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Bell Atlantic Temple University Conference on Digital Communication “The Challenge of the Digital Age: A Forum of Diverse Perspectives”

A report of the Strategic Planning Session held November 20, 1998 at the Sugarloaf Conference Center of Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

By conference organizer George Gerbner 
Bell Atlantic Professor of Telecommunications, Temple University

On November 20, 1998, Bell Atlantic-Pennsylvania and Temple University
 sponsored a strategic planning session for an international conference on digital communications to be held June 3-5, 1999, at Temple University's Sugarloaf Conference Center in Philadelphia. The purpose of the conference was to provide a forum in which leading media and other industry executives, members of the creative community ("content providers"), community leaders, and scholars address a variety of issues concerning the digital age and formulate an agenda for the June conference. The proceedings were moderated by Irene Berkowitz, coordinator, Office of the Vice Provost, Temple University.

George Gerbner, Bell Atlantic Professor of Telecommunications at Temple University and organizer of the conference, introduced the session. He posed the challenge of exploring how the explosion in communications that digital represents can provide greater equality of access instead of further concentration of power. Patricia Beadling, vice president, External and Public Relations at Bell Atlantic-Pennsylvania, commented on how the telecommunications industry is changing and on the difficulties in keeping up with these changes. Peter Goodwin, acting dean of the Graduate School of Temple University, commented on Temple's growing emphasis on technology and its partnership with Bell Atlantic since 1987.

Presentations by Participants 
The conference began with five-minute presentations by each of the participants:

Roy Eugene Boggs, Jr., law professor and a member of the Board of Directors of the Screen Actors Guild, emphasized that the digital age is a momentous change for performing artists, and that this change in technology will significantly influence the kind, quality, and amount of work they get.

John H. Downing of the University of Texas at Austin talked about how public spheres like the internet have emerged in which members of otherwise disadvantaged groups can communicate among themselves and others. He brought up the examples of the Sindhi minority in India and of the Uighur minority in China, and asked what a digital future will mean to groups of this kind.

Rose A. Dyson, consultant in media education and chair of Canadians Concerned about Violence in Entertainment, talked about emergent Canadian trends from the community activism point of view. She outlined her organization's position toward the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission hearings on the convergence and interaction between television, radio, telephone, and computers. She warned that if the CRTC ignores the internet, it will end up abandoning its duties in setting the ground rules for broadcasting and telecommunications.

Linda K. Fuller, communications professor at Worcester State College, discussed the censorship of various forms of expression on the internet like the v-chip and cyberspace indecency laws.

Paul Klite, executive director of Rocky Mountain Media Watch, presented the case for FCC scrutiny of media content. With the introduction of digital TV spectrum in the United States, he said, the FCC has another opportunity to reconsider the rules considering broadcasters' obligation to the public interest.

Jerry Landay, journalism and communications professor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, presented his "digital crystal ball" and posed several key questions: "Is mass communications to, by and of the people solely the business of business or is it the coequal sphere of public business? Can open space for public discussion be preserved side-by-side with corporate speech? If not, what are the logical political and cultural consequences?"

Hye-Jung Park, director of programs for New York's Downtown Community Television Center, talked about multicultural images in the digital age and especially in the global commercial market. She pointed out that media images of the working class are seldom, if ever, seen. Park asserted that ethnic communities have the right to produce their own images and messages.

Connie Schuster, founder and director of Artists for Recovery, talked about how information on mental health issues has been ignored and distorted by the mainstream media. She expressed the hope that in the digital age alternative information may at last get out to the people.

Renee Cherow O'Leary, president of Education for the 21st Century, talked about the "challenges for education in the digital age." She recounted a discussion she had with her students at Rutgers University about their concerns with and hopes for the digital age. In general, O'Leary said, few of her students were technological optimists.

Clay Steinman, communications and theater professor at Macalester College, discussed the continuing social need for noncommercial media space. We need spaces, he said, where diverse communities could have the ability to use information to talk about their own histories and to tell their own stories.

Continuing on this idea, Elaine Wynne, co-founder and director of the International Family Storytelling Center, told her own personal story about the frustrating experience of getting on-line for the first time.

Binod C. Agrawal, director of the Taleem Research Foundation in India, talked about what the digital age and unlimited connectivity means to the Indian sub-continent. He outlined several areas of concern: How can this technology be used to effectively respond to sustainable development and to inculcate democratic values? Will these changes improve the quality of life in India? Will they result in the cultural homogenization of a multicultural society? And to what extent will these technologies adapt to the national communications needs in India and South Asia? [Editor's note: TBS put some of these questions to Asian-area experts in this issue's Virtual Symposium.]

Don Mulhern, regional vice president of sales, Large Business Services, Bell Atlantic Pennsylvania, presented an optimistic look on the digital world. Mulhern outlined some of the trends in the move from analog to digital technology and how the internet is emerging as the technology backbone for the global economy. He also discussed the dramatic changes in banking, retailing, purchasing, the judicial system, health care, and education already brought about by digital information technology.

Cynthia Golden, executive director of Computing and Technology Services at Duquesne University, discussed the challenges colleges and universities face in providing the foundation (facilities, services, support) for faculty and students, and how the rapid advances in technology are affecting higher education in general. She also brought up several areas of concern, including the maintenance and security of equipment in classrooms and computer labs, and the industry-wide problem in recruiting enough support staff.

Nancy Snow, professor of political science at New England College and executive director of Common Cause of New Hampshire, talked about campaign finance reform in the digital age. The Federal Election Commission, for example, has made information on federal campaign donations, especially soft-money contributions, available on the web. Snow also proposed a tax on the use of the public domain to fund the discussion of public issues.

Norman Felsenthal, professor of communications at Temple University, talked about the delivery system high-definition television, saying that once the public sees it, they'll want it. He argues that the progress of HDTV in society will be similar to that of the early days of color television. Rapidly declining costs, analogous to that of PCs, will result in the majority of the United States population watching HDTV, but it will be a long time before broadcasters will abandon analog signals. HDTV will become an opportunity for broadcasters to regain the audience share lost to cable.

Yahya R. Kamalipour, professor of communication and creative arts at Purdue University Calumet, expressed concerns about ethnicity and the media. The barrage of negative media images towards ethnic groups, particularly those from the Middle East region, continue to promote fear, resentment, and irrational behavior toward those groups. Kamalipour then asked several questions: Will the emerging digital age change the old media habits? Will content producers reexamine the consequences of negative portrayals of ethnic groups in the media? And will more choices in information channels and products necessarily result in mutual respect and better understanding? Or will images be manipulated more than ever before?

Herbert W. Simons, professor of speech communication at Temple University, posed three questions: First, can there be some sort of marriage between what a campus can do best, live discussion and debate, and the possibilities of the new technologies, particularly distance learning? Second, how can we humanize distance learning? And third, how can we teach on-line public speaking?

Howard A. Myrick, professor of communications and theater at Temple University, asked if the participants could frame their conversations in a language for multiple audiences in order to make a production out of the videotapes. He also made the observation that digital literacy will become as important as basic literacy.

Veysel Batmaz, general manager of Panajans Communication Ltd., Turkey, observed that the main difference between analog technology and digital technology is that digital images can be manipulated more readily and be made to appear as reality.

Sherri Hope Culver, general manager of WYBE Public Television, dissented from Nancy Snow's suggestion that commercial broadcasters be taxed to fund public broadcasting. What can happen in that situation, she said, is that the money would go to one public broadcaster per market and thus reduce rather than increase diversity of sources.

After a lunch break, the participants split into groups to consider four issues for the June conference: public access and public space, regulation and censorship, globalization, and effects of technology on work and social life.

During the subsequent plenary session, the groups gave their reports and recommendations for the June conference:

On the subject of public access and public space, the suggestion was made that focus groups representative of different elements of society talk among themselves about what they want from the digital media.

Concerning regulation and censorship, there was significant disagreement on whether regulation would be appropriate or even possible.

The group explored the issue of globalization, focusing on how local cultures can act as filters for content. The group talked about the effects of the free market and technology on the production of media. They also talked about how telecommunications competition can be used to draw service to the former Eastern Bloc countries where there has previously been only one provider, and to Third World countries, and how competition in those areas can expand the telecommunication options for those people.

Other recommendations included greater involvement of corporate people, high-profile "drawing card" personalities, and the creation of a panel that would include the consumers of the new technology, corporate, government, labor, non-profit organizations, and academics.

About George Gerbner

Bell Atlantic Professor of Telecommunications, Temple University

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