Posts filed under ‘Social problems’
Did you read my post about water barons and how multinational companies or private individuals are spotting the opportunities to make a profit from an increasingly dwindling supply of fresh water? I told you about how we will be slugged with substantially increased water rates, contaminated water supplies or poor service delivery when water scarcity hits us.
Australia of course is the driest continent on the planet and has one of the highest levels of water use per capita – so what happens when an area or region runs out of water? It’s what I’ve been saying – illegal water carriers swoop like vultures to the carcass. The Upper Hunter region in New South Wales has been in the grip of drought. Dams, tanks, bores and streams have been running dry from Cessnock to Murrurundi and thousands of families in this mainly rural area are being forced to buy water for drinking, washing, bathing and stock such as cattle. Bores in the village of Wingen are dry for the first time in years and I saw a TV show the other night where the publican was being interviewed – he was saying they fear it when people who come to his pub go to the toilet (because it means litres of water being used to flush the toilet and more expense for him).
Water carters are charging between AU $100 and $160 for residential loads. Water loads vary from 9000 litres up to 28,000 litres but the average load seems to be about 12,000 litres. That sounds a lot but remember these people are farmers mainly, so they have stock and soaring temperatures to contend with. Beef farmers are apparently weaning calves four months early due to the lack of water.
And in the midst of this water crisis, you get the opportunists, the water privateers – who are illegally supplying water and causing damage to water mains and hydrants because they are not licensed and not accessing water supplies in the approved manner (which is via a credit card-like key).
I suspect this is our future – a world that will see increasing skirmishes over water and opportunists who will sell us water (a basic human right) at exorbitant costs.
Since the late 1980s, the Pacific Institute has been studying the connections between water resources, water systems and international security and conflict in an effort to track and categorise events related to water and conflict. Their water conflict chronology will freak you out but it’s a reality we must face. You can view the chronology in a number of different ways, from a timeline to interactive Google Earth water conflict maps. You can filter the timeline to show when conflicts over water occurred by region, conflict type and date range. There’s also a list of conflicts over water starting in 3000 BC with extensive descriptive notes.
Australia is not the only country facing water scarcity. American readers should read this article on water issues challenging the US, including inter-state water battles. If you live in Oklahoma, might be time to consider getting out before corn and soybean yields decrease by 30 to 46% due to the Ogallala Aquifer under the Great Plains of the United States (including important parts of Oklahoma) experiencing a 20% decrease in recharge. And of course when you get crops failing around the world due to water scarcity…you get food scarcity…you get skirmishes and death.
India has already witnessed deaths and injuries over water shortages and Nigeria has recently seen thousands of people protesting over dwindling water supplies. Water covers three-quarters of the planet’s surface but most of this is undrinkable. Less than 3% of the world’s water is fresh and drinkable. Lloyd‘s are already talking of “water bankruptcy” being our future and pointing out that 55% of the world’s population will be dependent on food imports as a result of insufficient domestic water by 2030. That is just 20 years from now.
I recently said that water will be the oil of the 21st Century and that private companies are increasingly buying rights to water. I even suggested you search the names of two French companies – Suez Lyonnaise des eaux and Vivendi Environnement – did you do that? No? Search now. I’ll wait.
You might have found that these two companies alone supply water to 230 million people around the world (and this includes the US). They have quietly assumed control over the water supplied to millions of people. Scary. Think about a future when every time you flush the toilet or turn on the tap/faucet, you are pouring profit into private water companies.
American readers: you may have heard of T.Boone Pickens – corporate raider and oilman – he owns more water than any other individual in the U.S. and is aiming to control more. And he is planning on selling 65 billion gallons a year to thirsty Americans. Have you heard of Dr William Turner and the WaterBank? Turner is from New Mexico and is a new breed of professional – an Internet water-rights broker – who lists water rights for sale or lease and trades in the water marketplace.
In most countries, the State owns the water resources. But the infrastructure to run the water supply (eg dams, filtration and supply systems, the charging process) is one more Government activity that is being increasingly run by private water utility companies who argue that they are cheaper and more efficient than public works.
Because I think this is such a serious issue, I am going to provide you with some stuff to read and follow up, so you can educate yourself. And think about how to secure your access to a basic human right – water.
- CBC News Canada report on water privatisation in South Africa
- in fact check out the whole series by CBC Canada on water privatisation
- US companies raid Aussie water
- The Center for Public Integrity’s in-depth investigation into the water barons
- The Jakarta Post - taking on the water barons
- World Economic Forum report that warns we will face water bankruptcy in less than 20 years
- World Vision report (audio) Water Wars
- World Water Wars- website for exchange of ideas and information about water privatisation and exploitation
- series of videos featuring Datta Desai and the protest over water privatisation in Maharashtra, India.
There are two interweaving factors at play here: the world is running out of fresh water, FAST and multinational companies and private individuals are spotting the opportunities to make a profit. You and I will not reap the benefits of these profits. No. We will be slugged with substantially increased water rates; contaminated water supplies; poor service delivery. Don’t believe me? Then read this and this. If you ask me, very soon “www” will not stand for World Wide Web. It will signify World Water Wars.
I don’t want you to hit the Unsubscribe button though because I’ll be back with those long, raving and ranting posts I know you love so much. But to clear up my backlog of interesting stuff to share with you – here’s a great site I found that uses games to bring attention to the most pressing issues of our day, such as poverty, human rights, global conflict and climate change.
So a lot of arty geeky types, along with academics, journalists and individuals from the nonprofit and government sectors have collaborated on the site Games for Change. I’ve been dabbling with some of them because I need to design curriculum in the next few months.
There are various game channels – I really wish I had access to this sort of interactive, educative stuff when I was a teacher back in the mists of time. I particularly like the games on global conflict and human rights. They deal with real-world issues.
Check out this game – 3rd World Farmer - designed for ages 11+ years, the game lets players manage a small virtual farm in a developing country and experience the hardships and dilemmas faced by the poor.
Ars Regendi is a political game where a player can found their own State and lead it according to his or her political ideals. And Escape from Woomera is probably a very timely game for Aussies to play given the current situation with Sri Lankan refugees. The game gets players to try and escape from an immigration detention centre.
And my favourite? It’s a game called Civilization IV: Quality of Life and involves players in using their moral values to reward a society.
Given Gen Y and Millenials penchant for virtual worlds, these digital games are a fabulous way of raising social, legal and moral issues and facilitating social change. The site also has a toolkit of the game-making process and prompts you to think about the sorts of questions you need to ask if you’re thinking of designing a digital game. Cool!
I attended a talk the other day by Tim Costello, CEO of World Vision Australia. He talked about his recent experiences in Ethiopia and climate change in general. He talked about how the future, unless we act fast, will be one of skirmishes over food and water.
And a report is now suggesting that the global cost of adapting to climate change could be at least 2–3 times more than the previous estimate from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) (which was between US$49 billion and $171 billion from 2030).
I’ve blogged about this many times before. We all need to be turning our minds to coping in a world with scarce water and diminishing food supplies. South Africa is expected to run out of available water reserves by 2025; one quarter of the planet’s population could be affected by flooding due to warming in the Arctic outstripping predictions; and Australia will literally be toast. Climate change scientists are predicting that Australia’s temperature will increase more than the average global temperature rise with more days over 35 degrees C. This will be accompanied by water shortages, due to evaporation, and loss of biodiversity. August has seen very warm weather in NSW and Queensland for example. The Bureau of Meteorology has confirmed that this is almost certainly going to be the hottest August on record.
Climate change will alter where people can find water, grow food and live. And the result of this will be “forced” migration as people search for water and food and communities (and possibly nations) will be in conflict over dwindling natural resources.
Pause: if you don’t belive in global warming, this is the time to buzz off to another blog.
Climate change has contributed to social insecurity before. Temperature shifts of even a few degrees can lead to conflict gradually over the long term. Modern humans, for example, moved into Europe, pushing Neanderthals into the northern part of the continent where colder temperatures (and clashes with humans) led to Neanderthals being kaput. Theories suggest that climate change, leading to warmer weather in Europe, triggered the interaction of human societies with Neanderthals.
Peasant revolts occured in China, between 700 and 900 AD, due to weak summer monsoons that failed to develop over the Pacific Ocean. Crops failed to grow and intrastate conflict weakened, and eventually led to the complete collapse of, the Tang Dynasty.
Diminished long-term rainfall patterns around 860 AD led to crop failures for the Mayans and warming temperatures (along with Spanish conquistadors and other factors) led to skirmishes within the Mayan empire and its eventual demise.
So wars and conflicts have historic links to climate change. By 2050, I can imagine a world nothing like we have now. Perhaps only a quarter of the estimated 9.2 billion people in 2050 will have clean water, regular food and a secure pension (Government pensions will surely be kaput as nations struggle to finance the affects of climate change and the long-term fallout from the GFC stimulus packages).
I’ve been reading various reports on what our future world will be like – it’s not pretty, especially when it comes to community and national security. I thought I’d share these resources with you and encourage you to read them so that you can start to think (if you’re not already) about how to protect yourself and your family.
The International Institute for Sustainable Development’s report on rising temperatures and rising tensions is a must read. Also their report on climate change and security in Africa (Africa surely must be the canary in the coal mine).
The International Food Policy Research Institute has a number of useful resources on climate change. You can download discussion papers, powerpoint presentations and watch webcasts. Two focus briefs I found of particular interest – Adaptation to Climate Change and Climate Change in Africa: Key Facts & Findings.
The International Food Policy Research Institute will be launching a new study in Bangkok in late September entitled “Addressing Climate Change in the Asia and Pacific Region: Building Climate Resilience in the Agriculture Sector”. The study warns that by 2050, if we keep going with our stupid ways, the yields of irrigated crops in South Asia will decrease significantly – maize (-17%), wheat (-12%) and rice (-10%) – because of climate change-induced heat and water stress. The result? Food scarcity will lead to higher prices and reduced caloric intake across the region.
The question will be how do we adapt and cope in this rather frightening future? Will genetically-modified crops be bred, which can withstand hotter temperatures and how safe will these GM crops be? Will the planet groan under the sheer weight of 9+ billion people by 2050 (I’ve also predictions of 11 billion)? Will we be forced to secure our land and homes from waves of forced migrants seeking out water and food?
As regular readers know, I gave up The Brands in early 2008. I wouldn’t say I was hooked on The Brands but I did think that owning say a Louis Vuitton handbag was a better status symbol than owning a No Brand handbag. Researching on topics and writing about them on the ThinkingShift blog caused me to have a hissy fit and say “enough”. Enough of lusting after The Brands and spending exorbitant amounts. Enough of lusting after objects that are most likely made with the heavily-worked hands of poor little children in some humid Asian sweat shop. I’ve been doing okay. I bought a handbag for winter in a shop in Lane Cove – made in Italy but not a brand name. I just sourced my summer wardrobe – I’ll be rehashing many pieces from last year in line with being more frugal but I’ll add a few bits I’ve bought from St Vinnies to freshen things up.
And it seems that consumers aren’t far behind me. A recent article suggests that shoppers are giving the finger to The Brands by shifting their loyalty to retailers, particularly retailers who offer shoppers an experience of some sort. There’s a cheese shop in Seattle where shoppers can watch the cheese being made, reinforcing the message that it’s local and artisanal. The staff are knowledgeable about cheeses and cheese making and answer customer questions. The experience is enhanced by the offering of cheese related products such as cheese boards and crackers. So the shopper walks out feeling they have learnt something, enjoyed watching cheese being made and can go home with some funky products. Sure would beat the experience I had the other day in a major supermarket – Me: what type of cheese is that? Person serving: dunno, do ya wanna try it? Apparently, shoppers can even go to the cheese factory in Oregon from which the retailer sources its cheese and buy cheese there at half the price.
I’ve come to view retailing in the 21st century as a very, very bland experience. All shopping centres look alike with the same cookie-cutter chain stores and supermarkets. You practically have to kill someone to get a parking space (at least with my local shopping centre) and when you’re inside, it’s hustle, bustle, chaos. You’re told if it’s not on the shelf or on the rack – too bad, we ‘aint got that item. I rarely find those serving behind counters friendly and I hurry to leave as I find it quite stressful. Retailers need to get into the game of re-imagining and ask themselves “how can we do this better? how can we give our shoppers a great time and maybe provide them with some knowledge?”. As a kid, I remember to this day, how the local sweet shop showed me how to make coconut ice (those were the days when sweet shops had home-made delicacies). My father (once he retired) had a chocolate shop and I worked there as a Uni student – I knocked up batches of coconut ice and white chocolate Aussie animals to sell and had a great time talking to the customers about recipes and gathering their ideas on how to improve.
But I digress: another article I found was also very interesting. It suggests that over the last 30 years, we have morphed into “turbo consumers” and that we consume to buy identity and status. I love this part of the article: “Many people recoil at being told that, like me, they live their life like glorified soldier ants in an army whose purpose is to reproduce a social system over which they have no say. They genuinely feel they follow no fashion and live a free life. But in the immortal words of Dexy’s Midnight Runners, “if you’re so anti-fashion – why not wear flares?….Shopping is the predominant way in which we know ourselves and each other, and it is at the point of ruling out other ways of being, knowing and living.”
And because we have largely lost the art of entertaining ourselves – through family conversations over the dinner table, playing cards, making our own stuff – we rely on retail therapy and other paid-for experiences. I was telling a great friend the other day a bit about my childhood: at night times after school it was filled with listening to music and seeing my parents dancing together (they were great at twirling the floor); or I would quietly read or listen to my own music. Weekends were filled with extended family gatherings, knitting or crocheting things. There weren’t the mega shopping malls to go to anyway.
We are in the grip of a bland, increasingly global monoculture. Read the article and reflect on this bit – because it should scare the bejesus out of us:
“Totalitarianism, a society where alternatives are ruled out, was meant to arrive in the jackboots of the communist left or the fascist right. It now arrives with a smile on its face as it seduces us into yet another purchase. The jackboots are in this season’s colour and style. We are watched, recorded and ordered not by our political beliefs but by our shopping desires. The gulag is replaced by Gucci.”
I was having coffee the other day with a KM colleague. We are planning a workshop together and somehow the conversation turned into a discussion around the decline of civility in public life. Beware: unstructured rant ahead. I’ve been pondering if I’m just turning into a cranky old goat. Mind you, I rather relish the thought of becoming cranky in my dotage and complaining of “those young people today with no manners”. Anyway, we were talking about what seems to be a lack of empathy in today’s society (a recent blog post topic for me), which has resulted in public embarrassment or humiliation of people on reality show TV for example.
We came to the tentative conclusion that it’s about time. One hundred years or so ago, people had more time. They could study the Classics at leisure. Go on the Grand Tour of Europe studying art works. Letters took a week or so to get to someone so there was time to reflect on content and compose a measured response. For entertainment, families gathered around the piano and sang together; played cards; or….gasp…talked. Items weren’t manufactured in China for the throw-away society. Artifacts where more often than not hand-crafted and treasured, perhaps handed down through the generations. People weren’t trying to grab the spotlight of fame for 15 minutes, appearing on some reality TV show drivel. Now, we want a movie star life with the movie star salary.
There was less abundance; less choice. My friend was saying his daughter recently spent an hour in a DVD store and re-emerged with nothing. She had been unable to make a decision about which DVD to get as there was too much choice on offer. And so we become paralysed. We don’t value things as much because they are disposable, not as well made as in the past, not guaranteed to last a lifetime to be handed down to the grandchildren. We are bombarded with information. Blackberries shrill. Incoming emails alert us. We feel the need to Twitter or reveal our private lives on Facebook. We feel the pressure of needing to say something witty or smart so we have 1 million followers on Twitter.
The values that we, as a community, used to share – family, country, faith, learning, truth – have disappeared to be replaced by degradation and a lack of kindness or consideration for others. Dressed up as “entertainment” we have shows that encourage people to “look 10 years younger” by subjecting themselves to plastic surgery or talent shows where judges have acerbic tongues ready to lash out and criticise, humiliate and belittle. We live in an anti-political age where collective and community engagement is at an all-time low.
I used to love The Golden Years of Hollywood, hosted by Bill Collins (very knowledgeable Australian film buff). These were innocent films like “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “Singing in the Rain”. Now, we are inured to violence because we see it all the time in Hollywood blockbusters. There is a vulgarity present in our interactions with strangers in public space. Etiquette of course – the formal rules that existed in the 19th Century – was a way of enforcing social class distinctions, but any semblance of manners or consideration has flown the coop because we now seem to accept any form of behaviour because, hey – I’m an individual and entitled to my opinion.
The American philosopher, John Rawls, said “when liberties are left unrestricted, they collide with one another” (in his work, A Theory of Justice). I think that’s what we are seeing. Individuals with unfettered freedom colliding with each other. The rich, the bold, the brash, the powerful jostle to the top on the shoulders of others, whilst the rest of us are confused over what are the rules of social interaction in our society. Do I give up my train seat for that pregnant lady or do I say to myself “nope, I paid for this ticket too, she can stand?” (And BTW: I would stand up, not keep sitting).
And so as a result of the conversation, I ended up pondering the decline (the loss?) of civility in public life. Let’s not confuse civility with old fashioned good manners or etiquette. Civility is about respecting others and showing that respect. Even good old George Washington got this right when he said ‘Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present” (in his book, 110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation). Civility governs (or should govern) our public life surely. Our daily interactions place us in contact with strangers. We have no idea of their background, their personalities, their problems or their religious viewpoints. But to treat them as equals, we must surely show them civility. Civility gives them and us the cue as to what the rules of social interaction are. Civility becomes a shared rule we can all understand and it regulates society through harmonious relationships with one another.
But we are in a state of anxiety – over the global financial mess, over whether or not we’ll lose our jobs, over whether or not the very high opinion we have of ourselves and our talent is shared by others. I sense a bubbling undercurrent of violence and unrest in society (I’m talking about Western society). It’s like we are waiting for some time bomb to go off. Civillity has taken a back seat. Even Good Samaritans are killed these days. Or people are deliberately run over and critically injured following a minor traffic incident.
But if we deliberately and doggedly continue to pursue our own self interest and ignore civility in public space, then the question must eventually become – how long before we descend into anarchy? And then, how long before the State has to step in and curtail the freedom of the individual?
Okay end of rant. I will reflect on civility some more and do another post.
I just have to rant about this. Australian readers would have recently seen this image on the evening news:
This is the photo of an idiot, a tosser, a goose, a dimwit (and throw in any other descriptive word you’d like). Since I have a large number of American readers, I will explain the Aussie word “tosser” – it means a jerk, a wanker (which means a show-off, jerk or tosser!). Basically, a tosser is that person in the image who was practising the fine art of “train surfing”. This art is the province of tossers – people who willingly risk their lives by riding on the back of a train, which is an area clearly not intended for carrying passengers. This particular tosser is a superior tosser – whilst train surfing he was caught on camera putting his finger to his lips, indicating to startled people on the train stations to be quiet as he whizzed past nine train stations. Fortunately, this superior tosser has now been identified by the long arm of the law who will be reaching out to this 19-year old and hauling his ass off to court. Said tosser should thank his lucky stars I never became a judge because I’d be throwing the book, no a whole library, at him.
Tossers very clearly don’t consider what impact they may have on other people. This 19-year old brazenly rang up radio stations the next day, bragging about his exploits and saying”if you hold on, you can’t fall off”‘. So should the train come to an emergency stop and the tosser disappear under the train’s wheels, I suppose the trauma the train driver and passengers would experience would never enter the thoughts of the tosser. Actually, the tosser would probably be bold enough to sue the transport company.
Apparently, train surfing is becoming popular. Here’s another image of tossers, these ones are in South Africa:
Seems South African tossers are very practised in the art – they dice with death by standing on top of trains and dodging bridges and high-power cables or swinging out of doors as the train travels through a tunnel and running along the sides. Clearly, these are Mensa-level tossers because if they get hurt, the response is “Yes, I can fall, but I can phone my mom, she can take me to the doctor”. Yeah right: I’d think these tossers should be saying “or take my sorry ass to the funeral home because I will be dead from the complete stupidity of train surfing”.
Now, I realise that I’m very ancient (after all, I can in fact vaguely remember the 1970s). So can someone, anyone, please explain the attraction of this dangerous, idiotic, lunatic behaviour? I suppose those who indulge think of themselves as fearless and brave. I just think they’re TOSSERS.
I was thinking the other day about how communities of practice could help us navigate the global financial hissy fit (GFHF). There are so many stories coming out of the US about people losing their homes and now news of increasing job losses in Australia. In uncertain times like we’re experiencing, people need to band together, share ideas about how to budget, talk about their hopes and fears, learn how to live with less. I think it’s important not to think you’re going through stuff alone. I met someone the other day who just got the chop from a senior management role. He’d been with the company 20 years. I’d never met him before but as he talked about what happened, he looked…well, the word “shattered” went through my mind.
So why not have GFHF CoPs in your neighbourhood? Not called this of course, but the notion of community groups or clubs – people coming together regularly to talk, share and learn about our current economic crisis. If people are struggling against alcohol dependency, there’s Alcoholics Anonymous. If you’re struggling against weight issues, there’s Weight Watchers. There are Bible study groups and student groups. So what could there be for people struggling against the rising tide of the GFHF?
When you think about these sorts of clubs and groups, they have the following in common:
- a passion, need or concern – to learn, to share, to talk, to support, to change
- storytelling – people opening up and talking about their struggles with alcohol or weight, talking about their weekly successes or challenges, gaining support from each other
- education – participants share resources and from regular attendance and conversation, people learn, start to ask questions – all of this can lead to change
- innovative ideas can emerge
So why not have global financial crisis clubs where citizens come together and do any of the following:
- simply talk about how the world has landed in this mess; what sorts of booms and busts have happened in history before? – it often helps to just simply talk and try to make sense of things
- share ideas about how to survive the crisis, how to budget, how to approach your bank to talk about your mortgage, how to cut your electricity bills and so on
- share resources – where to go to in the local community for support, what websites offer useful articles and tips, what books are good to read
- take action – if someone in your neighbourhood has lost their job or home, the group could talk about how to help that person. Instead of sitting back and muttering “shame”, think about the power of a local group and how it could help. A local club or group could talk about pooling money to collectively buy weekly groceries or pay electricity bills. Members of the group could offer car pooling to cut down on petrol costs.
No original ideas here. But it strikes me as interesting that we’re not doing this. Or are we? If you are running a GFHF community group, tell me about it.
The Institute for the Future (IFTF) has produced some maps that look at signals of change, trends or disruptions in the future. The first map, 2008 Map of the Decade, looks at patterns and activity that help to make sense of our possible future within a ten-year forecast. You can download the map from the IFTF site.
There are five key foresights around:
- diasporas: emerging new economies
- civil society: the evolution of civic infrastructure
- food: the flashpoint
- ecosystems: management in the context of life
- amplified individuals: the extended human reality
The diasporas cluster is interesting. With increasing global migration, diasporas will no longer be defined by geography. New disasporas will be defined by shared identities brought about by social networks, activities and events. And the future flashpoint (which I’ve said many times on this blog) will be the global food supply. As the climate changes and as our planet groans under the weight of a world population predicted to be 9.2 billion in 2050, global food supply will be disrupted and this will be accompanied by water woes. At the same, I certainly think that we’ll see the rise of localisation – a return to growing food in local communities and a call to return to the planet large areas of wilderness that were previously destroyed by humankind.
Also from Institute for the Future is a Map of Future Forces Affecting Sustainability that provides foresight for navigating “the complex business sustainability landscape from 2007 – 2017, with a focus on environmental health and safety strategies”. The Institute describes this map as a “sensemaking and provocation tool” to help businesses shape their strategies in a future world driven by sustainability concerns.
You can download and enlarge the map here.
As this map points out, we are moving from a world of problems to a world of dilemmas in which sensemaking capabilities will be important along with an ability to deal with uncertainty (yeah, well the GFHF is certainly helping us get this skill!). The map helps to identify dilemmas within the driving forces of People, Regions, Built Environments, Nature, Markets, Business and Energy and I think if you look at it carefully, you’ll see it can help businesses and individuals to elevate the conversation around sustainability.
Finally, from KnowledgeWorks Foundation and The Institute for the Future is the Map of Future Forces Affecting Education, which you can download. The trends this map highlights confirm what I’ve been saying – a revival of localism but also of interest is Gen Y’s smart networking capabilities:
“Their experiences with shared presence through instant messaging and video chat, gaming as a structure for thinking and interacting, and multiple digital and physical worlds will create new modes of work, socializing, and community learning that stress cooperative strategies, experimentation, and parallel development.”
You can view all the trends for this map here.
The MacArthur Foundation published a report recently on the so-called Digital Natives (young people who have grown up with digital technology and media). Over three years, researchers conducted an ethnographic study. They interviewed over 800 young people and their parents (in the US); they spent 5000 hours observing teens on sites such as MySpace, Facebook, YouTube and other networked communities; and conducted diary studies to find out how young people engaged with digital media. I don’t think the results are surprising but perhaps put into context recent events in Athens, which I’ve been monitoring with interest.
The study identified two distinct categories of youth engagement with digital and social media – friendship-driven and interest-driven. Friendship-driven is all about socialising with your friends on Facebook or making new friends. Interest-driven involves seeking out information online that goes beyond the interests of a person’s peer group or extends what is learnt at school. So it’s self-directed and peer-based learning.
But consider this excerpt from the report:
“Through participation in social network sites such as MySpace, Facebook, and Bebo (among others) as well as instant and text messaging, young people are constructing new social norms and forms of media literacy in networked public culture that reflect the enhanced role of media in their lives.”
In other words, participation in the public space of social networks is a precondition for participation in the public spaces of adulthood – politics, commerce, adult relationships and so on. Personal and amateur media like blogs, mashups, podcasts, videos and fansubbing not only allow for self-expression and creativity, they prepare today’s youth for more active civic engagement. Armed with pretty sophisticated literacy and technical skills, young people are in a position to take centre stage in political life. Because they are deeply engaged in friendship-driven and interest-driven online activities, they are exposed to far more complex information structures, which leads to them taking on the roles of journalists, authors, distributors, political and social commentators and artists.
It’s the roles of political activist, political commentator and citizen journalist that I think were seen very clearly in the recent riots in Athens, Greece. While 500 journalists were holed up in a hotel in Athens contemplating the crisis in professional reporting due to the rise of citizen journalism, the city was witnessing riots and protests organised mainly by young people who had gathered together via Twitter, Facebook and other social media. The urban violence erupted following the shooting of a teenage boy by a policeman on December 6th. We saw similar youth mobilisation in Egypt in April when disaffected youth rounded up 80,000 supporters via Facebook to protest rising food prices. And of course, citizen reporters were on the spot taking shots from their camera phone during the London bombings.
But with this empowerment comes the responsibility to be accurate. Initial reports seemed to suggest that the teenager was shot in cold-blood, whereas the coroner’s report showed that a warning shot the policeman said he’d aimed into the air had ricocheted and caused the tragedy. However, a witness to the shooting captured the incident on her mobile phone and it does not appear to show the policeman and his colleagues being threatened or attacked by the teenager (who allegedly hurled a petrol bomb).
Alternet is right in commenting:
“It is a dangerous world, indeed, when citizen reporters are completely trusted, both by the media institutions that incorporate them and by the audience who consume that information. The role of the mature news organization, one should think, is to filter real news from pseudo news, rather than treating all content as equal.…In an age when serious journalism is on the retreat …… and the world is awash with rumors and misinformation, one cannot help but think that the much touted “Information Age” is not what it’s cracked up to be.”
Indeed, the Athens riots (and violence in other Greek cities) is probably a boiling over of far deeper issues – anger with the Conservative Government’s economic policies; a chasm between rich and poor; corruption and scandals; strikes; a dismal job market.
So whilst the MacArthur Foundation report speaks of empowerment of youth and social mores that emerge from social networks, digital media extends this empowerment to politics and citizen journalism. But rather than cause the demise of professional reporting, how can amateur and professional reporting live side by side and honour the rigours of professional journalism?
Image credit: Economist.com