Tag Archives: OTA

The Ultimate in Unbundling

Day 174 - Bundle! (Courtesy of tommy.toast)

Day 174 - Bundle! (Courtesy of tommy.toast)

Checking our luggage on a United airplane headed for Seattle, we experienced the ultimate in unbundling.   Not only did we have to master the use of the terminal kiosk to access our boarding pass; in the process, we were offered a variety of additional features–all formerly available as part of a flight package.  Included, for example, was baggage storage,  extra leg room, an upgrade to first class, and additional miles.  In the heat of the moment, we decided we could use some extra leg-room.  Inserting our credit card into the kiosk once again, we requested additional space. Alas, we got instead extra miles–heaven only knows to where. Although the lady at the counter could not tell us the destination of these miles, nor how to make use of them, she did know that they were nonrefundable. Sympathetic to our plight, she explained: “Sorry, we have been instructed not to provide passengers much help. The airline companies want us, instead, to train the passengers to take over our jobs.”

 Sympathetic to our plight, she explained: “Sorry, we have been instructed not to give passengers much help. The airline companies want us, instead, to train the passengers to them over our jobs.”  

What a disturbing comment!  Stopping at a fast food counter, I began to ponder it. As I assembled a meal to take on the plane from among the assorted, individual food items, I was struck by what appears to be an inexorable seepage of the idea of unbundling from its origins in the divestiture of the American telephone system to the deconstruction of commonplace pleasures and practices, such as a formal lunch.

A satisfied lunch guest! by maurice flower

A satisfied lunch guest! by maurice flower

Certainly, the modularization of information and communication technologies has greatly facilitated the process of unbundling. Allowing companies to maximize their profits and differentiate their products, by charging on a service by service, item by item, basis, unbundling has been extolled by economists, such as Hal Varian and Garth Saloner, as the essence of efficiency.  As these authors argue in their book, Information Rules, unbundling promotes innovation, encourages competition, and provides for greater consumer choice. One should note, however, that these advocates make little mention of social costs.

This is not the first time that I have thought about the costs and benefits of unbundling. Having directed the OTA study, Critical Connections: Communications for the Future, I spent the eighties participating in the debates surrounding the divestiture of the Bell telephone system. Notwithstanding–or perhaps because of–the in-depth research we conducted, and the intense discussions in which we were engaged, I was never totally convinced of the wisdom of unbundling the communication system.  One book that had a significant influence on my thinking was Steve Coll’s intriguing narrative The Deal of a Century: The Breakup of At&T (1986), in which he describes the high drama and serendipitous events that led to the unexpected divestiture outcome.  These included, for example, Baxter’s bias, Green’s takeover of the case, Reagan’s absence at a critical meeting, and Brown’s unanticipated willingness to make a deal.   As a relatively young policy analyst at the time, I was shocked at what appeared to be a lack of analysis driving such a momentous decision.  I was relieved when, at the end of Coll’s book, he raised the question of social costs associated with unbundling, especially the new transaction costs that would fall to the user.

Humpty Dumpty ... by abbietabbie

Humpty Dumpty ... by abbietabbie

As bundling proceeds apace, encroaching on all realms of our lives, perhaps it is time to revisit its underlying rationale.  In particular, we need to reassess what is lost when all sorts of products and services are disassembled, and users are expected to put Humpty Dumpty together again.  The telephone is a prime example. At the time of divestiture, the transaction costs for users were relatively low–choosing among styles and colors, coping with jacks, and inside wiring.  As technology has advanced, however, sorting out the choices and technological complexities can befuddle even the best of us.  

Even more troubling for me, is the unbundling (or one might say disembedding) of the economic product from the context in which it is employed. The problem is well laid out in The Social Life of Information written by Paul Duguid and John Seely Brown, the book I have assigned for next week’s Networked Economy Class.  As the author’s note, just as in the case of United Airlines, businesses are increasingly substituting technology for human interaction, and with dire consequences.  What such businesses fail to recognize is that technologies can not replicate the knowledge generation, knowledge sharing and/or the norms of reciprocity and collaboration that are inherent in human interaction.  Nor do such policies foster consumer loyalty–next time for me its Southwest Air!   





Honoring the Office of Technology Assessment

The Office of Technology Assessment was deprived of its funding by the 104th Congress.  The Agency, which we as staffers labeled “Congress’ Own Think Tank,” had become official in 1972, and was tasked with taking a long-term look at the implications of technology on all aspects of society.  By most accounts, we did a phenomenal job.  Although Congress has yet to rally enough support to reauthorize the Office of Technology Assessment, the former Agency’s loyal supporters and advocates have written frequently about the role the OTA could be playing in public discourse.  They have also recently launched an on-line archive of all of OTA’s work, which also depicts and details its 20+ year history.

From a posting on an FAS listserv by Nate Hafer, of the Federation of American Scientists:

Today the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) launched the Office of Technology Assessment Archive, http://www.fas.org/ota . The site allows the public to access over 720 reports and documents produced by OTA during its 23 year history, including many that have not been available to the public previously. OTA served as an independent branch of the U.S. Congress that provided nonpartisan science and technology advice from 1972 until it was defunded and forced to close in 1995.

The site also features a new video interview with Congressman Rush Holt (D-NJ), who has been spearheading the effort on Capitol Hill to revive OTA. According to Rep. Holt, “if OTA were here, doing this kind of work, we would have better legislation for school safety, chemical exposure, grain dust explosions, the R&D tax credit, on and on.” He goes on to describe some current policy issues that OTA could address and explains why Congress should bring back OTA.

“The OTA was an invaluable resource that informed Congress about an incredibly broad range of science and technology issues,” said Henry Kelly, President of the Federation of American Scientists and a former OTA staff member. “Numerous reports, on subjects such as transportation, energy, health care, and information technology remain relevant, more than 10 years after OTA issued its final report.”

“OTA produced the first report raising the possibility of genetic discrimination in the workplace almost 17 years before the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act was passed,” according to Michael Stebbins, Director of Biology Policy at FAS. “That kind of foresight into major policy issues is sorely missed in Washington today.”

The Archive will track efforts to bring back OTA and will also highlight items not previously available to the public in a “Document of the Day” feature. The website also includes a new search engine that allows users to quickly and easily find specific content in OTA reports.

Visit the Office of Technology Assessment Archive at http://www.fas.org/ota

As a former OTA employee, I would like to add a tribute of my own.  From my perspective, the OTA not only provided Congress and the public with outstanding policy foresight on technology-related issues, in so doing, it also greatly advanced interdisciplinary research.  As Einstein once commented, problems cannot be solved within the context in which they were originally created.  The methods and practices at OTA implicitly took this insight into account.  Because many of its reports were problem-centered, OTA analysts reached out across a variety of venues to garner information and engage in cross-disciplinary dialogues.  As a result, those analysts frequently generated a number of creative, and often quite successful, policy solutions.

I owe my interest and devotion to interdisciplinary scholarship in part to the twenty years that I was fortunate enough to have worked at the Congressional Office of Technology.  Today, I try to maintain that legacy by bringing what I learned at OTA to Georgetown University’s interdisciplinary program — the Communication, Culture and Technology Program — where I presently serve as Director.  I like to believe that, in teaching my students to think holistically, and to conceptualize their research in an interdisciplinary framework, I am planting the seed corn for the time when Congress regains its wits and revives the OTA.

Ideas and Intellectuals

Not long ago, seated for lunch in a meeting of academics, I participated in a discussion about the future of the university. The subject of what it takes to be an intellectual came up. Imagine my surprise when one of the scholars at the table contended that academics were the only people who could lay claim to that title. Having spent twenty years of my life at the Office of Technology Assessment, engaging in what I had always thought to be intellectual pursuits, I was truly taken aback! I asked, But what about Erasmus? What about experiential learning? My colleague looked at me, somewhat disdainfully, from across the table, a wry smile on his face. And I experienced what I imagined Arnold Toynbee might have felt, in the face of his critics.

I asked: But what about Erasmus? What about experiential learning? My colleague looked at me, somewhat disdainfully, from across the table, a wry smile on his face.

Ironically, many of today’s scholars are seeking to flesh out a number of theoretical propositions by conducting empirical experiments that are aimed to provide them a better grasp of what constitutes experience, and how it affects not only behavior, but also their own, specific realms of inquiry. In my previous blog, I mentioned the work of Joshua Epstein, who uses computational technologies to model artificial communities. Equally relevant, especially in the context of the recent discussion of the nature of cooperation, is the volume, edited by Herbert Gintis, Samuel Bowles, Robert T. Boyd, and Ernst Fehr, entitled Moral Sentiments and Material Interests: The Foundation of Cooperation in Everyday Life (MIT, 2005). Going somewhat further than Brian Skyrms’ narrative in The Stag Hunt, the editors, together with a diverse collection of authors, claim that the inclination to cooperate, and to act equitably, is inherent in mankind, and reinforced through the evolutionary process. Their arguments are based not only on the logic of game theory; as well, they build on a variety of human-based experiments. In another mode, Martin Nowak, Professor of Biology and Mathematics at Harvard University, has used mathematical models to formally account for cooperative behavior, using an array of cases that rival Toynbee’s history, ranging, for example, from a study of cancer cells to more generalized types of human behavior. Beautifully written, so as to be accessible to the lay reader, Nowak’s book, Evolutionary Dynamics: Exploring the Equations of Life is an absolute tour de force. Most appealing to me, as a professor in the Communication, Culture and Technology Program, obsessed by networks in whatever their form, is the author’s claim that the thing that evolves in any networked organism or organizational entity is information itself.

Moral Sentiments and Material Interests (2005)

Moral Sentiments and Material Interests (2005)

So I ask myself, do ideas and intellectuals evolve in much the same way that cooperation and language do? Are they the result of interactions? Ron Burt, who I mentioned in an earlier post, would — I believe –respond affirmatively to such a claim. In his recent book, Brokerage and Closure (2005), Burt talks about what is it that characterizes good ideas. According to Burt, people are likely to have good ideas to the extent that they reach out and engage in multiple directions, thereby incorporating a variety of new — and as importantly — diverse perspectives. In contrast, according to Burt, people who limit their conversations to the narrow set of members in their own group, or — as I might add, to their own disciplines — are unlikely to go very far. In Burt’s characterization, they might as well be in an echo chamber, where ideas are endlessly recycled. Under these circumstances — that is to say, when surrounded by poor ideas — few intellectuals can survive.

As Burt suggests, the answer has to do with crossing boundaries — organizational as well as disciplinary.

According to my understanding, the goal of universities, as well as intellectuals, is to generate good ideas. Doing this will require taking on new challenges, some of which — compared to our traditional way of doing things — may appear risky. The question is how do we break out of our traditional ways of doing things without sacrificing that which is best about them? As Burt suggests, the answer has to do with crossing boundaries — organizational as well as disciplinary. As a recent convert to blogging, I would suggest that this is a good place to start.