Critical literacy and churnalism

market 1

market 1 (Photo credit: tim caynes)

Anybody who’s interested in starting an online business could not but notice the interest in internet marketing – specifically through the so-called ‘social media’ (Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn and the like).  Yes, we all know that in cyberspace, no-one can hear you scream – but can they hear you market?  Interesting conundrum.

What I find amusing, in my wry and cynical way, is the huge emphasis on ‘content marketing’, and this is, I believe, of direct interest to information professionals.  Do a Google search for ‘content marketing’ and be prepared to be astonished – not so much by the number of hits you get, as the enormous range of differing opinions of what people think it is.  The most popular use of the term seems to suggest that it is little more than the fluff surrounding product promotion.  For example, if your product is dog shampoo, you will write anything at all about dogs, and keeping them clean and flea- and mud-free.  Never mind that the content is trivial, repetitive, and extremely badly written, as long as it scores on the Google hit charts and that people are directed to your site.  And buy your dog shampoo.

Now, as has been extensively discussed on this blog previously, ‘content’ – i.e. the stuff contained in a document such as a web page or book or film or vinyl record – is what I call ‘information’: the idea somebody has had, expressed and recorded in shared symbolic codes (language, writing, music, mathematics).  Extending this, it would appear that the newest trend in the digital world – in particular, the commercial part of it (and sometimes it’s hard to know what isn’t commercial) – is marketing ideas.

Yawn.  So what else is new?  Information professionals – and educators of all stripes – have been ‘marketing’ ideas for a long time.  Indeed, they do more than that: they select, arrange, organise, curate, store, protect and make available ideas, from any source.  Why? Not to sell ‘products’ as such, but to enable people to better understand their lives and the context in which they live: specifically, perhaps, to help them make better decisions by developing critical thinking skills and so sorting out the wheat from the chaff.  As previously mentioned, information professionals have a social responsibility and thus, it should follow, do not have ulterior motives.

‘Content marketing’ as it is practised seeks to achieve something quite different: manipulation.  From syndicated (and biased) news reports repeated endlessly no matter which newspaper you read (so it seems, anyway), to badly written ebooks written by people deficient in intelligence, erudition, maturity, insight and grammatical skills, to billions of blogs, probably written by the same people.  And they all repeat each other.  In fact, there is even software which will ‘rewrite’ the same thing in many different ways so that the same ‘content’ (I hesitate to call it ‘information’ because it may not even contain an idea) can be published many times.  You can also get – and for free, quite often – a collection of ready-written blog articles to suit whatever it is that you wish to publicise – home-schooling, gluten-free recipes, sportscars, adventure holidays – you name it, someone has supplied a load of bumpf for you to re-use.  I visited some freelance sites a while ago, and found that the majority of bidders for jobs requiring writing and editing skills for English content did not have English as their home language and/or couldn’t write their application without glaring grammatical errors.  No wonder so much stuff published on the internet is virtually unreadable.

So much for the ‘information explosion’.  Most comments on this issue focus on one of two phenomena: the huge increase in scientific and scholarly publications, or the easily accessible media now available – including, of course, the internet, as well as the traditional magazines, radio, television and newspapers.  While the vast amount of scholarly information now available does stretch the resources and imaginations of information professionals, the general public seldom has interest in or direct access to such information.  So many of us turn to Google, and are satisfied with whatever answer we find that seems vaguely relevant amongst the first 10 or so hits.  But the biggest ‘information’ explosion has come from every Joe Blow now thinking he knows something worth sharing.  Or even, knowing that they have nothing of interest to share, but sharing it anyway.  This disease appears to be contagious, gathering up common citizens, students, retirees, the unemployed, as well as people who should know better, such as journalists.  In the frenzy of making their digital mark, an awful lot is being badly said about nothing at all.  And this is what will, in all probability, appear in those first 10 hits.

This presents a real challenge to information professionals.  Critical thinking skills are seriously in decline, and many individuals seem to be unable to distinguish between ‘content’ that is being marketed, and reliable ‘information’. Citizens of the world, most of whom are able to vote, are being sucked into a vortex of ignorance and stupidity – in this, the ‘Information Age’.  If this continues, the meaning of ‘cultural memory institutions’ will evaporate, as their contents will simply not be understood, or worse, regarded as irrelevant to daily life.  All of those ideas which our forebears had, and recorded, that have shaped how we live today, will be invisible, as good as useless.

It’s not just ‘access’ that we should be concerned with – that”s easy enough, and becoming easier as information objects (‘documents’) are being digitised and networked.  And it’s  ‘reading’ either.  We shouldn’t be asking what people read.  We should try to understand  what our users understand and learn from what they read, and become teachers of critical literacy.

 

Humans versus technology (and governments): Occupy EU

Eurozone map in 2009 Category:Maps of the Eurozone

Image via Wikipedia

I am so happy that I am not alone in my take on the Paradiso Conference, although the Conference itself is not mentioned.  Not only has an Open Letter been written to the European Commissioner for Research and Innovation (Máire Geoghegan-Quinn), but, to date, over 10,000 people from across Europe have signed it.

This letter, which you can view at http://www.eash.eu/openletter2011/index.php?file=openletter.htm , is  entitled “Horizon 2020: Social Sciences and Humanities research provides vital insights for the future of Europe”.  

The letter points out what Blind Freddy can see: that European society is complex and diverse, and it is more appropriate to talk about ‘societies’ and ‘cultures’ in the plural, rather than the singular.  This in turn suggests that there is no ‘One size fits all’ strategic plan, economic model or financial solution that can possibly be the most appropriate for all the countries in Europe, particularly those who are already members of the European Union.  The ongoing financial crisis in Greece (which is largely about banks not losing money, rather than austerity or poverty experienced by the people of Greece) has provided a very clear example of this.

This letter encourages creative responses to the question of what Europe will look like in the future, given current (and historical) events.  While there is little doubt that there will be change and transitions, as is pointed out, in the final analysis it is the people – of Europe and elsewhere in the world – that should be the focus of all debate, and their well-being the goal to be achieved.  I sometimes think that ‘strategy planners’ forget such simple facts, and assume that’s what is good for them (their companies or banks or governments or whatever) will somehow, by default, be good for the population at large.  We know this is untrue, as we see corporations scurrying to make profits for their shareholders (some of whom are us!) rather than considering the environment or any other short or long term ethical issue.

As far as academia is concerned, and the information professions in particular, this letter raises important issues.  For example, multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary work is encouraged in order to deal with the complex problems that we face: none of the ‘disciplines’ – whatever they are – has the vision, knowledge, methodologies or skills to imagine and put into place suitable solutions on its own.

In particular, it seems to be generally forgotten that ‘change’, whenever it is mentioned, is only important to us if societal change will occur – as a stimulus or a response to, for example, changing medical practices or changing technologies.  We are only interested in change, for the most part, if it will affect our lives in some way: our work, the education of our children, or where we will take our holidays.  If changes occur within a praxis (for example, new techniques for hip replacements) we would only be interested if, for example, either we or somebody we knew were to undergo such a procedure.

Those who praise technology as the most important, or perhaps even the only, agent of change have sadly completely misunderstood what the question was: particularly those who are designing technologies for problems or events that don’t yet exist, where they hope the technology will bring such phenomena or entities into existence.  And this is not to say that this doesn’t happen – look at the internet generally, and Google and Facebook in particular.  But I am fairly certain that none of those involved with the development of these had any idea how they might be used and, indeed, are used quite differently from what they may have imagined.

As the Open Letter points out, we cannot let the future be determined solely by the technologists: a number of challenges (and perhaps the most important ones) fall well within the bailiwick of the Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH).  And that, fellow information professionals, means us.  These areas include, as noted in the Letter, education, gender, identity, intercultural dialogue, media, security, and social innovation (to name but a few).  The Letter notes that it is the “key behavioural changes and cultural developments” which should concern us: “changing mindsets and lifestyles, models for resilient and adaptive institutions” are mentioned as examples.  The authors call this challenge “Understanding Europe…” and believe it is as important as other challenges such as food and transport.  They state, “a climate of sustainable and inclusive innovation in Europe can only be established, if European societies are conscious of their opportunities and constraints – this knowledge is generated by Social Sciences and Humanities research”.

It is time, I think, for all information professionals to consider carefully, and to articulate, how they see their societal role.  This is as important for the world as it is for individual professional futures.

Framing Paradise in Europe

Amelia Andersdotter, Swedish Pirate Party

Image via Wikipedia

PARADISO. a word bursting with promise, was chose as the title of a conference at which to discuss the future.  Subtitled, Ínternet and future societies’, it was never exactly clear whether the intent was to discuss what the present internet is, what the future internet might be, or even which societies were involved.  On one hand, the conference was being held under the auspices of the European Commission and indeed, under their very roof: Charlemagne at Schuman, shorthand for the acre or two in Brussels which is the power seat (or so the bureaucrats would like to think) of Europe: the location of the European Councail, Parliament and Commission.  http://paradiso-fp7.eu/events/2011-conference/  .  All the presentations available can be found at: http://paradiso-fp7.eu/events/2011-conference/agenda/.

The photo above is of one of the most interesting speakers at this conference, a Member of the European Parliament representing the Swedish Pirate Party.  Her presentation is unfortunately not available on the official Paradiso website.  Her name is Amelia Andersdotter.

Interestingly, the conference was free and open to all: all those, of course, who could be in Brussels for three days in early September.  Registration was limited to 450 attendees, thereby excluding the other 6,999,999,550 for whom attendance was impossible for one reason or another.  It was no surprise therefore to find that the majority of attendees were from Brussels itself (surely the bureaucratic capital of the world) and furthermore, that at least 30% of the attendees were invited speakers.  The majority of these were representatives of the EU in one form or another, CEOs or owners of IT companies.  For decency’s sake, a few representatives of the social sciences were invited:  amongst these, Philippe Quéau, Representative of UNESCO to the Maghreb; Ruben Nelson, Executive Director, Foresight Canada;  Lynn St Amour, President & CEO, The Internet Societyand Australian Genevieve Bell, Director, Interactions and experience research, Intel Labs.   For the post part, the attitude that became evident during the conference was epitomised by a quotation from Wired which Angela Hariche of the OECD offered:

Google‘s founding philosophy is that we don’t know why this page is better than that one: If the statistics of incoming links say it is, that’s good enough.  No semantic or causal analysis is required. Wired 2008

Unfortunately, I missed the opening evening, and so cannot comment on that.  The winner of an international children’s drawing competition was announced, in which children from several countries (a strange selection of these…) were asked to depict the internet of the future.  For the most part, the children showed that they are as human as the rest of us: they are unable to predict the future but rather, at best, extrapolate from and exaggerate characteristics of the present.  One picture was, in particular, quite alarming: a person which his back to us is placed in front of a screen which shows a female characteri behind a desk.  She is surrounded by symbols of commercial concerns: FaceBook, Twitter, MSN.  The enquirer is clearly cast as subsidiary and trivial, a supplicant at the altar of technology, in need of its blessing and, at the same time, a consumer of ICT and its products.

The presentations  from the conference are downloadable from the link mentioned above, as mentioned, as so they are not duplicated here.  Please read them as you may well disagree with what I have to say here, which constitutes my impressions and opinions only.  Overall, it was hard to determine the purpose of the conference.  I was labouring under the delusion that it was a forum for discussion; a place where those who had studied the issue: the intersection between ICTs and society.  Sociologists considering social change, futurologists, and perhaps developers of advanced technologies discussion their design and use processes in order to bring about the social ‘development’ and ‘progress’ of society.  Was this the place to start piecing together the many bits of the complex mosaic so that a clear image of the future and how to achieve it would emerge?  But rather than identifying and dealing with the challenges that we are currently facing, I came away with quite different impressions.

The mindset of the majority of the speakers, participants and attendees seemed to be still strongly located in an industrialist, late capitalist/consumerits, modernist or ‘scientific’ world view.  Either they are unaware of, or do not wish to recognise, that different models exist and may perhaps be more useful, given the theme of the conference.  It seemed as if the speakers were invited particularly in order to convince the policy-makers in the Brussels bureaucracy what budgets they should consider for the issues they identified: issues that largely explored what developments their companies could undertake and, furthermore, that their companies (or committees) would be able to meet the challenges of the contemporary world successfully, as they had already created and could deliver solutions.

No magic wand was evident.

Perhaps (and caveat: I am cynical) the devout wish of the organisers and participants (for the most part) was to give the illusion of providng an open public and transparent platform at which all interested parties could express their views, debate and reach consensus, although the real (obscured?) intent was to ensure the continued funding of ICT projects in the EU.  The use of public monies for such purposes was not questioned, in spite of the present economic problems of the world, and particularly the Eurozone.  In other words, ‘problems’ were viewed selectively and not holistically.

The list of the ‘problems’ with which ‘society’ is now confronted was chanted as a liturgy by nearly every speaker: climate change, the financial crisis and political confusion, amongst them.  Of course, the solution – or the keys to paradise to continue the metaphor – is ICTs, particularly as conceived and executed by the interested parties.  ‘Research’ appeared to refer to the development of new technologies, and it was an outcome devoutly to be wished that the EC would supply a budget robust enough to support such ‘research’.  Strangely – to me, anyway – problems such as unemployment and joblessness, poverty, illiteracy and ignorance, and even education (no, not even elearning) were not mentioned.

Nor were solutions to specific problems offered, except for it being suggested that a more interactive, participative democracy may be possible using the internet.   This was particularly ironic for me, because as a member of the LinkedIn Paradiso Group, I have made a couple of comments in the discussion surrounding the event, only to discover that not only have they all be deleted, but I have been expelled from the group!  While I could have guessed that the organisers may feel omnipotence as they are, after all, setting out to change the world, I did believe that open discussion was a pretty important part of contemporary and future life, never mind paradise or other utopias.

Another element of confusion was the geographic focus.  It appeared as if there would be an emphasis on Europe, but alas, here too I was mistaken, confusing ‘geographic’ focus for ‘economic’ focus.  There were representatives from the United States, China and India.  And the mobile phone situation in Mali was discussed, if only to illustrate how it was possible (although I am sure seldom exercised) to access the internet from an old mobile phone.  My experiences in Africa, having spent the best part of 4 decades there, suggest that few people use mobile phones for internet access, and even fewer have smartphones of any kind.  And the internet is far from easily available or cheap.  And there are questions of literacy etc but I’ll leave it at that for the moment.

It’s all very well talking about how ICTs change our lives (in middle-class, affluent, well-resourced populations), as Neelie Kroes did in her opening address, but without being specific, and looking at both the good and bad, such statements are less than meaningless.  It’s not the ICTs, Neelie, it’s what people do with them.  And what do they do with them?  They share ideas (information) across time and space.  Quickly.  And that’s about it.  And it’s not even this that is so very important:  what is most important of all is what people do with those ideas, how they know which ones are useful, which they can trust to make decisions and to act upon, which ideas will help them – in the long run – achieve happiness, act in sustainable ways, or whatever else the current objectives of humans happens to be, as varied and diverse as they (and which include making a profit, controlling people, ensuring safety or whatever).

There were some speakers that hinted that a new way of thinking about the world – and in fact, just thinking, as a new experience – was now required, and I must agree.  Sustainability, well-being and happiness:  can it be that these same people really desire these ends?  Carlo Sessa, President of ISIS, Italy, coordinator of the PASHMINA project and member of the Global Europe 2030-2050 expert group, spoke towards these ends, and his comments were very interesting.  But how may they achieved against the hegemonic backdrop of vested interests and profiteering?