Friday, July 4, 2008

Academics and the Media

Because my doctoral thesis advisor was one of the pioneers of artificial intelligence, those of us who worked in his laboratory got used to the regular appearance of reporters who would come by to see the latest demonstrations of results. While they were visiting, they would inevitably tap my advisor for his opinion on not only the nature of intelligence but often "life, the universe, and everything," as Douglas Adams liked to put it. He was always willing to share his opinions, which the reporters always liked. The problem was that he had a tendency to talk to those reporters the same way he talked to his colleagues and students, and this was not a particularly good tactic. What usually happened was that the reporter did not understand very much of what my advisor said; but, unfortunately, reporters are always on the lookout for a good quote. So when my advisor came up with some really good pithy observation, it would then be quoted out of context, thereby transmogrifying from perceptive to way-off-the-wall, if not flat-out-wrong. By the time it appeared in print, it was time to call out the damage control team.

I offer up this little vignette because is appears that Dr. Himanshu Tyagi, about whom I wrote yesterday (thanks to the BBC) on the subject that I called "the child's conception of social networking," seems to have suffered the same fate at the hands of the BBC that my advisor encountered periodically. In other words, in the interest of providing lead material that would lure one to read further, the BBC seems to have missed just about all of the major points that Tyagi was trying to make. The good news is that, for all of its other disadvantages, the world the Internet has made provides a good kit of tools for damage control. Probably because he has a Google Alert on his name, Tyagi sent me electronic mail (clearly a "form letter") with a press release attached, which sets the record straight. Since this was a press release and since I do not want to propagate any further distortion, I shall reproduce it in its entirety:

It is unfortunate that media has reported a sensitive and important issue in a sensationalist way, effectively conveying an alarmist angle to my talk at Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Annual General Meeting. I am surprised that I was not approached for any comments by a large section of the media, including BBC who reported it first, on this issue, as then I would have had the opportunity to put it in right context. However, I am thankful to Sky news and 102-104 FM, Ireland for taking this effort.

To put the talk into context, it was meant for a professional audience, and it purpose was to create awareness amongst psychiatrists about the potential intergenerational difficulties we might run into if we remain oblivious to the growing importance of internet and its application in the lives of young people. I am a full member of Royal College of Psychiatrists and work as a psychiatrist in clinical settings. I addition I have an active interest in psychotherapy. I established the need for this talk after conducting a scientific survey at an international psychiatric conference to measure the attitudes of fellow psychiatrists about internet related mental health issues, which indicated a uniformly poor grasp of digital world amongst the psychiatrists worldwide. I am also the founding director of which is subscribed by 60,000 doctors and medical students throughout the world and is running as a hugely successful professional and social network for over 5 years. This dual role has made me aware about a great difference in how internet use is very rapidly changing from being an adjunct to a necessity in life. My background in psychiatry and first hand experience in running a large online community network has allowed me to explore the reasons behind the dependence and evolution of one’s identity in digital world. However, I would not call myself a “leading psychiatrist” or an “expert” which most of the media did without confirming the real facts.

It’s important to understand that my perspective is that of a clinical psychiatrist. I did not “warn” general public or professionals about social working websites as reported. If anything I warned professionals about the dangers of ignorance about the changing world that their young patients exist and are growing in. I highlighted qualitative differences in our subjective experience because the ongoing digital transformation of interpersonal communications and the possible implications of such experiences, at a formative age. I tried to ask questions and did not come to any “conclusions”. My talk was meant to be open-ended, thought provoking and constructive.

The talk was not about social networking websites; it was about interpersonal communication in a digital environment, of which these social networking websites form a small but increasingly significant part. I do not think there is yet sufficient understanding about the issue of suicides in Bridgend to reach any conclusions. The only reference made about the suicides was about the age group these young people
belonged to. I did not draw any conclusions about this unfortunate tragedy.

I feel that a responsible media would not have defeated the purpose of my talk. A tendency to panic is only going to increase the gap in our understanding between digital natives and digital immigrants, as I prefer to call the two generations in question. We need to be clear that we are dealing with two issues here. First is whether we really understand the impact of digital transformation on interpersonal communications and relationships. The conclusions and interpretations about the phenomenon would come later, after understanding it fully, as a second issue. I focused on the first issue.

I called for psychiatrists to be curious about the meaning and importance a digital native is attaching to his or her interpersonal world, a portion of which happens to exist in cyberspace. My profession deals with a vulnerable section of the society. We have a duty to care towards these vulnerable individuals. We would be failing if we do not educate ourselves in time about the meaning of these digital interactions.

How can we know what to do about it if we don’t understand it in the first place? We have to keep an open mind for a positive change. For many people, including people suffering from isolation due to mental health difficulties, Internet can be a powerful tool to get support. It has a very important role to play in future. If we deal with these important issues with an alarming response, we would be alienating a generation.

We fear things when we don’t understand them. Like any other advancement in technology, Internet is going to transform the way we socialise or understand ourselves. We need to understand this transformation by studying the past. We might be able to understand it in a better way by studying the impact on society when global networks of similar scales were introduced in the past e.g. railways and telephones. To find an answer we have to first formulate a question. I don’t think that we have yet been able to ask the right questions. We need to look back to find some of these missing questions.

As I said in my talk, no matter how much we wish to impose our well-established rules onto digital natives, ultimately it’s the migrant who has to adapt and change. And in this digital world, most of us are immigrants. This is a world, which does not belong to my generation. We are entering an intergenerational conflict wherein digital immigrants are trying to import the rules of conventional societies into cyberspace, whereas digital natives are exporting their understanding of shared global culture it to real world. It is a conundrum. Does technology develop first or the social norms about how technology is used? I do not think my generation of mental health professionals, academics or social theorists, who migrated to digital world at a later stage in their life are able to solve this puzzle. It would still be a few years until
a digital native joins my profession and bring his experience into it. Till then we can’t afford to sail in the darkness. We need to start thinking about it now.

Having done my best to set the record straight, I wish to make one observation about how Tyagi's case differs from those my own advisor experienced. Since this was a talk delivered at a professional gathering, unlike my advisor, Tyagi made the valid assumption that he was talking to "colleagues and students." It is clear from his press release that his intention was to speak to them in terms that their professional status merited. Since the BBC report does not even have a name attached to it, we, the unwitting readers, have no idea whether the author of the report had the qualifications to sit in the audience and be spoken to in this matter; for that matter, we have no idea whether or not the author of the report was even in the audience. As a matter of fundamental principles of journalism, the BBC could not have been sloppier in accounting for the sources behind this story!

Now it is no secret that the BBC is having the same budgetary problems as just about any other institution of journalism these days. Nevertheless, this makes for an interesting observation about priorities. At the risk of sounding too catty (and exercising a truly bad pun that will probably only be appreciated by those who regularly watch BBC news on television), it seems as if the BBC is throwing so much of their budget into resources to cover the American Presidential election (which, I have to say, they are doing rather well) that they are short-changing the resources required to provide valid content for their Health division, which is likely to have as much global impact as the current race for the White House. However, even if all of this comes down to a problem of how resources should be allocated, there is no excuse for violating one of the most fundamental commandments of journalism: If you do not have anything valid to say, don't say anything at all!

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