Learning from Disasters: 30 Years After the USS Vincennes

Thirty years ago, on 3 July 1988, the USS Vincennes shot down an ascending domestic airliner, Iran Air Flight 655, mistaking it for a military aircraft descending toward the aircraft carrier group. My colleagues and I group this information disaster with a number of others with the hope of learning lessons from such incidents. Time has passed since our 1995 paper and the forum it was based on, but I call your attention to this again as it illustrates the need to study and learn from mistakes. Our analysis of these information disasters is available online is entitled Computer Power and Human Limits: Learning from IT and Telecommunication Disasters, and is available here: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3103433 

A revised and published version of this paper is available: Peltu, M., MacKenzie, D., Shapiro, S., and Dutton, W. H. (1996), ‘Computer Power and Human Limits,’ in Dutton. W. H. (ed.), Information and Communication Technologies – Visions and Realities, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 177-195.

Killings Can Be Information (or Procedural) Disasters

In the aftermath of a rash of murders captured on mobile smartphones, and mass shootings of civilians and police officers, debate has focused on assigning blame. Videos from mobile smartphones provide some evidence for fueling such debate over who should be held responsible for any killing of a civilian or police officer. And these discussions most often move into a broader debate over major societal issues, such as institutional racism or mental healthcare, and policy issues, such as gun control. All these debates could be valuable and often constructive, and must take place. However, I seldom, if ever, hear discussions of procedural problems that led to what might be called a ‘information’ or ‘procedural’ disaster – that is, misinformation, or lack of information, or practices, that might have enabled the disaster (the killing) to unfold as it did.

Think back to airline hijackings. These could be viewed broadly, such as around issues of international relations and terrorism, but also, the analysis of these events can focus on procedures at airports and on airlines that can minimize the potential for a hijacking to take place. The changes in information gathered, and the procedures at airports and on planes post-hijacking episodes and post-9/11 are well known, and arguably have had a cumulative impact on reducing risks. But I don’t hear analogous discussions of mass shootings and other killings, even when there is video evidence, however limited, and many eyewitnesses in some cases. Perhaps the analysis of procedures is going on behind the scenes, but unbeknownst to me.

This comes to mind because of earlier research I explored around what we called ‘information disasters’.* We originally defined these disasters around the use of information technologies and telecommunications, such as when the USS Vincennes shot down a domestic Iran Air Flight 655 ascending in the Persian Gulf on 3 July 1987, mistaking it for an Iranian F-14 fighter descending towards the ship.

What most impressed me about the study of such disasters was the meticulous investigation of the unfolding events that led to each disaster. These studies often led to lessons that could be learned, such as practices or procedures could be changed.

This kind of study is not new. Our discussions often referred back to a long history of efforts to investigate accidents involving trains. Every train wreck, for example, is examined in great detail to determine what procedures, technical changes, or training could be implemented to avoid a similar type of disaster not only in the same location, but system wide. Train wrecks still occur, often with horrific consequences, but each incident can lead to changes that make the next incident less likely to occur.

http://abcnews.go.com/International/dead-dozens-injured-head-train-collision-italy/story?id=40509997
http://abcnews.go.com/International/dead-dozens-injured-head-train-collision-italy/story?id=40509997

It might well be possible to study these very unique circumstances surrounding each killing or mass shooting with a greater focus on addressing lessons learned about obtaining better and more timely information, or instituting new procedures or practices that would prevent a repeat of the sequence of events that led to particular disasters. One thing we learned from our review of a number of well-known information disasters was that they usually entailed many things going wrong. This does not mean that solutions are hopeless. To the contrary, if some problems can be fixed, many of these disasters might not have occurred.

I certainly would encourage more discussion of these issues, as they might be more successful than focusing on bigger and more long-term changes in society. Apologies if this is blindingly obvious, but I am not seeing the discussion that should be taking place.

*References

Dutton, W. H., MacKenzie, D., Shapiro, S., and Peltu, M. (1995), Computer Power and Human Limits: Learning from IT and Telecommunication Disasters. Policy Research Paper No. 33. Uxbridge: PICT, Brunel University.

Peltu, M., MacKensie, D., Shapiro, S., and Dutton, W. H. (1996), ‘Computer Power and Human Limits’, pp. 177-95 in Dutton, W. H. (ed), Information and Communication Technologies – Visions and Realities. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Joining the Board of ‘Global Media and Communication’

I am delighted to be joining the International Editorial Advisory Board of Global Media and Communication, an international, peer-reviewed journal that provides a platform for research and debate on the continuously changing global media and communication environment. Its scope includes global aspects of communication and media studies, anthropology, sociology, telecommunications, public policy, migration and diasporic studies and has a particular remit to encourage a truly global authorship and breadth of articles. The journal has been published by Sage in print and online since 2005 and has a global readership. It currently publishes three issues per year (in April, August and December). As a board member, you would be involved in assisting with occasional reviewing of articles. There are also opportunities to meet and discuss the work of the journal, e.g. at international conferences.  imgres

Personally, it fits well with my work on global aspects of the Internet, such as my work on the New Internet World, and is timely in relation to a new graduate course I am developing on Global Media and Information.

Please consider submitting to this journal if you have forthcoming research in this area.

All-Star Class: A Record for this Professor

Attending an awards ceremony at MSU I discovered to my surprise and delight that every member of my class this semester was a recipient for an award for their academic achievements. True, I have a small seminar, of 5 students, three MA and 2 PhD students in a seminar on Media and Information Policy. But all five had received awards, along with other students of mine from the past semester.

Needless to say, of course, I had nothing to do with their accomplishments, as my course is still in progress. Nevertheless I feel very proud of ‘my’ students.

Doctoral students, Ruth Shillair and Whisnu Triwibowo, received graduate student fellowships, with only three being awarded. Ruth was chosen as well for the Outstanding Doctoral Student ‘Triple-Threat’ award, for her achievements in research, teaching, and citizenship.

MA students, Menglei Cheng and Shenzi Su, received Academic Merit Awards, for their performance in course work, along with my student from last semester, Michael Nelson, who also received the Thomas F. Baldwin Endowed Fellowship. Along with these A students, Thomas Potron, received recognition in being chosen as one of our Academic Exchange Semester Students, visiting us from France.

It is little wonder that I have been enjoying discussions over the semester. I should add that in a university of 50,000 students, with hundreds in our Department of Media and Information, it is a seriously remarkable accomplishment to be among the top. Congratulations to all of the students who received awards, and to my all-star class. I must add that for all of my students to receive such recognition, it goes down as a record for me as well!

Here is a photo of me along with my students and a Visiting Professor, Jingwei Cheng, Communication University of China.

L-R: Bill, Menglei Cheng, Chenzi Su, Prof Cheng, Whisnu Triwibowo, Ruth Shillair, and Thomas Potron
L-R: Bill, Menglei Cheng, Chenzi Su, Prof Cheng, Whisnu Triwibowo, Ruth Shillair, and Thomas Potron

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is another photograph of some of the students, along with faculty, at the awards ceremony set in the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University.

IMG_0927

The Study of Power Shifts Tied to Communication and Information Technologies

I finally completed an abstract for my talk at the forthcoming conference of the International Communication Association (ICA). It will be the 66th Annual Conference, this one to be held in Fukuoka, Japan, from 9-13 June 2016. The conference theme is ‘Communicating with Power’, so I chose to speak about my career long interest in the study of power shifts, most recently tied to my concept of  the Fifth Estate.  I was fascinated by the community power literature as a graduate student in political science, and began research on power shifts tied to computing and telecommunications in 1974 as a co-principal on a study of urban information systems. But over time, and across technologies, I’ve continued my focus on what Anthony Downs once argued to be the ‘real payoffs’ of information technology. My title and abstract for the ICA meeting are:

Communication Power Shifts and the Rise of the Fifth Estate

William H. Dutton

“Innovations in communication and information technology have generated controversies over their political implications. From the printing press to the Internet, debate has revolved around Utopian versus dystopian – democratic versus autocratic biases, technologically deterministic versus socially shaped power shifts, and normative forecasts versus patterns that are inductively anchored in empirical research. This talk tracks the most prominent expectations tied to communication and technology, concluding with a focus on the rise of the Internet, and the communicative power it has provided to an emerging Fifth Estate, composed of networked individuals able to use the Internet strategically to hold institutions, and other estates and of the Internet realm more accountable.”

References

My first major publication on power shifts is my book with Jim Danziger, Rob Kling, and Ken Kraemer, entitled Computers and Politics (Columbia University Press, 1982).

Computers and Politics (1982)
Computers and Politics (1982)

Most of my work on the Fifth Estate is listed on http://quello.msu.edu/research/the-fifth-estate/

 

 

 

A New Approach to Presidential Debates by Tracy Westen and Bill Dutton

Multimedia Convergence: A New Approach to Presidential Debates

     “A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps both.” 

     “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance. And a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

— James Madison

What should be done to reform the currently abysmal televised presidential debates?

We have criticized recent media efforts to stage a meaningful debate among the presidential candidates. We have also enumerated a number of reasons why online debates have not achieved their potential. In this post, we suggest that the way forward might be a converged approach in which the mass media, Internet and social media are combined to provide multiple platforms for more equitable and informative treatments of all candidates, while also providing engaging and accessible means for voters to evaluate the candidates on all the factors they consider most important – positions on key issues; personalities, including strength of character, experience, judgment, intelligence and leadership skills; and endorsements by credible and respected individuals, organizations, media outlets and political parties.

Consider the following:

1) Reporters on a news channel (Fox, CNN, CBS, PBS) ask all the candidates questions by posting them on a moderated election website created by the channel (or collaboratively by multiple news channels). Reporters post the questions in a video format and ideally in audio and textual formats as well. The news channel moderates the website to ensure that multiple reporters do not ask the same question, and that the questions are judged to be important and pertinent to the election. The channel also invites viewers to submit candidate questions and can post them as well. The questions, for example, might ask: What’s your position on the Iran Deal? Improving the economy? Abortion? The growing divides between rich and poor?

2) The news channels give all candidates an opportunity to post the answers to the questions in short videos, and in audio and textual formats as well. The news channels offer candidates the use of their affiliates’ TV studios, teleprompters and makeup facilities in cities through the nation to videotape their statements. The video responses are limited to one minute (or even 30 seconds). The news channels post the answers on the website, so viewers can click the question, then click and watch the answers from the candidates they’re interested in. A clickable “map” on the site shows a flow-chart with the questions (“Iran”) and candidate answers (“Clinton”).

To be sure, this proposal might encounter resistance. News channels would need to incur logistic and financial expenses to create and administer the websites, and they would have to collaborate to create a single unified website. Candidates would need to acquire easy access to videotaping facilities in TV stations, network affiliates and news channel studios across the nation to allow them to create quick response videos. Campaign consultants would have to soften their resistance to allowing their candidates to take detailed positions on specific issues or make more spontaneous quick-response statements. But the proposal has the advantage of drawing on the strengths of all media – the mass audiences of TV, radio and print, and the user inter-activeness of the Internet – which offer more space for more candidates and more opportunities for voters to challenge and learn from candidates.

3) Reporters post follow-up questions for the responding candidates, and each candidate has a chance to videotape a response/answer to the reporters’ questions and/or any of the other candidates’ first position posts (in #2). The expanding visual map shows the chain of responses.

4) If necessary, reporters can post follow-up questions to dig into the issues, raise difficulties with various answers, ask two candidates to respond to each other, etc. Candidates may answer the reporter’s follow-up questions or rebut the last candidates’ statements. The visual map will expand so users can follow the chain of events and watch individual candidate conversations or match-ups.

Up to this point, voters visiting the website can structure their own debate: click one question, then click several candidate responses, then click various candidate rebuttals, etc. Each candidate has an incentive to respond to reporters’ questions or risk marginalization in the debate. Even leading candidates have an incentive to respond, since this medium offers them the likelihood of reaching a larger audience. As more candidates respond to more issues, the site becomes more valuable to more candidates and voters, creating incentives for both to participate.

But then:

5) The news channels transform the Internet debates into breaking TV news coverage. The host news channel (or news channel collaboration) prepares nightly or weekly news stories on the expanding debates, describing newly announced positions, highlighting candidate rebuttals to difficult questions, featuring voter inquiries, focusing on emerging disputes. News commentators provide their opinions on the evolving debates. And this TV news coverage is then posted back on the website and made available to Internet visitors.

6) Outside reporters or bloggers assemble their own news stories from the posted video questions and candidate statements — which are deemed to be “open source” materials and freely available to all. These stories summarize the positions of particular candidates on specific issues, point out how candidate positions differ, and use video clips and quotes as illustrations. News providers then blog, post or broadcast summaries, creating another layer of coverage.

7) Visitors to any of these news sites post comments or responses to the candidate positions, and they post comments on the TV news coverage and print editorials. Candidates respond directly, answering questions, critiquing summaries, clarifying positions and raising new issues.

8) News organizations provide links to more detailed background research on the substantive issues being discussed (e.g., statistics on abortions in the U.S., the negotiations leading up to the Iran Deal, etc.).

9) Candidates provide links to video, audio or textual endorsements by prominent individuals, organizations or media outlets. Political parties add their views. Voters could add their questions and assess the personalities and leadership qualities of candidates by watching their video answers.

10) The website site grows into an expanding “wiki” for presidential candidates and voter information. The website’s programming infrastructure is made available free to other users. State and local news organizations adapt it for local political races. The sites are archived for historical and research purposes.

Other Considerations:

Such a converged multimedia process might generate an expanding, more informative and in-depth discussion of important political and campaign issues. By integrating television, audio, print and the Internet, and by using each to generate programming for the others, reporters could edit candidate question and answers into an evolving multimedia debate, showing videos of candidates making statements, rebutting each other, and commenting on the rebuttals — similar to a news summary of an actual debate — without the web user having to click on each item. Site visitors can dig into the issues and compare candidates’ positions. Web visitors can structure their own debates, or choose to look at what particular candidates post about specific issues, or simply watch the video news summaries, or even read about it in a text format. It would also give the candidates the ability to express emotion, use rhetoric, and engage in a back-and-forth in a virtual format.

To be sure, this scheme might not work for various reasons. News channels would need to incur logistic and financial expenses to create and administer the websites. Candidates would need to obtain the technology platforms to create quick response videos. But the proposal has the advantage of drawing on the strengths of all media – the mass audiences of TV, radio and print, and the user interactivity of the Internet, which offers more space for more candidates and more opportunities for voters to challenge and learn from candidates.

A key issue revolves around what questions get asked, but there are a number of reasonable options: A moderating panel could choose, edit and post questions to avoid needless repetition and ensure a respectful and civil discussion.[1] National polls could be conducted to see what major questions concern the voters (as Fox did), and then use a selected number of those video questions to spark responses from the candidates. Or candidates could identify issues they wish to address and then post statements on those issues, thereby challenging other candidates to address those same issues.[2]

When the election process has narrowed the race down to two to three candidates competing for the Presidency, a live televised debate, complemented by the use of the Internet and social media, is viable and attractive. From the Kennedy-Nixon debates to today, voters have found proven value in seeing such a real-time debate among the top contenders for high office. This approach, however, cannot be scaled up to accommodate large numbers of candidates, such as the 17 in the 2016 GOP primaries, without adopting a dramatically different scheme. We hope our ideas will stimulate thinking about the advantages such a new approach would offer.

Tracy Westen and Bill Dutton

Notes 

[1] Project Vote Smart has used this approach.

[2] This was the successful approach of The Democracy Network.

New MSU Course: Social Dynamics of the Internet

This fall semester at MSU, I’ll be teaching a new course MI 401, which is right at the center of my work over the last decade, if not my entire career. It is entitled ‘Social Dynamics of the Internet’ – the latest incarnation of a course I designed in 1980 on the social dynamics of communication technology. The course is anchored around my edited book, with Mark Graham, entitled Society and the Internet (OUP 2014). I hope to get students discussing, tweeting, writing and worrying about one of the central issues of our digital age.

Society & the Internet
Society & the Internet

The draft syllabus is at Social Dynamics of the Internet, but I will keep refining it, so comments are invited. The course is designed for upper-division undergraduates, and graduate students.