Today, 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. Alison Powell has worked with Robin at LSE for several years.
In 2002 Robin Mansell was already well-known, at least in the little corner of the world that included Professor Andrew Clement’s research lab at the University of Toronto. We were crowded around a table in the brutalist tower of the Faculty of Information Studies waiting for Robin to arrive. We knew she was Canadian (always impressive) and that she worked in the UK on the kinds of technology and policy issues that fascinated our group. We also had heard that she had a technical background as an engineer, which gave her extra credibility among the computer scientists in our group. I was looking forward to meeting this woman, who to my eyes as a recent Master’s graduate, was living the life I aspired to.
Robin arrived and I was blown away. Not just by her intellect and expertise, which she demonstrated by asking us a series of incisive questions about our project, which investigated where and how people in an inner-city neighbourhood accessed the internet but by how warm, funny and genuine she was, and how she demonstrated her values in her actions.
Robin asked us not only about the ‘new’ internet but about information access in general. She helped us to move away from mystifying the technology and towards thinking about people, organizations and institutions. She also spoke to us straight: in a humble, no-nonsense way that was threaded through with self-deprecating humour.
When I thought about PhD studies I was encouraged to apply to LSE’s Media and Communications Department, which Robin had recently joined. I was admitted, but decided to stay in Canada. I kept reading Robin’s work though, following her around the globe as she dug into discourses and practices of ‘development’ and especially when she wrote about open-source practices and knowledge sharing, a passion and research interest of mine. I read and cited Robin’s work in my PhD and my supervisor, Leslie Shade, helped me to recognize Robin’s work as a ground-breaking political economist of communication.
By 2010 I had relocated to the UK and was on the job market, interested in technology, policy, values and community. I felt immensely privileged to find a position at the LSE. This meant that I got to actually speak to Robin on a regular basis. I watched her act as Head of Department, and as interim Deputy Director of the LSE. She invited me to supervise a PhD student with her and together we advised João Magalhães in a series of offices including a serene space in St Clements decorated with etchings of orcas, to a glass cube in the LSE Directorate and finally a cozy den in the Towers (the orca etchings made it along). João successfully completed his PhD and started his own academic career. We continued supervising together. I started the Data and Society MSc program and Robin came to teach about Science, Technology and Innovation. I watched Robin, I read Robin, I listened to Robin.
What did I learn? So much. Robin’s incisive attention to value and to values, to power, and to the relationship between people, technology and institutions showed up everywhere. It showed up in her attention to making workloads in our department visible and fair. It showed up when she – a Full Professor – stepped in to cover a class for me – a very junior Assistant Professor – when I fell ill. In the way that she line-edited draft papers for students and colleagues so that we always published the very best. In her writing, of course, like the wonderful Imagining The Internet, which I recommended to a student just yesterday as a way to understand how regulation can creative innovation and social benefit. In her mentorship, which always carried the combination of hard-nosed pragmatism and humility that so much impressed me in 2002. And of course, in her friendship. During the pandemic Robin and I walked together across South East London, talking about spring flowers, nature reserves, travels we’d taken and ones we wanted to take, about work and life and the future which we were both looking forward to. These walks were a lifeline after months of lingering Covid and isolation.
Already I miss Robin’s presence at work. But one other thing I learned from her was about cultivating in others the capacity to continue and to build upon shared work. So now I’ll try as best as I can to put my values into practice, as Robin did and does.
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.