Didja Miss Me?
This week, I am blogging from Singapore so the dates and times of posting are going to be all over the map. When I write will have more to do with my state of jet lag than anything else. I am here, as regular readers will have predicted, doing some ground work for the launch of the MIT-Singapore Games Lab this summer — as well as giving a big public lecture about Convergence Culture.
I haven’t blogged in a little over a week — it feels like much longer. I can’t tell you how deeply blogging has gotten under my skin over the past six months. I am coming back from even this brief break bursting with new ideas which I want to share with my readers. I spent a good hour on the flight just scrawling out some notes about what I might talk about over the next month. And I had already lined up four or five new interviews which I will be rolling out over the next few weeks.
For a long time, I had resisted the impulse to blog out of fear that it would take over my life. It has certainly filled a number of very important needs for me both personally and professionally. My eyes start to roll and fire sparks out of my mouth — like Mr. Toad in Disney’s version of The Wind in the Willow — whenever anyone starts to talk to me about blogging.
I know when I started this blog some people misread me to suggest I was only going to do this for a short while — as a publicity stunt for Convergence Culture. I hope by now I have convinced you — and me — that I am in this for the long haul. I am still struggling with whether I can maintain the five days a week pace I kept over the academic term. But I am going to keep doing this for a long time to come.
Let me begin the year by congratulating You (us?) or being chosen as Time Magazine’s Person of the Year!
Time closed the year with two issues in a row which more or less summed up the themes and ideas we’ve been discussing here since June. First (December 18), they did a cover story on “How to Build a Student for the 21st Century.” The central focus of the story is the release of the report, “Tough Choices for Tough Times,” by the New Commission on Skills in the American Workplace. The report argues that American schools have not kept pace with the times and are not preparing young people to be competitive in a global economy where creativity, innovation, media literacy, and social networking skills represent the edge needed to succeed. In many ways, I was struck by the close parallels between what Time identifies as key themes in this report and the kinds of social skills and cultural competencies we identified in our white paper for the MacArthur Foundation.
Here are a few excerpts from Time‘s story:
Thinking outside the box. Jobs in the new economy–the ones that won’t get outsourced or automated–“put an enormous premium on creative and innovative skills, seeing patterns where other people see only chaos,” says Marc Tucker, an author of the skills-commission report and president of the National Center on Education and the Economy. Traditionally that’s been an American strength, but schools have become less daring in the back-to-basics climate of NCLB. Kids also must learn to think across disciplines, since that’s where most new breakthroughs are made. It’s interdisciplinary combinations–design and technology, mathematics and art–“that produce YouTube and Google,” says Thomas Friedman, the best-selling author of The World Is Flat.
Becoming smarter about new sources of information. In an age of overflowing information and proliferating media, kids need to rapidly process what’s coming at them and distinguish between what’s reliable and what isn’t. “It’s important that students know how to manage it, interpret it, validate it, and how to act on it,” says Dell executive Karen Bruett, who serves on the board of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a group of corporate and education leaders focused on upgrading American education.
Developing good people skills. EQ, or emotional intelligence, is as important as IQ for success in today’s workplace. “Most innovations today involve large teams of people,” says former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine. “We have to emphasize communication skills, the ability to work in teams and with people from different cultures.”
In other words, the report places a new value on being able to access and meaningfully process new sources of information, being able to participate in social networks and knowledge communities, and being able to think creatively and act globally.
One can’t help but note that these are the same skills which are emerging through the kinds of activities which Time documented the following week in its cover story naming You the Person of the Year:
Look at 2006 through a different lens and you’ll see another story, one that isn’t about conflict or great men. It’s a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It’s about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people’s network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It’s about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes.
The tool that makes this possible is the World Wide Web. Not the Web that Tim Berners-Lee hacked together (15 years ago, according to Wikipedia) as a way for scientists to share research. It’s not even the overhyped dotcom Web of the late 1990s. The new Web is a very different thing. It’s a tool for bringing together the small contributions of millions of people and making them matter. Silicon Valley consultants call it Web 2.0, as if it were a new version of some old software. But it’s really a revolution.
And we are so ready for it. We’re ready to balance our diet of predigested news with raw feeds from Baghdad and Boston and Beijing. You can learn more about how Americans live just by looking at the backgrounds of YouTube videos–those rumpled bedrooms and toy-strewn basement rec rooms–than you could from 1,000 hours of network television.
And we didn’t just watch, we also worked. Like crazy. We made Facebook profiles and Second Life avatars and reviewed books at Amazon and recorded podcasts. We blogged about our candidates losing and wrote songs about getting dumped. We camcordered bombing runs and built open-source software.
America loves its solitary geniuses–its Einsteins, its Edisons, its Jobses–but those lonely dreamers may have to learn to play with others. Car companies are running open design contests. Reuters is carrying blog postings alongside its regular news feed. Microsoft is working overtime to fend off user-created Linux. We’re looking at an explosion of productivity and innovation, and it’s just getting started, as millions of minds that would otherwise have drowned in obscurity get backhauled into the global intellectual economy.
Our schools are failing to teach these skills — indeed, these are the kinds of meaningful activities that are being killed off as schools are facing increased pressure to insure that their young charges perform well on the standardized tests which are the legacy of No Child Left Behind. But these are the kinds of skills that many young people are acquiring outside of school through their engagement with MySpace and Facebook, YouTube and Second Life, Wikipedia and Flickr, and all of the other kinds of web 2.0 activities that Time is celebrating. Time does a pretty good job identifying the different strands of contemporary social computing — though it still has a tendency to focus on expressive individuals rather than on grassroots communities, despite its opening rhetoric about moving us from a focus on great men to a focus on the creativity of a democratic culture. It’s odd, under the circumstances, that Time didn’t do more to draw attention to the link between the two stories — the idea that these informal learning cultures or what James Paul Gee calls affinity spaces might be the seedbed for the new educational culture which is being advocated by the big Washington think tanks.
Of course, recognizing the value of these various activities is only the first step because then we have to confront what I have been calling the participation gap — the gap in experiences (and the social connections and cultural knowledge which comes along with those experiences) between those who have easy access to new media technologies at every moment of the day and those who have restricted access through schools and public libraries. If we accept that the world of tomorrow will require those skills we are learning through playing around on web 2.0, then we need to figure out how to insure that every child in America has a chance to explore and develop those skills inside and outside of school. I have said it before and I will say it again: if the key debates in American culture in the 1990s seemed to circle around issues of privacy, the key debates for the 21st century will center on participation.
On my flight over to Singapore, I finally caught up with a great documentary produced by Zoe Silver and hosted by Alan Yentob for the BBC 1, herecomeseveryone.co.uk, which covers much the same ground as the Time magazine cover story — including thoughts about Wikipedia, blogging, MySpace, YouTube, and Second Life, among other topics and featuring a who’s who of the key thinkers on social media, including Clay Shirkey, David Weinberger, Tim Berners-Lee, Jimmy Wales, the Arctic Monkeys, Chris Anderson, and ahem, Henry Jenkins. It is the kind of documentary that I wish would get produced for American television — and barring that, I wish would get aired on public broadcasting here. Oddly enough, it hasn’t left much of a trace on the web — though the blog, Feeling Listless has created a pretty comprehensive resource page about the people who get interviewed or discussed in the program. I am mostly featured talking about blogging, which brings me back to where I started this.
Not surprisingly, the BBC picked up on an analogy I drew between what is today a little known social movement in England during World War II, The Mass Observation movement, and the role which blogs play in contemporary culture. There’s surprisingly little about the movement in Wikipedia but here’s what they tell us:
Mass-Observation aimed to record everyday life in Britain through a panel of around 500 untrained volunteer observers who either maintained diaries or replied to open-ended questionnaires. They also paid investigators to record people’s conversation and behavior at work, on the street and at various public occasions including public meetings and sporting and religious events.
The early prime movers behind Mass Observation were anthropologist Tom Harrisson, poet Charles Madge and the film-maker Humphrey Jennings. Collaborators included the critic William Empson, the photographer Humphrey Spender, the collagist Julian Trevelyan, and the painters William Coldstream and Graham Bell.
Mass Observation has a special place in the history of participatory culture and in the politics of everyday life. As Wikipedia tells us, the goal of the Mass Observation movement had been to record, in as much detail as possible, the everyday lives of Brits in the period during and following the Second World War. They took copious notes on what people ate, what they had in their closets, what they talked about, and these records have become an incredibly valuable resource for social historians. One of the challenges of the mass observation movement was scale – even with more than 500 untrained volunteers contributing, how can you really sample the diversity of life even within a single culture. There was also a methodological concern raised by academic researchers about subjectivity — can untrained people really chronicle their own real life practices?
We might see Live Journal as continuing this tradition of Mass Observation. Taken as a whole, it is an incredible social document of our thoughts, our everyday lives, our sexual practices, our fantasies, our conversational topics, etc. at the dawn of the 21st century. One can scarcely call LJ a movement. It’s hard to imagine a future Wikipedia essay telling us who its leaders were or even what its goals were in the way that it is possible to recount who led the Mass Observation movement. The issue of scalability has shifted in the other direction: the problem isn’t collecting enough data; it is processing the sheer volume of information which has been recorded. A researcher could spend their lifetime simply trying to mine the amount of data produced on Live Journal in a single day.
I think about Mass Observation, though, whenever I hear people protest about whether anyone is really interested in reading hundreds of people describe their relationship to their cats or whatever else the pundits want to reduce LJ content to. In fact, there has been a long tradition of efforts by everyday people to document their own experiences as part of a historical record for future generations — as a way of preserving and remarking upon the details of everyday life and ordinary existence. What blogs do, what LJ does is, in that sense, not new — though what is remarkable is the scale on which it is occurring.
So, congratulations, You, for becoming Time‘s Person of the Year. Time’s cover suggests just how central the idea of participatory culture has been to popular discourse in 2006. Let’s hope that we continue to push to reform society to defend our right to participate.