Regulatory Consultations are not Plebiscites

Try as You May, but Consultations are not Plebiscites

Debate over the current and former FCC consultations on net neutrality have led a number of otherwise well informed telecommunication policy researchers and analysts to focus on the number of submissions for or against an FCC ruling, such as in a WSJ article today: https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2017/12/04/fcc-rebuffs-calls-senators-ny-ag-delay-net-neutrality-vote-over-fake-comments/920446001/

Regulatory consultations are simply not plebiscites. They are not opportunities for the public to vote a ruling up or down. They are meant to determine if the ruling has addressed all reasonable issues. So if a member of the public raises an issue that is new or not addressed in the ruling, it is important, and the agency would need to address it. If the public simply raises a point made by others, or which has been addressed by the ruling, then it is superfluous.

For this reason, there have been efforts to use text analytics to read the many submissions enabled by email and other electronic messaging applications leading to thousands if not millions of submissions – more than a few people can read. The area of development has been called e-Rulemaking. Using text analytics, it is possible to identify a new point, and also easy to identify duplicated submissions, for example. One million duplicated submissions that raise no new points are not significant to a consultation, unless people are treating them like votes, which would be inappropriate. That is why it is really not that worrisome that bots are participating in a consultation. There is a human being behind every bot, and unless the bot makes a new and valid and reasonable point, then its significance is nil.

Am I wrong? Let me know.

But try as you may to use comments to consultations as if they are votes, this would be a misunderstanding of their role. They should not be counted as if they were a plebiscite. Software like ‘texifter’ is available and under development to filter and sort through tons of comments to discover valid points for considering in a consultation. Stu Shulman, the inventor of @discovertext playfully characterizes them as BS filters. See a recent talk by Stu to get a sense of the history and status of work in this area: http://quello.msu.edu/event/erulemaking-a-history-a-theory-a-flood/  


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/239140103″>eRulemaking: A History, A Theory, A Flood by Stu Shulman</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/quellocenter”>Quello Center</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

 

Broadening Conceptions of Mobile and Its Social Dynamics

Wonderful to see a chapter by me, Frank Hangler, and Ginette Law, entitled ‘Broadening Conceptions of Mobile and Its Social Dynamics’ in Chan, J. M., and Lee, F. L. F. (2017), Advancing Comparative Media and Communication Research (London: Routledge), pp. 142-170. It arrived at my office today.

The volume evolved out of an international conference to mark the 50th anniversary of the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2015. But the paper’s origins date back to a project that I did during my last months at Oxford in 2014, and early in my tenure at MSU, as the Principal Investigator with Ginette and Frank, of a project called ‘The Social Shaping of Mobile Internet Developments and their Implications for Evolving Lifestyles’, supported by a contract from Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd to Oxford University Consulting. This led first to a working paper done jointly with colleagues from Oxford University and Huawei: Dutton, William H. and Law, Ginette and Groselj, Darja and Hangler, Frank and Vidan, Gili and Cheng, Lin and Lu, Xiaobin and Zhi, Hui and Zhao, Qiyong and Wang, Bin, Mobile Communication Today and Tomorrow (December 4, 2014). A Quello Policy Research Paper, Quello Center, Michigan State University.. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2534236 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2534236

The project moved me into a far better understanding and appreciation of the significance of mobile, but also its varied and evolving definitions. Before this paper, I was skeptical of academic work centered on mobile as I considered it one area of Internet studies. However, by the end of the project, I became convinced that mobile communication is a useful and complex area for research, policy and practice, complementary to Internet studies. In the working paper, we forecast the disappearance of the mobile phone device, which seemed far-fetched when we suggested this to Huawei, but is now becoming a popular conception. So look forward to a future in which that awkward scene of people walking along looking at their mobile will come to an end, in a good way.

This paper illustrates the often circuitous route of academic work from conception to publication, which is increasingly international and collaborative. So thanks to the editors, my co-authors, Oxford Consulting, and Huawei for your support and patience. Academic time is another world. But it was all worth doing and the wait.

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     Frank Hangler, Co-Author

 

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Ginette Law, Co-Author

Conference on Emerging Media at Peking University

The new department of Emerging Media at Peking University, Beijing, China, held a conference on 15 September 2017 on its subject, ‘Emerging Media’, subtitled Connection, Innovation, Transformation. Peking University is at the top of universities across China, so its establishment of this department about four years ago is reminiscent of Oxford University establishing the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) in 2001. I expect that this new department will have an even larger impact on the development of the field of Internet and new media studies across China and around the world. It was an honor to give one of the keynotes around our research on the political implications of search.

My thanks to the Dean, Professor XIE Xinzhou, and his colleagues at Peking University, including Professors WANG Xiuli (Charlene), Professor LI Wei and TIAN Lily, from Peking Un, and many helpful students, such as Rita Ji, who helped me throughout my stay. Their team pulled together colleagues from around the world, including James Katz (Boston College), S. Shyam Sundar (Penn State), Leopoldina Fortunati (Un of Udine), ZHOU Baohua (Fudan), WEI Ran (Un of South Carolina), Erik P. Bucy (Texas Tech), WANG Xiaoguang (Wuhan Un), ZHANNG Hongzhong (Beijing Normal Un), Kuang WenBo (Renmin Un), HAN Gang (Iowa State Un), Gil De Zoniga Homero (a former OII SDP student, now chaired professor at Un of Vienna), Eriko Uematsu (Musashino Gakuin Un), Neta Kligler-Vilenchik (Hebrew Un of Jerusalem), YU Nan (Un of Central Florida), and my former colleague while visiting the OII, Professor JIN Jianbain (Tsinghua Un).

They organized an engaging several days of talks and visits, such as to the Headquarters of Sina Weibo, giving all of us a personal sense of current developments around the Internet and social media in China.

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The 21st Century Science Challenge: Communication with the Public

On my last trip to China, I was meeting with a former social science colleague at Tsinghua University, Professor JIN Jianbin, who received a new research grant to study public perspectives on science, such as around research on genetically modified crops. Our conversation about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) quickly touched on a variety of other issues, such as the public’s acceptance of research on climate change, on which sizeable proportions of the public in China, the US and other nations often dismiss, if not distrust, scientific opinion.

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Bill Dutton and JIN Jianbin at Tsinghua University, Beijing, China, 17 Sept 2017

Of course, some level of public distrust of scientific authorities is not new. I recall some famous work by political scientists in the US who studied the politics of conspiracy theories around the fluoridation of water that was prominent across American communities since the 1950s, but which – surprisingly – carries on to this day. So while it is not new, distrust of the political motivations behind scientific opinion is arguably growing.

Some indicators have suggested that diffuse public support for scientific institutions is not declining.[1] However, there is some limited and more recent evidence that universities and academics are being perceived as more partisan.[2] And anecdotally, science is increasingly questioned as biased by researchers who are claimed to be in the pockets of the sponsors of their research, illustrated by controversies over pharmaceutical research.

Such assaults on the integrity of science have led universities and research institutions to place a higher priority on the prevention and detection of conflicts of interest rising in the conduct of research. Finally, symptoms of this growing distrust seem evident in the divisions over a rising number of issues, with GMOs, climate change, vaccinations, and evolution, being among the more prominent. Perhaps the controversies surrounding science simply reflect the many issues that have broad public implications, such as for the digital economy or public health, while issues such as the moon landing were more removed from immediate public impact on the redistribution of resources.

The bad news is that these controversies are likely to slow progress, such as on efforts to reduce man made climate change. In some cases these controversies are dangerous, such as in leading parents not to vaccinate their school children.

However, there might be some positive outcomes here, if not good news. One positive outcome of this developing problem might be that scientists will place a greater priority on better explaining their work to a wider public. Already, the study of science communication is a burgeoning field around the world, illustrated by new research being launched by my colleague JIN Jianbin, Professor of Journalism and Communication at Tsinghua University in Beijing. And an increasing number of research councils and foundations stress the importance of public outreach.

Of course, scientists explain their research findings and their implications as a matter of practice. Not to be forgotten or dismissed is perhaps the most effective albeit long-term form of science communication, which is teaching in colleges and universities. Yet there are questions about whether top scientists, whatever their field, are as closely involved in teaching as they could be. For example, my former university, the University of Southern California, placed a priority on putting top senior scholars into the entry level undergraduate courses, which I thought was brilliant, but which is exceptional.

But arguably, most communication about scientific issues remains focused on peer-to-peer rather than public facing communication. Peer-to-peer communication is conducted   through journal publications and academic conferences and presentations. And when public facing, it is often limited to top-down or what I have called ‘trickle-down’ science, with scientists expecting their publications to be read and interpreted by others, and not themselves – the primary researchers.[3]

However, and here I could be wrong, it seems that the worse possible development might be what I see as a trend toward scientific persuasion, often based on appeals to authority and scientific consensus or by lobbying, such as through petitions, rather than by effective communication of research. Any scientist is quick to dismiss or place less credibility in appeals to authority. Why should the public be different? Where is the evidence? And once scientists move into the role of a lobbyist, petitioner, or activist, they diminish their credibility as scientists or researchers. Surely this kind of context collapse, when a scientist becomes political, or a doctor runs for a political office, invites the public to view scientists and academics as partisan political actors rather than scientific actors, and see them in ways that parallel other political actors and lobbyists.

How can scientists explain their work to a larger public? First, they need to recognize the need and value of effectively communicating their work to a broader public. This aim is rising across academia, such as in research councils insisting on research including components on outreach, and academic quality being judged increasingly by its impact. Unfortunately, this can sometimes drift into a tick box exercise in budgeting for conferences and seminars involving business and industry and the government, while serious efforts to communicate to the general public with an interest in the topic needs to be tackled directly. Academics need to guard against this tick box mentality.

Another concern is that this need for public outreach might simply lead to a greater focus on media coverage, getting the press to pick up stories on a scientist’s research. There is nothing wrong with this, universities love such coverage, and it can be helpful, but news coverage is generally overly simplistic, too often misleading, and potentially adding to the problems confronting good scientific communication. Researchers need to hold journalists and the media more accountable, and address inaccuracies or overly simplified messages in the press, cable news shows, and mass media.

Another, and a possibly more effective and more recently practical approach, is to communicate directly to the public. Join the conversation. Write reports on your research findings that are understandable to those in the educated public that might be seriously interested in your work now or in the future. You can reach opinion leaders in your areas of research, and thereby foster effective two-step flows of communication to the general public. Don’t worry about a mass audience, but aim to reach a targeted audience of those with a serious interest in your topic. When they search online for information about your topic, make sure that accessible presentations of your research will be found.

Unfortunately, too many academics are taught not to join the conversation, and to avoid blogging or writing for a general audience. Instead, they are taught to focus more than ever on only reaching the top peer reviewed journals in their field and being read and cited by their peers. As noted above, this too often leads to a weak form of trickle down science, which is not in the long-term interest of the scientific enterprise.

We should question this conventional wisdom in academia. Personally, I don’t believe there is a necessary risk to scientific publishing by also trying to communicate to a more general audience. That is what teachers do, and when researchers try to teach and communicate with their students, they can find problems with their arguments, and ways to improve how they convey their ideas.

So – scientists – offer up your best ideas to the public, not as your peers, but as smart and educated individuals who do not know about your work – even why it is relevant. Some of my most meaningful experiences with communication about my research have been exactly when I – focused on Internet studies – sat next to a physicist or mathematician over a meal who asked me about my research and vice versa. What am I working on? Why is it important? If we can do this over lunch or dinner, we can do it for a larger public online.

Perhaps this is more difficult than it sounds, but we need to accept the challenge. Arguably, the scientific challenge of the 21st century is effective communication to the larger public.

References

[1] See: https://www.nap.edu/read/21798/chapter/4#12

[2] See: https://www.cnsnews.com/news/article/annabel-scott/pew-poll-majority-republicans-think-colleges-have-negative-impact-us

[3] Dutton, W. (1994), ‘Trickle-Down Social Science: A Personal Perspective,’ Social Sciences, 22, 2.

 

The Interpersonal Politics of Silence

Sitting in a large number of meetings – as academics do – I have been intrigued by the frequency of individuals remaining silent, and not expressing their views on issues, even to the point of listening to uncomfortable silences. I’ve been sensitive to this, since from my earliest memories of being a student sitting in classes, I was one of those who could not stay silent, trying to respond to questions whether or not I had a knowledgeable response. Perhaps everyone has a psychological disposition to be more comfortable remaining silent or in expressing themselves, and I’m sure this varies cross-culturally and across meetings. There are meetings when I am the only person speaking and meetings in which I cannot get a word in edgewise.

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Clearly, some business pundits, such as Kevin Eikenberry, view silence in meetings as functional and often positive, such as by giving individuals time to think. Others see silence in meetings as a consequence of the speaker or the chair – not the problem of the audience. I’ll get back to the functional value of silence below.

That said, I cannot help but think that silence in meetings is a political strategy – conscious or not. This is not my area, as I am not focused on interpersonal communication, but some cursory search suggests that very little research has been done on the interpersonal functions of silence. While under-researched, others such as Richard Johannesen (1974), have identified this as a topic in need of more systematic research – apparently to little effect.

Ambiguity. In politics, silence is often read as a lack of support. If politicians do not express their support for their leadership, for example, it is generally assumed that they are opposed, or at least not supportive. Alternatively, in many meetings and in interpersonal communication, silence is often read as a sign of deference – as if one is listening or thinking about what was said. Of course, the degree that silence could be read as supportive or oppositional suggests that it is a safe position. Others can read what they want to read in silence, but not be able to prove their case, leaving the silent in a more ambiguous position. And ambiguity is good in politics.

Time Delay. In addition, silence and the ambiguity it creates will enable individuals to take more time to decide on their response. If you can wait to express your views, you can take a more politically acceptable position.

Private Flexibility. Silence in public also permits multiple positions in private. One can tell the proponents and opponents of a particular idea that they support their position.

So this ambiguity, strategic delay, and private flexibility make silence golden in the interpersonal politics of meetings. But is it constructive for the group or institution?

Here I think the idea that every organization needs idea generators, idea killers, and idea maintainers to innovate provides with  a different take. I like this idea, and believe it could be applied to meetings as well. The problem is that those who remain silent are neither generating ideas, killing ideas, or maintaining them. This is okay if silence gives space to those who generate, kill, or maintain new ideas. But if too many remain silent, this could be dysfunctional for the meeting, and the organization.

Others have argued a stronger case against silence, with Leslie A. Perlow and Stephanie Williams suggesting that silence could be killing companies, finding that:

“But it is time to take the gilt off silence. Our research shows that silence is not only ubiquitous and expected in organizations but extremely costly to both the firm and the individual. Our interviews with senior executives and employees in organizations ranging from small businesses to Fortune 500 corporations to government bureaucracies reveal that silence can exact a high psychological price on individuals, generating feelings of humiliation, pernicious anger, resentment, and the like that, if unexpressed, contaminate every interaction, shut down creativity, and undermine productivity.”

My sense is that they are right to challenge conventional wisdom on the value of silence. Silence might well be politically strategic for individuals, but potentially not strategic for group or organizational innovation. So if you want to be politically safe, and organizationally conservative, if not deadly, then sit on your hands and hold your tongue.

Reference

Johannesen, Richard L. (1974), ‘The Functions of Silence: A Plea for Communication Research’, Western Speech, 38 (1): http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/10570317409373806?needAccess=true

Perlow, Leslie A., and Williams, Stephanie (2003), ‘Is Silence Killing Your Company?‘, Harvard Business Review, May.

What Happened to our Academic Culture?

Universities – along with their centers, departments, and colleges – vary greatly in the vibrancy of their respective academic culture (intellectual climate). Nevertheless, no university can be complacent about the vitality of their culture for academic excellence – least they lose it.

Of course, there is no single academic culture. There are differences in the values, attitudes, and priorities of academics cross-culturally and at teaching versus research institutions, for example, but some of the same questions are relevant: Are the faculty and students engaged with each other over important issues and questions in their fields? Are they open to new ideas, but also are they actively scouting for new ideas in areas close and far from their primary areas of study or research? Do colleagues exhibit a healthy analytical skepticism – questioning the validity of assumptions and arguments, regardless of their prominence among their colleagues or their field as a whole?

Arguably, if you feel that you need to build an academic culture at your institution, you might have already lost it. But in many respects, even institutions with a strong academic culture need to continue building on their success, and not taking it for granted. There are too many pressures in modern academe across all institutions to ignore the forces that could undermine the openness and engagement of academics.

Competition for Time and Attention

These pressures include a nearly universal sense of increasing time pressures. Traditional images of the academic sitting comfortably reading while smoking a pipe seem increasingly romantic to academics multi-tasking online to handle never ending streams of email, deadlines, reviews, and the pressures to publish. Time to think and write seems to be shrinking for many if not most and not only among early career scholars, but across the range of temporary, fixed term, and tenure-track faculty. With attention appearing to be spread more widely across multiple demands, it is understandably difficult to take the time out to have lunch with a colleague, meet with students, go to a seminar outside your immediate area, listen to a lecture, or even read a book!

Unfortunately, this can lead academics to prioritize their activities in ways that can be counter-productive, such as going only to seminars central one’s areas of research and teaching, if at all. However, it is so often the case that it is in a seminar outside of one’s immediate areas of interest that you can find new ideas, new methodological approaches, and analogies with one’s own research. Many activities that appear unproductive, such as having a relaxed lunch with colleagues, are central to building an academic culture. For example, you learn about developments outside of your normal field of view, or discover how to better explain your own work.

A risk is that a focus on publishing can lead to more of a culture of production than a more genuine academic culture. A production culture could lead to publishing more work, but in a day when virtually anything can get published, this can undermine the quality of the academic process, such as leading us to do more incremental versus more innovative research, in addition to creating an academic treadmill for yourself and your colleagues.

Change in Collaborative Research Practices

A related driving force is a move from the traditional model of the lone scholar to more team oriented research collaboration. There is a degree to which a lone scholar values interaction with colleagues, such as over lunch or through seminars, as a stimulating approach to their own thinking. As academics move more into collaborative teams, often distributed geographically, they are more engaged in communication online and offline with their team, potentially undermining the attraction and value of spending more relaxed time with colleagues that are not closely tied to their work. Of course, the resources available online for collaboration and research generally are enabling individuals to work on their own in more productive ways, but nevertheless, there is arguably more reliance on distributed team research that can supplant more informal collaboration (Dutton and Jeffreys 2010).

Of course, the move to online collaboration and teaching creates more pressures. It might be easier to meet with people at a distance, but this means we meet more often and about more things. Online courses might make life easier for students, but they are harder for teachers to produce, and put more pressures on the time of academics. But as they are a new source of revenue for universities, and a means for increasing the productivity of faculty, these pressures will increase, or create more teams for the delivery of courses, which reshape the collaborative culture of teaching as well as research (Dutton and Loader 2000).

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs: a Focus on Careers versus a Liberal Education

Another pressure is the move of many universities to focus more on ensuring that their graduates get good jobs rather than a liberal education. Decades ago, I was intrigued by arguments that a university should train students for their ultimate job, and not simply their first job. I wasn’t sure if it was right, but it certainly seemed closer to what universities did in trying to provide a liberal education to students on how to do such things as communicate, listen, reason, appreciate new cultures, create new ideas and approaches to old ideas, and challenge conventional thinking. But as more pressure is placed on more universities to train students for their first career if not their first job, the priority of a liberal education diminishes and so do aspects of university life tied to an academic culture. Of course, this focus on a student’s first career is problematic when students are likely to have not just multiple jobs, but multiple careers over the course of their working life.

From the Ivory Tower and into a Political Cockpit

Another pressure worth mentioning is the politicization of education, including universities. In the US, for example, there is a growing disparity of trust in universities across political parties (Geiger 2016). Universities seem to be increasingly lumped into a category of liberal-elite institutions that are out of touch with popular criticism of the status quo. As politics becomes more prevalent and perceived as more partisan in the climate of universities, it is possible that universities might become less open and more self-conscious about expressing viewpoints, such as on politically sensitive issues. Moreover, as competition between industries – which often cuts more deeply than politics – becomes more politicized, such as in the EU and US, then there are even greater political tensions in the Ivory Tower that can undermine free and open inquiry. Already in the USA, it is difficult to get federal funding for policy research, given the partisan concerns that surround funding decisions and research outcomes.

To Build a Culture from Yourself Up

The pressures of the digital age, the economic imperatives to train for jobs, and the growing political visibility of academia might combine to undermine academic cultures across many institutions of higher education. This makes it even more important to constantly think about building the academic culture of your institution. Don’t be defensive – this is a general problem, not just a swipe at your institution, but more of a note to myself.

There are steps you can take. My suggestions are first to start with your own willingness to take the time to engage, participate, and be open to and challenging ideas in areas close to and also far from your primary areas of inquiry. The moment you hear yourself think that you are not interested in a topic, that is the moment you should make an extra effort to engage, hear more, and see what you can learn. An academic culture can’t be driven from the top-down, or required by the instructor. But an academic can teach by example. So make an open, inquisitive, skeptical academic culture your priority, and other good things will happen.

References

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

Dutton, W. H., and Jeffreys, P. (2010) (eds), World Wide Research: Reshaping the Sciences and Humanities. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Geiger, A. (2016), From Universities to Churches, Republicans and Democrats Differ in Views of Major Institutions, Factank, September 26th. Available online here.