Thursday, October 08, 2009

Wonkfest 2009

I often forget that I am as much of a nerd about fine print as I am. After all, I am the woman who once read the Iran-Contra Report on the beach as a teenager, and who has actually bothered to read the instructions on toothpaste and diapers. But somehow I felt right at home on the "Policy and Economy" panel at AoIR in the company of my fellow fine-print readers and at least two other MIT Press authors.

Mark Balnaves opened the session by presenting research that he had done with Matthew Allen about the differences between "e-government" and "e-governance." Like my own work in the Virtualpolitik book, the focus of Balnaves' talk was on the ways that governments often use technologies to preserve the status quo. He argues -- following David Coursey and Donald F. Norris, that e-goverment has had remarkably little engagement with the public. For Balnaves, e-government has failed to deliver on the promise of its "progressive and transformative" potential and primarily serves for 1) records management, 2) enhancement and manipulation of existing data, and 3) perception management. Of course, he notes that there are legal limitations on what the President can do on Facebook, just as there are even greater barricades to having citizens participate in deliberations in Congress. In practical terms, the news from the latest Report to Congress on the E-Government Act of 2002 doesn't indicate that much substantive progress has been made. In contrast, he claims that media-driven e-governance is capable of very rapid changes in public perception as private networks and social media mobilize citizens. Here he credited the influence of B.J. Fogg's ideas about MIP or Mass Impersonal Persuasion on his thinking. However, he observes that this can also foster radical media and once totally defunct movements such as Marxist-Leninism.

Next up was Sandra Braman, author of Change of State: Information, Policy, and Power with a paper about her research analyzing the genre of the RFC or Request for Comments, which focuses on discussions about the technical constructs of computer networks rather than the management issues handled by ICANN. With over 5700 plus documents filed since 1969, she has a rich mine of material offers both a model of collective decision-making and an archive of quirky ephemera from a range of geek personalities that includes "jokes, memoirs, poems, and autobiographies" in the mix, along with policy-making and policy analysis. It's obviously an interesting source of metadiscourse that includes major guidelines on netiquette. In her NSF-funded study, she has found that 12% of RFCs actually address policy issues and that there were proactive suggestions for handling spam and viruses. However, the RFC contingent clearly had some blind spots beyond an obvious English-only bias. Certainly, the group favored talk about young people far more often than the elderly, and only a surprisingly paltry 2 RFCs were devoted to issues of disability. She also noted that vendors could try to manipulate deliberations by proposing protocols that favor particular kinds of proprietary software, and theat there might be other moves that assert intellectual property rights inappropriately.

Yale's Laura DiNardis admitted that her favorite RFC was probably 2324, which was authored on April 1st and was devoted to coffee pot protocols, but the subject matter of her talk actually focuses on IPv4 and IPv6 addresses and how the politics of Internet protocol might be tested by a scarcity of IPv4 addresses, as the 4.3 billion allocated are stretched by new devices and trends toward ubiquitous computing. She is the author of Protocol Politics, also from MIT Press, and her next book will be devoted to Technologies of Dissent and their architectures. As IPv4 addresses become depleted she cautioned against introducing markets and took a skeptical view of the property model. She argued that such systems would only privilege large players like established universities like MIT and corporations that have traditionally been part of the military-industrial complex and discriminate against those in emerging markets. She noted that Halliburton was just recently given a large Class A resource block of addresses. She also claimed that the switch to IPv6 was being slowed by the fact that big players have no incentive to change. The potential hazards that she listed included risks to business, risks to technical architecture, disincentives for innovation, legal and regulatory challenges, and the risk of unitended consequences. Introduce markets and you inevitably introduce regulation in a realm that has traditionally been navigated through "governance with a small 'g'" rather than with a large one. Members of the audience understood her somewhat arcane points and focused on suggesting ways to make this looming crisis better understood by the public. Someone posed an analogy with spectrum scarcity, and another person urged a comparison with dwindling phone numbers in a particular area code.

The last presenter was An-Shou Cheng who discussed his NSF-funded research project on the rhetoric in Congressional hearings about Network Neutrality. Cheng argued that in the 2006 hearings, pro-neutrality advocates emphasized equality while their opponents stressed "choosing own goals." By 2008 the pro group had switched to "freedom" as a theme, while the con group had switched to "wealth" and "social justice." However, some members of the audience were unhappy with how Cheng ignored the ways that these hearings had been manipulated with a politically motivated structure of "balance." Others wondered why he chose Schwartz's Value Inventory as his main tool, when this index spoke more to private psyches than public attitudes about the government.

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