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.


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



Russian Hacking and the Certainty Trough

Views on Russian Hacking: In a Certainty Trough?

I have been amazed by the level of consensus, among politicians, the press and the directors of security agencies, over the origins and motivations behind the Russian hacking of the 2016 presidential election. Seldom are security agencies willing to confirm or deny security allegations, much less promote them*, even when cyber security experts vary in their certainty over the exact details. Of course there are many interpretations of what we are seeing, including speaking arguments that this is simply a responsible press, partisan politics, reactions to the President-elect, or a clear demonstration of what has been called, in a study of a thread of Israeli journalism, ‘patriotic’ journalism.* For example, you can hear journalists and politicians not only demonizing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the messenger, but also arguing that those who do not accept the consensus are virtually enemies of the state.

One useful theoretical perspective that might help make sense of this unfolding display of consensus is the concept of the ‘certainty trough’, anchored in Donald MacKensie’s research** on missile systems and those who had different levels of certainty about their performance, such as their accuracy in hitting the targets they are designed to strike. He was trying to explain how the generals, for example, could be so certain of their performance, when those most directly involved in developing the missile systems were less certain of how well they will perform. screen-shot-2017-01-07-at-15-21-25

The figure applies MacKenzie’s framework to the hacking case. My contention is that you can see aspects of the certainty trough with respect to accounts of Russian hacking of John Podesta’s emails, which led to damaging revelations about the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Clinton Foundation during the election, such as in leading to the resignation of Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s DNC post. On the one hand, there are security experts, most directly involved in, and knowledgeable about, these issues, with less certainty than the politicians and journalists about how sophisticated these hacks of an email account were, and whether they can attribute clear intentions to an ecology of multiple actors. At the other extreme, the public is the least knowledgeable about cyber security, and likely to have less certainty over what happened (see Figure). Put simply, it is not the case that the more you know the more certain you are about the facts of the case.

The upshot of this possibility is that the journalists and politicians involved in this issue should not demonize those who are less certain about who did what to whom in this case. The critics of the skeptics might well be sitting in the certainty trough.


*ICA (2017), ‘Intellligence Community Assessment, Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections’, Intelligence Community Assessment, 01D, 6 January: https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/ICA_2017_01.pdf

**Avashalom Ginosar, ‘Understanding Patriotic Journalism: Culture, Ideology and Professional Behavior’, see: https://www.academia.edu/20610610/Understanding_Patriotic_Journalism_Culture_Ideology_and_Professional_Behavior

***for Donald MacKensie’s work on the certainty trough, see: http://modeldiscussion.blogspot.com/2007/01/mackenzies-certainty-trough-nuclear.html or his summary of this work in Dutton, W. H. (1999), Society on the Line. (Oxford: OUP), pages 43-46.

Books and the Internet in Prisons: Beyond the Right to Read

A British High Court justice has ‘struck down a ban on sending books to prisoners’, as reported by the NYT: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/06/world/europe/british-judge-lifts-restriction-on-books-in-prison.html A number of writers, poets and human rights advocates have been pressing for the right of prisoners to buy books from the ‘outside world’. Apparently the prison service had supported access to books, but only through the prison libraries or purchases through the prison service, as a security measure: to prevent the smuggling of other things into the prison, as we have all seen in popular films and television series. It seems to me that it is arguably worth the time and effort of searching packages sent to prisoners in order to enhance access to books. Surely the value of books in educating and supporting the rehabilitation of those in prison is a long-term payoff that offsets the cost of screening.

About a decade ago, I was introduced to an imaginative plan to enable limited access to the Internet from prison. There are a number of programs that enable limited access to electronic text messaging, for example, but by and large, this is a huge hurdle. Nevertheless, I hope advocates of this development are continuing to pursue schemes that might enable safe access to the Internet, such as for access to education and entertainment that could be as important as the right to read. I would like to hear of initiatives in this area, and wish them well.


Courtesy: http://marktanner.com/blog/the-internet-in-china-going-the-full-circle/

Inspiring a Startup Mentality in Legacy IT Organizations – FCC CIO at the OII on 19 June, 4-5pm

Modernizing and Inspiring a “Startup Mentality” in Legacy Information Technology Organizations

Speakers: David A. Bray, Oxford Martin Associate and CIO of the U.S. FCC, Yorick Wilks, and Greg Taylor

19 June 2014 from 4-5 pm

OII Seminar Room, 1 St Giles’, Oxford

By some estimates, 70% of IT organization budgets are spent on maintaining legacy systems. These costs delays needed transitions to newer technologies. Moreover, this cost estimate only captures those legacy processes automated by IT; several paper-based, manual processes exist and result in additional hidden, human-intensive costs that could benefit from modern IT automation.

This interactive discussion will discuss the opportunities and challenges with inspiring a “startup mentality” in legacy information technology organizations. Dr. David Bray, will discuss his own experiences with inspiring a “startup mentality” in legacy IT organizations as well as future directions for legacy organizations confronted with modernization requirements. The discussion will be chaired by OII’s Dr. Greg Taylor, and Yorick Wilks, an OII Research Associate, and Professor of Artificial Intelligence in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Sheffield, will offer his comments and responses to David’s ideas before opening the discussion to participation from the audience.

David A. Bray at OII
David A. Bray at OII

Information about the speakers:

David A. Bray: http://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/cybersecurity/people/575

Yorick Wilks: http://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/people/?id=31

Greg Taylor: http://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/people/?id=166


The 6th ACM Web Science Conference will be held 23-26 June 2014 on the beautiful campus of Indiana University, Bloomington. Web Science continues to focus on the study of information networks, social communities, organizations, applications, and policies that shape and are shaped by the Web.

The WebSci14 program includes 29 paper presentations, 35 posters with lightening talks, a documentary, and keynotes by Dame Wendy Hall (U. of Southampton), JP Rangaswami (Salesforce.com), Laura DeNardis (American University) and Daniel Tunkelang (LinkedIn). Several workshops will be held in conjunction with the conference on topics such as Altmetrics, computational approaches to social modeling, the complex dynamics of the Web, the Web of scientific knowledge, interdisciplinary coups to calamities, Web Science education, Web observatories, and Cybercrime and Cyberwar. Conference attendees will have an opportunity to enjoy the exhibit Places & Spaces: Mapping Science, meant to inspire cross-disciplinary discussion on how to track and communicate human activity and scientific progress on a global scale. Finally, we will award prizes for the most innovative visualizations of Web data. For this data challenge, we are providing four large datasets that will remain publicly available to Web

For more information on the program, registration, and a full schedule please visit http://WebSci14.org and follow us on Twitter (@WebSciConf) or like us on Facebook

The Internet Trust Bubble Amid Rising Concern over Personal Data: WEF Report

The World Economic Forum has released a set of complementary reports, including one written by an OII team, entitled ‘The Internet Trust Bubble: Global Values, Beliefs and Practices’, by William H. Dutton, Ginette Law, Gillian Bolsover, and Soumitra Dutta. Our report is a follow up to our earlier WEF study entitled ‘The New Internet World’. Both are based on global Web-based surveys of Internet users, and conducted by the OII in collaboration with the WEF, comScore, and with support from ictQATAR.

Our survey research was conducted in 2012, prior to the Snowden revelations, so what we found to be a potential risk to trust in the Internet can only be greater than what we found pre-Snowden. That said, there is no certainty that the concerns raised over Snowden will reach the general public, or that Internet users will not adapt to risks to personal data and surveillance in order to enjoy the convenience and other benefits of Internet use. There is clearly a need for continuing research on attitudes, beliefs, and practices in related areas of security, privacy, authenticity and trust in the Internet, but also greater efforts to support public awareness campaigns, such as is a current focus of work in our Global Cyber Security Capacity Center at the Oxford Martin School.

We found strong support for the values and attitudes underpinning freedom of expression on the Internet. Users in the emerging nations of the Internet world are in some respects more supportive of freedom of expression online than are users in the nations of the Old Internet World. In fact, in 2012, users from the nations more recently moving online, those who compose the New Internet World, are more likely to support norms underpinning freedom of expression online than do users from nations of the Old Internet World, who were early to adopt the Internet, as well as reporting higher levels of perceived freedom in expressing themselves on the Internet.

However, there is concern worldwide over the privacy of personal information, but this is not evenly distributed. Users in nations that have more recently embraced the Internet appeared somewhat less aware of the risks and more trusting in their use of the Internet. Moreover, many users around the world indicate that they are not taking measures designed to protect their privacy and security online. In addition, there is evidence of large proportions of the online world lacking trust in the authenticity and appropriateness of information on the Internet, often looking towards the government to address problems in ways that could put values of the Internet at risk, such as freedom of expression. At the same time, there is a surprisingly high proportion of users that take governmental monitoring and surveillance of the Internet for granted, even before the disclosures of Edward Snowden and his claims about US and other governmental surveillance initiatives. These are illustrations of a pattern of attitudes and beliefs that might well signal a looming crisis of trust in the freedom, privacy, security and value of the Internet as a global information and communication resource.

Building on the theme of trust, A. T. Kearney prepared a related WEF report, entitled ‘Rethinking Personal Data: A New Lens for Strengthening Trust’. In many respects, it moves forward to identify steps that could be taken to address growing concerns over trust in the Internet.

The third report was prepared by a team of researchers at Microsoft, who also build on issues of personal data and trust. All are part of the World Economic Forum’s multi-year ‘Rethinking Personal Data’ initiative.

Links to all three reports are below:




Coincidentally, I gave a keynote on the ‘Internet trust bubble’ in Shenzhen, China, at the Huawei Strategy and Technology Workshop today, with the release of this report, 13 May 2014. I am doubtful that our data convinced many in the audience that there was reason for concern, as most discussion was rather optimistic about the future of mobile and the Internet, but I do believe there is international recognition of

New Position as Quello Chair at MSU

After 12 great years at Oxford, I am delighted to be joining MSU as their new Quello Professor. Not sure how my former USC Trojan colleagues will react to me joining the Spartans!  The current Director of the Quello Center, Professor Steve Wildman, a recent Chief Economist at the FCC, posted a much appreciated announcement of the appointment. I’ll be joining MSU in August 2014 and look forward to staying in touch with you over this and related blogs in the future. One of my goals will be to put the Internet and Web into the center of a forward strategy for building the Quello Center’s role in the new digital world of communication research, policy and regulation. My work as a co-principal on the Global Cyber Security Capacity Centre will continue at MSU, as will my work on the Fifth Estate, partly through the support of a project on collaboration at the DTU (Danmarks Tekniske Universitet) as well as through support of the Quello Center.  At MSU, I will hold the James H. Quello Chair of Media and Information Policy.

Announcement by MSU http://cas.msu.edu/oxford-university-professor-named-quello-chair/