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The Values of the Bat Signal

I drove to Boulder and back earlier this month, which is nothing of consequence except for the fact that I live in Pittsburgh and, with an excursion to Minnesota on the return, I put 3,400 miles on our vehicle.  Picture me in a large blue pickup under the blue Nebraska sky, cruising comfortably in a perfect straight line at 75 mph.

That sounds foolish, even wasteful, but I had reasons (several of them, all good, at least to me), and I mention it because I need to find a way back into blogging now that I’m back in Pittsburgh for a little while, and a lead that’s a little unorthodox seems to be an easy way to do it.  Cheap, even. 

While I was in Boulder, I presented a paper at the New Institutional Economics Workshop organized by Phil Weiser and Vic Fleischer and the Silicon Flatirons project.  That was a great program; the slow but discernable growth of conferences and workshops on interdisciplinary methods for law professors is a great thing to observe and, where possible, to participate in.  Among the key lessons I learned at the NIE workshop, however, wasn’t stereotypically “economics” at all; it was (is) the power of an image, driving a narrative.  Among the more vivid images I’ve acquired over the last few weeks is the Bat Signal, the metaphor invoked by Jonathan Zittrain in his commencement speech at his old prep school (here in Pittsburgh, naturally).  The speech itself contains little that Internet policy wonks (or high school graduates) haven’t heard before.  A Bat Signal is a clever name for something that fits comfortably in the NIE paradigm (or paradigms, if you prefer!).  A Bat Signal is a call to action, a mode of institutional governance.  Various institutions on (in) the Internet have built-in mechanisms for sending them.  In its original (comic book) form, a Bat Signal was a collective sending a plea for help to an individual; in Zittrain’s reframing, a Bat Signal is an institution sending a plea for help to a collective.  In Zittrain’s telling, a discordant note in a Wikipedia entry signals relevant Wikipedians:  aux armes!

Whether or not you think that the Bat Signal metaphor works, the clever comic book note takes a mostly ordinary collection of ideas – “think for yourself!” – and makes it memorable.   (Quick:  Picture Jonathan Zittrain in a cowl.)  Note to self:  Remember to work vivid images into otherwise dry scholarly analysis. 

The imagery offers more than cheap theatrics.  For the scholar, the Bat Signal frames a useful set of questions.  Is X a Bat Signal?  Maybe; maybe not.  Is there a means for deciding whether and how to send a Bat Signal?  Does an audience have tools to recognize a Bat Signal?   Does that audience have incentives or motivations that prompt it to respond?  It helps if the audience has tools that enable an audience to respond; do those exist?   Should the responder be forced to disclose its identity?  Does the responder “own” the right to respond, in any meaningful sense?  How should the success or failure of a response be measured and/or reviewed?  What happens after the Bat Signal is turned off and everyone goes back to business, so to speak?  And so on.

Tune in tomorrow . . .

2 thoughts on “The Values of the Bat Signal”

  1. I just like using the phrase “Bat Signal” over and over again. It makes you feel like what you’re doing is cool.

  2. Commissioner Gordon was not asking a speaker’s fee of more than $75,000 PER LECTURE for presentations on heroism. Nor was he hyping “citizen-policing” as a way of getting police work done for free. And Bruce Wayne was a millionaire, he could afford to indulge his neurosis of running around dressed up like a flying rodent.

    Also note this classic:

    “Hi, I’m Robin. That’s my buddy Batman hiding in the shadows in his dark cape. Me, I prefer flashier colors. I’m acting as bait so that the bad guys will come out; then Batman and I will take them in. By the way, I’m the third or fourth Robin… he never told me what happened to the others…”
    (sound of gunfire)
    Batman: “He was a good soldier. He honored me.”
    –Paul A. Estin et al.

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