that enable a return to privacy. Rather than paying for everything electronically, people tended to get cash from distributed teller machines and therefore be able to make a larger proportion of their purchases privately – using cash. So, surprise – digital systems were enhancing privacy – but only for a time. 

Of course, it became clear that cash withdrawals could be so well tracked that individuals could be followed with considerable accuracy. And today, given the many ways payments and clicks are analyzed online for marketing and advertising, the concept of ‘surveillance capitalism’ has become widely accepted.[5] Moreover, in the context of the global pandemic, individuals have been incentivized to use electronic payments for everything and not to use cash. That brings us full speed ahead into a more truly cashless society with all of the social and political tradeoffs that Rob warned us about in the 1970s. While even Rob could not have foreseen the pandemic and its pressure on moving to a cashless society, his forecasts of the value tradeoffs remain valuable to this day. However, far more empirical research needs to be conducted on the actual development and impacts of our cashless society.

Further Reading

‘The Social Construction of Rob Kling’, The Information Society, 2003, 19: 195-196. https://tisj.sitehost.iu.edu/contact/rltork.pdf

Rob Kling, ‘The Social and Institutional Meanings of Electrnonic Funds Transfer Systems’, Chapter 15 (pp. 183-195) in Kent Colton and Kenneth Kraemer (eds), Computers and Banking. New York: Plenum Press, 1980.


[1] https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/sweden-leads-way-to-a-cashless-future-5kqj75mb9

[2] ‘The Social Construction of Rob Kling’, The Information Society, 2003, 19: 195-196. https://tisj.sitehost.iu.edu/contact/rltork.pdf

[3] This research was reported widely, but captured in two books, including Kraemer, K. L., Dutton, W. H., and Northrop, A. (1981), The Management of Information Systems, New York: Columbia University Press, and Danziger, J. N., Dutton, W. H., Kling, R., and Kraemer, K. L. (1982; 1983 paperback), Computers and Politics: High Technology in American Local Governments, New York: Columbia University Press.

[4] https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Passing-the-digital-buck-%3A-unresolved-social-and-in-Kling/83643a73b2c0400d0a680d4fd5e6a72f5e81e145#paper-header

[5] Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. London: Profile Books. 

Jay G Blumler and the Joy of Academia

Jay G Blumler – Embodying the Joy of Academia

On 30 January 2021, Professor Jay George Blumler died at his home in Leeds. His family was with him in the last days of his 96 years. Over the last several months following his death, many beautiful tributes have conveyed the love and admiration of his family, friends and colleagues for one of the world’s leading scholars in the field of Political Communication – an American born, but British-based theorist of communication and media. Jay was active for nearly all his academic career at the School of Media and Communication at Leeds University, but he had many ties with colleagues and academic institutions around the world, including the University of Maryland and the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California, where I met him in the early 1980s. 

Jay Blumler at the Duttons

I will point you to some of the many tributes to Jay, which wonderfully capture his life and work in more detail and in the words of those he worked with throughout his career. At one of the last tributes given for the members of the International Association of Media and Communication Research (IAMCR), six world class scholars in the communication field commemorated his life and work, including Lance Bennett, Nico Carpentier, Stephen Coleman, Mark Deuze, Sonia Livingstone, and Claudia Mellado. While each was a leader in their own field, each noted Jay’s role as a valued mentor to them. I could hardly believe that I knew of the work of all six initially through Jay. It seemed as if early in every visit I had with Jay, whether he or I was getting off a bus, train or plane, he would without fail call my attention to the work of some promising new scholar of communication he had met, and whom I should follow. My colleagues could not have had a better mentor and scholarly promoter. I could easily say that Jay was proud of each of them. He truly was. He was absolutely buoyed by the success of his colleagues. 

That brings me to one personal reflection I would add to the many tributes: Jay Blumler found real joy in academia. He found delight in all aspects of the academic enterprise. Many mentioned how he never failed to ask a penetrating but incisive and constructive question at seminars. He’d be in the front row and raring to join the discussion. But in so many different situations and interactions, Jay was able to creatively construct a fun and valuable occasion. 

For example, whenever I asked him to comment on a draft paper or outline, I came to realize that I would not just get a quick sign of approval or a few recommended citations. To the contrary, I would get an invitation to tea or a meal at which he would bring his notes and we would speak for hours about my work and how it could be refined, rethought, better conceptualised, and tied to earlier work. He constructed such tutorials in ways that not only contributed to my work but educated and entertained me and anyone nearby. He initiated me to this process in the early 1980s when we co-edited a book, with Ken Kraemer, entitled Wired Cities, about how networking communities would have major social implications. He made that such an enjoyable experience and such a better book.  

That was just one example. Those in academia know that being asked to comment on a paper or book can be seen as a burden. It can be an occasion when many academics would not bother to respond or offer a quick reply. Many – including myself on occasion – are often too busy and too seriously focused on their own work to be distracted by helping a colleague. Not Jay. 

Jay would make what could have been a burdensome task into an enjoyable experience that was socially and educationally memorable. Maybe even a nice meal at a new restaurant. He enjoyed himself in the process and that joy infused his colleagues with greater enthusiasm to refine their own work and also to spare more time for those seeking their help, having learned from Jay’s example. 

This is not to say that Professor Blumler was not aware of the slings and arrows of academic criticism and one-upmanship. As a theorist in his field, his work was highly visible and the subject of critiques as well as praise, such as around his pioneering work with Elihu Katz and others on the uses and gratifications of the media. While critics never seemed to hurt his feelings, they could make him cross. But he was seldom if ever angry, as he seemed to be able to focus on the work and those colleagues he admired rather than fretting about those he did not. I never recall him criticising or dismissing any academic. Instead, he championed those he most respected and whose work he followed most closely.

Jay is famous for adding a song to his keynotes or seminar talks. He loved to sing and had a wonderful baritone voice. But that is just another one of many ways in which Jay found and spread joy in academia. He made academia a better place for all those who knew him. 

Tributes to Jay G Blumler include

Stephen Coleman’s written for Leeds University, where Jay founded the former Centre for Television Research and was an Emeritus Professor, and which is available on his family’s memorial website at: https://everloved.com/life-of/professor-jay-blumler/obituary/

Sonia Livingstone’s written for the International Communication Association, for which Jay was President (1989-90): https://www.icahdq.org/blogpost/1523657/366476/In-Memory-of-Jay-G-Blumler

Roland Cayrol’s written for La Monde: https://www.lemonde.fr/disparitions/article/2021/02/10/la-mort-de-jay-g-blumler-professeur-de-science-de-la-communication_6069476_3382.html

Antioch College, where Jay studied in the US and remained a proud promoter, published this tribute: https://antiochcollege.edu/2021/02/jay-blumler-47/

Social Media Could Have Prevented the UK’s Post Office Scandal

Over seven hundred  (736) ‘sub-postmasters’ were charged – many if not most unjustly – with criminal offenses from 2000-2013 because of discrepancies in their accounts, leading to charges of theft, fraud, and false accounting (Meddings 2021). Had they been siphoning money from their accounts?

We have learned that many of these discrepancies were due to the faults in an IT system, called Horizon, that had been in place for over twenty years (Croft 2021) – enough time to find and correct an problems! Thirty-nine sub-postmasters ‘were convicted of stealing money, with some imprisoned, after the Post Office installed the Horizon computer system in branches’ (Peachey 2021). Many convictions have been reversed recently, following six other convictions that were overturned in December 2020 (Peachey 2021).

In Britain, small branches of the Post Office are called Sub-Post Offices and are headed by a Sub-Postmaster or Sub-Postmistress. They serve as agents of the Post Office but the heads are self-employed. Many offices are based in convenience stores, or in small shops in the center of villages – all sorts of locations – and they and their postmasters become one of the centerpieces of many communities. 

A Generic Sub-Post Office

In an interview on the BBC World Service with one of the sub-postmasters whose conviction was overturned, it was clear that law enforcement led each to believe that they alone were being charged. It was only their office in which accounts showed discrepancies. If only they had been socially networked. The post office knew of the faults as did some public officials, but the problems were not disclosed to the subpostmasters, led to believe they alone were at fault (Meddings 2021).

Facebook had not been launched until 2004 but imagine if these sub-postmasters were on a social network, whether a group on Facebook, WhatsApp, or another network that would enable them to ask if only they were charged with these offences. One query but one post master could have unravelled this scandal.

Instead, they were isolated in their post office, and not informed about similar problems occurring in many other cases. Admittedly, there are a number of ifs, ands, and buts. That said, if many who were charged with stealing from their accounts were aware of similar accusations at many other sub-post offices, they would have been more likely to put two and two together, tie them to an IT system they shared and raised alarms that would have prevented this scandal from happening – one that literally ruined the careers and lives of many of those charged. Sabah Meddings (2021) referred to this as an ‘industrial scale failure of justice’. Sadly, it could have been avoided if they would have been enabled to communicate with others if sub-postmasters offices were on a social network, where they could seek advice, ask questions, raise issues and more. 

Many other occupations have social networks that are particularly valuable for those in relatively isolated offices. For example, Sermo is a social network of physicians, which enables any physician to ask questions of other physicians. If something similar to Sermo had been available to the sub-posts, the likelihood of such an injustice would have been greatly reduced. For all the demonization of social media, it is sometimes easy to forget how valuable they can be to networked individuals. 

References

Croft, Jane (2021), ‘Sub-postmasters clear their names in court after grave miscarriage of justice’, Financial Times, 24 April, p. 1. 

Meddings, Sabah (2021), ‘Post Office scandal was an industrial scale failure of justice’, The Sunday Times, 25 April: p. 23.

Peachey, Kevin (2021), ‘Convicted Post Office workers have names cleared’, BBC News, 24 April: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-56859357

Six Benefits of Academics Working with Government

The Value of Academics Working with Government: Lessons from Collaboration on Cybersecurity 

William H. Dutton with Carolin Weisser Harris 

Six of the benefits of academics collaborating with government include realising the value of: 1) complementary perspectives and knowledge sets; 2) different communication skills and styles; 3) distributing the load; 4) different time scales; 5) generating impact; and 6) tackling multifaceted problems.

Our Global Cybersecurity Capacity Centre (GCSCC) at Oxford University recently completed a short but intense period of working with a UK Government team focused on cybersecurity capacity building with foreign governments. In one of our last meetings around our final reports, we had a side discussion – not part of the report – about the differences between academic researchers and our colleagues working in government departments. Of course, some academics end up in government and vice versa, but individuals quickly adapt to the different cultures and working patterns of government or academia if they choose to stay. 

For example, the differences in our time horizons were not controversial, as some of us on the academic team have been working on particular issues for decades while our government colleagues are focused on the start and finish a project over a short, finite time, such as lasting one year or even less. These different time horizons are only one of many other challenges tied to the very different ways of working, but what about the benefits? 

Drawing courtesy of Arthur Asa Berger

What is the value of fostering more academic-government collaboration? Here we were not as quick to come up with clear answers. But collaboration between academia and government is more difficult than working within one’s own institutional context. There must be benefits to justify the greater commitments of time and effort to collaborate. On reflection, and from our experience, a number of real benefits and taken-for-granted assumptions come to mind. The all ways to realise the benefits of:

  1. Complementary Perspectives and Knowledge Sets

Our focus on cybersecurity, for example, is inherently tied to both academic research and policy and practice. By bringing actors together across academia and government, there is less risk of working in a way that is blind to the perspectives of other sectors. It might be impossible to shape policy and practice if the academic research is not alert to the issues most pertinent to government. Likewise, governments cannot establish credible policy or regulatory initiatives without an awareness of the academic controversies and consensus around relevant concepts and issues. 

2. Different Communication Skills and Styles

Academic research can get lost in translation if academics are not confronted with what resonates well with governmental staff and leadership. What is understood and misunderstood in moving across academic and government divides? Think of the acronyms used in government versus academia. How can assumptions and work be better translated to each set of participants? Working together forces a confrontation with these communication issues, as well as the different styles in the two groups. Comparing the slides prepared by academics with those of government staff can provide a sense of people coming from different planets, not just different sectors.  

3. Distributing the Load – Time to Read Everything?

My academic colleagues noticed that many in the government simply did not have the time to read extremely long and often dense academic papers or books, much less to write a blog about collaborative research! It was far better to have brief executive oriented briefing papers. Better yet would be a short 10-minute oral explanation of any research or a discussion in the form of a webinar. Do they need to know the finest details of a methodology, or to simply have a basic understanding of the method and trust that the specific methodology followed was state of the practice, done professionally, or peer reviewed? Can they quickly move to: What did they find? Being able to trust the methods of the academics saved an enormous amount of time for the governmental participants. 

Likewise, did the academics want to take the time to read very long and detailed administrative reports and government documents? Clearly, they also appreciated the brief summary or distillation of any texts that were not central to the study. Unless academics were focused on organizational politics and management, they often do not need to know why the government has chosen to support or not support particular work, but trust that there is a green light to go ahead, and their colleagues in government will try to keep the work going. 

So, the two groups read and were interested in reading and hearing different kinds of reports and documentation, about different issues, and at different levels. Working together, they could then cover more ground in the time of the project and better understand each other’s needs and what each could contribute to the collaboration.  

4. Different Time Scales

As mentioned above, another aspect of time was the different time scales of academic research versus governmental studies. One of our colleagues had been working on Internet studies for over four decades, but a short governmental study could draw easily on that investment in time. Everyone did not need to spend decades on research. 

Academics can’t change the focus of their research too rapidly without losing their basis of expertise. The cycle of attention in government may move towards the interests of an academic from time to time and then it is important to connect governmental staff with the right researchers to take advantage of their different time scales. 

The different time scales do not undermine collaboration, but they put a premium on being able to connect governmental research with relevant academic research that is at a level and at a time at which the findings can be valuable to policy or practice. Academics cannot chase policy issues as they will always be late to the debate. But governmental researchers can find researchers doing relevant work that is sufficiently mature to inform the questions faced by the government. 

5. Generating Impact

Academics are increasingly interested in having an impact, which has been defined as ‘having an effect, benefit, or contribution to economic, social, cultural, and other aspects of the lives of citizens and society beyond contributions to academic research’ (Hutchinson 2019). Is their research read, understood, or acted upon? Does it make a difference to the sector of relevance to their research? Working directly with government can enhance the likelihood of governmental actors being aware of and reactive to academic research. Collaboration does not guarantee greater productivity (Lee and Bozeman 2005). However, it has the potential to support the greater dissemination of the research across government and create greater awareness of the evidence behind the policy advice of academic researchers.

Of course, governments do not simply write reports to tick boxes. They also wish to have an impact on policy or practice. Working with academics can help gain insights and credibility that can make reports more novel, interesting, and meaningful for enacting change in policy and practice. They can also gain a better sense of the limits of academic research as researchers explain the lack of evidence in some areas and the needs for additional work. 

6. Tackling Multifaceted Problems

Cybersecurity is not only tied to academia and government. Many other actors are involved. We found that our partners in government had different contacts with different networks of actors than we had and vice versa. Putting together these networks of actors enabled us to better embed the multiplicity of actors – other governments, civil society, non-governmental organizations, business and industry, and experts in cybersecurity – in our joint work. 

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The potential benefits are many, but there are risks. Participants need to care a great deal about the common work and be committed to the area in order to overcome the challenges. That said, the different time frames, communication styles, and more that confront collaboration between government and academia not only can be addressed but also bring some benefits to the collaboration. 

Cybersecurity is one of many policy areas that requires engagement with various stakeholders, and for meaningful engagement to develop you need to build trustful relationships. Projects like ours where partners from different stakeholder groups (in this case academia and government) work together can enable building those trustful relationships and strengthen the potential for others to trust the outputs of joint projects.

References

Hutchinson, A. (2019), ‘Metrics and Research Impact’, pp. 91-103 in Science Libraries in the Self-Service Age. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-08-102033-3.00008-8

Lee, S., and Bozeman, B. (2005), ‘The Impact of Research Collaboration on Scientific Productivity’ Social Studies of Science, 35: DOI: 10.1177/0306312705052359 Online at: http://sss.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/35/5/673

American Hubris on the UK and Northern Ireland

This morning’s Financial Times (17 March 2021) notes that the ‘US fires warning shot at Johnson on Northern Ireland’. President Joe Biden is said to be preparing to hold St. Patrick’s day talks with Irish premier Micheál Martin. President Biden reminds the world that he is Irish and will oppose any US-UK trade deal unless UK negotiations with the EU uphold terms of the Good Friday peace agreement. 

I am an American, and generally support President Biden, who has had remarkable accomplishments in his early days in office. But I have lived and worked in the UK, and England specifically, since 2002. I have long warned my colleagues in Britain – even though they already know this – that when Americans come to the UK, they start giving advice the moment they get off the plane. Joe Biden has not even gotten off a plane and – even before he was elected – has been giving advice or one might say orders to the UK on how to resolve trade issues with the EU. 

Puck’s “The Bull in the China Shop” 1898

There is something endearing about American hubris to think they can advise nations on matters on which they know far too little. I’ve yet to hear any responsible voice in the UK opposed to the Good Friday peace agreement. However, the complexity of the relationships between multiple stakeholders in the UK, and the nation of Northern Island and other nations and regions of the UK, and the EU and its member states, and Ireland in particular, are seriously difficult to resolve. For any US public official to make such facile statements that specifically threaten the UK is simply foolish. 

President Biden and the US State Department need to be a bit more modest, better informed and more balanced before weighing in on this issue. Joe Biden may think he is Irish, but is acting like a proverbial bull in a china shop. Could he ask what the US can do to help ensure that these negotiations are resolved in a way that is fair – if not a win-win – to all parties and preserves the peace agreement? 

Addendum

Press coverage following President Biden’s meeting with Ireland’s PM suggested that the US took a more balanced approach, arguing that “the UK and the EU must ‘move forward with a positive relationship’ on the Northern Irish protocol” (Williams, A., and Noonan, L., ‘Irish Premier Tells Biden EU and UK Must Back Good Friday Pact’, Financial Times, 18 March 2021: 4). This sounds like a more modest request.

Afterword

Later, coverage of President Biden’s administration seemed to have thrown gasoline on the fires in Northern Ireland by furthering the impression that ‘the Irish’ Biden and events were favouring the nationalists v the unionists. Later the administration said they ‘join the British, Irish and Northern Irish leaders in their calls for calm.’ My hope is they keep that message front and centre and stop interfering with a situation they do not seem to understand. Do no harm.

Update: Here he goes again: an editorial following Biden’s comments around the G7 Conference in Cornwall in The Telegraph that also makes this point about his lack of understanding of the specific circumstances of Northern Ireland politics: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2021/06/10/joe-biden-doesnt-understand-northern-ireland/?li_source=LI&li_medium=liftigniter-onward-journey&fbclid=IwAR0_RAluAGuiQ2joGKZw6LSC5WGrwaFfNTMcEEw7er6tXJ4j7S7M5qBDp8U

Reading and Endorsing ‘Elements of Style’

Reposting from 2018

Looking into one of my College’s hallway recycling bins, as one does, I found a fourth edition paperback of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Arguably, for my generation, as Strunk died the year before I was born, this has been one of the most useful and inspiring books for any young writer or anyone seriously interested in writing.

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Copy Retrieved from Recycling Bin
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Online Micro-Choices in Remote Seminars, Teaching, and Learning

Online Micro-Choices Shaping Remote Seminars, Teaching, and Learning

The move to online education has been a huge shift, dramatically hastened by the COVID-19 pandemic and the existence of technical options, such as online meeting platforms like Zoom and Teams. For decades, handwringing and resistance over moves toward more online instruction, seminars, and lectures has collapsed as universities not only accept this shift but are supporting if not requiring it. In many respects, the move online has saved many educational institutions and the new normal – whatever that ends up being – is almost certain to incorporate more online teaching and learning. 

However, after participating in many online seminars, lectures, and conferences, I sense that it is time to focus far more attention on the micro-choices being made about the conduct of online teaching and learning. Not focus on on or off-line, but how to do online teaching and learning. 

There are books on teaching tips for graduate students and instructors, but fewer for the online world. That said, I imagine that most academics tend to follow the examples set by their own best teachers. Unfortunately, in the online world of education, there are fewer great examples on which developing teachers can model themselves. Moreover, I believe I am seeing so many problematic examples and trends emerging that the micro-choices underpinning them merit more critical discussion. 

Take for example, the decision on whether or not to mute the audio and turn off the video of the audience – whether students or fellow colleagues. The convenor of an online session, such as over Zoom, can mute everyone but the speaker and turn off everyone’s video but the speaker’s video, or they can simply ask everyone but the speaker to mute their own audio and turn off their video while the speaker or teacher is presenting. Who has permission to share their screen is another micro-choice of a convenor. 

Screen sharing enables people to show a slide or a graph or any image or text that they can put on their own screen to the group. For a small seminar with known participants, everyone can be enabled to share their screen. If open to the public and if a larger group is brought together, screen sharing needs to be restricted to avoid problems such as Zoombombing, such as a malicious user sharing a vulgar image. But it is easy to keep the meeting link to those invited, use passwords to join, and restrict screen sharing to avoid such possible problems.

Muting everyone’s audio during a presentation seems to be good practice as well. You avoid unplanned sounds in households, like the sounds of barking dogs and crying babies, from interrupting a seminar. And individuals normally have a means to raise their hand to ask a question or make a comment, so they can be unmuted when speaking. That said, if it is a small group discussion, such as following a lecture, I think individuals should decide on their own whether to mute, such as if their dog starts barking, but generally remain unmuted to be as interactive as possible during the discussion. When education is being socially distanced in so many ways by going online, any opportunities to enhance sociality and interaction online should be seriously considered. 

In contrast, in my opinion, stopping everyone’s video is not a good practice. Unfortunutely, I see this a becoming a trend. In the earliest weeks and months of the pandemic and online meetings, people tended to be visible online all the time even when their audio is muted. With my video on, you could see if I was on the call and that I was listening or if I was multitasking. If I had to leave or take a break, I could switch to a still photo of me or my initials, until I was ready to engage again. More importantly, the speakers would know that they were speaking to real, live, human beings, rather than talking to themselves in a dark room. 

Doing it Right: Video ON

Over time, it is clear that more universities and conferences are moving to shut off the video of the audiences, and only have video streaming on for the speaker or the panelists. Often this means that no one is visible as the speaker is presenting slides – such as when talking behind the slides occupying center stage. Once a critical proportion of the audience starts shutting off their video, then others feel pressured to as well, lest they be accused of perceiving themselves as too self-important. But it is for others, not for yourself, that it is good to be seen.  

I have taken issue with this minimalist approach to limiting video on the basis that it takes social distancing to an unacceptable and unjustifiable limit. Of course, I’ve heard justifications, such as maintaining the focus on the material on the slides and keeping people from being distracted by the images of audience members. Protecting the privacy of individuals and households is another. There are many ways to protect privacy of the listeners, such as by using a virtual background or sitting in front of a blank wall. Nevertheless, I find such justifications to be weak rationales for avoiding social interaction.

Teaching or lecturing is not simply about transferring information. If that were so, a reading or video recording would be superior to a seminar. Most importantly, teaching or lecturing is about motivating the audience – students or colleagues – to see your topic as important and interesting and worthy of reading and learning more about. That means you need to engage them in the presentation and make sure they are engaged. In the classroom, you can tell if students are not engaged, even if – as was the case in many in-person classes – many are pressed against the back row of seats. You can see if the audience is engaged online as well, but only if you keep the video going both ways. 

Also, you need to motivate the lecturer. Unless you are very shy or nervous about public speaking, I can’t think of what could be more deflating that speaking to a set of initials or a blank screen or simply reading your own slides. Cut off the video and you risk disengaging the speaker as well as the audience. 

Obviously, I am a cranky, old colleague, easily annoyed, and opinionated. Fine if you disagree with my suggestions, but you should really think through these many micro-choices you make in presenting and speaking and listening online. Discuss them with those convening any seminar where you are presenting. 

I accept and defend the right of teachers to present material to their classes in the ways they choose – assuming they are within an increasing set of rules and guidelines set by educational institutions. Similarly, lecturers or speakers should be free to present in ways in which they are comfortable. But be careful that you don’t undermine your ability to engage, educate, and entertain your audience simply by following bad practices set by colleagues that are too cautious or conservative about the issues that might arise from social interaction. Don’t handicap yourself by speaking to an invisible audience or supporting any idea that being invisible is a good idea in online teaching or learning that is engaging.

TPRC49: the 49th Conference on Communications, Information, and Internet Policy

Please consider submitting your research to #TPRC49, the leading academic policy conference for communications, information, and internet policy. It will be held on Sept 24-25 in Wash, DC. At this time, it could be online, or a hybrid online/in person conference, depending on travel restrictions.

Screen Shot of Session at TPRC48

The organisers accept abstracts for papers, panels, and posters on critical policy issues. Selected papers presented at TPRC are in route to publication in top information policy journals along with a host of more disciplinary journals. A selected set of papers are presented to policy makers on the Hill, based on the theme selected for the year.

Let your students know that we offer a Student Paper Contest for a $1000 cash award and travel stipend.

Our event is a great place to advance papers for publication in top journals, gain visibility to policymakers, and network with policy scholars.

The full call for papers is available online at: http://www.tprcweb.com/tprc49-cfp.  Abstracts are due March 31; student papers for the contest are due by April 30.

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A Mob, Protestors, or a Mob of Protestors at Capitol Hill?

A Mob, Protestors, or a Mob of Protestors at Capitol Hill?

In media coverage and interviews immediately following the 6 January 2021 protests on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, most media pundits, including the BBC, and politicians referred to the Trump supporters who surrounded or breached the building as a ‘mob’. The Guardian as a ‘pro-Trump mob’. That is a reasonably accurate choice of terminology in that the OED defines a mob as ‘a large disorderly crowd of people’, which clearly applies to this case. 

Crowd on Capitol Hill on 6 January 2021

However, in a strikingly analogous event, when protestors breached the Hong Kong Parliament in 2019, they were more consistently referred to as protestors, or pro-democracy protestors. For example, the BBC noted that: “Protesters have been removed from Hong Kong’s parliament after an hours-long siege.”[1] The same coverage referred to those occupying the parliament as demonstrators. (I doubt this was true in the case of coverage in the Chinese media, but I have not confirmed this.) 

Likewise, the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois, saw a great deal of protest-related violence which also interrupted US democratic election processes. For example, one BBC account 50 years after the event referred to protestors, anti-war protestors, Vietnam War protestors, or demonstrators.[2] In this case, as all of my contemporaries will remember from watching these protests, that the protestors were not characterized as a mob. I searched online for “mob” in the context of the Chicago convention and nearly all the results noted that the text was missing the word ‘mob’, referring instead to ‘protestors’ or ‘Vietnam War protestors.’  

Clearly, there is a more or less intentional politics of language at play here, where a mob is far less legitimate than protestors. Maybe a mob is less purposeful, or more chaotic? Another OED accepted definition of mob is ‘the common people, the rabble’. Perhaps this is what is being implied about Trump protestors. 

To be fair, if one wished to be fair, it might be better to avoid either term by referring to ‘a mob of protestors.’ That might fit all of these situations and be more acceptable to all of the actors involved. What term would you suggest?

I have not done a comprehensive or systematic comparison of all media coverage of these and other similar events. It is too tangential to my work. That said, it seems blindingly obvious that we all indirectly legitimize or de-legitimize people and political actions by our choice of terms. It might be better to describe a mob of protestors in more neutral terms and then describe what they did – their actions. It may be a cliché, but let their actions speak for themselves without being prejudiced by framing them in a glorified or tainted way through a politically charged label, unless that is exactly what you wish to do. The contemporary term of this communicative act might be virtue signaling – making sure readers or listeners know that you are on the morally correct side? 

As I write, I fully realize I will be judged as morally incorrect by many for asking for more neutrality. I was on the ‘peace patrol’ during Vietnam War (the American War) protests at SUNY Buffalo, and that put me in a similar position – that time between protestors and the police, but a riskier position. In a way, I want to plea for a peace patrol now as well. As President-elect Joe Biden said, he wants to “be President for all Americans.”[3]These protests have created a pretty angry place from which to move ahead on that mission.

Protestor Sitting at Speaker’s Desk, fastcoastnews.com

Afterword

The day after I posted this blog, the Financial Times (8 January 2021: 1) quoted several politicians and others using even more dramatic and more exaggerated characterizations of the mob of protesters, such as domestic terrorists. Joe Biden was quoted as saying: “Don’t dare call them protesters. They were a riotous mob, insurrectionists.” I understand that the President-elect and other politicians have been shocked and frightened if not panicked by what happened on the 6th, but there should be some – surely in academia – who can step back and look analytically and empirically at the complex interaction of multiple choices by multiple actors that led to this debacle. The presence of persons preaching insurrection does not make everyone present an insurrectionist. 

Capitol Hill on 6 January was a disaster. There is a real need to dig into the details of this disaster to ensure that it is not over-simplified to fit political narratives. It was what I would call a ‘democratic disaster’ and like all disasters I’ve studied, they are the result of multiple problems. Rather than being resolved by one simple explanation, they are most often the result of multiple actors making multiple mistakes that interact in ways that lead to an unanticipated disaster. 

I guess a problem is that politicians and the media are pressed to jump to conclusions too quickly. Not to do so risks being labelled as weak or indecisive or on the wrong side. We need individuals or teams that have the resources to dig into the specifics, however complex or simple, and avoid drawing ill-informed lessons that could undermine freedom of expression and assembly, including lawful protests, that are central to the dynamics of democratic politics.

References

William H. Dutton, Donald MacKenzie, Stuart Shapiro and Malcolm Peltu (1995), ‘Computer Power and Human Limits: Learning from IT and Telecommunications Disasters’. PICT Policy Research Paper No. 33 (Uxbridge: Programme on Information and Communication Technologies, Economic and Social Research Council. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3103433

Notes


[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/world-asia-china-48821664

[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-45226132

[3] https://www.axios.com/biden-president-for-all-americans-0486555e-ff3f-40aa-8332-53fc4a72b0ae.html


					

The Meaning of Like

Today’s newspaper was riddled with insults and accusations about who ‘liked’ or ‘shared’ various posts on Facebook. To paraphrase, one read ‘that a board member of x [any board or agency or organization] has “liked” or shared social media posts about y [any controversial topic] by z [any controversial figure].’ How could they?

Months ago, for example, I received an email from a neighbour saying she could not believe that I had “liked’ a post by one of my old colleagues. I replied that I found his post to be engaging and stimulating – worth reading, but I did not ‘agree’ with his views. 

There are at least two problems with this kind of oversight.

First, to like a post on Facebook does not mean that you agree with it in whole or in part. It could mean that you noticed it, recommended it to others, disagree, or really, it could mean just about anything. For me, a ‘like’ is a general acknowledgement that you had read or have seen the post, as if saying thank you for posting. For example, liking a photo someone posts might simply be a way of saying hello to them. There is no unlike button. Anyone who assumes that a ‘like’ means you agree is simply wrong much if not most of the time. 

A parallel example is when Americans or Europeans visit Japan, they often translate the common Japanese response of “Ah So” – short for ā sō desu ka – to mean the speaker agrees, or is saying “yes”. My Japanese friends tell me it essentially means that the speaker ‘understands’, as in ‘ah, I hear you’. Often, in fact, it implies ‘no’ – not ‘yes’, as it is so impolite to say no. [Correct me if I’m wrong.]

So, in a similar way, it is wrong to assume that a ‘like’ means agreement. If everyone understood this, there would be a lot fewer disputes in the newspapers and online. Many more emojis have been added to online media, but I would not count on the greater choice of emoji settling the issue. What does that wink mean?

The second problem is that I wish my friends, neighbours, or Facebook friends would not make assumptions about my beliefs or opinions based only on such a crude signal as whether I like or share a post. It is a type of social pressure or sanction that can have a chilling effect on me and perhaps on other speakers. If I start thinking that I will be judged by what I ‘like’ – not on what I actually say – then I will stop ‘liking’ anything. Better to say nothing than to be misunderstood. I don’t mind it if I am confronted, such as by my neighbour, as then I can explain myself, if I wish to, and thank them for asking. But one can only assume that too many people draw unwarranted conclusions without testing them with you. Did you mean that you agree with that post?

Given the directions of technical advances, in due course, you might know what I look at or read, even if I don’t react to the post. “You ordered that book?’ ‘You looked at that person’s profile?’ So this kind of problem could get far worse.

Let me apologise to you, if you’ve been critical of my – or anyone’s – ‘likes’. But as they say, apologizing does not mean that I am wrong, but that I value your friendship more than proving myself right. By the way, I have very few “friends” in real life, but many “Facebook friends” – they are not the same thing, so should we all try harder to be as aware of online conventions and the meaning of terms used online, just as we try to keep up with the nuances of speech in general?