Using ICT to Develop Infrastructure Systems for the “Digital Anthropocene”

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the design and management of society’s core infrastructure systems (which I define broadly to include things like healthcare, education, housing and “money”) in an era marked by several important trends (for reasons suggested below, I refer to this as the “digital anthropocene”):

  1. substantial (and currently destructive) impacts of human activities on natural systems, a planetary phase referred to as the Anthropocene;
  2. continued and arguably mounting evidence that the status-quo dynamics within our dominant political and economic systems are aggravating rather than reducing inequalities in wealth and related factors;
  3. the dramatic expansion in scope, content and functionality of digitally-mediated connectivity among humans and “things” via ever-more-capable information and communication technology (ICT).

To flesh this out a bit, here are some examples of developments reflective of these trends (some of which I’ve already written about here):

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How Far Can Rocket Fiber Fly Into Detroit’s Neighborhoods? by Mitch Shapiro and Bill Dutton

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The 2015 launch of Rocket Fiber is poised to add super-fast Internet connectivity to the expanding arsenal of revitalization tools available in Detroit, starting with the city’s downtown central business district, followed by neighboring areas such as Midtown and Corktown. This is an important and exciting development likely to begin reaping benefits in these areas over the next few years.

One of the more challenging sets of questions facing Rocket Fiber–and virtually every effort to revitalize Detroit–is whether and how the city’s rising tide of investment can positively impact those households and businesses most distant—both physically and economically– from the city’s expanding beachhead of tech-fueled growth.

This is one of a range of questions driving the Quello Center’s launch of the ICT4Detroit program.* Through this program, the Center aims to develop research projects and alliances to help address issues concerning how ICTs (information and communication technology) can support the revitalization of Detroit. High on the list of issues central to the ICT4Detroit research agenda is how can the benefits of high speed access and other ICT be brought to more of Detroit’s citizens and organizations.

A big challenge, and a big opportunity

On one hand, a growing body of research has shown that high-speed access and related ICT, such as mobile Internet and the Internet of Things, have potential to boost economic growth, civic life and the quality and accessibility of education, healthcare, transportation, public safety and other government services. Research has also shown that fiber’s nearly unlimited capacity, low maintenance costs, easy upgradability and backhaul support for high-speed wireless connectivity make it particularly well suited to serve as the core of a city’s communication infrastructure.

So why don’t we already have fiber deployed in every neighborhood in every city, including Detroit? The reason, as every network investor (whether private or public) knows, is that high-speed networks are expensive to build, with high fixed costs and business cases heavily influenced by density, take rates and average revenue per unit (ARPU). As a result, the economics of extending fiber beyond Detroit’s central core into areas with low income and relatively low housing density are especially challenging.

The result is a situation with potentially large and much needed social benefits, but also considerable risk and uncertainty for network investors. This high-payoff, high-risk combination cries out for strategies aimed at reducing uncertainty, risk and cost, while increasing the probability and magnitude of benefits for underserved and disadvantaged populations, including those that can help support network capital and operating costs.

In response to this need, the Quello Center has begun to develop an independent research program intended to support innovative and successful strategies for increasing the availability, affordability and benefits of high-speed Internet access in Detroit.

In doing so, we seek input, guidance, support and collaboration from Detroit’s leaders, businesses, technologists, citizens and community organizations working hard to revitalize the city, as well as from others in the research and philanthropic communities focused on digital divide-related issues.

As a first step, we invite feedback and suggestions on this draft outline of the research program we have in mind.

1. Examine the current status of availability, usage and benefits of broadband Internet access in Detroit’s neighborhoods: by individuals, households, businesses and “community anchor institutions” such as libraries, schools, healthcare facilities, non-profit organizations and neighborhood associations.

2. Explore the currently unmet potential demand for broadband connectivity and services by these various segments of the Detroit community, including price sensitivity, revenue potential and externalities.

3. Explore potential demand for high speed connectivity associated with the evolving Internet of Things (IoT), and how this evolution (and its benefits) could be expedited and enhanced by increased availability of fiber-enabled high speed connectivity.

4. Better understand economic and other barriers to expanding demand to levels sufficient to justify network expansion deeper into the city’s neighborhoods, as well as factors with potential to help overcome these barriers.

5. Identify, characterize and prioritize potential near-term and longer-term opportunities to economically expand the reach of affordable and high speed access and IoT connectivity in Detroit, especially in ways that promote economic growth and community development in the city’s economically distressed neighborhoods.

6. Explore creative business strategies (e.g., demand aggregation, pre-subscriptions); technology options (e.g., wireless extensions, low-cost fiber installation techniques); alliances (e.g., with local community organizations and efforts to promote digital literacy); funding sources and strategies, and; local zoning and other public policies with potential to support economically viable expansion and beneficial use of high-speed connectivity in these neighborhoods.

In terms of methodology, we would expect this research to include in-depth interviews with key stakeholders and experts, quantitative surveys of citizens, businesses and community anchor institutions, and financial analysis of alternative strategies and scenarios.

The Quello Center views such research as a potential pillar of its ICT4Detroit initiative, focusing as it does on the key issue of making high-speed access more available, affordable and attractive in a city currently burdened by large economic challenges and low Internet penetration, yet with much potential to benefit from cost-effective expansion of broadband access and usage. A significant stream of prior research has focused on the role of ICT, and the Internet in particular, in social and economic development of urban areas. However, relatively little has focused on the particular historical, social and economic circumstances of Detroit.
We welcome your input and support as we seek to explore the unique Detroit factors shaping the role of broadband connectivity and other ICT in the revitalization of this great American city.

Mitch Shapiro and Bill Dutton, Quello Center

Notes

* See: http://quello.msu.edu/research/ict4detroit-the-role-of-ict-in-collaboration-for-detroits-revitalization/

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EMF Health Impacts: More Research Needed

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I’ve long been an enthusiastic supporter of using information and communication technology to support healthcare, education and political and economic empowerment. My interest dates back to 1982, when I wrote a graduate school paper entitled The Human Development Network. At that time, cable TV and desktop PCs were the new technologies of the day, the first brick-sized portable cellphones had yet to hit the market, and the closest thing to smartphones and “wearables” were found in the fictional worlds of Star Trek and Dick Tracy. Given my longstanding interest in beneficial uses of technology, it’s exciting to see today’s explosion of innovation related to wireless connectivity, and to consider future possibilities, including graphene-based wearables (see here and here).

That being said, I’m concerned that, in our rush to exploit the power of today’s wireless technologies, we are ignoring an uncomfortable issue raised by its rapidly expanding usage: the fact that we don’t understand very well the health impacts of surrounding ourselves (particularly our children, elderly, infirm and other vulnerable populations) with ever-increasing amounts of electromagnetic field (EMF) radiation, using an ever-expanding array of devices, frequency bands, duty cycles, modulation schemes, etc. (it’s worth noting here that some forms of EMF have been shown to have health benefits).

Though I’m not an electrical engineer, biologist or healthcare expert, I’m convinced that I’ve read enough about this issue to conclude one thing with confidence: that we, as a society, would be wise to invest more time, money and expertise in studying the real-world biological and health impacts of the expanding array of digital technologies we use today—and that we’d be foolish not to.

I’ve also come to believe that, while such research may be challenging, it should be a top priority as we continue to increase our usage of and exposure to EMF-producing devices. And while it may be comforting (psychologically and financially) to cite the limited research currently available (perhaps with a bit of cherrypicking) as a basis for dismissing health concerns as we race eagerly forward into the next wave of wireless connectivity, I’m convinced that such a conclusion is premature and overly simplistic…and perhaps even dangerous, especially for our most vulnerable citizens.

Replacing baby rattles with smartphones

A recent MarketWatch article highlights some of the potential risks and lack of research necessary to adequately understand and address them:

Executives dream of winning young customers over to their products. Companies like Apple…and Samsung…appear to be succeeding when the customers are barely out of their cribs.

More than half of babies in low-income households are tapping on smartphones or tablets by the age of two, with some spending more than an hour at a time using them. And more than one-third of low-income children have used them by the time they turn 1. That’s according to a study presented last month at the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting in San Diego by Hilda Kabili, a third-year resident doctor at the Einstein Health Network in Philadelphia. The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages the use of computers, smartphones and tablets by children under age 2, but there’s little long-term research on the effects of using them at such a young age.

I have to admit I find these statistics troubling in light of the last sentence about a lack of long-term research, coupled with research suggesting children absorb more EMF radiation than adults (for a short synopsis of this study, see this Forbes article).

More light, less heat needed in EMF health impact debate

I’m all for leveraging the power of wirelessly-networked digital technology. But if this technology is going be an ever growing part of our life (which seems extremely likely), I think we owe it to ourselves, our children and future generations to invest a small percentage of the many billions of dollars we spend on it to understand if and how it is impacting our health, and how we can best reduce any negative impacts. This seems especially important when it comes to the health of children, the elderly and other vulnerable populations.

I’m not going to argue here that EMF health risks are large, small or anywhere in between. In fact, I’m tired of hearing blanket assertions that various wireless technologies are either “safe” or “harmful.” [If you’d like to explore the debate and the research surrounding it, you might begin here and here (“harmful”) and here (“safe”)].

Simplistic assertions of safety or lack thereof may be emotionally and/or financially satisfying for those heavily invested in either side of the debate, which has been marked by dismissiveness and dissembling on one side, and sometimes blinding anger and distrust on the other.  But in such an environment, scientific and public policy questions that are already challenging become very difficult even to discuss, let alone to address with well-designed, unbiased research.

Yet it is exactly that kind of research that’s needed to clarify how we can continue to expand the benefits of wireless technology while mitigating harmful impacts associated with its ever-increasing use.  And this research should be well-funded and ongoing, as no doubt will be our continuing investments and innovations in wireless networks and devices.  And it should be well protected from money-driven (or any other) bias.  In my view, science influenced by corporate profit-seeking simply cannot be trusted as science (big pharma’s growing control and distortion of medical research, discussed here and here, is a troubling example of this dynamic).

$1B/yr. of research for the price of a small latte

In terms of funding, consider the following very rough calculation as an indicator of what might be possible if, as a society, we decided to take this issue seriously:

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Social Media Effects: Comments on a Roundtable at the Quello Center by Avshalom Ginosar

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The Quello Roundtable on Powerful (Social) Media Effects generated an odd juxtaposition of positions in the discussion: on the one hand the premise for the roundtable was rooted in the old (irrelevant?) theoretical conceptions of the traditional media and its influence on private and public life alike, while on the other hand the discussants – at least most of them – are deeply involved, personally as well as professionally, in the technology of the new media in general and social media in particular. Therefore, at least intuitively, most of them feel and understand that this is a new world which its understanding demands revision in concepts and practices.

It seems that (almost) everyone in the room (the Quello Center’s Meeting Room) can tell something about sporadic cases in which social media effects can be identified. Either these are public issues such as the Hillary Clinton Campaign for the presidency, the killing of a young black man by a white policeman, the Boston Marathon, the Arab Spring, etc., or more personal instances such as sexist email, forming new relationships, etc.
However, beyond these sporadic and often anecdotal cases, the big picture of the actual social media effects is still unclear.

Screen Shot 2015-05-08 at 12.28.08

So what I found most interesting in the discussion were the questions that arose: should we address social media as a unified phenomenon or should we categorize social media in order to investigate each part or type of it separately? Are social media substitutes for face-to-face interactions between human beings or only a complementary medium? How do social media effect the flow of information, the meaning of information and the transformation of knowledge? Do social media have different effects locally, nationally, and globally? Are these linear effects or non-linear? Should we – as media scholars – use the traditional tools of research such as interviews and surveys or should we turn to new research opportunities, such as around big data that the new technology provides?

Looking forward to the Webcast of the discussion, which should be coming soon.

Avshalom Ginosar

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What Makes a True Progressive in Communications & Tech Policy?

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On April 1 the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF) held an event to discuss its new report entitled “How Techno-Populism Is Undermining Innovation.”  The thrust of the report was to contrast the dangers of what it describes as “tech populism” with the virtues of what it calls “tech progressivism.”

The report begins with:

There was a time when technology policy was a game of “inside baseball” played mostly by wonks from government agencies, legislative committees, think tanks, and the business community. They brought sober, technical expertise and took a methodical approach to advancing the public interest on complex issues such as intellectual property rights in the digital era or electronic surveillance of telecommunications networks. But those days are gone. Tech policy debates now are increasingly likely to be shaped by angry, populist uprisings—as when a stunning four million submissions flooded into the Federal Communications Commission in response to its request for public comment on the issue of net neutrality; or when a loose coalition of protesters staged a dramatic blackout of popular websites in January 2012 to halt legislation that was intended to curb online piracy.

The authors seem to consider the mass-scale FCC comments and grassroots coalition building on tech issues as dangerous and destructive, in ways I find difficult to recognize:

Populism draws its strength from individuals’ fears, misunderstandings, or distrust, appealing to the prejudices of crowds and relying on demagoguery, distortion, and groupthink. Tech populists focus on maximizing self-interest and personal freedom, even if it comes at the expense of broader public interests.

I find the last reference to the “broader public interests” especially strange, since most of those I know who support net neutrality rules and strong privacy protections (whether expert or non-expert) strike me as genuinely very concerned about the public interest.

While there is plenty of room for thoughtful and respectful debate about how best to serve the public interest, the paper’s heavy use of straw-man arguments strikes me as an unfortunate example of the “demagoguery, distortion and groupthink” it condemns among those who seek to bring more citizens into the public policy arena (though exercised with a different style and mix of debating techniques).

The paper later notes that:

To be clear, the problem with technology policy debates is not that they have become more open and participatory, but rather that many, if not most of those who are choosing to engage in these debates do so from a position of fear, anger, or misunderstanding.

I strongly agree that communication policy debates should be based on facts, logic and a focus on the public interest.  But I think the paper is pretty biased in how it assigns responsibility for relying on “fear, anger and misunderstanding” (perhaps a close relative of FUD).

Related to this is the paper’s suggestion that it is irrational to embrace the “populist” view that:

[E]lites, especially big business and big government, will prevent useful rules from being established—or, if those rules are established, will find ways to bypass them at the expense of the broader public. They distrust the private sector because they believe corporations are driven purely by profit, and they distrust the public sector because they believe government is ineffectual and overbearing.

While this so-called “populist view” might be more accurate with a bit more elaboration and nuance, I disagree with the report’s suggestion that it is far from the mark in describing the reality of the political economy we’ve experienced in this country over the past several decades. When I consider actions taken and statements made by government officials (e.g., related to the Iraq War, NSA activities, financial reform, etc.) and some large corporations (e.g., in their lobbying and PR efforts to restrict municipal fiber network projects, neuter financial reform, etc.) I see valid, readily documentable reality-based reasons for distrust. And, to use the report’s own language, I’d rank these powerful institutions as among the most skilled and well-resourced purveyors of “fear, anger and misunderstanding.” They can, after all, afford to hire the most skilled practitioners of FUD, “truthiness” and other communication black arts.

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Opening for a Research Assistant Professor in the Quello Center, Michigan State University

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The Quello Center at Michigan State University invites applications for a full-time research assistant professor with an initial appointment of 1-3 years. We seek candidates with outstanding promise in media and information policy research. The successful candidate will participate in the development of proposals and the conduct of research within the Quello Center. Candidates should be able to describe the ways in which their research and skills could advance the aims and on-going research of the Center.

Candidates will be considered who have completed their doctoral training in disciplines or interdisciplinary areas that complement or build on the research underway at the Quello Center, such as law, economics, policy, political science, communication, Internet studies, computer science and social studies of science and technology. Exceptional candidates may be considered if they have not yet completed a PhD, but are likely to defend their dissertation before or near the start date of this position. The aim is to bring a person to begin research at the Center in August 2015, or as soon after as feasible for the successful candidate. The position will be for an initial fixed term appointment of 1-3 years, but with the possibility of reappointment.

The Quello Center is based in the Department of Media and Information in the College of Communication Arts & Sciences at Michigan State University. The Center seeks to stimulate and inform debate on media, communication and information policy for our digital age. It pursues research that questions taken for granted assumptions about the implications of technology, policy and regulation, and seeks to collaborate with other centers of excellence in research on the social and economic implications of our digital age and the policy and management issues raised by these developments.

To apply, candidates will need to visit the Michigan State University Employment Opportunities website (https://jobs.msu.edu), refer to Posting 1075, and complete an electronic submission. Applicants should submit the following materials electronically: (1) a cover letter indicating that you are interested in the Quello Center and summarizing your qualifications for it, (2) a current vita, (3) if appropriate, the URL to an existing individual or collaborative website that conveys your current scholarship, and (4) the names and contact information for three individuals willing to serve as your recommenders to the search committee. Review of applications will begin on April 10, 2015, and continue until the position is filled.

Please direct any questions to Professor William H. Dutton, Search Committee Chair, Quello Center, Department of Media and Information, CAS 406, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824 USA at wdutton@msu.edu.

MSU is an affirmative action, equal opportunity employer. MSU is committed to achieving excellence through cultural diversity. The university actively encourages applications and/or nominations of women, persons of color, veterans and persons with disabilities.

Further information:

Information about the Quello Center at: http://Quello.msu.edu
Twitter at @QuelloCenter

Research Faculty Appointments: http://www.hr.msu.edu/documents/facacadhandbooks/research_faculty/index.htm

Department of Media and Information at MSU: http://mi.msu.edu

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Launching the Net Neutrality Impact Study

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MSU’s Quello Center is launching a study of the impact of net neutrality.

With the support for net neutrality regulations at the FCC, and in the White House, the debate should quickly move from theoretical speculation to empirical realities: What will be the actual impact of net neutrality regulation?

The net neutrality debate has galvanized a wide variety of stakeholders in opposing camps around the wisdom of this regulation on the future of a global, open and secure Internet. Proponents argue that net neutrality will keep the Internet open and in line with its early vision by not advantaging those who can pay for fast lanes, while opponents have raised numerous concerns about the role regulation could play in constraining efficiency, competition, investment, and innovation of the Internet and patterns of its use by individuals, households, business and industry. It has become a politically and commercially contentious issue that has become increasingly partisan and commensurately over simplified around competing positions. However, from all sides of this debate, the implications are expected to be of major importance to the future of the Internet in the US, but also globally, as other nations will be influenced by policy and regulatory shifts in the United States.

It is therefore important that claims about the value and risk of net neutrality become a focus of independent empirical research. In many ways, the FCC’s decision on net neutrality presents an opportunity for a natural experiment that will provide real evidence on the actual role that net neutrality will play for actors across the Internet and telecommunication industries, but also users and consumers of Internet services.

Academic research needs to be analytically skeptical and seek to challenge taken-for-granted assumptions on both sides of the debate with empirical research and analysis. The Quello Center is well positioned to conduct this research. It was established by an endowment in honor of former FCC Commissioner, James H. Quello, to study media and information policy in a neutral and dispassionate way. The Center’s endowment provides the independence and wherewithal to launch this project with an eye towards expansion of the project if justified by the support of its Advisory Committee, sponsorship and other sources of funding, such as foundations concerned with the social and economic futures of the Internet.

The project will be led by Professor Bill Dutton, the new Director of the Quello Center. Before taking this position, Bill was founding Director of the Oxford Internet Institute and Professor of Internet Studies at the University of Oxford. Other MSU and Quello faculty involved in this project include:

Staff of the Quello Center, including Mitchell Shapiro, and an Assistant Research Professor for whom a new search is underway, will be committed to this project, and we will develop collaborations with faculty and practitioners with an interest in supporting and joining this research initiative.

The Quello Center welcomes expressions of support and offers of collaboration or sponsorship on what is an important albeit complex and challenging issue for policy research. If you wish to comment on, or support this research initiative, please contact Bill Dutton, or any of the faculty associates.

Contact: Professor Dutton at Quello@msu.edu

Notes:

About the Quello Center
Quello Center Advisory Board

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Rejuvenating Policy Research and Practice by Johannes M. Bauer

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I often hear laments about the lack of attention of policy-makers to disciplines such as communications, Internet studies, political science, and sociology. Indeed, often it is scholars and advocates arguing from an economic, engineering and law perspective, who are heard. In my view, these disciplines have an inherent “epistemic advantage” over others because one of their driving questions is how to improve (or even “optimize”) the working of a system, either analytically or by trial and error. A classic example is David Clark’s motto, articulated at an IETF conference in the early 1980s, calling upon the community of Internet engineers to develop “running code and workable compromise”. Consequently, the approaches used by engineers and economists lend themselves easier to derive prescriptive statements, which are a necessary prerequisite to develop solutions to a policy problem. Law (especially jurisprudence) does not seek to “optimize” but naturally has a strong normative tradition (e.g., testing whether a proposal is compatible with constitutional principles or by starting from some conception of rights). Thus far, the normative conclusions from communications, political science, and sociology have been less successful in finding their way into the practical policy and governance discourses, although they have an important role to play.

In an era when governmental policy-making faces a deep crisis of public trust, scholars and practitioners need to coalesce to develop a new shared vision of “policy”. It would be regrettable if public distrust and skepticism led to disengagement with collective choices, as they have important consequences for the design, working, and effect of media and information technology and services. Since the late 1960s the research community has developed a broader understanding that government policy is only one coordination mechanism for socio-technical systems. In our field (as in many other areas) other forms of governance (repeated interactions among stakeholders from which norms emerge, voluntary coordination, de facto leadership by a player—see WiFi which is essentially an Intel creation) are very relevant and influence outcomes. Governance measures can affect a system at various levels and intervention points: technological design choices, incentives and nudges targeted to individual players, laws and regulation that affect an entire sector or society at large, they can be regionally targeted, etc. etc.). Not all of these choices are necessarily made with a governance perspective in mind (remember Lessig’s Code and other laws of cyberspace).

Given the interdisciplinary talent of faculty in our department of media and information and the Quello Center, our opportunity is to theorize and study (empirically, experimentally, and computationally) how such different forms of governance affect the socio-technical systems we are interested in. As well, we can endogenize these choices to examine how these forms of governance are shaped by society. That is where I see the cutting edge of theorizing and research and also a great opportunity for us and the larger community of scholars and advocates.

Johannes Bauer, Professor and Chair, Department of Media and Information

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