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.
I am working with two of my masters students on a study of the issues that arose over whiteboards in the dormitories at MSU. The students presented their conclusions yesterday, and today they finish their paper. I’ll then work with their paper to develop a working paper that we might blog or disseminate in various ways. It was a fascinating and fun project is several ways. It was for a course on media and information policy, so this led us to quickly see the whiteboard as a media for communication and information. It is simple – everyone understands it, but it raises many of the same issues that are raised by social media and the Internet on college campuses. It also fits into the rising debate over speech on college campuses. Can’t wait to share our findings, which I believe to demonstrate the value of research in contrast to journalistic coverage of events such as the whiteboard controversy at MSU. It also really does speak to the issues of freedom of communication and civility in the university context.
Most importantly, it was a delight working with Irem Gokce Yildirim, an international student from Turkey, and Bingzhe Li, an international student from China, on this study of communication on an American campus. This is the kind of experience that makes teaching so enjoyable and rewarding.
[We are all laughing about my clumsy efforts to take this with my selfie stick.]
I use social media for the fun of it – the joy of communicating, but also as an academic. In that respect, I am part of an academic minority in my choice of media. Most academics steer clear of social media as a distraction from their core work and traditional academic outlets, such as the refereed journal article or book. This is unfortunate. The use of the Internet and social media can transform and complement scholarship, even though they are too often viewed, mistakenly, as a tradeoff.
Of course, academics can find many ways to distract themselves from writing, doing field research, going to seminars, and other aspects of traditional scholarly work. But social media can be used to support scholarship, and is actually transforming nearly every aspect of scholarship, such as by giving academics the means to write or write locally – to their department, university, or conference audiences – but also reach globally. Social media are circumventing old constraints on you sharing ideas, papers, lectures, and all scholarship with a global audience of one or many who are interested in your topic.
So it has been good for me to see some books coming out on social media in academia, such as Mark Carrigan, Social Media for Academics (Sage). My colleagues and I put together an edited book on the ways in which the Internet and computational analytics, and social media, were transforming scholarship, when we were studying digital social research. It was entitled World Wide Research (MIT Press 2010). Digital social research using social media, the Internet, big data and more are changing nearly every phase of academic research and teaching.
However, even positive views of social media in academia often miss the transformative potential of this shift. Social media are more than simply electronic tools for doing what you’ve always done, such as networking, managing information, and publicizing your work. It really will involve a change in culture or mindset within academia. Everything you do, from brainstorming to data collection and analysis is being transformed. For example, everything you write, every lecture you give, every communication you have of significance can be shared globally.
I’m a senior academic – as in old – so I still write notes on paper with my fountain pen. But as soon as I get to the point of communicating my ideas beyond myself, I think of how to best share them. I can blog a photograph of my notes, I can blog, tweet, or post the text of my working paper to a repository, and then share links to the piece. This is a shift in my mindset, which I realize when I see other faculty spending their time communicating with themselves, and not posting information in a way that is easy for others to share via social media.
Take, for example, colleagues who still pride themselves in adopting the Chatham House Rule, asking participants in a discussion not to quote anyone’s contribution. This is culturally at odds with a sharing culture. Seldom do I ever hear anything in a seminar under the Chatham House Rule that merits such secrecy. Instead, it is counter-productive tradition in the digital age.
Of course, there are problems. You can spend too much time blogging, and you can confuse social and work related posts – the so-called context collapse. Your friends are not interested in your work, and vice versa, your work colleagues may not be interested in your vacations and family.
On time management, you can spend too much time reading, or chatting with colleagues, or you can manage your time. On context collapse, you can have social media, such as a blog or social networkings site, devoted to more social and entertainment roles versus your academic role. I have several blogs for different purposes and audiences. You can create contexts, and not collapse them.
And, the grand criticism is that you can’t possibly communicate your ideas in 140 characters. Well, that is changing, even with Twitter, but it is a ridiculous point in the first place. Academics always have a title for their books, and they are well under 140 characters. And to a short tweet, you can link to the encyclopedia, or a video of your lecture. There is hardly any traditional limit – pages, words, color, motion – on what can be communicated online. That is not a good excuse for avoiding social media.
In our research on attitudes toward the Internet and social media, time and again we have found that those who are most critical of the Internet and social media, are those you have not used them, or used them less. They are ‘experience technologies’.* As you gain experience with social media as an academic, you gain an understanding of how to use it effectively, not to advance your career, but to do what academics should do – conduct and share their work with whomever is interested. I worked with several colleagues for years to help bring the ideas, people, and visitors in Oxford to the wider world, what we called Voices from Oxford (VOX).
But habits and cultures change slowly. It will take time, if you are not part of digital social research. But think about changing the way you do what you do as an academic, and take what your elder colleagues say about social media with a grain of salt. It is most likely that they have never used the new media.
*Dutton, W. H., and Shepherd, A. (2006), ‘Trust in the Internet as an Experience Technology’, Information, Communication and Society, 9(4): 433-51.
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.
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.
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.
On the day the FCC voted 3-2 for net neutrality rules, the Quello Center announced the launch of our ‘Net Neutrality Impact’ (NNI) study. After years of speculations and predictions about the implications of network neutrality, we will be able to study the actual consequences through a natural experiment created by the FCC’s ruling. So remember what you have claimed to the likely consequences of net neutrality, write them down, let us know, and follow our project at the Quello Center. Of course, we also welcome the involvement of other policy researchers who are as curious as we are about what will flow from this decision and how to capture these impacts in the most reliable and valid way.
Follow the project and the Quello Center on Twitter @QuelloCenter