The headline first, even though it buries the lede: ACE 2018, the 15th International Conference on Advances in Computer Entertainment Technology, has invited former Breitbart News executive chairman and former Donald Trump White House chief strategist Steve Bannon as a keynote speaker. ACE is a smaller, but long-running academic conference on, as it says on the tin, entertainment technology. If you ask: Why does a smaller academic conference on entertainment technology invite Bannon as a keynote speaker, you are not alone. The announcement has led the second keynote speaker, play researcher Peter Gray, to withdraw from the conference, and numerous researchers to publicly call for boycotting ACE under the #boycottACE hashtag.
ACE 2018 general chair and steering committee chair Adrian David Cheok justifies the invitation by arguing that Bannon has a point worth publicly debating: his policy of economic nationalism may be beneficial to workers in computing entertainment. Based on his past statements, one may assume that Cheok views responses like #boycottACE as left-wing thought police. As Cheok put it in response to the New Yorker festival removing Bannon as a headliner:
Leftists are such weak sissies, and against free speech! They can't stand anyone not following leftist dogma and propaganda!
New Yorker Festival Pulls Steve Bannon as Headliner Following High-Profile Dropouts https://t.co/DW0azcpyfu
— Adrian David Cheok (@adriancheok) September 4, 2018
Now one may take different stances on Popper’s paradox of tolerance. One may also hold different views on whether freedom of speech (as a constitutional right of citizens against the state), communicative rationality, or the free exchange of ideas as a precondition of science as organised scepticism extend to the academy giving an equal stage to any idea and speaker, no matter the evidence base or social signalling involved. We don’t allow anybody to say anything in our journals or textbooks, either, but open them only to carefully vetted persons and propositions, precisely because of the social status and function of academic communication venues. It is naive at best and disingenuous at worst to claim you can invite the galleon figure of the alt-right to have a debate about economic nationalism for computing entertainment without nobilitating everything else the specific speaker also stands for, and without furthering it by giving it a stage, the imprimatur of the institutions you work through, and presumably, a conference ticket-funded honorarium. If you are serious about the issue not the person, why not invite two scholars with deep subject matter expertise debating the issue of economic nationalism, such as Sam Pryke? Again, if the free exchange of ideas is your actual purpose, this would be a far more productive choice within the context of an academic keynote.
But that’s not the point. No matter your stance on this, none of it justifies the ad hominem attacks Adrian David Cheok levelled against Yoram Chisik, one of the steering board members who stepped down from ACE, interestingly before the announcement of Bannon’s keynote, and not because of it.
It is simply inexcusable, anathema to the behaviour we as academics should model and champion to our children, students, and fellow citizens. Sadly, it is also not the first time Cheok responded to critique of his work not by embracing dialogue (and with it, free speech, communicative rationality, organised scepticism, or any such thing), but with direct personal attacks in all caps that seem modelled on Donald Trump. At the 2017 Foundations of Digital Games Conference (where, full disclosure, I served as proceedings chair), Cheok gave the closing keynote on his work around “Love, Sex, and Robots.” After the keynote, a researcher and former colleague of mine, Gillian Smith, voiced unease on twitter about the keynote and invited others to discuss with her. In response, Cheok personally attacked her on twitter.
I hope @FDGconf organizers address the clearly toxic behavior that one of their Keynoters is displaying. This is unacceptable. #FDG17 pic.twitter.com/GuN4kZdM5D
— Rogelio E. Cardona-Rivera (@recardona) August 19, 2017
And when being called out by the conference organisers for resorting to ad hominem, again discounted any such critique as free speech-impinging thought police.
Worst rank @FDGconf only accept #AltLeft people. They HATE others! They are ANTI-FREE SPEECH ELITISTS! Don't attend this rubbish conference!
— Adrian David Cheok (@adriancheok) August 27, 2017
When directly questioned on these personal attacks by the Chronicle of Higher Education, he showed no sign of remorse: “it may look rude. But again, that’s my style. And I believe in telling it how it is.” For the avoidance of doubt: You cannot demand free speech and then, when faced with critique, label that critique evil and silencing instead of engaging with it in good faith. And once you resort to personal attack, you demonstrate you are not genuinely interested in good faith debate to begin with. But that’s not the point either.
Academic Institutions, Compromised
Here’s the question that #boycottACE puts in my head: How come that a contentious keynote speaker was chosen and announced apparently uncontested? How come the conference chair can attack former conference organisers personally uncontested? How come we hear nothing from within the conference organisation itself – the steering committee, organising committee, and underlying organisations hosting the event?
The academy is one of our few institutional bulwarks of truth in society. To function as that, it needs trust – both trust within (between academics) and trust from the outside. Take but the simplest example: We have to take it on trust that people actually did the empirical work they report in their papers. Our peer review system is not set up to spot instances where people don’t. And where the public is made to distrust science on issues like climate change, the consequences are real. Trust erodes if an institution is corrupted, that is, if the institution is “systematically responsive to an influence other than the influence intended”, to use the definition from Lawrence Lessig’s useful new primer on institutional corruption, America, Compromised.
I would argue that most academics’ implicit notion of the ideal function of academic institutions is some form of communicative rationality: not power, money, emotion, convenience – no, only good reasons should influence our decisions, and we can establish which are best founded in a free, good faith exchange of argument and evidence, against a background of shared values that can themselves be made subject to reasoned debate. One major safeguard of this ideal within academic institutions like scholarly societies, journals, and conferences are processes and structures that ground almost any decision in a non-optional exchange of reasoned argument, bottoming out either in deliberative consensus or majority vote: every paper and thesis is assigned multiple reviewers, every decision made by boards assembling multiple people. This is often supremely inefficient, for certain, but it institutes protections against the unintended influence of anything but publicly defensible reason – anything such as individual opinion, groupthink, or confirmation bias. Many things are more efficiently run by a benign enlightened dictator, but that’s the point of institutions: to protect against undue influence no matter the bums that fill its seats, benign, enlightened, or not.
In this light, I am thankful that the former ACE steering committee member and general chair Yoram Chisik released a public record about why he and other long-term steering committee members stepped back from ACE in August.
Chisik’s account is backed up by an e-mail chain posted by researcher Leif Oppermann, who inquired Cheok and then the ACE steering board about the involvement of one David Levy in the Love, Sex, and Robots and ACE conferences. Levy is leading a crowdfunding campaign that has been accused of not delivering or even defrauding backers, to the point that crowdfunder Indiegogo announced it will appoint a debt collector to regain funds. Cheok’s unwillingness to publicly distance either event from Levy, let alone involve the steering board in the decision process, and again his resorting to verbal attacks and veiled threats and failure to grant the steering committee requested access to the review system sparked the walkout of the old steering committee.
What Chisik’s statement shows is an academic institution with no checks and balances, no safeguards of communicative rationality. Instead, we find a single individual (Adrian David Cheok) as the sole person in control of the nonprofit organisation running ACE, taking unilateral and in-transparent decisions as the conference chair, without exposing them to internal debate, even against requests and majority votes of the steering committee, namely:
- replacing two programme chairs;
- not giving access to the conference’s peer review system on request of the steering committee members;
- co-locating the conference with another where Cheok is also the chair.
This led Chisik and two colleagues to resign from the ACE steering committee, as, in his words, they found themselves “in the unenviable position in which [they] can no longer guarantee the independence of the conference or the quality of its review and publication process.” In other words, a situation where they can’t guarantee the academic institution ACE is not corrupt.
In addition, Chisik states that ACE presents a false front of endorsement and quality review by listing several researchers as program committee members who never explicitly consented to being listed as such. Indeed, at least two colleagues of mine, Andrés Lucero and Staffan Björk, publicly stated that their names were falsely listed on the program committee lists of ACE 2017 and 2018. This may seem like a minor detail, but trust within science as in society does flow through personal networks: seeing a trusted colleague listed as part of the committees of an academic conference or journal sends a strong signal that if I trust them, I can trust that institution. In that respect, it doesn’t help that Cheok states on his personal bio page (recording events as early as 2018) that he is Editor in Chief of the respected ACM Computers in Entertainment journal, when in fact, he is not and hasn’t been since October 2012, according to the ACM. And now that I know I cannot trust his self-depictions, I cannot help but extend that basic mistrust to the organisation he leads.
The point, then, is not that Steve Bannon keynotes an academic tech conference. Nor is it that an academic sympathises with Bannon’s political views – that is Cheok’s right as a fellow citizen, and can be discussed in good faith debate if both sides are willing. The point is not even that Cheok as an individual resorts to verbal bullying of colleagues when challenged (it remains inexcusable). The point is that ACE as an academic institution is corrupt in Lessig’s sense, “systematically responsive to an influence other than the influence intended”, namely the opinions and views of a single individual. Institutionally, its bodies are unable (and currently, seem unwilling) to reign in this undue influence. And that further erodes trust in academic institutions, in an age when we as academics need to do everything we can to strengthen it.