Tag Archives: TPRC

Games People Play

Video Game Collage (courtesy bobfoldfive)

Video Game Collage (courtesy bobfoldfive)

On the recommendation of my colleague Garrison Le Masters, I brought the book, Dionysus Reborn: Play and the Aesthetic Dimension in Modern Philosophical and Scientific Discourse, by Mihai I. Spariosu, to read during my vacation at Lake Hawthorne. Garrison and I had spent many hours over the last few years comparing our common interests through different disciplinary perspectives–he from a cultural studies perspective and I through the lens of social science. Often engaged in these endeavors, we decided to collaborate on a project that would build on both our strengths–a paper that explored whether the criteria typically used for evaluating standardization at the lower levels of ICT networks served well for applications at the highest levels such as, in our chosen case, video games and virtual worlds. We plan to present the paper at this year’s Telecommunication Policy Research Conference (TPRC). 0801423279

Not knowing very much about the subject of play–at least from an academic perspective–I decided to get up to speed by reading Spariosu. Despite all of the playful moments in my childhood–catching turtles, trying to beat the boys at king of the mountain, acting out various fantasy roles such as homemakers, storekeepers, librarians, and even fairy queens transported by eggshells in a magic kingdom–I had never systematically thought about play; at most I viewed play as an adventure, or exploration. Thus, I often associated play with excitement and risk (even if imaginary); for in my experience a playful romp might start out innocently enough, but eventually it could lead to trouble–as, for example, when as children we developed an elaborate plan to track down the rumored ghost in an abandoned house down our street, only–upon entry–to be greeted by the police.

By any measure, reading Dionysus Reborn here on my porch abutting the lake–where once I listlessly day dreamed reading Ivanhoe, Lorna Doon, and Vanity Fair, is anything but play. Rather, it is extraordinarily hard work. I am lucky if I can read fifty pages in a day. Only now do I understand why my cultural studies colleagues assign such a limited number of pages to their students. “Its all about interpreting the text,” they say. I must agree! The problem is not so much the numerous references in German and French–I can manage these. No, it’s the long unfamiliar latin-based English words, which make references to references on top of even more obtuse references.

Yellow Wheel Barrow (David Cooke)

Yellow Wheel Barrow (David Cooke)

To proceed I have to follow my father’s advice to me when I was learning to read–substitute the word wheel barrel for every word I can’t understand. No surprise, then, that I am beginning to think the subject of this book is more about gardening than about play. At the end of the day, I ask myself whether Garrison might not be playing with me.

At the end of the day, I ask myself whether Garrison might not be playing with me. 

It is on this basis that I have decided to become more light hearted about this whole affair. I will use my blog to explore this subject further, that is to say, to play with some ideas. As in all games, It’s risky, but it also should be fun. Where do I stand at this point? From my readings to date, I understand there is an on-going historic conflict between a pre-rational, free-wheeling notion of play (as characterized by Schopenhaur, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Deleuze and Derrida) and a more rational conception of play (as understood by Plato, Aristotle, Kant and Schiller). Moreover, these two perspectives parallel what many past ‘thinkers’ believe to be an underlying conflict between the forces of chance vs. those of necessity. I have an inkling that this conflict can be reconciled within the framework of complexity theory and Stuart Kaufman‘s concepts of fitness levels and fitness landscapes, which in turn can also be linked to standardization and standards. But, to sort it out will take a lot more playing on my part.

Touting TPRC

Last weekend, instead of posting a blog, I attended the annual meeting of TPRC (formerly known as the Telecommunications Policy Research Conference), which was held at George Mason University Law Center.  TPRC has a long and distinguished history. The first such conference was held in November 1972, and its participants included federal employees from the Departments of Justice, Commerce, and Defense, as well as 15 academics, 13 of whom were economists, 2 lawyers (Owen 2004: 351).

Relatively speaking, I am an old-timer at TPRC, having attended my first meeting in the mid-eighties. During that time, I have witnessed the Conference expand not only in terms of the number of participants who attend, but also with respect to their backgrounds and the types of issues being addressed.

. . .I have witnessed the Conference expand not only in terms of the number of participants who attend , but also with respect to their backgrounds and the types of issues being addressed.

Taking these changes into account the conference name was changed to the Research Conference on Communication, Information, and Internet Policy.

This transformation was not always easy, however. Having become fast friends, who take great pleasure not only in each others’ company but also in a common body of scholarship, participants have tended to reinforce one another, quibbling only at the margins, and confining the agenda to familiar, well honed issues and tested methodologies. Of course, new ideas and interests have been introduced, but not without substantial resistance.

The case I recall most vividly was the session in which Bob Kahn, grandfather of the Internet, laid out his vision of the future–a virtual library that would house information accessible to everyone.

Bob Kahn (Courtesy of Marcin Wichary) Photostream

Bob Kahn (Courtesy of Marcin Wichary Photostream

The audience was skeptical to say the least. “Who will pay for it–the government,” someone asked? When Kahn said the Department of Defense, everyone snickered. Some attendees actually walked out. I was totally embarrassed. But Kahn was undaunted, not to say prescient. Several years later, the Internet–and the wide range of social, economic, and political issues associated with it–have come to the fore at TPRC, the subject of much research and debate.

The TPRC gathering held last weekend ushered in another breath of fresh air, but this time–perhaps due to the financial crisis–participants appeared much more receptive to the new ideas making their debut. The discussion began on Friday, the first day of the conference, when Rob Atkinson, President of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, called for a new ‘innovation economics,’ which takes into account the complex nature of the economy. Jonathan Cave, from the Business School at Warwick University in the UK, expanded on Atkinson’s call for action, laying out the requirements for studying the new, complex economy. His presentation, which was awe inspiring, was echoed throughout the day in conversations in the halls and over drinks and dinner. As well, it provided a back drop for the next day’s session, entitled Telecommunications as a Complex, Adaptive System. Perhaps it is understandable, given the nature of the topic, that most of the speakers at this session were relatively new to TPRC. They included, Richard Whitt from Google Inc.; Stephen Schultze, from MIT; Pierre D Vries, from the University of Washington; and my co-author Ellen Surles, also from CCTP at Georgetown. All of us endorsed the idea that telecommunications in particular, and communications policy in general, needed to be addressed through a lens of complexity.

The paper that Ellen and I delivered in this panel– The Rise and Fall of Media Ownership Issues: A Network Perspective of the Policy Field–was in keeping with the theme of complexity. First, it employed complexity theory and social network analysis to illustrate how issues related to media ownership not only arise on the policy agenda, but also are transformed into legislative outcomes–which we characterized as issue cascades. Based our our extensive data set, we showed that issue cascades occur depending on the size and shape of the interface linking actors involved in policy framing, researching policy solutions, and policy making. When these actors overlap insufficiently, they are unable to overcome their ‘cultural/linguistic’ differences and hence cannot reach a common ground. On the other hand, when policy actors are too closely overlapped, their views are redundant, and so they are unable to achieve innovative and productive ideas.

TPRC had become an effective policy interface–just the right size and shape.

Sitting at lunch with our panel participants, as well as others, we continued the conversation. I was struck by the moment! Here we were, policy framers, policy researchers, and policy makers–many who had never spoken before–discussing complexity and the new economy. The conversation could not have been livelier, nor more engaging. TPRC had become an effective policy interface–just the right size and shape.