On Monday 5 December 2022, LSE’s Department of Media and Communications will hold a public event to celebrate the legacy of Professor Emerita Robin Mansell. We have invited some of Robin’s present and former colleagues and students to contribute their thoughts on the impact she has had both on them personally, and on the field of information and communication technologies theory and practice. Professor Nick Couldry has worked with Robin at the LSE for several years.
Some academics are excavators who dig out new territory and make it their own. Others are bridge-builders who, through the connections they and no one else can see, link large areas of intellectual life that would otherwise have been cut off from each other. Robin Mansell is one of the latter, and through her bridges she has made a remarkable contribution to broadening and deepening how communications research is grounded in the wider social sciences.
When I first met Robin in early 2001, I quickly realised the huge amount of translation work she was doing between international policy circles and the communications field. That work was, admittedly, some way from my own research. But, when she delivered her inaugural lecture as LSE’s Dixons Professor of the Internet in autumn 2001, I heard in her thinking something even bolder.
For that was the lecture when, following the lead of Nicholas Garnham, Robin introduced to the media and communications field the remarkable work of philosopher and economist Amartya Sen and his capabilities approach to human welfare. With this, she not only gave us an important bridge to some of the most exciting developments in critical political economy. She also opened a debate about the sorts of wider normative model that media and communications research would need if it was to develop a more robust critical framework about media’s role in society and economy. It was just a few years later at LSE that Roger Silverstone developed his ground-breaking work on media morality, and in a smaller way I started work on media ethics.
The most remarkable example of Robin’s bridge-building skills came with the book I regard as her masterpiece, Imagining the Internet (Oxford University Press, 2012). There is no way of doing justice to this book in a few paragraphs. Published a decade ago, it seems, looking back, like the start of a huge reorientation in the communications field, the emergence of a much more critical view of digital platforms and artificial intelligence which has integrated communications research much more deeply in a range of disciplines (data science, information science, algorithmic studies, platform studies, political economy, STS, ethics, legal theory, social theory) concerned with that critical project. Imagining the Internet now points like a beacon to the decade of debates that followed. Why? Because it succeeded in taking on the huge question of how we should imagine the internet, as an informational and technological, economic and social phenomenon, and how, more particularly, we might formulate the right sort of critical questions about where it was heading.
There was much in that book that built on Robin’s many decades of work, as a political economist in ‘unmasking’ as she put it the prevailing discourses and logics of technological development, in particular the neoliberal assumption that markets should just be left to themselves. But ‘exogenous’ economic models which relegate crucial social consequences to a shadow zone outside what can be modelled and so thought about were inherently inadequate, she argued. One effect, paradoxically, of such limited approaches was to reduce all genuine knowledge to mere information (2012: 49-52). Needed instead was for us to confront the problem of ‘the social management of the economy’ (2012: 54), an approach Robin developed from her one-time mentor Chris Freeman. The result was to think about questions of the internet always in terms of power, not just system functioning.
But there was also something very new in her book. What Robin grasped so clearly, from her radically inter-disciplinary perspective, was that it was never going to be enough to carp at technology from the side-lines. It was necessary to understand its logics, in particular its commercial and design logics, in their own terms in order to appreciate both their strengths and their inherent flaws. To do this, Robin needed to integrate a number of vast literatures. She also needed to find a meta-language through which each could be translated to each other. One move she made was to popularise the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s then recent concept of the ‘social imaginary’. Another move was to translate for a wider audience (including myself!) the core insights of system theory without which, she insisted, an alternative imaginary of communications systems could not be credibly formulated (2012: 69).
Another, and perhaps the boldest, was to adopt Gregory Bateson’s famous concept of the ‘double bind’ (the impossibility in communication of ever not communicating, even when one tries not to communicate) to capture the tacit, but ineluctable values that technological design, often even against its own instincts, communicates as it builds software and communication systems in a particular way.
Robin was one of the first to highlight the profound consequences of society seeming to delegate so much of its operations to artificial intelligence and what she calls ‘software agents’. As she eloquently argued, this is much more than a functional adjustment. It is a move with huge ethical consequences, because we want our software agents to take decisions, decisions that may do harm, or at least shape a landscape in which harms can unfold.
Yet the designers of such software agents wanted to insist, because of what Robin called the ‘paradox of complexity’, that the systems in which those software agents operated were so complex that they would be damaged if we allowed human beings to directly intervene in them, let alone ‘ordinary’, technically unqualified citizens. But imposing this limitation, Robin insisted, was ethically unacceptable: how could beings with the ethical sense of humans simply delegate that ethical sense to artificial entities without the opportunity to monitor, revise and reflect upon, and if necessary, intervene in the outcomes? Wouldn’t this be an abnegation of ethical responsibility? How could it be ethically coherent?
Robin had already anticipated the arc of the past decade’s debates on AI ethics, but in a way that did not merely rage from a distance, but instead worked with the many conflicting logics that had produced this distorted approach to technology design, produced it precisely through their incommensurabilities.
When I finished reading Robin’s book in around September 2012, I sensed that she had opened up a completely new space of inquiry, the sort of bridge-building move that is only possible through an immense amount of skilled and selfless labour. My own perspective on technology and data was itself shifting quite substantially at that time. I found in Robin’s book a wonderful signal that, far from such issues being locked in a dead-end marked ‘too difficult’, there were new languages, new ways of formulating the key questions, that could be achieved and a quite new set of conversations started, including conversations with economics in one direction and with moral and political philosophy in another. I did not know at that moment that a few months later I myself would have the chance to return to LSE, but the fact that I did has always, for me, given my discovery of Robin’s wonderful book a special poignancy.
That small personal confession however fits with the wider image of Robin’s achievements with which I want to close. At the end of Imagining the Internet , and in a formulation that draws directly on Amartya Sen, Robin calls on us to ‘guide the evolution of the [communications] system along a pathway that is not “indifferent to the lives that people can actually live”’ (2012: 193, quoted Sen, The Idea of Justice, 2009: 18). Rather than distracting herself with the noise of self-promotion, Robin has always, with extraordinary skill and modesty, addressed the needs of the wider field to which she wanted to contribute. In this way, she has helped transform her chosen field of communications and substantially increase its chances of being heard in an ever more complex world of public concern.
This article represents the views of the author and not the position of the Media@LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.