Starting a PhD

Claude Shannon, one of the founders of information theory, with ‘Theseus’ the maze-solving robot mouse – Photo: Bell Labs

I recently started a PhD in the History of Technology and Democracy at Maastricht University‘s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASoS) in the Netherlands.

My PhD research will explore teledemocracy projects (i.e. experiments or pilot programmes making use of telecommunications or computers to facilitate deliberative or participatory democratic processes) in the US and Europe during the 1970s, and how designers and engineers of these projects used concepts (such as “feedback”, and particularly “citizen feedback”) drawn from cybernetics and information theory.

In the 1970s, enthusiasm for the democratic possibilities of new technologies – particularly interactive cable television and personal computing – led to public funding for a range of pilot projects, with money coming from organisations including the National Science Foundation in the US and Post Office Telecommunications in the UK.

At the same time, more radical, citizen-led experiments in what would later be known as “teledemocracy” were also taking place, such as the “Community Memory” public computer network in San Francisco in 1973 using a donated XDS 940 mainframe computer.

Over the next four years of the PhD, I hope to explore how the designers of teledemocracy projects in the 1970s conceptualised cybernetic citizen feedback in different ways and, in particular, my project will focus on how the pro-teledemocracy community used these projects to compete for additional resources in arenas of decision-making and policymaking, and how some models and conceptions of citizen feedback were either fully- or partially-negotiated into policy and practice while others failed and were marginalised.

It’s still very early days, so I may revise or refocus the project goals as I continue my research, but this is at least my starting point.

The purpose of this blog is to help me put my thoughts in order and practice communicating them clearly. Along the way, I also hope any readers will send me feedback about my writing and how well (or poorly!) I am comprehending and communicating the history of technology and democracy. If I get things wrong or miss details (or if you enjoy my writing and find it useful), then let me know in the comments section below or via my website feedback form.

In other words: this blog is a way for me to communicate my research. Communication, according to computer scientists J.C.R. Licklider and Robert W. Taylor, writing in the 1960s, is a process designed to cooperatively align two or more information models of a phenomenon into one shared model:

“Any communication between people about the same thing is a common revelatory experience about informational models of that thing. Each model is a conceptual structure of abstractions formulated initially in the mind of one of the persons who would communicate, and if the concepts in the mind of one would-be communicator are very different from those in the mind of another, there is no common model and no communication.”

J.C.R. Licklider & Robert W. Taylor, The Computer as a Communication Device

Dear reader, I’d like to try and cooperatively build an informational model of the history of technology and democracy with you. That’s a rather awkward way of saying I hope this blog will be a conversation (and, in fact, British cybernetician Gordon Pask developed a theory of communication and learning known as “Conversation Theory” that accords nicely with Licklider and Taylor’s definition of communication above).

A good conversation should be two-way, so I hope to see you in the comments!

3 responses

  1. Thanks Joe! I’m intrigued by the phrase “community memory”. It’s an odd phrase in English, isn’t it? And why was the concept of memory so relevant to the project?

  2. Hi Tullio – cheers! That’s a great question, and the terminology used by the Community Memory project is fascinating (it was started in the early 1970s by a group called Loving Grace Cybernetics named after a 1967 poem by Richard Brautigan, and it operated out of a non-profit collective called “Resource One” in a warehouse community called “Project One” in San Francisco).

    I’m still reading through the material, so I don’t know for certain, but I suspect the “Memory” mostly refers to technical terminology within computing (i.e. computer memory). It’s described in project literature as “a network of small computers with large memories” with each “set of terminals around one computer with memory storage [called] a ‘node’. In each node, the terminals are all hooked up together and any information in the node can be taken out through any terminal.”

    There’s a really good write-up about Community Memory at the Computer History Museum (CHM) website. The Community Memory project was originally conceived as a communal store of free (or almost free) information, and the people working on it quite often used the metaphor of an electronic “bulletin board” (a metaphor we still use today) or a “filing cabinet” – i.e. a place to store (or “memorise”) and retrieve information.

    I also found a digitised PDF newsletter from 1991 in the Computer History Museum archives here, which includes a column written by Evelyn Pine, who managed Community Memory from 1989 to 1992 (this is obviously some time after the project launched). She writes: “As always, we believe the more of our heads we put together, the more compelling and pertinent this collective mind — this Community Memory — will be.”

    So, definitely the concept of “Community Memory” as metaphorically a “collective mind” was being used by people working on the project by the 1990s (and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was there from the beginning).

    This also relates to what historian Fred Turner has called “New Communalist” attempts in the 1960s and ’70s to turn away from politics (which was seen as hierarchical and unresponsive) and instead try to change the world through new technologies of “consciousness transformation”. Community Memory was conceptualised as an electronic form of deliberative and participatory democracy (which is the subject of my research). The project literature states: “the Community Memory system has been designed to be a communications tool for a working democracy… [The] system is designed for communications and collective planning and decision-making, rather than for accounting, statistical analysis, or general office tasks.”

    Anyway, I’m looking forward to learning more – I’ll let you know what I turn up!

  3. P.S. I found this from a 1975 article about the project, which is really interesting:

    “‘Community Memory’ may not be the right name. Most of the memory involved is (desired to be) of the shortest term; the system is not past-oriented, but is more an attempt to deal with the real-time complex of community data. ‘Community Data’ is a more accurate name, or perhaps ‘Community Data Connection’, or ‘Community Data Exchange’. ‘Community Information’ may be best.”

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