I'm very excited to be at Michael Wesch's keynote at Learning Solutions 2011. Michael's from the department of anthropology at Kansas state university and is a well known figure exploring the effects of new media on society and culture. This is a topic that I'm particularly interested in and it really gets me warmed up to see someone from academia come up with a talk like this. I'm expecting a lot of real stories and empirical evidence. You should definitely look up Michael's YouTube channel - great videos and great stuff to learn. He's also a twitter god - 10,000+ followers?
The place that Michael turns to for answers is his students. He has 200-400 students each year and he studies them like an anthropologist. Classrooms are the quintessential areas of learning in society and there's something really wrong with them. You get disappointing results such as questions like, "How many points is this worth?". The video above is an illustration of stuff that's so wrong with education today. Facebook through class all day - there's literally something in the air. The knowledge is all around people and a lot of advanced technology is so ubiquitous that it makes connection, organising, sharing and learning easier than ever before. In Michael's world people need to be knowledge-able, be able to find, share, learn, organise. We're in the middle of profound cultural change and only the knowledge-able can cope with that change effectively.
Our Culture is Changing
Michael has spent a lot of time in New Guinea and it's a fairly tough place to live in given the things that people have to eat and how they survive in the tropical weather in rainforest. When he was there it felt to Michael as if he had a total loss of self. He says your self is reflected back to you by your context and he had to recreate himself in this new culture and environment. There was no media there to guide him. He realised just how important media was to him. The next 8 years that he was there, media helped the people there in a big way. For example population census - it should be really easy to write down the names and list the people in a village right? Except the people in village don't really have regular names. Their names are like 'brother', 'sister', etc. The other examples was disputes. People would get together in a village get together and fix the relationship in a group. When you bring in the written law, this obviously changes things dramatically. Media is therefore not just tools and communication - they mediate relationships. Media changes, relationships change and the culture changes.
Think about how we watch TV. We watch TV for the content, but the content drives relationships. We watch TV while at dinner, we congregate in groups to watch sport. These are the conversations that create our culture. Now this kind of stuff should be showing it's effect on education, but it doesnt - 43% of students are bored, up from 20% in the 80s. How do people get engaged in American Idol and not as much in class?
"What we are encountering is a panicky, an almost hysterical, attempt to escape from the deadly anonymity of modern life… and the prime cause is not vanity… but the craving of people who feel their personality sinking lower and lower into the whirl of indistinguishable atoms to be lost in a mass civilization." - Henry Seidel Canby, 1926
Let's understand this phenomenon. We use the word "Whatever". So what's a brief history of the phrase "Whatever"? Let's analyse it over time. In the pre-60s "Whatever" meant "That's what I meant". After the 60s it became synonymous with "I don't care" or a "Meh...". This reflects itself in the Nirvana lyrics of the "Smells like Teens" song. So why is American Idol popular, it's a way for people to raise their personality and not be indistinguishable. More people want to be important today - more people want to be the new American Idol. From the late 90s to now, people have adopted the "I'll do what I want" meaning for "Whatever". It's an empowered generation and free culture. This is embodied in the book, Generation Me. It's a very broad cultural phenomenon which is driving a search for identity and recognition. Our choices are so incredibly broad, you're not born knowing who you are and want to be. We all need identity and recognition and the media keeps bombarding us with messages of the kind of people we should become. The search for the authentic self leads us towards self-centered modes of self-fulfillment and disagreement on several things - values, views, approaches. We're more disengaged and more fragmented. The new media revolution is creating the cultural background for this kind of a change.
A User Generated Knowledge Economy
Web 2.0 is changing the way we connect to onother. We need to rethink ourselves as the video above will show you. Michael created this at home and it has had 11,319,629 over the last four years. This is when Michael shared it with four friends just to get feedback. Can you imagine that? Things got viral and he was soon topping Digg. This was a way for user generated filtering. Think about it - Michael created this video. That was user generated content and digg helped users to filter this out. People can go ahead and organise it themselves using delicious - this is a user generated organisation. Things like RSS feeds help people get stuff on their own systems and this becomes user generated distribution. This is a new knowledge economy that's shaping itself through the input of the users than a top down authority.
Companies like Dorritos are letting users create videos for them to do their advertising. They ran a contest and selected the top 5 in their contest and one of the winning videos took just $12.79 to create. This is a sign that we need to rethink the way we do things. Ebay is changing the way we commerce. People are renting out rooms and cars and people are banking without without banks - 10% loans this year will be peer to peer and negotiated through the social web. We're doing politics differently - Obama's campaign was an example. But think of how we would do governance differently if we built society ground up on what technology have. We can design democracy fromnthe ground up. Ubiqutous, context aware, social, semantic social networks are changing our world.
Why does this matter?
This deeply matters. We know ourselves through our relations with others. New media is changing how we perceive ourselves and how we relate to each other. We have a cultural inversion today. There's a tension. We're expressing individualism like never before but we value community. We talk independence but we value relationships. The free hugs campaign was pre-social media but when it goes on YouTube it gets 67,900,361hits and becomes a global phenomenon. Think of how this kind of thing becomes revolutionary. This is how people are talking back to brands. The above YouTube video caused a big brand to bring users to the table and force themselves towards change. There's new possibilities all around us. There are great tensions and those tensions allow for creativity in learning.
The first video on this blogpost was something 200 students collaboratively scripted and filmed using new media tools. What's important to note is that knowledge is all around us. The classroom is not the place where we should be going for knowledge. As architects of culture, we need to understand this phenomenon and our environment. The walls of the classroom are not the truth. Information is not just a part of these walls. Authority isn't single source. The uncultured project is an example of someone walking out of class to change the world - Shawn Anand's story is truly inspirational. Our understanding of this phenomenon is important. We have to create learning environments that help people be knowledge-able and live in this new environment. We need three things:
- Real world problems;
- People working together;
- Leveraging technology effectively