SAGE Encyclopedia of the Internet – Published This Week

I am honored to have had the opportunity to publish two entries in the recently published SAGE Encyclopedia of the Internet.  The work is a comprehensive survey of many different internet-related topics, from the highly technical, to the theoretical and social.  Editor Barney Warf has done a wonderful job soliciting entries from experts around the world.

The Encyclopedia is available in hard copy format from SAGE, and is also available online through SAGE Knowledge.

The abstracts and links for my two entries are as follows:

Internet Slang: Internet slang, like its counterparts in the spoken and written forms, is a mode of communication that typically consists of shortened words or phrases, neologisms (new words), abbreviations or initialisms, and paralinguistic or paraverbal markers. In the online space, netspeak (as Internet slang is sometimes called) allows the user to take shortcuts, save time, and communicate more efficiently. This efficiency is important for online media in which space is limited or input devices, such as mobile phones, prohibit the typing of lengthy messages. The use of Internet slang can also be considered a form of codeswitching, a sociolinguistic practice that helps users establish social groups in both inclusive and exclusive ways. This entry discusses the role that Internet slang plays in social communication.  Read more…

Net Neutrality: Net neutrality is a movement within the technology community that seeks to establish and preserve fair and open network accessibility for all end users, content providers, and technology protocols. It is the idea that the Internet—comprising many protocols such as hypertext transfer protocol, File Transfer Protocol, email (Internet Message Access Protocol, Post Office Protocol, Simple Mail Transfer Protocol), and many others—should be equally accessible for all users. Furthermore, it is the idea that all publishers (e.g., websites, bloggers, social media sites) and networked services (e.g., Netflix, Spotify, Hulu) should be equally available to all paying customers. More basically, perhaps, many see net neutrality as the fundamental principle of a networked society. It is the ability for everyone to communicate freely online with whomever, through whichever … Read more…

The Task of the New Leader

I will admit that I have been burned out on technology recently, having come through some rough tech experiences over the past year in my business.  I have been frustrated by things like server outages, software compatibility, hardware failures, and even business associates with terrible email and social media etiquette!  At the same time, I have always been fascinated by the intersection of technology and humanity, and this course (ILD 831: Technology and Leadership) offered a way to get out from under some of the practical stresses and look at tech in a broader way.  A recurring theme for me throughout this course has been the question of how technology has shaped (and is shaped by) humanity over the last 500 years, and of course, more recently, how the digital and network revolutions have exponentially accelerated many of these changes.

Early in the semester, we tackled the idea that network technology has “flattened” the world.  Friedman (2007) and Florida (2005) attacked the problem along the general battle lines of technodeterminism and social constructivism.  Friedman suggested that technology eliminates knowledge/social gaps while Florida asserted that it actually increases those gaps because of the contextual structures in which the technology is or is not being used (spikes of activity).  I believe that both approaches have merit and that the interplay between them is where the task of leadership is most daunting.  That is, leaders in the 21st century must be able to understand how technology shapes language, epistemology, cognition, and social relationships, while at the same time, building social/organizational systems in which technology’s positive impact will be maximized.

Tools of the Trade

Looking at individual pieces of technology, our class delved into discussions of how digital tech works, how it is applicable in today’s organizations, and what future innovations may look like.  My classmates and I reviewed the features and functions of many digital tools to unearth what works, what doesn’t, and in what context.  This exercise demonstrated that not all apps are created equal.  Not all social media outlets have Facebook’s sticking power, and many utilities aren’t worth the MBs they take up on your drive.  Leaders may find themselves causing more harm than good if they are simply trying to keep up with technology adoption.  I’m sure we’ve all experienced a poorly planned technology rollout and grimaced as we watched frustrated users rebel against the new time tracking or project management system that middle management put in place.  For me, this underscored the point that not all tech is good tech, and just because we can doesn’t mean we should (…force technology on our schools or organizations).  What we should be doing, though, is moving toward an implementation of technology that enables “us” to share knowledge, generate new ideas, and move forward under the power of the collective intelligence.

Knowing and Learning

Weinberger (2011) and Shirky (2008) both emphasize that technology has indeed reshaped human epistemology.  Aside from the technical functioning of the “net,” these authors carefully demonstrate the new shape of knowledge, the new heuristics we’re developing to “filter forward” and “find stopping points.”  Weinberger (2011), in particular, carefully outlines how the net is limitless, lumpy, sticky, and democratic.  In true media ecology tradition, Weinberger outlines all of the ways that networked knowledge and “social epistemology” (Turner, 2012) change because of the technological framework that is now common to so many…in developed countries, at least.  Husband’s (n.d.) concept of Wirearchy furthers our understanding of networked knowledge, specifically the ways in which social norms are transmitted.  This is of particular importance for leaders and organizational members, since our concepts of power, deference, and authority are inextricably bound up with our social norms.  Thus, we find that within networked societies, the very notion of power and authority has changed, along with the ways in which we value the knowledge of the so-called “experts.”  We are now collectively more expert than any one expert, no matter how credentialed.  The ramifications for understanding power dynamics in a digital-technology-based world are long-reaching and provide fertile ground for future scholarship.

The Haves (internet) and Haves Not

While “the net” is generally thought to be completely ubiquitous, estimates suggest that less than half of the world’s population has access to the internet (Internet Live Stats, 2016).  The split between access and non-access is much like Ong’s (1982) distinctions between oral and literate cultures.  Though, because of the nature of technology, specifically connected, mobile technology, many of Ong’s (oral v. literate) psychodynamic characteristics collapse and new iterations emerge (Jarc, 2014).  Within these discussions, I proposed that “internet users” at a fundamental cognitive level are more similar than different.  Within the 40% of people on the planet that have access to the internet, however, there are immense gaps in usage habits, connection speeds, preferred devices, and content consumed; these differences could potentially lead to huge gaps in collective intelligence, and must be considered in the move to artificial intelligence, collaborative working, and disruptive business models.

Because of the uncertainty in the future of digital technology, there are many ethical considerations to consider.  To my point above, access to technology, and the rights that users have regarding connectivity are critical.  Reviewing the ethical considerations of technology allowed me to think about thinking about the morals of technology.  That is, as new questions and problems arise, so to must new ways of thinking about what’s “right.”  I dove into the world of net-neutrality and encountered compelling arguments on both sides of the discussion.  Most importantly, perhaps, is the challenge of developing critical meta-level analysis of the tools, the users, and the content found in the connected world.

Looking Ahead

Finally, we must reflect on (and implement) technology and leadership in aggregate.  Leaders need to develop technical skills and digital literacy in order to lead by example.  We need to keep a finger on the pulse of digital innovation while filtering forward (Weinberger, 2011) useful innovations and passing on problematic ones.  All this needs careful situational/contextual analysis, and as such, I believe that leaders must continue to develop emotional and social intelligence.  A leader’s EQ will be on display as they teach the machines how to learn and work alongside human teams.  Leaders can no longer rely on title and hierarchy for power; authority must come from the ability to coordinate nodes within the networked workforce.  No one is quite certain where technology will take us in 10, 20, or 30 years, but good, thoughtful leadership will help make sure that society grows more prosperous as a result.  There have been/will be challenges and pitfalls, and it’s up to us digital natives to help future generations learn from our missteps.

This is the task of the new leader.

References:

Florida, R. (2005, October). The world is spiky. Atlantic Monthly. 48-51.

Friedman, T. (2007). The world is flat, 3.0. London: Picador.

Internet Live Stats (2016). Internet users [webpage]. Retrieved from http://www.internetlivestats.com/internet-users/

Husband, J. (n.d.) What is wierarchy? Wirearchy [website]. Retrieved from http://wirearchy.com/what-is-wirearchy/

Jarc, J. (2014) Mobiliteracy: Applying Ong’s psychodynamic characteristics to users of mobile communication technology. Communication Research Trends, 33 (1), p. 21-26.

Ong, W. (1982). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word.  New York: Methuen

Shirky, C. (2008).  Here comes everybody: The power of organizing without organizations.  New York: Penguin Press

Turner, S. (2012). Double heuristics and collective knowledge: the case of expertise. Studies in Emergent Order, 5, 64-85

Weinberger, D. (2011). Too big to know: Rethinking knowledge now that the facts aren’t the facts, experts are everywhere, and the smartest person in the room is the room. New York: Basic Books.

Ethical Questions in Net Neutrality

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Generally considered the “inventor” of the World Wide Web.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Sir Tim Berners-Lee was hard at work crafting a series of tools that would help revolutionize modern communication.  While working at CERN in Switzerland, Berners-Lee developed HTTP (hypertext transfer protocol) and HTML (hypertext markup language) that enabled him to publish a set of basic “web pages” to the public from a server in his office.

These two protocols became the backbone of today’s World Wide Web, and are the foundation for many network-based tools such as Facebook, Netflix, Spotify, and Google.  Development like these, according to supporters of net neutrality, were possible because of the open, democratic, and decentralized sources of power in the emerging internet.  In a blog post directed to the members of the European Parliament in 2015, TimBL (as he’s often called) wrote, “The Web evolved into a powerful and ubiquitous platform because I was able to build it on an open network that treated all packets of information equally. This principle of net neutrality has kept the Internet a free and open space since its inception” (Berners-Lee, 2015).

Opponents of net neutrality would argue that in fact, more innovation, more new technology, and stronger infrastructure investment would occur if only the pesky government would leave major telecom corporations alone and let the power of the “free market” rule the direction of the net.  Proponents and detractors both offer compelling arguments for a democratic, fair, and open internet, but ethical issues begin to emerge when the conversation shifts to policy design and implementation.

What Exactly is Net Neutrality?

Net neutrality is the idea that “the internet” – comprising many protocols such as http, FTP, email (IMAP/POP/SMTP) – should be equally accessible for all users. Further, all publishers or networked services should be equally available to all customers.  The neutrality of the network has been put to the test recently as major telecom providers and ISPs (internet service providers) have begun to develop plans to “throttle” network bandwidth (at its own whim), or provide preferred access to pay-to-play sites and services.  When these large conglomerates provide preferential treatment to certain sites, others struggle.  When bandwidth is throttled by the ISPs, not all customers experience the same internet.  In this arrangement, it won’t be long until we’re careening down the slippery slope of open market greed and corruption.

Feds to the Rescue.

In 2015, facing huge public outcry, the Obama administration’s FCC (Federal Communication Commission) set up a series of regulations designed to preserve network neutrality and prevent large corporations from exercising profit-driven decisions about network performance and content.  CNN Money poetically reported that “The FCC just granted itself the power to defeat a raging, fire-breathing monster: the monopolistic network owners who can kill Internet freedom by blocking websites — or by creating an Internet fast lane for the privileged, few, rich tech companies that can pay for it” (Pagilery, 2015).

Feds on the Attack.

As the current administration settles into Pennsylvania Avenue, net neutrality protections may suffer a quick and painful death at the hands of new FCC Chair, Ajit Pai.  Pai, according to tech website Cnet, is the “man who will dismantle net neutrality ‘with a smile’” (Reardon, 2017).  Chairman Pai has been a long opponent of government oversight of the internet, suggesting that any such oversight would unnecessarily choke corporate operations, limit infrastructure investments (e.g., fiber & broadband), and ultimately harm consumers by way of higher prices and limited choice.  Of course, defenders of net neutrality (the current author included) recognize that these telecom behemoths already have the monopolistic clout to out-invest any competitor and very quickly seize self-interested control of the delicate ecosystem of an open network.  When a handful of companies controls the distribution channels AND the content, we all lose.

The Moral Authority?

According to scholar Norbert Wiener, we can begin assessing the ethics of technology by identifying and clarifying how the technology (or related actions) affect society (Bynum, 2001).  In the net neutrality discussion, this can be difficult because there are few (if any) demonstrable correlations on either side of the argument.  That is, we can’t necessarily prove that a truly open network has more or less ethical utility than one with tiers, ISP gatekeepers, or “zero-rated” services.  We also cannot demonstrate that all corporations that may exert control in a non-regulated network are inherently evil and looking to destroy civilization in search of profits.  However, examples already exist that telecoms are policing traffic, discriminating against certain protocols, and favoring preferential content providers.

Once we’ve clarified the underlying issue (here, I believe: who’s in control, the government or the telecoms? or, is government intervention ethical?) Wiener’s model suggests that we attempt to apply existing ethical frameworks to the problem.  A teleological framework seems appropriate, as both sides are ultimately promoting an open network for the benefit of innovation, user experience, and healthy economy. More specifically, a utilitarian approach that suggests the greatest good for the greatest number would demand a network in which no site/service, user, or packet of data is favored over another; this type of network, I believe, requires some intervention and cannot be left to trickle-down technology (Balkan, 2013).

The open and global nature of the internet means that every node in the network operates at a unique level of utility.  A casual Facebook user might certainly appreciate faster connectivity (via ISP sanctioned “fast lanes”), but the small business owner who can’t afford to buy in to the ISPs “specialized services” might lose valuable customers that experience slow load times on his website.  Thus, we begin a discussion of relative utility and the value that each user adds to or receives from equal participation in the net.  This is murky ethical territory. Within the context of the social contract framework, the casual (utilitarian) Facebook user might be willing give up a few megabytes per second of connectivity (individual liberty) for the sake of a network regulation that ensures equal opportunity for everyone on the network.

The nature of the open, borderless, limitless network (Weinberger, 2011) also means that ethical decision-making must adopt a global, if not universalist approach (Bynam 2001).  In contrast to the consequentialist approach mentioned above, perhaps the nature of the net calls for a deontological framework that does not attempt to account for the many possible outcomes, but rather, judges the morality of the action on our duty to preserve equality and fairness on the internet.  A majority of engaged internet citizens seem to believe that equal access is “right.”  Only 1% of more than 800,000 comments made to the FCC online were found to be “clearly against” Net Neutrality.

Judgement?

The net neutrality discussion presents a wide range of ethical concerns.  Judging the decision on potential outcomes is philosophically impossible (and irresponsible).  Applying moral relativism to decisions of network regulation is difficult because of the global nature of the network itself.  In my opinion, I believe that a deontological framework is most helpful for tackling this discussion.  I believe that equal access (not just access) to all of the internet is a right, and that defending that right is morally right.  Corporations and ISPs have rights too, of course, but when they are given free reign to control, filter, and eliminate data from the network, they begin to infringe upon perhaps the more basic right of equal internet access.  In this case, I think the access right is more fundamental than the profit right. In that way, minimal government regulation provides a great good for a huge number of internet users.

 —

References

Balkan, A. (2013). Trickle down technology and why it doesn’t work [web log]. Retrieved from: https://ar.al/notes/trickle-down-technology/

Berners-Lee, T. (2015). Net neutrality in Europe: A statement from Sir Tim Berners-Lee. World Wide Web Foundation [website]. Retrieved from http://webfoundation.org/2015/10/net-neutrality-in-europe-a-statement-from-sir-tim-berners-lee/

Bynam, T. (2001). Computer and information ethics. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University.

Pagliery, J. (2015, February 26). FCC adopts historic Internet rules.  CNN Tech. Retrieved from http://money.cnn.com/2015/02/26/technology/fcc-rules-net-neutrality/

Reardon, M. (2017, February 14). Meet the man who’ll dismantle net neutrality ‘with a smile’. CNet. Retrieved from https://www.cnet.com/news/fcc-chairman-ajit-pai-dismantle-net-neutrality-with-a-smile/

Weinberger, D. (2011). Too big to know: Rethinking knowledge now that the facts aren’t the facts, experts are everywhere, and the smartest person in the room is the room. New York: Basic Books.