Amusing Ourselves to Death

I am a big fan of the daily thought email service provided by the good folks of “Cutlure is Not Optional” . Their thought provoking quotes sent as part of their “the daily asterisk” service help me challenge my thinking on a range of topics, and often providing fodder for interesting conversations over pints of beer later in the day.

A number of the daily quotes recently have drawn from Neil Postman’s books Amusing Ourselves to Death and The Disappearance of Childhood. Here’s a listing of the more recent ones. These wonderful reflections help us to challenge television as a neutral, physical artifact separate from society. Instead, these quotes serve to demystify the social black box that is, often unconsidered, augmenting human forces shaping our world in powerful, and problematic, ways. Want to join me in a pint, or two, to discuss?

Television is our culture’s principal mode of knowing about itself. Therefore — and this is the critical point — how television stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly to be staged. It is not merely that on the television screen entertainment is the metaphor for all discourse. It is that off the screen the same metaphor prevails. (Amusing Ourselves to Death)

In saying no one knew about the ideas implicit in the telegraph, I am not quite accurate. Thoreau knew. Or so one may surmise. It is alleged that upon being told that through the telegraph a man in Maine could instantly send a message to a man in Texas, Thoreau asked, “But what do they have to say to each other?” In asking this question, to which no serious interest was paid, Thoreau was directing attention to the psychological and social meaning of the telegraph, and in particular to its capacity to change the character of information — from the personal and regional to the impersonal and global. (The Disappearance of Childhood)

Does television shape culture or merely reflect it? … The question has largely disappeared as television has gradually become our culture. This means, among other things, that we rarely talk about television, only about what is on television — that is, about its content. Its ecology, which includes not only its physical characteristics and symbolic code but the conditions in which we normally attend to it, is taken for granted, accepted as natural. (Amusing Ourselves to Death)

What is happening here is that television is altering the meaning of “being informed” by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. I am using this word almost in the precise sense in which it is used by spies in the CIA or KGB. Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information — misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information — information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing. In saying this, I do not mean to imply that television news deliberately aims to deprive Americans of a coherent, contextual understanding of their world. I mean to say that when news is packaged as entertainment, that is the inevitable result. And in saying that the television news show entertains but does not inform, I am saying something far more serious than that we are being deprived of authentic information. I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed. Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge? (Amusing Ourselves to Death)

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The Economy of the Flourishing

Today I enjoyed a simple breakfast of toasted bread, granola, and yogurt, all items my wife made out of the love that naturally bubbles up from within her.

Today I walked the lush, green raised beds that thrive because of the flourishing ecosystem of trillions of organisms living in harmony beneath the soil.

Today as I read my book I kept being distracted by all the flying things of earth passing before my eyes contributing to the wholesome ecosystem above the earth.

Today I came in to snack on delicious zucchini bread made by a neighbor in gratitude of the harvest gathered from our community free pick garden.

Harmony and abundance all around me arising from creation fully flourishing in expressions of life well lived, no paper or metal tokens of obligation wanted.

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Education and Our Future

“One of the primary goals educators are tasked with today is to help students become college ready and – even more importantly – career ready.” Paige Johnson, Education Strategist, Intel Corporation, ISTE Board member. Source: Get Active: Reimagining Learning Spaces for Student Success, page 1

“One of the primary missions of education is to prepare students for democratic and civic engagement.” Susan Benigni Cipolle. Source: Service-Learning and Social Justice: Engaging Students in Social Change, page ix

The title of a recent article in Business Insider heralds “Experts predict robots will take over 30% of our jobs by 2025 — and white-collar jobs aren’t immune“. A recent report in reports:

  • 25% of full time employees will be “on-demand”, moving beyond the creative freelancer of today to include top-end problem solving professionals. Individuals will need to brand themselves to obtain and keep jobs.
  • There will be growing demand for professional tribers—freelance professional managers that specializes in putting teams together for very specific projects
  • Teaching will increasingly move to the on-demand realm, creating the role of freelance professors.
  • End-of-life planners will be needed to help shape the last phase of people’s lives.
  • Neuro-implant technicians will be needed to give our brains electronic upgrades
  • Smart-home handypersons will be as needed as today’s roofers and plumbers to keep all those Internet of Thing gadgets in our home connected and working.
  • Virtual Reality Experience Designers will help us feel as if we’re in the same room with our other office workers without ever leaving our homes.

There are other things on the list, but it gives a taste of where futurists see our world heading. If education exists primarily to make sure students are career ready, then industrial leaders, futurists, and researchers need to have an active role in designing the curriculum of our schools today.

But is the future inevitable? Do we need to get on board or get left behind?

By contrast, if the primary objective of education is to prepare students for democratic and civic engagement, then I propose we need to also incorporate education that helps us question what kind of world we want, and then to critically reflect on whether various technologies as designed and used take us closer to our vision and goals, or away from it. Rather than seeing technology as a guiding evolutionary force operating outside of social structures independently driving who we become, we learn that it is something shaped by social forces so as to further shape society. Thus, it is ultimately not technology that is shaping society, but rather people, their culture, their language, their political and economic structures, etc. who act in concert as those social forces that have shaped technology.

I think there is great value in having businesses and futurists present as stakeholders when discussing goals and pedagogy for education. But I think there is great danger when they become the primary stakeholder. We need champions of democracy and civil society to have as great or greater voice as a stakeholder, along with parents, social services, students, and others.

The alternative is to cede control of our future to those who believe technology offers the solution to our social challenges and opportunities, and who believe that reasoned self-interest and the free-market economic system will come of its own accord to solutions that are in the best interest of the common good.

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Teaching … or Learning

A bit over a decade ago, I had the privilege to help charter and be scoutmaster of a new scout troop with my sons and a few other wonderful families. We decided to especially focus on backpacking as a troop. None of us had done any serious backpacking, adults or scouts. Rather than us adults working extra hard to first learn and then teach backpacking to the scouts, we co-learned as we prepared, tried, failed, reflected and discussed, learned, prepared, tried failed less, reflected and discussed, learned … I use the term fail because we didn’t achieve our designated goal — we weren’t able to hike all the way to the designated camp site on our first trip, we had to cut another trip short, etc. But is it failure when each was a cycle of inquiry that subsequently allowed us to take on progressively more challenging hikes by developing a body of knowledge that gave us more power to work with and within nature safely and effectively?

A couple years ago I was leading a Demystifying Technology weeklong workshop with parents at an elementary school. We opened up computers, learned about the flow of a keystroke as it makes its through the parts of a computer, installed the Linux operating system, and set up the computer in a local area network together. Then we installed a tile-based programming tool called eToys that the school was using to teach basic computer science and computational thinking skills to the K-5 students. But there was a problem on most of the computers in which the images of a toy car going across the screen drawn by the opening menu of the program stayed on the screen, such that it slowly became just one trace of all that had been displayed on the screen since starting the program. When the parents asked how to fix it, I honestly said I didn’t know, and asked in return how were we going to fix it? As a group we started thinking through what might be happening, remembering back to the earlier lessons on the flow of the keystroke, looking through menus and trying various fixes, finding work arounds, and ultimately finding the actual fix, a 3D rendering problem with certain older video controllers. Never mind that most of the parents there had done very little work on any computer, and never had worked with the nuts and bolts of hardware and software. Or that none of us could give a solid explanation of what 3D rendering had to do with this particular problem.

This past week I heard a wonderful story of someone unpacking a 3-D printer in a library. She had some basic experience using one at another library, but hadn’t had to do setup and development from scratch before. Rather than working extra hard to first learn and then teach 3-D printing to teens at the library, she co-learned with the teens as together they pieced together how to work with this specific style of 3-D printer and software. Even when she knew certain aspects from previous experiences, she allowed and guided the teens to learn it themselves instead of teaching it to them.

A lifetime ago when I was a teenager my dad had an interaction with someone who was just starting a sawmill. My dad had built his own sawmill years ago and now had a newer sawmill. Yet during the conversation my dad kept asking this upstart questions of how he did things instead of telling him how my dad did it. I can remember still how mad it made me and how embarrassed I was that my dad wasn’t letting on just how much he knew. I confronted my dad right after the other guy left. Dad responded that if he had done all the telling, my dad might have missed out on a great opportunity to learn. But I also see now that the guy would have learned how my dad did things that fit my dad’s context instead of the guy getting a chance to work out by thinking out loud with my dad how to work out problems in a way that fit his context.

In Experience and Education, John Dewey talks about collateral learning. It’s learning how awful math is when we’re in a classroom in which a teacher is teaching us math using the drill and kill method. For years, I thought the learning objectives in my classes and workshops related to technology were related to the specific technology, and the collateral learning was about troubleshooting and confidence that students could approach different technology down the line. But in Democracy and Education Dewey comes to the conclusion that the means of education and goal of education are both the same … education. Education is not as a first step of accumulation that is then exchanged for something else like a job, but education is a central part of people working together in democracy to continually build community as a community. Every day we are in a process of learning if we are to adapt to the changing conditions to continue doing that which we regularly do and to achieve the many new things we want to do. Life is a process of inquiry, and we only flourish in life if we embrace and continually progress in our ability to learn.

Thinking through each of the above examples, I now wonder if the common thread is that of co-learning rather than teaching? And even more so, I wonder if the core learning objective is competency as a community of learners and if the collateral learning is the specific topic at hand, whether backpacking, or refurbishing a computer, or 3-D printing, or sawmilling?

The impact of flipping things on their end is huge. It completely changes what competencies we need to guide a workshop. Normally we seek to develop a greater level of competency with a thing — a computer, a software, a network, a robotics package, a digital sewing machine — than those in the class which we will be teaching. But I wonder if this is a crutch because we aren’t fully confident in our ability as a learner. In this flipped classroom, we instead enter with a competency in the process of learning and a designated role as the lead guide in the learning process. As lead guide we may rush ahead in the learning of something, but not so that we can teach what we just learned. Rather, to the extent that we rush ahead at all, we do so in order to know enough about the terrain to construct a safe starting point for learning to occur. Rather than asking what all I need to know to begin teaching, I ask what is the least I need to pre-learn to create an effective context for us to learn together. Progress isn’t achieved by having everyone develop proficiency in the thing, nor by separating out those who can from those who can’t. Rather, it is measured by the extent to which we as a community of learners have progressed in our ability to achieve the larger goal of which the thing we’re learning about is but a small part.

The process, learning, is the product of our class or workshop.

What do you think?

Side Note:

The last month has been even more hectic than usual, and I’ve had to really pull back to the most essential activities to stay even slightly sane right now. My writing routine has been left far behind, but I have kept a number of core meetings. These have been an intellectual lifeline of sorts for many reasons. But especially helpful has been a chance to dig deeper into some of the unique aspects of the Demystifying Technology approach, thanks in particular to George, Miriam, Todd, Chip and his Inquiry-based learning class, Colin, Hailley, Kim, Sarah, Travis, and my summer Community Informatics Studio class. Even today I have just a few minutes to jot down some random thoughts about this in this post, as a number of deadlines loom — helping to lead 21 teens and 4 other adults from Twin City Bible Church on our 10th annual weeklong trip of co-service and co-learning with teens from the Mary Brown Center in East St. Louis, departing Saturday; the Master Gardener walk June 20 on which our yard is one of those featured; a number of summer research and teaching milestones; and the ongoing summer milestones of being an urban farmer. But I wanted to get some things down before I forgot too much, and I apologize if it’s a bit random in its presentation and still a bit unformed as an argument. More to come in July!

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A tinkerer, a traditionalist, and a change agent walk into a library one day…

In 2010 I spent over half the year in East St. Louis helping to develop a set of grant proposals requesting a bit over $32 million in federal stimulus funds. Little did I know this would be my capstone project as changing funding priorities increasingly pulled me away from a community I had come to deeply love after more than a decade of engagement.

The grants, if funded, would have built much needed broadband infrastructure, public computing centers, and digital literacy programming. In the paper “Innovation Diffusion and Broadband Deployment in East St. Louis, Illinois, USA“, Lisa Bievenue and I reflected on lessons learned from the experience using Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovation theory. The expansive theory has many components, but of particular note for us was the social communication process that fosters diffusion of an innovation throughout a defined population.

For Rogers, innovation is defined very broadly as an artifact, concept, or practice that is new to the population. His book identifies a wide range of innovations, from contour plowing to birth control to a digital technology. This proved valuable for us in that it allowed us to see cases of innovation diffusion in East St. Louis even if limits in resources limited digital innovation specifically.

Using a bell curve, Rogers divided a population adopting an innovation into five categories: the innovators, the early adopters, the early majority, the late majority, and the laggards. I’m not clear whether the terms used were meant to be value-laden when Rogers first proposed his theory in the 1960’s, but they certainly are today. We celebrate the innovator and innovations as generally positive and increasingly valuable if we are to solve the problems of today and thwart the potential problems of tomorrow. Laggards, then, are seen as hinderances to achieving that promise.

In this article I’d like to challenge that unquestioned valuing of innovation, though, and so I will instead use language pulled from the descriptions of these categories to instead label them: the tinkerer, the opinion leader, the cautious, the skeptic, and the traditionalist. Rogers also defines the change agent, who’s role is to come in from the outside to help affect change by fostering diffusion.

DD2When we work to address the “digital divide”, the assumption is that for multiple reasons certain communities lack access to the physical and educational resources to participate in our digital age. The goal of such programs is to distribute the technologies that the “haves” enjoy to the “have-nots”, and to provide the needed digital literacy so that they can get onboard before they are further left behind. SkewedDiffusionCurveWe deplore the lack of human resources that leaves communities without the important tinkerers and opinion leaders that would otherwise have been able to see the competitive advantage they could have gained through early adoption of innovations. From this lens, the adoption curve is highly skewed to the right side of the curve, and innovations encounter a wall of resistance. As such, we redouble our efforts to urgently reach the non-adopters.

But using Rogers broader conceptualization of innovations, Lisa and I began to notice that with many non-digital technologies, and even with some digital technologies, East St. Louis had as many tinkerers as did Urbana-Champaign, the hometown of the University of Illinois’ flagship campus. And Urbana-Champaign had as many traditionalists as East St. Louis. But with digital technologies, those who would typically be the important opinion leaders fostering diffusion to the broader community were waylaid from those roles as they worked multiple jobs to make ends meet in addition to serving as civic leaders. ExclusionDiffusionCurveAs such, they had limited discretionary time or income to play a critical role on behalf of their community. Combined with other axes of exclusion, then, the community did not have the full complement of players to help assure a classic diffusion of innovation model. With this lens, the work is to build capacity for the existing innovators and early adopters rather than to more generally distribute innovations from the outside into the community. But it is to also work as allies to the oppressed to identify and work to challenge the axes of exclusion, much of which is institutionalized within societies laws, policies, practices, and culture to privilege some over others.

From this framework of diffusion, colleagues and I have been working to develop a demystifying technology approach to digital literacy, an approach that is as much and more about demystifying the social as the technical that comprises a digital artifact.

But there has been another aspect to the curve that has been nagging at the back of my mind for some years and which I’ve been grappling with at the edges. It is the embedded value we give to innovations and those who bring them to new communities. Such a valuation is to assume that struggling communities are missing something — an innovation — that will fix their problems. As such, progress is defined in terms of needed new technologies and practices. This fits well our economic model that depends on growth if the nation is to remain healthy and thriving. But does unquestioned valuing of innovations truly advance human flourishing? Are market forces the best method for separating the good innovations from the bad?

Perhaps in our insistence to reform the skeptic and the traditionalist so that they no longer stand in the way of progress and instead join the enlightened, we’ve lost an important counterbalancing voice. Let me be clear, I do not say this because I romanticize a past that has often been equally and even more exclusionary and oppressive, albeit in different ways. But to race away from the time-honored ways championed by traditionalists and to ignore the warnings of the skeptic, I believe, is to run headlong off an unknown cliff where solid ground has been eroded away by the waves of progress. Such an approach is to  allow the exuberance of the tinkerer and the passion of the opinion leader to have domination over the ideas of others.

I instead am increasingly inclined to see the value in embracing another way, a way that works to integrate the ideas of the innovator, the insights of the opinion leader, the caution and skepticism of those in the middle, and the time-honored of the traditionalist. It is to embrace difference as a resource, where every perspective is sought and prized as important if we are to find emergent approaches to what are primarily social issues.

Change agents, rather than working to colonize a community through enforcement of outside values and goals, or working to promote the regime of the tinkerer, instead seek to foster community dialogue so that all voices can be heard. Change agents also work as allies to report back to those outside a community the ways in which systematized oppressions are serving to exclude the community, or certain voices within the community.

As for digital literacy programming, I am increasingly inclined to believe we need places where tinkerers, traditionalists, and all those in between come together to dialogue and learn from each other, as opposed to putting the technology expert at the head of the class to distribute knowledge to the unknowing student. We need to use dialogue to probe everyone’s expertise, so as to explore how and why we should appropriate an innovation, and how and why we should hold on to the time-honored ways. Further, it is to seek wisdom from the cautious and the skeptic to heighten our ability to critically question who might gain privilege and who might be oppressed through adoption of specific implementations of an innovation. And it is to see who and how use of an innovation might be humanizing and dehumanizing, and to develop and enforce policies that increase the former and work to eliminate the latter.

Both Fab Labs and Makerspaces have at their core a more radical approach to innovation that seeks to challenge the current industrial model of innovation, one that has most people awaiting the innovations that come from the “experts” that work for major companies. These innovations spaces work to reassert the garage tinkerer into the drivers seat of innovation, which is good. Tinkerers and early adopters within a community are much more aware of their community and its values and goals than a national or international corporation ever could.

But I am skeptical whether places like Fab Labs and Makerspaces can be sites where all voices in community come together in dialogue as described above. Their names alone prioritize the tinkerer over the traditionalist.

As such, I think there is need for another public place, and I think the library is an excellent choice. When properly designed, equipped, and staffed, the library can serve as a place where all members of a community are welcomed. A library that aggressively works to identify and challenge ways in which it is excluding some from the community, and that works to equip both the tinkerer and the traditionalist with the resources they need to accomplish that which they value being and doing, can be an essential site for community conversation and community building.

A tinkerer, a traditionalist, and a change agent walk into the library one day…

… to build a more resilient, inclusive, community together.

Posted in Libraries, Reflections, Technology and Society | 2 Comments

Living a Good Life

Today my wife and I have a deep sense of joy and satisfaction as we celebrate with both our sons their new internships. But even more to the point, we have joy that they are living a counter-cultural good life.

As I walked around campus after class today, I began to reflect on the dominant narrative of a good life that is broken into two phases. The first, long, laborious phase has us focusing on accumulation. We accumulate education so that we can exchange it for a job. We use the job to accumulate money so that we can exchange it for a home, for wealth, for status, for networks, for power. And some day, if we live responsibly enough and long enough, we’ll be able to live into the second, comfortable retirement phase. But how relatively few succeed? And how much is sacrificed in means to achieve the ends?

I see as a counter-cultural good life a deep appreciation, and actuality, that we have a choice and sense of that choice to be a valued member of community today, as we are, and not just for who we might become. We participate in learning experiences not for that which we are accumulating to someday exchange for something else, but rather for the use of that education today to be and do that which we value. Said more pointedly, education isn’t an early step in the accumulation phase, it is a lifelong part of being more fully human. Likewise a job in the good life — it’s not a step in the accumulation phase but another site of being more fully human.

Loss of the good life, then, isn’t that we miss out on accumulating things to reach the second, comfortable retirement phase. It’s when people cannot be that which they value being and doing, that which gives them a deep sense of purpose and value, that which lets them flourish in the now, not in some future that is some unknown number of exchanges away. Loss of a good life happens when people are tracked into jobs that do not pay a living wage, or into responsible jobs that will help them accumulate wealth for retirement, instead of jobs to which the feel a deep sense of calling. It happens when people grind through an education developing marketable skills, instead of reveling in education for the thrill of it.

God willing, I will die with a long todo list. But whether I die today, or tomorrow, or a year from now, a decade from now, or five decades from now, I long for a funeral in which people don’t weep over that which was unfulfilled, but that good life that was fulfilled to the extent possible, every day.

My longing is to reclaim community so that every person, and all of creation, can similarly have and sense their choice to do the same.

My joy and satisfaction is in the confidence that my sons do have, do sense, and are exercising their choice to be more fully human today and every day.

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Permaculture – discovering the new and formalizing the old


Here’s a post I wrote for the Wolske Urban Farm blog, but which came to mind this week as I read the Introduction to the book “Public Libraries and Resilient Cities”, edited by Michael Dudley. I believe there’s quite a bit of crossover between ideas.

Originally posted on Angie and Martin's Side-yard Urban Farm:

Permaculture is both very new and very old to me. It is new in that I only began to visit websites and read books about permaculture fall 2013. It is old in that I recognize in it a formalization of many of the principles that are a part of my family and religious heritage.

The Permaculture Flower The Permaculture Flower

Permaculture is a vision of a consciously designed landscape ecology that includes garden and farm, buildings and neighborhoods, and indeed our cultures so as to mimic the patterns found in nature. It is also practical “the use of systems thinking and design principles that provide the organising framework for implementing the above vision [1].” And it is the network of individuals and groups developing and implementing permaculture design solutions.

The concept was developed by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the mid-1970’s in Australia based on their observations of natural occurring patterns and…

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