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. " 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?


Paul said...

The word "club" originally referred to an object used to pummel another person with. Perhaps the CW Operators Club is thus aptly named.

I for one would never join any club that would have me as a member...

73 de WW2PT

Steve GW7AAV said...

to become a CWops member...

Thanks for that! I laughed so hard I my teeth hurt. The nail's head has been firmly hit.

rmc47 said...

A quick comment on band plans (and I appreciate this wasn't the point of the post, but...)

I do sometimes wish people would be less obsessed with band plans. Sure, they're a great starting point - if I want to meet other people using PSK31, I'll go to the PSK centre of activity; ditto QRP SSB, and so on.

But when bandwidth is limited, such as during a contest, does it really make sense for everyone to try and squeeze into one tiny part of the band allocated to "that mode", leaving the rest of the band unused?

Three examples, to illustrate this:

1) I once made the mistake of having an SSB QSO on the SSTV CoA. I got 5/9+ SSTV blasted straight over the top of me. That's just plain rude. Could I have chosen a more appropriate frequency? Yes, absolutely - and I should have. But equally, the other party has no "ownership" just by means of their mode. If they'd asked me to move, of course I would.

2) On a SOTA (summits on the air) activation, I was working on the 80m QRP CoA (running 5W myself, so fair play). Someone called me and advised me that there was a QRP club net expecting to meet there in a few minutes - would I mind moving? Of course not! Totally polite, appropriate, and just how it should work.

3) Many times when trying to plan emcomms nets (VHF / UHF, over wide area so needing several repeaters), people have been exceptionally adverse to using any frequency other than those advised as "may be used for emergency communications". Why so? 70cm is so underused; why not use another channel - assuming it's vacant. If others pop up, we can move, or they can. Either way, fine. Let's not get tied up in the paperwork for the sake of it.

Erv said...

Loved the piece, David. And yes, you DID hit the nail squarely on the head. It's too bad that most of these FOC and CWops people cannot see beyond their own noses...and I better not say anything more than that.

Momma always told me, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all".

Vic Rosenthal said...

The announcement of CWops was greeted positively by some, but it also unleashed a barrage of criticism which can be summed up as follows: “you guys are ‘elitists’!”

I think the things that trigger this response are the following:

1. We have rules,
2. We have dues,
3. We have a CW proficiency requirement, and – above all –
4. We have a sponsorship requirement!

Let’s take these in order of increasing importance.

Dues: we intend to use these funds to promote amateur radio by providing material assistance, scholarships, grants, etc. Not everything is free, and having some funds will allow us to do things that would be otherwise impossible.

Rules: well, yes, rules. We want the club to last a long time, we want to actually reach some of the goals that we’ve set for on-air and in-person events, educational activities, etc. Without rules it’s hard to generate the consistent, directed effort needed to finish what we start. Sure, bureaucracies are annoying, but NASA didn’t get to the Moon without rules.

CW proficiency: it’s apparently very unpopular among the gotta-have-it-now-group, the same people that gave us No Code International, but we think that when you need to work a little bit to get something, that makes its attainment more valuable. One of the aims of CWops is to do whatever we can to help everybody who wants to do so to increase his or her CW speed to the point that they can be members. We don’t look at it as a barrier, we see it as a goal. And proficiency is a sign of commitment and a likely indicator of activity.

Finally, sponsorship and objections: nothing starts the flames burning as quickly as this one! But there are good reasons for it and it’s not as big an obstacle as it might appear.

For one thing, we wanted the club to be a fraternal organization; not everyone will know everyone personally, but by having friends invite friends, we expect to create local and interest-based subgroups who can be nuclei for face-to-face and on-air events.

For another, if you have to do more than click a link to join, we expect that you’ll be more committed to the club and more likely to participate. We’d rather have fewer members who are active than a long list of calls that we never hear.

Keep in mind that objections are not ‘blackballs’. Objections have to be supported by fact – see the discussion of the grounds for removing a member in the Bylaws – and not based on personal antagonism or unproven accusations. The Board of Directors will investigate all objections and get the candidate's point of view, as well as that of his sponsors, before making a decision.

Would you want a member that was known for ripping off other hams or cheating in contests? I didn’t think so.

Sparqi seems to be surprised that we had over 420 members (on January 8) who aren’t officers and had to pay dues. Hmm, maybe he needs to think about that.

Vic, K2VCO
CWops member -- not an officer!

Charles H. Harpole said...

Recruitment of new hams will come, if at all, from young teens. What do young teens want: personal power, a feeling of specialness (MATRIX's "the one"), and an insider of a special group. Ham radio offers all this. However, the old men in the hobby have no touch with young teens and instead tell them that ham radio is a way to communicate.... ha ha ha. Teens are already overloaded with ways to communicate.

I asked by email Mr. Martti Lane, formerly of Nokia, if he could encourage Nokia to put a menu selectable CW key on the SMS function of cel phones... Hey what a great, secret way to communicate that "only I" and my buddies have and we have personal power in a secret com. Martti neve answered.

Michael J. said...

Mr Rosenthal

Thanks for taking the time to respond. I must say that when I got to the part about CW proficiency, you convinced me that your's is indeed an elite outfit.

Your comments about the "Gotta Have it now crowd" sealed it. I've heard the very same comment from other Elite CW Operators.

In the end, it's fine to have a club that consists of other like minded people. Your's is just a club of People who use and like CW, and most respectfully, the club rules, and your post proves that CWops do think that you are better than others for that use and the skill level.

But while fine, it's always a benefit to be honest about it.

-73 de Mike N3LI -