Amidst accusations of the dumbing-down of American youth, Henry Jenkins stands as a profound defender of popular culture, and a notable commentator on media and video game-related issues.
The Co-Director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT, author of numerous books including Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide and Fans, Bloggers and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture, shared the stage with Steven Johnson, author of Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software, Everything Bad Is Good for You, and other popular books about emerging technology, for the opening remarks at SXSW 2008.
The Decline Of Youth Culture?
To begin their conversation about the impact of new media and gaming culture, Johnson asked Jenkins about the emergence of books like The Dumbest Generation and the big NEA report about the decline of reading among kids today.
"Never underestimate the desire of parents to see their children dumb," opened Jenkins. "It's easy to imagine our children as failures. And they are going into worlds that are unknown to us, and were not a part of our play when we were their age. Kids are early adopters of all new technologies. And they do it outside the watchful eyes of their parents. So there's a sense of fear among parents. I myself wind up saying everything to my son that I swore I never would as a parent. "
"All it takes is one instance of a Columbine or declining test scores, and we have the making of a moral panic," Jenkins continued. "Currently we're focused on IQ and school-based learning. There are new literacies that are not being understood by the older generation. The dominant message in the media is that something is wrong with young people. "
Johnston felt that he'd "like to see empirical measures of those new skills... There are other skills, maybe more important than your ability to read a 400 page novel," he felt. "Have you seen anything out there?"
Jenkins opined, "The whole structure of assessment has been based on a model that is wrong for these new skills. It starts from the assumption of the individual and autonomous learning. As we move to an era of collective intelligence, the capacity of people is to process knowledge together, to communicate ideas with each other, to pool resources. Nobody knows everything, everybody knows something. It's a very different model than how we process information in school. If we're measuring for total mastery over an ever more complex body of knowledge, we're going to end up with disappointing scores."
"But what are the skills that allow us to process this information together?" he asked. "Right now, you and I are up here playing the experts. The reality is we all know different things. If you look out into the hall, there is much greater brain power out there than there is up here. And it's the same thing in the classroom. There's more in those 30 kids than there is in the teacher. Pooling knowledge is how we work and play today. But it's not how we do schooling. There's a fundamental shift in what it is to learn and what it is to know. The MacArthur Foundation is beginning to look at new models. "
Asked Johnson, "Do you ever look at a new technology and think, that is just stupid?"
"It's a momentary flash in my mind," admitted Jenkins. "But people don't do things, in the end, that are meaningless. We may couch potato out sometimes, but that's meaningful to us as well. So the challenge is to dig in and figure out what is meaningful about it to the person doing the activity. It may not be meaningful to me, but it's clearly meaningful to the people engaging in it. People aren't idiots. They do things for a reason. And the reason is usually very interesting. "
Lost vs. The Wire
Almost a non-sequitur, Johnson then asked, "There's been a lot of popular focus on the success of shows like Lost and The Wire. Which is better?"
"The question is what criteria would we use to evaluate that," Jenkins asked in return. "Television is many different things. The Wire may be the best show inside the box, and Lost may be the best show outside the box. Everything that happens on The Wire is inside the television. With Lost, most of what happens is taking place through other media - through the ARG, through fan interactions. The complexity of engagement and what the community has brought to Lost makes it a very compelling thing. The Wire may be the last gasp of old school television pushed to its limits. Whereas Lost seems to push us in a new direction in terms of what it is to engage in a television experience. "
"It's amazing how much time people have," Johnson added. "One person creates a map from 45 freeze frames - it must have taken 3 days - and they put it in the discussion frame, and then other people chime in with corrections and additions. But the time commitment is amazing. "
"Rather than pathologize that, and say what's wrong with these people that they spend so much time this way, let's ask what's wrong with America that these incredibly intelligent people are given so few opportunities to demonstrate their intelligence in their workplace," said Jenkins. "Right? And this is what I found looking at fans as a population. A high number of them are pink collar workers. Their jobs require a high amount of education, but their actual work uses only a small part of what they can do. And so most of their intellectually rewarding experience takes place outside of work. Why are those skills so underutilized in the workplaces we've constructed?"
"What can we do to harness that creativity to make a better society?" Jenkins then asked. "People are acquiring skills and competencies in their play that are almost immediately being applied to more serious undertakings. We are seeing new models emerge that push us to the next level - a culture of collective intelligence. How do we turn that back into something that enables us to transform the political culture?"
We Are Wizards
"You alluded to fan fiction, and there's a documentary about that with Harry Potter fans called We Are Wizards," said Johnson. "You're in that film, right?"
Jenkins responded, "The Harry Potter phenomenon is a good example of what we're talking about. Kids are learning to read through Harry Potter. There are also tens of thousands of stories written by young people based on the world of Harry Potter. And they're learning to social network through Harry Potter. Songs are circulating using MySpace and Facebook - entirely outside of the commercial music sphere. It's not always very good. But some of it's really interesting. "
They're learning to become political through Harry Potter," Jenkins continued. "When Warner Brothers took action against these fan fictions, one 15 year old girl went on national television and debated studio attorneys about her right to write stories. Articulating and defending fair use. She wound up heading an organization. She said, 'they went after kids in Poland and Thailand thinking we wouldn't know, and within hours we knew because we know already know those kids.' This is a global network of young people who are connecting around the world through their interest in Harry Potter. "
"Then there's the Harry Potter Alliance informing kids about a variety of issues that affect young people," followed Jenkins. "The premise is that Harry Potter was a young man who stood up for what he believed in and inspired others to fight for what's right. The impact of what young people did with that book illustrated the changes in learning I'm talking about. In hunting society, kids play with bows and arrows. In information society, kids play with information. Young people, as they become adept at navigating together, are going to become a powerful force for social change in the world. "
Interactive Media And Urban Centers
"The young people who grew up with these interactive media - what are they like?" Johnson asked. "If you look at the broad demographic trends, they are incredibly good. They are the least violent since the 1950s, they are the most entrepreneurial on record, and the most politically engaged generation since the dawn of the television. Do we have a crisis here or an incredible opportunity? People seem to be more engaged generally than they've been since the rise of mass media. The idea that there's some kind of reason for a moral panic at this time is very strange."
In response, Jenkins revealed, "At the new MIT Center for Future Civic Media, we are looking at how to build an infrastructure that enables civic engagement. Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone describes the way leagues used to bring people together. While waiting your turn, there would be many important conversations. Putnam blames a decline in that kind of civic engagement on the rise of media. I'm skeptical of that. Even if we do blame it on media, there's a new kind of civic connection taking place through games. Who's to say video games are not serving that same force that bowling leagues used to provide, where people develop a sense of social responsibility and participation."
"The challenge is to take that civic engagement back out of those virtual worlds and bring it into our physical neighborhoods," Jenkins argued. "What is the move from democracy as a special event, where we all feel proud because we went out and voted, to democracy as a lifestyle? Over the last 40 years, there's been a breakdown of that - not because of the Internet, and not because of television. In part, because the average American moves once every five years."
"Alvin Toeffler predicted that under those conditions face-to-face relationships would become increasingly disposable," Jenkins explained. "He underestimated the degree to which we now carry our network with us, like a turtle with his shell. As we move to a society of mobile and network communications, the social connections we invest deepest in are online connections. The challenge is then what does that leave to our cities and towns? How can we enable people to engage with each other at the local level?"
Johnson took the opportunity to describe his recent project: "Our project, Outside.in, is trying to build out the infrastructure for the geographic web. The fear in the 1990s is that no one would want to live in a city again because of the digital revolution, but the opposite has been true. The Internet is actually an urban location enhancing device. At the level of neighborhood and community, people care passionately about what is happening. People have a lot of expertise, a great deal of interest, and that zone is completely uncovered by traditional media."
"We built Outside.in as a service to help people see those conversations and use geotagging tools to tag different aspects of neighborhoods," Johnson expanded. "We're about to launch 'on my radar', which is basically the Facebook newsfeed applied to geography. We've been working with Yahoo and their new location technology Fire Eagle. It lets you enter your location and get back all the conversations happening within a certain radius. You can zoom out to see the whole neighborhood, the city, etc. So new tools can amplify what local experts on the ground have been doing traditionally by word of mouth. "
"The challenge is how do we harness the community to share information with each other?" asked Jenkins. "One group we've underestimated is high school kids. How many kids have LiveJournal accounts, and are learning to write at the same time as we see school newspapers being shut down. And kids are being punished for things they're saying about administrators on their own private outlets. Young people can contribute to these kinds of outlets, and they want to. How do we give them the tools to do so and free them from a restrictive atmosphere?"
The audience Q&A session began with an audience member asking "Do you think the ratio of consumption to production is changing as a result of new media?"
Jenkins responded, "Three years ago the Pew Center for Internet in American Life found that 57% of teenagers online had produced media, and about a third had circulated media they produced to a larger community beyond their family. And that number is growing fast. Some of you know the story of Soulja Boy. There are incredible successes happening as a result of the new technologies. Including the way young people are inspiring each other to create media expressions."
However, "there is a participation gap," he warned. "40% of kids do not have access and are not feeling empowered to create. Those inequalities are not just technical. They are social and cultural inequalities. We're also all finding our way through this digital world without guidance or support. Young people need the involvement of adults. I'm all for giving young people control over their voice. We also need to be sure they are safe. Not so much from Internet predators, but from the difficulties that arise as they explore this new terrain. "
The next question was, "How literally should we take the notion of collective intelligence? What individual skills do you see as useful for relating with others in that way?"
Jenkins offered: "There are two views of collective intelligence. The aggregate model of an average solution, and the one where people share knowledge and arrive at consensus. The latter puts emphasis on diversity. In that model, each individual must have their own expertise and knowledge. It ideally creates mechanisms where we represent all of the perspectives that are brought to the table. It's like the difference between Wikipedia and YouTube. Wikipedia blends all of what is added. YouTube popularizes a top 100 that tends to be dominated by a white middle class male perspective. Not a lot of diversity at the top."
"What are your thoughts on cyber-addiction?" came from the audience. "How do we battle it?"
Johnson piped up, "A friend's sister was dating a guy heavily into Ultima, and she was losing him. One time they were supposed to be going out on a date, and she stuck her head in the door to remind him. He looked up in the dark room and said, 'Can't you see I'm getting stronger?!'"
"The question of addiction is a real one, but the minute we use that term we are defining something in a negative way," felt Jenkins. £ It's more interesting to ask what it is that's so compelling. What could we do to make other activities that compelling? Translating the mechanisms of video games into real world situations. What manifests as addiction seems to be a larger problem of depression. We also tend to cite examples from China, where the language of addiction is used to control young people's access to information. They say young people are staying up all night playing video games, when really they are surfing the web to learn about the larger world. "
"How do we balance the tension between the democratic and the commercial?" followed from the audience.
"I'm an optimist, and I believe in participatory culture," said Jenkins. "But if we take it as a given we're going to lose it. This is not an inevitability. By holding up a notion of a more democratic culture, we say there's a world we're moving toward that could be better. And that gives us a measure against which to critique the real world. We have to go out and challenge the terms we're given. The terms of participation are up for grabs. We have to hold companies accountable. I believe in the communities, but when communities are commodified and disrespected, then we have to question some of the discourse of Web 2.0. The fact that it's commercial doesn't mean we can't use it, but we have to recognize that the interests of companies and the interests of users are not always the same. "
Johnson concluded, "There's a tendency to write us off as utopians, but we're progressives in the classical sense. Rather than look at all the flaws in the world, we want to look at the reasons for hope and the positive trends; to encourage the trends that are potentially empowering."