On Guidance

I’m having a little trouble with guidance. Because my interest are so interdisciplinary, it’s hard to find where and how I should fit into the current landscape. The thought of finding that spot in the crowd has been nerve wracking, but I met the amazing Bo Ruberg, a new professor in our department. They told me about their experience in graduate school being the only student looking at video games in their department. They gave me a great perspective. When I told Bo I was having trouble finding my spot, they said to think of it as an exciting new field and opportunity. Cling to the people that have the most similar interest and keep them in your back pocket whenever you can. Don’t be fearful about trying something that no one has tried before.

It was refreshing to get a new perspective on my issue. Over the course of the next few months, I am driving to actively find people that are most similar to my work to see if I can poke and prod them for advice, guidance, and support.


Last night I was driving in my car and was signing along to the Hamilton soundtrack. I realized while I was singing that I discovered the Hamilton soundtrack at the end of my junior year of undergraduate, right as I started thinking about graduate school. And as I thought about the timeline in my car, I realized that the musical probably played a role in my decision to look at Congress. It reinstalled a sense of pride and faith into what the U.S. has built, and an empathy for those in charge today.

So thank you Hamilton. You may have lead to me to where I am today.

Down The Rabbit Hole

This quarter I will be entering the rabbit hole of literature to prepare for my qualifying exam in the spring (It’s basically a large literature review). There are a few questions that I need to start answering to situate my work:

[1] How many people are looking at technology in Congress and in what ways?

Yesterday I discovered a whole group of political science researchers looking at technology use in Congress, but most of them were looking at campaigns, rather than constituent-based communication. In some ways, it was almost embarrassing to know that I had completely missed their body of literature over the past year.  However, I think this is just part of academia, and it takes practice to discover similar content in very interdisciplinary concepts.

[2] Where is my work best situated?

This also leads to a bigger question of where do I want to frame my research career. Do I want to be known as the one who studies Congress? Or as the one who studies digital forms of civic communication? Do I want to situate all my future research in civic-based ICT, or broader development? Do you I want suggest future designs or processes? I don’t know yet, but creating an outlet for impact is important.

[4] Where are the arguments, discrepancies, and gaps within the literature?

This is where I can squish my own work into pre-existing work…yes, I did say squish. I think it describes the process quite nicely.

[5] What skills do I need to develop from reading certain pieces of literature?

I clearly need more experience with both qualitative and quantitative measures. So what do I need to read to gain those skills?

[6] Anything else?…

Smart Citizens, Smarter State

I finished reading Beth Novek’s book called Smart Citizen, Smarter State. Novek focuses on citizen engagement and calls for more expert-centric software to help government identify and utilize expertise outside of government to help with government decisions.

This book was a great representation of the lack of good software within government. Her examples of policies like FACA show how hard it is to use citizen engagement. Sometimes, it’s even illegal. In terms of my own research, she backs up the idea that government has limited technology and technology experts to make the systems that better the government.

The one thing that I think she needs to explore more is how that engagement would pan out, especially on a scale that she is trying to create. This is my internal conundrum with citizen communication to policymakers. Right now, it’s “broken”, but in what way? If you ask a policymaker how to fix it, the answer is probably quite different from the citizen’s answer. That’s because they embody different democratic values of engagement and influence.

Novek also focuses on citizen involvement in the knowledge collection, and not the decision making process. This goes along the lines of Churchill’s “Experts on Tap, Not on Top“.

This reflects an internal conundrum  I am exploring Ofcourse, policymakers should listen to what their citizens have to say. They have the constitutional right to do so, and their knowledge can provide assistance to those in power. But just because policymakers listen to the comments and demands of their citizens, does not mean they have to act upon them . So should novel technologies develop systems that have a goal to influence legislation?…Maybe not. Maybe the answer is as Novek suggested; to develop systems that provide quality knowledge to policymakers, so their own decisions can be based on rational evidence. (That possibility leads down a whole different rabbit hole of issues on what is ‘rational’… )

As of October 10, 2017, citizens are getting angry, and they want their policymakers to listen to them. But do they really have to? They were elected to represent, not listen. And they can choose not to listen at the risk of not being re-elected.

So as a technologist looking in, what are you suppose to do? Build something better? Is technology just in the way? It’s a hard question that I can’t answer. This doesn’t mean technology doesn’t have the positive potential to be a platform for engagement, but what’s the point of an expert management system if no one wants to engage in or use that expertise? 

At the end of the day, I have two internal tensions. First, I think Novek puts too much faith on the current state of the American people to actively participate. Citizens only get involved when they feel their government is failing, or at least that is my current perception with the state of our government today. That is why we established a government in the first place; to let someone represent us so we don’t have to make all the decisions ourselves. But second, I think she has a great point that citizens have something very valuable to offer policymakers and we should provide better access to their valuable knowledge. The question of how that knowledge will actually be used is still up in the air.