Young People’s Ethical Diconnects?: An Interview with Carrie James (Part Three)

Another common misperception is that young people do not care about intellectual property. What did you research show in terms of the attitudes towards “free downloads”?

 

I’ll start out by saying that my chapter on property was probably the most difficult one to write – in large part because the issues around intellectual property in a digital age are so complex and contested. The ease with which we can access and remix others’ content provides an array of positive opportunities, but also raises questions and concerns about ownership and authorship.

 

In our interviews with youth, we sought to understand to what extent their thinking about topics such as music downloading and other uses of online content was morally and ethically sensitive. In other words, to what extent did youth consider near or distant effects on others associated with a decision to download a piece of music illegally, or copy and paste a portion of someone else’s writing for a school assignment? As I report in the book, youth often embraced the belief that creators had a fundamental right to control how their content was used by others. In other words, “what’s theirs is theirs.” Yet, this belief was most often linked to uses of text (books and articles) for schoolwork. When they spoke about music downloading, a “free for all” or “free for me” mindset typically dominated.

 

On the whole, youth were often quite conscious of the implications of music downloading or improper use of online textual sources. Yet, their thinking was often (and sometimes exclusively) concerned with the potential negative sanctions they might suffer for a property violation. The moral or ethical dimensions of appropriation practices didn’t surface all that often and, when they did, were often dismissed or downplayed with mantras such as “everybody downloads.”

 

Around the time that I was writing the chapter, internet freedom activist Aaron Swartz committed suicide. I didn’t know Aaron personally, but I knew of him and deeply admired his perspective and courage. His activism was based on an explicit set of beliefs about open access, an ethical argument for free culture. As I pored over the perspectives young people shared with us about piracy and the like, I could see glimmers of Aaron’s beliefs here and there. Some teens and young adults pointed to the outrageous profits reaped by major record labels and the unfairly high costs that prevent low-income people from access to cultural goods. However, for the most part, youths’ thinking about these issues was deeply self-focused (“I don’t want to spend a dollar per song on iTunes”) and quite blind to the moral and ethical issues.

 

And, as with privacy issues, adult messages about property appeared to do little to encourage greater sensitivity to ethical considerations. According to youth, teachers tend to emphasize sanctions (a failing grade) for improper citation of sources over exploring the ethical rationale underpinning attribution. And none of the youth we talked with reported conversations with adults about the ethical dimensions of piracy or of unfair intellectual property restrictions.


You end the book talking about “conscientious connectivity.” How are you defining this term and what are some of the steps you are advocating towards achieving it?

 

I see conscientious connectivity as a disposition towards online life that is mindful or attentive to the kinds of moral and ethical issues I discuss throughout the book. In keeping with the work of my Project Zero colleagues on thinking dispositions, I talk about skills, sensitivity, and inclination as essential components of conscientious dispositions.

 

To be more specific, engaging digital ethical issues requires specific thinking skills. For example, the skill of complex perspective-taking – considering the perspectives of multiple stakeholders and audiences – is arguably important to engage as one considers whether or not to post on YouTube a video of one’s classmates engaged in a fight in the locker room, or engaged in a heated discussion of political issues.

 

Having the skills to consider these issues thoroughly is important, but before one can do so, one has to be sensitive to the potential for moral or ethical concerns. So conscientious mindsets are also based on sensitivity – being alert to potential adverse (and positive) implications for others that might follow in the wake of a tweet, Instagram photo, or YouTube video. Cultivating ethical sensitivity can help correct the kinds of ethical blind spots about online privacy, property, and participation that are my concern. But I’m also concerned with disconnects – attitudes that reflect a disinclination to engage moral and ethical themes. Therefore, conscientious connectivity also involves an inclination to wrestle with dilemmas, to fully reflect on and consider competing interests and implications that may flow from an online choice.

 

As noted, our educational materials co-developed with your team and with Common Sense Media have been purposively designed to support the development of ethical thinking skills, sensitivity, and an inclination to engage digital dilemmas.

 

Ultimately, though, conscientious connectivity is most powerful when it inspires socially positive online acts rather than simply preventing harmful behavior. So I also talk about the importance of cultivating a greater sense of agency in young people, supporting them to participate in active ways to create counter-narratives to the more troubling modes of discourse they may see on social media and in other online spaces. A powerful first step towards supporting ethical agency is calling attention to the exemplary ways in which some young people have leveraged digital and social media. In closing the book, I write about Samantha Stendal, a college student who was incensed and inspired to act after hearing details emerging from the Steubenville rape case. Beyond the rape itself, perpetrators and bystanders had circulated photos and video of the assault, including a 12½-minute YouTube video featuring onlookers joking about it. Stendal created a short and pointed video called, A Needed Response, that is a powerful counter-narrative to the attitudes expressed by those involved in the assault. To date, the video has over 9 million hits on YouTube.

 

Your more recent research has shifted towards a focus on youth and participatory politics. Here, again, you are developing a mixed picture of what is working and what isn’t working in the civic lives of American young people. Can you share some early findings from this research?

 

Your characterization of what we’re finding as a “mixed picture” is just right, I think. In our interviews with civically active youth, we’ve seen some truly impressive ways in which they are leveraging digital and social media in support of issues like AIDS awareness, youth violence, and marriage equality. The examples that are emerging from our work – and especially yours – have great potential to inspire other youth to participate in public life in new ways.

 

At the same time, we’ve been concerned about a set of findings that suggest that young activists are increasingly cautious about using digital means to engage in political and civic ways. Emily Weinstein, a terrific doctoral student on our research team, recently published a paper that describes how civic youth in our study managed the opportunities for civic voice afforded by social media in different ways. Most youth shared their civic and political ideas across social media platforms, while some differentiated by platform, holding back from talking about civic issues in some spaces while expressing in others. But some youth bounded their civic voices entirely online – that is, while they were actively involved in civic and political life offline, they purposively sought to keep evidence of their activities off the internet.

 

The reasons why some youth decided to bound the civic voice online varied. What was most worrying to us were the cases where youth reportedly held back because of concerns about uninterested or hostile audiences. To our minds, this suggests a need for supports to help youth manage uncivil discourse rather than simply opting out of online expression about public issues. As part of the Educating for Participatory Politics action group, we are collaborating with Facing History and Ourselves to develop educational supports to call attention to the great potentials of digital media for civic engagement. Supporting strategies for productive and meaningful discourse online is an important concern in this work.

 

Carrie James is a Research Director and Principal Investigator at Project Zero, and Lecturer on Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her research explores young people’s digital, moral, and civic lives. Since arriving at Project Zero in 2003, Carrie has worked with Howard Gardner and colleagues on The Good Project. She co-directs the Good Play Project, a research and educational initiative focused youth, ethics, and the new digital media, and the Good Participation project, a study of how youth “do civics” in the digital age. Carrie is also co-PI of the Out of Eden Learn project, an educational companion to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek’s epic Out of Eden walk. Her publications include Disconnected: Youth, New Media, and the Ethics Gap (The MIT Press, 2014). Carrie has an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Sociology from New York University. 

Young People’s Ethical Disconnects?: An Interview with Carrie James (Part Two)


Early on, you describe some of the concerns which motivate your work: “I harbor real concerns about the local and global consequences, often hidden, of the uncivil, cruel, and harmful conduct that is common, if not routine, in some online communities. I worry that such conduct discourages participation, thus undercutting one of the central promises of the Internet. I also worry about the general lack of attention to moral and ethical concerns on the Internet, compared with the emphasis on personal safety issues.” What role do you think we as scholars and researchers can play in addressing those concerns?

 

Scholars and researchers in the digital media and learning space have an important role to play here. While a number of scholars attend to these issues in their work (e.g., Whitney Phillips forthcoming book), I’ve often perceived a lack of interest – and sometimes even push back – in the DML community about focusing on digital misdeeds or areas of concern. I do appreciate the importance of calling attention to the positive learning, civic, and other opportunities that the internet provides for youth. I also appreciate the need to push against media panics that often dominate the discourse around the internet.  But what sometimes feels like an over-emphasis on the “good stuff” is at odds with the reality that online spaces can be unfriendly, hostile, and aggressive non-communities for some participants (female bloggers and gamers are a case in point).

 

With those thoughts on the table, I think we can do more to support one another in doing research that attends to all sides of digital life — from the very positive, supportive, and promising to the very troubling, disconcerting, and discouraging examples, and everything in between.

 

But research is really just the beginning, or only part of developing effective approaches to addressing negative behavior online. Scholars need to make their work accessible to parents, educators, and youth. We need to support them and, when appropriate, even partner with them to raise the status of these issues on the educational agenda. Some of this work is being done as part of efforts to stem cyberbullying. However, I worry about the emphasis on bullying and cyberbullying in the strict sense, which can exclude attention to more subtle acts of exclusion and meanness often propagated on social media sites, through apps and other digital means.

 

As noted, a big part of our work on the Good Play Project has been the educational piece. We’ve collaborated with your group and with Common Sense Media in the past to develop supports for conversations about digital citizenship in schools and other learning environments. Through our Project Zero summer institutes and offsite conferences, Katie Davis and I convene educators for workshops related to this work. In these sessions, we share ideas and tools for reflection on the ethical dilemmas that often arise online.

 

One of the most common misperceptions about youth today is that they have little to no interest in privacy. Yet your findings show something different. How would you characterize the attitudes towards privacy that emerged from your interviews?

 

When we spoke with youth even as young as 10 about online privacy issues, we found that they were keenly aware of and concerned about privacy risks online. For those of us in the digital research community, this is not news. A number of other studies have shown that youth care about privacy (e.g., boyd & Marwick, 2011). The misconception that they don’t is often based on cases where privacy isn’t perfectly handled by youth. Further, there may be misalignments between youth and adults about what should be private vs. semi-public vs. public.

 

Pushing beyond the question of whether or not youth care about privacy, I also sought to understand how they approached online privacy more generally. I wondered about their mindsets about privacy and, given the focus of my book, the extent to which their mindsets were attentive to the moral and ethical aspects of online privacy given the opportunities digital technologies afford for breaching other people’s privacy.

 

The findings here were quite interesting. Nearly all the youth we spoke with conveyed support in some way for the mindset that privacy is largely “in your hands” online. That is, they argued that it’s up to the individual to adjust privacy settings, to consider audiences, and to make thoughtful decisions about what to post or not. However, many of these youth also suggested that privacy is not fully in your hands online. This argument was part of the mindset that “privacy is forsaken” in a digital age – that full privacy is unattainable online, so one must be careful about what one posts or be resigned to fact that privacy lapses are bound to happen. Both mindsets are attentive in different ways to the privacy risks that exist today, yet they also contain blind spots. The privacy is “in your hands” approach, taken in absolute terms, can be blind to the numerous ways in which one’s privacy can be broken online, despite efforts to control it. The forsaken mindset is more realistic. Yet, we also observed that it sometimes went along with an “anything goes” attitude with respect to other people’s privacy. In other words, for some youth, the fact that everyone gives up some measure of privacy online justifies looking at, circulating, or leveraging any information found about someone online.

 

Given these blind spots, it was gratifying to find evidence of another mindset that attends more directly to moral and ethical themes: the “privacy is social” mindset. Here, youth spoke in eloquent terms about the need to be vigilant about other people’s potential privacy concerns online. Some youth spoke about routine practices of checking in with friends before posting any photos featuring them on social media. Others said they developed guidelines with friends, siblings, and parents for protecting and respecting each other’s privacy online. These measures are impressive in taking seriously that privacy is a social, moral, and ethical issue in an environment in which we can search and share freely about one another. Unfortunately, the privacy as social mindset, and explicit measures to achieve it, didn’t come up as often as the other attitudes. Related to this, messages from adults about online privacy almost always supported the privacy as forsaken and “in your hands” mindsets along with individual-centered (and ultimately insufficient) strategies for privacy protection. This is a front where educators and parents could be doing much more to shift the conversation in ways that support social, moral and ethical approaches to privacy.

 Carrie James is a Research Director and Principal Investigator at Project Zero, and Lecturer on Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her research explores young people’s digital, moral, and civic lives. Since arriving at Project Zero in 2003, Carrie has worked with Howard Gardner and colleagues on The Good Project. She co-directs the Good Play Project, a research and educational initiative focused youth, ethics, and the new digital media, and the Good Participation project, a study of how youth “do civics” in the digital age. Carrie is also co-PI of the Out of Eden Learn project, an educational companion to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek’s epic Out of Eden walk. Her publications include Disconnected: Youth, New Media, and the Ethics Gap (The MIT Press, 2014). Carrie has an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Sociology from New York University. 

 

Young People’s Ethical Diconnects?: An Interview with Carrie James (Part One)

Today, we begin the second in a series of interviews with members of the Good Play team at Harvard, a team headed by Howard Gardner and associated with the longstanding Project Zero. The following is excerpted from a foreword I wrote for Carrie James’s Disconnected: Youth, New Media, and the Ethics Gap, and it serves as well as anything I could write here to provide a set up for the interview which follows.

 

A working-class black woman lingered after I spoke about youth and digital media at Detroit’s Wayne State University. She pushed her way through the crowd to ask a simple question: “Will my boy be all right?”

 

Her adolescent son spent a great deal of time online, talking with friends, building his home page, playing computer games, doing his homework. She had heard conflicting reports-teachers claiming Net access fostered educational growth, and media reformers warning about teens “running amok” on the Net. And now, like so many other parents, she worried that she was wrong to let her son explore cyberspace when she knew so little about computers herself. She feared that she did not know enough to give him the guidance he needed and wondered if perhaps the only answer was to unplug the expensive device she had brought into her home.

 

This is one of many such encounters I’ve had with parents and youth (of all races and economic backgrounds) through the years as people asked some core questions about whether these new media platforms and practices are helping to make us better or worse people. Many parents were asking whether their children would be alright and often looking at particular choices their sons and daughters had made online and asking “what were they thinking?”

 

I’ve often wished I could give them a book like Disconnected to read — a book which responded not with fear and panic, but spoke directly about how we might foster more responsible digital citizens, how we can encourage more participation and healthier communities. Over six years, a team of 14 researchers at Harvard’s Good Play Project has been interviewing young people — both teens and tweens — about their digital lives, the ethical challenges they face online, and the values which govern the choices they make about how to treat people they encounter on social media or web 2.0 platforms. What emerges here is a complex picture — one which sees these emerging platforms and practices as “not either-or, but this-and-that,” both a “burden” and a “blessing.” Some of what Carrie James shares about young people’s ethical choices may alarm us, some may give us hope, but most of all, the book reveals what many of us have come to recognize — the online world is neither an ideal society nor hell on earth, but a place where we go to conduct very routine aspects of our daily lives and often we think less than we should about the consequences of the choices we are making there.

 

As I’ve read this book, I’ve found myself thinking about its evocative title, about the various ways we might describe American youth as “disconnected,” even as they are more heavily wired than previous generations. Some of them are disconnected from any kind of online community, having little to no understanding of the participatory mechanisms or shared norms that apply to different forms of online social interactions. Some of them see little to no connection between what they do online and what gets valued by their parents or schools. Some seem not to be able to meaningfully connect what they do online with the consequences of their actions on others or to connect digital avatars with the flesh and blood people whose feelings may be hurt by their hateful words and actions. Some have little or no connection to adults who might provide them with meaningful insight into the situations they encounter and some have no real access to older ethical and spiritual traditions as they make decisions that can sometimes have serious implications for their lives and the lives of others.

 

Carrie James states early in the book that she is offering a “glass half empty” perspective: “I harbor real concerns about the local and global consequences, often hidden, of the uncivil, cruel, and harmful conduct that is common, if not routine, in some online communities. I worry that such conduct discourages participating, thus undercutting one of the central promises of the Internet. I also worry about the general lack of attention to more and ethical concerns on the Internet, compared with the emphasis on personal safety issues.” I share those concerns, even though I am a “glass half full” guy. James and I have had healthy debates through the years around many of these questions, but where we would agree is that we are still looking at half a glass and that more needs to be done to support our young people’s moral development in the digital age. Howard Rheingold warned some decades ago, “those who would prefer the more democratic vision of the future have an opportunity to influence the outcome, which is precisely why online activists should delve into the criticisms that have been leveled against them.” I care very much about the issues James raises here because I believe that our goal should be to expand who has access to the means of cultural production, circulation, and participation and the best way to realize those potentials is to soberly assess and meaningfully address the roadblocks we encounter along the path towards a more participatory culture.

 

 

      You open the book with a provocative quote from Neil Postman: “Every technology is both a burden and a blessing; not either-or, but this-and-that.” In what senses do you think digital technologies have been both a burden and a blessing to young people?

 

In quoting Postman at the outset, I wanted to make clear my view that digital technologies are not the direct perpetrators of the ethics gaps I write about in the book. Rather, as other scholars have acknowledged too, technologies provide affordances (Gibson, 1977) – they enable certain perceptions and actions, and constrain others. The ways in which we seize their affordances – our habits and norms of use – are key. (Related to this, my colleagues Howard Gardner and Katie Davis’s recent book, The App Generation, provides a nuanced account of the mixed blessings associated with digital life. They argue that the outcomes depend on how we use apps and other digital media.)

 

In my view, digital and social media are a blessing in the expansive opportunities they provide to young people – to explore and express their identities; to maintain social ties; to forge new connections with people with shared interests and passions; to access information and cultural goods; to participate in the creation of cultural content, and so on. To my mind, though, one of the most significant blessings of the digital landscape are the opportunities afforded to youth to be active participants in the public sphere – sharing their voices, showing support for and mobilizing others on behalf of social justice issues. (Our ongoing work with you and others as part of the MacArthur Youth and Participatory Politics research network is focused on that particular set of opportunities).

 

Yet, these digital age blessings are vexed in various ways. The invitation to participate on the web can feel risky given that one’s contributions can be taken out of context, misinterpreted, and shared with a wider audience than intended. Add to this the persistent, replicable and searchable qualities of digital content that danah boyd has often written about and – per my point above about our norms of use – the ways in which employers and college admissions officers can (and reportedly do) leverage them to judge young people. These practices place a burden on young people to manage the digital trails they leave behind, as best they can.

 

As other research has shown, participation in some social media sites can feel more obligatory than engaging (Pew 2013), and can even contribute to low self-esteem, especially if one’s news feed gives the impression that everyone else’s life consists of non-stop happiness and success. Further, as I discuss in my chapter on Participation, along with the opportunity to participate comes the risk that one’s contributions will be mocked or that one will become a target of subtle or explicit acts of cruelty or digital abuse. The public or semi-public nature of digital contexts can certainly magnify the sting of a negative comment or of an embarrassing photo posted by an online contact. EXAMPLE

 

Finally, as our recent work on youth online civic expression shows, backlash and other forms of uncivil discourse may have the unfortunate effect of quieting or even silencing youth voices on social network sites (Weinstein, 2014). A Pew study published in late August showed a similar alarming “spiral of silence” trend among adults, 18 and over.

 

So there are many opportunities afforded by online spaces, but along with the promises come new risks to be managed, but also new responsibilities in relation to others. Henry, you’ve often quoted Peter Parker’s uncle Ben who said that “with great power comes great responsibility.” One of the key messages of my book is that we need to have more conversations about the moral and ethical responsibilities that go along with participation in digital cultures.

 

      You called the book, Disconnected, which seems ironic, since in some senses, young people today are more connected than ever before. In what senses do you see this word as an appropriate description of what you found through your research?

 

Yes, young people are more connected to one another than ever before. But what I found in our research is that youths’ thinking about online situations can often be glaringly disconnected from the ethical dimensions. In other words, youth (and adults for that matter) were often not alert to the distant, potentially far-reaching, implications for others of the things they post and circulate online.

 

In the opening chapter of the book, I talk about two distinct types of thinking shortfalls that often characterized youth approaches to online situations: blind spots and disconnects. Drawing from Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel’s work (Blind Spots, 2011), I describe digital blind spots as failures to be sensitive to the moral or ethical implications of one’s tweets, Facebook status updates, or uses of online content. For example, when youth spoke about music piracy, their thinking and decision-making was typically keyed to self-focused concerns: how much (or little) money they had, the possibility of getting caught or downloading a virus. While some youth engaged moral or ethical arguments about piracy (either in support of it or against it), many of them evinced a blind spot to these dimensions of property issues – they simply didn’t consider how musicians might be affected by their choices.

 

I contrast blind spots with disconnects, which involve awareness and some consideration of moral or ethical concerns, yet a conscious dismissal of their importance. For example, one might acknowledge that a friend or stranger online might be offended by a misogynist online comment or tweet, but decide that the humor that others might see in the joke – and the resulting “likes” and praise – makes it worthwhile to post. Thinking of recent events, Perez Hilton’s regrettable – and regretted – decision to circulate nude photographs of Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton is an example of the kind of disconnected thinking that concerns me. This case shows how disconnects aren’t just found among youth; indeed, adults’ thinking is often disengaged from ethical considerations. I emphasize youths’ thinking gaps, however, because youth were the focus of our research.

 

Certainly, I also observed, and describe in the book, mindsets about online life that are more sensitive to moral and ethical concerns. However, my aim was to call attention to and explore the nuances of gaps, shortfalls, and attitudes that sometimes thwart the development of socially positive online communities. Thus, my decision to call the book, Disconnected.

 

Can you tell us something of the context that this book came out of? What is the relationship between the Good Play Project and the earlier work done through the Good Work project? What methods have you deployed to develop a better understanding of the kinds of ethical choices young people are making in their online lives?

 

Great question. The Good Play Project was definitely informed by prior research my colleagues and I conducted as part of the Good Work Project (1995-2006). Our Good Work studies explored how professionals in different lines of work negotiated market forces and other aspects of social change impinging on the professions and strived to do work that was excellent in quality, personally engaging, and ethical. We refer to excellence, engagement, and ethics as the three e’s of good work. Our studies included young professionals and those in training to enter fields such as journalism, genetics, and theater. A notable finding from our interviews was that young people felt an inordinate amount of pressure to succeed, and often in contexts in which their peers and even their role models cut corners in order to get ahead. Wendy Fischman, Becca Solomon, Deborah Greenspan and Howard Gardner wrote about these issues in their book, Making Good: How Young People Cope with Moral Dilemmas at Work.

 

As Howard Gardner and I launched our studies of youth and digital life around 2007-2008, we were mindful of this prior work and its findings. We decided to focus our studies on how youth negotiated moral and ethical issues in new digital contexts, where codes of conduct are established more informally than in fields of work and can shift rapidly, and where participants may enter with radically different purposes, values, and investments in the community.

 

Our methods for exploring these themes were largely qualitative, also continuing the tradition of our prior work. We conducted in depth interviews with young people in which we elicited narratives about their online lives – including the bright spots and points of struggle.  We asked about how they got involved in different online communities; their goals and sense of responsibility; perceived norms and violations of norms; their role models, mentors, or other supportive as well as negative influences. We also presented participants with hypothetical scenarios that contained a moral or ethical dimension, and talked with them at length about their responses and connections to lived experiences they’ve had on the web. In my book, I open each thematic chapter with one of these scenarios and describe both typical and rare responses.

 

For example, I open the privacy chapter with a scenario in which Facebook photos posted by friends reveal that a college student athlete was attending a party in violation of a sports team policy. Our study participants were asked to reflect on how they might handle such a situation. Most youth responded that they would untag themselves and perhaps even ask the friends to remove the photos from Facebook all together. While such responses are expected and understandable, we were also curious to see the extent to which youths’ thinking pushed beyond consequences for themselves. Indeed, some youth did reflect on their responsibilities to their teammates, coach, and a wider community of students. Yet, on the whole, self-focused concerns really dominated youths’ thinking. Most youth connected the hypothetical situation to personal experiences they’d had or observed among friends. So the hypotheticals really stimulated deeper discussion of dilemmas they’ve lived out online.

 

Overall, these methods gave us tremendous insight into how the young people with whom we spoke think about their online lives, the considerations that guide their choices online, and their hopes and areas of concern related to the internet and other aspects of digital life.

 

Our activities on the Good Play Project were also informed by our commitment, as part of the Good Work Project and Project Zero, to creating practical tools and supports based on our research for educators and other important stakeholders. With encouragement from the MacArthur Foundation, we joined forces with your Project New Media Literacies team (then at MIT, now at USC) to co-develop a casebook of classroom materials called Our Space: Being a Responsible Citizen of the Digital World. Our work with your group really pushed our thinking in new directions and helped us appreciate the great learning opportunities of the digital landscape for youth.

Carrie James is a Research Director and Principal Investigator at Project Zero, and Lecturer on Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her research explores young people’s digital, moral, and civic lives. Since arriving at Project Zero in 2003, Carrie has worked with Howard Gardner and colleagues on The Good Project. She co-directs the Good Play Project, a research and educational initiative focused youth, ethics, and the new digital media, and the Good Participation project, a study of how youth “do civics” in the digital age. Carrie is also co-PI of the Out of Eden Learn project, an educational companion to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek’s epic Out of Eden walk. Her publications include Disconnected: Youth, New Media, and the Ethics Gap (The MIT Press, 2014). Carrie has an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Sociology from New York University. 

Are Apps a Trap?: An Interview with Howard Gardner and Katie Davis (Part Three)

My readers are apt to be especially interested in your discussion of creativity in the era of apps. You draw some interesting conclusions by looking at student artworks and how they have evolved over the past few decades. One of the counterintuitive trends you identify is a shift from fantastical subject matter towards more faithful reconstruction of everyday realities. This is surprising to me in part because of the stereotype, which is grounded in some reality, that this is a generation which grew up reading Harry Potter, but some research suggests that schools have tended to have a strong towards realist or at least naturalistic reading, especially in a world where we moved away from the study of literature and towards a focus on deciphering short fragments in preparation for reading comprehension exams. What factors might contribute to this emphasis on realistic rather than fantastical forms of expression?

Perhaps the most innovative research in the book entailed the development of detailed coding categories that can be administered, blindly, to works of art and literature produced by young people between 1990 and 2011. The scrupulous application of these codes led to the conclusion that visual art by young people today seems more imaginative than art produced by young people in the early 1990s, while literary productions by today’s cohort are less imaginative, in our sample of creative works.

This is a single study and we’d be foolish to draw excessive conclusions one way or the other. We very much hope that other scholars and educators, both in the US and abroad, will make use of these or similar tools and see whether they come up with essentially the same findings.

With this disclaimer, we initially shared your surprise about the creative writing findings. It’s not what you’d necessarily expect from youth who grew up immersed in the extremely imaginative world of Harry Potter! But these youth are also growing up in a world of standardized testing, with its pressure to master the perfect five-paragraph essay;and in schools that, with the introduction of Common Core standards, increasingly emphasize nonfiction reading. These trends must certainly have an effect on their use of language.

Others have pointed out to us that young people may be more imaginative in the writing that they do online, for friends and in interest-driven communities, than in writing produced for school or for publication. That’s an interesting idea worth pursuing and one that Mimi Ito and colleagues in the Connected Learning Research Network are shedding light on. Of course, we are talking about general trends—no one would claim that there are no young people producing imaginative works. Indeed, perhaps in other areas—ranging from the visual arts to the creation of new businesses—they are more imaginative than peers in earlier eras. And it may even be the case that we come to think differently of creativity in a digitally-suffused era.

Many of us have argued that contemporary remix practices can encourage certain kinds of critical and creative responses to the culture around them, but you seem to be siding a bit more with Jaron Lanier that such forms of creativity are limited or constrained in so far as they build upon pre-existing cultural materials. Can you explain your position here?

Early in their careers, artists are always producing in relation to the works around them and the works that are most valued—either emulating them or consciously rejecting them….or both! We see mash ups, remixing, and sampling with digital media as an extension of an age-old practice of artists. And, like you, we recognize exciting new opportunities for youth to create, share, and receive feedback on their creative productions. Indeed, we observed these opportunities firsthand in our study of young fan fiction authors on LiveJournal. At the same time, perhaps it is easier in an app world than it was before just to keep remixing, with the constraints already present in the current technologies; and if so, perhaps, fewer individuals will go out entirely on a limb.

To illustrate the effects of technological constraints on the artistic process, we draw on the work of computer scientist and cultural critic Jaron Lanier. Lanier uses the expression “lock-in” to describe the limited range of actions and experiences open to users when they interact with computer software. As a result of a programmer’s (often arbitrary) design decisions, certain actions are possible—indeed, encouraged—while others don’t even present themselves as options.

Lanier’s primary example of lock-in involves MIDI, a music software program developed in the 1980s to allow musicians to represent musical notes digitally. Because its designer took the keyboard as his model, MIDI’s representation of musical notes doesn’t encompass the textures found in other instruments, such as the cello, flute, or human voice. Lanier argues that something important is lost when one makes explicit and finite an entity that is inherently unfathomable (or, to invoke another lexical contrast, when one seeks to render as digital what is properly seen as analogue). Moreover, since MIDI was an early and popular entrant into the music software industry, subsequent software had to follow its representation of musical notes in order to be compatible with it. As a result, the lock-in was reified. MIDI is a good example of how early design decisions can circumscribe subsequent creative acts.

Drawing on a well-known distinction within the study of creativity, we have suggested that there may be a new trend at work. In the past, scholars made a distinction between little c creativity (the way that most of us show some originality in how we plan a meal or a holiday) and BIG C creativity (the radical innovations that we value in an Einstein, a Virginia Woolf, a Steve Jobs). Perhaps going forward, there will be more “middle C creativity”—individuals working together online to push the envelope in certain directions, but perhaps less dramatically.

Steve Jobs is an interesting case-in-point here. On the one hand, he had as much to do with creating the “APP world” as anyone. And yet, Steve Jobs was the least likely person in the world to be constrained by the apps that anyone else had created.

You make clear by the end of the book (and now in the new preface) that you are not opposed to all apps. Can you share some of your criteria for judging what constitutes a good or bad app? What are some examples of apps which you think have indeed fostered greater creativity, more exploration of identity, and more prospects for intimacy with others?

We’re often asked for examples of apps that are enabling and apps that promote dependence. Our response is that any app can be used in a more enabling or more dependent way depending on what one does with it. Consider the drawing app, Doodle Buddy. In one setting of this app, users select a drawing implement and proceed directly to fill their canvas in a free-form way, much as they would an actual canvas. Another setting in the same app presents the user with an array of pre-fabricated images and backgrounds, which users select and arrange on their canvas in a paint-by-numbers way. In the first setting, users are encouraged to engage the app in an open-ended way, with few constraints imposed on them. In the second setting, users’ actions are highly constrained by the limited range of choices given to them.

In our review of various apps, we’ve found that many educational apps lean toward the app-dependent end of the spectrum—drill and kill apps for memorizing times tables, spelling, and state capitals that reward students with virtual smiley faces, candy, or pets that have little or no meaningful connection to the learning task at hand. So, when we judge an app—whether it’s an app used for educational purposes, self-expression, communication, or creative production—we judge it based on the degree to which it encourages users to engage with it in an open-ended way, as non-constrained as possible. Some promising examples of apps that promote open-ended exploration include Minecraft, Scratch, and Digicubes.

 

Howard Gardner is Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Best known for his theory of multiple intelligences, he has also written about creativity, leadership, and ethics in the professions. A member of the MacArthur Foundation network on “youth and participatory politics”‘, he has collaborated with Carrie James and Katie Davis on several studies of the effects of digital media on young people today.

Katie Davis is an Assistant Professor at The University of Washington Information School, where she studies the role of digital media technologies in adolescents’ academic, social, and moral lives. She also serves as an Advisory Board Member for MTV’s digital abuse campaign, A Thin Line. Katie holds two master’s degrees and a doctorate in Human Development and Education from Harvard Graduate School of Education. Prior to joining the faculty at the UW iSchool, Katie worked with Dr. Howard Gardner and colleagues at Harvard Project Zero, where she was a member of the GoodPlay Project and the Developing Minds and Digital Media Project research teams.

Are Apps a Trap?: An Interview with Howard Gardner and Katie Davis (Part Two)

You mention myself, alongside danah boyd, Cathy Davidson, Clay Shirkey, and David Weinberger, as “unabashed enthusiasts of the digital world,” suggesting that for us, “a world replete with apps is a world in which endless options arise, with at least the majority tilted in positive, world-building, personality fulfilling directions.” For the record — and I can’t speak for the others — I saw the potential and value of the web in terms of a range of different communities, which had gained greater communication capacity by their ability to create and deploy their own digital spaces. For me, the mechanisms by which Apple regulates which apps can be distributed with corporate producers and commercial logics prevailing over grassroots creators and our tendency to go regularly to apps rather than search the wider array of what’s out there on the web has made the rise of apps to be as big a threat to the generativity of the web as the decline in net neutrality. In that sense, we would agree that a defining feature of apps is the constraints they impose on human creativity. This is not really a question but Thoughts?

We both appreciate this comment and are very much on the same page. We discuss the constraints associated with apps at length in our chapter on creativity. These constraints are embedded in the coding and design decisions of app developers, the decisions made by corporate entities like Apple and Google, and laws and regulations passed by governments. While it may be true that ‘creativity loves constraints,’ we bristle at the idea of an individual’s creative expression being shaped by Apple’s bottom line or a politician’s bid for reelection.

We’ve noted that Sherry Turkle initially saw the potentials for rich identity exploration in the digital world; but with the advent of social media, she also discerned the potential for premature identity consolidation and unrealistic ‘perfect’ publicly packaged identities. All students of media, including us, need to be aware both of the changing affordances of the current ascendant technologies and the other forces in society (e.g. pressures on the educational system, invasions of privacy) that also influence the ways in which individuals think and behave and how they interact with the current technological options.

We joke about a kind of “Moore’s law” that ought to be operative among commentators on the technological scene: we need to review our examples and arguments every 18 months so.

One of the more provocative passages here centers around what today’s students expect from teachers and education. In what sense might these students be looking at the university as a kind of app store? How might we see this attitude as reflecting the expectations about learning which were imposed upon them through regimes of standardized testing — a particular kind of app — as opposed to the kinds of affinity spaces that the Digital Media and Learning community has tended to embrace?

 A point we wish to underscore upfront: while we observed specific behaviors in students—such as a tendency to seek instant, definitive answers and discomfort with sitting for a while with questions that don’t suggest an immediate solution—we are by no means laying blame at their feet. For causes, we look to broader societal trends—and not just of the technological variety. The increasing emphasis on standardized testing in schools, unfettered market forces, rising income inequality—these trends predate Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and have no doubt contributed to the algorithmic thinking we observed among young people. Therefore, while we like the image of the university as a kind of ‘app store’ from a literary point of view, in this particular case, it’s clear that the notion of the student (and parents) as customers operating in a complex market is not due to apps, or even technology, alone. Accordingly, for the analyst, it is challenging to parse out what is due to a pervasive mentality in the United States (‘the business of America is business”), the increasing ubiquity of technological solutions more generally, and the specific effects of apps.

Where the ‘app metaphor’ may be more fitting is in the way that students actually think about courses—what is offered, what is expected, and how best to pass a course and navigate the curricula en route to graduation. Nearly every informant to whom we spoke brought up the ‘risk aversion’ among today’s youth; and in the book we actually quote a student who questions the need for formal educational institutions, when, as he puts it, ‘the answers to all questions’ can be found in his smart phone.

The three of us (Henry, Katie, Howard) have all been involved in the initiative of the MacArthur Foundation to encourage ‘connected learning’. Without question, the advent of powerful, networked technologies has opened up a myriad of possibilities for more individualized learning, more integrated learning, and more creative and collaborative uses of what one learns. But the educational landscape is a battlefield and many of the most heavily armed participants do not share our educational vision.

 

You argue that the rise of social media platforms has tended to result not simply in the “performance of self” in everyday life or the identity play which Sherry Turkle wrote about 20 years ago, but rather the “packaged self” as young people see their self-representation as a kind of self branding. You also suggest that this may be one of the more isolating aspects of today’s digital culture because young people tend to read other people’s “glammed up” self-representations as reality and assume everyone out there is happier than they are. I want to push you to say more about the “packaged self” in relation to the “performance of the self.” After all, when Goffman’s consumers encounter the smiling sales clerk, they did not necessarily assume that he was actually as happy as he seemed. Is there reason to think today’s social media makes us less skeptical about the construction and performance of social identity? Wouldn’t a constructivist argue that having been asked to make choices from an identity tool kit, we were likely to be more conscious of how identity is constructed not less? 

We would push back a bit on the idea that people don’t assume the sales clerk is as happy as he seems. While intellectually we may know this is true, it may not necessarily feel true in the moment of our interaction with him. When we spoke with youth about the way they and their friends present themselves on Facebook and other social network sites, they told us about the “glammed up” versions that they and their peers present online—the prettiest, wittiest, happiest versions of themselves. While they know intellectually that their friends aren’t quite so attractive, happy, or social, it’s hard to shake the feeling that they themselves somehow don’t measure up. We’re not saying that social media necessarily make us less skeptical about the construction and performance of social identity, just that there’s an important distinction between conscious reflection and knowledge, on the one hand, and one’s immediate, gut reaction to others’ online identities, on the other.

No doubt, in every historical era and in every culture, some people are much more aware of the roles that they are assuming, the options that they have, the ways in which others react; while other individuals (probably the majority) just do what one is supposed to do in a situation and do not think about options, including the option of “no way”.   Just like ‘free will’, the notion of an autonomous agent, with genuine options from which to choose, is not a natural way of thinking—it’s one that grows out of (or is suppressed altogether by) the kind of society in which one lives and the role models that are available and emulated.

What may distinguish our society today is both the pervasiveness of social media and their widespread use by kids when they are very young. These factors probably push against the kind of autonomous self for which you are calling. But as a society, we certainly don’t have to accept that state of affairs. As parents, educators, citizens, we can model non-reliance on devices, apps, and social media, and help young people see that they do have choices—and those extend way beyond which app to use on which occasion—the lowest common denominator of choices!

 

Howard Gardner is Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Best known for his theory of multiple intelligences, he has also written about creativity, leadership, and ethics in the professions. A member of the MacArthur Foundation network on “youth and participatory politics”‘, he has collaborated with Carrie James and Katie Davis on several studies of the effects of digital media on young people today.

Katie Davis is an Assistant Professor at The University of Washington Information School, where she studies the role of digital media technologies in adolescents’ academic, social, and moral lives. She also serves as an Advisory Board Member for MTV’s digital abuse campaign, A Thin Line. Katie holds two master’s degrees and a doctorate in Human Development and Education from Harvard Graduate School of Education. Prior to joining the faculty at the UW iSchool, Katie worked with Dr. Howard Gardner and colleagues at Harvard Project Zero, where she was a member of the GoodPlay Project and the Developing Minds and Digital Media Project research teams.

Are Apps a Trap?: An Interview with Howard Gardner and Katie Davis (Part One)

A bit more than a decade ago, I met Howard Gardner for the first time. I had been aware of his work for much longer. My graduate mentor, David Bordwell, had assigned us his book, The Mind’s New Science when I was in graduate school, and the book had such an impact upon me that I had sought out his other works. When our paths crossed in the real world, I was a first intimidated, but also fascinated to find myself part of a conversation with him about the ways digital media was impacting how we thought and lived at the cusp of the 21st century.

Gardner is of Harvard; I was then of MIT, and that sums up about as well as I can imagine the intellectual and philosophical differences through which we saw the world. What separates Harvard and MIT for me has always been more than two subway stops on the Red Line. I went to Harvard Square to buy my comics but I usually stopped short of entering its gates. It was a different world — “the other place” — and you either understood that or it was impossible to explain.

Yet, for all of his enormous accomplishments and intellectual rigor, Gardner is also an incredibly modest and generous man, someone I love to bounce ideas against, someone with whom I frequently but always productively disagree, someone who is connected in his personal biography to some of the great thinkers who passed through Harvard in the second part of the 20th century, and someone who has the vision to think through what it means to continue that great humanistic tradition into the 21st century. Over the past years, I have had many chances to collaborate with Gardner – first as a contributor to a book he was editing (and a conference he was hosting) with Marcelo Saurez-Orozco, Globalization: Culture and Education in the New Millenium, then as collaborators (along with our entire teams) on the development of OurSpace:Being a Responsible Citizen of the Digital World, a curricular guide designed to help foster serious reflections on ethics in the age of participatory culture, and most recently, as fellow members of the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics Network.

I have always resisted trying to put a label on the various points around which we disagree. We wrote about it some in the introduction to OurSpace. But both of our thinking is too complex and layered to be easily described and to much at risk of being caricatured by those who only partially understand where we are each coming from. You will get some suggestions of points of convergence and divergence from the interview which follows, but you will also get a sense of the challenge we each have in putting the other in a bottle, since we are both prone to actively think and rethink our core assumptions on a regular basis, and open to being persuaded by new developments. What I hope you also will see is the tremendous respect and affection we have for each other.

Along the way, I have come to know many of the younger members of Gardner’s research team, including Carrie James and Katie Davis. I knew them as part of the “Good Play” and “Good Participation” projects, funded by the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative. They were part of the team that worked alongside my research staff and graduate students at MIT as we developed the OurSpace project, an effort led on the MIT side by Erin Reilly. I’ve watched James and Davis emerge as serious thinkers about youth, digital media, and learning in their own right, each carving out an identity for themselves as researchers, and each producing and publishing  significant scholarly works.

Over the next week and a half, I want to showcase some recent works to emerge from this remarkable research team, two books, both relatively new, each speaking to key themes of the Digital Media and Learning movement: first, Howard Gardner and Katie Davis’s The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World, which was released this month in a revised paperback edition, and second, Carrie James’s Disconnected: Youth, New Media, and The Ethics Gap, which came out only a few weeks ago. Gardner, Davis, and James have offered up thoughtful and substantive responses to my sometimes challenging questions, in the process offering us insights into the thinking behind these two books. The books are, as Gardner noted to me in a recent email, very different projects, and yet, each in their own ways shows the legacy of a particular way of thinking through problems  I associated with Project Zero.

The App Generation starts with a deceptively simple consideration: the ways that apps may be pre-determining what we do with computers and mobile devices. But, the focus on apps on the most literal level turns out to be a point of entry for what is a deeper mediation on the current state of education, curiosity, and creativity, in a world where such digital devices are taken for granted and often provide the most compelling models for how our minds work and how we relate to other people around us. Like a good conversation with Gardner and his team, the book shifts layers, sometimes expressing concerns or worries about the state of our world, yet never giving up hope; sometimes asking very pragmatic questions while at other times digging deep into their philosophical implications; all the while writing in simple, straightforward prose that can communicate effectively with a concerned parent, a dedicated teacher, a perplexed policy maker, or an overloaded undergraduate….

WE START OFF BY THANKING YOU, HENRY, FOR POSING THESE THOUGHTFUL QUESTIONS. WE’VE LEARNED FROM PONDERING THEM AND BELIEVE THAT OTHERS WILL ALSO PROFIT FROM THE EXCHANGE HERE.

 

You end the book with a provocative sentence, “For ourselves, and for those who come after us as well, we desire a world where all human beings have a chance to create their own answers, indeed, to raise their own questions, and to approach them in ways that are their own.” How do apps fit — for better and for worse — into the world you desire?

We are enthusiastic supporters of a liberal arts education, but we recognize that it is currently under severe pressures in the US for various reasons, including growing costs and competition from online education services. Analogous to our arguments in other parts of our book, we see technologies as having both the potential to be a handmaiden of liberal arts education (as in a well run flipped classroom) and as an obstacle (e.g. students sit in class and pay only partial attention to the instructor and their classmates as they update their Facebook status, browse pictures on Instagram, and scroll through their Twitter feed).

Turning specifically to apps, they can certainly help students do research efficiently, collaborate with fellow students, and frame cogent answers to certain kinds of questions. But, consistent with our discussion of ‘the app mentality,’ apps may also convey the misleading impression that everything has a quick, definite answer and therefore nudge students to avoid issues that are complex and apparently not susceptible to app treatment.

We can also make apps themselves the focus of education. Apps are part of a broader technology landscape that requires a new set of literacies and skills, including computational thinking. An education in our time should help students understand how apps work, what they can and cannot do, how they may nudge you in certain directions and not others, and how to make your own apps or tweak those designed by others.

 

A striking feature of this book is the ways you draw on the life experiences of Howard and Katie, the two authors, and Katie’s sister, Molly, who each came of age during different moments of media evolution. What role do you see such autobiographical reflections playing in relation to the other kinds of research deployed in the book, whether focused interviews from your field work or larger statistical data sets?

As social scientists, we are well aware that anecdotes, no matter how powerful, are no substitute for, and do not add up to data. Most of our book is quite data driven, we have a methodological appendix in which we outline our methods, and we have also published several related papers in peer-reviewed journals or posted them on appropriate websites (e.g. here , here , here).

Except for scholarly monographs, books by scholars are meant to convey ideas and findings to a broader public. We hoped that, in addition to scholars of youth and/or digital media, our book would speak to educators, parents, and to that elusive category “the general educated public.”   For this kind of communication, stories, anecdotes, biographical reflections are often the most effective way to communicate the importance of the questions being raised and the nature of the ideas, frameworks, and explanations at which the authors have arrived.

In the particular case to which you refer, we did not have the idea of a trans-generational conversation until we were close to writing the book. The conversation with Molly, which allowed us to span three generations, elicited many useful points about the ways she and her peers use media; the story about the senior girls ‘marrying’ the freshmen boys on Facebook was an unanticipated bonus, since it offered a comfortable and vivid way of introducing the three Is of Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination.

The conversation with Howard’s grandson Oscar occurred even later, when the book was largely drafted. Again, what Oscar said captured beautifully the strengths and opportunities of digital media, as well as the distinct challenges they pose. And since Oscar represents the future, the conversation provided an opportunity, in the final pages of the book, for us to state—looking ahead– what we admire, and what causes us serious concern.

There are times in the book where you seem to be using “apps” metaphorically to identify and describe certain dimensions of the current generation’s cultural and social experiences and other places where you seem to be making causal claims, suggesting that the presence of apps have result in certain shifts in social behavior. You also make clear that demonstrating causality here would be difficult if not impossible. So could you say a bit more about what status apps hold in your argument?

We should perhaps have made it clearer when we were talking about apps literally—for example, what it means when a young person has never gotten lost. We should have specified when we were talking about apps metaphorically—what we call an app mentality (expecting everything to be slick, efficient, and branded) or a Super-App (the belief that life can or should consist of ‘one damned—or glorious — app after another’).

You and we both point out that one can never attribute a certain outcome confidently to the proliferation of apps or, indeed, to the effect of digital technologies more generally. We can’t do the experiment and we can’t eliminate the effects of other factors (e.g. the move toward high stakes, standardized testing in the U.S. and its possible effect on young people’s literary capacities, or the impact that economic uncertainty has on youth’s willingness to take risks in their education and career trajectories).

But an important goal of social science is to create terms, frameworks, and theories that help us to make sense of our time—and, in this particular case, of the minds and behaviors of young people. This is what psychoanalyst Erik Erikson did when he wrote about the identity crisis; it is what sociologists David Riesman, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denny did when they were writing about ‘the other-directed generation.” Less grandly, our goal has been to help readers understand what might be distinctive about young people in the early years of the 21st century.

While we do not see ourselves as techno-determinists, we do call attention to the distinct qualities of apps and various other digital media, such as round-the-clock connectivity and the public, searchable nature of networked communication. These qualities do not in themselves cause people to behave in certain ways—the introduction of the first transcontinental railroad did not cause Americans to move Westward in the late nineteenth century, but it did facilitate this trend. When the distinct affordances and constraints of digital media play out in specific social contexts—with their own set of norms, values, and practices—we believe the interaction between technology and society encourages certain forms of behavior, self-expression, and communication at the same time as it discourages others.

 At other places, you seem to imply that we are making choices about what role we allow these apps to play in our lives, distinguishing for example between “app-dependent” and “app-enabled” activities. To what degree are these choices under our control? What factors help to determine what choices individuals make in their relationship to these technologies?

This question gets to the essence of our inquiry and our concerns. Howard is a strong believer in “free will,” but he does not believe that people are in any sense born as free agents. It’s the messages in society—personal but also technological—that determine whether we live in a relatively free society (to which the United States and many other countries aspire) or in a totalitarian society where free will is the enemy (the totalitarian societies of the 20th and earlier centuries, and also the dystopias portrayed by Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Dave Eggers and other well- known literary figures).

The particular habits and practices that emerge in a society shape our relationship to other people, to ideas, to ourselves. In our research, we observed closely young people’s habits and practices around their use of technology and identified two distinct patterns. The app-enabled individual uses technology as a starting point, an introduction to new experiences, modes of expression, and social connection. App-dependent individuals, by contrast, look to their technologies first instead of looking outside to the non-technological world or examining their own thoughts and imaginative powers for a path forward—for these individuals, technology has become in effect a starting point, midpoint, and endpoint. We have the ability to shape our habits around technology and decide its role in our lives. But we must be deliberate about it, or we run the risk of abdicating our agency by outsourcing more and more of ourselves to our devices.

Howard Gardner is Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Best known for his theory of multiple intelligences, he has also written about creativity, leadership, and ethics in the professions. A member of the MacArthur Foundation network on “youth and participatory politics”‘, he has collaborated with Carrie James and Katie Davis on several studies of the effects of digital media on young people today.

Katie Davis is an Assistant Professor at The University of Washington Information School, where she studies the role of digital media technologies in adolescents’ academic, social, and moral lives. She also serves as an Advisory Board Member for MTV’s digital abuse campaign, A Thin Line. Katie holds two master’s degrees and a doctorate in Human Development and Education from Harvard Graduate School of Education. Prior to joining the faculty at the UW iSchool, Katie worked with Dr. Howard Gardner and colleagues at Harvard Project Zero, where she was a member of the GoodPlay Project and the Developing Minds and Digital Media Project research teams.

Comedy is Serious Business: An Interview with Rick DesRochers (Part Three)

 

There has been quite a bit of controversy surrounding the role of comedy news programs such as the Colbert Report and The Daily Show, with skeptics expressing outrage that young people may learn more about world events through such comic sources than from traditional journalism. Yet, you argue that Will Rogers performed similar functions for Americans in the 1920s and 1930s. How might these contemporary programs fit into a longer tradition of using comedy to work through change in American society?

Jon Stewart’s show uses a series of “senior correspondents” representative of women (Samantha Bee, Olivia Munn), Indians/Muslims (Assif Mandvi), black women, (Jessica Williams), black men (Larry Wilmore; Wyatt Cenac), that satirize the notion of any one person(s) as representative of any of these ethnic/racial/religious groups.

If you look at Laurence Sterne, Jonathan Swift, and Voltaire for example, satire as political critique has been with us. The sociopolitical has a long history in comedy since commedia, Roman Comedy, and Old Comedy of Aristophanes. The significant difference is that with global media platforms, this form of satire in the early twenty-first century, is accessible and readily available to anyone who can understand the English language, and has access to a computer or i-phone. It cuts across class, race, and gender lines in a universal way. And this “danger” that holding the “news” media’s feet to the fire has become a critique of American society and culture and its intervention around the globe, makes the mainstream news media afraid that they are irrelevant and only representing the interests of the corporations that own them and the advertisers who pay the bills. Therefore this satirical critical humor, as with Will Rogers and Fred Allen before them, keeps the media in check in the way that journalism was meant to at the turn of the twentieth century.

Personally, I am not a twenty-something or even a thirty-something, and I still get my news from Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. They are more scandalized and critical of the corruption of government, corporations, bigots, racists, and homophobes, than any legitimate “news” outlet. They also cover topics that the news media simply won’t. If news is tied to corporate profits then that will dictate what is considered newsworthy, and there goes freedom of the press and the public’s right to know out the window. Comedy only works when it expresses the freedom to satirize and comment on world affairs. It gets at the truth as Larry David and Ricky Gervais have noted.

 

You write in The Comic Offensive about the ways that Dave Chappelle was almost crippled by the fear that many whites were laughing at his comedy for the “wrong reasons” and that he was helping to keep alive a tradition of the black minstrel which many associate with earlier moments of racism. Is this necessarily a trap which contemporary black comics have to confront? Are there elements of the Minstrel tradition that can be reclaimed to allow other kinds of voices to be heard?

When I ran the New Theatre in Boston (we produced the work of playwrights and performers of color) in the mid-1990s, I went to The Strand Theatre in Roxbury to see a “chitlin” circuit show starring Laurence Hilton-Jacobs, who played the character of “Freddie Boom Boom Washington” on the 1970s sitcom, Welcome Back, Kotter. I was amazed at how the audience embraced the minstrel aspects of the show from racial and gender stereotypes, horny old men, lazy and indigent black men who could not take care of their children etc., and how the audience did not reject these stereotypes as offensive but the predominantly black audience of 2,000 or so brought the house down with laughter and call and response that a director/playwright colleague and friend, Lois Roach, said would happen.

I think blackface/whiteface comedy is quite powerful and anything that incendiary should still be used in comedy since it crosses the line of what is “acceptable” and that is what comedians claim they want to do if they are effective. So, if it offends, so much the better. Context is everything. As Spike Lee observed in Bamboozled corporate interests and the pursuit of fame and fortune has reduced black performers and sports figures to enact minstrel-like behavior are very clear representations of how minstrelsy is embraced in order to make money even today. So comedians have more control over the use and misuse of minstrelsy by enacting it. Dave Chappelle’s brilliant commentary on racism in which he portrays a black man who is a white supremacist – because he is literally blind to his own skin color – is still one of the strongest commentaries on how absurd and superficial racism really is in the end. If you “look” white you will be treated differently than if you “look” black. Again context is everything.

Since 9/11, we have seen more and more comics coming from the American Muslim community, seeking to use laughter as a means of challenging existing stereotypes and gain mainstream acceptance. What do you think these performers might learn by looking more broadly at the relationship between immigration and comedy in the American tradition?

Intolerance of immigrants is shockingly similar to the early twentieth century with the influx of over 13 million southern and eastern European immigrants. The rhetoric toward middle eastern (particularly Muslim) and Mexican and Central American refugees and immigrants, has replaced the southern and eastern European xenophobia of the early twentieth century but otherwise the condemnation of “amnesty” and “they will take away our jobs, our women, and our American dream” and that “real Americans” will be somehow denigrated and degraded by the influx of this new generation of immigrants is still very much with us. Identifying ethnic and racial groups as “all the same” is debunked when we see comedians take on race and ethnicity and religious identity as fluid and not fixed. The global world and mixing of race and ethnicity is creating a new world in which the younger generation is witnessing these borders and definitions as being fluid and more integrated. I think 9/11 put the US back into the rest of the world as not being separate from, but as part of, what makes human beings part of a global village. Tragically it takes an act of terrorism to bring Americans into the global community but it also was necessary in order to confront the notion that the “enemy” is subjective depending on where you stand.

Assif Mandvi of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart relates stories of always being cast in the role of Muslim terrorists in Hollywood (he was born in India and is a US citizen for the record), but in comedy he can confront this stereotype by satirizing the racial types that the willfully ignorant and bigoted take seriously. Mandvi in the New York Times has said “I’ve always said I’m the worst representative of Muslim Americans that’s ever existed, because I’ve been inside more bars than mosques. But I recognize this has nothing to do with me. There are very few people representing the moderate American Muslim voice on television, and I happened to fall into this thing. The fact that I get to do it is an unbelievable blessing for me.” (New York Times, April 20, 2012)

Comedians through their humor connect all of us when they “put it over.” We are all in on the joke, and those who don’t “get it” will always be offended, because their xenophobia, bigotry, and racism has been exposed. To finish with a comic callback, “Those who are offended by the characters onstage must be seeing themselves in those characters.”

Rick DesRochers is an Associate Professor of Theatre at Long Island University Post. He has served as the Literary Director of New Play and Musical Development for the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival and The Goodman Theatre of Chicago, as well as the Artistic Director of the New Theatre in Boston. He holds an M.F.A. in stage direction and dramaturgy from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and a Ph.D. in theatre from the City University of New York, Graduate Center. He is the author of The New Humor in the Progressive Era – Americanization and the Vaudeville Comedian for Palgrave Macmillan, and The Comic Offense from Vaudeville to Contemporary Comedy – Larry David, Tina Fey, Stephen

Comedy Is Serious Business: An Interview with Rick DesRochers (Part Two)

You spend a good deal of time discussing the Marx Brothers, who remain perhaps one of the best known of the comedy teams to emerge from the Vaudeville stage and go to Hollywood. What might contemporary audiences be missing when they watch the Marx Brothers’ movies if they do not understand their roots in vaudeville?

 

Since my late teens when I became aware of the Marx Brothers I have always enjoyed their movies and their perspective of the underdogs who get the better of those in authority. As a working class kid from New Hampshire, I was inspired by the fact that they could break down the doors of the powerful and elite by mocking them and creating chaos in the halls of respectability; a place I never thought I certainly could ever access or influence personally.

When I started to research the Marx Brothers more in depth as performing artists, I became aware that many of their plots and gags were taken directly from their twenty-plus years in vaudeville. They had not made their first picture until they were in their early forties. This was a revelation to me. The Marx Brothers movies were translations of the vaudeville stage and the Broadway musical revue on film. Not films in and of themselves, but stage shows and routines that had been honed and crafted over many years on the road on the third-tier vaudeville circuit.

The seemingly improvisational feel of the films was not improvisational at all. But they made it seem as if it were happening in the moment for the very first time, and I think this still resonates with me each and every time I watch these films. How fresh, accessible, and alive they feel in that relationship between audience and stage (that notion of “putting it over” as mentioned before), seen in the asides that Groucho makes to the camera as if he were talking to a live audience. This still works for me and that feeling of the servants putting it over on the masters even after I know that it was well rehearsed and staged over many years of their careers, always amazes me.

Once the Marx Brothers let go of the formality of their vaudeville act in the 1910s of a singing and dancing act, and started in on their special brand of comic subversion through making nonsense out of authority and the rules of upper-class decorum, then they began to thrive as a comedy act both on stage and screen.

 

The status of women in comedy remains a controversy today, despite the fact that female comics have been disrupting gender roles on stage since at least the turn of the last century. What would we understand about today’s female clowns, such as Tina Fey or Sarah Silverman, if we traced their roots back to the “rank women” of the early vaudeville stage?

The notion that female comedians are somehow dirtier and more obscene simply because they are women is still an issue in contemporary comedy. In my book The Comic Offense From Vaudeville to Contemporary Comedy (2014), I cite an incident that Tina Fey writes about in Bossypants (2011), Fey’s memoir, when she recalls a story in which fellow Saturday Night Live alum Amy Poehler was in a meeting with a predominantly male group of writers and cast members, doing a “dirty and loud and ‘unladylike’” comic bit. Jimmy Fallon, the de facto male star of the moment, mocked Poehler for her crudeness saying, “Stop that! It’s not cute! I don’t like it.” According to Fey, “Amy dropped what she was doing, went black in the eyes for a second, and wheeled around on him. ‘I don’t fucking care if you like it.’ Jimmy was visibly startled. Amy went right back to enjoying her ridiculous bit.”

This notion that Poehler was offending her fellow male comedians simply because she was a woman telling an offensive story is ironic given the fact that this is what the male comedians admire in each other; the notion of crossing the line.

A female student of mine who is studying comedy and wants to be a comedian, was shocked that Christopher Hitchens wrote for Vanity Fair in 2007 an article titled, “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” The institutionalization of comedy by men in the early twentieth century was an attempt to marginalize women as comedians and comic writers in a self–created “boys’ club.” And this “boys club” is alive and well today. Hitchens thought women didn’t have to be funny because women didn’t need to attract men, and humor according to him, was necessary for men to attract women. Of course this is overly simplistic and Victorian in its outlook on male/female relations (not to mention the fact that it discounts lesbians entirely), but it persists in the twenty-first century.

And although Tina Fey was the first female head writer in the thirty-nine year history of Saturday Night Live, she is still the only female head writer in their history even after her leaving the show eight years ago in 2006. Personally I think men are threatened by funny women since they appear to relate it to masculinity and some kind of mating ritual. Admittedly humor is attractive, but certainly men are attracted to funny women, and women are attracted to funny women as well, no?  

I think the main problem is that women being considered “dirty” or “obscene” or “crossing the line” somehow puts them in the category of being what the turn of the twentieth century reformers saw as “rank ladies.” Mae West, May Irwin, Marie Dressler, Eva Tanguay, and Kate Elinore were seen as “tough girls” who were too aggressive physically and verbally and lacked the demur refinement of middle-class women of “respectability.” Sex jokes in particular somehow signaled to the primitive male mind that women are sexually available and promiscuous, and ultimately morally bankrupt. And this brings us back to the virgin/whore binary that women still can’t seem to shake.

 

The vaudeville tradition fed film and television comedy for generations, but there are few if any performers with roots on the variety stage who are still working today. Today’s clowns come from the standup circuit, Improv comedy troops, and television sketch comedy programs. In what ways do these newer forms of comedy mirror the traditions of earlier forms of popular entertainment?

It was very surprising to me when I was researching these books that the techniques used all the way back to the commedia dell’arte of the sixteenth century Italy have always been inspirational to comedians. Comedians sincerely study and are influenced by performers from comedy history. There is a real respect for the craft and for those comedians who came before them.

The term slapstick itself, as an actual noise maker that emulates the slapping and punching associated with Punch and Judy puppets, was used in silent film shorts – giving it the name slapstick comedy – and of course is still used in the comedy films of Judd Apatow and Mike Judge – look at The Hangover franchise as a prime example. But just the notion of pain and getting into trouble as being funny, watching someone slip and fall or get hit by various objects as in the Three Stooges, never seems to get old.

Also the idea of improvisation—of being in the moment and making jokes that can be tailored to the audience is fascinating to me and embraced by comedians. You can change the jokes according to who is in the audience and whom you want to offend (or not) as the case may be. This is very important to the notion of “putting it over” as well. Knowing your audience and what is “killing” and what is “dying.”

The stage is the only place where this immediate response and in-the-moment improv is possible. Even though there are improv television shows, they can be edited (and are certainly) after the fact in case there is anything said in the moment that offends or satirizes advertisers or the television network. SNL and other “live” shows have that two-three second delay just in case someone crosses the line. You can’t censor or edit a live performance, or let me correct that, you can shut it down, or stop the act, as in the case of Lenny Bruce, who was literally arrested onstage, but that in itself made a statement that couldn’t be edited from the minds of the audience.

The notion that comedy is and was dangerous, and threatening to authority figures, governments, corporations, and the ruling classes, is truly what connects the vaudeville generation to contemporary standup and improvisational comedy. To paraphrase Moliere who has been quoted as saying about his incendiary play Tartuffe, which the Catholic church of the seventeenth century was attempting to ban and threatened to imprison its author, “Those who are offended by the characters onstage must be seeing themselves in those characters.”

 

Rick DesRochers is an Associate Professor of Theatre at Long Island University Post. He has served as the Literary Director of New Play and Musical Development for the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival and The Goodman Theatre of Chicago, as well as the Artistic Director of the New Theatre in Boston. He holds an M.F.A. in stage direction and dramaturgy from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and a Ph.D. in theatre from the City University of New York, Graduate Center. He is the author of The New Humor in the Progressive Era – Americanization and the Vaudeville Comedian for Palgrave Macmillan, and The Comic Offense from Vaudeville to Contemporary Comedy – Larry David, Tina Fey, Stephen

Comedy is Serious Business: An Interview with Rick DesRochers (Part One)

Last spring, I was asked whether I might be willing to blurb a book called The Comic Offensive, From Vaudeville to Contemporary Comedy. This was something of a blast from the past for me! My  dissertation book, What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic, was also focused on the ways that vaudeville had influenced other forms of popular comedy. My story remained focused in the 1920s and 1930s, where-as Rick DesRochers has brought the vaudeville tradition into the 21st century through the imaginative pairings between different comic performers – for example, Will Rogers and Stephen Colbert or the Marx Brothers and Larry David — in order to show how certain styles of comedy have persisted over time. DesRochers contends that 20th century American comedy has always allowed the expression of critical and often minority perspectives before a more mainstream audience.

Since reading The Comic Offensive, DesRochers has shared with me his other new book, The New Humor in the Progressive Era, which provides more of the historical context for how this style of comedy emerged and what roles it played in the early 20th century.

The two books, together, complete a historical framework for thinking about popular theatrical performance and humor across the span of the 20th century, the ways it differed from 19th century predecessors, the ways it responded to social, political, economic, and technological change, and the ways that it has often challenged the way the culture saw itself. DesRochers does all of this in a fashion that is grounded in original source materials, including perhaps the fullest discussion to date of the theatrical work of the Marx Brothers before they went to Hollywood, and is presented in a vivid, engaging, style that would be highly accessible to undergraduate students.

I invited DesRochers to do an interview for my blog, and I am delighted to share it with you today. His substantive responses, his reflections on comedy — both past and present — should give you plenty to think about and may even provide some encouragement to seek out comic performers who might have escaped your attention before. I hope you will enjoy the experience of forgotten laughter.

 

What was “New” about the “New Humor”? How did it differ from more established traditions of humor and comedy in American culture?

The playwright and librettist Edward “Ned” Harrigan, co-author of the popular Mulligan Guard series of light comedy revues, warned in 1900 that “there’s been a great change in the sense of humor in New York, the great influx of Latins and Slavs—who always want to laugh not with you but at you—has brought about a different kind of humor. Vaudeville historian Albert MacLean Jr., called this notion of Harrigan’s “the new humor.” What was “new” about the new humor was that it challenged Anglo-American authority and the belief that the ruling classes’ notion of highbrow culture could be made fun of and even defied. You could laugh at the abuses of authority and Anglo-American dominance, as well as with the attempts of southern and eastern European immigrants trying to assimilate into the Anglo-American way of life. The irony of this xenophobia of Harrigan’s was that the Irish, German, and Scandinavian immigrants were discriminated against in the very same way only two decades earlier, and now Harrigan, along with Tony Hart, was affectionately writing musical revues that featured those same Irish immigrants that were once perceived as morally inferior and culturally lowbrow.


The contemporary version of the new humor can be witnessed in the work of comedian and writer and co-creator of Seinfeld, Larry David, when he discusses with Ricky Gervais, “We all have the bad thoughts. We just think them and don’t say them. But the bad thoughts are funny.” In Dave Chappelle’s comedy, being offensive through the new humor becomes necessary to create meaningful conversations that cannot happen otherwise. His interview with James Lipton of the Actor’s Studio concludes with “I’m a comedian, man. That’s how I look at the world. . . . The only way to know where the line is, is to cross it. What is life if nobody’s crossing the line?” This notion of crossing the line by laughing at authority and mocking hegemonic ideology and culture was known as the new humor. The new humor is still very much with us in the work of Chappelle, Larry David, Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, Louis C. K., Sarah Silverman, and Jon Stewart.

One of the ways that the New Humor pushed back against older standards of taste and decorum was through its emphasis on emotional immediacy, on provoking overt displays of emotion from the audience. You devote a chapter to the concept of “putting it over.” What did that mean to the vaudevillians? What kind of relationship did they seek to establish with their audiences?

“Putting it over” was the comedians’ way of saying that they had a connection with the audience, and that their comedy was getting over the footlights as a form of dialogue between audience and performer. You could put it over by singing, dancing, telling jokes, playing comic characters, or combining any number of these performance skills, but the real talent lay in understanding how the comedian related to the audience and made them feel as if they were complicit in the subversive nature of humor. I am very interested in the vaudeville notion of “putting it over” as a way of getting jokes across to audiences as a coded way of telling the audience that they are in on the jokes, and share something that the world outside the theater isn’t in on. This is very much in the spirit of the sixteenth century Italian commedia dell’arte where servants like Arlecchino would “put one over” on their masters like Pantalone, not just to make fun of them, but as a means of survival. If I can trick the master out of food and money, and at the same time make him look like a fool all the better, and there are those in the audience going through circumstances. In The New Humor in the Progressive Era (2014), I see it as a class conflict where comedians from impoverished immigrant backgrounds were able to make a living by putting over their act and therefore making money to survive, and in some cases actually rise to the upper classes (at least economically) themselves.

You argue that vaudeville humor “brought unconventional ideas and the rejection of conformity to middle-class audiences, who were sheltered from and fearful of new concepts, cultures, and ethnicities at the beginning of twentieth century America.” What were they afraid of and how was comedy used to address their “bogeys”?

I think the central fears or “bogeys” – a term I appropriated from Walter Lippmann – were very much centered around the idea of keeping the working poor in their place; to stifle creativity, innovation, and radical sociopolitical notions of equal opportunity for all, at bay. By insisting that the underclasses conform to middle-class standards of morality –  for example, women get married and take care of children; school as a place of assimilation and conformity to middle-class Anglo-American values of patriotism and duty to ones superiors; and simply fear of sex and other vices that the middle class felt the new immigrants brought with them from their presumably “uncivilized” peasant backgrounds –the middle class could stem the bogeys that the new immigrants were trying to take their jobs and their daughters away from them through infectious immoral behavior. The idea of “association” – in other words who you associated with – would influence you in either a good way with strong middle-class values, or in a bad way through vice and sin that was perpetrated on the comic stage. The bogeys of “foreignness” still permeate the US today; the fear of immigrants from say Mexico and the Middle East.

The rhetoric of Vaudeville’s promoters emphasized the notion that they were offering “refined entertainment,” yet it is not hard to find contemporary critics who were shocked and outraged by what they saw being performed. You cite, for example, an American Magazine author who proclaimed that Vaudeville had “done more to corrupt, vitiate and degrade public tastes in matters relating to the stage than all other influences put together.”  This has led to debates about the cultural status of variety entertainment during the period. How have you approached this question?

I think the idea that Lawrence W. Levine promotes in Highbrow Lowbrow: the Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (1988) and David Savran more recently put forward in Highbrow/Lowdown: Theater, Jazz, and the Making of the New Middle Class (2010) about the 1920s jazz era, that there was a real effort on the part of cultural critics like Sime Silverman at Variety or later George Jean Nathan with the canonization of American playwrights like Eugene O’Neill to create an American stage literature that rivaled that of the Western European theater, influenced cultural critics as tastemakers to consciously create a consciously “highbrow” theatrical culture in the US. Therefore the critics and upper-class patrons of the performing arts promoted forms of American culture that would emulate and be considered of cultural significance, especially on the stage through plays as literature that has still remained with us to the present day. Popular entertainments were considered by critics and progressive reformers alike as leading to degeneracy, immorality, and ignorance of the value of high culture with vaudeville in particular. The idea that the unwashed masses would be corrupted by simply being in the presence of vaudeville comedians, jazz musicians, and musical theater performers, was something to reject and ultimately correct through the fine and performing arts like ballet, symphonic music, and plays. Ultimately “refined” vaudeville was promoted by mangers and entrepreneurs like B. F. Keith, that took “high class” acts from the legitimate theater, opera, and classical music to include in vaudeville bills in order to “clean up” vaudeville; this was known as “the Sunday School circuit.”

Rick DesRochers is an Associate Professor of Theatre at Long Island University Post.  He has served as the Literary Director of New Play and Musical Development for the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival and The Goodman Theatre of Chicago, as well as the Artistic Director of the New Theatre in Boston. He holds an M.F.A. in stage direction and dramaturgy from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and a Ph.D. in theatre from the City University of New York, Graduate Center. He is the author of The New Humor in the Progressive Era – Americanization and the Vaudeville Comedian for Palgrave Macmillan, and The Comic Offense from Vaudeville to Contemporary Comedy – Larry David, Tina Fey, Stephen 

On Race and American Television: An Interview with NPR’s Eric Deggans (Part Two)

Broadcast and Cable News is over-whelmingly presented by older white men. What do you see as the consequences of these casting decisions? Why does it matter who “presents” the news and does this matter more in an era where news and opinion are mixed so fluidly than it did in an era where news was presumed to be objective?

There’s two effects here. First, news reports are delivered by people that news producers believe are liked and respected by the audience. Anchors are authority figures on their programs. The best of them exude a sense of expertise, gravitas and believability. If the news is delivered mostly by white males, the audience gets a not-so-subtle message about who in life is considered authoritative enough to deliver the day’s news, and who is not.

Beyond that, I know from my brief stint as a guest anchor on CNN’s Reliable Sources, that TV anchors exert a lot of influence over the content of their broadcasts, particularly on cable news. So restricting the field of anchors to white males also helps lock out a wider range of perspectives when it comes to picking story subjects, guests for shows and strategies for telling stories. it’s no wonder that a recent analysis of five weeks of select cable news shows found 84% of the guests were white; 90% of O’Reilly’s guests were white.

 

Near the end of your book, you stress the value of media literacy as a means of combating some of the noxious trends you identify. Many of my readers are supporters of media literacy education. What are the key lessons would you wish media literacy educators to take away from reading your book?

The biggest lesson here is that profitability and moneymaking guide the lion’s share of decisions made in TV and media. Roger Ailes figured out that most consistent viewers of cable news are older and more conservative, so he figured out a cable news channel to cater to their perspective in Fox News. TV producer Mike Fliess figured out how to get huge ratings among female viewers by building a dating shows around a princess fantasy, so The Bachelor was born. CBS found powerful summertime ratings by building up young, white stars within its Big Brother reality show and exporting them to other reality shows. And because the American public isn’t very tolerant of people who fail, news outlets do a terrible job of covering poverty and the poor. That’s why modern advocates for diversity in media are trying hard to show that TV shows with more diverse casts make more money; because if you can show that a certain strategy brings profits, it is much easier to get media outlets to try that strategy.

I wanted to get your thoughts on a controversy around race in the media that erupted after your book was published — i.e. the #cancelcolbert controversy, which in many ways illustrates many key themes you discuss, both in the role of cable television and the role of new media. How do you think this controversy reflects the ways racial politics is playing out in the media at the current moment?

I wrote about it here. Part of the problem with the cancelcolbert controversy is that it is complex. Suey Park, the activist who started the protest, admits that she doesn’t really believe Colbert’s show should be canceled because someone who manages comedy Central’s Twitter account for the show tweeted a joke without context that has Asian stereotypes in it. Her point is that using such stereotypes in a joke — even when the real joke is that the person using the stereotypes is an idiot — is still offensive. And she rightly doubts that anyone would tell a similar joke like that on a major TV shows about black people — because black people are more likely to object and raise a stink in a way Asians often do not.

So I think Park started this controversy as a way to make comedians think more about the jokes they were telling — not because she actually thought Colbert was racist. But that creates a situation where activists aren’t being totally honest about why they are starting protests, which leave them open to charges of unfairly race-baiting. Park may feel she has achieved her goal by starting the national conversation about Asian stereotypes she wanted. But I’m afraid future protests may fall on more resistant ears if people feel they can’t necessarily trust activists when they say why they are objecting to something.

There seems to be some concerted effort with the casting decisions for this fall’s shows to try to change some of the trends we’ve seen in recent years in terms of the lack of racial diversity on prime time entertainment television. You’ve been raising lots of questions about how racial stereotypes may or may not be reproduced through these series. What should we be looking for as the public gets its first look at these series? A student asked me recently whether it was better to be represented on television in a stereotypical manner or not to be represented at all. Clearly, there are other more desirable options than this binary, but it replicates logics I have heard from entertainment executives, so I wondered how you would have addressed this query.

Look for characters that seem like people and not a collection of stereotypes. In comedies, look for shows where the humor springs from who the character is, not what ethnicity they are. If a person of color is the star of a show, look to see if any other people of color are cast around them as spouses, lovers, friends or relatives. Often, TV shows cast one non-white person in a prominent role and surround them with white characters. Look to see if the characters of color have real lives; often characters of color mostly used to move the plot along or to help the white characters, sometimes to the exclusion of their own well-being.

Eric Deggans is NPR’s first full-time TV critic, crafting stories and commentaries for broadcasts such as Morning Edition and All Things Considered, along with an array of written contributions to NPR.org and the website’s blogs such as Code Switch, Monkey See and The Two Way. He came to NPR in September 2013 from the Tampa Bay Times newspaper in Florida, where he served as TV/Media Critic and in other roles for nearly 20 years. A journalist for more than two decades, he is also the author of Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation, a look at how prejudice, racism and sexism fuels some elements of modern media, published in October 2012 by Palgrave Macmillan. He guest hosted CNN’s media analysis show Reliable Sources many times in fall 2013, joining a select group of journalists and media critics filling in for departed host Howard Kurtz. That year, he also earned the Florida Press Club’s first-ever Diversity award, honoring his coverage of issues involving race and media. He received the Legacy award from the National Association of Black Journalists’ A&E Task Force, an honor bestowed to “seasoned A&E journalists who are at the top of their careers.” Eric also serves on the board of educators, journalists and media experts who select the George Foster Peabody Awards for excellence in electronic media.