Category Archives: The Passing Scene

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The Coming Digital Tipping Point

The Coming Digital Tipping Point

Newsweek and other print media are not the only entities rapidly approaching the digital tipping point – the point at which the demand for digital sources of information trump traditional sources.
(Courtesy: Wikipedia Commons)

A few months ago, I was gung ho about the prospects of developing a sleekly designed publication featuring compelling stories about Extension that could be placed in doctor’s and dentist’s offices and other locations around my state to better ensure that people who had never heard of Cooperative Extension would.

After reading David Carr’s New York Times piece exploring the headlong decline of Newsweek’s fortunes, I’m not as sure about my idea’s prospects for success. But this only scratches the surface of the insights I gained reading this article. Many of the issues Carr raises are relevant not only to Newsweek and to print media in general but to the future of Cooperative Extension and, for that matter, higher education in general.

In exploring the future of print media, Carr touches on one of the central themes of this weblog: Nothing in this new information order is sacrosanct, not even those institutions, such as Newsweek, that seemed sacrosanct in the last century.

Consider what’s happened within the last generation: Magazine editors once imposed rather brutal discipline on staffs numbering in the hundreds to do what technology is now equipped to do in real time — to aggregate information.

Faced with this sea change, Newsweek and other print media have undertaken valiant and, in many cases, highly imaginative efforts to reinvent themselves. Even so, as Carr observes, Newsweek Editors’ Tina Brown’s recent decision to run a cover depicting two supple female lips primed for an asparagus stem, while clever, reflects — arguably, at least — a desperate struggle by Newsweek and other printed media for relevancy.

Despite all these efforts, though, Carr perceives that Newsweek and other print media may be lurching ever closer to “the edge of the cliff,” ominously reflected in a recent report by the Audit Bureau of Circulations that news circulations are down 10 percent.

Many of print media’s brightest minds perceive something fundamental at work in the marketplace: the tipping point, the final shift from print to digital delivery.

Carr even speculates that Newsweek and other magazines may be on a downward spiral that not even its digital iterations may reverse, bringing them ever closer to what Carr, with a bit of Gibbonian flair, describes as “the imminent end of the print artifact.”

In the midst of this decline, as in all periods of decline, a handful of optimists express hope that this downward spiral will be reversed at some point.

Yet, this tipping point appears to be occurring in the places where news magazines like Newsweek once held pride of place: doctors and dental offices, until recently oases of magazine consumption.

Carr recalls a recent doctor’s visit in which he noticed that every waiting patient, without exception, was glued to a smartphone screen.

There are some ominous lessons here for Cooperative Extension, and not only because of our century-long investment in printed publications. Aren’t we rapidly approaching our own tipping point — the point at which people will opt for digital sources rather than the traditional forms of outreach delivery that have defined Extension work for the last century?

Among many memorable quotes, Carr serves up one that should give all of us pause: “Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what you put on the cover of your magazine if no one will look at it.”

Likewise, couldn’t someone argue just as legitimately that it doesn’t matter how Extension educators conceive and present their programs if growing numbers of information seekers are opting instead for digital sources?

Carr raised another point that has stuck with me: the insistence of one Newsweek financial analyst on the enduring value of the Newsweek’s brand.

“Every bit of this research tells us that it is a solid, global brand,” contends Barry Diller, chairman of IAC/Interactive Corporation, which remains the sole corporate underwriter of Newsweek.

Haven’t we heard similar arguments in our ranks? Haven’t we been reminded time and again that despite all our challenges that we still possess a brand name that remains viable?

Granted, I still place tremendous stock in our brand. But Newsweek’s dilemma nonetheless should serve as an invitation for a long reflective pause within our ranks.

Look at it is this way: If we, like Newsweek, are fast approaching a tipping point with no strategy for addressing what lies beyond how valuable is our brand name — really?

Our World and Welcome to It

The Jesup Wagon, developed by Tuskegee educator and Extension visionary Booker T. Washington, was an early example of curating.

Recently a long-tenured and highly distinguished Extension educator related to me that he vowed early in his Extension career never to write a refereed journal article, focusing all of his efforts instead on cultivating close working relationships with his clients.  As he saw it, cultivating these relationships and serving his clients as a trusted, valuable resource was more important than building a curriculum vitae.

He’s remained true to his promise for decades.  Over the course of his career he has conducted all types of applied research on behalf of his growers, all of which have provided immediate benefit to his clients.

I couldn’t help thinking of him today rereading Brit founder Britanny Morin’s spot-on article about the curated Web.

For those of you in Extension who think we’ve reached the end of our tether, take heart. If Morin is right — and I believe that she is — we are nearing our second life.

Why? Because we’ve have taken the first steps on a knowledge landscape that conforms remarkably closely to the values of Cooperative Extension work.

If you think about it, Extension visionaries such as Seaman Knapp and Booker T. Washington not only articulated the core values of Cooperative Extension work but also those that define life in the 21st century.

Morin’s piece reminded me of that.  As she relates in her article, the Web, despite its vast strides in organizing and prioritizing knowledge, is still a daunting, if not threatening presence, to millions of Web surfers.

All those algorithmically generated pages lead some surfers to wonder: Is this really what I’m looking for? What if these results are not specific enough?

Not surprisingly, the late Steve Jobs anticipated this, Morin observes.

“I think we need editorial now more than ever right now,” he said at last year’s D8 conference.

For her part, Morin agrees, so long as one distinguishes between editors and curators.

“These days, anyone on the Web can be an editor, but not everyone can be both an editor and a curator,” she says.

Yes, we need editors.  They serve an indispensable role improving the content provided by others.

However, it takes a special person indeed to be both an editor and curator, Morin contends.

Curators choose among different difference sources of information to provide the best ones available, often adding new ideas and perspectives.

Simply put, editors refine, while curators define.

Ever since curating was employed within a Web context, I’ve been struck by how closely this concept resembles the Extension educator’s role.  As Morin so aptly describes it, curators “find the best pieces of this content and evolve it into a bigger picture or idea.”

Curators sure sound like Extension educators to me.

This brings me back to those visionaries Seaman Knapp and Booker T. Washington.  What were Knapp’s crop demonstrations and Washington’s Jesup wagons other than early forms of curating?

As she sees it, though, curators provide something even more significant: a trusted source, someone to whom people can “relate to and trust, and who have expertise, real-life experiences, and the ability to filter and share bold perspectives.”

Are you beginning to get the picture?

By now, I hope you’re seeing why I remain such an unrepentant optimist about the future of Extension work.

I have seen the future, and it is Cooperative Extension.  I have seen the men and women of this brave new world, and they are Extension educators.

Lessons from Campus Radio

“No one brings a radio to their dorm today.”

If any sentence best expresses the sweeping changes that have overtaken campus radio within the last 20 years, it’s this one.

The observation was made by a recent Yale graduate who helped his university develop its online-only campus radio station while he was a student.

In one sense, this almost seems inconceivable to me, a broadcast-film-communication major who cut his teeth on campus radio while a graduate student at the University of Alabama in the early to mid-1980s. It underscores one of the great realities of this new order: that no technology is sacrosanct no matter how seemingly ubiquitous or indispensable.

A generation ago, who would have imagined that a radio station could be perceived in any way other than as a jock sitting in a cramped studio amid mikes, mixing consoles and spinning turntables and broadcasting over a FCC-prescribed segment of bandwidth?

This stereotype has been all but shattered.  As the New York Times’s Kyle Spencer reported last Sunday in a fascinating account of the evolution of campus radio, stations are transforming themselves into “multimedia platforms they believe that students with unprecedented tech appetites actually want, and it’s changing the ethos, content and vibe of collegiate stations.”

Campus radio, like so many other media in these tumultuous times, is busily engaged in stitching together platforms or, as the case may be, stacking one atop another.  But why shouldn’t they? If, as the article relates, students are coming to campus with smartphones, iPods and tablets on which they can listen to music via a multitude of apps, shouldn’t these stations be evolving to meet these changing needs?

What does this possibly have to do with Cooperative Extension, an entity that in historical, temperamental and philosophical terms has little in common with campus radio?

Everything.

The less engaged Cooperative Extension is with Smartphones, Ipods, and tablets, the more these technologies will be tied up in other uses. Here’s another way of looking at it: Each of these technologies represents a potential diversion away from time that otherwise could be invested in Cooperative Extension-related subject matter and programming.

To their immense credit, many of those associated with campus radio have taken this critical lesson to heart.  They understand that within this new communications environment, “luring listeners and keeping them entertained is a matter of survival” — small wonder why they transforming their stations into multimedia platforms.

The times are calling on us to acquire a platforms mindset too. We must learn how to conceive and build platforms that work in tandem with others or, when the need arises, to build them on top of obsolete ones.

We must take other lessons to heart too, especially the critical understanding that these new platforms will create new challenges as well as opportunities.  They will alter our organizational “ethos, content and vibe” much as they have campus radio stations and in ways we can now scarcely imagine.

We not only have to be prepared for that new reality but also comfortable with it.

We must also learn how to improvise as we never have before in our history — when the need arises,  altering and even dismantling and rebuilding platforms to better conform with emerging technological needs.

Likewise, we must  learn how to conceive and design apps to meet our users’ rapidly evolving technological needs.

We’ll also learn how to tailor these platforms to reach niche audiences, whether these happen to be defined by special needs or interests.

One of our great challenges in the future will be learning how to balance the demands of our traditional stakeholders and clients with those who are reached, whether intentionally or unintentionally, through these new outreach platforms. Extension programs have been traditionally rooted in communities and states. Over time, though, these rapid changes will lead require a considerable rethinking of what defines local.

Another lesson that already has been driven home to collegiate radio will also be driven home to us with a vengeance:  Like techno-savvy college students, our clients no longer will be dictated to.

Why? Because technology has liberated them.

The Two Critical Concepts of the 21st Century: Generative Capacity and Collaboration

Cambridge University mathematician Tim Gowers’s Polymath Project has inspired calls for a more open, collaborative scientific model.

Okay, pardon this passionate outburst but I want to reaffirm something — something I’ve banged on about ad nauseam for the past couple of years: the absolutely indispensable influences generative capacity and collaboration will play in our future.

An article I devoured earlier this morning confirms why these two concepts will likely provide the standard on which public and private entities alike will rise and fall within the 21st century knowledge economy.

Oh, and pardon the unwieldy term “generative capacity.” I simply can’t come up with anything that better describes what will likely be one of the two principal preoccupations for the foreseeable future. I owe Steven Johnson for this term.

Simply put, the massive sharing and social collaboration that has accompanied networking has enabled all forms of thinking, formal and informal alike, to be generated at vastly accelerated volumes.

Much like the 15th century Gutenberg Press, networking is changing all facets of how we develop and share knowledge.  Even science, the principal source of refined, formal knowledge, is proving to be no exception.

A couple of years ago, Cambridge University Tim Gowers engineered a remarkable demonstration of the significance of generative capacity to scientific inquiry when he used his personal blog to solicit the help of people around the world in solving a highly complicated mathematical problem.

His effort, cleverly dubbed the Polymath Project, proceeded on the relatively straightforward premise that online tools can be used to enlist disparate brains into a temporary but greatly enhanced cognitive intelligence.

Within weeks Gowers’s problem was solved as mathematicians from sundry perspectives and with varying levels of expertise weighed in with insights.

Granted, not all of Gowers’s collaborative efforts have met with similar success, but his efforts have been successful enough to lead a number of observers to conclude that this networked approach to problem solving represents the future of science.

As the title of an Oct. 29 Wall Street Journal article aptly observed, “The new Einsteins Will Be Scientists Who Share” — or, in other words, collaborate.

In fact, that rather clever title underscores how these two factors, generative capacity and collaboration, will be inextricably linked in the future.   Borrowing the lyrics from that beloved Sinatra classic, “Love and Marriage,” what unfolds over the next few decades will only underscore that “you can’t have one without the other.”

Collaboration is the critical guarantee of generativeness (again, excuse my digression from standard English).  They work hand in hand.  Optimal generative capacity can only be ensured within open, fluid networks, which are secured only through optimal levels of collaboration.  One of the principal preoccupation of all knowledge providers in the future will be building fluid learning environments — platforms as I prefer to call them — that strive to secure the highest levels of collaboration and generative capacity.

For what it’s worth, I’m personally convinced that science will prove no exception.   Yes, there is resistance.  Proprietorship has been a defining characteristic of science for the last three centuries.  It will take years to divest scientists of the increasingly antiquated notion that writing for professionally refereed journal articles is more valuable to the future of human progress than open sharing of knowledge within extended networks.

Even so, the advent of a new, open and networked scientific model that ensures the fullest measure of generative capacity by securing optimal levels of collaboration is inevitable. As the WSJ article stresses, the immense potential of “discoveries not yet dreamt of” is simply too valuable to ignore.

Generative capacity lies at the heart of this immense potential, and as growing number of scientists will learn, it will only be secured through maximum levels of collaboration.

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.

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.

 

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: