Monthly Archives: October 2011

The Incredible Shrinking Intellectual

The Libyan National Transitional Council flag flown from a communications tower in Bayda

What has happened to all the Thomas Paines — the revolutionary thinkers who provided intellectual substance and inspiration to every revolution in history beginning with our own in 1776?

They seem to be conspicuously missing in the recent Arabic uprisings, reports the New York Times.

To be sure, much of this absence may stem from factors unique to the Arab experience — as New York Times reporter Robert Worth observes, the intellectual’s perennial challenge of combating brutal repression and religious orthodoxy simultaneously.

Moreover, many Arab intellectuals, exiled for decades, have lost touch with the day-to-day struggles of their compatriots.

Then again we live in a post-ideological era.  There seems to be less demand than ever for “unifying doctrines or grandiose figures who provide them,” Worth conjectures, adding that the kinds of intellectuals in the forefront of the epic ’89 revolution s have been relegated to microblogging and street organizing in the present-day Arabic  struggles.

Yet, perhaps some bigger factor is at work — something I’ve discerned a time or two in my own work.

Could it be, as Worth observes, that “the ideological platforms of earlier revolutions are obsolete, given the speed of communications and the churn of new perspectives?”

Could it be that the late-20th century vanguard model is simply not generative enough?

One expert quoted in the article, Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group, thinks so.

He contends that the recycling of new perspectives in these revolutions simply have proven to be “too fluid, too fast-moving, too complex” for intellectual vanguards to supply an over-arching vision — a new paradigm.

I find the article fascinating because it strikes at the heart of something I’ve observed in my own work as a Cooperative Extension communications professional.

The revolutionaries of 1989 were struggling with bandwidth limitations.  There was a critical need for intellectuals such as Czech dissident Vaclav Havel to serve as information brokers, people who were not only equipped to provide an overarching rationale for their nation’s grievances but who also could serve as bridges between the discontented, isolated masses and the western media.

New media have essentially resolved the bandwidth problem.  Now more than ever rank-and-file revolutionaries are as much equipped to articulate their grievances as they are to demonstrate how these kaleidoscopic views are playing out within their ranks.

To put it another way, emerging media have empowered rank-and-file revolutionaries to learn, share and articulate on their own — without the acute need for the kinds of professionals who spearheaded earlier uprisings.

Is there a lesson here for Cooperative Extension?  Yes, in two notable respects: first, by demonstrating how new media have enabled ordinary people to leverage their own intellectual assets and, second, by confirming the awesome generative power of these new media.

Simply put, ordinary people no longer require the active intervention and participation of experts as they once did.

New media are enabling them to build their own learning and sharing platforms — platforms that have largely large superseded the need for experts, whether these happen to be revolutionary intellectuals or professional educators.

Yes, as I have steadfastly maintained, there is still a place for professional educators but only if we understand our new function within this drastically altered communications landscape.

News Media Relations: The Fundamentals

We’ve entered a new age of demassification, one in which laypersons arguably have as much access to communications media as the professionals who have spent years learning how to make efficient use of them.  Even so, there is still a place for traditional media – newspapers and broadcast media.  Yes, within this increasingly flattened communications landscape, these older media still have a significant role to play in helping Extension educators disseminate messages to their diverse audiences.  With this in mind, I’ve just completed an online video to complement my online publication, one aimed at helping media professionals cultivate close, productive relationships with media gatekeepers, the people who decide what is news.

Striking a Blow for Prosumerism in Cooperative Extension

Broadcasters were among numerous professionals in the previous century trained to make optimal use of limited bandwidth.

As an old broadcast guy, I’m fully capable of droning on about bandwidth.

Bandwidth essentially can be defined as the amount of data that can be carried from one point to another in a given period of time.

In the mid-1980s, while I was studying radio, television and film in college and graduate school, virtually everything boiled down to a question of bandwidth — not surprising considering that the old information order dominated by print and broadcast media was seriously plagued by bandwidth limitations.

Way back then, print and broadcast media were the primary ways through which people could communicate with large numbers of other people.

My task as a broadcast student was learning the most optimal ways to push information through this comparatively constricted bandwidth to the masses — needless to say, the same challenge facing my print counterparts who were training to become journalists.

We essentially were being trained to become dissemination experts — people who knew how to take large amounts of information, winnow it down and present it ways that made optimal use of limited bandwidth.

For that matter, so were aspiring educators of the time.

Looking back, it was a bit of a heavy experience, and while I’m by no means the product of an elite education, I admit succumbing once or twice to the feeling that I was preparing myself for a lofty role.

So much has changed in the last quarter century. Indeed, if you think about it, with the advent of the Internet and, more recently, Web 2.0, the bandwidth issue has been all but resolved.

To a degree, I saw these changes coming.  Somehow, I had stumbled onto and zealously read the works of futurist Alvin Toffler way back in the early 80s.  Toffler offered a compelling argument that the mass media-dominated information order in which I was being trained ultimately would be replaced by one that was considerably more demassified and open.

The massive expansion of communications outlets that would follow this demassification would empower large numbers of people to become communicators on their own.

That’s precisely what has happened.  As I’ve related before within this forum, I first noticed it in the mid-1990s after surfing onto the pages of Jim, a Brooklyn attorney and independent scholar who used his knowledge of UNIX and html to develop one of the most comprehensive and influential political sites on the internet.

In time, Jim ultimately leveraged this influence to become one of the nation’s most influential independent scholars and public intellectuals.  Many others have empowered themselves in similar ways.

There is an important lesson here for Extension educators.

We’ve got to understand how this new communications order has transformed our diverse audiences. Growing numbers of them are no longer clients in any conventional sense of the word.

They are no longer clients, no longer consumers but prosumers who will actively collaborate with us in the planning, development and delivery of our knowledge products.

They have liberated themselves in ways we professional communicators and educators could have scarcely imagined a generation ago.

To a significant degree, they are now our equals, people who are fully capable of using the advantages of these new media to learn on their own and empower themselves.

They no longer need dissemination experts like me.

Small wonder why the old plan-and-push communications and outreach model is as dead as a door nail.

It largely accounts for why we in Extension must become comfortable with platforms, the fluid ecosystems in which ideas are discussed and exchanged and that serve as the bases for supporting present and future innovation.

The platforms of the future will be characterized by the active collaboration of Extension educators and clients — or, I should say, former clients.

Building these sorts of platforms and actively collaborating with our former clients will ensure that we remain in the 21st century what we were in the 20th: educators at the cusp of innovation and change.

 

Skepticism is Fatal: A Case for Social Media Adoption

Like it or not — and, frankly, many of us don't — a new Extension communication and outreach platform is being constructed on the old one.

Skepticism: I run across it occasionally as I discuss the absolute importance of social media adoption to the future of Cooperative Extension.

A few Extension educators steadfastly maintain that the learning curve required to master social media is not only too time consuming but also that social media have the potential of eroding personal contacts with their clients.

I think they’re wrong.  They’re wrong because the old way of doing things is untenable.  It’s untenable because a new platform is being built on the older 20th century outreach platform that our forebears first began building a century ago to serve our clients.  Yes, face-to-face contacts will continue to play an integral part in this new platform, though part of something even bigger.

Note that I use the term platform instead of more common terms such as models and networks.  I think it more accurately describes what we’re dealing with today. Platform is a more apt term to describe the open, highly fluid ecosystems of knowledge that form the basis for present and future innovation, many of which are being built — or stacked — on older ones.

That’s precisely what’s happening within Extension: a new outreach platform is being built on the old one. This fact holds some disturbing implications for those in our ranks who have not adjusted the new platform — it means that, professionally speaking, they in the basement.

This explains why social media adoption is more than simply a professional add-on or option.  It’s critical to our survival.  We’ve got to acquire the skills to operate effectively within this new outreach platform.

If we don’t acquire the skills — if we don’t become fully engaged, fully networked professionals — we will not survive the future.

A Fatal Illusion

As I see it, the people who resist social media adoption suffer from a kind of fatal illusion.  They mistakenly assume that the old 20th century communications order will carry over into the future or, at least, that enough of it will remain to ensure their survival.

Things are not working out that way. Granted, some elements of the old outreach platform will comprise parts of the new one.  Even so, the new platform that is emerging bears scant resemblance to the old one and operates on several entirely new premises and expectations.

Also, the old platform was seriously hampered by bandwidth limitations— bandwidth essentially defined as the amount of data that can be carried from one point to another in a given period of time.

Because of these limitations, the old approach required information brokers.  The task fell to people like us to plan and push educational programs down to our clients through this relatively narrow bandwidth — small wonder why plan-and-push delivery methods comprised the cornerstone of our 20th century outreach platform.

However, “that was then and this is now. “ The Internet and, more recently, social media, have all but swept away this old information order.

Something remarkable has followed: liberation.  The people we once knew as clients are liberating themselves from Extension educators and other information brokers.

They are liberating themselves by learning how to seek and retrieve information on their own.  They are no longer routinely turning to us and other traditional information brokers, such as reference librarians, for essential knowledge.

Think about it: These liberated audiences are no longer clients in any conventional sense.  They are no longer passive subjects waiting to be enlightened by professional educators.  They are developing their own venues for intellectual exchange with or without professional educators.

As futurists and social critics Steven Johnson and Matt Ridley have stressed time and again in their writings, the wellspring of human progress stems from fluid, open environments — the places where ideas in the course of meeting, mating and morphing produce new insights and innovations.

That is precisely what is taking place among these newly liberated clients: They’re building their own platforms: fluid networks where they  are engaging, discussing, sharing serendipitous insights and providing valuable feedback.

Like it or not — and, frankly some of us don’t — these liberated clients are creating their own highly fluid, open-source learning environments.   New media are enabling them to carry on open, highly generative, highly rewarding exchanges without us.

This new reality should drive home a hard truth to all of us: By turning our backs on these open, highly generative discussions, some of us are depriving our ourselves of many of the critical insights that will influence our professions in the future.

Refusing to adopt social media is like exiting off a high-speed six-lane Interstate Highway onto a service road and driving at a snail's pace.

Here’s another way of looking at it: Ignoring these emerging social networks is like exiting off a six-lane, high-speed Interstate onto a two-lane service road and driving at a snail’s pace.

We’re behaving like tortoises instead of hares. And forget all the endearing folklore associated with tortoises:  Within this new communications environment, hares will always trump tortoises.

The hares shall inherit the earth.