Towards a New Civic Ecology: Addressing the Grand Challenges

Last week, I was asked to deliver one of the keynotes for the National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenges conference which was hosted on the USC campus. I had not been aware of the Grand Challenges program previously, but it seems to bring together engineering students and faculty to work together to confront some of the major problems of the 21st century, seeking to inspire them to direct their research towards the public good and social betterment. I was asked to open a panel on Communications by telling them what they needed to know about how to share their insights and ideas with key stakeholders in the current media landscape.

What follows is my attempt to capture some of the key insights that I shared during my presentation.

Towards a New Civic Ecology

If you are going to confront and overcome the Grand Challenges, you are going to need to learn how to navigate through an increasing complex communications infrastructure. Communicating your core insights is the responsibility of all of us in this room -- the engineers and educators, the journalists and communicators. As you do so, you are going to need to be able to deploy a range of different media platforms and practices. And like the rest of us, you are going to need to do what you can to build and support a robust, diverse communications system which can allow you to educate and motivate all of the many people you are going to have to work with to overcome the obstacles and achieve the solutions you are here to discuss.

Seen through that lens, the contemporary communications system is at once struggling with the threat that many major news outlets which have been the backbone of civic information over the past century are crumbling in the face of competition from new media. We may not be able to count on the traditional newspaper, news magazine or network newscast to do the work we could take for granted in the past. We are already seeing science, health, and technology reporters as especially vulnerable to lay-offs as the news media struggle to maintain economic viability and cultural relevance. At the same time, we are seeing expanded communications opportunities in the hands of everyday people -- including in the hands of academics and other experts who traditionally had little means of direct communication with the various publics impacted by their work. The problem at the present time is that existing channels of professional journalism are crumbling faster than we are developing alternative solutions which will support the kinds of information and communication needed for a democratic society.

Often, this moment of transition has been framed in terms of the concept of citizen journalism. As someone who blogs, I have many problems with this concept and not simply the one which Morley Safer raised when he said "I would trust citizen journalism as much as I would trust citizen surgery." This comment was a sharp defense of the professional skills which our students acquire through journalism schools and apply in the course of their working lives in the news media. As I've noted here before, citizen journalism is a transitional concept at best. Like the phrase, horseless carriage, it defines what is emerging in terms of legacy practices. Today, if I asked you to list ten things about your car, it is unlikely most of you would identify the fact that it is not pulled by horses, yet there was a time when the salience of this description was strong enough that it framed our understanding of what an auto was. Now, we seem to be determined to describe what citizens are doing in a language which pits them in competition with rather than in collaboration with professional journalism. In doing so, we set up several false oppositions.

First, last time I looked, most journalists were also citizens and there is a big danger in them abstracting themselves from their status as citizens when they write about the news. Second, there is often an implication that those who are not journalists are amateurs. But, when I write this blog, I am not writing as an amateur journalist. I am writing as a professional in my own right, someone who has expertise which I seek to share with a larger public, and someone whose expertise is only passed along in fragments by the traditional news media. And finally, I see what citizens as building as more expansive than journalism. We are collectively creating a communications system to support our civic engagement. For the purposes of this argument, I am going to be calling this infrastructure the civic ecology.

Thinking about a civic ecology helps us to recognize that while journalists do important work in gathering and vetting the information we need to make appropriate decisions as citizens, they are only part of a larger system through which key ideas get exchanged and discussed. We understand this if we think about the classic coffee houses which Habermaas saw as part of the ideal public sphere. The proprietors, we are told, stocked them with a range of publications -- broadsides, pamplets, newspapers, journals, and magazines -- which are intended to provide resources for debate and discussion among the paper who are gathered there on any given evening. We might think about the ways that the newspapers in colonial America were supplemented by a wide array of different kinds of political speech -- from petitions, resolutions, and proclamations to various kinds of correspondence (both personal and collective), from speeches, parades, sermons, and songs to street corner gossip.

By this same token, the present moment is characterized by both commercial and noncommercial forms of communication. As the comic strip, Zits, explains, "If it wasn't for blogs, podcasts, and twitter, I'd never know whar was going on." And of course part of the joke is that these new forms of communication are part of how his entire generation follows and makes sense of civic discourse, though often, what they are doing is monitoring and directing attention towards information which originated through professional news channels.

The 2010 State of the News report found that Americans were getting an increasing amount of news and information in the course of their day but they were doing so by "grazing" across the civic ecology -- consuming bits and pieces of information across their day from many different news channels rather than sitting down to read the morning newspaper or watch the evening news from start to finish. They flip on the television to CNN while getting dressed, they catch a few minutes in the radio in the car or listening to their ipod on the subway, they flip across a news app on their iPhone while waiting for class, they pick up a discarded newspaper at lunch and flip through it, they follow a link sent via twitter and brouse around a site on the web, and so it goes across the day and across the week. Their civic education doesn't rest on a single profession, publication, or platform, but is rather constructed across platforms. The news system is porous -- enough so that ideas flow from community to community -- until we do not always know where they originated.

A recent report from the Knight Foundation on the information needs of local communities identifies three core challenges which impact the future of news which you need to factor into the solutions you propose to the Grand challenges:

  • Maximize the availability of relevant and credible information to all americans and their communities;
  • Strengthen the capacity of individuals to engage with information; and
  • Promote individual engagement with information and the public life of the community.
  • Let's consider each of these challenges in turn as we think about the strategies you need to adopt to reach the folks who will be most effected by your discoveries and innovations.

    Challenge One: Maximize the availability of relevant and credible information

    The good news is that this new civic ecology maximizes the potential of scholars -- scientists, engineers, researchers of all kinds -- to communicate directly with the publics they seek to inform without going through professional intermediaries. The bad news is that most of you are so bad about communicating your ideas in languages that laypeople can understand and most of you see doing so as below your pay grade.

    It is going to be up to the generation currently in graduate school to turn this around -- seeing science writing as something more than scrawling formulas on the blackboard. This means learning how to use the wide array of tools and platforms the digital media makes available to you. This means figuring out how to translate what you know into content which is going to engage the interests of non-specialist readers, and that means figuring out the conversations they are already having and providing the resources they need to conduct those changes better. You need to build a trusted relationship with those readers; they need to recognize the value of the information you provide and learn to respect the expertise you offer.

    When should you start? There's no time like the presence. I regularly encourage my own graduate students to start a blog around their research topics. Doing so expands their research networks. Many of them get jobs based on the reputations they build through these practices. Many of them discover that they have something new and important to add to ongoing conversations. If this is going to be a regular part of your professional practices in the future, graduate school is the best time to practice these skills. Form partnerships with other graduate students either at your own institutions or elsewhere, and see if you can set a regular schedule for sharing what you know with the world.

    But keep in mind that blogs are only one possible mechanism for contributing your expertise to larger conversations. At the talk, I shared a visualization of the science entries on Wikipedia. I did so for two reasons: 1) to encourage scientists, engineers, and educators to contribute what they know to the larger project of collaborative knowledge production that Wikipedia represents and 2) to reflect on the ways that new tools for producing and sharing visualizations, such as those offered by the Many Eyes project, expands the resources through which STEM experts can share what they know with others.

    As you reflect on these new opportunities, you also need to recognize that the new communication environment does not respect national borders. I was struck recently talking to some veteran journalists that they kept insisting that Americans did not value "foreign news" and I responded that part of the problem is that professional journalists still think of it as "foreign," when Americans now come from all of these countries and are often seeking information from their mother countries, when American youth are actively seeking out entertainment content from many corners of the world through digital sharing platforms, and where America's political and economic interests are global and not geographically local. The point is not to construct some "foreign" place -- those people over there -- and try to engage us with it but rather to insert global insights into all of the conversations we are having as a society. And as you do so, also to recognize that American news escapes our borders and because a resource which gets deployed, sometimes embraced, sometimes attacked, in all of these other conversations.

    For many of the problems you want to confront, you are going to have to break through national silos and speak to a global population which needs to understand the changes you are proposing. As you do so, you need to embrace whatever works, whatever constitutes the most appropriate technologies for reaching those varied populations. And that means mixing high tech and low tech communication strategies. What begins as digital content in the developed world may be translated into images which can be printed out and pasted on walls in the developing world. What begins as a podcast in the global north may become a cassette tape which is passed hand to hand in the global south.

    Again, thinking of this as a civic ecology helps us to understand how different channels reach different niches and how communication may occur between different sectors or nations by translating content from one medium to another and passing information from one person to another. This process is central to my forthcoming book on Spreadable Media. There, we distinguish between distribution, which is a top-down process under the control of mass media, and circulation, which is a hybrid process which involves movement between commercial and noncommercial participants.

    Challenge Two: Strengthen the capacity to engage with information

    The Knight commission correctly notes that educational reform should go hand in hand with our efforts to restructure the civic ecology. As I've shown in my work for the MacArthur foundation, young people need to acquire a range of skills and competencies if they are going to meaningfully engage in the new participatory culture. As they scan the media ecology for bits and pieces of information, they need more discernment than ever before and that comes only if they are able to count on their schools to help them overcome the connected concerns of the digital divide, the participation gap, and the civic engagement gap.

    The Digital Divide has to do with access to networked communication technologies -- with many still relying on schools and public libraries to provide them with access. The Participation Gap has to do with access to skills and competencies (as well as the experiences through which they are acquired). And the Civic Engagement Gap has to do with access to a sense of empowerment and entitlement which allows one to feel like your voice matters when you tap into the new communication networks to share your thoughts.

    Unfortunately, we've wired the classrooms in this country and then disabled the computers; we've blocked young people from participating in the new forms of participatory culture; and we've taught them that they are not ready to speak in public by sequestering them to walled gardens rather than allowing them to try their voices through public forums. To overcome these challenges, scientists and engineers may need to work against their own vested interests in the short run. Despite constant cries against scientific illiteracy, our public funding for education has strip-minded the funding for all other subject matters in order to support STEM education decade after decade with devastating effects. Certainly, we need to be more effective at training kids to think in scientific and engineering terms, but that does not mean we should crush humanities, arts, and social science education in order to do so. The problems you identify are as much social problems as they are technical problems and if you want your solutions to work, you have to have an educated and empowered citizenry who are able to act upon the information you provide them.

    As we do so, we need to recognize that in the new civic ecology, we are going to confront conflicting regimes of truth, which is why so many Americans believe that evolution and global warming are myths or that Obama is a secret Muslim, an alien, or even someone who comes from Star Trek's mirror mirror universe. We need to understand those other regimes of truth if we are going to find ways to communicate across them. Again, this may be a social or cultural problem but it can not be left to us humanist and social scientists if you are going to achieve your goals.

    Challenge 3: Promote engagement with information

    It is no longer enough simply to inform. You must inspire and motivate, you must engage and enthrall the public, if you want to cut through the clutter of the new media landscape. I've often talked about the ways entertainment franchises are both creating cultural attractors which draw like-minded people together and cultural activators which gives them something to do.

    Jessica Clark and Pat Aufderheide have written about Public Media 2.0, suggesting that we should no longer think about public service media (as if the knowledge simply flowed from above) but rather public facilitating and public mobilizing media that creates a context for meaningful conversations and helps point towards actions which the public might take to address its concerns. It is no longer enough to produce science documentaries which point to distance stars without giving the public something it can do to support your efforts and absorb your insights into motivated action.

    I've been inspired lately by the efforts of Brave New Films, the producers of progressive documentaries, to motivate grassroots activism. Initially, the films were distributed via dvds which could be mailed to supporters who would host house parties where they would be discussed and where local activists might point towards concrete steps that could be taken. Now, they are distributing them as online videos which can be embeded into blogs and social networking sites and thus place the burden of their circulation into the hands of their supporters. This strikes me as a strategy which could be embraced by scientists and engineers who want to build a base of support behind their projects.

    Historically, one of the best tools for capturing the imagination and rallying the support of scientifically literate segements of the population was through science fiction. Science fiction was designed as an intervention into the public debates around science and technology -- pushing us to the limits of known science, speculating about the implications of new technological discoveries, and creating a community ready to discuss what they read. The science fiction fan world became major supporters of NASA and remained supporters of manned space flight well after the rest of the public turned their eyes elsewhere. Indeed, several key science fiction blogs still publish NASA photographs of deep space exploration as "space porn" -- that is, images of heavenly bodies that will remain untouched by human hands. As you move forward with your grand challenges, see if you can find ways to engage with science fiction writers and deploy them as key allies helping to shape the public imagination so we as a society are ready for the great discoveries and innovations you generate through your research.

    So there you have it, the three core challenges of communication. Each of these requires bold action just as much as will be needed to solve the energy crisis or to confront global hunger or climate change. This is why it becomes so important for you to forge cross-disciplinary partnerships throughout your graduate career. You need to walk across campus and engage in conversation with people who are pursuing other majors, who are trying to make a difference through other sectors.