Getting to No: Name-calling Politics

Every morning it seems I am stunned by any given political actor (celebrity, politician, journalist) in the UK or the USA calling another politician an idiot, a fascist, a communist, a liar, a populist, nationalist, …. the list goes on. What are they thinking?

You don’t need to have read Roger Fisher and William Ury’s Getting to Yes: Negotiating an Agreement Without Giving In (Random House, first edition 1981) to realise that name-calling in politics is likely to end badly. It is blindingly obvious that this is not a route to agreement. So as Fisher and Ury argue, among other rules, you should focus on the problem versus the personalities involved in the dispute. Name-calling focuses everyone on the personalities in the dispute.

In the 1980s, I found that urban development conflicts were often facilitated by modeling – at that time the use of computer models of the fiscal impact of alternative development strategies (Dutton, W. H. and Kraemer, K. L. Modeling as Negotiating: The Political Dynamics of Computer Models in the Policy Process, Ablex Publishing, 1985). The modelling process focused the attention of contenting actors on the assumptions and data relevant to the model – the modelling process. In some cities this worked, but not all, but when it worked, it was a classic validation of Fisher and Ury.

With respect to Brexit, there have been attempts to focus on a process, such as a referendum, then a second referendum, or general election, to resolve the conflict between the leave versus remain alternatives. So arguably, the referendum did not resolve the issue, but actually has been blamed by many for the intractable position that the UK finds itself. But what about this idea of a citizen’s jury, which has been put forward by Rory Stewart?

My view is that it would be a potentially useful input to the process, but not a route to resolving the issue of Brexit. As one of a number of efforts to get to a yes, it could surface new ideas. However, if it is consider as the way to resolve the issue, it would be too politicised to be credible.

So a focus on any particular process rather than the personalities is not a panacea. It is important to find a process that garners support, that representatives of all aspects of the issue can actually participate in, and have sufficient transparency for the public and officials to ensure that it is accountable to members of the parliament, government, and the public at large. It that respect, the suggestion of a citizen’s jury is moving in the right direction: away from name-calling and towards a focus on a process for resolving disagreement.

Maybe everyone knows how commonsensical this advice might be. So what should we think of those who insist on name-calling? Generally, when it looks like someone is behaving irrationally, it often turns out that they are focusing on a different objective. For example, they may not be trying to find a solution or resolution to a negotiation. They may be simply trying to enhance their visibility to their supporters. My impression is exactly this. The name-callers among journalists, politicians, and celebrities are primarily seeking to be liked by like-minded people in their own self-interest, and not to solve a problem in the public interest.

Modelling Creating a Process for Getting to Yes

Email Crisis

With everyone focused on handwringing issues surrounding social media, such as ‘disinformation’, and the rising tide of regulatory initiatives, most have forgotten about one of the earliest forms of Internet communication – email, and the real problems this medium is facing. I am not referring to spam email, one of the early crises facing Internet users, which has been generally mitigated by increasingly effective spam filters. I am trying to understand a more basic issue of – let me call it – bad emails. Bad emails are those that no one reads, or no one continues to read beyond the first few lines. 

It is not simply due to the declining attention span of Internet users. I’ve written about how much I’ve noticed that when people respond to my emails they most often respond only to the first point, as if no email has more than one point or one question. Maybe many people are too rushed and harried to go beyond the first point they can respond to and be done with it. But I think it is more basic than this. 

I am reading a collection of letters by the prolific German-America author Charles Bukowski, entitled On Writing, edited by Abel Debritto (New York: Harper Collins, 2015). I did not agree with many of the lessons conveyed by Bukowski’s letters. For example, he did not make carbon copies, and generally did not keep copies of what he wrote, often sending his original work to editors without even tracking to whom he sent what. I save my handwritten notes, and everything I do online is copied and copied.

Charles Bukowski via Wikipedia

However, I very much enjoyed his criticism of much writing, from poetry to the news, as too often stale and formulaic – unoriginal. His letters are distinctively his, and he cares deeply about what he reads. As he puts it: ‘A man’s soul or lack of it will be evident with what he can carve upon a white sheet of paper’ (p. 25). 

As I carried on with examples of his writing, and his thoughts on writing, my mind went straight to the tragic condition of most email that most people receive. Most of us have long since stopped writing ‘letters’. But they have not exactly been replaced by email without a great loss in quality and diversity.

Possibly due to the numbers of email we receive, one quickly categorizes each to determine its quick disposition – delete, scan, read, save, or even print to guard, read later, and more. Hundreds of emails can be efficiently disposed of in minutes. But the more serious problem, and why it is so easy to process email, is that most is so stale and formulaic. An appeal for donations. An invitation to a seminar. A notice of a meeting. … The variations are most often trivial, such as a colourful drawing or logo, but the same basic script. 

Bukowski’s letters were personal and always told a story, whether about what he was doing, or how he was feeling, or what rejection he received, etc. I will never have his talent, or write or draw such interesting letters, but he inspired me to think more carefully about every letter – email – that I write. Why should anyone read beyond the first point, if that far, unless the message is personal and tells a story? Reading your given name in the salutation is not enough in the days of computer-assisted mail merges.

So the crisis of email is that it has become artificial, prepackaged, and unimaginative. How much more fun to try and make every email a story you would enjoy telling the recipient letter (Internet) ‘user’. The question becomes: Will I do this? Can I?

At the very least, I will make sure I keep his letters in sight as a reminder of my ambition. May I recommend that others spend time reading the letters of someone whom they regard as a great letter writer, if only to remind themselves of the potential of the letter as a story, and address the bad email crisis?

Rethinking Consumers in the Digital Age and Their Role in Shaping Policy, Regulation and Practice

A personal response to Communications Consumer Panel consultation of 25 April 2019

Bill Dutton

12 May 2019

I was a former member and Chair of the Advisory Committee for England, and have followed the Consumer Forum for Communications (CFC) for years. Having returned from working in the US for four years, I’ve also attended the last several meetings of the CFC as an unaffiliated individual. My major involvement in communication has been as an academic, involved in teaching and research on the social implications of the Internet and related media, communication and information technologies. 

Image Courtesy of Arthur Berger

I am pleased to learn of Ofcom’s decision to increase support for the Communication Consumer Panel (CCP), particularly in light of diminished support for the Consumer Forum for Communications (CFC). I have been impressed with the breadth of expertise and exceptional commitment of members of both organizations. However, I have comments on how the work of the CCP might be improved in the coming years.

Let me preface this by noting that the various schemes for organizing committees and individuals outlined in the consultation document on ‘strengthening the consumer voice in the communications sector’ appear to be wedded to a previous era of communication in which there were clear demarcations between the telecommunications industry and its consumers. This distinction is less meaningful today as the general public acts in a variety of roles, such as in producing, providing, sharing, using content, and more—and not just as consumers. 

The mission of the CCP recognizes this in part when saying the body is designed “to protect and promote the interests of consumers, citizens and small businesses in the communications sector by giving advice to Ofcom, the EU, Government, industry and others.” For example, people are increasingly talking about ‘digital citizens’ and using other broad terms that go beyond ‘consumer’. Clearly, the interests of consumers are a huge aspect of the public interest, but serving the public interest in communication is no longer limited to meeting the needs of consumers. And the regulation of communication is increasingly tied to multiple agencies and public officials. Is there a way to move away from this overly simplistic and dated dichotomy between industry and consumer, while also broadening the scope of our definitions of communication? I have a suggestion. 

Instead of creating an ‘industry forum’ and/or creating ‘focused, direct engagement with consumers’, why not create a truly broad communication forum, open to all actors in the design, production, and use of media, communication and information technologies and services, from the post and phones to the Internet of Things? There are tools available today for organizing collective intelligence across the nations of the UK on any topics that actors in this increasingly complex ecology wish to address. If well moderated from the outset, with clear rules of order, such as not posting anonymous comments, and supported by Ofcom, then there is no reason not to have it open to everyone interested in how communication can better serve the public interest. 

An open communication forum – not simply a blog or website – would enable direct involvement with the entire ecology of actors, surface issues before they become problems, and create a source of insights for the CCP that it would never otherwise be able to have at its service. As a forum of Ofcom, this would have the ability to attract input from key actors, and be able to translate what is learned into meaningful discussions at Ofcom and other appropriate agencies with the potential for effecting policy and practice. Given the growing number of industries, companies, SMEs, consumers, and other individuals playing multiple roles in our new communication ecology, why would you not want to exploit new communication technologies to tap the wisdom of civil society to identify and discuss contemporary communication issues in the public interest? 

An open communication forum would not replace the various advisory committees of Ofcom, but complement and inform all of them, and also the officers of the regulator and related agencies and ministries involved with communication, broadly defined. It is possible that state of the practice, off-the-shelf software could be purposed for this role. However, an open forum would need the engagement and leadership of the CCP to enable a national forum for communication in the public interest to thrive. 

Quello Center Advisory Board

Great first meeting as a new member of the Quello Center Advisory Board, 9 May 2019.  It was a great opportunity to thank Gary Reid, who is retiring, for his contributions to the Center, and to see members of the Board, who continue to contribute to the Center’s success.

Merit Innovation Award to the Quello Center at MSU

Wonderful to see the growing range of research activities, anchored in some major projects, including the award winning ‘Michigan Moon Shot Project’ being conducted with Merit Network. This project began when I was still at the Center, but it has surpassed all expectations in overcoming the challenges of academic-practitioner collaboration in developing such a large scale project. I’ll post a photo of the award, which is well deserved and fun. The Center is also continuing a set of lectures and roundtables, bringing in a number of absolutely major authorities, such as Professor Laura DeNardis, a member of our Quello Advisory Board. 

The second half of the meeting was anchored around a roundtable discussion of emerging issues. Not surprisingly, key technical innovations seemed to draw the greatest attention, including advances in AI, IoT, and 5G, but members of the Board were refreshingly skeptical of much of the hype, such as that surrounding 5G. Discussion also moved to the growing focus on ethical questions about what should be done with AI and related technologies, and how to grapple with the so-called ‘techlash’ that has replaced the euphoria over the Internet and related ICTs. 

My sense was that the rise of new regulatory initiatives, driven largely by this techlash, will bring debate right to the heart of the Quello Center – which was born around the discussion of policy and regulation. 

Congratulations to Professors Johannes Bauer, the new Director, Laleah Fernandez, Assistant Director, and Keith Hampton, Research Director, for sustaining and building on the strength of the Quello Center.

Pluralist Empowerment versus Populism or Democratic Elitism

A rising discourse on the dangers of ‘populism’ seems to be expanding the concept in ways that literally demonise the empowerment of citizens – the people. There is evidence of a rise of populist parties, but that is being used as a hammer to bash a more general empowerment of individuals or citizens and networks among the public as dangerous.

This may be a consequence of too simplistic of a dichotomy being drawn between the empowerment of individual citizens and the empowerment of democratic institutions, such as elected and appointed officials, or a tradeoff between the ‘people’ versus ‘elites’. Instead, the role of the Internet and social media in helping individuals to be more informed and better able to hold politicians, business and government more accountable is also an element in the increasing vitality of democratic pluralism.

To make my case, it is useful to go back to some of the key terms in describing different forms of democratic control? So let me try, and ask others to correct me if I don’t get this right.

Pluralistic forms of democracy emerged inductively from studies of power structures. It conveys the degree that ideal forms of democracy are an impossible dream, but one feasible approximation of democratic control in practice is through governance by a pluralistic set of elites. While the few who are active, knowledgeable and committed to an issue are likely to govern the many, in the sense of Michel’s (1915) ‘Iron Law of Oligarchy’, elite empowerment in modern liberal democratic states is relatively democratic in that it is specialised across separate sets of elites. Elites influential in education, are not influential in defence, and so on. We have separate and pluralistic elites, including politicians and public officials, and this pluralistic control is more democratic than influence being concentrated in a single set of elites. The concept of pluralistic democracy is linked to many, but perhaps most often to Robert Dahl and his classic, Who Governs? (Yale Un Press, 1961), which described the power structure of New Haven, Connecticut.

Pluralism is most often contrasted with elite control, which generally assumes that power is concentrated in a relative small set of economic elites. While government most often held formal symbolic power in cities and nations, real, informal power was lodged primarily in the hands of a so-called ‘power elite’ of those with the wealth and institutional resources to control public affairs. This concept has been linked to the work of Floyd Hunter’s Community Power Structure (Un of North Carolina Press, 1969), as case study of Atlanta, Georgia, and before this, to C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite (Oxford University Press, 1956).

Compared to an elite power structure, pluralism was good news. Economic elites might be powerful with respect to some issues, some of the time, but others are powerful as well, including public officials, the press, educators, and so forth in their particular areas of expertise and focus. But an interesting normative twist on the value of pluralistic democracy was the notion that this is not only the most feasible form of democratic control in practice, but also the most desirable. This is because, according to those adhering to what has been called ‘democratic elitism’, it is only the elites in society that will protect democratic institutions and processes. This and other elite theories basically assume that:

‘the masses are inherently incompetent’ … and ‘at best, pliable inert stuff or, at worst, aroused, unruly creatures possessing an insatiable proclivity to undermine both culture and liberty.’

Peter Bachrach, The Theory. of Democratic Elitism: A Critique (Little, Brown and Company, 1967: 2)

Citizen therefore should rely on a pluralistic set of elites to govern, as they have the expertise and judgement, honed by democratic values, to rule. For example, while Americans might agree with freedom of expression as a basic human right in the US, they are unlikely to protect freedom of expression in particular, concrete circumstances, such as by not allowing an extremist to speak in one’s community or online. So those who adhere to the concept of democratic elitism generally support pluralistic elite rule as not only feasible but also desirable, given that the public at large is by and large too fragmented, unorganised, and ill-informed to govern, except in limited respects, such as voting for elected officials (also E. E. Schattschneider, 1960).

In the digital age, the rise of the Internet, social media and related information and communication technologies, such as mobile Internet, has been associated with the empowerment of individuals and networks of citizens, what I have called the rise of a Fifth Estate (Dutton 2009). Put in the most simple terms, the idea of the Fifth Estate is that use of the Internet and social media can enabled digital citizens to get access to information and network in ways that can enhance their communicative power relative to others and enable them to hold governing elites more accountable. The empowerment of individuals does not mean that these digital citizens are antagonistic to elites, but that they realise that intelligence is widely distributed and that the Internet enables them to get access to information and networks more easily and effectively than ever before.

For example, when a patient goes to a doctor, they might search for information about the problem diagnosed by the physician to learn more about what problem they have and how it is treated. This does not mean that they quit going to a doctor, but that they can have a more informed discussion with their doctor, such as by being able to ask intelligent questions. In other words, information and expertise is more distributed, less concentrated in the physician.

In contrast, populism tends to view elites self-interested or corrupt to the point that they do not trust such elites as elected officials or scientists. This is the problem as populists may fail to listen to experts and authorities in particular matters because they don’t trust elites in general. The reaction to rising signs of populism has been an increasing reification of democratic institutions and processes, and a demonisation of the people – a return to democratic elitism but in the digital age.

I’m an inductivist and see pluralist democracy as achievable and desirable, and more pluralism as a positive step for democratic control. The empowerment of digital citizens, such as suggested by the rise of a Fifth Estate, is therefore a contribution to the ideals behind democratic control. A fear of the people gaining more influence generated by the rise of populism is feuling the return of a democratic elitism unfit for the digital age. Just as populists are wrong to dismiss experts and authorities, it is wrong for elites to dismiss the people as a modern day digital mob.

 Trust in the Public
Trust in Elite InstitutionsLowHigh
HighDemocratic ElitismPluralist Democracy
LowBroken DemocracyPopulism

Democratic pluralism suggests that we use the Internet and related ICTs to inform, educate, and empower digital citizens, not to distrust them as incapable or unruly and dangerous. Likewise, it suggests that digital citizens retain a learned level of trust in elites and institutions, while being comfortable with maintaining a level of scepticism in any given pronouncement, opinion piece, or policy, because they are equipped with the tools to discover information and participate in networks of individuals that can inform and empower their understanding of policy and practice.

The Fifth Estate can broaden democratic processes at every level, from the household or neighbourhood to globe, but only if digital citizens respect the role of other actors, including experts, as sources of information and learn how to distinguish the valid arguments from deluded conspiracies.

References

Bachrach, Peter. (1967), The Theory of Democratic Elitism: A Critique. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company).

Dahl, Robert A. (1961) Who Governs? New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

Dutton, William H. (2009), ‘The Fifth Estate Emerging through the Network of Networks’, Prometheus, Vol. 27, No. 1, March: pp. 1-15.

Dutton, William H. (2015), ‘The Internet’s Gift to Democratic Governance: The Fifth Estate’, pp. 164-73 in S., Moss, G., and Parry, K. (eds),Can the Media Save Democracy? Essays in Honour of Jay G. Blumler. London, Abington: Palgrave Macmillan. 

Michels, Robert (1959), Political Parties, trans. by Eden & Cedar Paul. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Mills, C. Wright (1951), The Power Elite. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schattschneider, E. E. (1960), The Semi-Sovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston).

Voices from Oxford – a New Spring

While not surprising, one of the delightful aspects of returning to Oxford has been seeing the continued success of Voices from Oxford (VOX), which I helped found with Sung Hee Kim and Denis Noble in the early years of directing the OII. During the four years I was back in the USA, Sung Hee and Denis did not just keep VOX alive and well, but grew it in stature and impact within and beyond the University. VOX is independent of the University of Oxford, driven by the voluntary contributions of Denis and Sung Hee, and myself, but with the aim of bringing the ideas and work of faculty and students at Oxford to the wider world by way of accessible videos of key events, lectures, and interviews. While the idea began to take shape in 2003, VOX has accumulated approximately 1,000 productions available freely online.

In April, on the 19th, a group of 110 L’Oreal executives from Korea came through Oxford, and VOX worked with the organisers to visit Balliol College and hear from Professor Chris McKenna, a Reader in Business History and Strategy from the Saïd Business School, given at Rhodes House, focused on the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’. Professor McKenna is involved with a project on the history of capitalism, and his lecture captured the centrality of growing scale, innovation, path dependencies, and the social construction of technology throughout the history of industrialisation.

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Nominate an Early Career Research to Become a TPRC Junior Fellow

The TPRC is seeking to select up to 6 TPRC Junior Fellows – early-career researchers engaged in research on the Internet, telecommunication and media policy in the digital age. Please nominate individuals whom you think might make outstanding fellows. Those who have wond student paper awards at the TPRC conference as well as those who served Benton Award winners could be candidates, but we are open to anyone you feel to have the potential to do outstanding research on key issues for the TPRC, and engage other early-career researchers in our activities.

The TPRC Junior Fellows Program was designed in part to award excellence but also tobring new members into the TPRC community. Those appointed will be honoured and serve as ambassadors for TPRC, working pro bono and appointed to two-year terms by the Board. Junior Fellows will be emerging scholars with good connections to their peers, including but not limited to successful TPRC paper presenters and alumni of the Graduate Student Consortium and Benton Award.

TPRC hopes that Junior Fellows will help broaden the TPRC community, and improve the participation of underrepresented groups, such as young academics, certain disciplines not traditionally involved in telecom research who are engaged in new media and digitial policy, and those engaged in new research areas, as well as those who bring greater diversity to our community, including women, minorities, and under-represented groups.

The TPRC Board anticipates that Fellows will disseminate information about TPRC on their personal networks, and identify and engage 1-1 with prospective attendees and encourage them to participate in TPRC. In return, TPRC will recognize Fellows on the TPRC web site, and publicly welcome new appointees during the conference, and provide material and mentoring to support their outreach mission. Of course, the Early Career Fellows will be able to list this service on their resumes. Each Fellow will have a designated Board liaison, who will check in periodically to discuss support needed and progress made. TPRC will aim to support your career.

Desiderata

We’re looking for people that meet as many of the following criteria as possible. None of them are required qualifications; we don’t expect that anyone will check all the boxes.

  • From under-represented groups, including women and minorities
  • Working in new research areas and those under-represented at TPRC
  • Academic talent and promise
  • Good network of contacts, e.g. active on social media
  • Able and willing to advocate for TPRC

For information about the TPRC, see: http://www.tprcweb.com/

If you have ideas, you may contact me on this site, or by email at william.dutton@gmail.com