Email Crisis

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

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

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

Charles Bukowski via Wikipedia

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

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 But they have not exactly been replaced by email without a great loss in quality and diversity.

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

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

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

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

Quello Center Advisory Board

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

Merit Innovation Award to the Quello Center at MSU

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

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

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

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

Pluralist Empowerment versus Populism or Democratic Elitism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Voices from Oxford – a New Spring

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

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

Continue reading

Dollar Waiting on a Nickel: Life and Work Online

I planned to spend all of my day writing, but instead, I spent the entire day trying to deal with problems with routers, software, browsers, etc. My router disconnected from my printer, and reconnecting is not straightforward. I received proofs for a book review from a publisher, who insisted I use their browser and their editing software to amend my proofs, which caused hours of wasted time. In the end, I refused to download their software just to make a few minor adjustments.

via Arthur Berger

I had a father-son team of carpenters working at my home once, and they kept saying to each other that one had a ‘dollar waiting on a nickel’. They had a major job to do that was waiting for a trivial job to be completed. This is becoming my life online. Increasingly it is difficult to do real work while trying to cope with the increasingly complicated packages of hardware and software that raise untold numbers of new problems on a daily basis.

I am so old and senior that I am increasingly moving to the strategy of telling those who insist that I use their system, their form, their preferred browser, their software, and their time frame, to simply read my email. No thank you.

Thank you again, Lord Ashdown

Lord Ashdown died on 22 December 2018 at 77 years of age, and was buried in Somerset this week on 10 January 2019. After serving as a Royal Marine, and serving years as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party and an MP, his life has been celebrated by many.

It may seem small, but I can’t help but remember Paddy Ashdown for helping me and my colleagues by taking the time to speak at the last international conference of the Programme on Information & Communication Technologies (PICT) in 1995. The conference was entitled ‘The Social and Economic Implications of Information and Communication Technologies’, and was held at The Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, Westminster, London, from 10-12 May 1995.

The Rt. Hon Paddy Ashdown agreed to do the keynote of the conference, and he was joined by other parliamentarians, including John Battle, Kenneth Baker, Richard Caborn, Chris Smith, Ian Taylor and Sir Kenneth Warren. The event, and Paddy Ashdown’s keynote, was a capstone to one of the first social science research programmes focused on information and communication technologies, such as the Internet. It was sustained by two phases of research grants from the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). I was national director of this programme during its last years, following earlier directors, Bill Melody and Nicky Gardner. It gave me the opportunity to work with such great colleagues as Martin Cave, Richard Collins, Rod Coombs, Jane (Yellowtrees) Douglas, David Edge, Wendy Faulkner, James Fleck, the late Chris Freeman, Nick Garnham, Andrew Gillespie, John Goddard, Leslie Haddon, Christine Hine, David Knights, Sonia Livingstone, Stuart Macdonald, Robin Mansell, Ian Miles, Geoff Mulgan, Hugh Willmott, Vince Porter, Paul Quintas, Kevin Robins, the late Roger Silverstone, Colin Sparks, John Taylor, Juliet Webster, Robin Williams, Steve Woolgar, and many many others.

PICT was a successful research programme that paved the way for a series of research programmes to follow on its heels and together make an incredible difference in the way people in the UK and worldwide think about the societal implications of the Internet and related information and communication technologies. I’m not sure if those who contribute their time and efforts to supporting academic research, as Paddy Ashdown did, realise how their contributions make a difference and are remembered. So thank you again, Lord Ashdown, for seeing the significance of what we were doing and supporting it with your presence – well before the significance of the new technologies were widely recognised.

Lord Paddy Ashdown

Just Say ‘No’ to Completing a Form: Another Bane of the Digital Age

I’ve complained before about the growing demands online for us to complete forms to do just about anything – I called it trapped in a Web of forms. Well, my writing about it has not solved the problem. Just today I agreed to do a book review, only to then get a formal thank you, and note which basically said I must submit my review through the publisher’s central manuscript site. OK, I cannot just write the review and email it to the book review editor, as that would be too much trouble for the editor.

Predictably, I will now be required to log into this central manuscript site. I have almost certainly used it before, for some paper or journal submission, but who knows when and I can assure you I will not remember the passwords etc. So I will need to fill out the joining instructions once again, and probably have difficulty, with notes like, this email has been used before, etc. I will spend useless time getting set up, formatting my review in a manner that the site likes (not me), and submitting it. So all the fun of reading the book and writing a review is lost already – well before I’ve received the book.

Why do I say “yes” to such offers – let’s say requests? I need to set up a form for any request to me with something like the following questions: Name, other information I do not need, then “Will I need to fill out a form in order to satisfy your request?” If yes, then I might add the question: “Can you complete the form for me?” If no (inevitably it will be no, as these folks do not take their own medicine), then the tick box should not permit the person to tick “No”. The requester will become so frustrated that s/he will decide to stop wasting his/her time on this bloke, and go on to ask some other sucker.

Just today, I am sure I had to complete at least four forms, and most required me to fill out other forms to complete the present form. I understand why people want others to do their work for them as they have simply too many things going on to do the work themselves. This should scream to them that they are trying to do more than they can do, and stop or slow down. This template society we are creating is clearly the road to madness. … Must blog about this!

Internet Don by Arthur Asa Berger