The press has fostered growing recognition of the balance that politicians must strike between public health and the economy. This is important, but more attention needs to be focused on the balancing acts of individuals – the public at large. Each individual needs to juggle multiple pressures in making choices about staying at home, social distancing, and how to best comply with COVID-19 guidelines. A rational health communication model might suggest that actors need to focus more effort on gaining a consensus across governmental actors and experts and do a better job in communicating the recommendations in more engaging ways that the public will accept. But this assumes that a clear message can be agreed, sent, and well received. Moreover, what if there are rational reasons for the mixed messages and differences in reception?
It has become increasingly understood that many public officials pursue at least dual objectives – achieving the health objectives of protecting the public from the virus and the economic objectives of getting people back to work and the economy growing. Given that multiple actors are pursuing multiple objectives from different levels of expertise and positions in government, it would be difficult indeed to create a single message to communicate to the public. Given the permutations of actors, expertise, timing, and positions across the nations and regions of the UK, it is almost inevitable that many voices speak for governments of the UK with some major and many subtle differences in messaging. They are not always in sync with expert advice, which also varies across experts and overtime.
At the receiving end, many among the public may not listen or view governmental instructions or announcements or follow news and social media about them. Still others might follow these messages but not fully understand them – feeling confused. And even among those who receive and understand governmental advice, too many fail to comply or follow the recommendations of the experts.
It is possible to imagine everyone among the public is in the same boat – all wanting to avoid the COVID-19 virus and anxious to get the latest and best information from the government’s health experts. However, the public includes a diverse set of actors, whose behaviour is likely to be shaped and constrained by their:
Health: young, healthy individuals are likely to be less concerned about the virus than older people with underlying medical conditions;
Employment: highly paid information workers, who can work at home, are likely to be less worried about the economic consequences of the virus than those who work in personal services for low wages;
Finances: households financially able to ride out the pandemic versus those with few slack resources, including the homeless;
Household: a large family in a small household may find it more difficult to stay at home, or consider a family distributed across multiple households;
Social Networks: college students in fraternities or dormitories are likely to feel social pressure to socialize more than retired seniors living alone;
Geography: families living in the most densely populated areas, such as in high-rise apartments, and dependent on public transit, are likely to be less able to socially distance than are rural or suburban residents who can drive for work or to shop.
These are only a few of the many ways the audience is quite heterogeneous, but they illustrate why it may be difficult for one message to reach an audience who are all as deeply concerned about COVID-19 and equally able to act as a collective. Public communication strategy needs to incorporate the many motivations and constraints that lead to failures of access, understanding or compliance.
I am encouraged by some efforts to empirically understand the public in the time of COVID-19. In the UK, Ofcom has followed public viewing of different media and health messages. And a study of ‘communicating the pandemic‘ at Leeds, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), which I have offered some advice, is looking at how COVID-19 messages are received, how well they are understood, and to what degree individuals comply with government guidance. Studies like that at Leeds could help us move away from an overly simplistic, too homogeneous, overly rational model of the public to an understanding of how a heterogeneous public balances conflicting pressures on their lives as they seek to manage exposure to this virus. Such an understanding should help in communicating guidance effectively in the times of COVID-19 threats.
More information on the Leeds University AHRC study on ‘Communicating the Pandemic’ can be found here.
Across most academic fields, researchers are increasingly focused on outreach to relevant practitioner and policy communities. It can sharpen their sense of the key questions but also enable their research to have greater application and impact. In contrast, within the field of cybersecurity, policy and practitioners from governmental, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), like the World Bank, and business and industry are more dominant in the production of research. Academic researchers play a relatively less active role. That said, research on cybersecurity could be greatly enhanced if a larger and more multidisciplinary collection of academic researchers could be engaged to focus on issues of cybersecurity and build collaborative relationships with the policy and practitioner communities.
Why is this the case, and what could be done to correct it?
The Dynamics Limiting Academia’s Role in Cybersecurity
I am but one of a growing set of multidisciplinary researchers with a focus on cybersecurity. The field is clearly engaging some top researchers and scholars from a variety of fields, evidenced by colleagues and centers at prominent universities, a growing number of journals and publications, and a dizzying number of events and conferences on topics within the field. Stellar academics, such as Professor David Clark at MIT, Professor Sadie Creese at Oxford University, and Bruce Schneier, a Fellow at the Berkman Center at Harvard, are strong examples. I would add Gabriella Coleman, a chaired professor at McGill University, and Professor Patrick Burkart at Texas A&M, to the list, even though they might not identify themselves as cybersecurity researchers. Many others could be added.
Nevertheless, compared with other fields, cybersecurity research appears to be dominated more by the practitioner and policy communities. Cybersecurity is not a discipline but a multidisciplinary field of study. But it remains less multidisciplinary and more anchored within the computer sciences than some related fields, such as Internet studies as one comparator with which I am familiar. A number of possible explanations for the different multidisciplinary balance of this field come to mind.
First, it is a relatively new field of academic research. It was preceded by studies of computer security, which were more computer science centric as they were more focused on technical advances in security systems. The development of shared computing systems and the Internet in particular, has greatly expanded the range of users and devices linked to computer systems, reaching over 4 billion users in 2020. In many respects, the Internet drove the transition from computer security to cybersecurity research and is therefore understandably young in relation to other academic fields of study.
Secondly, the concept of cybersecurity carries some of the baggage of its early stages. While the characterisations evoked by concepts are often crude, the term often conjures up images of men in suits employed by large institutions trying to keep young boys out of their systems. My MSU colleague, Ruth Shillair, reminded me of the 1983 movie War Games. It is based around a young hacker getting into the backdoor of a major military computer system in ways that threatened to launch a world war, but which left the audience cheering for the young haker.
Today, big mainframe computers are less central than are the billions of devices in households and business and industry and governments across the world. Malicious users, rather than a child accidentally entering the backdoor of a military complex, are the norm. Yet cybersecurity carries some of this off-putting imagery from its early days into the present.
Thirdly, it is an incredibly important field of research for which there is great demand. Many rising academics in the field of cybersecurity are snapped up by business, industry and governmental headhunters for lucrative positions rather than by academia.
These are only a few of many reasons for the relative lack of a stronger multidisciplinary research community. Whatever initiatives might enhance its multidisciplinary make-up might also bring more academics as well as more academic disciplines into the study of cybersecurity. How could this be changed?
What Needs to Be Done?
First, academics involved with research on cybersecurity need to do more to network among themselves. This is somewhat of a chicken and egg problem as when there are relatively few academics in a field it seems less important to network with each other. However, until the field comes together to better define the field and its priorities for research, it is harder for it to flourish. Similarly, there are so many pulls to work with practitioners and the policy communities in this area that academic collaboration may seem like a distraction. It is not, as it is essential for the field to mature as an academic field of study.
Secondly, the field needs to identify and promote academic research on cybersecurity that address big questions with major implications for policy and practice. On this point, some of the research at Oxford’s Global Cyber Security Capacity Centre (GCSCC) has made a difference for nations across the world. For example, the research demonstrates that nations that have enhanced their cybersecurity capacity building efforts have made a serious improvement in the experiences of their nations’ Internet users. But this work is one of many examples of work that is meeting needs in this new area of technological and organizational advances.
Thirdly, national governments need to place a greater priority on building this field of academia along with building their own cybersecurity capacities. Arguably, in the long run, a stronger academic field in cybersecurity will help nations advance cybersecurity capacity, such as by creating a larger pool of expertise and thought leadership in this area.
This would be possible through a number of initiatives, from simply taking a leadership role in identifying the importance of the field to encouraging the public research councils and other funding bodies to consider the development of grant support for multidisciplinary research on cybersecurity.
For example, the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) generated early funding for what became the Programme on Information and Communication Technologies (PICT). The establishment of PICT helped to draw leading researchers, such as the late Roger Silverstone, into the study of the social aspects of information and communication technologies. Such pump-priming helped put the UK in an early strategic international position in research on the societal aspects of the Internet and related digital media.
What factors are constraining the more rapid and widespread development of this field? What could be done to accelerate and deepen its development?
There are a host of other issues around whether policy makers and practitioners would value collaboration with academics, given that their time scales and methodologies can be so dramatically different. That is for another blog, but in the interim, I’d value your thoughts on whether you agree on the need and approaches to further develop the multidisciplinary study of cybersecurity within academia.
 See: Creese, S., Shillair, R., Bada, M., Reisdorf, B.C., Roberts, T., and Dutton, W. H. (2019), ‘The Cybersecurity Capacity of Nations’, pp. 165-179 in Graham, M., and Dutton, W. H. (eds), Society and the Internet: How Networks of Information and Communication are Changing our Lives, 2nd Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
 My thanks to Caroline Weisser Harris for suggesting a focus on this question of why practitioners and policy makers might or might not value collaboration with academia.
I recommend a 2015 – but still quite relevant – book on the international political situation in Ukraine by Menon and Rumer.* The authors provide a very accessible background on the history of Ukraine, and the evolution of contemporary relationships both within the country and internationally, with Russia, the US, and Germany, France, the UK and the EU. They help clarify a number of over-simplified views, such as any sharp East-West divide within the nation. They describe the recent crisis with Russia, in relation to Crimea and the Luhansk-Donetsk region in Eastern Ukraine, concluding that all of the supporters of Ukraine, such as the US and EU, see their own self-interest at stake in how this evolves, but not strongly enough to intervene or take a more active role, ‘leaving Ukraine to tackle its challenges largely on its own’ (p. 155). And that is where things stand today.
If you would like to better understand the political dynamics of this conflict in Ukraine, I recommend Menon and Rumer’s book. In hindsight, they were exactly right in their view of the prospects, and remain on target.
*Rajan Menon and Eugene Rumer, Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post-Cold War Order. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
The 2020 edition of the GII, co-published by WPO, INSEAD, and Cornell University, is dedicated to the theme of ‘Who Will Finance Innovation’? The 13th edition of the GII sheds light on the state of innovation financing by investigating the evolution of financing mechanisms for entrepreneurs and other innovators, and by pointing to progress and remaining challenges—including in the context of the economic slowdown induced by the COVID-19 pandemic. More information on the 2020 GII here.
I began graduate studies in the Department of Political Science at the University of Buffalo in 1969 when UB was called the State University of New York at Buffalo (SUNY-Buffalo). I had graduated from the University of Missouri at Columbia, where I was inspired by a comparative researcher, Professor David M. Wood, to pursue graduate study in political science. The COVID-19 pandemic and the turmoil it has caused reminded me of when I was at UB amid all the disruptions and student strikes on campus during the Vietnam (American) War. Dramatically different periods and problems, but somehow reminiscent.
My cohort arrived at the interim Ridge Lea Campus – a complex of single-story buildings in Amherst. At one point, I remember some were literally buried completely under heavy snow, causing the cancelling of some exams. While I never experienced the new Amherst campus, I had the benefit of fabulous faculty in the process of building a new department.
Professor Lester Milbrath, and his ladder of political participation and his turn to environmental research; philosopher of science Professor Paul Diesing with his focus on what scientists actually do; and urban politics Professor Donald Rosenthal, who introduced me to Banfield and Wilson and case studies of Chicago politics, have all passed away. However, they and other faculty, such as James Stimson, who left UB and is now the Raymond Dawson Distinguished Bicentennial Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, were such models of intellect, rigor and integrity that they continue to represent the department for me. And Professor Rudolf Wildenmann, even as a Visiting Professor in the Department from the University of Mannheim, were critical to my work. I almost joined him at Mannheim in 1973.
Of course, I also continue to value my fellow students. Coming from the Midwest, my first days of graduate studies were intimidating, but students quickly formed a supportive community. I have fond memories of meeting other students, such as Debbie Dunkle and Steve Peterson, who’ve become lifelong friends. We would meet for coffee and breakfast almost every morning in the Ridge Lea cafeteria. One highlight of our conversations was the frequent occasion when any of the grad students received a rejection letter. They would read it out loud for the group to compare and critique. Whenever a student is worried about a job, I tell them about our stacks of rejections, which I continue to find amusing.
At UB, I focused on urban and comparative politics but also on methods and quantitative data analyses, toting boxes of punch cards around and spending so much time at the central computing center submitting jobs on the big mainframe. SPSS was only being launched while I was a graduate student. I recall colleagues distrusting such software packages as they were too far removed from our own programming. I am sure that my affinity for data analysis created the opportunities I had to work with faculty – so central to my training – but also was key to my move into the study of the political aspects of computing.
My focus today is on Internet studies, most often from a political perspective. The field did not exist when I was in graduate school. In fact, I worked only about one year in a department of political science in my first job at the University of South Florida. Nevertheless, the ideas, theories and methods that I was introduced to at UB have remained central aspects of my work to this day. At every stage of my career, I felt UB had prepared me as well as any of my colleagues for the challenges of research and teaching. I thank the department for whatever success I’ve enjoyed in my career.
William H. Dutton, Emeritus Professor, University of Southern California and Oxford University
Professor Claude Welch
One of the University of Buffalo’s (UB) most outstanding professors, Claude Welch, began his career at UB in 1964 – before my arrival when UB became SUNY-Buffalo – and only recently retired as SUNY Distinguished Service Professor. Professor Welch has been putting together a history of UB’s Department of Political Science and reaching out to former graduate students for their own memories of their days at UB. I never had a class with Claude, but regret missing that opportunity. He has chaired or been a member of an amazing number of dissertation committees, and is one of the few professors I know of who has had a video produced to recognise him as a gifted teacher, entitled ‘Calling it a Career‘.
My thanks to Claude Welch for putting together his history of the department and reaching out to former students like myself. It made me realise how seldom I stop to recognise those who tried to teach me what political scientists do. But I’ve always appreciated their contributions to my education.
Way too much talk, research, and handwringing are all about how to stop people from seeing or believing disinformation, such as the latest conspiracy theories. But pushing governments and platforms or anyone to censor information is not only ineffective in the digital age, but also likely to be dysfunctional – such as in activating the proverbial Barbara Streisand effect. You will only generate more interest in the information you want to censor. Moreover, you will not communicate the facts, narrative, or truth, as you see it.
Alternatively, think about two other ways to grapple with misinformation.
First, place greater trust in people – Internet users, for example, to be more intelligent and more discerning. Almost every empirical study of how people actually use the Internet and related digital technologies like social media indicates that most people who are interested in a topic will look at multiple sources of information.* If they are uncertain or suspicious of one source, they will double or triple check the information, such as by using search or going to a trusted source, such as Wikipedia or an official Web site. Most theories that frighten us about being caught in an echo chamber or filter bubble of false information are technologically deterministic and do not look carefully at how people actually look for and use information. It is clear that the proponents of censorship almost always assume that people are stupid. Only they know how to find the correct information!
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, put more effort into communicating the right news, information, or facts, rather than trying to block other information. It seems increasingly clear to me that too many government agencies and academic institutions – as two examples – are too complacent about reaching their audiences. They might set up a Web site, and post a report online, but not really put major effort into reaching out to ensure that a larger audience is aware of the work, can access it, and understand its message. Think about popular conspiracy theories, like QAnon. They have an evolving narrative, a distributed network of people sharing and helping to distribute their messages. They are motivated and creative in getting this information out. Legitimate and more authoritative sources of information need to be just as clever, if not cleverer and more motivated and ingenious in figuring how a narrative and various outlets will help them reach their audiences in not only digestible but compelling ways.
In the case of QAnon, I agree with a recent post by Abby Ohlheiser that it’s ‘too late to stop QAnon with fact checks and account bans’.** But it is not too late to stop being complacent about how you and your colleagues and organization communicate in this digital world. You need to be creative, smart and motivated to reach audiences. You may be an authority in your own eyes, but few people will come to you as a source of information. Putting something online won’t suffice. If you or your unit has important information, such as about protecting yourself in a pandemic, then you need to reach out to audiences that matter using all the tools available on Twitter, WordPress, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, LinkedIn, and via the press.
As hypocrite in chief, at least I am writing this blog. But far more would need to be done in order to communicate this message. Agree?
* For example, see: Dutton, W. H., Reisdorf, B. C., Blank, G., Dubois, E., and Fernandez, L. (2019), ‘The Internet and Access to Information About Politics: Searching Through Filter Bubbles, Echo Chambers, and Disinformation’, pp. 228-247 in Graham, M., and Dutton, W. H. (eds), Society and the Internet: How Networks of Information and Communication are Changing our Lives, 2nd Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. An earlier version of this paper is online at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2960697
We are conducting weekly surveys of the general public in the UK. The questions address issues around how the public are using various media to understand the pandemic and the best approaches to protecting their health. I will add to this blog from time to time to up-date you on our progress, but I’d also invite anyone with a serious interest in this research to follow the project web site at: https://ahc.leeds.ac.uk/communicating_the_pandemic
Universities are in the process of telling faculty, students, parents, and the larger public about how they intend to respond to the pandemic of COVID-19. Many decisions have been taken about how classes will be held in the coming academic year. In this context, educators are discussing how they expect all the various actors and stakeholders to respond to different strategies and what this means for the future of higher education. Is this crisis an opportunity for fast tracking the sector to more efficient and affordable approaches to education, if not a major shift to online learning, or are we witnessing an inevitable train wreck for the future of higher education? Alternatively, will most institutions choose to muddle through this pandemic before reverting to more conventional approaches. Simply search online for ‘COVID-19 and the future of higher education’ and you will find a large number of articles, interviews, and opinion pieces.
I have retired from university teaching and administration. Nevertheless, after decades of teaching and working in higher education, and with a long-term interest and research in online learning and education (Dutton and Loader 2002), I have been concerned about the challenges of moving online and have tried to track unfolding developments and reflect on what should be done.
In following this sector, I have been seriously impressed with the significant steps that have been taken by many universities. Some moved their recent graduation ceremonies completely online albeit many of these institutions promise to invite students back for the real thing in the future. Some universities have chosen to move to online courses completely or to varying degrees in various scenarios of blended or hybrid approaches to delivering courses. And a number are offering more choices to students, such as to defer, take their courses online, offer hybrid (online and in class), or physically attend classes that respect social distancing. All these options are approached in the midst of uncertainty over whether fewer or more domestic and international students will want to attend classes, be able to take online courses, live on campus, and pay the going rates of tuition.
My main concern in following these developments is the need to learn from this real-world, natural experiment occurring right before our eyes. At a recent online discussion of the transformation of the classroom in higher education, there was an observation of one panelist that captured a shared sense that very little systematic empirical research is being done to track and assess developments. If that is true, then an ambitious research agenda needs to be developed as soon as possible.
There has already been reporting on early experiences with online education in the aftermath of face-to-face teaching of courses being discontinued at nearly all levels of education, immediately following the spread of COVID-19. There are early predictions of likely financial and pedagogical implications. And many discussions within and across disciplines about how to teach online. But more systematic empirical research on actual impacts needs to be undertaken. So, my major point is that this is the time to capture the lessons being learned by higher educational institutions over the coming year, initially by developing a strong research agenda.
For a start, educators should be talking to those at innovative institutions of higher education. Even quite traditional universities, such as Oxford, have been doing online education, such as through their Department of Continuing Education. They have over 90 online courses, and some of the first were philosophy courses, where I was surprised to learn that discussion forums worked exceptionally well. There are also online universities, for example, and universities that have been founded and have years of experience in remote or distance education, such as a set of open universities like the Open University of Catalonia(Universitat Oberta de Catalunya) and the first Open University which is based in the UK. Can we learn from them?
I had an opportunity to sit down with two current and former faculty members of the UK’s Open University, based in Milton Keynes. Established in 1969, the OU has been focused on teaching part-time, mature students, studying alongside adult commitments of work and family, not necessarily with traditional school educational backgrounds, who cannot or choose not to attend traditional campus-based universities. They were able to share lessons learned over the years in an institution that was designed for remote learning, often using broadcasting and the mail for course materials, with a large number of part-time tutors supporting students in small groups, including marking and commenting on each individual’s course work. Now materials and tuition are largely delivered online, although most qualifications will include the option of a limited number of face-to-face sessions.
They know the challenges of online and other remote teaching and learning, such as the difficulties of synchronous sessions when many are in the workplace or involved with child-care. They have learned and responded to the expectations of today’s students for multiple media in presentations, including not only text but pictures, case studies, videos, games, audio recordings, virtual laboratories and more, although varied by the course and appropriate to the discipline. There is no such thing as one form of online class, when how teachers approach a chemistry class will be very different from a math or from a philosophy course.
The OU has dealt for decades with issues of accessibility given the mode of teaching and learning, which campus-based universities would have to address if more of their teaching was done online. And the OU and other open universities have found it critical for teams rather than individuals to build courses, given the different skill sets required for the content and its delivery. Traditional campus-based courses are still delivered primarily by one faculty member, possibly with teaching assistants, rather than a team with multiple backgrounds.
More importantly, given the range of approaches taken by over four thousand universities (degree-granting post-secondary institutions) in the USA alone, this coming academic year should provide an unparalleled opportunity to discover what works well across different kinds of courses and institutions. There will still be problems with such issues as self-selection, with universities making decisions on whether to go online or follow other models. However, this is a common problem of comparative research that should not prevent strong studies.
Hopefully, major research councils should be calling for grant research on the impact of changes underway in higher education. Surely this is being done, but I have not run across major empirical research projects in this area. Universities might be good at doing research, but very few institutions are good at critically researching themselves. They are in a competitive enterprise. That said, education departments at major universities around the world must see this as a once in a lifetime opportunity to study the impact of major innovations in higher education. And there is a small set of academics with a focus on online and educational innovations that could step up to meet this need.
In short, the conversation should quickly be shifting from how universities will respond to this crisis to the development of empirical research on what different universities have chosen to do, how these strategies were actually implemented, and with what impact on learning, education, and the larger institution. This is not a new set of questions for the field, but this is an unprecedented opportunity to gain systematic empirical evidence from field research and interviews with those at the leading-edge of (mass) remote teaching. It is not too late to be focusing on the development of an ambitious research agenda for education post COVID-19. I cannot think of a more important focus for researchers with experience and a focus on learning and education.
Dutton, W. H. and Loader, B. D. (2002) (eds.), Digital Academe: New Media and Institutions in Higher Education and Learning, London: Taylor & Francis/Routledge.
 A colleague participated in a two-day conference on ‘teaching and learning mathematics online’ sponsored by three relevant learned societies for maths and stats. It included about 500 people who attended on a registered basis, with another 30 or 40 joining on particular session via YouTube. About 1000 are following it up in some formal way. See: http://talmo.uk/
 My thanks to Lindsey Court, a Staff Tutor and Senior Lecturer in the OU’s School of Computing & Communications; and Derek Goldrei, an OU Honorary Associate, retired as Staff Tutor and Senior Lecturer in Mathematics, formerly Deputy Director of the Undergraduate Maths Programme, who is also an Emeritus Fellow of Mansfield College at Oxford University.
The COVID-19 pandemic has driven the Internet and related social media and digital technologies to the forefront of societies across the globe. Whether in supporting social distancing, working at home, or online courses, people are increasingly dependent on online media for everyday life and work. If you are teaching courses on the social aspects of the Internet, social media, and life or work in the digital age, you might want to consider a reader that covers many of the key technical and social issues.
Please take a look at the contents of the 2nd Edition of Society and the Internet (OUP 2019), which is available in paperback and electronic editions. Information about the book is available online here.
Whether you are considering readings for your Fall/Autumn courses, or simply have an interest in the many social issues surrounding digital media, you may find this book of value. From Manuel Castells’ Foreword to Vint Cerf’s concluding chapter, you find a diverse mix of contributions that show how students and faculty can study the social shaping and societal implications of digital media.
In addition to Manuel Castells and Vint Cerf along with the editors, our contributors include: Maria Bada, Grant Blank, Samantha Bradshaw, David Bray, Antonio A. Casilli, Sadie Creese, Matthew David, Laura DeNardis, Martin Dittus, Elizabeth Dubois, Laleah Fernandez, Sandra González-Bailón, Scott Hale, Eszter Hargittai, Philip N. Howard, Peter John, Silvia Majó Vázquez, Helen Margetts, Marina Micheli, Christopher Millard, Lisa Nakamura, Victoria Nash, Gina Neff, Eli Noam, Sanna Ojanperä, Julian Posada, Anabel Quan-Hasse, Jack Linchuan, Lee Raine, Bianca Reisdorf, Ralph Schroeder, Limor Shifman, Ruth Shillair, Greg Taylor, Hua Wang, Barry Wellman, and Renwen Zhang. Together, these authors offer one of the most useful and engaging collections on the social aspects of the Internet and related digital media available for teaching.
Thanks for your own work in this field, at an incredible period of time for Internet and new media studies of communication and technology.
For decades I have been concerned over the fragility of information and whether ephemerality or the transitory nature of information and communication is just an inevitable feature of the digital age. I therefore frequently look back at a talk I gave on the Internet to a conference of historians held in Oxford in the early 2000s. Given that I was speaking to historians, at a time when I was the founding director of the Oxford Internet Institute, one key theme of my talk concerned the major ways in which content on the Web was unlikely to be preserved. The Internet community did not have adequate plans and strategies for preserving the Internet, Web and related online content. I thought they would be engaged – if not frightened – by a shift of content to online media when it might mean losing much of our history with respect to data, documents, letters, and more.
My audience seemed interested but unmoved. A historian from the audience chatted with me after the talk to explain that this is not new. Historians have always worked in piecing together history from letters found in a shoebox stored in an attic, tomb stones, and so on – not from systematically recorded archives, even though fragments of such records exist in many libraries, museums, and archives. This is nothing new to efforts aimed at writing or reconstructing history.
This attitude frightened me even more. From my perspective, perhaps the historians had not seen anything yet. And I am continually reminded of this problem. Of course, there have been brilliant efforts to preserve online, digital content, such as the ‘Way Back Machine’, an initiative of the Internet Archive,[i] which indicates it has saved over 446 billion web pages. Yet the archive and its Way Back Machine have become a subscription service and have dropped out of the limelight they shared in the early days of the Web. The archive is also being limited by concerns over copyright that are leading them to reduce valuable services, such as their digital library.[ii]
But a recent and more personal experience brought all of this to the forefront of my thinking. I always print to save a hard copy of anything of significance (to me) that I write. That may seem quaint, but time and again, it has saved me from losing work that was stored on out of date media, such as floppy discs, or failing journals. I recently wanted to share a copy of a piece I did for a journal of the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), written in 1994, when I was director of an ESRC programme. This time my system failed me and I could not find it in my files.
This was a short piece that the ESRC published in one of its journals called Social Sciences. Being a social scientist, my article focused on the problematic mindset of social scientists regarding outreach (Dutton 1994). Too often, I argued, a (social) scientist thought they were through with outreach once they published an article. The way I put it was that many social scientists believed in sort of a ‘trickle-down’ theory of outreach. Once their work was published, the findings and their implications will eventually trickle down to those who might benefit from their insights.
Today, all disciplines of the sciences are far more focused on outreach and the impact of research. Many research assessment exercises require evidence of the impact of research as a basis for assessment. And individual academics, research units, departments and universities are becoming almost too focused on getting the word out to the world about their research and related achievements. Outreach has become a major aspect of contemporary academic and not-for-profit research enterprises. There is even an Association for Academic Outreach.[iii] One only needs to reflect on the innovative and competitive race to a vaccine for COVID-19, where at least 75 candidate vaccines are in preclinical or clinical evaluation[iv], to see how robust and important outreach has become. Nevertheless, outreach does not necessarily translate into preservation of academic work.
So – lo and behold – I could not find a copy of my piece on ‘Trickle-Down Social Science’. I recall seeing it in my files, but given moves back and forth across the Atlantic, it had vanished without a trace. I searched online for it, and found my books and articles that referenced it, but no copy of the article. I tried the Way Back Machine, but it was not on the Web, as the journal Social Sciences in those days did not put its publication online. I wrote the ESRC, as they might have an archive of their journal. They kindly replied that they not only did not have a copy of the article (from that far back), but, more surprisingly, they did not even have a copy of Social Sciences in their archives. So, 1994 is such ancient history that even revered institutions like the ESRC do not keep copies of their publications. [A former student read this blog and sent me a photocopy, which I used to create a new version of my little viewpoint piece from a quarter-century earlier.]
Well, this little personal experience reminded me of my practice of keeping copies and reinforced the obvious conclusion that I need to preserve my own work, as I had tried to do, and do a more consistent job of it in the process! The toppling of real, analogue statues across the world selfishly reminded me of the need to preserve my own far less significant – if not insignificant – historical record and not to count on anyone else doing this for me.
So, preserve your own work and don’t rely on the Internet, Web, big data, or any other person to save your work. Take it from C. Wright Mills (1952), any academic should devote considerable time to their files. While Mills argued that maintaining one’s files was a central aspect of ‘intellectual craftsmanship’, even he did not focus on their preservation.
That said, if anyone has a copy of ‘Trickle-Down Social Science’, name your price. 😉