Staying Connected to the States

Staying Connected to Media and Information Policy in the States

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

The Quello Center Advisory Board

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

 

2016 Meeting of a Subset of our Quello Advisory Board

The TPRC Board of Directors

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

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

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

 

Getting to a Brexit Strategy: Focus on the Process

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

Visiting Leeds University and Jay G. Blumler

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

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

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Jay and Bill, 2018

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

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

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

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

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Jay and the Rooks

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

Notes

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

Pick up the phone!

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

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

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

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

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

OA: OK. I’ll send another email.

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

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

Me: OK.

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

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

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

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

Reference

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

 

 

Citizen Sensing of Broadband Access

I had the opportunity to work with Merit, Michigan’s research and education network, and the Quello Center at MSU, who have teamed up on a comment to the US NTIA on how to enhance indicators of broadband access. The comment provides an innovative approach to consumer sourcing of broadband availability data that builds off the FCC’s initiatives with crowd sourcing, but also leverages the strategic advantages of Merit, as a research educational network that covers the State of Michigan. If successful, this approach has the potential to be scaled nationally. The comment provides an overview of current approaches, the potential of consumer-sourced data, and an outline of their approach.

Comment is posted at: https://www.ntia.doc.gov/files/ntia/publications/quello_merit_commentsdocket_no.180427421-8421-01.pdf

Learning from Disasters: 30 Years After the USS Vincennes

Thirty years ago, on 3 July 1988, the USS Vincennes shot down an ascending domestic airliner, Iran Air Flight 655, mistaking it for a military aircraft descending toward the aircraft carrier group. My colleagues and I group this information disaster with a number of others with the hope of learning lessons from such incidents. Time has passed since our 1995 paper and the forum it was based on, but I call your attention to this again as it illustrates the need to study and learn from mistakes. Our analysis of these information disasters is available online is entitled Computer Power and Human Limits: Learning from IT and Telecommunication Disasters, and is available here: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3103433 

A revised and published version of this paper is available: Peltu, M., MacKenzie, D., Shapiro, S., and Dutton, W. H. (1996), ‘Computer Power and Human Limits,’ in Dutton. W. H. (ed.), Information and Communication Technologies – Visions and Realities, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 177-195.

Saving Strunk and White

Looking into the College’s hallway recycling bin, 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

There is no excuse for recycling this book. If you have multiple copies, as I do, then distribute them to your various workspaces – just seeing the book is a reminder of their suggestions on style. Or give a copy to someone who has not read or does not possess a copy. Give it to a used book store. But please don’t recycle and shread this book as if it were a day-old newspaper. It is a timeless guide to American English writing style, with such reminders to ‘be clear’ and do ‘not inject opinion’ (p. 79).

True, they do not adhere to the Oxford comma, but as the authors suggest, if any rule is inappropriate in a particular case, don’t follow it. But you need to understand standard rules of good English composition before you can wisely choose to violate one. That said, I await my colleagues critiquing this blog for violating one or another of Struck and White’s key elements of style.

This is not just a must read, but a must keep and a must to pass on to younger readers.

Note: The introduction to their book was originally published in The New Yorker, and was copyrighted by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc. The Elements of Style, Revised Edition, was then copyrighted in 1935 by Oliver Strunk.