[The following commentary is authored by A. Michael Noll, and posted with the permission of the author. It illustrates the disagreement among experts on the social implications of new technologies, such as robotics, AI, cloud computing, and the Internet, demonstrating the value of continued research on the actual implications across different contexts and applications.]
The article “Rein In The Robots” by Kate Crawford (TIME, Vol.198, Nos.7-8, Aug.23-30, 2001, p.95) advocates “protection against the unchecked growth of artificial intelligence.” There is nothing new in her position. There have always been those who oppose any new technology or medium.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is decades old, and today has become a buzzword wrapping itself around such old concepts as computerization, pattern recognition, automation, robotics, and machine learning. It is hard to know what to fear when AI seems to encompass nearly everything.
Robots are machines. Robots do not have feelings, and thus it is tempting to attack them with headlines like “Rein In The Robots.” Actually, robots perform the heavy and tiresome work that humans are not equipped to perform. Robots clean floors tirelessly. Robots help the elderly overcome isolation. Robots entertain children. But they also scare us, such as the robot in the classic movie “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”
People fear what they do not understand. I made sure that my students understood the process of converting a signal to a digital representation. That way my students did not fear the digital revolution – they understood digitization and were not prey to all the hype. AI is a lot of hype – and that leads to fear and misunderstanding – and conspiracy theories.
Crawford mentions a “small, homogenous group of very wealthy people based in a handful of cities without any real accountability” as those driving the growth of AI. In expressing her conspiracy theory, she fails to accept that she, as an employee of Microsoft, is one of those people.
The real threat, in my opinion, is to computer security and our privacy from information stored centrally in computerized files – what today is called “the cloud.” Unknowingly, and willingly, all the information on our smart phones and computers is stored in the cloud, where it has the risk of being accessed and analyzed without our knowledge or approval and used against us by governments and others.
John R. Pierce (the father of communication satellites) liked to espouse that he was more concerned, not with artificial intelligence, but the natural stupidity of humans! Indeed, it is the latter we need to fear.
Way back in 1961, my article “Electronic Computer – Friend or Foe” expressed the dangers that might occur when “the computer is used to make logical decisions.” I suggested caution “before the axe and sledgehammer” becomes the only remedy. I guess little has changed – be ready to pull the plug!
August 16, 2021
A. Michael Noll is Professor Emeritus at USC Annenberg. John R. Pierce and he are the authors of SIGNALS: The Science of Telecommunication.
Given continuing uncertainties about the COVID pandemic and its variants, it is understandable that many universities are not in a position as yet to commit to in-person, face-to-face, teaching and a return to normality on college and university campuses. This is particularly the case for those individuals – teachers and students – with medical conditions that would leave them more at risk. However, in some statements, news coverage, and between the lines of pronouncements, there appears to be a strong sentiment to transform teaching in light of the perceived successes and advantages of online teaching. Some see a new normal.
Personally, I have retired from teaching, so perhaps my opinion should not count. Nevertheless, I have taught for decades, have taught a few courses online as well, and have done research on computer-mediated communication and online education. Based on my experience, I would urge universities to return to the old normal of face-to-face classroom teaching as soon as possible (ASAP). Why?
From the student’s perspective, in-person teaching is critical for two basic reasons. First, a key objective of teaching is not simply to transfer information, but to motivate and interest students in the subject matter, specifically, and learning, generally. Face-to-face teaching has a greater potential for such psychological arousal or motivation. It is true that online education and basic reading materials have an arguably equivalent or better role in simply transmitting information. But instructors can assign readings and video lectures to supplement but not replace their teaching. Any student would be wise to go to a university offering maximum exposure to in-person classes, and when there, to take every opportunity to be physically and attentively in class.
I understand the vision that students might be better located in a workplace, such as a production studio or engineering division, where they can apply what they are learning. This has been an aspect of distance education for decades and that should continue. However, in traditional undergraduate and graduate education, the teacher and other students are arguably the most important people to interact with to foster interest and engagement in learning. Certainly not from a student’s home.
Secondly, my best experiences in education have been the result of a teacher becoming a mentor or role model for my own learning and education. Teachers can have a powerful impact on students, such as by commenting on their work, providing encouraging feedback, or helping them understand the strengths and weaknesses of their oral and written contributions to a class. My reflections about my education quickly move to a teacher who inspired me to do better or follow a line of research or study.
From the teacher’s perspective, online teaching is possible. I understand that when a teacher first tries online teaching that they can be pleasantly surprised by its potential. Once they understand the process, it is easy to do, it can be recorded and seen again by students, and even reused, like old lecture notes. That said, you are probably fooled by the technical achievement, as you have little idea how motivational or informative your productions are for your students. They can be listening or not listening with their audio and video muted, while they do other things, like checking their social media. Yes, students can sometimes daydream in class and pretend to pay attention, but if that is true, imagine what they will do online. You need to hold their attention and get them excited about what they are reading and learning from the class, and this is less likely to happen online.
But let’s assume that for a small percentage of the most gifted students, an online lecture is potentially better than the average lecture produced by the average teacher. This was the logic behind an initiative I was involved in during the late-1990s in online education involving consortiums of universities in the US. Working in collaboration, it would make no sense for every university in the consortium to have its own lecture on every topic when the universities could select the best teachers for any given topic and enable all the universities to share that lecture – along with thousands of other lectures. It didn’t work in 2000, but it could work in 2025. So unless you are a gifted online producer, you as a college or university instructor will be selecting readings, selecting lectures from your consortium, and maybe leading or moderating online discussions of these materials. In short, most instructors will transform themselves into teaching assistants as the lecturing and teaching moves to the top performers to produce lecture materials.
When I was a freshman in a large state university in 1960s, I took an introduction to psychology course at 8 am in a large lecture hall with over 200 students. It was delivered on televisions in black and white by a professor who had passed away several years before. It didn’t work for me – I usually fell asleep. I recall the class, but not the teacher. It was not inspiring, not motivating. My fear is that we really are thinking of going back to the future here and failing students, teachers, and universities in the process.
Get back into the classroom as soon as it is safe to do so.
Having created and served on advisory boards in a number of organisations and countries, I’ve begun to see some principles that can guide others serving on an advisory board. I am not a management consultant nor an expert on advisory boards, but as I try to think through my own experiences on boards, I thought it would be fun to write about my views on what could be key principles. These have been learned the hard way, by seeing the reactions of organisations and other members of boards to my interventions – efforts to give advice and support organisations, mainly those involved in academic research.
Any organization, such as an academic unit, can get too insulated or too loosely connected to a multitude of important stakeholders, ranging from other academics to policy and practitioner communities and any audiences it seeks to reach. They may ask themselves: Is our work meeting the high expectations set for the organisation? Are we doing our work in ways that are recognised as best practice in relevant communities? How can we excel further on any number of criteria? Are we missing important topics or areas of work? Are there new and promising sources of funding? To answer such questions, it can be helpful to set up a group of individuals who are trusted to be constructive but also have a critical perspective that can inform the unit moving forward.
Given such questions, the organization often sets up an advisory board to review the unit’s work on a periodic basis and give them feedback on notable strengths and any weaknesses that could be addressed. A report or multiple documents are assembled for the board members to review and provide feedback during a short but substantively rich meeting of the board. So what principles might help board members in contributing to their next board meeting? I apologise in advance for keeping this simple, but I often forget them in the process of meeting.
The organization knows far more than the board about its activities and practices.
One positive role of a board meeting is that it should force or at least incentivise the organisation to pull together a clear overview of its activities and the issues it is facing. In the process of pulling this information together and communicating it to the board, a large proportion of the work of the advisory board is accomplished. The managers and leadership of the organisation updates its sense of who has done what and with what impact over the last period of time. In the course of doing so, the organisation develops a better understanding of its strengths and weaknesses, and how they can or cannot be addressed, before the board even meets.
An obvious corollary of this point is that outside advisory boards really can’t possibly understand internal personnel and management issues. They might need to know they exist but without knowing the individuals and circumstances in detail, they have no basic grounding for advising an organisation. Keep the board focused on the work of the organisation and its implications. At the same time, I’ve been impressed when an organisation does not hesitate to note that it is facing some interpersonal, management, or leadership issues as one aspect of conveying the factors facilitating or limiting its work.
2. Advice is not likely to be the only – or even primary – objective of meeting with the board.
An advisory board can help progress a number of objectives with advice being only one and not necessarily the primary reason for its existence. As noted above, it creates an occasion for self-reflection by the organisation. In addition, it can help the unit reach out to other stakeholders and constituencies – by incorporating influential individuals across these different targets for outreach and providing them with information about the organisation. It can provide support to the organisation, endorsing its activities and practices. The status and diversity of individuals on the board can communicate something about the importance and diversity of the organisation. The board in a reflection of the organization.
3. There is limited time for advice.
It seems inevitable that there is limited time a board can be expected to spend reading material before a meeting, and meetings are generally limited to one or at most a few hours. Once board members reintroduce themselves to one another and the organisation presents information to remind the board about its activities and accomplishments and any new developments then little time is left for real feedback or discussion. Organisations should and usually do try to ensure there is ample time for discussion, but often over-program meetings in ways that little time is actually left for feedback. It doesn’t help to send a questionnaire or email soliciting further feedback, as the organisation will only hear what there is time to communicate during the meeting.
This is one reason why online meetings do not work nearly as well as personal face-to-face meetings of a board. Recent experience during the pandemic suggests that more advisors can attend an online meeting, which is one of the best features of meeting online. However, most in person meetings are able to embed meaningful but informal communication around the event, such as a dinner or site visits. These occasions enable individuals to clarify their assessments, time for people to get over their differences of opinion and ‘makeup’, and for the group to gain a better sense of its value to and support by the organisation.
4. Advice is difficult to give and to receive.
It is common for board members to provide very general feedback that recognises the accomplishments documented by the material communicated to the members and validating the challenges the organisation has identified. In 1995, I put together a document for the Programme on Information and Communication Technologies (PICT) that I directed which was entitled a “A Profile of Research and Publications 1995”. My key aim in compiling this was to communicate the incredible range and quality of research projects and publications that the PICT centres had completed. I was delighted when the board noted that we had done a great deal over the span of the project – they were impressed as they had not seen this pulled together until this report. It was 120 pages jammed packed with information about our work and its impact. So the members simply acknowledging the productivity and quality of the programme was exactly the feedback I had hoped for. Very simple.
Too often, as a member of a board, I can get carried away with a perceived need to provide advice, partly, I am sure, as a reflection of commonly being asked to review books, articles, or proposals, when critical comment is genuinely requested. But an organisation probably does not want a review of its report to the board and most advice we could give is already known by the organisation. As above, they know more than the board about the strengths and weaknesses of their organisation. So I try to prioritise what I have to offer in case I have a very limited time to speak – what would be my one idea.
Nevertheless, organisations need to listen and accept that they have asked for advice in creating an advisory board. So do not be surprised if you get advice you don’t want to hear. There is no need to take the advice. More than likely it is something that should have been considered before, but it is always worth understanding what the advisor is seeing and saying, and asking why particular advice was given and whether it is an idea for the leadership to kill, further discuss, develop, or possibly better deal with in your communication about the organisation’s project(s).
5. Advise and forget.
Finally, despite all I have said above, it is entirely fair and appropriate for any member of an advisory board to give any feedback that seems useful for the board member to convey. In my opinion, as a board member, you really should not worry about how it is received or whether it will be well received. Some may regard your advice as simplistic, wrong, old-fashioned, patronising, ill-informed, or in any other way, unhelpful. But that is not your problem. You are simply responding to what you’ve read and heard and think important to communicate. That is what you volunteered your time to do, so board members really can’t afford to second guess whether to communicate what they’ve gathered from the material. It is the option of the organisation to take or leave your advice. If your feedback is unhelpful, such as in misunderstanding what the organisation has done, then they need to do a better job in communicating their work or in selecting advisors.
In conclusion, and to be fair, the aim of any member of an advisory board is not simply to give advice. People join an advisory board because they have been asked, or because they want to keep up with the field, support an organisation, or meet other members of the board – network, or you name it. In commenting on this blog, a colleague put it this way: “In addition to giving advice, I see the board’s role as providing a web of professional networks that create an additional resource for the organisation. Advisory board members should use their networks for a variety of functions, such as raising visibility, distributing information about outputs or vacancies, and helping organizational leaders establish contacts.”
Given these potential payoffs, I’ve found every advisory board I’ve served on to have been beneficial in many ways, both personally and professionally.
Is there another principle I should add to this list?
Private Emails? A Personal Perspective on Politicizing Norms of Communication
In Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith opens himself up to accusations of thought crimes for walking onto a street with a shop where he could buy pen and paper. In 2021, politicians and even the UK’s Information Commissioner wonder if ministers are guilty of some criminal offense for using private email. The ICO, charged with protecting our privacy, does not want to lose data critical to her surveillance of public officials! All in the name of ‘transparency’.
Increasingly, accusations seem to fly around such issues as the security of public officials using personal email. While security, legal, and privacy issues are embedded in these criticisms of the practices of others, my concern is over the degree they lack common sense, any historical perspective, and politicize what is fundamentally a cultural difference that has risen over the decades across different kinds of Internet users. Moreover, technical advances are diminishing the distinctions being drawn. Let me explain on the basis of my experiences.
I began using email around 1974, when I had to call colleagues to tell them to look for an email sent from me. Otherwise, they would not check their inbox. Those were early days, when academics in universities could get an email address from their university if they were at one of the institutions that were early nodes on the ARPANET.
At that time, in the early 1970s, I wrote most of my correspondence by hand, and it was typed up by a pool of typists. I would revise a draft and someone in the pool would revise it for me to mail or fax. A carbon copy of all my letters was (I discovered) put in a chronological file of all correspondence going out of our academic research unit and studiously read by one of our managers. He knew what was going on across the organization by reading all of our outgoing correspondence. This was part of a culture of administrative control, which I accepted, but did not like and was surprised to discover. That said, I was an employee of an organization and in that role, it is arguable that I did not have a true right to privacy within the organization.
Presumably, even in those early days, an archive of all incoming and outgoing emails existed in the university so our manager might have had even better intelligence about our work, but most administrators were not email users. If a malicious user sent hate mail, for example, I would imagine it could be found in the archive, but then again, it is likely to have been sent under another user’s name. (Yes, it was a problem in very early days of email.)
By the early 1980s, one amusing (to me) concern in business and industry around email was its use for social purposes. Before email, most electronic communication was costly for organizations. The telegraph created a mindset in government and industry of every letter and word costing money, so electronic communication, reinforced by fax machines, was that it was considered costly compared to regular, physical mail – later called ‘snail mail’.
So when employees in organizations began using email, managers were concerned about the cost and the potential waste of money if used for social purposes. Academics used university email for anything – teaching, research, or personal reasons – and lived in sort of a free culture, meaning free of control as well as cost. But this was not the case in business and government where the legacy of telegrams, faxes, and costly phone calls created a sense of email being expensive.
One of my students in the early 1980s studied an aerospace company in Los Angeles and found the managers very concerned over the employees using email for personal or social purposes. Rather than counting the letters, they would embellish their business correspondence with a joke or questions or pleasantries about the family, etc. Even then, we defended the social uses of email at work as it would undoubtedly help executives and other employees to adopt this new communication system. Moreover, communication in the workplace has always been a blend of social and business uses, such as over the proverbial watercooler. Nevertheless, an administrative control structure still pervaded the use of communication at work.
It was only when private email services arose, such as through CompuServe, from 1978, and one of the first commercial email services, MCI Mail, which was founded in 1989, that this mindset began to change. Google Mail, was launched in its Beta version from 2002, about the time MCI Mail folded. Private email services like Google Mail made it possible to escape this administrative control structure and the control culture of communication in organizations.
In my own case, having changed universities many times, one of the only steady email addresses I have maintained has been my gmail account, established with the Beta version. I’ve never sensed it being any less secure than my university accounts, and I don’t have the feeling that an administrator is looking over my shoulder. It is free of charge and free of administrative surveillance. I give my data. My main concern is not burdening colleagues with unnecessary or too frivolous email messages. The last thing I want to do is audit myself to determine if my message to a particular person about a particular topic requires me to use my personal email or one of my academic email accounts.
Moreover, today, more individuals are moving to private conferencing (e.g., Zoom, Teams, Skype) and private messaging services (e.g., WhatsApp, WeChat, Telegram, Signal, Slack, or others) rather than email for interpersonal communication. If you are in government or business or academia, you want your colleagues to be exploring and innovating and using those information and communication services that support their work. Don’t dictate what those are. Let them decide in the spirit of bottom-up innovation within your organization. But this is exactly the worry of the ICO and politicians who fear they will not have access to every word written by a public servant.
But will private services undermine security? Increasingly, public organizations from universities to governments are moving more of their services, such as email, to the cloud. That is, they are not running their own home-grown institutional services, but outsourcing to private cloud service providers, which offer pretty good security protection. This is how private gmail is provided as well. So, no, it will not undermine security.
To me, those who discuss email use from such an administrative control perspective are simply administrative control types – in a prerogative sense of that term. I for one do not want to be told what email account or what information or communication services to use for each and every purpose. I am not at the extreme of the ‘free software’ movement of Richard Stallman, but sufficiently supportive of civil liberties that I find these almost Orwellian efforts to police our communication to be a huge mistake.
Some politicians and administrators live in a control culture rather than a free digital culture. However, interpersonal communication is good to support, particularly in these times of incivility and toxic politics. Let’s encourage it and not politicize email or the use of private messaging on any account.
Richard M. Stallman (2002, 2015), Free Software, Free Society, Third Edition. Boston, MA: Free Software Foundation.
I am not an economist, but even I can see the huge flaws in a recently published “cost/benefit analysis of the UK’s online safety bill”. My immediate reactions:
The author, Sam Wood, of ‘The Economics of Online Harms Regulation’ in InterMEDIA, begins with an argument that the pandemic ‘[feuled] concerns about harmful content and behaviour encountered online’. Quite the contrary, I think it is arguable that the Internet and related online media became a lifeline for households in the UK and across the world during this period of lockdowns and working from home. The impetus for the online harms [now called ‘safety’] bill was fueled by the demonization of social media in the years before the pandemic. So, from the very introduction to this piece, I worried about the credibility of the economic analysis it promises.
I was not disappointed. It is jaw-dropping. Even enumerating some of the many online harms to be addressed and outlining some of the ‘challenges’ in quantifying them, the piece proceeds to do exactly that. Using Department of Digital, Culture, Media & Sports (DCMS) estimates, the author argues that the estimated costs of seven types of harm, the greatest being cyberstalking – at £2,176m over ten years beginning in 2023, is much greater than the costs of implementing the bill, the greatest cost being ‘content moderation’ estimated to be £1,700m over the same ten years in the future.
Pulling the costs of regulation out of a hat?
Of course, the costs of implementing this bill are not simply captured by the activities enumerated: awareness campaigns, creating reporting mechanisms, updating terms of service, producing risk assessments, content moderation, and transparency reports. What has the analysis left out?
Well, what about reductions in freedom of expression and commensurate reductions in the value and use of the Internet and related social media for the public good? This will be the major impact of the disproportionate incentivisation of censorship by tech platforms in order for platforms to avoid huge the potentially huge costs to be imposed by government regulators.
The duty of care solution is the problem that will have major negative impacts on what has been the lifeline for households, educators, healthcare professionals and all government departments at all times, but made so visible by the pandemic. The duty of care mechanism will incentivise censorship and surveillance of users and push the tech platforms to act like newspapers in performing ever stronger editorial roles, such as determining what is ‘disinformation’.
One could ask: Would not an economist need to list all the benefits of social media and related activities, and not just the costs?
This is not a neutral, critical analysis, but seems to be a political stitch up to support the proposed regulation. That said, such a flawed analysis might well make a better case for opposing than supporting this bill. Read it, consider its flaws, and oppose this misguided effort to address particular grievances by introducing a terrible policy. The proposed bill will do unmeasured damage to one of the most critical infrastructures available here and now for enabling enhanced means for communication and information for every age group in the UK and worldwide.
With apologies to the journal editors, but if the BBC or public service broadcasting were subject to such a flawed analysis, I am sure that InterMEDIA would not have even considered publishing such a piece. Then again, this bill seems to enjoy widespread support and specifically advertises its intent to protect freedom of expression. Yet how often do the intentions of regulation end up in failure and the unintended collateral damage overwhelm any positive outcomes. I’m afraid we are about to see this happen when this bill undermines an open and global Internet and free expression, and privacy is further eroded in order to enforce tech’s duty of care.
Progress on the pandemic is allowing the UK to talk about moving back to a new normal. In that spirit, may the UK apply a level of common sense and closer parliamentary and public scrutiny to the online safety bill – a level of care that such an important piece of media regulation would normally receive.
 Sam Wood, ‘The Economics of Online Harms Regulation’, InterMEDIA, 49(2): 31-34.
The filibuster was not invented to serve some lasting and critical role in democratic governance, but unintentionally, it does perform that function. The filibuster is a structure – one rule of the game in American politics – that plays a powerful role in supporting more stable democracy. And it is particularly critical in times of deep polarization in politics.
Critics of the filibuster tend to take one of two overly simplistic positions on this device.
One is that the mechanism of the filibuster is simply antithetical to majority rule by allowing a minority of Senators to delay and thereby often block bills in the US Senate despite a majority in support. This position ignores key realities of democratic political processes, such as the importance of intense minorities, the pluralist nature of democracy.
Democratic systems are rightly respectful of intense minority opinion, such as the respect normally accorded to protests that gain strong support, but by no means a majority. It is likely that, overtime, intense minorities have fought for the status quo, and thereby have a conservative bias. However, there have been intense minorities for change in many cases, from anti-war protestors to climate change advocates. Democracies ignore intense minorities at their peril.
More generally, in a pluralist democracy, like that of the US and many other liberal democratic nations, policy is shaped by specialized sets of individuals who care about and have expertise in particular issues, what has been called a polyarchy (Dahl 1971). Those who govern education are different from those who govern defense or healthcare. You want this kind of pluralistic, polyarchical form of governance to insure a division of labor that supports greater competence and focus. Even when legislative or parliamentary bodies meet, each member does not understand every issue – they could not even read every bill that comes before them. They rely on committees, specialized experts and policy makers, and then take cues from their partisans on the committee reporting the bill. They take cues as a necessary short cut (Stimson 1975). So, minorities are making policy that is endorsed or rejected by majority voting.
In short, majority rule is an oversimplification of the democratic process even in leading liberal democratic nations.
Secondly, critics of the filibuster ignore the central importance of democratic stability, perhaps the most important issue, by focusing on the issue of the day.
In the aftermath of the second world war, a seminal study of the cultures of democracies (the US, UK, Germany, Mexico, and Italy) identified the US as being relatively more stable due to its ‘civic culture’ (Almond and Verba 1963). In contrast, in the period prior to the second world war, Germany had democratic regimes that were notoriously unstable. Stability in the US was attributed to a political culture that supported consensus, enabled diversity of opinion and moderated change. Arguably, the US has lost its civic culture as its politics is typified more by polarization, tribalism, and distrust – none of which are compatible with consensus and moderation.
However, the filibuster can incentivize moderation and compromise to find a consensus that goes beyond the tyranny of majority rule. It is true that the use of a filibuster has caused many politicians to dig in their heels even further and say the fight has only begun, but a small but growing number of promising politicians have seen the value of the filibuster in supporting compromises that promote greater stability in policy and in democratic structures.
Most recently, US Senator Kyrsten Sinema helped lead a bipartisan compromise that resulted [if enacted] in support for a $1trillion package of measures to upgrade declining infrastructures across the nation. She herself expressed support for the filibuster before her election and before this bill in a wonderful opinion piece in The Washington Post, which countered conventional wisdom to argue that ‘we have more to lose than gain by ending the filibuster’, arguing that it ‘compels moderation’ and counters ‘instability, partisanship, and tribalism that continue to infect our politics’.
This rising star of the US Senate also warned against changing democratic rules of the game based on the policy issues of the day. As a Democrat in the senate, she reminded her colleagues that the filibuster was used by them in defeating some major Republican efforts, when Republicans were in the majority. Her opinion piece is must-reading for those who oppose the filibuster, but have an open mind in considering a serious issue for the future of American politics.
Almond, Gabriel A., and Verba, Sidney. (1963), The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Dahl, Robert A. (1971), Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Stimson, James A. (1975), ‘Five Propositions About Congressional Decision-Making: An Examination of Behavioral Inferences from Computer Simulation’, PoliticalMethodology 2 (4): 415–36.
 Some critics of the time argued that Almond and Verba were simply describing American politics and ascribing the attribute of stability to it, rather than having a clear causal argument. But even if only descriptive of the era, that kind of civic culture is arguably absent in most cases of American politics today.
A recent news story (Sunday Times 6 June 2021) highlighted the potential for Sweden to lead the way to a ‘cashless’ future. Not surprising in the context of so many observable trends moving in this direction. However, it reminded me of the early forecasts of a cashless society that were debated in the 1970s, and sense, particularly to the work of my former colleague and pioneer of social informatics, the late-Rob Kling, who died in 2003.
PPRO Colleagues 1979
Early in my research on the social aspects of information and communication technologies, I had the opportunity to collaborate with Professor Rob Kling at UC Irvine, when we were both involved with the Public Policy Research Organization (PPRO), directed by Professor Kenneth Kraemer. I joined this team that also included John Leslie King, Jim Danziger, Alana Northrup, and others, in 1974 to work on the URBIS Project. Supported by the US National Science Foundation, URBIS was one of the first systematic evaluations of the role and impact of computing in American governments.
In 1976, Rob published one of his early critiques of what were then called ‘electronic funds transfer systems’ that pioneered in raising some of the social and ethical issues for society, namely around privacy. Here is the abstract of this piece, entitled ‘Passing the Digital Buck: Unresolved Social and Technical Issues in Electronic Funds Transfer Systems’:
“Over the last decade, plans for using computer-based systems to automate the transfer of debits and credits have moved from a technologist’s pipe dream to an emerging reality. During the last few years, several components of this technology have been developed in prototype form and have begun to be implemented on a large scale. While such systems promise financial benefits for the institutions that exploit them, they also raise significant social, legal, and technical questions that must be resolved if full-scale Electronic Funds Transfer Systems (EFTS) are not to cause more problems for the larger public than they solve. Few of these problems have been systematically articulated. This paper describes the mechanics of EFTS, and the benefits it should provide its promoters. But it emphasizes a variety of the problems that EFTS raises and places them in context.”
Like many others, I’ve followed the development of electronic payment systems over the decades. Three simple but notable reflections repeatedly come to mind from this work.
One is the degree to which some thoughtful thinkers really can provide valuable forecasts of future developments. I most often find myself marveling at how wrong forecasting can be, but yes, there are some clear examples of individuals, like James Martin, clarifying the social and technical dynamics of likely trends and their future development. Rob’s discussion of the social and value tradeoffs of EFTS is one that we are seeing played out today – 4 decades later. The trick is to sort out the forecasts that are truly prescient as they have a sound empirical basis in the history and underlying dynamics of their development from those that are silly, simply technologically deterministic extrapolations, or based on a limited and possibly misleading example. Of course, even the best of forecasts need to be understood as problematic given the many factors shaping the use and impacts of technical innovations.
The second is that everyone needs to be skeptical of forecasts as long-range expectations about the future are most often overly optimistic or pessimistic. Even forecasts that are on target are often a decade or two further in the future than originally forecast. Video telephony was forecasted in the 1960s and marketed in the early 1970s but is only recently flourishing.
The third is the unpredictable fluctuations in these trends. It is not just a straightforward linear, non-linear or slower curve of development, but often entail major perturbations over time. For example, in the case of digital payments, the automated teller machines were an early development that seemed to be a gift that enable a return to privacy. Rather than paying for everything electronically, people tended to get cash from distributed teller machines and therefore be able to make a larger proportion of their purchases privately – using cash. So, surprise – digital systems were enhancing privacy – but only for a time.
Of course, it became clear that cash withdrawals could be so well tracked that individuals could be followed with considerable accuracy. And today, given the many ways payments and clicks are analyzed online for marketing and advertising, the concept of ‘surveillance capitalism’ has become widely accepted. Moreover, in the context of the global pandemic, individuals have been incentivized to use electronic payments for everything and not to use cash. That brings us full speed ahead into a more truly cashless society with all of the social and political tradeoffs that Rob warned us about in the 1970s. While even Rob could not have foreseen the pandemic and its pressure on moving to a cashless society, his forecasts of the value tradeoffs remain valuable to this day. However, far more empirical research needs to be conducted on the actual development and impacts of our cashless society.
Rob Kling, ‘The Social and Institutional Meanings of Electrnonic Funds Transfer Systems’, Chapter 15 (pp. 183-195) in Kent Colton and Kenneth Kraemer (eds), Computers and Banking. New York: Plenum Press, 1980.
 This research was reported widely, but captured in two books, including Kraemer, K. L., Dutton, W. H., and Northrop, A. (1981), The Management of Information Systems, New York: Columbia University Press, and Danziger, J. N., Dutton, W. H., Kling, R., and Kraemer, K. L. (1982; 1983 paperback), Computers and Politics: High Technology in American Local Governments, New York: Columbia University Press.
Over seven hundred (736) ‘sub-postmasters’ were charged – many if not most unjustly – with criminal offenses from 2000-2013 because of discrepancies in their accounts, leading to charges of theft, fraud, and false accounting (Meddings 2021). Had they been siphoning money from their accounts?
We have learned that many of these discrepancies were due to the faults in an IT system, called Horizon, that had been in place for over twenty years (Croft 2021) – enough time to find and correct an problems! Thirty-nine sub-postmasters ‘were convicted of stealing money, with some imprisoned, after the Post Office installed the Horizon computer system in branches’ (Peachey 2021). Many convictions have been reversed recently, following six other convictions that were overturned in December 2020 (Peachey 2021).
In Britain, small branches of the Post Office are called Sub-Post Offices and are headed by a Sub-Postmaster or Sub-Postmistress. They serve as agents of the Post Office but the heads are self-employed. Many offices are based in convenience stores, or in small shops in the center of villages – all sorts of locations – and they and their postmasters become one of the centerpieces of many communities.
In an interview on the BBC World Service with one of the sub-postmasters whose conviction was overturned, it was clear that law enforcement led each to believe that they alone were being charged. It was only their office in which accounts showed discrepancies. If only they had been socially networked. The post office knew of the faults as did some public officials, but the problems were not disclosed to the subpostmasters, led to believe they alone were at fault (Meddings 2021).
Facebook had not been launched until 2004 but imagine if these sub-postmasters were on a social network, whether a group on Facebook, WhatsApp, or another network that would enable them to ask if only they were charged with these offences. One query but one post master could have unravelled this scandal.
Instead, they were isolated in their post office, and not informed about similar problems occurring in many other cases. Admittedly, there are a number of ifs, ands, and buts. That said, if many who were charged with stealing from their accounts were aware of similar accusations at many other sub-post offices, they would have been more likely to put two and two together, tie them to an IT system they shared and raised alarms that would have prevented this scandal from happening – one that literally ruined the careers and lives of many of those charged. Sabah Meddings (2021) referred to this as an ‘industrial scale failure of justice’. Sadly, it could have been avoided if they would have been enabled to communicate with others if sub-postmasters offices were on a social network, where they could seek advice, ask questions, raise issues and more.
Many other occupations have social networks that are particularly valuable for those in relatively isolated offices. For example, Sermo is a social network of physicians, which enables any physician to ask questions of other physicians. If something similar to Sermo had been available to the sub-posts, the likelihood of such an injustice would have been greatly reduced. For all the demonization of social media, it is sometimes easy to forget how valuable they can be to networked individuals.
Government compensation will be coming to sub-postmasters wrongly convicted. Again, this would not have mushroomed over such a long period had social media been prominent in 2000 (Dempsey 2021).
Croft, Jane (2021), ‘Sub-postmasters clear their names in court after grave miscarriage of justice’, Financial Times, 24 April, p. 1.
Depsey, Harry (2021), ‘Sub-Postmasters in line for £100,000 interim payments’, Financial Times, 23 July, p. 2.
Meddings, Sabah (2021), ‘Post Office scandal was an industrial scale failure of justice’, The Sunday Times, 25 April: p. 23.
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.
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