Interacting in the Commons

“Information visualization aims at visually translating large volumes of data into digestible insights, creating an explicit bridge between data and knowledge.  Due to its intrinsic aspirations for sense-making, information visualization is an obvious tool for network science, able to disentangle a range of complex systems and make them more comprehensible.  Not only do both disciplines share a yearning for understanding, but they have also experienced a meteoric rise in the last decade, bringing together people from various fields and capturing the interest of individuals across the globe” (Lima, Manuel. Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information, pg. 18). 

Despite massive innovations over the past 40 years in geoinformatics, there are still some unmapped cracks in the sidewalk for further research.  This research seeks to explore to what extent information technology, such as mapping, has empowered citizens to take part in more participatory action, cutting across their own networks (will refer to work done on participatory GIS and public participation GIS).  This thesis is underpinned by the view that individuals are not isolated beings, but rather, are embedded in a dense social network, one that is laden with discordant values and customs.

Theories of collective action and public goods theory (Samuelson, Hardin, Olson, Ostrom) display the need for coordination among a myriad of interests.   My research will rely on these theories to provide a framework for thinking about how individuals within groups make decisions.  Despite literature which tells us that individuals will cooperate better within small groups because they will share like interests (Krackhardt, Passy, Burt); it has become increasingly clear that even individuals within same groups hold a myriad of conflicting values.  This makes collective decision-making incredibly complex.

Given this complexity, how do people use technology such as geographic information systems to make decisions with regard to the environment, a commonly held resource, when presented with such varying value structures?  If we cannot assume that all individuals are acting in a standardized rational way, how do we calibrate for a varying scale of individual values?  One commonly cited problem is that of concentrated private costs versus diffuse public benefits.  I hypothesize that mapping public benefits to geographic space will incentivize participatory action on behalf of the citizen; in part, because it provides a mental map to the citizen.

The research will use both quantitative and qualitative methods.  A current area of contention is over the use of land with regard to natural gas extraction.  Friction exists over the method of extraction, hydraulic fracturing, and its potential negative effects on the health of the community, both physically, aesthetically, and spiritually.  On the converse, some community members argue that the industry will bring on an influx of revenue to the community; there is also an appeal to some environmentalists based on the notion that natural gas is cleaner than coal.  I will look at three communities currently battling these issues, and explore how the visualization of values — one’s own in relation to others’ — might mitigate dissidence.

A deeper question that this research poses is does a sense of wonder inspire more civically minded citizens?

Burt, R. (2005). Brokerage and closure: An introduction to social capital. New York: Oxford University Press.

Elwood, Sarah. (2006). Beyond cooptation or resistance: Urban spatial politics, community organizations, and GIS-based spatial narratives. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 96(2): 323-341.

Goodchild, M.F. (2007). Citizens as sensors: The world of volunteered geographic information. GeoJournal, 69(4).

Hardin, G. (1968). The tragedy of the commons. Science, 162(3859): 1243-1248.

Kaplan, R., Kaplan, S., and Austin, M. E. (2008). Factors shaping local land use decisions: Citizen planners’ perceptions and challenges.  Environment and Behavior, 40(1): 46-71.

Krackhardt, D. (1972). The strength of strong ties: The importance of Philos in organizations. Networks and Organizations: Structure Form and Action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Koontz, T. M. (2001). Money talks–But to whom? Financial vs. non-monetary motivations in land use decisions.  Society and Natural Resources, 14: 51-65.

Lessig, L. (2001). The future of ideas: The fate of the commons in a connected world. New York: Random House.

Moran, E. F., & Ostrom, E. (2005). Seeing the Forest and the Trees : Human-environment Interactions in Forest Ecosystems. Mit Press.

Neuliep, J. W. (2011). Intercultural Communication, 5: 45-167

Olson, M. (1971). The logic of collective action: Public goods and the theory of groups. Harvard University Press.

Ostrom, E. (1990). Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge University Press.

Passy, F. (2003). Social networks matter but how? Social Movement and Networks: Relational Approaches to Collective Action. New York: Oxford University Press.

Vandello, J. A., and Cohen, D. (1999). Patterns of individualism and collectivism across the United States. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(2): 279-292.

Walsh, S.J., and K.A. Crews-Meyer, eds. (2002). Linking people, place, and policy: A GIS-cience approach. Boston: Kluwer.


Despite literature on rational choice theory and neoclassical economics, it has become increasingly clear that even individuals within the same groups hold a myriad of conflicting values.  This makes collective decision-making incredibly complex.  How do people make decisions with regard to the environment, a commonly held resource, when presented with such varying value structures?  If we cannot assume that all individuals are acting in a standardized rational way, how do we calibrate for a varying scale of individual values?  One commonly cited problem is that of concentrated private costs versus diffuse public benefits.

To investigate ways of resolving tensions, first we need to understand how decisions are made and implemented.  Decision-making is an interaction between federal, state and local governments, industry, citizen groups, and individuals; thus, it is important to look at the ways that external forces such as institutions and government play a role with respect to individual behavior.  In his book, Institutions, Institutional Chance and Economic Performance, Douglass North tells that institutions matter because they are a way for reducing uncertainty.  In an era of a ‘we vs. they’ worldview, in which the individual was viewed as isolated from any social context, things were simple, straightforward, certain—we made predictions based on ideological bents.  However, we have seen that the neoclassical paradigm was a huge misfit for other countries as it assumed zero transaction costs and rational behavior of individuals; it assumed that humanity was predictable using the self-interested individual as the unit of analysis.

Illuminating the crucial differences within groups, North emphasizes that a common set of rules will function differently in different societies given their specific histories and institutional framework. In personal exchanges, because the salience of informal rules, community, and cooperation is high, situations for risk and uncertainty are low.  In tribal exchange, “the absence of a state supported by formal written rules is made up for by a dense social network” (North, 123).  Because of this, there is little need for costly, often inefficient, formal institutions such as regulatory agencies or government institutions to step in.  People are willing to take risks on behalf of their community.  However, as society grows and we become more and more globalized, it is not that informal rules lose their meaning, but the opportunities of defection are greater.  It is here that society may benefit in having weak ties with rooted cosmopolitans (Granovetter, Tarrow, and Tilly).

However, if values are not written into the individual stemming from inner personal motivations but are embedded in a society, how do we account for varying values within a colony? Coming from a socio-cultural and systemic thinking perspective, I ask how people today make decisions on how to use publicly shared resources.  As this is an age-old problem, dating back to antiquity, how might individuals resolve tensions with new information communication technologies?

In particular, I am curious about how useful, if employed at all, are information technologies in the context of contention over issues of land use.  Is there a way for preserving individual values while responding to the wants and needs of each person?  There is a paradox in the attempt to be sensitive to a diversity of individual values while also preserving the land.

One example of where we see this tension is in conflict between the tribe members of Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Northern Montana who are currently arguing over whether or not to lease their land for hydraulic fracturing.  In some literature such as Richard Pascale’s The Power of Positive Deviance, we see that the solution to many problems can come from within communities.  It comes from an observation of local identity and an understanding for how society works together.


North, Douglass. (1990). Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance: Political Economy of Institutions and Decisions. Cambridge University Press. Print.

Expanding and Contracting

I have begun to hone in on more specific areas of the complexity of understanding global environmental problems while simultaneously maintaining a broad perspective to take in different disciplines.  I still propose that environmental problems are related to STEM in that they are ill-structured and ambiguous; they include a multitude of variables, thus, there is a need for better methods of engaging society on these complex issues.  But upon deeper reflection, this interest does not extend from the perspective of an advocate of change or a particularly pro-conservationist mindset.  Rather, it is inspired by an interest in how individuals interact with one another to make sense of an uncertain world.

Social psychology has shown that behavioral modifications are effective in changing individual behaviors specifically through feedback mechanisms (Goetz, Thomas).  And by changing individual behaviors, one can presumably mitigate the cumulative effects of individual choices.  By and large, the latest literature shows that science communication has been ineffective in educating the public and in fact, it has largely increased public polarization around contentious issues (Hart & Nisbet, 2011).  So here we witness a scenario in which individuals do not respond well to scientific information; however, are moved to action by nudges (Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, Nudge).

Some of the more specific questions that have come to mind are:

How can new technologies be designed and deployed to localize and individualize global problems such as climate change?  Have tools such as mapping and spatial analysis given rise to more participatory action by providing a place to self-report?  Given that individuals tend to align with an ideology to ward off uncertainty (Jost et al.), how could these tools possibly mitigate the chances of individuals adopting ideologies that may be inconsistent with reality?

More specifically, what are tribal communities in the Arctic and Pacific Northwest doing to have their local problems voiced in the context of global climate change?  How do these local communities transmit knowledge both within their network and to those outside of their network? For instance, the Local Environmental Observers (LEO) provide Alaskan communities with tools for mapping and monitoring climate change.  In these tribal communities, the residents rely on their own observations and communication with one another.  However, it is critical to have a liaison between local residents and state and federal governments.  The chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, Billy Frank Jr., speaks about the importance of linking a direct observation of the natural world with scientific research. “Traditional knowledge is on the ground stuff; it’s not a theory,” says Ray Harris, a fisherman in Chemainus First Nation.  I might also look at how local fishing communities in South Louisiana responded to their plight post-Hurricane Katrina (and the BP Oil Spill)?



I hypothesize that the problem of denial or lack of concern for global problems is not a problem of individual morality for all men desire to be virtuous (Aristotle) but of the social context in which one is embedded.  Furthermore, though the political regime as well as institutions and organizations may shape the incentives for sustainable innovations (North, 1990), “expert-driven, centralized and top-down approaches to problem solving are not nimble enough to effectively address global challenges characterized by high levels of complexity and uncertainty” (Westley et al., 776). When designing processes for citizen engagement, new technologies must diverge from the centralized, top-down approaches to problem-solving and take on a much more distributed and decentralized nature. But it is critical that we not be too quick to extol the Internet and its subsystem, the World Wide Web as the beacon of democratic technology.  There are many components that comprise these systems, some that may or may not be entirely conducive to democratic decision-making.

Self-regulation and reflection (Anderson et al) often referred to as metacognition (Flavell) will help inform the questions asked in my survey of individuals’ perception of their views in relation to others.  Additionally the social cognitive theory presented by Albert Bandura helps in understanding why people may not respond immediately to dire environmental issues.  Here it will be worthwhile to look at what scholars have said about perception (Eagleman).

Time and time again we see that change is happening most at the fringes. This research will explore what new information communication technologies can be employed to engage the social cognitive function of individuals, particularly in places marked by disaster and uncertainty.

All who are able, may gain virtue by study and care, for it is better to be happy by the action of nature than by chance. To entrust to chance what is most important would be defective reasoning.

Scientific Uncertainty and Decision-Making

Does scientific uncertainty impede pro-environmental decision-making in the public as well as in policy-making?

Does scientific uncertainty lead to environmental skepticism?

Do interactive designs communicate environmental challenges more clearly than mainstream news media and science journals?

Has the reliance on scientific “proof” to justify injury diminished the trust in science?

How closely correlated is environmental protection and economic growth?

What branch of the U.S. government has the greatest effect on environmental policy?

Night sweats. Fever. Swollen lymph nodes. Nausea. Rising sea levels. Depletion of wetlands. Droughts. The list goes on and on—a mélange of toxins culminating in localized problems. Air pollutants often go unseen until they make themselves known through the human body. Strides to connect the uncertainty of disease and natural disasters to human action and air pollutants have relied heavily on scientific research.  But how has the quantification of scientific certainty and economic valuation around environmental problems had negative effects on the regulation of potentially harmful substances?  As noted by Norman Vig and Michael Kraft, the late 60s to early 70s marked a time of widespread, bipartisan pro-environmental movements mostly due to sensationalist images and events capturing the risk of environmental problems as well as a plethora of scientific findings linking air and water pollutants to human illness.  This was a time in which the focus became much more legal and scientific than in the past.

The Clean Air Act was backed by Congress during this time period, the same year that the EPA was created and was given the primary role in carrying out the law (plain English guide to the CAA, 2).  To give the EPA even more authority in holding companies accountable for pollutant emissions, Congress amended the act in 1990 to include a requirement under section 812 that EPA “conduct periodic, scientifically reviewed studies to assess the benefits and the costs of the Clean Air Act” (ES-1).  Additionally, the Act majorly relied on cost-benefit analysis for justifying environmental programs.  This has proved to be an incredibly difficult way to assess the benefits of the act because it requires monetizing human suffering and loss. Another problem with this kind of assessment is that there are real, visible, upfront costs of implementing regulations while the benefits go unseen but are potentially far greater than the immediate costs.  As seen in the Supreme Court case between the state of Massachusetts and the EPA, under the modern framework, petitioners bear the burden of proof to show that an injury is “traceable to the Environmental Protection Agency’s failure to promulgate new motor vehicle greenhouse gas emission standards, and that is likely to be redressed by the prospective issuance of such standards” (Mass v. EPA, Roberts, C. J., dissenting, 2).  The problem is that it is almost impossible to trace alleged injuries “back through this complex web to the fractional amount of global emissions that might have been limited with EPA standards” (Roberts, C. J., dissenting, 11).

Though the rise in global temperatures and its linkage with greenhouse gases was based on scientific opinion, the EPA petitioned to not regulate ‘greenhouse gases’ due to conflict over what is under the EPA’s jurisdiction[1].  Additionally, the EPA capitalized on the ambiguity of the word ‘judgment’ to say that there are other areas of the government who can regulate; however, the term was meant that the EPA can only avoid regulations “if it determines that greenhouse gases do not contribute to climate change or if it provides some reasonable explanation as to why it cannot or will not exercise its discretion to determine whether they do” (5).  In other words, the EPA must give a reason for why it chooses to act or not act.  The Supreme Court’s opinion was that the use “of the word ‘judgment’ is not a roving license to ignore the statutory text.  It is but a direction to exercise discretion within defined statutory limits” (30).  It is of particular interest not only how scientific uncertainty led to snags in the regulatory process, but also, how the text itself became a science.  As noted in the Supreme Court case “textual ambiguity” of the definition of air pollutant and the lack of a definition for air pollution provided room for uncertainty, misunderstanding, and manipulation of the text.

[1] The EPA argued that the regulation of motor-vehicle carbon dioxide emissions would fall under the role of the Department of Transportation.

Haynesville Documentary

From Ruston Daily Leader, October 7, 2010

Stories of Haynesville Shale have been buzzing around for the last year or so.  It is always exciting to hear Louisiana in the news in ways not related to disaster.

This past Tuesday Louisiana Tech’s School of Architecture, College of Engineering and Sciences and the Department of Social Sciences sponsored a film screening for “Haynesville,” a documentary peering into the energy predicament in the country today.

The Haynesville Shale deposit is primarily located in four parishes in Northwest Louisiana—Caddo, Bossier, DeSoto, and Red River, and has been touted as the largest natural gas discovery in North America (roughly 250 trillion cubic feet of natural gas).  Its potential economic impact on North Louisiana is huge—leases on land in the area are reportedly increasing from $150 an acre to $30,000 over the span of a few months.  However beyond economy, it has potential to have long lasting, prolific impacts on the health of families, state and country.

The documentary was directed by Gregory Kallenberg and Mark Bullard—Kallenberg and Bullard were present at the film screening on Tuesday to present their work.  They have been travelling all over the country and parts of Europe with their story of Northwest Louisiana’s gold rush.  It has also been shown at the United Nations Climate Conference in Copenhagen and the Sheffield International Documentary Festival.

Kallenberg and Bullard hail from Austin, Texas; however, Kallenberg is from North Louisiana originally.  At first blush, it is hard to imagine a documentary concerning natural gas to portray an honest, unbiased depiction.  Issues of this magnitude definitely bring to mind questions of how we define power.  Unfortunately money seems to be one of—if not, the—primary entitlement to power.  It has granted some incredible and perhaps undeserved power to those in the oil and gas industries.  And because money begets money, the power stays put.

One particularly salient point in the documentary was the story of Kassi Fitzgerald’s fight with ExxonMobil and Chesapeake for the rights of the landowners.  Because of the extraordinary perks that come with representing a huge corporation, companies like ExxonMobil can afford the best lawyers in town.  It is important that we keep asking ourselves how these industries could be blocking our growth as a nation.

Kallenberg’s intent for the film seems to be based on a desire to inspire positive change.  He says that he did not come at this project as an “energy guy”but rather, as a magazine journalist who simply enjoys finding a good story.  He recalls first hearing of the Haynesville discovery while sitting in a Strawn’s in Shreveport.  He talks of overhearing the recounted stories between townspeople, which seem reminiscent of the whispering buzz you can imagine spread during the California Gold Rush.  He says that after hearing some of these stories, he wanted to get “a good essence of people during an energy boom.”  He says, “Once we put context to it we came up with some big ideas.”

Part of the reason the energy discussion has stalled is due to the conflicting discourses.  On one side there are those who push for the drilling and inevitable revenue.  On the other side there are those who say you must not drill for environmental reasons.  And there are environmental issues to discuss, primarily issues of water contamination.  Kallenberg believes that the answer to the energy issues must be found in the rational middle.  It is now the duty of the state regulators and environmental scientists to be vigilant about doing what is just.

Haynesville Shale has gotten some praise for its potential to take the focus off of oil obtained from foreign countries so that we may be dependent on our own resources for energy.  Natural gas has been lauded as a way to facilitate sciences and innovators the cushion to continue to research and create renewable energy technologies.  Though it seems to be in accordance with history that we only create out of necessity.

The hope is that Louisiana will take this opportunity to make conscientious decisions about how we go about handling this resource.  Kallenberg closed the evening by mentioning that Louisiana is in a position to make demands on our government and corporations.  He said in his concluding remark, “Louisiana oddly enough has the opportunity to be an example to the rest of the world.”


Update on September 2011: Just read a post that exposes Kallenberg’s family history involvement with the oil and gas industry. The article also cites to show that “the festival’s sponsors include some of the most powerful players in the natural gas arena: Apache Corporation, BP, El Paso Corp, Energy Future Holdings Corp, and America’s Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA) — the largest natural gas industry lobbying consortium in the United States. ANGA spent over $3 million lobbying the U.S. Congress in 2010 and has already spent over $1 million lobbying Congress in 2011.”

Divisive Devices

From Ruston Daily Leader, October 21, 2010

You may have experienced those kind of slow motion seconds in which the brain somehow resolves itself to accept disaster.  A few days ago as I was driving down Louisville in Monroe, an SUV of three 18 year olds sailed through their stop sign on the perpendicular street practically sweeping me and my little convertible off the road.  The seconds before the impact feel like hours in a dream that you’re trapped in.  You want to run, you want to move but logistically there is not the time.  In the hours after the crash, meeting the parents and filling out paperwork, I sat on the back of a tow truck flipping through all the ‘what if’ questions.  At the caboose of the thought train there’s an unsettling resolution that it is impossible to get away from our attachment and dependence on the body, our health deteriorating every day, and the dissolution of the materials that keep us functioning.

There very next day I attended a conference on crisis assessment in communities in which methods for planning for and responding to disasters were discussed.   University of New Orleans sponsor CHART—the Center for Hazards Assessment, Response and Technology—a team of professors and graduate students traveling around North Louisiana to investigate and implement disaster recovery programs.  Their mission is to partner with local communities and identify ways to mitigate its risks.  In the five-hour conversation-style presentation, they asked several questions about what it means to be prepared for the next disaster.  They postulate that for an organization to be resilient, it must be able to achieve its core objectives in the face of adversity.  Naturally after the events of the previous night, I was feeling a little skeptical about the ability to prepare for the unexpected.

Under the roof of the Ruston Civic Center, we had the opportunity to discuss the value systems in communities and the structural and practical support of these values.  These rely on the tangible systems, supporting these intangibles.  Wired to mostly filter and compute things with the right side of my brain, it is a constant struggle attempting to marry it to the left—the practical and the theoretical, ‘till death do us part.  

Kristina Peterson, a graduate research assistant for urban and regional planning, presented a few ideas about risk and values in a community and the practical application of these.   She explained to a room filled with business owners, school principals, non-profit workers, and ministers “not one of [your] entities is an island unto itself.”  But how do you go about linking the whole community?  And furthermore, is it in the interest of each individual to be connected to the community?  There seems to be an emphatic “yes” from the participants and leaders in the room.  The question of how to reconcile public interests and private interests has been a question asked for centuries, and I think still needs polishing.

Emphasizing the importance of individual initiatives as a part in caring for the whole, Peterson told a story of a supermarket in Jean Lafitte that was damaged after the storm.  The community went in and took an inventory of the Piggly Wiggly, and then handed out everything from the market to the community.  The man who owned it did not make anyone pay for the groceries, instead he had keys made and gave them to some of the leaders in the community.  After both hurricane Gustave and hurricane Ike, these people were able to utilize sustenance, helping others in the community.

Professor of Sociology at the University of New Orleans, Shirley Laska—a tall, blonde woman with a heavy sense of intelligence and emotion—gave the closing presentation titled “mitigation for your organization” in which she explained the importance of linking the social with the structural.  Earlier that morning, as people were still filing in and I was frantically downing weak coffees in search of caffeine, I had the chance to speak with Ms. Laska.  From the small slice of the thousands and thousands of productive, thoughtful, and heartfelt hours she must have poured into this project, I received a lasting impression of her dedication.

She praised Louisiana Tech University for its engineering program, professing her belief in melding the two sciences—social and structural.

She delivered such an engaging presentation at the very end of these five hours when we were all beginning to fade.  She made an important point that the buildings themselves are important to the values we uphold in community.  Before hurricane Katrina, she went on a hunt to build a hurricane resistant roof over her house.  In all of New Orleans, she only found one contractor who had simply been trained to build the roof.  After the hurricane, the roof had proved strong enough withhold the weight of a fallen tree without one leak.  Her point was that individuals within communities must be prepared for disaster especially for the structures under which we practice our values—such as zoos, museums, football stadiums, worship centers, bars, hospitals, schools, supermarkets, prisons, and so on.

The trajectory of the presentation was built upon steps to motivate community leaders to begin to view community as an obligation, which gives back to the participant.  Perhaps, you can protect the tangible but the intangibles are susceptible to a myriad of extinctions.  The assessment and planning aspect of anything is incredibly unsexy.  It is bland and borderlines paranoia.  However, in the event of disaster, those few crucial seconds will feel more tingling with life than all the coffee in the world.

the slow moving maturation of Generation Y

First RDL article

My father sits with me at the dinner table, retelling that same story I’ve heard so many times before—the autobiographical one about a teenage boy, hot off that college stove, crispy and ready for action.  He tells me a story of a hardworking kid, determined to land the best job out there.  He tells me a story of a kid going to school in the 60s at a time when there were more jobs than educated workers.  After WWII the economy was injected with steroids.  By the end of the 60s, the average Americans income had increased 50 percent.

I hear the story that we, as students in our 20s, all so desperately are straining to hear—a story of opportunity.

There was an article in the New York Times a few weeks ago addressing the trend for Generation Y’s, or the Net Generation—also sometimes adequately dubbed the Peter Pan Generation, proclivity to inch their way to adulthood.

The article is called “What is it about 20-somethings?” by Robin Marantz Henig

Henig looks into the new movement lead by professor Jeffrey Arnett to view the 20s as the “emerging adulthood” stage.

Rather or not you find creating a new stage of growth for our children called for, it is worth noting that “one-third of people in their 20s move to a new residence every year.  Forty percent move back home with their parents at least once.  They go through an average of seven jobs in their 20s.  Two-thirds spend at least some time living with a romantic partner without being married”.   The early 20s of most generations are riddled with questions of identity and direction.  It is an age in which one might quail at the first infelicitous remark that implies they just aren’t good enough.  Your typical 20 year old hasn’t been beaten down enough times to have built up his courage reserves, to have learned to be resilient.

The basic gist is that we, armored with our 20 some odd years, a handful of adventurous “gap year” and summer work experiences, and a degree from a four year college, are taking longer to accomplish those five milestones that are said to denote maturity: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially solvent, getting married and having a child (or 5 or 6 if we’re looking to the past to get an idea of what is normal).

The fact of the matter is we are not settling.  If a white picket fence, five screaming kids and a luxury minivan is the answer; I don’t want to know the question.  We are simply “coming of age” in an entirely new era—one that is actively being documented and written.  I sometimes look to the stories of my parents and grandparents with envy.  They were given a map with a destination.

The pressure to propitiate our parents is overwhelming.  And why shouldn’t it be?  They are the ones who provided most of us the opportunity to go to college in the first place, the ones who provided us life when we unable to feed ourselves.  Why shouldn’t they view our attempts to find our passions jejune and insipid?  They don’t hear the plangent sounds of our hearts pounding like the foot of a nervous sinner in church.

In an era in which the answer to almost any question or curiosity may be found with just a few swipes and clicks on our smartphones, the demand for excellence and creativity has been skyrocketed out of a canon.  We are living in an era in which we are not afforded the luxury of a promised job.  We are also living in a time that offers some of the most extraordinary opportunities but they are obtained through different routes than ever before.  We are explorers.  We are creating and following our own paths and they are paths that have never been followed in the past.  There is no cookie cutter answer.

So I would urge advisors, parents, teachers, anyone in a position to offer the youth some wisdom and guidance, be demanding of your young adults but realize that what they have to accomplish has no road map, they are creating the road map.

The Efficacy of Digital Tools

From Ruston Daily Leader, November 18, 2010

First of all, thank you to everyone who participated in my survey.  It helped a great deal.

Secondly, I want to go back today to the article I wrote in September concerning the New York Times article on the slow moving maturation of Generation Y.  On Tuesday I went to a Technology and Innovation Symposium on behalf of the Air Force Global Strike Command at the Shreveport Convention Center.  I had the opportunity to hear speaker Marc Prensky and professor Mark Bauerlein debate the effect of technology on education.  Marc Prensky, author of “Teaching Digital Natives: Partnering for Real Learning,” argued for the efficacy of technology and on the converse, Mark Bauerlein who wrote “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future” argued that technology is making us stupid.

Prensky argued we are living in an era that is exponentially changing in which “machines, digital tools, are becoming more and more powerful.”  He argues that we must learn to make the machines work for us, that if we do not learn technical skills such as programming, we will be at the mercy of those who possess the knowledge.  Prensky, wildly positive and hopeful at times, had a valid challenge in urging the crowd to become less dependent on others to do these tasks.  He compares the current phase to reaching one similar to the phase in which professional scribes were hired by the elites to do their reading and writing.  The power is in the translator.

Prensky says we are living in an era in which education begins with capturing attention and engaging the passions.  Counter to Bauerlein’s argument that the use of technology is void of necessary challenges, Prensky argues that technology can offer substantial obstacles such as those seen in video games.  However, technology in terms of entertainment is just a manipulation of the already “written” rules of society.  To argue that technology offers its own challenges by using the example of a video game is to only prove that human beings are driven by challenges, and thus the video game companies have used our nature to their advantage.

Bauerlein, taking on the more difficult argument, makes a really great case for the austere, hard work that comes with having to search, or work, for your goals—goals which must be present by the hunger for knowledge only reached by means of critical thinking.  As he talks, there are many silent rebuttals that come to mind in my head; however, the theory behind his argument is solid.  He talks about the great delays he has witnessed in the maturing process of my generation.  He explains the social network phenomenon as its participants being constantly “in the network”.  There is the “ubiquitous presence of your peers, which intensifies the age segregation.”  All space becomes social because all spaces, even private spaces, are permeated with access to your peers.  Even if the phone is on silent or turned off, you are still receiving the messages.  The influence of adults has been delayed because our generation is spending so much time under the watchful eye of their peers.

His argument is a romantic one.  Whether he intends to or not—he conjures up, for me, images of being in an ornate university library in the wintertime, completely disconnected from the world, only connected to your wise professors and your hungry and insightful peers.  And I am tempted to be angry with technology for taking this particular form of social solitude away from me.

Despite my educational fantasies, the point that can’t be ignored—and precisely why I think Prensky has the easier argument—is that technology is not the evil.  If the students can find the goals compelling enough they will do the work to get there.

You also cannot ignore that our education is severely lacking for more reasons than technological advancement.  We have been watered down into ignorant mush.  Perhaps our education system churns out more numbers, but quantity does not necessarily equal quality.

My 14-year-old brother complained to me tonight about his heavy school load.  His “fortunate” friend’s mother requester her son not be put into gifted and honors programs so that he could make all A’s.  “How unfair!,” my little brother indignantly whines.  And I tell him that he’s actually the fortunate one.  And I want to tell that mom she is part of the problem.

At some point the pretending will have to cease whether it be the pretense of knowing by consulting your iPhone or the pretense of knowing by only doing what is easy.  At some point, you will be asked to perform.  The point is what you are going to do with the technology.  It is the misuse and manipulation of this tool, which has led to the stupefied generation.

The Interactive Dinner Table

From the Ruston Daily Leader November 2010

How many friends do you have on Facebook?  Seven hundred and fifty-eight?  Two hundred and three?  How many of them will sit with you at the dinner table this Thanksgiving?

During the holiday season most of us are drawn together by family.  We come back to our hometowns, maybe see some old friends from high school.  We visit with relatives who may know little about us but are bound to us by blood.  There exists an understood interest because are, by extension, a part of who they are.
But on social networking sites there is no hierarchy.  Every friend is in the same playing field.  When you share something you are not making an intimate gesture but you are sharing it with your entire customized world of acquaintances.

All of this makes me wonder about the role social media plays in the family and private life.   Growing up with Internet and sites such as Xanga (an online blog) and Myspace (a spam-ridden precursor to Facebook) being present for the majority of my teenage years, I have seen it become a necessity in the lives of the youth.  I see this especially with my younger brother whose left hand is an iPhone as he is constantly engaged in a dialogue with his peers, making it easier to ignore the nosy inquiries of his sister.  From my observations, this form of dialogue seems to dissolve the private life.  Not only does the meaningless permeate the meaningful but the private is rendered meaningless by becoming publicized.

Often these outlets are lauded for maintaining connections with people with whom you otherwise would have lost touch.  But if that’s the case, is it really important to have these “friendships of memory” kept?

What I mean to say is that I suspect these social media sites are not beneficial for the relationships that add meaning to our lives.  And furthermore, the participation in them, the kind of strange surveillance of people you no longer know, takes away from the nostalgia wrapped up in the memory and mystery of those people.  How much has it aided in strengthening serious relationships?

In thinking about all of this, I remember something from the last conversation I had with you about the technology debate and how the current generation is more influenced by their peers than ever before, constantly under each other’s “surveillance”.

It makes me wonder where the place is for those who long for an adult conversation.  Does it further implicate a separation for those youth who want something different?  Are they to be viewed as strange and perverse?

Expectations for conformity are already rampant in teenage years but with such little private life, is it possible that in marketing to the many one could become devoid of meaning themselves?

These sites primarily promote those who look good on paper but not necessarily those who are great in action.  They traffic in the immediate.

They traffic in appearances.  The entire foundation of the social network is that one may sell themselves by the image they create.  And I often wonder how much people can back up the way they market themselves.

And all of this has an effect on the private life—on how one calculates meaning and trust.  For a few centuries not there has been a dissolution of the family due to technological advances which led children away from the farm and out into the industries.

The rise of social networking sites is just an example of another development that may not lead people away in a physical sense but the implications of an unexamined participation in the interactive world is that it can separate one from reality, from what is truly meaningful.