Joshua Barbour, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Prof. Barbour recently returned to Illinois after several years at the University of Texas at Austin. In 2018, Prof. Barbour founded the Automation Policy and Research Organizing Network (APRON), which aims to build a community of scholars, practitioners, and policymakers and advance communication research focused on the future of data-intensive, automated work.
Tell us a little about the APRON lab. Why is it especially important right now?
The APRON Lab is community of researchers interested in how advances in technologies like generative AI, analytics, and algorithms will change how we live and work. The mission of the lab was developed by a team of graduate students and faculty. The Lab focuses on advancing the communicative study of the future of work. This research focus is so important right now (and we think communication scholarship can help) for a few reasons. First, we are changing how we communicate with each other as we can automate even complex interaction in small and big ways. Second, as we incorporate these technologies into our work, we will talk with each other about what they are, what they can do, what they should do, and how we will and won’t use them. Those conversations—at work, at home, and in the public sphere—will shape the future, and now is an exciting time to be part of them. At the same time, the hype, optimism, and anxiety about these tools may be overblown and may blind us to the long-term changes that are harder to see even as the short-term changes might be smaller than we hope or fear.
What is something you are working on that you are particularly excited about?
My students and I are working on a study that looks across healthcare organizations to examine how working professionals talk with each other about automation. We’re excited about it because it can give us fundamental insights into how technologies and organizing change together and because it can help us give advice to organizations and communities trying to have better conversations about these technologies.
What do you find most rewarding about being a social science researcher?
Oh! That’s tough. Can I share three things? Discovery, practice, and people: I love discovery. I love the moments when we have a breakthrough in the Lab and realize some insight in our data. It’s also really rewarding to be a communication scholar doing this work, because communication frameworks lend themselves to giving working folks practical advice about how to collaborate and communicate with each other. But really, the part that keeps me coming back to lab meetings is getting to work with my teammates. The social part is the fun part.
You have recently returned to Illinois after several years at the University of Texas at Austin. What is your favorite thing about the Illinois campus?
Another tough question! The quad is beautiful. I love that we buried the old undergraduate library to prevent shading the Morrow Plots, and it is only now occurring to me that this story might be apocryphal. It warms my heart to be back in Lincoln Hall where I can visit Abe and rub his nose when I need a bit of good luck. The University has a commitment to quiet excellence and scholarship that makes a difference that inspires me. But in the end, it’s about the people again. The students and faculty of the University of Illinois make it a very special place.