A Revolution in Communications
by Elizabeth Covington
UCLA Inquiry, Spring 2002

Linux; security through obscurity; copyleft as opposed to © (copyright).

This is some of the strange lingo of communications technology. Assistant Professors Francis Steen and Tim Groeling decode it for students of Communication Studies/Speech, one of most competitive undergraduate majors in UCLA’s College of Letters and Science.

Steen and Groeling find their instruction has even more acute relevance since September 11. Technology had a horrifying impact on that infamous day, but in the days after, performed a benevolent role. While the terrorists probably did their last-minute communication online, more than 100 million Americans also used e-mail to contact New Yorkers and their loved ones in the aftermath.*

Our faculty in Communication Studies help students grapple with complex social and political dilemmas relating to the media. For instance, is the Internet dangerous and should it be censored? Inquiry recently captured parts of an animated discussion between Groeling, Steen, and department chair Neil Malamuth about the risks, and great potential, of communications technology.

Broadcast Politics

In Communication Studies courses, undergraduates learn how the media affect all aspects of society and how to conduct research on the process. Groeling, holder of a doctorate in political science from UC San Diego, recently viewed with his class tapes of pro-Clinton rallies held in the Midwest at the beginning of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Students then compared how this rally was covered by different news outlets, learning the complicated process by which political information makes it to broadcast.

Groeling and Steen note that misinformation also makes the news. Groeling reminds us that early on September 11, the media reported attacks on the president’s life and that the State Department had burned down.

He’s showing how under duress the media abandon an unspoken rule of thumb— two confirmed sources of information. After the 2000 presidential election, standards in news reporting dropped substantially. "The release of the Supreme Court decision in Bush versus Gore was one of the low points in American journalism. Reporters basically did not take the time to read the decision before they started their analysis. Because it was such a pressured situation, in fact, even major networks got the coverage quite wrong," Groeling warns.

Steen, whose doctorate is in English from UC Santa Barbara, quickly adds his two cents worth: "In these and obviously innumerable other examples, if we’re doing research on the mass media, it’s invaluable to go back and see exactly what was broadcast on every network. In the world of books, the Library of Congress has them all; even UCLA has a vast portion. But when it come to mass media, the information goes into the ether and disappears."

Precious Local Resources

Steen and Groeling are campaigning to keep a precious UCLA information source from vanishing into thin air.

Twenty years ago their colleague Professor Paul Rosenthal began taping public affairs broadcasts. This "shadow" archive of Los Angeles news footage, about 25 thousand hours worth, is in peril because of the format and location in which it’s stored. Steen and Groeling are seeking funding to digitize the TV footage, the only archive of this type in the country, before it’s lost forever. "Funding would help us index what we have so that students and researchers can quickly search the vast archive, and also allow us to transfer the material to a less volatile storage medium," Groeling explains. "These vital teaching resources could then be streamed into our classrooms."

The Internet

Groeling and Steen don’t just teach students about politics on television. They also provide the broader picture through lessons on the historical evolution of communication. That means study of the most quickly changing, useful, and for some frightening, medium of our time—the Internet.

We already know what the Internet does better than the traditional media. It combines print’s density with television’s instant availability, greatly increasing the amount and speed of information available at vastly reduced cost.

But the Internet doesn’t do certain things well (if at all). Take the absence of interpersonal cues, for example. Most people still draw conclusions from facial expression and word choice—Congressman Gary Condit and President Clinton learned this lesson the hard way.

Politicians may be known for half-truths and inaccuracies, but theirs are nothing like the notorious Internet’s. Whereas television maintains high standards due to the screening mechanism called "reputation," there are no guidelines for truth and accuracy on the Net. In his course "Communication Studies 154," Steen teaches that this very lack of censorship is what makes the Internet so full of potential—and so risky.

Revolutionary Potential

Steen uses a compelling corollary to demonstrate the Internet’s repercussions. In fact, it’s a major communications revolution, equally as influential as the creation of television. "To find a comparable revolution in communication technology," Steen argues, "we need to go all the way back to the invention of the printing press in the 1470’s."

The printing press allowed for rapid innovations in science, religion, and politics. It helped spread the ideas of radical thinkers like Martin Luther, Isaac Newton, and Thomas Paine. In the early days of printing, editorial boards did not yet exist, and governments were often ineffective in controlling what the presses turned out. Revolutionary political thinking proliferated, leading to some extremes including the dethroning of kings. Yet the free and rapid exchange of new ideas eventually helped bring about stable democracies, and a torrent of technological innovation.

The New Revolutionaries?

Today’s revolutionaries don’t turn to printing. They go to the Internet. The Web offers even more widespread opportunities for soapboxing, grandstanding, and dissent. And some of these revolutionaries wish to dethrone one reigning king, Bill Gates.

Like revolutionaries in earlier centuries, computer hackers (the slang for "experts") don’t necessarily conform to the values of their society. For example, slash.dot.com is a hacker site whose members are software programmers and systems experts. Many of them contribute to free software projects, such as Apache, Softmail and Linux. Apache runs most of the Internet’s web sites, and more likely than not, your e-mail reaches you thanks to Sendmail. This software doesn’t cost a penny.

Computer experts from all over the world collaborate to improve software. They use the Gnu Public License, popularly known as "copyleft," rather than protecting their work under that familiar symbol (©). Linux is the largest of these copyleft projects, and has grown into a formidable competitor to Bill Gates’ Microsoft Windows and Unix.

As enthusiasts of the scientific revolution did, today’s computer revolutionaries get spin out of impressing their peers. They earn their reputation by posting, or logging, novel solutions to an archive of problems.

In business, the powerful bring resources or ideas to the table, and expect to earn something from it. On the Net, experts impress one another with sheer technological expertise and invention, which rarely translates into commercial benefit or even higher qualifications on a resume. "The rewards are faint," Steen says. "Beyond the satisfaction of fixing a problem, it’s often no more than getting your name associated [with innovation]."

These computer experts clearly don’t care for two of our society’s most hallowed concepts—ownership and profit. Students of history know this is the kind of "alternative" thinking that on a more monumental scale, drove the French Revolution, Luther’s challenge to the church, and the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.

So do computer hackers pose a clear and present danger to the stability of our government?

Censorship and Surveillance

It doesn’t appear so. But there has been a great deal of discussion since September 11 about the potential for creating insurgency on the Net.

In fact, it’s nearly impossible to do effective surveillance on its users. Groeling says it is "distressingly easy" to track how consumers use the Internet. But this very asset, what he calls an "empirical paradise," also creates dangers in the era of terrorism. Currently, the FBI is working on keystroke monitoring to track the movements of those suspected of terrorist or other criminal activity.

Yet there is still the ability to maintain what Groeling calls "security through obscurity," meaning that the massive volume of information on the Net is impossible to scrutinize. Steen says, succinctly, "You couldn’t employ enough people to do [Internet surveillance]. You would have to implement machines."

The Internet and Community

And are these machines destroying community? Professor and department chair Neil Malamuth points out the benefits of the Net for some aspects of interpersonal relations. "The Internet is superior to other forms of communication because people who have special characteristics can find each other. Forms of communication among people who share similar interests are created in ways that bring about a sense of community. Otherwise, geographical barriers couldn’t be transcended."

Here Groeling quickly parries, "But are these self-reinforcing oddball communities for people who frankly, should get out more? Some argue they should interact with people who have different views than their own. Some of these communities might become more dangerous and radical as a result of their reinforcement they find on the Internet."

And Steen responds, "The simple question, ‘Does the Internet provoke communities?’ hasn’t yet been answered. Television is widely thought to have erased social capital. For example, it replaced the bowling alley where people discussed the safety of their children at the local street crossing. TV brought people back into home, there was a corresponding decrease of social capital. Has the Internet made the situation even worse or has it created new types of communities? Or are these communities merely isolated interest groups?"

Our Students

UCLA’s Communication Studies/Speech majors will be among the experts who help our society answer these questions. Our graduates will conduct the research on communication and the revolutionary uses (and users) of technology in the twenty-first century. If this task sounds rigorous and challenging, know that the coursework Groeling, Malamuth, and Steen develop will prepare them. Communication Studies majors rarely become "techies" or hackers. They go on to law school, graduate school and industry, becoming executives and administrators whose advanced "techy" knowledge allows them to perform roles vital to industry, media production and management, commerce, law, public safety, and education.

All with the aid of the invaluable research methods they have learned from our stellar faculty in Communication Studies/Speech.

*This information came from the UCLA Internet Project, founded and directed by Jeffrey Cole in UCLA’s Center for Communications Policy. For more information on this aspect of the social sciences at UCLA, please visit www.ccp.ucla.edu. To learn more about the Communication Studies department, please log onto the website http://www.commstudies.ucla.edu.







Maintained by Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California Los Angeles