Commentary by A. Michael Noll on Robots

REIN IN THE CLOUD

REJOICE IN THE ROBOTS

[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.

A. Michael Noll

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.

Get Back to the Classroom

Get Back to the Classroom

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.[1] 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.[2] 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? 

New Normal?

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.  


[1] This morning’s The Sunday Times provides an apt example: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/universities-refuse-to-end-online-lessons-h5v3mcmwj

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

Social Media Could Have Prevented the UK’s Post Office Scandal

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. 

A Generic Sub-Post Office

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. 

Afterword

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).

References

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.

Peachey, Kevin (2021), ‘Convicted Post Office workers have names cleared’, BBC News, 24 April: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-56859357

Online Micro-Choices in Remote Seminars, Teaching, and Learning

Online Micro-Choices Shaping Remote Seminars, Teaching, and Learning

The move to online education has been a huge shift, dramatically hastened by the COVID-19 pandemic and the existence of technical options, such as online meeting platforms like Zoom and Teams. For decades, handwringing and resistance over moves toward more online instruction, seminars, and lectures has collapsed as universities not only accept this shift but are supporting if not requiring it. In many respects, the move online has saved many educational institutions and the new normal – whatever that ends up being – is almost certain to incorporate more online teaching and learning. 

However, after participating in many online seminars, lectures, and conferences, I sense that it is time to focus far more attention on the micro-choices being made about the conduct of online teaching and learning. Not focus on on or off-line, but how to do online teaching and learning. 

There are books on teaching tips for graduate students and instructors, but fewer for the online world. That said, I imagine that most academics tend to follow the examples set by their own best teachers. Unfortunately, in the online world of education, there are fewer great examples on which developing teachers can model themselves. Moreover, I believe I am seeing so many problematic examples and trends emerging that the micro-choices underpinning them merit more critical discussion. 

Take for example, the decision on whether or not to mute the audio and turn off the video of the audience – whether students or fellow colleagues. The convenor of an online session, such as over Zoom, can mute everyone but the speaker and turn off everyone’s video but the speaker’s video, or they can simply ask everyone but the speaker to mute their own audio and turn off their video while the speaker or teacher is presenting. Who has permission to share their screen is another micro-choice of a convenor. 

Screen sharing enables people to show a slide or a graph or any image or text that they can put on their own screen to the group. For a small seminar with known participants, everyone can be enabled to share their screen. If open to the public and if a larger group is brought together, screen sharing needs to be restricted to avoid problems such as Zoombombing, such as a malicious user sharing a vulgar image. But it is easy to keep the meeting link to those invited, use passwords to join, and restrict screen sharing to avoid such possible problems.

Muting everyone’s audio during a presentation seems to be good practice as well. You avoid unplanned sounds in households, like the sounds of barking dogs and crying babies, from interrupting a seminar. And individuals normally have a means to raise their hand to ask a question or make a comment, so they can be unmuted when speaking. That said, if it is a small group discussion, such as following a lecture, I think individuals should decide on their own whether to mute, such as if their dog starts barking, but generally remain unmuted to be as interactive as possible during the discussion. When education is being socially distanced in so many ways by going online, any opportunities to enhance sociality and interaction online should be seriously considered. 

In contrast, in my opinion, stopping everyone’s video is not a good practice. Unfortunutely, I see this a becoming a trend. In the earliest weeks and months of the pandemic and online meetings, people tended to be visible online all the time even when their audio is muted. With my video on, you could see if I was on the call and that I was listening or if I was multitasking. If I had to leave or take a break, I could switch to a still photo of me or my initials, until I was ready to engage again. More importantly, the speakers would know that they were speaking to real, live, human beings, rather than talking to themselves in a dark room. 

Doing it Right: Video ON

Over time, it is clear that more universities and conferences are moving to shut off the video of the audiences, and only have video streaming on for the speaker or the panelists. Often this means that no one is visible as the speaker is presenting slides – such as when talking behind the slides occupying center stage. Once a critical proportion of the audience starts shutting off their video, then others feel pressured to as well, lest they be accused of perceiving themselves as too self-important. But it is for others, not for yourself, that it is good to be seen.  

I have taken issue with this minimalist approach to limiting video on the basis that it takes social distancing to an unacceptable and unjustifiable limit. Of course, I’ve heard justifications, such as maintaining the focus on the material on the slides and keeping people from being distracted by the images of audience members. Protecting the privacy of individuals and households is another. There are many ways to protect privacy of the listeners, such as by using a virtual background or sitting in front of a blank wall. Nevertheless, I find such justifications to be weak rationales for avoiding social interaction.

Teaching or lecturing is not simply about transferring information. If that were so, a reading or video recording would be superior to a seminar. Most importantly, teaching or lecturing is about motivating the audience – students or colleagues – to see your topic as important and interesting and worthy of reading and learning more about. That means you need to engage them in the presentation and make sure they are engaged. In the classroom, you can tell if students are not engaged, even if – as was the case in many in-person classes – many are pressed against the back row of seats. You can see if the audience is engaged online as well, but only if you keep the video going both ways. 

Also, you need to motivate the lecturer. Unless you are very shy or nervous about public speaking, I can’t think of what could be more deflating that speaking to a set of initials or a blank screen or simply reading your own slides. Cut off the video and you risk disengaging the speaker as well as the audience. 

Obviously, I am a cranky, old colleague, easily annoyed, and opinionated. Fine if you disagree with my suggestions, but you should really think through these many micro-choices you make in presenting and speaking and listening online. Discuss them with those convening any seminar where you are presenting. 

I accept and defend the right of teachers to present material to their classes in the ways they choose – assuming they are within an increasing set of rules and guidelines set by educational institutions. Similarly, lecturers or speakers should be free to present in ways in which they are comfortable. But be careful that you don’t undermine your ability to engage, educate, and entertain your audience simply by following bad practices set by colleagues that are too cautious or conservative about the issues that might arise from social interaction. Don’t handicap yourself by speaking to an invisible audience or supporting any idea that being invisible is a good idea in online teaching or learning that is engaging.

The Meaning of Like

Today’s newspaper was riddled with insults and accusations about who ‘liked’ or ‘shared’ various posts on Facebook. To paraphrase, one read ‘that a board member of x [any board or agency or organization] has “liked” or shared social media posts about y [any controversial topic] by z [any controversial figure].’ How could they?

Months ago, for example, I received an email from a neighbour saying she could not believe that I had “liked’ a post by one of my old colleagues. I replied that I found his post to be engaging and stimulating – worth reading, but I did not ‘agree’ with his views. 

There are at least two problems with this kind of oversight.

First, to like a post on Facebook does not mean that you agree with it in whole or in part. It could mean that you noticed it, recommended it to others, disagree, or really, it could mean just about anything. For me, a ‘like’ is a general acknowledgement that you had read or have seen the post, as if saying thank you for posting. For example, liking a photo someone posts might simply be a way of saying hello to them. There is no unlike button. Anyone who assumes that a ‘like’ means you agree is simply wrong much if not most of the time. 

A parallel example is when Americans or Europeans visit Japan, they often translate the common Japanese response of “Ah So” – short for ā sō desu ka – to mean the speaker agrees, or is saying “yes”. My Japanese friends tell me it essentially means that the speaker ‘understands’, as in ‘ah, I hear you’. Often, in fact, it implies ‘no’ – not ‘yes’, as it is so impolite to say no. [Correct me if I’m wrong.]

So, in a similar way, it is wrong to assume that a ‘like’ means agreement. If everyone understood this, there would be a lot fewer disputes in the newspapers and online. Many more emojis have been added to online media, but I would not count on the greater choice of emoji settling the issue. What does that wink mean?

The second problem is that I wish my friends, neighbours, or Facebook friends would not make assumptions about my beliefs or opinions based only on such a crude signal as whether I like or share a post. It is a type of social pressure or sanction that can have a chilling effect on me and perhaps on other speakers. If I start thinking that I will be judged by what I ‘like’ – not on what I actually say – then I will stop ‘liking’ anything. Better to say nothing than to be misunderstood. I don’t mind it if I am confronted, such as by my neighbour, as then I can explain myself, if I wish to, and thank them for asking. But one can only assume that too many people draw unwarranted conclusions without testing them with you. Did you mean that you agree with that post?

Given the directions of technical advances, in due course, you might know what I look at or read, even if I don’t react to the post. “You ordered that book?’ ‘You looked at that person’s profile?’ So this kind of problem could get far worse.

Let me apologise to you, if you’ve been critical of my – or anyone’s – ‘likes’. But as they say, apologizing does not mean that I am wrong, but that I value your friendship more than proving myself right. By the way, I have very few “friends” in real life, but many “Facebook friends” – they are not the same thing, so should we all try harder to be as aware of online conventions and the meaning of terms used online, just as we try to keep up with the nuances of speech in general? 

COVID-19 Balancing Acts

COVID-19 Balancing Acts 

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.  

Society and the Internet

The COVID-19 pandemic has driven the Internet and related social media and digital technologies to the forefront of societies across the globe. Whether in supporting social distancing, working at home, or online courses, people are increasingly dependent on online media for everyday life and work. If you are teaching courses on the social aspects of the Internet, social media, and life or work in the digital age, you might want to consider a reader that covers many of the key technical and social issues.

Please take a look at the contents of the 2nd Edition of Society and the Internet (OUP 2019), which is available in paperback and electronic editions. Information about the book is available online here.

Whether you are considering readings for your Fall/Autumn courses, or simply have an interest in the many social issues surrounding digital media, you may find this book of value. From Manuel Castells’ Foreword to Vint Cerf’s concluding chapter, you find a diverse mix of contributions that show how students and faculty can study the social shaping and societal implications of digital media.

In addition to Manuel Castells and Vint Cerf along with the editors, our contributors include: Maria Bada, Grant Blank, Samantha Bradshaw, David Bray, Antonio A. Casilli, Sadie Creese, Matthew David, Laura DeNardis, Martin Dittus, Elizabeth Dubois, Laleah Fernandez, Sandra González-Bailón, Scott Hale, Eszter Hargittai, Philip N. Howard, Peter John, Silvia Majó Vázquez, Helen Margetts, Marina Micheli, Christopher Millard, Lisa Nakamura, Victoria Nash, Gina Neff, Eli Noam, Sanna Ojanperä, Julian Posada, Anabel Quan-Hasse, Jack Linchuan, Lee Raine, Bianca Reisdorf, Ralph Schroeder, Limor Shifman, Ruth Shillair, Greg Taylor, Hua Wang, Barry Wellman, and Renwen Zhang. Together, these authors offer one of the most useful and engaging collections on the social aspects of the Internet and related digital media available for teaching.

Thanks for your own work in this field, at an incredible period of time for Internet and new media studies of communication and technology.

More information here: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/society-and-the-internet-9780198843498?cc=gb&lang=en&

Self-Preservation of Your Work

Self-Preservation of Your Work

For decades I have been concerned over the fragility of information and whether ephemerality or the transitory nature of information and communication is just an inevitable feature of the digital age. I therefore frequently look back at a talk I gave on the Internet to a conference of historians held in Oxford in the early 2000s. Given that I was speaking to historians, at a time when I was the founding director of the Oxford Internet Institute, one key theme of my talk concerned the major ways in which content on the Web was unlikely to be preserved. The Internet community did not have adequate plans and strategies for preserving the Internet, Web and related online content. I thought they would be engaged – if not frightened – by a shift of content to online media when it might mean losing much of our history with respect to data, documents, letters, and more. 

My audience seemed interested but unmoved. A historian from the audience chatted with me after the talk to explain that this is not new. Historians have always worked in piecing together history from letters found in a shoebox stored in an attic, tomb stones, and so on – not from systematically recorded archives, even though fragments of such records exist in many libraries, museums, and archives. This is nothing new to efforts aimed at writing or reconstructing history. 

This attitude frightened me even more. From my perspective, perhaps the historians had not seen anything yet. And I am continually reminded of this problem. Of course, there have been brilliant efforts to preserve online, digital content, such as the ‘Way Back Machine’, an initiative of the Internet Archive,[i] which indicates it has saved over 446 billion web pages. Yet the archive and its Way Back Machine have become a subscription service and have dropped out of the limelight they shared in the early days of the Web. The archive is also being limited by concerns over copyright that are leading them to reduce valuable services, such as their digital library.[ii]

But a recent and more personal experience brought all of this to the forefront of my thinking. I always print to save a hard copy of anything of significance (to me) that I write. That may seem quaint, but time and again, it has saved me from losing work that was stored on out of date media, such as floppy discs, or failing journals. I recently wanted to share a copy of a piece I did for a journal of the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), written in 1994, when I was director of an ESRC programme. This time my system failed me and I could not find it in my files. 

This was a short piece that the ESRC published in one of its journals called Social Sciences. Being a social scientist, my article focused on the problematic mindset of social scientists regarding outreach (Dutton 1994). Too often, I argued, a (social) scientist thought they were through with outreach once they published an article. The way I put it was that many social scientists believed in sort of a ‘trickle-down’ theory of outreach. Once their work was published, the findings and their implications will eventually trickle down to those who might benefit from their insights.

Today, all disciplines of the sciences are far more focused on outreach and the impact of research. Many research assessment exercises require evidence of the impact of research as a basis for assessment. And individual academics, research units, departments and universities are becoming almost too focused on getting the word out to the world about their research and related achievements. Outreach has become a major aspect of contemporary academic and not-for-profit research enterprises. There is even an Association for Academic Outreach.[iii] One only needs to reflect on the innovative and competitive race to a vaccine for COVID-19, where at least 75 candidate vaccines are in preclinical or clinical evaluation[iv], to see how robust and important outreach has become. Nevertheless, outreach does not necessarily translate into preservation of academic work.

So – lo and behold – I could not find a copy of my piece on ‘Trickle-Down Social Science’. I recall seeing it in my files, but given moves back and forth across the Atlantic, it had vanished without a trace. I searched online for it, and found my books and articles that referenced it, but no copy of the article. I tried the Way Back Machine, but it was not on the Web, as the journal Social Sciences in those days did not put its publication online. I wrote the ESRC, as they might have an archive of their journal. They kindly replied that they not only did not have a copy of the article (from that far back), but, more surprisingly, they did not even have a copy of Social Sciences in their archives. So, 1994 is such ancient history that even revered institutions like the ESRC do not keep copies of their publications. [A former student read this blog and sent me a photocopy, which I used to create a new version of my little viewpoint piece from a quarter-century earlier.]

Well, this little personal experience reminded me of my practice of keeping copies and reinforced the obvious conclusion that I need to preserve my own work, as I had tried to do, and do a more consistent job of it in the process! The toppling of real, analogue statues across the world selfishly reminded me of the need to preserve my own far less significant – if not insignificant – historical record and not to count on anyone else doing this for me. 

So, preserve your own work and don’t rely on the Internet, Web, big data, or any other person to save your work. Take it from C. Wright Mills (1952), any academic should devote considerable time to their files. While Mills argued that maintaining one’s files was a central aspect of ‘intellectual craftsmanship’, even he did not focus on their preservation.

That said, if anyone has a copy of ‘Trickle-Down Social Science’, name your price. 😉

Reference

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

Wright Mills, C. (1980), ‘On Intellectual Craftsmanship (1952)’, Society, Jan/Feb: 63-70.https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/BF02700062.pdf


[i] http://web.archive.org

[ii] https://www.inputmag.com/culture/internet-archive-kills-its-free-digital-library-over-copyright-concerns

[iii] https://www.afao.ac.uk

[iv] https://www.who.int/blueprint/priority-diseases/key-action/novel-coronavirus-landscape-ncov.pdf?ua=

To Be Virtual or Not to Be: That is Not the Question

Today’s newspapers have wonderfully conflicting stories. One story is about Ministers of Parliament (MPs) in the UK being angry over their ‘virtual parliament’ coming to an end.* The other story is the opposite, about the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, facing criticism from his Cabinet because they are continuing to meet via online video conferencing rather than getting together for face-to-face cabinet meetings.** These are fascinating debates to follow, especially in the added context of US debates over the US Supreme Court, and Congress, particularly some committees, meeting online and in hybrid forms. They are complex, multi-layered debates that will have consequences not only for judicial and legislative processes but also their outcomes. And we all have opinions about it. 

Photo from FT article by George Parker

Before mentioning the role of the coronavirus pandemic, I would like to make one simple point. It is generally supported from decades of research on electronic meetings focused on the costs and benefits of meeting via such options as text-only online, voice-only (phone calls or conferencing), video conferencing, or face-to-face. Obviously, if an information task involves only the transfer of information, then simply using text-based online media, like an email, is the most efficient approach and may have no consequence on the outcome. However, if the task involves negotiation, bargaining, or other interpersonal judgements, then it would be better to use media with more ‘social presence’.*** Face-to-face, in-person meetings have the highest level of social presence, other things equal, followed by video conferencing, followed by only text-based telecommunications. Arguably, any transfer of information is in some part a negotiation, such as ‘please listen’, and some in person meetings, such as a teacher speaking in a large lecture hall can have little social presence. That said, some information tasks are relatively more focused on negotiation, such as arriving at a group decision or judgement. If you are simply giving or receiving information, it is more efficient to use online media. If negotiating or making a judgement, particularly as a group, it is better to meet face to face. 

However, this last call depends on your status in the group. If you are the leader or most influential in the group, it is better (for you) to meet face-to-face, as this will enable you to best assert your authority. If you are less influential in the group meeting, it might well be better for you to meet online, as text- or voice-only such as a phone call can have a leveling effect, making it more difficult for those at a higher status to dominate the discussion. The choice of medium is complicated as it could have redistributive versus pareto-optimal implications. Whatever you decide, some might be better off and others worse off. 

With these issues in mind, the best resolution I’ve found came out of a study of that organizations that concluded it was geography that still mattered the most.**** It was most efficient to be where you need to be for face-to-face communication. For example, back office operations at a bank do not need to be in a central city because it is only important to enable those in the back office to communicate well with one another. They can be located outside of a high-rent district in the city to a more remote back office. In contrast, the top management of a bank would need to have good communication with executives at different businesses, law firms, accounting firms, and so forth, creating an argument for them to be located in the city – where face to face communication will be enabled with other executives. You should try to locate where you most need to have face-to-face communication and rely more on online media for remote communication for less critical information and communication tasks. 

Therefore, the key question is not whether to use online or face-to-face communication, but where you should be in order to facilitate face-to-face communication with the most critical people you are meeting with. Here is where the problems arise for politicians, legislators, and (possibly) judges. Should they be closer to their constituents, their colleagues, the leaders of their party, the defendant, the media, or their staff. 

The coronavirus pandemic simplified this calculus, as they were required to stay at home and use online media. As the lock downs ease, the experience with working online might lead some to wish to remain online, but the interests of most politicians, including parliamentarians and members of congress will be to be many places at once in order to work with many different kinds of actors critical to their role in politics and government. In this situation, online media will help people to be where they most need to be at any given time to meet face-to-face with the most critical groups. 

Sounds simple, but it is not. Ideally, this understanding should lead legislatures and parliaments and executives to enable their colleagues to have options. Tell them: “Be where you should to have the most important conversations you can have today – to be present in the most critical meetings.” Use online media to follow, contribute to, and otherwise participate in activities that are less critical. You might well need to be left alone to write, of example. In some respects, these issues might lie in part behind moves to ‘hybrid’ virtual legislatures, and ‘hybrid’ online teaching options, so that some activities can be moved online, and some remain face-to-face. But choices need to be more fine-grained and flexible than most hybrid models appear to be. 

I’ve glossed over many issues but hope to have moved some people away from wondering which is better: virtual or real face-to-face communication. That is not the right question. 

References

*Sebastian Payne, (2020), ‘Anger among MPs over end of ‘virtual parliament’’, Financial Times, Wednesday 3 June: 2. 

**George Parker, (2020), ‘Unrest as Johnson’s ‘Potemkin cabinet no longer takes decisions’’, Financial Times, 3 June: 

*** Social presence, and its relationship to different communication media, emerged from some terrific experiments conducted and reported by Short, J., Williams, E., and Christie, B. (1976), The Social Psychology of Telecommunications (London: John Wiley and Sons). 

****Goddard, J., and Richardson, R., (1996), ‘Why Geography Will Still Matter: What Jobs Go Where?’, pp. 197-214 in Dutton, W. H. (ed.), Information and Communication Technologies – Visions and Realities. (Oxford: Oxford University Press). 

Publication of A Research Agenda for Digital Politics

A Research Agenda for Digital Politics 

The publication of my most recent edited book, A Research Agenda for Digital Politics, is available in hardback and electronic forms at: https://www.e-elgar.com/shop/gbp/a-research-agenda-for-digital-politics-9781789903089.html From this site you can look inside the book to review the preface, list of contributors, the table of contents, and my introduction, which includes an outline of the book. In addition, the first chapter by Professor Andrew Chadwick, entitled ‘Four Challenges for the Future of Digital Politics Research’, is free to read on the digital platform Elgaronline, where you will also find the books’ DOI: https://www.elgaronline.com/view/edcoll/9781789903089/9781789903089.xml

Finally, a short leaflet is available on the site, with comments on the book from Professors W. Lance Bennett, Michael X. Delli Carpini, and Laura DeNardis. I was not aware of these comments, with one exception, until today – so I am truly grateful to such stellar figures in the field for contributing their views on this volume.  

Digital politics has been a burgeoning field for years, but with the approach of elections in the US and around the world in the context of a pandemic, Brexit, and breaking cold wars, it could not be more pertinent than today. If you are considering texts for your (online) courses in political communication, media and politics, Internet studies, or digital politics, do take a look at the range and quality of perspectives offered by the contributors to this new book. Provide yourself and your students with valuable insights on issues framed for high quality research. 

List of Contributors:

Nick Anstead, London School of Economics and Political Science; Jay G. Blumler, University of Leeds and University of Maryland; Andrew Chadwick, Loughborough University; Stephen Coleman, University of Leeds; Alexi Drew, King’s College London and Charles University, Prague; Elizabeth Dubois, University of Ottawa; Laleah Fernandez, Michigan State University; Heather Ford, University of Technology Sydney; M. I. Franklin, Goldsmiths, University of London; Paolo Gerbaudo, King’s College London; Dave Karpf, George Washington University;  Leah Lievrouw, University of California, Los Angeles; Wan-Ying Lin, City University of Hong Kong; Florian Martin-Bariteau, University of Ottawa; Declan McDowell-Naylor, Cardiff University; Giles Moss, University of Leeds; Ben O’Loughlin, Royal Holloway, University of London; Patrícia Rossini, University of Liverpool; Volker Schneider, University of Konstanz; Lone Sorensen, University of Huddersfield; Scott Wright, University of Melbourne; Xinzhi Zhang, Hong Kong Baptist University.