[The following commentary is authored by A. Michael Noll, and posted with the permission of the author. It illustrates the disagreement among experts on the social implications of new technologies, such as robotics, AI, cloud computing, and the Internet, demonstrating the value of continued research on the actual implications across different contexts and applications.]
The article “Rein In The Robots” by Kate Crawford (TIME, Vol.198, Nos.7-8, Aug.23-30, 2001, p.95) advocates “protection against the unchecked growth of artificial intelligence.” There is nothing new in her position. There have always been those who oppose any new technology or medium.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is decades old, and today has become a buzzword wrapping itself around such old concepts as computerization, pattern recognition, automation, robotics, and machine learning. It is hard to know what to fear when AI seems to encompass nearly everything.
Robots are machines. Robots do not have feelings, and thus it is tempting to attack them with headlines like “Rein In The Robots.” Actually, robots perform the heavy and tiresome work that humans are not equipped to perform. Robots clean floors tirelessly. Robots help the elderly overcome isolation. Robots entertain children. But they also scare us, such as the robot in the classic movie “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”
People fear what they do not understand. I made sure that my students understood the process of converting a signal to a digital representation. That way my students did not fear the digital revolution – they understood digitization and were not prey to all the hype. AI is a lot of hype – and that leads to fear and misunderstanding – and conspiracy theories.
Crawford mentions a “small, homogenous group of very wealthy people based in a handful of cities without any real accountability” as those driving the growth of AI. In expressing her conspiracy theory, she fails to accept that she, as an employee of Microsoft, is one of those people.
The real threat, in my opinion, is to computer security and our privacy from information stored centrally in computerized files – what today is called “the cloud.” Unknowingly, and willingly, all the information on our smart phones and computers is stored in the cloud, where it has the risk of being accessed and analyzed without our knowledge or approval and used against us by governments and others.
John R. Pierce (the father of communication satellites) liked to espouse that he was more concerned, not with artificial intelligence, but the natural stupidity of humans! Indeed, it is the latter we need to fear.
Way back in 1961, my article “Electronic Computer – Friend or Foe” expressed the dangers that might occur when “the computer is used to make logical decisions.” I suggested caution “before the axe and sledgehammer” becomes the only remedy. I guess little has changed – be ready to pull the plug!
August 16, 2021
A. Michael Noll is Professor Emeritus at USC Annenberg. John R. Pierce and he are the authors of SIGNALS: The Science of Telecommunication.
Private Emails? A Personal Perspective on Politicizing Norms of Communication
In Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith opens himself up to accusations of thought crimes for walking onto a street with a shop where he could buy pen and paper. In 2021, politicians and even the UK’s Information Commissioner wonder if ministers are guilty of some criminal offense for using private email. The ICO, charged with protecting our privacy, does not want to lose data critical to her surveillance of public officials! All in the name of ‘transparency’.
Increasingly, accusations seem to fly around such issues as the security of public officials using personal email. While security, legal, and privacy issues are embedded in these criticisms of the practices of others, my concern is over the degree they lack common sense, any historical perspective, and politicize what is fundamentally a cultural difference that has risen over the decades across different kinds of Internet users. Moreover, technical advances are diminishing the distinctions being drawn. Let me explain on the basis of my experiences.
I began using email around 1974, when I had to call colleagues to tell them to look for an email sent from me. Otherwise, they would not check their inbox. Those were early days, when academics in universities could get an email address from their university if they were at one of the institutions that were early nodes on the ARPANET.
At that time, in the early 1970s, I wrote most of my correspondence by hand, and it was typed up by a pool of typists. I would revise a draft and someone in the pool would revise it for me to mail or fax. A carbon copy of all my letters was (I discovered) put in a chronological file of all correspondence going out of our academic research unit and studiously read by one of our managers. He knew what was going on across the organization by reading all of our outgoing correspondence. This was part of a culture of administrative control, which I accepted, but did not like and was surprised to discover. That said, I was an employee of an organization and in that role, it is arguable that I did not have a true right to privacy within the organization.
Presumably, even in those early days, an archive of all incoming and outgoing emails existed in the university so our manager might have had even better intelligence about our work, but most administrators were not email users. If a malicious user sent hate mail, for example, I would imagine it could be found in the archive, but then again, it is likely to have been sent under another user’s name. (Yes, it was a problem in very early days of email.)
By the early 1980s, one amusing (to me) concern in business and industry around email was its use for social purposes. Before email, most electronic communication was costly for organizations. The telegraph created a mindset in government and industry of every letter and word costing money, so electronic communication, reinforced by fax machines, was that it was considered costly compared to regular, physical mail – later called ‘snail mail’.
So when employees in organizations began using email, managers were concerned about the cost and the potential waste of money if used for social purposes. Academics used university email for anything – teaching, research, or personal reasons – and lived in sort of a free culture, meaning free of control as well as cost. But this was not the case in business and government where the legacy of telegrams, faxes, and costly phone calls created a sense of email being expensive.
One of my students in the early 1980s studied an aerospace company in Los Angeles and found the managers very concerned over the employees using email for personal or social purposes. Rather than counting the letters, they would embellish their business correspondence with a joke or questions or pleasantries about the family, etc. Even then, we defended the social uses of email at work as it would undoubtedly help executives and other employees to adopt this new communication system. Moreover, communication in the workplace has always been a blend of social and business uses, such as over the proverbial watercooler. Nevertheless, an administrative control structure still pervaded the use of communication at work.
It was only when private email services arose, such as through CompuServe, from 1978, and one of the first commercial email services, MCI Mail, which was founded in 1989, that this mindset began to change. Google Mail, was launched in its Beta version from 2002, about the time MCI Mail folded. Private email services like Google Mail made it possible to escape this administrative control structure and the control culture of communication in organizations.
In my own case, having changed universities many times, one of the only steady email addresses I have maintained has been my gmail account, established with the Beta version. I’ve never sensed it being any less secure than my university accounts, and I don’t have the feeling that an administrator is looking over my shoulder. It is free of charge and free of administrative surveillance. I give my data. My main concern is not burdening colleagues with unnecessary or too frivolous email messages. The last thing I want to do is audit myself to determine if my message to a particular person about a particular topic requires me to use my personal email or one of my academic email accounts.
Moreover, today, more individuals are moving to private conferencing (e.g., Zoom, Teams, Skype) and private messaging services (e.g., WhatsApp, WeChat, Telegram, Signal, Slack, or others) rather than email for interpersonal communication. If you are in government or business or academia, you want your colleagues to be exploring and innovating and using those information and communication services that support their work. Don’t dictate what those are. Let them decide in the spirit of bottom-up innovation within your organization. But this is exactly the worry of the ICO and politicians who fear they will not have access to every word written by a public servant.
But will private services undermine security? Increasingly, public organizations from universities to governments are moving more of their services, such as email, to the cloud. That is, they are not running their own home-grown institutional services, but outsourcing to private cloud service providers, which offer pretty good security protection. This is how private gmail is provided as well. So, no, it will not undermine security.
To me, those who discuss email use from such an administrative control perspective are simply administrative control types – in a prerogative sense of that term. I for one do not want to be told what email account or what information or communication services to use for each and every purpose. I am not at the extreme of the ‘free software’ movement of Richard Stallman, but sufficiently supportive of civil liberties that I find these almost Orwellian efforts to police our communication to be a huge mistake.
Some politicians and administrators live in a control culture rather than a free digital culture. However, interpersonal communication is good to support, particularly in these times of incivility and toxic politics. Let’s encourage it and not politicize email or the use of private messaging on any account.
Richard M. Stallman (2002, 2015), Free Software, Free Society, Third Edition. Boston, MA: Free Software Foundation.
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.
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.
*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).
Professor Noam has focused attention on what seems like a benign and economically rational technical shift from linear TV to online video. Most people have some experience with streaming video services, for example. But the longer term prospects of this shift could be major (we haven’t seen anything yet) and have serious social implications that drive regulatory change, and also challenge those charged with managing the media. What is the next generation of digital television? Can it be managed? Are the principles of business management applicable to new digital organizations?
The Principal of Green Templeton College, Professor Denise Lievesley opened the session and introduced the speaker, and two discussants: Professor Mari Sako, from the Saïd Business School, and Damian Tambini, from the Department of Media and Communication at LSE, and a former director of Oxford’s Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy (PCMLP). Following Eli Noam’s overview of several of the key themes developed in his books, and the responses of the discussants, the speakers fielded a strong set of questions from other participants. Overall, the talk and discussion focused less on the management issues, and more on the potential social implications of this shift and the concerns they raised.
The social implications are wide ranging, including a shift towards more individualized, active, emersive, and global media. There will be some of the ‘same old same old’, but also ‘much more’ that brings many perspectives on the future of television into households. The concerns raised by these shifts include threats to privacy and security to even shorter attention spans – can real life compete with sensational emersion in online video? Perhaps the central concern of the discussion focused around media concentration, and not only in cloud services, such as offered by the big tech companies, but also in national infrastructures, content, and devices.
This led to a discussion of the policy implications arising from such concerns, particularly in the aftermath of 2016 elections, mainly around the efforts to introduce governmental regulation of the global online companies and governmental pressures on platforms to censor their own content. This surfaced some debate over the cross-national and regional differences in approaches to freedom of expression and media regulation. While there were differences of opinion on the need and nature of greater regulation, there did seem to be little disagreement with Eli’s argument that many academics seem to have moved from being cheerleaders to fear mongering, when we should all seek to be ‘thought leaders’ in this space, given that academics should have the independence from government and the media, and an understanding informed by systematic research versus conventional wisdom across the world.
Eli is one of the world’s leading scholars on digital media and management, and his latest books demonstrate his command of this area. One of the speakers referred to his latest tome as an MBA in a box. The text has a version for undergraduate and graduate courses, but every serious university library should have them in their collection.
Eli Noam has been Professor of Economics and Finance at the Columbia Business School since 1976 and its Garrett Professor of Public Policy and Business Responsibility. He has been the Director of the Columbia Institute for Tele-Information, and one of the key advisors to the Oxford Internet Institute, having served on its Advisory Board since its founding in 2001 through the Institute’s first decade.
His new books on digital media and organizations have been praised by a range of digital and media luminaries, from Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the Internet, to the former CEO of Time Warner, Gerald Levin and former CTO of HBO, Robert Zitter.