Thursday, 21 August 2014

Connecting the Nation: Co-evolution of Research & Blogging

Reflecting on how one develops a research profile is a worthwhile experience. It has led me to change the name of my blog. It has also become the catalyst for me to develop a research philosophy that will inform my future research priorities. This is the story of how my blog and my research have co-evolved over the last eight years.

My honours thesis was entitled National Security versus Civil Liberties: Does Australia Need a Bill of Rights? My first academic publication shared the same theme. When I commenced my PhD research in 2005, I was interested in how we might curb the power of executive government. Consequently, this blog for a few weeks back in 2007 was entitled "On the Wallaby", named after the poem Freedom on the Wallaby by Henry Lawson. The song just happens to be the theme for the radio show "The Rebel Chorus: Folk with a Political Edge" which I have co-presented (usually every third Saturday from 10am to 12pm) on Canberra's 2XX 98.3 Community FM since late 2006.

Of course, like most bloggers, after about six or seven attempts at solving the world's problems I had little else to say, but at that time nobody was paying much attention to blogs. After much consideration, I decided that there was no proper research question in my proposed thesis and that, along with my blog, it represented little more than my polemic reaction to the disappointing turn in Australian politics. Yet I believed a Dixonian approach to curbing executive powers, 'reinforced by an informed and vigilant citizenry', might be an adequate cure to the political ills of the time.

This led me to the Internet, what I then considered to be the most effective way of bypassing the information gatekeepers, and to focus on how citizens' access to the Internet might be improved. Having considered cyber-citizenship during my undergraduate degree (inspired by Dr Andrew Vandenberg at Deakin University, who also happened to be the lecturer who taught me how to write an essay, and all by distance education) and being encouraged by Professor Linda Briskman to publish my work after writing an essay "Blueprint for Telstra: Privatisation by Stealth", the lack of broadband access was an obvious impediment to a vigilant and informed citizenry and my research direction stemmed from these early influences.

I was keen to establish a blog and immerse myself in social media and new communications technologies and to experiment with technology in my teaching. Most of my colleagues warned me that there was nothing new in communications technology and that blogging was little more than a "career killer" to be avoided. However, after meeting Professor Michael Geist at the University of Ottawa while conducting fieldwork for my PhD thesis, I discovered that it was not unusual for academics to have their own blogs. Well, at least not in Canada. I have since learnt to be more discerning.

So I decided to blog about my research, and the blog itself emerged as "Broadbanding the Nation". This blog became a space for me to explore my ideas in writing and to focus specifically on my area of research interest. This was also my thesis title and the phrase appeared in the title of a book chapter I wrote in 2008. However, by the time I finished my thesis, I had compared the deployment of the major communications technologies in Canada and Australia from the time of the telegraph until developments in broadband at the time of my thesis submission in 2012. This period encompassed the introduction of the NBN but "broadbanding" was no longer an accurate description of what I had covered in my research. In the end, my thesis became "Connecting the Nation: An historical institutionalist explanation for divergent communications technology outcomes in Canada and Australia". The change to "Connecting the Nation" has some history.

My intention was not to specialise in communications technology research so much as to understand the nature of communications technology policy and how this, in turn, affected citizens' ability to be "informed and vigilant " through access to information via the Internet. In order to focus on my main interests in political science, it became clear that focusing on one industry was quite limiting in terms of theory development and the application of political science theories in general. As my teaching specialisation covers both government-business relations and leadership (both focused on institutions and how these tend to govern behaviour in the absence of an exogenous force), my reading encompasses far more than communications technologies alone.

Yet network infrastructure (not only telecommunications) fascinates me, and looking back on all those years since I completed a traineeship in warehousing (hydraulics and pneumatics spare parts and later seals and bearings and managing the Comalco account for the Cairns branch of SKF), then later as an Artillery officer and later still, as a Pay Corps officer (where I completed my Logistic Officer Intermediate Course at the Army Logistic Training Centre), I haven't been far away from the field. "Connecting the Nation", then, takes on a whole new meaning.

My latest research project will consider high-speed rail and other transport and logistics infrastructure, focusing on the Brisbane-Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne corridor. In the immediate future, I hope to investigate high-speed rail policy developments in Australia in comparison with other nations in the region such as New Zealand and Singapore. While the Rudd government had signalled an intention to develop a high-speed rail link, this quickly disappeared following their election defeat. Nonetheless, with an offer from the Japanese on the table that may result in an interesting public-private partnership to utilise a new tunnelling technology, high-speed rail appears to be back on the policy agenda.

With the Sydney-Melbourne air route ranked the fifth busiest in the world and the Sydney-Brisbane route ranked twelfth, a high-speed rail link appears to be a feasible solution to a congestion problem that can only intensify if government does not actively enable new infrastructure. Unlike telecommunications, however, the federal government does not have clear jurisdiction for rail. Indeed, this is the opposite of the situation in Canada and makes for an interesting policy problem of how federal systems address infrastructural policy development (and the related interoperability issues with various transport and logistics technologies) where it crosses different jurisdictions.

Expanding my research focus to transport and logistics is an important part of the logistic continuum to support the digital economy. Indeed, the telegraph was an important part of railway development, and telegraph infrastructure went hand-in-hand with the deployment of rail networks. It is the same today: the digital economy requires ever-increasing efficiency in physical distribution management. Like broadband, it is obvious to the international traveller that Australia is lagging the world in adopting modern transport and logistics technologies and I am hoping that some of the research approaches I have developed to explain divergent communication technology policy outcomes will be equally applicable to transport and logistics. "Connecting the Nation" represents this new research direction.

In many ways, this expansion of my research interests is leading me to consider developing a "research philosophy". Given that my teaching philosophy informs my pedagogical approach to curriculum design, it is logical that my research should be similarly informed. I hope that this blog will continue as a space for me to explore and record my research interests. Much like the development of my ideas about broadband, my wish is that "Connecting the Nation" will help me to remain focused in my area of research interest, and hopefully that others will also find it a useful resource.

It is interesting that my interest in the co-evolution of institutions and communications technologies reappears here in the form of the co-evolution of my research profile and this blog.

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