Tag Archives: telecommunications

Utopia vs Dystopia? Reflections on a Summer Exploring Information Principles with Mulford Q. Sibley

Decades ago I had the privilege of participating in an NSF summer institute for faculty at two-year colleges who NSF no doubt assumed needed a jolt of academic discipline in their mundane lives.  The class was on Utopias and Dystopias (though it probably had a more academic-oriented title.)  The teacher was the legendary Mulford Q. Sibley, known to this day as an outspoken radical who spoke his mind freely and frequently, wore a defiant red tie to make a statement, and did not suffer fools gladly.

For the most part we grateful students eagerly probed the master’s mind which Mulford Q. was more than willing to open wide and to change in media res.  Half way through the course our leader opined that we should probably produce concrete evidence of our learning.  Each was to write a utopian or dystopian essay or story.  Positive thinker –and contrarian – that I am I chose the road less travelled by…Though I cannot say it made all the difference, it did expand my worldview.

My academic job was as librarian in a small, liberal arts college.  It was my good fortune to have world enough and time to think about the expanding universe of which mere mortals and their institutions are not pawns but players.  The library in which I spent my days perched on a cliff from which you could see forever; the youthful learners were fresh, eager, headed in all directions.

The NSF Institute took place in the mid-70’s. just as the information and communications revolution was seeping through the very pores of the library and of our lives.  Predictably, my dystopia was set in a volatile information age environment. Scholars and plebians alike greeted the new age with mixed reaction – elation, terror, confusion, fascination with the gadgetry, and new investment policies. Those who grasped the basic principle of information power were girding their loins, acquiring the technology, scooping up licenses and bandwidths, and otherwise eliminating the competition.

The dystopia spewed forth from my IBM Selectric without a hitch – at some level I was living it. The awkward tale I spun forewarned a time of information overload – mountains of data erupting, human minds blown by too much information, the phase-out of people with the skills and institutional support to filter information.  With a bit of narcissism I wrote of librarians, journalists, publishers, educators, speech writers, editor, booksellers  and others who form the information chain that links source with user and user with source.

Dutiful student that I was in the day, I worried, but didn’t write about the ownership of the information per se —  I already knew how that would ignite  Dr. Sibley.  I stuck with the threat posed by too much information, too little time and too few coping tools.  A tragic dystopic – not to mention political — tale.

Or so I thought.  Dr. Sibley had other ideas which he expressed in bold red ink notes that live on in my psyche.  In his interpretation I, the control freak librarian, saw myself as a censor, curbing access to information, barring the gates to knowledge in the guise of creating order and adding value.  Dr, Sibley averred that it was the likes of me who would create the very dystopia that I had vilified.

Dr. Sibley envisioned a world in which information flowed unfettered, beyond the restrictions of government and propagandists.  Access was his goal.  And he was right, of course.  From my perspective, the distinction between availability and accessibility was palpable.  Information does no good, I argued,  if a curious searcher cannot manipulate the information chain. I think I was right, too (not that I pressed the point at the time.)

Where we were both right was in taking time during a mid-70’s summer session to focus on information as a force with which to be reckoned.  Though Dr. Sibley was closer to the mark when he worried about control, his emphasis was on political, not economic, control. For my part, focus on overload was naïve because I portrayed filters as relatively benign links in the chain

The institute was long ago and lasted for just six weeks – six long hot weeks contemplating life, the universe and everything from the upper reaches of the U of M Social Science Building.  Still, the lesson endures. The experience of thinking about information in concrete political, economic and social terms instilled a lifetime habit.  At times I remind myself, ITIS – It’s the Information Stupid!

This ancient tale resurfaces now as I watch media grapple with the challenges of a full-blown  information and communication age.  Utopia and dystopia still loom as options.  It concerns me that we who consume and act on information are only tangentially  engaged in choosing the utopian vs dystopian path.

We seem equally disinclined to analyze the unique role of the media in a tangled information chain that engulfs and threatens society.  Though we accept that information rules as the undisputed coin of the realm we have yet to understand that information, the channels of communication, and those who control either – or both — need to be tamed.

Jobs, taxes, housing, and other realities are tangible, measurable, concrete, suited to slogans and simple stories. Information is elusive, intangible, implicit, esoteric, remote, complicated.  It’s also ubiquitous, a vital force that runs through every aspect of our lives and our society.  It’s just not easy to contemplate or to explain.  Besides, there are  disincentives to any attempt to probe the turgid depths of the information labyrinth.

That’s what the information powers know only too well.  The information powers are at the ready to defend themselves, in part by harnessing the power of information and communications technology they control.  to justify their misdeeds – to control the story spun to the little people who are only too eager to pay for the pap they are fed.

Still I hope Michael Copps is right in his optimistic prognosis.  Copps, a Federal Communications Commissioner who takes his role seriously, recently advised members of the National Newspaper Association that they are not alone.  While the press may lead, he told them, the American public supports a utopian model of a free press.

At the same time, Copps worries about the dystopic path:  “I have come to realize,” he says, “that, without a serious national effort and some significant changes, our media environment will only get worse…I believe we can – and I believe we must – find ways to redeem the promise of journalism because good journalism is so vital to redeeming the promise of America.”

This leads me back to that summer with Mulford Q. Sibley – the yin and yang  of our takes on the imminent information explosion — the seasoned scholar’s concerns about the free flow of information vs. my youthful certainty that conventional filtering systems were more than ever essential to avoid disaster.   What we shared was not a perspective but a deep conviction that information is the essential building block of a democratic society – a belief that information is worth thinking and talking about at a fundamental level.  Today I reflect on that experience (which probably is more profound in the mind than in the day) with appreciation tinged with nostalgia.

I can only imagine a chat with Dr. Sibley about the role of 21st Century institutions in preserving a utopian vision and creating a path to reach a utopian goal. The technology, the politics, the economics of information have changed over the decades.  What has not changed is etched in my memory, a gangly Mulford Q. Sibley still challenging, still teaching and still sporting that defiant red tie!  As I watch the Murdoch empire crumble I can almost hear Sibley chortling.

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MN Broadband Summit – An Eyewitness Account

The 2010 Minnesota Broadband Summit breathed life into the reality and the future of broadband, not as an end but as a means – a means to economic development, of course, but more important, as a means to creating a state in which a Minnesota resident can live a rich live in a community with the tools of access to health care, civic engagement, lifelong learning, arts and culture. As convener and host, Senator Amy Klobuchar outlined the complex issues inherent in assuring access to high-speed broadband for all Minnesotans.  Julius Genachowski, Chairman of the Federal Communications, the regulatory agency responsible for telecommunications development, outlined the challenges he and members of a divided Commission face.

The intent was for the decision-makers from inside the DC Beltway to join an energetic and committed audience in learning from a truly fine panel of informed Minnesota leaders with unique perspectives on and experience with broadband.  Emphasis was on Minnesotans who are out of the loop because of geography, awareness, digital literacy or cost.

My original intent was to summarize the summit.  Even as I sorted through my notes and my reflections those who are more nimble and better equipped accomplished just that.  TheUpTake posted the video of the full summit on their site.  Blandin Foundation, which has taken the broadband lead in Greater Minnesota, has posted a virtual transcript of the proceedings.

What remains is to internalize and reflect.  Some thoughts:

  • Seldom have I heard a panel provide as much relevant, targeted and specialized information – I doubt that I have ever heard this much data, personal experience and vision delivered within the strict time limits dictated by the venue.  To a person, the spokespersons were “way above average.
  • Attendees included access leaders and visionaries who have been tilling the telecommunications turf for decades. For many present there was an “it’s about time” response. This cohort shares an implicit sense that there is a role for government to regulate (as well as fund) broadband development.
  • Along these lines, the panel touched on social issues generally absent from today’s politics.  They described with clarity specific strategies to ease or eliminate barriers, beginning with but not limited to geographic realities
  • Bruce Kerfoot. President and owner of the Gunflint Lodge, spoke for panelists and audience alike when he reminded the Senator and FCC chair that “the people on the end of the wires aren’t stupid.  We’re ready to roll and we have folks who want to be online.  We just need to be unified in our efforts to get heard.”
  • A consistent theme was collaboration broadly defined.   Kerfoot emphasized that Minnesota communities “just need to be unified in our efforts to get heard.”  Pam Lehmann, Executive Director of the Lac qui Parle County Development Authority, described how collaboration paid off for people in her county to apply where a Computer Commuter mobile tech lab was launched the following day.  More information on a StarTribune piece is available on Lac qui Parle’s site here.
  • Richard (Dick) King, CEO at Thomson Reuters, stressed that “people need to visualize themselves using technology. Stressing the imperative of public-private collaboration, King ticked off the reasons Thomson Reuters cares about broadband:  “We care because of our employees – we’d like for them to be able to work from home.  We’d like to bring other tech companies into the area.  Business needs a continuity plan — if something happens in the office, we still need to be able to carry on.  We need competition and redundancy.”
  • Engagement of local elected officials and decision-makers is a must, according to the panelists. A unified approach demands that local leaders are both informed and involved.
  • Panelists stressed that collaboration means public-private partnerships that are both essential and slow to nurture.  Speakers described in concrete terms the ways that the private sector, whether Thomson Reuter or Gunflint Lodge, depends on access and on collaborative efforts to promote a broadly-defined vision. Pam Lehmann, ED of the Pac qui Parle County EDA, described her county’s collaborative efforts and her vision of the impact of resulting federal funds on her community – proudly reminding the audience that the next day would see the launch of the Computer Commuter tech lab to spread digital literacy throughout the region.
  • Though the front-burner issue of net neutrality received modest attention, the implication was that this had been well addressed in the recent Net Neutrality town hall meeting chaired by Senator Al Franken.
  • Throughout the discussion the reality of cost was implicit.  Still it neither dominated nor stymied discussion which remained more on shared vision and possibilities.  The clear focus was on what was repeatedly described as a “win-win” approach.

In his introductory remarks Chairman Genachowski reminded attendees that, urgent as the issue, it’s not priority #1 with most people or their elected representatives.  His words seemed to me a hint, if not a clarion call, to those assembled to roll up our virtual sleeves.

The awesome volunteers and staff at the UpTake recorded Senator Amy Klobuchar’s remarks.

The FCC is Having a Public Hearing in MN Thursday Evening

Once again The UpTake steps to the plate!  The UpTake crew, mostly volunteers, will be on hand Thursday evening when media moguls, access advocates, journalists, librarians, entrepreneurs, and information mavens of every stripe —  just about anybody who has dipped a toe into the digital world – will gather for a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) public hearing on the future of the Internet.  The hearing is Thursday, August 19, 6:00 p.m. in the South High School Auditorium, 3131 19th Avenue South, Minneapolis.

What’s well publicized are the details of the unique hearing  featuring FCC Commissioners Michael Copps and Mignon Clyburn along with locals including i Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and other speakers TBA.  Not so well publicized is the fact that The UpTake will be on site.  TheUpTake will provide live broadcast and will also video the entire event. You can catch the hearing in real time or at your leisure – when the kids go to bed or you get off work.

The hearing is hosted by three national organizations, i.e. Free Press, Main Street Project, and the Center for Media Justice. Through their Media Action Grassroots Project (MAG-net). These are among the national organizations that have lobbied long and hard on a host of pressing issues, most notably network neutrality and broadband access.  The premise of the TC’s hearing is that the big guys have had their say and that the Commission needs to hear from the rest of us.  The fact that Minnesota’s junior Senator has become the poster child for these progressive groups may have influenced the designation of Minneapolis as the one and only Greater-US hearing.

By way of introduction, the Uptake is currently providing great background material, including an overview of the hearing, a talk presented earlier this summer by Commissioner Copps, and an interview with Senator Al Franken, a vocal advocate for network neutrality and access.  You’ll find them all on the Uptake website.