Vision of the Future - Part 1
by Howard Rheingold
My interest in this subject has always been very personal. And I want to start by emphasizing that the use of online communication for socializing by young people is nothing new.
Certainly, the amount of access and the power of the tools available now is significant, but today's online social networks have evolved from the BBSs in teenager's rooms that I started accessing in the 1980s when I first started exploring the online world.
Twenty years ago, I discovered social cyberspace when I was looking for new ways to connect with other people. It took me several years to begin writing, studying, and speaking about the phenomenon. I've been a participant, observer, instigator, and entrepreneur.
What I have to say comes from what I've learned as a student of social cyberspace, and as a Netizen.
Virtual communities are more than an area of expertise for me. They are places where I live a great deal of the time.
My interest in new media literacies was kindled more than ten years ago, when my daughter was in middle school.
Two phenomena in the early 1990s drew my attention:
- a) a new kind of critical reading skill was necessary in the era of the search engine, and
- b) an education-based rather than a regulatory-based response to the moral panics that break out over young people online is badly needed.
My daughter started writing research papers at the same time that Altavista became available in the mid 1990s. When she started using web search for research, I talked with her about about the way the Internet had changed certainty about authority.
Unlike the vast majority of library books, when you enter a term into a search engine, I explained to my daughter, there is no guarantee that what you will find is authoritative, accurate, or even vaguely true.
The locus of responsibility for determining the accuracy of texts shifted from the publisher to the reader when one of the functions of libraries shifted to search engines.
That meant my daughter had to learn to ask questions about everything she finds in one of those searches.
Who is the author?
What do others say about the author?
What are the author's sources?
Can any truth claims be tested independently?
What sources does the author cite, and what do others say about those sources?
Talking to my daughter about search engines and the necessity for a ten year old to question texts online led me to think that computer literacy programs that left out critical thinking were missing an important point.
But, when I talked to teachers in my local schools, I discovered that "critical thinking" is regarded by some as a plot to incite children to question authority.
At that point, I saw education - the means by which young people learn the skills necessary to succeed in their place and time - as diverging from schooling.
Education, media-literacy-wise, is happening now after school and on weekends and when the teacher isn't looking, in the SMS messages, MySpace pages, blog posts, podcasts, videoblogs that technology-equipped digital natives exchange among themselves.
Schools will remain places for parents to put their kids while they go to work, and for society to train a fresh supply of citizen-worker-consumers to be employed by the industries of their time.
But the kind of questioning, collaborative, active, lateral rather than hierarchical pedagogy that participatory media both forces and enables is not the kind of change that takes place quickly or at all in public schools.
The second phenomenon that impressed me when my daughter was in middle-school, when the pre-web Internet was beginning to make news in the mid-1990s, was the big fuss about pornography on the Internet (at the same time that the Telecommunication Act of 1996 was divvying up the trillion dollar new media economy in ways very few people were told about).
The moral panic over Internet sexual predators led to legislation that, if enforced, could well have led to reducing all public online discourse to what you would say in front of a 12 year old.
I wrote columns about the rush to stupid legislation in 1994, and my conclusion back then was that no laws or technical barriers can prevent damaging or offensive material from being available without destroying the value of the Internet in the process. I testified as such in ACLU vs Reno, my daughter offered an affidavit about using good sense online, and the Communications Decency Act went by the wayside.
The judges in that case sat up and paid close attention when I mentioned that people in some virtual communities make rules for themselves, and the court recognized that the sometimes messy and unattractive discourse taking place online back then was the very kind of speech that the First Amendment was devised to protect. Now we have DOPA.
The answer now is the same as the answer then:
someone needs to educate children about the necessity for critical thinking and encourage them to exercise their own knowledge of how to make moral choices.
Part of that education - the basic moral values - is supposed to be what their parents and their religions are responsible for.
But the teachable skill of knowing how to make decisions based on those values has become particularly important now that a new medium suddenly connects young people to each other and to the world's knowledge in ways no previous generation experienced.
We teach our kids how to cross the street and what to be careful about in the physical world. And now parents need to teach their kids how to exercise good sense online. It's really no more technical than reminding your children not to give out their personal information to strangers on the telephone or the street. When it comes to helping them learn how to be citizens in a democracy, media literacy education is central to 21st century civic education.
At the same time that emerging media challenge the ability of old institutions to change, I think we have an opportunity today to make use of the natural enthusiasm of today's young digital natives for cultural production as well as consumption, to help them learn to use the media production and distribution technologies now available to them to develop a public voice about issues they care about.
Learning to use participatory media to speak and organize about issues might well be the most important citizenship skill that digital natives need to learn if they are going to maintain or revive democratic governance.
The media available to adolescents today, from videocameraphones to their own websites, to laptop computers, to participatory media communities like MySpace and Youtube, are orders of magnitude more powerful than those available in the age of the deskbound, text-only Internet and dial-up speeds.
Those young people who can afford an Internet-connected phone or laptop are taking to the multimedia web on their own accord by the millions- MySpace gets Google-scale traffic and Youtube serves one hundred million videos a day.
Although the price of entry is dropping, there is still an economic divide; nevertheless, the online population under the age of 20 is significant enough for Rupert Murdoch to spend a quarter billion dollars to buy MySpace.
And the fast-growing economic power of user-created -- and largely youth-created -- video was punctuated by Google's 1.6 billion dollar purchase of YouTube.
Cultural and economic power is not the only sphere where participatory media are having an impact. A significant number of texters, bloggers, and social networkers have organized collective action in the physical world, as well.
In Madrid, texters defied the government and tipped an election.
President Roh of Korea, who had been losing in the polls, was elected when a last-minute get-out-the-vote campaign was organized by the mostly young readers and writers of a website named OhMyNews. When the citizen-reporters for Korea's OhMyNews called for street demonstrations to protest the attempt to impeach President Roh, tens of thousands of people hit the streets.
Once again: When it comes to help new generations learn how to be citizens in a democracy, media literacy education is central to 21st century civic education, while critical thinking and learning to use participatory media to speak and organize about issues might well be the most important citizenship skills that digital natives need to learn if they are going to maintain or revive democratic governance.
End of Part 1
Howard Rheingold was the keynote speaker for education.au's final seminar for 2007, when this presentation was held.
Howard Rheingold's keynote presentation - This presentation focusses on virtual communities and the need for new literacies to effectively engage with the new media. 2 October 2007
Question and answer session with Howard Rheingold - This audio file features the question and answer session which followed the keynote presentation. October 2, 2007
About the author
Howard Rheingold is a critic and writer.
His specialties are on the cultural, social and political implications of modern communication media such as the Internet, mobile telephony and virtual communities (a term he is credited with inventing). In 2002, Rheingold published Smart Mobs, exploring the potential for technology to augment collective intelligence. Shortly thereafter, in conjunction with the Institute for the Future, Rheingold launched an effort to develop a broad-based literacy of cooperation.