Thinking for the Future

By DAVID BROOKS, New York Times, December 9, 2013

We’re living in an era of mechanized intelligence, an age in which you’re probably going to find yourself in a workplace with diagnostic systems, different algorithms and computer-driven data analysis. If you want to thrive in this era, you probably want to be good at working with intelligent machines. As Tyler Cowen puts it in his relentlessly provocative recent book, “Average Is Over,” “If you and your skills are a complement to the computer, your wage and labor market prospects are likely to be cheery. If your skills do not complement the computer, you may want to address that mismatch.”

So our challenge for the day is to think of exactly which mental abilities complement mechanized intelligence. Off the top of my head, I can think of a few mental types that will probably thrive in the years ahead.

Freestylers. As Cowen notes, there’s a style of chess in which people don’t play against the computer but with the computer. They let the computer program make most of the moves, but, occasionally, they overrule it. They understand the strengths and weaknesses of the program and the strengths and weaknesses of their own intuition, and, ideally, they grab the best of both.

This skill requires humility (most of the time) and self-confidence (rarely). It’s the kind of skill you use to overrule your GPS system when you’re driving in a familiar neighborhood but defer to it in strange surroundings. It is the sort of skill a doctor uses when deferring to or overruling a diagnostic test. It’s the skill of knowing when an individual case is following predictable patterns and when there are signs it is diverging from them.

Synthesizers. The computerized world presents us with a surplus of information. The synthesizer has the capacity to surf through vast amounts of online data and crystallize a generalized pattern or story.

Humanizers. People evolved to relate to people. Humanizers take the interplay between man and machine and make it feel more natural. Steve Jobs did this by making each Apple product feel like nontechnological artifact. Someday a genius is going to take customer service phone trees and make them more human. Someday a retail genius is going to figure out where customers probably want automated checkout (the drugstore) and where they want the longer human interaction (the grocery store).

Conceptual engineers. Google presents prospective employees with challenges like the following: How many times in a day do a clock’s hands overlap? Or: Figure out the highest floor of a 100-story building you can drop an egg from without it breaking. How many drops do you need to figure this out? You can break two eggs in the process.

They are looking for the ability to come up with creative methods to think about unexpected problems.

Motivators. Millions of people begin online courses, but very few actually finish them. I suspect that’s because most students are not motivated to impress a computer the way they may be motivated to impress a human professor. Managers who can motivate supreme effort in a machine-dominated environment are going to be valuable.

Moralizers. Mechanical intelligence wants to be efficient. It will occasionally undervalue essential moral traits, like loyalty. Soon, performance metrics will increasingly score individual employees. A moralizing manager will insist that human beings can’t be reduced to the statistical line. A company without a self-conscious moralizer will reduce human interaction to the cash nexus and end up destroying morale and social capital.

Greeters. An economy that is based on mechanized intelligence is likely to be a wildly unequal economy, even if the government tries to combat that inequality. Cowen estimates that perhaps 15 percent of workers will thrive, with plenty of disposable income. There will be intense competition for these people’s attention. They will favor restaurants, hotels, law firms, foundations and financial institutions where they are greeted by someone who knows their name. People with this capacity for high-end service, and flattery, will find work.

Economizers. The bottom 85 percent is likely to be made up of people with less marketable workplace skills. Some of these people may struggle financially but not socially or intellectually. That is, they may not make much running a food truck, but they can lead rich lives, using the free bounty of the Internet. They could use a class of advisers on how to preserve rich lives on a small income.

Weavers. Many of the people who struggle economically will lack the self-motivation to build rich inner lives for themselves. Many are already dropping out of the labor force in record numbers and drifting into disorganized, disaffected lifestyles. Public and private institutions are going to hire more people to fight this social disintegration. There will be jobs for people who combat the dangerous inegalitarian tendencies of this new world.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/10/opinion/brooks-thinking-for-the-future.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20131210

Upworthy says we’ve been doing viral all wrong: serious stuff is more shareable than LOL cats

By Hamish McKenzie, pandodaily.com, April 3, 2013

Excerpt

Upworthy will mark its first birthday… founders, Eli Pariser and Peter Koechley…prides itself on helping videos and infographics about important social issues reach huge audiences through social media…Upworthy – essentially a curator, re-packager, and re-distributor of other people’s content – one of the fastest-growing media businesses of the millennium. What’s more, the 20-person company has achieved that fast growth based on a belief that until recently might otherwise have been dismissed as naive: That serious news and socially conscious commentary can be as widely shared as listicles about pop singers pulling strange faces. In fact, Pariser and Koechley now believe that serious news might even be more shareable than..cute, silly, wacky, or surprising, but actually we’re better than that.

“People also share because they’re moved to real emotion, because they’re passionate about an issue and want to get the ideas heard more widely,” he says. “People want to share the aspirational, better-angel side of themselves. They want to show off the fact that they actually do care about social issues, that they are smart and keeping up with the news.”… The company is also hyper-focused on distribution…Upworthy employs several people to concentrate specifically on “audience development,” which means paying close attention to how to present content across various channels – the most important of which is Facebook – and how to keep people engaged in those places…Upworthy’s long-term monetization plans seem to revolve around the idea of building a large community of people who care about stuff that matters…email list that is almost 2 million names strong. Pariser and Koechley are confident they can eventually grow that network to tens of millions of people…

Full text

Tonight, Upworthy will mark its first birthday with a party hosted at the New York residence of Chris Hughes, the Facebook co-founder and now owner of the New Republic, who is one of the media startup’s investors. The founders, Eli Pariser and Peter Koechley, will have much to celebrate. Since launching on March 26, 2012, Upworthy, which prides itself on helping videos and infographics about important social issues reach huge audiences through social media, has accumulated 1.2 million fans on Facebook, 2 million registered members, and $4 million in venture backing in a round led by NEA. In March, its 12th month of existence, its website passed 11 million unique visits, dwarfing the efforts of the Huffington Post and Business Insider, who had about 1 million uniques each at the same points in their lifespans.

That makes Upworthy – essentially a curator, re-packager, and re-distributor of other people’s content – one of the fastest-growing media businesses of the millennium. What’s more, the 20-person company has achieved that fast growth based on a belief that until recently might otherwise have been dismissed as naive: That serious news and socially conscious commentary can be as widely shared as listicles about pop singers pulling strange faces. In fact, Pariser and Koechley now believe that serious news might even be more shareable than photos of ill-tempered cats and ironic songs about moneyed neighbourhoods in Seoul, South Korea.

Koechley, who in a previous life was managing editor at The Onion, says that people have misunderstood viral media. Many media companies think we share because something is cute, silly, wacky, or surprising, but actually we’re better than that.

 “People also share because they’re moved to real emotion, because they’re passionate about an issue and want to get the ideas heard more widely,” he says. “People want to share the aspirational, better-angel side of themselves. They want to show off the fact that they actually do care about social issues, that they are smart and keeping up with the news.”

The founders weren’t completely confident that deep, serious content would succeed. Koechley says when they launched the company, they worried that fluffier, superficial stuff would be the content that gets shared the most. But that wasn’t entirely the case. “We’ve found that when we look back over the year, some of our top 10, top 20 most popular things have also been some of the top 10 or 20 most meaty and substantive things,” he says, including a 13-minute video about New York City’s “stop and frisk” policy that has now been viewed more than 800,000 times, and a video of a preacher who attacks gay marriage and then changes his mind on the spot, which has garnered more than 3 million views.

Still, it’s possibly over-optimistic to say that “important” news content could become more widely shared than fun and frivolous material. As our own David Holmes pointed out last year, the 13 most-viewed BuzzFeed posts ever demonstrate a strong bias towards oddities, jokes, animals, and pop culture instead of serious reporting. However, Koechley suggests that BuzzFeed’s serious reporting is often packaged in a very different way to its light-hearted listicles.

Along with BuzzFeed, Upworthy has been credited with mastering the art of sticking compelling headlines on videos and graphics that might otherwise seem a bit dry, and its curators certainly put a lot of effort into that task, writing as many as 25 different headlines for every piece of content before ultimately deciding on a winner. Three examples from the site today:

However, Upworthy’s initial success is about more than just clever headlines. The company is also hyper-focused on distribution, says Pariser, who co-founded Upworthy after leaving a role as executive director of progressive policy advocacy group MoveOn. “If you put together the most perfect editorial gem in the world but there’s no one to look at it, it really doesn’t matter,” Pariser says.

Upworthy employs several people to concentrate specifically on “audience development,” which means paying close attention to how to present content across various channels – the most important of which is Facebook – and how to keep people engaged in those places. That entails a lot of digging through the analytics and A/B testing to see what works, and why, in certain situations. It also involves working hard to get content pushed out by influential people. For instance, former “Star Trek” star George Takei, who has 3.8 million fans on Facebook, drives more than 20,000 people to Upworthy at any one time for hours on end whenever he posts something from the site, says Pariser. “We put the energy into pitching him that other folks would put into pitching a big magazine or a big newspaper.”

It has paid off. Edward Kim, CEO of social analytics firm SimpleReach, tracks 5,000 publishers and found that 20 percent of the social actions it records on a daily basis come from Upworthy – significantly more than any other single site. As well, notes Kim, 70 percent of Upworthy’s traffic is social, which is the best by far of any of the mediums or large-sized publishers that SimpleReach tracks.

“This isn’t a case of seemingly grey-hat practices taking advantage of a temporary loophole like Socialcam or Viddy,” Kim says, pointing out that all of Upworthy’s social numbers are completely organic. “It’s all transparently user-driven, and it really speaks to Upworthy’s editorial voice and curatorial skills as a company.”

The challenge now for Upworthy will be to translate its early momentum into serious cash. It has to pay back that venture money somehow. Currently, the company makes money from referral fees by driving people to donate to causes such as Oxfam and the Sierra Club. Pariser describes that as a “perfectly good revenue stream,” but Upworthy’s long-term monetization plans seem to revolve around the idea of building a large community of people who care about stuff that matters – which explains why every visitor to its site is assaulted with a “Do you care about this issue?” pop-up, with an accompanying email sign-up box.

The company has used that pushy tactic to build an email list that is almost 2 million names strong. Pariser and Koechley are confident they can eventually grow that network to tens of millions of people, who could then be monetized in various ways, of which the founders are only willing to speak in very vague terms. One of their ideas is to help Upworthy members build their own social audiences and let them pay to promote anything important they have to say.

For now, however, Upworthy’s attention is firmly on the share buttons. Seriously.

http://pandodaily.com/2013/04/03/upworthy-says-weve-been-doing-viral-all-wrong-serious-stuff-is-more-shareable-than-lol-cats/

The Decline of Critical Thinking

The Problem of Ignorance by LAWRENCE DAVIDSON, CounterPunch Weekend Edition April 5-7, 2013

Excerpt

…most Americans were…readily swayed by stereotyping, simplistic solutions, irrational fears, and public relations babble…the majority of any population will pay little or no attention to news stories or government actions that do not appear to impact their lives or the lives of close associates. If something non-local happens that is brought to their attention by the media, they will passively accept government explanations and simplistic solutions.

The primary issue is “does it impact my life?” If it does, people will pay attention.  If it appears not to, they won’t pay attention…The strong adherence to ideology and work within a bureaucratic setting can also greatly narrow one’s worldview and cripple one’s critical abilities…

They might very well rationalize away countervailing facts if they happen to come across them. And, by doing so, keep everything comfortably simple, which counts for more than the messy, often complicated truth…

the habit of asking critical questions can be taught. However, if you do not have a knowledge base from which to consider a situation, it is hard think critically about it.  So ignorance often precludes effective critical thinking even if the technique is acquired… loyalty comes from myth-making and emotional bonds. In both cases, really effective critical thinking might well be incompatible with the desired end…The truth is that people who are consistently active as critical thinkers are not going to be popular, either with the government or their neighbors….

Full text

In 2008 Rick Shenkman, the Editor-in-Chief of the History News Network, published a book entitled Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth about the American Voter (Basic Books). In it he demonstrated, among other things, that most Americans were: (1) ignorant about major international events, (2) knew little about how their own government runs and who runs it, (3) were nonetheless willing to accept government positions and policies even though a moderate amount of critical thought suggested they were bad for the country, and (4) were readily swayed by stereotyping, simplistic solutions, irrational fears, and public relations babble.

Shenkman spent 256 pages documenting these claims, using a great number of polls and surveys from very reputable sources. Indeed, in the end it is hard to argue with his data. So, what can we say about this? One thing that can be said is that this is not an abnormal state of affairs. As has been suggested in prior analyses, ignorance of non-local affairs (often leading to inaccurate assumptions, passive acceptance of authority, and illogical actions) is, in fact, a default position for any population.

To put it another way, the majority of any population will pay little or no attention to news stories or government actions that do not appear to impact their lives or the lives of close associates. If something non-local happens that is brought to their attention by the media, they will passively accept government explanations and simplistic solutions.

The primary issue is “does it impact my life?” If it does, people will pay attention.  If it appears not to, they won’t pay attention. For instance, in Shenkman’s book unfavorable comparisons are sometimes made between Americans and Europeans. Americans often are said to be much more ignorant about world geography than are Europeans. This might be, but it is, ironically, due to an accident of geography. Americans occupy a large subcontinent isolated by two oceans. Europeans are crowded into small contiguous countries that, until recently, repeatedly invaded each other as well as possessed overseas colonies. Under these circumstances, a knowledge of geography, as well as paying attention to what is happening on the other side of the border, has more immediate relevance to the lives of those in Toulouse or Amsterdam than is the case for someone in Pittsburgh or Topeka.  If conditions were reversed, Europeans would know less geography and Americans more.

Ideology and Bureaucracy

The localism referenced above is not the only reason for widespread ignorance. The strong adherence to ideology and work within a bureaucratic setting can also greatly narrow one’s worldview and cripple one’s critical abilities.

In effect, a closely adhered to ideology becomes a mental locality with limits and borders just as real as those of geography. In fact, if we consider nationalism a pervasive modern ideology, there is a direct connection between the boundaries induced in the mind and those on the ground. Furthermore, it does not matter if the ideology is politically left or right, or for that matter, whether it is secular or religious. One’s critical abilities will be suppressed in favor of standardized, formulaic answers provided by the ideology.

Just so work done within a bureaucratic setting. Bureaucracies position the worker within closely supervised departments where success equates with doing a specific job according to specific rules. Within this limited world one learns not to think outside the box, and so, except as applied to one’s task, critical thinking is discouraged and one’s worldview comes to conform to that of the bureaucracy. That is why bureaucrats are so often referred to as cogs in a machine.

Moments of Embarrassment 

That American ignorance is explainable does not make it any less distressing. At the very least it often leads to embarrassment for the minority who are not ignorant. Take for example the facts that polls show over half of American adults don’t know which country dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, or that 30% don’t know what the Holocaust was. We might explain this as the result of faulty education; however, there are other, just as embarrassing, moments involving the well educated. Take, for instance, the employees of Fox News. Lou Dobbs (who graduated from Harvard University) is host of the Fox Business Network talk show Lou Dobbs Tonight.  Speaking on 23 March 2013 about gun control, he and Fox political analyst Angela McGlowan (a graduate of the University of Mississippi) had the following exchange:

McGlowan: “What scares the hell out of me is that we have a president . . . that wants to take our guns, but yet he wants to attack Iran and Syria. So if they come and attack us here, we don’t have the right to bear arms under this Obama administration.”

Dobbs: “We’re told by Homeland Security that there are already agents of Al Qaeda here working in this country. Why in the world would you not want to make certain that all American citizens were armed and prepared?”

Despite education, ignorance plus ideology leading to stupidity doesn’t come in any starker form than this. Suffice it to say that nothing the president has proposed in the way of gun control takes away the vast majority of weapons owned by Americans, that the president’s actions point to the fact that he does not want to attack Syria or Iran, and that neither country has the capacity to “come and attack us here.” Finally, while there may be a handful of Americans who sympathize with Al Qaeda, they cannot accurately be described as “agents” of some central organization that dictates their actions.

Did the fact that Dobbs and McGlowan were speaking nonsense make any difference to the majority of those listening to them? Probably not. Their regular listeners may well be too ignorant to know that this surreal episode has no basis in reality. Their ignorance will cause them not to fact-check Dobbs’s and McGlowan’s remarks. They might very well rationalize away countervailing facts if they happen to come across them. And, by doing so, keep everything comfortably simple, which counts for more than the messy, often complicated truth.

Unfortunately, one can multiply this scenario many times. There are millions of Americans, most of whom are quite literate, who believe the United Nations is an evil organization bent on destroying U.S. sovereignty. Indeed, in 2005 George W. Bush actually appointed one of them, John Bolton (a graduate of Yale University), as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Likewise, so paranoid are gun enthusiasts (whose level of education varies widely) that any really effective government supervision of the U.S. gun trade would be seen as a giant step toward dictatorship. Therefore, the National Rifle Association, working its influence on Congress, has for years successfully restricted the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives from using computers to create a central database of gun transactions. And, last but certainly not least, there is the unending war against teaching evolution in U.S. schools. This Christian fundamentalist effort often enjoys temporary success in large sections of the country and is ultimately held at bay only by court decisions reflecting (to date) a solid sense of reality on this subject. By the way, evolution is a scientific theory that has as much evidence to back it up as does gravity.

Teaching Critical Thinking?

As troubling as this apparently perennial problem of ignorance is, it is equally frustrating to listen to repeated schemes to teach critical thinking through the public schools. Of course, the habit of asking critical questions can be taught. However, if you do not have a knowledge base from which to consider a situation, it is hard think critically about it.  So ignorance often precludes effective critical thinking even if the technique is acquired. In any case, public school systems have always had two primary purposes and critical thinking is not one of them. The schools are designed to prepare students for the marketplace and to make them loyal citizens. The marketplace is most often a top-down, authoritarian world and loyalty comes from myth-making and emotional bonds. In both cases, really effective critical thinking might well be incompatible with the desired end.

Recently, a suggestion has been made to forget about the schools as a place to learn critical thinking. According to Dennis Bartels’s article “Critical Thinking Is Best Taught Outside the Classroom” appearing in Scientific American online, schools can’t teach critical thinking because they are too busy teaching to standardized tests. Of course, there was a time when schools were not so strongly mandated to teach this way and there is no evidence that at that time they taught critical thinking. In any case, Bartels believes that people learn critical thinking in informal settings such as museums and by watching the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He concludes that “people must acquire this skill somewhere. Our society depends on them being able to make critical decisions.” If that were only true it would make this an easier problem to solve.

It may very well be that (consciously or unconsciously) societies organize themselves to hold critical thinking to a minimum. That means to tolerate it to the point needed to get through day-to-day existence and to tackle those aspects of one’s profession that might require narrowly focused critical thought. But beyond that, we get into dangerous, de-stabilizing waters. Societies, be they democratic or not, are not going to encourage critical thinking about prevailing ideologies or government policies. And, if it is the case that most people don’t think of anything critically unless it falls into that local arena in which their lives are lived out, all the better. Under such conditions people can be relied upon to stay passive about events outside their local venue until the government decides it is time to rouse them up in some propagandistic manner.

The truth is that people who are consistently active as critical thinkers are not going to be popular, either with the government or their neighbors. They are called gadflies. You know, people like Socrates, who is probably the best-known critical thinker in Western history. And, at least the well-educated among us know what happened to him.

Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester PA.

http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/04/05/the-decline-of-critical-thinking/print

We Are What We Quote

By GEOFFREY O’BRIEN, Opinionator Blogs, New York Times, March 2, 2013

Quotes are the mental furniture of my life. From certain angles my inner landscape resembles a gallery hung with half-recalled citations, the rags and tag-ends of a lifetime of reading and listening. They can be anything at all, the exquisitely chiseled perceptions of poets and philosophers or the blurts of unscheduled truth-telling by public figures caught in the spotlight (the former Jersey City mayor Frank Hague’s “I am the law” or Richard Nixon’s “I’m not a crook”); the punch lines of 1930s comedians or the curtain lines of Jacobean dramatists; or words of wisdom or anguish or ridiculous humor, or simply, for instance, M.F.K. Fisher’s recollection of “the potato chips I ate slowly one November afternoon in 1936, in the bar of the Lausanne Palace.” They are the dangling threads that memory can latch onto when everything else goes blank.

What is the use of quotations? They have of, course, their practical applications for after-dinner speakers or for editorialists looking to buttress their arguments. They also make marvelous filler for otherwise uninspired conversations. But the gathering of such fragments responds to a much deeper compulsion. It resonates with the timeless desire to seize on the minimal remnant — the tiniest identifiable gesture — out of which the world could, in a pinch, be reconstructed. Libraries may go under, cultures may go under, but single memorizable bits of rhyme and discourse persist over centuries. Shattered wholes reach us in small disconnected pieces, like the lines of the poet Sappho preserved in ancient treatises. To collect those pieces, to extrapolate lost worlds from them, to create a larger map of the human universe by laying many such pieces side by side: this can become a fever, and one that has afflicted writers of all eras.

Anyone, of course, might develop a passion for quotes, but for a writer it’s a particularly intimate connection. A good quotation can serve as a model for one’s own work, a perpetual challenge with the neatness and self-sufficiency of its structure laid bare in the mind. How does it work? How might a quotation be done differently, with the materials and urgencies of a different moment? Perhaps writers should begin, in fact, by inwardly uttering again what has already been uttered, to get the feel of it and to savor its full power.

Quotes are the actual fabric with which the mind weaves: internalizing them, but also turning them inside out, quarreling with them, adding to them, wandering through their architecture as if a single sentence were an expansible labyrinthine space.

There are days when a one-sentence aphorism by Georg Christoph Lichtenberg — say, “The most successful tempters and thus the most dangerous are the deluded deluders” — seems as substantial as a 300-page novel, or when a single line from a John Clare poem — “Summer’s pleasures they are gone like to visions every one”— seems as if it could stand in for half the poetry ever written. Quotations bring other people, most of them long dead, into the solitary realm of thinking and writing until there is a sense of sitting in the midst of a room noisy with passionate confessions and pointed interjections. It is one thing to look at a vast wall full of unopened books — more lifetimes than any of us has — another to have the effect of a whole book contained in one phrase.

So many of the people we quote — Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, T.S. Eliot, Jorge Luis Borges, Susan Sontag — were themselves obsessive collectors of quotations. Emerson, whose journals are filled with quotations, was alert to the ways a text could change by being taken out of its context: “It is curious what new interest an old sentence or poem acquires in quotation.” Robert Burton’s classic “The Anatomy of Melancholy” is essentially a compendium of quotes with commentary. Our modern encyclopedist Borges can create new meanings and dizzying perspectives merely by juxtaposing citations drawn from an unprecedented breadth of eras and regions. To enter the worlds of classical Chinese and Japanese and Arabic poetry is to enter realms of ricocheting quotation and counter-quotation. The old joke about the first-time reader of “Hamlet” calling it “nothing but a bunch of quotations strung together” isn’t so far-off. All literary culture in a way is nothing but such a string, down to its most random corners. How many little bits of Shakespeare are preserved in the titles of mystery novels?

In a real sense, we are what we quote — and what can any of us hope to be but a tiny component of that hubbub of voices distilled by books of quotations and epigrams? I have always found such volumes the most irresistible reading. They make it possible to channel-surf millenniums of cultural history, moving forward or backward at will, and plucking out whatever perfectly formed fragment turns out to be precisely what you were looking for. The endlessness of it all is enough to make your head spin, but that dizziness is arrested by the steadying compactness and solidity of the ideal quote — the one that stands there bare and isolated and unencumbered, tiny enough to be grasped all at once, yet unfathomably wide and deep.

At a certain point, in a necessary act of appropriation, you make it part of who you are, whether or not you ever quote it to anyone but yourself. Culture then is not a wall “over there” but the very tiles out of which your own thoughts are constructed. The tiles are variegated and of different ages and subject to every kind of manipulation and juxtaposition. They take their place finally among quotes of a different kind — the quotes that are quotes to no one but you, all the things that friends and lovers and family and strangers and random voices on radio or television have said that cling to your memory and come back at odd hours of day or night, the words that become part of an alternate canon of what has not yet been written down. Out of all that mixing, with luck, might come the rarest thing of all, a new thought or fresh insight that can take its place with all those other sentences, a quotation that waited until just this moment to declare itself.

Geoffrey O’Brien, the author of “The Fall of the House of Walworth,” is editor in chief of the Library of America and general editor of the 18th edition of “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.”

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/02/we-are-what-we-quote/?nl=opinion&emc=edit_ty_20130305

What Does It Mean To Be Literate In The 21st Century?

By Sheila Moorcroft, Shaping Tomorrow, posted on Alternet.org, June 19, 2012

Excerpt

Our economies have for many years been moving away from old style manufacturing to services. That transition is set to continue, and requires new skills sets. Meanwhile, traditional and digital technologies are converging and becoming more integrated; and changing how we find, use, present and understand information….All of these will require new literacies not only for work but for living a fulfilled life, coping with the new complexities of our societies, and engaging as a citizen. Literacy refers, traditionally, to the ability to read and understand printed formats. Transliteracy has been coined to highlight the need to be able to ‘read and understand’ concepts and ideas across a growing range of formats and platforms – oral, print, visual, digital – as technologies merge and integrate, enabling radically new approaches to presentation, verification and distortion of content. They focus ever more on critical thinking, the ability to question, analyse, challenge; seeing arguments from different perspectives; articulating ideas…It is almost certainly a case of both and, not either or nature and nurture. With social mobility, unemployment and the need for growth all hot political topics, new literacies could be the key to opening new routes to success. 

© 2012 Shaping Tomorrow All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/155975/

Full text

Our economies have for many years been moving away from old style manufacturing to services. That transition is set to continue, and requires new skills sets. Meanwhile, traditional and digital technologies are converging and becoming more integrated; and changing how we find, use, present and understand information. Robots are becoming ever more intelligent and have been forecast to be capable of replacing millions of lower skilled, and increasingly higher skilled, jobs in the USA alone in coming decades.

All of these will require new literacies not only for work but for living a fulfilled life, coping with the new complexities of our societies, and engaging as a citizen.

Literacy refers, traditionally, to the ability to read and understand printed formats. Transliteracy has been coined to highlight the need to be able to ‘read and understand’ concepts and ideas across a growing range of formats and platforms – oral, print, visual, digital – as technologies merge and integrate, enabling radically new approaches to presentation, verification and distortion of content. They focus ever more on critical thinking, the ability to question, analyse, challenge; seeing arguments from different perspectives; articulating ideas.

As with all skills, the need for these skills can be seen as a continuum from the functional – enough for day to day life, through socio-cultural to enhance life chances through to transformational which can underpin high levels of innovation.

Practical life skills are in short supply.  A recent survey in the UK indicated that 45% of children under the age of 13 could use a DVD or iPod but not tie their shoelaces – not in itself a problem given the availability of Velcro and slip on shoes, but tying a knot is important.

Another item highlighted 27 essential literacies under six headings, – financial, thinking, success, social, practical, happiness – which it claimed were not being taught in schools.  These ranged from critical thinking to knowing how to mend things, listening skills to budgeting.

Science literacy is also a growing necessity. Issues such as addressing climate change and the benefits of new technologies, feeding growing populations all require an understanding of science. In order to understand the complex trade-offs and underlying issues, cause and effect.

Why is this important?

On one level, these discussions are not new. Howard Gardner discussed the idea of multiple intelligences as early as 1983. Daniel Goleman had a best seller in the 1990s with Emotional Intelligence. Work related profiling systems such as Myers Briggs examine individual capabilities across different skill sets. The discussion of ‘new literacies’ could be seen as little more than rebranding of old ideas, but in doing so it may focus attention and gather momentum for change and new solutions for our new economies.

Countries in the OECD face a double whammy: high unemployment and skills shortages. 23 million people aged 15-24 – about 17% on average are unemployed and not in education or training across the OECD; youth unemployment in Spain and Greece rises to 50% and over. At the same time, 40% of employers across the OECD complain of skills shortages affecting their ability to grow. The new OECD skills strategy aims to help identify and best enable the development of the skills needed to support economic growth. The question will be what skills, taught where, when, how and by whom? Soft skills and the new literacies will need to be part of the process.

A report from the Work Foundation in the UK bears this out. It looks into the issue of those young people not in employment, education or training. Its conclusion is that many of them lack not only formal qualifications, but the ‘soft skills’ needed in today’s economy such as communication. It makes a range of policy recommendations on how to develop these skills.

The nature versus nurture debate in achievement and life success is a longstanding one. Recent research may indicate that soon we may be able to untangle some of the intricacies. A research team has identified small but significant links between 200 (of out 25,000 or so) human genes and ability in maths and language. It is very early days, but they think they may be able to develop genetic tests which are predictors of ability.

Elsewhere, nurture continues to focus strongly. Research into levels of early communication by parents with their childrenunder the age of 3 demonstrates a link between the numbers of words heard and later achievement. A difference of about 23 million words heard separated the highest from the lowest achieving. This includes not only the number of words, but also the type of communication – discursive and exploratory or repetitive and narrow.

It is almost certainly a case of both and, not either or nature and nurture. With social mobility, unemployment and the need for growth all hot political topics, new literacies could be the key to opening new routes to success. 

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