I have to say the first thing that struck me after arriving at the Digital Media and Learning 2013 Conference last week in Chicago was its lack of pretension. It was a very well organized setup, and no-frills – the $75 entry fee meant no swag, except for some free publications in book and pamphlet form (which are by the way really great), and no corporate sponsors with their flimsy handouts and gimmicky promotions – a sign that it was going to be a really authentic experience. It turned out to be much more than that: intimate, inspirational, and validating, I came away from it feeling full of new ideas and questions.
This post is the first in a small series about the conference – what I learned and what questions remain.
Overall Theme – Democratic Futures: Technology as Catalyst for Social Change
Called “Democratic Futures”, the conference brought together a diverse cabal of folks in many different spheres of education to discuss how young people can be agents of change in their communities and beyond. It was definitely an activist-centered conference, and technology was just the layer on top of it, the catalyst. I quickly realized that there were 3 distinct camps present in both the audience and speaker groups: 1) the research and technology folks who were pushing innovation both in and outside the classroom (still, very little product placement involved); 2) the educators, higher ed or below, who may have been more traditionalist in their approach to technology uses (citing often the “protectionist” approach to safeguarding youth online; and 3) the social justice organizers and students themselves who were clear agents of change in their communities. At times I could sense the tension between the three camps, since they each had their own vested interest in how technology could or could not work for them. The bottom line: technology is not a savior, and should not be an excuse for involvement, not scapegoated for when things fail. It should help you get from point A to B, to express yourself, to empower your community, to get your message across. The dominating hype is not going to die down anytime soon, so we need to be the ones to recognize and counteract it with our own stories.
Keynote by Ethan Zuckerman MIT Center for Civic Media: “Beyond the Crisis in Civics”
Ethan Zuckerman’s talk was the most anticipated of the conference, not just because he was the keynote but also because he is widely known for his activist work in the US and abroad. What I took from his talk is summarized below:
In our heavily mediated world, we should be focusing on agency rather than “traditional” civics participation. Gone are the days when being a civically-minded person meant you would have to write your congressman or newspaper – the internet allows for a sliding scale of engagement as well as new forms of participation: from signing an online petition to remixing a political ad to creating a story about your own community’s struggles, there are more ways to “practice civics” than ever before. We should also reinterpret how we view “authentic” participation; while we are accustomed to movements like the Arab Spring, where a critical mass indicates “true” mobilization, we should also think about how that can be met via different means, with different outcomes. A spectrum of involvement has been created as a result (see picture below). Yet, because of new media’s rapid “spreadability”, we often have to evaluate after the fact: the slow swell does not play out well on YouTube. But questioning that impact is becoming more important: Was Occupy successful? Or the Arab Spring? Other examples are more clear: KONY2012 was a success in terms of its campaign goals, but the bottom fell out quickly afterwards.
Follow up questions:
What constitutes success if ultimately we are just recirculating old ideas of activism in new forms? New media complicates this frame: because online campaigns are trackable and “achievable” (they can scale at a much faster rate than offline), they change our understanding of success. When does a click represent more than a symbolic action?
For the full Keynote presentation and writeup far more in-depth than mine, please visit the Center for Civic Media’s blog.