Category Archives: social media

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.

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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.

Hangin’ Loose — For the Sake of Our Survival

Battle of the Bulge Movie Poster

I admit I’ve viewed a fair number of World War II-related movies in my lifetime.  One of the most memorable from my childhood is the 1965 epic “The Battle of the Bulge.”

Like so many combat movies of the era, the storyline was built around a handful of notable characters, some mere enlisted men, some NCOs, some field-grade officers, each grappling with the turn of events in their own unique ways.

Two that stand out in my memory are the young , rather clueless battlefield rookie, Lieutenant Weaver, played by James MacArthur, and his devoted, battle-hardened NCO, Sergeant Duquesne, played by George  Montgomery.

As events unfold, the streetwise Duquesne repeatedly advises young Weaver to “hang loose” —not only to be mindful of the passing scene but also to capitalize on every opportunity — advice that proved immensely helpful to Weaver following his subsequent capture and near murder by the German SS at Malmedy.

It goes without saying that this advice applies as readily to Extension educators in the early 21st century.  It behooves us to hang loose — not only to be mindful of what’s happening but also to capitalize on every opportunity.

After all, we are living and working in a brave new world, one that would seem exceedingly strange to our professional forebears, whose outreach efforts were initially carried out through face-to-face encounters with clients and, later in our history, through print and broadcast media.

Perhaps nowhere are the complexities of this new world better reflected than in the frazzled boundaries between old and new— the old standbys, newspaper, television and radio, and the new media, commonly known as social media.

As these boundaries become more frayed with each passing day, we’re being called upon to think and act radically differently.

The futurist Alvin Toffler saw this coming 30 years ago. In Third Wave, he foretold the decline of conventional mass media and their replacement by demassified media, which turned out to be the Worldwide Web.

Toffler even predicted that all media, including what still passes as print and broadcast media, eventually would emanate from a device he rather archaically described way back then as a video display terminal (or VDT).

While he didn’t get everything right, he was spot on with one prediction: that everything would become demassified, including conventional media.

For a time, my advice would have been to adopt a Hospice approach with so-called old media — in other words, to continue serving conventional media for as long as they endured.

Then the thought occurred to me: there is no mass media. Everything is now demassified.

There are no new and old media, only elements comprising a sprawling, flat information landscape in which everyone participates equally.

Our diverse audiences have been empowered in ways never before imagined. Moreover, what we once thought of as a single Extension audience is now a multitude of microaudiences who are still open to our products but only so long as they are delivered as optimally and conveniently as possible.

This new fact of life is challenging us to look at media delivery in radically different ways. Our challenge today isn’t choosing between old and new media but in combining all of them in ways that ensure our products are delivered in the fastest, most optimal ways possible.

Indeed, that is the standard by which all of our outreach efforts must be measured in the future: whether they are delivered in the fastest, most optimal ways possible.

For that matter, these products no longer will be “our” products in the older, 20th century understanding of the term — quite the contrary, they will be developed collaboratively with our diverse audiences.

The important thing to remember is that there are no hard and fast rules in this new information order. We will learn and improvise along the way.

Delivering our outreach products in the fastest and most optimal ways will call on us to be flexible — flexible in ways that earlier generations of Extension educators scarcely could have imagined.

We must heed Sgt. Duquense’s advice. We must learn to hang loose — to be mindful of any and every possibility and to capitalize on them.

Open-Source Platforms and the Future of Cooperative Extension

The key to Extension’s survival can be expressed in one word: platforms.  Social media adoption is critical to our future, but it is only the first step toward the overriding goal of learning how to build the most generative, open-source platforms of the twenty-first century.  Please see my new Alabama Extension publication (EX-128) titled  “Open-Source Platforms and the Future of Cooperative Extension” and view my recently posted youtube video, which is featured below:

The Key to Extension’s Survival in One Word

Trump Tower, Chicago

Extension's 21st century charge in one word: platform - building efficient, generative platforms of the 21st century.

One of Cooperative Extension’s most astute social media users, Dr. John Fulton, recently drove home a critical insight to me: that many of us beating the drums for rapid adoption of social media within Extension ranks are consistently missing the mark.

We talk incessantly about the critical need for adopting social media, but we’re not instilling our educators with the bigger picture.

Make no mistake about it: Many educators are yearning for this bigger picture. In dealing with budget crunches and a host of other challenges, they’re wondering why they should be making all this fuss about social media. Why should they stop long enough from all these other pressing demands to learn all this stuff?

Why? Because it’s not just about adopting social media. That’s important, yes, but the bigger issue is mastering this in order to become platform architects of the 21st century.

If Extension’s survival could be summed up in a word it’s that one — platform.

Adopting social media is a critical first step, but it’s only that — a first step.  The end goal is building the most generative, open-source platforms of the 21st century.  That’s what we’re missing.

Learning how to conceive, build and nurture these platforms is our charge for the foreseeable future.  Equally important, we must learn how to collaborate among ourselves and our audiences to build these new platforms.

As one of our administrators aptly described it recently, much of this will involve learning how to “pull” instead of “push” — the reason why the old plan-and-push Extension model ultimately must be replaced with a new outreach model that underscores the value of active collaboration with our clients.

Detractors of this view undoubtedly would contend that we’re already in the platform-building business — that we were building platforms long before this term became fashionable.

I agree.  Our predecessors built one platform after another — corn and tomato clubs, which begat 4-H; boll weevil eradication efforts, which led to everything from crops entomology and crops scouting to crop dusting and Delta Airlines. Decades ago, Cooperative Extension functioned as one of the most efficient and generative platforms on the planet.

We can lay claim to scores of platforms, some of which are still functioning today.

The problem is that our platform, the Cooperative Extension platform, is no longer generative enough to compete with the other platforms being built by other 21st century platform architects.

Simply put, our platform is failing to meet code — the building code of the 21st century knowledge economy.

We must retool our outreach methods to ensure that we’re up to this new task.

Policymakers and public intellectuals strongly emphasize the value of building technological infrastructure to ensure America’s competitive survival in the 21st century.

They have every reason for doing so.   Technological infrastructure has contributed immensely to American economic and scientific leadership, but so has human infrastructure — the sort of human infrastructure that Extension educators routinely and unfailingly provided throughout the last century.

Yet, there is every bit as much need for human infrastructure — the sort of infrastructure Extension professionals routinely and unfailingly provided throughout the last century.

We Extension educators have immense potential for building human infrastructure in the 21st century. We can still serve a valuable role enhancing the connections that are being generated at breakneck speed by this emerging Web 2.0 technological infrastructure.

But reaching this potential will require a complete rethinking of how we develop and deliver our products.

It will require nothing less than learning how to ensure the most optimal conditions for intellectual exchange and innovation.

It will require nothing less than our learning how to become platform architects and builders of the 21st century.

The Promise — and Peril — of Open Science to Extension

Timothy Gowers

World renowned mathematician and Cambridge University researcher Timothy Gowers, who has pioneered part of the open science movement with his Polymath Project.

If you’ve been reading my weblog for a while, you’ve possibly garnered some appreciation for one of my driving professional preoccupations: the need for Extension to develop a new outreach model over the next decade.

I’m even more preoccupied after reading and rereading “Open Science: a Future Shaped by Shared Experience” an article by Bobbie Johnson that appeared recently in the Guardian, a British daily.

I’ll even go out on a limb and predict that the open science movement may be every bit as far reaching to the future of humanity as the scientific method, first articulated by Roger Bacon in the 13th century.

Open science is interpreted in several ways, but it essentially boils down to making scientific research more open, more public.  Open science proponents contend that the traditional approach to research is not only a retrograde approach to inquiry but is also hindering progress.  Opening up research — in many cases, crowdsourcing it — not only would revolutionize scientific inquiry but also render it more efficient, they argue.

The article highlights eminent mathematician and Cambridge University researcher Timothy Gowers’s efforts to solve a handful of highly complex mathematical problems by crowdsourcing them — inviting other people to weigh in with their own suggestions for resolving them.  He dubbed it the Polymath Project, an undertaking that ultimately produced a series of new ideas and insights as well as several collaborative papers published under the collective pseudonym DHJ Polymath.

The potential of open science already has also been foreshadowed other areas of science, notably The Human Genome Project’s pioneering efforts to map and share DNA.

Much of this parallels what has already unfolded within the computer software industry, Johnson says.   Science is proving no more immune to the effects of Web 2.0 than any other facet of modern life.  With the lowered transaction costs that have accompanied Web 2.0, much of the research that once required heavily funded research departments can now be conducted in a garage.

The economic downturn has contributed too.  Open science may prove a cost-effective alternative as governments around the world slash conventional research funding, proponents contend.

Needless to say, the implications for Extension are profound.  To a significant degree we’ve been involved in open science from the very beginning of our history.  So much of what we’ve done has foreshadowed this trend.

Even so, a respectable number of Extension educators, many of whom balance research assignments with Extension responsibilities, will steadfastly maintain that the advent of open science portends the end of science as we know it.

Genuine scientific achievement, they would contend, is not possible without research — sometimes even centuries of research — which not only requires immense investments of time and manpower but, certainly in the case of many land-grant university researchers, mentally and physically taxing data collection, often in inhospitable research environments.

Even then, the fruits of this research are wasted efforts unless they are shared with other scientific peers in one or more refereed scientific journals — along with painstaking data collection, a crucial step in the refinement and advancement of scientific advancement.

For their part, many open science proponents freely concede that there is still a place for these rigorous research practices.  But as Johnson observes, they are also right to point out that this highly formalized, institutional research is of relatively recent vintage and that some of the greatest advances in human history have come from autodidactic polymaths — self-taught gentlemen scholars such as Robert Hooke, Charles Darwin and Benjamin Franklin.

My take, for what it’s worth:  I see lots of promise and, yes, some peril in what’s taking place.   The promising part is the valuable role Extension educators can serve as subject matter curators and in helping refine discussion within this new open, freewheeling knowledge environment.  In some respects, it’s the same role we’ve played throughout the past century, although we will be dealing with a much more sophisticated audience who, by every conceivable measure, will no longer be clients in any conventional sense.

Our historical experiences uniquely equip us for many of the challenges that lie ahead.  We were not only early forerunners of open science but also of applied research methods.

Now for the peril: I sometimes despair at the number of Extension professionals who fail to grasp the full implications of Web 2.0 and the imperative need to redefine our role as knowledge providers.  To state it bluntly, I fear that we face the real risk of being sandbagged by the technological, social and cultural effects of Web 2.0.  If we don’t learn quickly how to become effective players in this new environment, we will be quickly bypassed.

We need to give serious thought to what it means to be a knowledge provider in the 21st century — and fast.