Sunday, March 9, 2008

SxSW Opening Remarks: The Youth of Today is Engaged, Creative and Politically Active

A lively and thought provoking panel between Henry Jenkins (MIT professor and Cultural Theorist) and Stephen Johnson, CEO of and author.

Miller Stevens Panel

Photo Source: ArMiller

Here were some of the main takeaways:

New forms of learning are emerging and Jenkins and Johnson argued that today’s youth culture is not dumber. The youth of today are not guilty of the frequent charge levelled at them that they are dumbing down popular culture but rather 18-24 year olds are adopting new media as part of their learning process. New literacies are emerging from this generation that parents don’t understand such as mySpace and WoW. Young people are early adaptors of new media and in this space they are able to explore their autonomy and identity. Parents engagement with technology is one of fear and consequently they tend to have a conservative reaction to things alien to them.

There exists a disparity between the way we are taught to learn in school and new forms of learning which are emerging. They gave the example of the difference between the Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia. Wikipedia represents a collective intelligence, a pooling of resources and knowledge in which learning can take place in a more efficient manner. Formal schooling does not currently recognize or test for these new forms of learning and knowledge acquisition. School kids might perform badly on tests that measure reading but they are not tested on for alternate skills such as their mastery of technology.

A lively discussion (with audience participation) ensued regarding the merits of the TV shows Lost and The Wire. According to the panelists, Lost represents a glimpse at a new sort of television, one which promotes new rules of engagement around a television show - discussion forums where fans can participate in deeper levels of analysis and knowledge sharing around the show. Fan fiction culture is an example of a new trend in learning and engagement. Harry Potter fans are writing stories and music, then sharing it through social networks and soliciting feedback and in the process learning and self educating.

Research studies show that the percentage of young people producing their own media compared to 10 years ago is growing and it is this ratio of consumption vs. creation which is important. In an information society, kids play with information and not bows and arrows. Young people are becoming a social force for change in the world and are one of the most politically engaged generations compared to earlier generations that grew up in the age of mass media – young people are starting companies, blogging and far more politically active. The language of social networks is about the collective and using words like “we” as opposed to the ego-centric “I”. Barack Obama’s adoption of the “Yes, we can” slogan is indicative of this collective “We” which stands in sharp contrast to more old school politicians. Obama’s strength lies in the fact he is building a movement and not just a campaign which succeeds in bringing together a generation of young people via social networking sites, engaging them and creating ownership of the campaign and it’s circle of voters. The internet is becoming a powerful tool for civic engagement. The past 40 years witnessed a decline in civic engagement and now online communities and social networks are creating ways to self organize and create social connections which transcend time zones. The challenge exists for technologists to build systems to enable people to connect with each other.

The internet is an urban enhancing location device. Stephen Johnson, founder of outside in spoke about how the digital revolution is creating a renaissance in civic media. People care passionately about what is happening in their local area and about things not typically covered in mass media outlets. Outside in will soon be launching Online Radar which is a mashup of Fire Eagle’s location sharing service and user generated content or ‘civic media’. Jenkins and Johnson asked: How do we engage more people through a sense of empowerment and give them the tools and skills to participate?

Overall a very optimistic and insightful discussion, with the panelists concluding that today’s society is not a hive mind but a new democratic society based on pooling knowledge and information fuelled by the internet.

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