Friday, January 8, 2010
Shooting Ourselves In The Foot : Amateur radio's culture of exclusion
Throughout the history of amateur radio the introduction of new technologies has been hampered by a resistance against change; often stemming from the mistaken belief that the current state of technology is a pinnacle of achievement. Spark operators resisted the transition to CW, and then later CW ops opposed the introduction of phone. AM phone ops resisted the introduction of SSB phone, FM analog ops are currently up in arms about "intrusion" from P25 and D*Star, etc.
It's interesting how this exclusion of newer technology manifests itself; for example we see it in band-planning and informal agreements about who can use what spectrum for what purpose. The newer technology typically suffers at the hands of the old, until such time as the new technology has been around so long that it's accepted. The new technology, no longer really new, is then accepted as long as it causes no problems for the older technologies.
Consider RTTY contesting. Aside from CW and phone, RTTY is clearly the most popular mode for contesters. A quick scan of the bands will show; on any given weekend there is more likely than not to be an RTTY contest happening. Normally RTTY ops remain in the subbands generally accepted for their mode. But during contests they spread out across the non-phone bands, effectively shutting down other digital modes for 24-36 hours at a time. RTTY contesters will plant themselves right in the middle of the PSK, Olivia, JT65A, MFSK, Feld-Hell, etc subbands -- and we're expected to accept this because RTTY has been around for so many years. What's interesting is that there's one place the RTTY contesters won't intrude; and that's the CW subbands. So CW trumps RTTY, and RTTY trumps all the newer stuff. The same pattern is repeating itself as D*Star attempts to share VHF/UHF spectrum with analog FM. Systematic exclusion is hardly a way to encourage innovation.
Recently I posted "An example of why amateur radio is failing to attract young people". The title was, in hindsight, perhaps not entirely accurate. "Amateur radio" is simply a concept, an idea, a set of privileges created by FCC/IARU rules and as such can't attract -- or fail to attract -- anything or anyone. It is radio amateurs themselves who are failing to attract -- or actively repulsing away -- new amateurs; young or otherwise.
Some respondents to my post stated that they felt no responsibility to help "grow" the hobby; i.e. people either want to get licensed and will work to do so, or they don't and we're better off without them. I don't agree with this laissez faire approach, because interest in radio isn't coded into our genes at birth. Nearly all amateurs were inspired to get involved by other amateurs, by what hams call an "Elmer", and it's unlikely that someone will come into amateur radio without at least some kind of encouragement. Failing to recruit new hams is a form of exclusion, albeit somewhat passive-aggressive in nature.
Another type of exclusion is active discouragement. In many cases I think hams do this without realizing it. For instance; a while back a RACES/ARES member reached out, asking me to get involved with the local EmComm community. The criterion for certification was onerous; dues, classes, and significant hours of volunteerism. Struggling with declining membership and a need for new blood and energetic leadership; they don't recognize that they've erected barriers to entry which few people have the time or inclination to overcome. And so they will continue to struggle until they either wake up, or are forced to close up shop from lack of interest.
Even casual amateur clubs are prone to erecting barriers which create exclusion. Recently I was encouraged to join the CW Operators’ Club, a group dedicated to "Preserving The Unique Art Form Of Morse Code" -- on the surface a worthy goal. Then I read the process for becoming a member. "...to become a CWops member you must be nominated by a current member and sponsored by three other members who have worked [i.e. communicated with] you twice within the previous 12 months...Once you have your sponsors, there is a 30-day waiting period. Absent an objection, you will then receive a formal invitation to join..." Ummm... So let me get this straight; you're a club dedicated to preserving an increasingly anachronistic mode of communication and your membership strategy involves requiring the applicant to locate and befriend four existing CWops members, enduring a waiting period, and after all that someone can object to my membership?? Talk about shooting yourself in the foot... In all honesty; why would I join CWops? I can join a number of Facebook groups dedicated to CW operation NOW, FOR FREE, and I don't have to hunt for anyone to sponsor me. CWops has 427 members of which 7 are club officers; so they have about 420 more members than I would have expected. Want an example of a great CW club? Try out the Second Class Operator's Club. No membership criteria, no requirement that my CW speed be 25 wpm, just like-minded folks dedicated to having fun with radio.
Hams blame the decline of interest in amateur radio on the Internet, and to some extent this is probably true. Hams should (but often don't) understand the Internet and thus can't learn from its example. Take for example; Twitter. Four years ago Twitter didn't even exist; today it's one of the most popular social communication systems in world with an estimated 18 million users, projected to be 26 million by the end of 2010. It's argued that Obama's use of Twitter helped sway the outcome 2008 Presidential election. It was used to communicate in & out of Iran during the 2009 Free Iran protests, and the American Red Cross has adopted it as a viable method for disaster communications. Would Twitter have ever become so popular if Biz Stone had required new Twitter users to be nominated, locate sponsors, endure a waiting period, be able to type 60 wpm, etc? When will we realize that much of what we do in amateur radio is either explicitly or implicitly creating a culture of exclusion?