Interview with Linda Garcia

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© Linda Garcia and Figure/Ground
Dr. Garcia was interviewed by Katie Armstrong. February 18th, 2013.

Dr. Linda Garcia is the former Director of the Communication, Culture and Technology Program at Georgetown University, and presently a member of the faculty. Prior to assuming the Directorship of the 150+ student graduate program in 1996, she was Project Director and Senior Associate at the U.S. Congress’ Office of Technology Assessment. There, she directed studies on electronic commerce, intellectual property rights, national and international telecommunications policy, standards development, and telecommunication and economic development. In 1997, Linda received her Doctorate from the Program in Social Science Informatics, which is part of the Psychology Department at the University of Amsterdam. She received her Masters in International Affairs from Columbia University’s School of International Affairs in 1965, and was ABD in Department of Political Science. In 1963, she received her Bachelor’s Degree from Syracuse University where she majored in international affairs.

How did you decide to become a professor?

I spent 20 years at the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which was in the congressional research arm of the Congress, and there we did studies on a variety of topics. I worked in the area of transportation, then I worked in the area of oceans and the environment, and then finally I ended up in the area of computer and communication technologies. This was a policy place, but it was different from most other policy places. It was more holistic, and it had an approach that embraced complexity. One thing about me was that I always felt that I needed to conceptualize my studies in a formal way, which is not something that most policy people do. So I was always being teased about having long conceptualizations in my work, and my coworkers told me that I should be in academia. The other thing is that I loved to work with young people so people said I would do really well in academia. The 101st Congress, under Newt Gingrich, promised they would cut back on government, and the one agency they cut back on was my agency, which had had tremendous success for 20 years. So, I suddenly found myself without a job.

My husband was also bought out of his job at the Audubon Society, so here we were footloose. My husband was asked to go teach on a kibbutz in Israel for environmental politics and environmental law. So, we were free and we took off and went to Kibbutz Ketura in southern Israel. I totally enjoyed this time; it was transformative for me because we were Christian, but the kibbutz was conservative Jewish, albeit very liberal because it was formed by hippies in the ‘70s. The institute was the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, and they brought Jews and Arabs and some Christians together around the venue of the environment: water policy (because it’s right on the Jordan River) and things like that, hoping that that would be a basis for a conversation that might lead to other conversations. So, I was there in the middle of the Middle East, right before the Second Intifada, and there was hope that something could happen, something could change. And I knew, having spent time there, that I didn’t want to come back and do policy work – that just seemed irrelevant in the face of war and death and cultural issues. I knew I wanted something different, and when I came back, a person I knew formerly from OTA, who taught at the University of Amsterdam as well as City University of New York suggested that I needed a new career, but needed to first finish my Ph.D. So, he sponsored me at the University of Amsterdam to get my Ph.D. and to write a thesis. I was able to build on my OTA work. I was then credentialed to work in a university, and after another job as an adjunct professor, I then came here to Georgetown’s Communication, Culture, and Technology program under Martin Irvine as an adjunct.

So, here I was, having started out doing policy work with all of these conceptual frameworks that made me sort of peculiar in government work, finding myself here in a university. I love young people, I love students, and I can now do that side of my personality.

What was your thesis on?

My thesis was called “The Network Enterprise.” It was before we talked about electronic commerce – it looked at technology and business, and talked about the electronic enterprise and the future of commerce. So in a way it anticipated a lot of what we’ve seen happen.

And so how did you get involved in policy work?

I was at Columbia, and I was married at the time, and I had a son. There were no teaching jobs then. My husband came to work for the Library of Congress, and I came down, of course, with him and my son. After about a year, when my son was six years old, he didn’t need me to take care of him at home anymore. A friend of mine told another person at PBS, and that person at PBS interviewed me for a job doing financial analysis at PBS. Math is not my forte, as any of my students know, and after I interviewed I knew the job wasn’t for me. But, the interviewer’s husband worked for the then-newly formed OTA, and I interviewed and got the job there. It was the best thing!

Who has been the biggest influence or mentor in your work, both in your policy work and in academia?

A man named Joseph Coates mentored me at OTA. He’s a futurist, somebody who studies how do you predict the future, and he helped and supported me during my time at OTA. Then he left OTA, but now he’s coming to Georgetown to teach a class on futurism. He’s 15 years older than me, so he’s go to be in his eighties.

So you’ve worked with him since OTA? 

No, he left OTA to start his own business. This would have been in my formative years at OTA, maybe my first five or six years there. The other person who’s been an influence helped me through my Ph.D., and was my advisor and mentor from the University of Amsterdam. I also had a wonderful boss at OTA, Jim Curlin. We all did our own projects – OTA was very much a non-bureaucratic, government organization that allowed each of its teams to do their work the waythey did it. So, I could do my theoretical work, I could have a theory chapter in all of my reports, as well as do my reports my way, as long as I got them done on time and within budget and got good press. Jim taught me a lot about management, that the manager’s job is to make reign for other people; and that’s what he did. He gave me so many opportunities.

Could you tell us a little more about your work at OTA? 

I’d say the things I’m most proud of were in the field of communications. I did a study on rural America and technology, and a study called Critical Connections: Communication for the Future. And then I did my Network Enterprise course in electronic commerce, and I did a course on intellectual property rights, and one on standard setting.

What is standard setting?

Standard setting is how browser technology gets agreed upon so that you can have it cut across different systems. How do decisions get made about that, and how important are they to do a business strategy? There’s also a part that looks at how important standards are to a nation to have its standards as the standard. So, we see a lot about standards wars and things like that. There have been some recent articles about the kilogram and how it’s growing – it gets bigger and bigger over time – because it’s standard weight that everything relies on. But it’s changing its weight as it collects things. But if you “clean” it, you might undermine its weight as well. So, people are working to come up with a standard measure to standardize weights.

At OTA, I moved up from being a research assistant to a senior associate. So, I played different roles there. We had a number of research assistants come from all over – a lot from places where they had an interest in science and technology, and some from the humanities even. Everything was interdisciplinary, which is one of the things I love. And I used to tell people when they came to work with me, “Well, you think you’re an economist now, but I promise you, you won’t be an economist when you leave here!” There was a danger with interdisciplinarity that you’d lose your credentials in the field. But the young people had a wonderful camaraderie, and so many opportunities to do things. In my standard setting study, we were looking at global standards and whether the United States’ standards field was so conflicted that we couldn’t present ourselves in a unified fashion in the world, and therefore was undermining our ability to set standards at the global level. I convinced the assistant director of the agency that I had to go to Europe and talk to the European stakeholders. So a colleague and I went from Sweden to Denmark, to Germany, then France and England, and asked them how they saw the U.S. and ability to play a positive, effective standards role. I can’t tell you how contentious the standards community is.

In my rural America study, I convinced Jim Curlin to come with us, and he realized how important fieldwork is. So we had many adventures. Nothing was old and stale; it always news. Every time we took on a study, we thought, “How can we answer that question? What do I need to do to do that?” The answers were different for each study, so we were never bored.

When we completed a study, we’d have a one-pager. Then we’d have gigantic reports, and then a summary. And typically we’d bring it to Congress and to the Committee who had asked for it – because there was always a Joint Committee that had asked for it – and testify on them.

Now, the Government Accountability Office does some technology assessment, but what was lost with the ousting of OTA was a lot of institutional memory – it was a craft as much as it was anything else.

So you’ve talked about interdisciplinarity in the workforce. What do you think of disciplines in academia? What do you think are interdisciplinarity’s strengths and weaknesses? 

One of the things I think about is an effective knowledge-sharing network. My classes that I teach here are about networks, so the unit of analysis in all of my classes is networks. It should be shaped with, what we call in network theory, a small-world network. That’s a world in which you have clusters of lots of dense activity and collective action, but you have outward links to others places so that you get new information, new ideas, new inputs into your cluster. The ideal world is presumably a world like that, which is called “small” because you can go from one cluster to the other cluster (or, across the network) in less than six degrees. So, the clusters perform as a hub, linking the network by links across. To me what that means for disciplines is that we all need our disciplines. You need to be astute and attuned to your discipline. You need to know what the problems of your discipline are. So you need to study in a discipline for, I’d say, around 10 years. But you also need to have weak ties to other places, so that you can then come together and get ideas. Think about the development of the Internet during ARPANET. What you had were research centers linked together by a network working group, where they all came together occasionally to work together on problems, but they also worked at a distance at their own labs and research centers. It was the perfect small-world, and it was the height of innovation. So, I think that if universities want to be adaptive to a changing environment, being a small-world is ideal. Universities should be places where disciplines come together, and they should also be places where people perfect their discipline, and understand the cross-discipline need for research, to look outside their own disciplines to solve a problem. But, I think the difference between multi-disciplinary, which is where you get people from every discipline, andinterdisciplinary means that if you’re going to be truly interdisciplinary, you should master more than one discipline.

What do you think has been the effect of the Information Age and technology on the university and on pedagogy? 

I don’t think there’s been that much effect, and I think that’s a problem. Why hasn’t there been more of an effect? I think that the university’s pretty grounded in its past, so I think what’s going to be interesting is what’s to come. Universities are now using technology to do classes online; I’m working on a standards project to develop classes around standards. I’m doing that for the National Institute of Standards and Technology. So things are happening, but I don’t see that much happening to bring interdisciplinarity about. But I do think that the university is trying to adapt. It’s very hard because you have the weight of a past that’s very strong. I’m not sure tenure belongs in the future. I’m not sure departments as they’re made up now belong in the future. But one has to think about what would be optimal given the nature of the world as complex and global.

How has the privatization of education, in your opinion, affected the university environment? Do you see the university as an institution in crisis, and what is its future?

One crisis is that the costs are going up so high. So the question is, how do you reduce costs? I think there’s a simple way to reduce costs, which is to eliminate certain things, and then I think there’s a more strategic way, which says to restructure your boundaries so that you get more synergies from what you have. It’s sort of like the problem that Obama has about how do we grow the future – either you invest in it more, or you cut spending. And the problem and question is how to do that so that you actually enhance what you can do, rather than shrink what you can do. And I think there’s a danger of doing just that.

I mentioned the question of tenure, and the reason I mentioned that is because so many faculty are non-tenured, and yet they’re actually earning a lot of the money that supports the tenured faculty. So if you think about it, other schools (not Georgetown) give minimum amount of money to a non-tenured faculty; those faculty teach courses, but they don’t get involved with the administration, and they don’t have a say in on-going governance of the program. That said, they also contribute a great deal and yet there’s a movement now to unionize adjunct faculty; if that happens, that changes a whole lot of the way we do things.

Then the second thing I think about goes back to the notion of self-governance. We have self-governance in the university, and on the one hand that’s admirable. Each department has its faculty meetings, wherein they deliberate on things and come to a consensus. But there’s been work on what “deliberation” means. The author of a book called Infomedia talked about democracy and different modes of it and how it works, and one of the things he talked about – deliberation – is that deliberation only works with good outputs and when people have the same rank. Take tenure. It is one of the most separating things – it divides people up by titles, so there’s a real hierarchy. So what happens when you put people in a room together and you have some people seeking to get tenure, some people who have tenure and who have power over the non-tenured people, some people of senior rank? That means you have deliberations, but it’s not a free flow of information because people who are dependant on other people’s votes tend to keep silent and ideas don’t get put out there. To make sure you end up getting all of the ideas expressed in the room – and some of those ideas may come from someone lower on the hierarchy than others. Maybe they have the best idea, but it might not ever come out. I’m not sure – if we have half the faculty not tenured, or a third of the faculty not tenured, and then we have the tenure system – I’m afraid that might shut down ideas, and when you asked if the university could adapt, that might inhibit adaptation. People with fresh, new ideas have a harder time expressing them.

But I love working in a university – that should be said!

In your academic research in technology deployment, you said “…users are not brought into the deployment process, thus creating an inadequate solution for promoting technology and fostering development.” So, how would you propose to solve this problem? 

The work I’ve built on is Everett Roger’s work. He talks about the fact that in order for diffusion – not deployment – to take place, for more and more people to adopt a technology, you need to distinguish between deployment, which is getting the money together to put the technology out there, and getting people to use it. Rogers describes a number of things that have to happen about the technology to have the technology usable, and it shows how the people who use it first are related to people who use it second and third, and how they influence the process of whether a certain technology gets used or not. There are a lot of things that go into diffusion that are not deployment. If you start from a diffusion perspective, you can start to think about how to build a project together with deployment and diffusion so that the users’ demand pulls the deployment rather than suppliers putting it out there when it’s profitable. When it’s profitable, then suppliers only put it where it’s profitable, and not in regions such as rural areas or developing countries, where they won’t make a profit. That’s why we see technology centered in cities. So if users pull it – if you can find strategies that can aggregate users, or to have users play a more significant role – you might get the technology to go faster.

Why do you think America’s regulatory regime is conducive to the way we consume the Internet? There are only a few providers, for example, and service is so expensive.

Have you ever heard of Tim Wu’s book, The Master Switch? What he points out is a really nice comparison of multiple technologies, that early stages of development of a technology have certain characteristics, but you have to look at how the technology evolves in each moment of time. And over time you tend to get fewer and fewer providers. It’s not so much a function of our regulatory system as partly a function of the nature of technology and how it evolves in the context of the user base. What that says for regulation is that how you regulate a technology should depend probably on a stage in the diffusion process, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach to regulation. The lesson learned from Telecom was to break up the system and have competition. But over time, that competition disintegrates as you get larger and larger corporations integrating the process more. What Tim Wu talks about is the cycle, where large companies that are very profitable are going to try to prevent younger, newer companies to innovate. And you end up getting a static system, which eventually I think breaks up through what we could call creative destruction. In network terms you’d call it a phase transition into a new system. But how you would regulate that would depend on where you are in that cycle.

You have written that, “As these technologies and their various functions are brought together into integrated and interactive networks, more and more trade will take place electronically in a virtual environment.” What are the implications of this – both good and bad – for businesses, and technology users and buyers?

This is what I built my dissertation on. I did a study on electronic enterprises early on. My office was skeptical of it, and I was lucky to get it out because they didn’t understand it; it wasn’t neo-classical economics. It was transaction-cost economics. It was looking at how the role of information affects the nature of firms, and the nature of markets. It argued that we were going not from a firm to a market or even from a market to a firm, but to network relationships, a whole new business firm. We had to have a bumper sticker for each study, and this one was that “Architecture Matters” – that the way a network was structured would structure the economy. One had to think about networks as a foundational platform for businesses, etc., and that that would become increasingly important. But also it meant that people who were regulars, let’s say, had to understand standards, because these networks didn’t come together without standards; they had to understand intellectual property rights because people put property rights in standards and tried to control the network; and they had to understand anti-trust laws. And where were the lawyers who knew all those things together? Increasingly, they do but that was the challenge then. So, we talked about how it could reduce transactions and lower the cost of business, because it could reduce information costs. And if you reduced information costs, you wouldn’t have to be a bureaucracy. You could move more towards a network firm. But that sets up problems of trust – how would you then deal with issues of trust and authority? But it’s very interesting to look at different periods of the economy. For example, early network firms were the traders in medieval Europe. The traders made their fortune by trading in Spain – and these were vast networks. So, this was an early homologue of what you find today.

What are you currently working on?

I have a project that I started a year ago as a paper, and now it’s becoming bigger! It’s on networks of creativity and it’s called “The Goose That Laid the Golden Egg.” Basically, it’s looking at the architecture of networks that support creativity in different historical periods. It argues that today, the field of creativity is dominated by the market and market forces; this suggests that it’s like the couple who killed their goose to find out where the gold was – it may have a stifling effect on creativity – or we should at least look to see if it will or not. I use a network model created by someone who talks about gatekeepers who decide what’s creative and what’s not. Today, it’s Wall Street that decides what’s creative or not. So, we’ve changed who decides what’s creative, how creativity gets taught or shared. Now we have actors who work on gigs rather than long-term projects – how does that affect things? I’m looking at all those things. I’ve done the network analysis – what does the architecture look like – but now I have to look at distinct historical periods and find enough data to apply that.

I’m also working on a soon-to-be-published paper that’s on the economics of the Internet, with a chapter on the economic history of the Internet. Again, that’s looking at different periods, and looking in a holistic way at the conditions that allow different forms of coordination to emerge.

And I’m working on a project that looks at developing modules of standards for classes and course work. If an English teacher wants to talk about language as a standard – they could use some of the modules but not the whole course. So it’s modularizing all of these subjects so that people from any discipline can say, well how does this pertain to mine?

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Suggested citation:

Armstrong, K. (2013). “Interview with Linda García,” Figure/Ground. February 18th. <  http://figureground.org/interview-with-linda-garcia/  >

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