Literacy has many forms and art is one of the ways in which these forms come together and present some of the best opportunities for engaging diversity in complex social systems.
The relationship between art and science has been long noted by those looking at the history of discovery, and the nature of creativity and human innovation. In theory, the idea that two creative ventures that use different methods and media as the vehicle for expression should fit together is natural. But that is where theory and practice diverge sharply.
From my perspective, art and design are not perspectives warmly embraced within the scientific community. There is much suspicion among scientists about the validity, reliability and practical utility of art and design in solving important problems. Aesthetics may be nice for culture, but science tackles serious things.
Yet, one of the more serious matters for science is the concept of literacy. Scientists have been worried about the inability of people to pick up and understand the basics of how science works and its implications for society, prompting this to become an educational priority for some.
Science literacy can be defined as:
PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) 2006 defines science literacy as an individual’s scientific knowledge and use of that knowledge to identify questions, to acquire new knowledge, to explain scientific phenomena, and to draw evidence based conclusions about science-related issues, understanding of the characteristic features of science as a form of human knowledge and enquiry, awareness of how science and technology shape our material, intellectual, and cultural environments, and willingness to engage in science-related issues, and with the ideas of science, as a reflective citizen.
This definition is highly referential to the concept of science, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as:
the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment : the world of science and technology.
• a particular area of this : veterinary science | the agricultural sciences.
• a systematically organized body of knowledge on a particular subject : the science of criminology.
This term is rooted in the Latin scire, which is to know . If one looks at the first definition on its own, independent of the second definition and conjunction with the most popular applications of the term science, there seems to be little room for art and design. Yet, when revisiting the definition of science itself, the idea of the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment, a door opens up to some new possibilities.
Design is largely about the study of human situations and interacting with people, ideas, and space to create solutions that emerge within those spaces. Unlike science, which has a focus on observation and understanding, design is about taking such understanding and applying it to problem solving. Milton Glaser describes design as intervention into the flow of events and the introduction of intention into human affairs.
Art is a means of expression and for exploring the intangible and making it so. It is for such reasons that art + design go together so much.
Reading the different definitions of literacy and considering what science, design and art do, it seems to me right that we contemplate the ways in which they come together. Art and design are part of the normative scientific lexicon, but perhaps they should. As the human-centred problems that science aims to tackle become more complex, abstract and intangible — climate change, chronic disease, food security, social inclusion/exclusion and mass migration/globalization — the need to visualize the problems in new ways and create (design) solutions based on science becomes imperative.
The only way this will take place is to have greater literacy on how this can be in order to recognize the opportunities that science, design and art present and the ability to transform that into true positive intention into human affairs.
** Image used under Creative Commons Licence from Flickr Pool, by freeparking. http://www.flickr.com/photos/freeparking/2351767932/
Although social media is all around us, there is a tendency to forget that it is still new and, in the case of public health, very new. What would / did our health communications system look like if it was designed for pamphlets instead of apps, door-to-door visits instead of Facebook, and libraries instead of websites?
I was at a meeting today and caught the phrase “health communication in the age of pamphlets” as a frank, but concerning assessment of how much we rely on models of communication that emphasize written text, paper-based materials, professionals handing them out or information racks as the distribution channel, and authority and fear as the driver.
If we designed our communications systems for pamphlets, we might have a system that looks like this:
1. Public health officials (mostly physicians) would tell the public what was good for them, how to act in case of emergencies, and they would be doing it with confidence.
2. That confidence would come from experience and some evidence and both of those would have largely complete information, or at least good enough information.
3. Messages would be crafted using mostly text in language (almost exclusively English, except maybe French in some cases here in Canada) that was authoritative and technical.
4. Information could be easily found in doctors offices and some public libraries (you wouldn’t want to put too much information in the library because there are no health professionals there).
5. The conditions that caused illness were straightforward, could be diagnosed and treated and that the reasons people got sick in the first place was that they were largely not taking care of themselves.
It seems to me that this system isn’t that different than what we have now.
The only difference is that people have options and that is what they are seeking. They are also seeking relationships,
…are recognizing that illness is caused by social as well as other determinants,
…that their peers and lay helpers have a lot to offer,
…that professionals’ knowledge is limited, but that they are still very important for specific things,
…that they would rather be in partnership with health professionals than not
…there are limits to what we know and that being an informed consumer is an important skill in the world these days
… that there are as many questions as answers.
Information technology, networks, and a newfound sense of empowerment is changing a lot and maybe soon it will change public health communications.
Those of us working at that interface between the professional and public worlds of health have to wear many hats. We need to be good at communicating in ways that gain respect within our professional worlds. This position means writing scholarly manuscripts, using technical language (but not always), and synthesizing the work of our peers on one hand, while being able to work within the world of most marketers, which includes reaching the public. That means working within the realm of (social) marketing.
Social marketing is described as:
Social Marketing is a planned process for influencing change. Social Marketing is a modified term of conventional Product and Service Marketing. With its components of marketing and consumer research, advertising and promotion (including positioning, segmentation, creative strategy, message design and testing, media strategy and planning, and effective tracking), Social Marketing can play a central role in topics like health, environment, and other important issues.
In its most general sense, Social Marketing is a new way of thinking about some very old human endeavours. As long as there have been social systems, there have been attempts to inform, persuade, influence, motivate, to gain acceptance for new adherents to certain sets of ideas, to promote causes and to win over particular groups, to reinforce behaviour or to change it — whether by favour, argument or force. Social Marketing has deep roots in religion, in politics, in education, and even, to a degree, in military strategy. It also has intellectual roots in disciplines such as psychology, sociology, political science, communication theory and anthropology. Its practical roots stem from disciplines such as advertising, public relations and market research, as well as to the work and experience of social activists, advocacy groups and community organizers.
Social marketing is about getting ideas out there and in use and within the realm of public health and social welfare programming, we often presume that what we’re “selling” is good in its quality, intent, potential use, and social benefit.
The problem is that most of what passes for social marketing in the health sector is not done by marketers, or even those skilled in health communications, but rather everyday researchers, clinicians and administrators. Certainly there are many large organizations where such skilled professionals do reside, but in the decentralized web of social media, those are drops in the bucket of content.
The result is that many well-intentioned messages get poorly developed and distributed, creating something akin to blowback, a hostile and aggressive form of resistance to the message. I’ve just been witnessing such a case of this with a an organization seeking to promote social innovation that is getting messages sent by people on its online mailing list asking to be removed from it. One of the big reasons for these messages is that these people were never asked to be put on the mailing list in the first place.
I get almost as much spam (or, in some cases, bacn) from well-meaning organizations and individuals hoping to get their message out than I do the usual snake-oil salesmen peddling natural male enhancements, Rolex watches, and “investment opportunities”. The senders of these messages, well intentioned for the most part, are hoping to you’ll “buy” their product, which means adopting their findings into your practice, register for the conference they are organizing, visit their website, or donate to their cause.
This reflects a fundamental lack of knowledge about social media, social marketing and knowledge translation in the modern age. Effective messages are a matter of content shaping and distribution, but also relationship development. When you send out messages unsolicited asking for something — time, mindspace, referrrals, whatever — you are hoping to develop a relationship, even a superficial one, with that person. Treating them with the disdain that comes from throwing content at people without their consent is violating that relationship. It is no surprise that miniscule things like one simple thing like an unsolicited email can unleash some fury among its recipients.
And for those people and organizations who think putting a tiny statement on their registration form or website in 8pt font saying that you must opt out of communications or presuming people want this, I’m sorry but that doesn’t cut it.
Building social marketing on relationships is something that our field needs to build literacy and competence in quickly as the number of these unsolicited campaigns seems to be growing. If we don’t improve our messaging, we’re going to have a lot harder time getting the right people to attend to the right messages or risk having them treat all of what we send with the same care as those messages from some Nigerian Prince in exile.
As mentioned in previous posts, the iPad is a social computing device; it allows people to share the computing experience with others in a way that other computers — even the smallest netbooks — do not. This alone helps people experience what is on the computer in a new way through its portability and easy-to-use interface. That in itself has the ability to enhance literacy for health on the Internet, or eHealth literacy .
But what makes the iPad stand out is its visual interface. Unlike a traditional computer, you can use the iPad through knowing very little about how to read or write. Witness the viral video of a two and a half year old using the iPad to see how this could work.
It is probably reasonable to guess that the iPad was designed for the Apple faithful, a group that is generally pretty educated, white, male and young. It may be that the iPad becomes the computer of choice for newcomers and people with low literacy. The tactile, visual interface allows a type of interaction that is based on icons, visual wayfinding, and a set of cues that are vastly different than those used on a traditional computer with its menus, text-driven starts and keyboards. It is in providing computing power and connection to that group that might truly make the iPad the killer app delivery system for health equity.
These are great days for social media. Blogs are becoming popular and tools like Google Reader and other RSS aggregators are making it easier than ever to follow blogs and other new sources with little effort. Twitter enables us to find, follow, share and distribute ideas to the world from almost any platform. Combine tools available through mobile video and uploading capability on everything from Blackberries to iPhones to iPods to regular digital cameras and you have a panoply of opinions that are being transmitted to places like YouTube, Vimeo, and Facebook at a rate that boggles the mind.
If you’re like me, you probably get a lot of value from social media. I don’t think I could be effective in my job if I didn’t have tools like Twitter and Google Reader at my disposal. And that says something considering I am an academic at a leading research university that has access to many of the best databases in the world.
This past week I delivered* a webinar presentation* to a group of health promotion professionals working in tobacco control. Over the span of two hours I introduced the audience* to a variety of social media tools and platforms and how they could be used to leverage the power of their constituents and their teams of colleagues for public health benefit. Along the way I was able to poll the audience and the results were pretty much what I expected: most had some familiarity with social media, but few had dived in and were creating content or using it anywhere near its potential. I suppose if they were, they wouldn’t have been on the call*. In a week we’ll have the results of the follow-up survey and (if I did my job) these numbers will shift somewhat, but not explode. In some ways, this might be a very good thing because social media could well be a case where we might want to be careful what we wish for.
Why? Right now we have more information than we can cope with (although NYU professor Clay Shirky would argue, and I mostly agree with, that our problems are more about poor filtering than too much information, which we’ve had ever since we crossed that point when there became more media sources than time to read / consume them all in a lifetime). David Weinberger argues that all information is now miscellaneous, meaning that the need for organizing information is no longer relevant because we have the tools to search-as-we-go and no longer have to sort things into piles and categories the same way we once did. To him, the problem posed by information volume is largely minor.
Both the filtering and categorizing strategies for making sense of information and generating new knowledge from social media are based on our present and past experience where very few of us actually create an substantive content in an area. But what happens if, to borrow from Clay Shirky’s recent book title, we see: here comes everybody!? It is possible that once the oldest, non-Internet-using generation passes on that we’ll have somewhere close to 100%** digital network penetration in Western societies and a continued rapid rise in developing nations. (** knowing full well that there are people who will, as now, never wish to or maybe need to adopt new technologies and will resist or deny their adoption. The ‘true’ rate will likely be closer to 90-95% as we saw with landline phones or TV’s when they were at their peak).
Right now, social media use is sitting in a place where most people are NOT engaging in it in any meaningful way way generates value for others. Perhaps they are posting a comment on a website, or maybe joining a Ning community, but otherwise the occasional Facebook update coupled with watching cats play the piano on YouTube is about all they do. They represent the ‘lurkers’ on a site; people who’s value to a community or tool is derived not by what they generate in terms of content, but by providing an audience for taking that content and applying it to other things. What happens when the cultural norms shift, they’re literacy levels increase and, for example, they start blogging seriously (even if the content isn’t “serious”) or Twittering or posting their own videos of cats playing the piano on a video-sharing site using their handheld device? Questions abound about whether we can handle the information or whether the unleashing of creative energy on such a level will create a new Renaissance in human creativity.
Internet innovator and “pioneer” of virtual reality, Jared Lanier, feels somewhat differently from either of those positions, but certain argues that a Renaissance is not forthcoming. Jared recently published a book that advances a hypothesis that social media is making us less social, coherent as a society and quite possibly destructive to creativity and innovation rather than supporting it. In a review of the book in the Wall Street Journal, Glenn Harlan Reynolds writes:
Mr. Lanier calls his book a manifesto, but it reads more like a collection of columns and notebook entries loosely organized around a central theme. More than anything else, he worries that those whom he calls “the lords of the cloud”—huge entities such as Google and Facebook—constrict their users, creating online environments in which true individuality is curtailed in favor of the extraction of marketing data and other intelligence. The practice is not only unfair and confining, he says, but perhaps even dangerous. “Emphasizing the crowd,” Mr. Lanier writes, “means de-emphasizing individual humans . . . and when you ask people not to be people, they revert to bad moblike behaviors.” At the very least current Web arrangements encourage a shallow, lemming-like conformity of judgment.
Lanier makes some provocative points (I will admit to having not read his manifesto yet, just some columns on these ideas). Our social media structure right now works quite well because the numbers associated with the expression of Pareto’s Principle (or Power Law — which, in social media terms means that a lot of content is generated by a few, while this long tail represents the bulk of the rest of the transactions. Think: ‘the 80-20 rule’).What is interesting to consider is what happens when the truly big shift comes into social media through ubiquitious Internet, GPS, geotagging, mobile video and such.
Will we consume as we have? Will we need low information diets? Will we develop better filters? And is it even possible to create coherence from all of this or will chaos reign? And how might the science of systems and complexity help us anticipate this future and prepare us to adapt to an information landscape that is far larger than we have now?
Some food for thought. More on this to come…
* what do you call these things in the context of a webinar, where conference call meets virtual lecture + slide show? I never have been able to get the language right for this. At least, in a manner that I feel comfortable with.
I’ll bet that if you sat down with three people – someone over the age of sixty, someone 30 – 60, and someone under the age of 30 — and asked them about their experience with the library they would tell you stories that would hardly resemble one another. Let’s imagine what those stories might look like.
For those oldest of these participants, they might speak of the libary as a reference centre; a special place that a small, but strong population frequented as they grew up (largely due to lower literacy rates among peers and a small knowledge work-based population); a place to borrow books that you could not get anywhere else (because there weren’t many bookstores growing up); as a quiet, clean and almost stern place to visit, much like a monastery; and they might describe a book in almost ‘savoury’ language given that, when growing up, there was not a lot of other media forms out there and few distractions from the book once you had it to enable you to dive into it fully. Librarians might be recalled as people who keep order over the place and enforce the ‘quiet’ policy (the stereotypical woman with the long skirt, glasses and the hair in a bun comes to mind).
The person in the middle aged bracket might speak of their experience with the library as a place where they had storytime as a kid; found books to help them with school (because many in this age bracket are of a generation where homework and post-secondary education became popular); you can get books (and later VHS & DVD’s) for free, even though there are bookstores all over the place including big-box ones; it was one of the earliest places to access the Internet if not at home or work and sometimes a place where you could get help with searches on health, political or legal issues; and they might describe books and media as something that are commonplace and part of an everyday landscape that are consumed and returned without much thought because it exists in so much abundance. Librarians to this generation did all kinds of stuff from read you stories, help you with a term paper, and mostly help you find things from the vast array of sources in the library.
The last person, the under-30, would have a different experience. A library might have been one of the only rooms in their school for group-work, because the school was crowded and not set up for the kind of group work that is commonplace for that generation because it was likely built in the 1950′s, 60′s or 70′s; it provides a place to study for exams at university; it is one of many places with free Internet and computers (for when yours is in the shop getting fixed); and while it is full of books, periodicals and journals, those paper copies are only accessed as a last resort because they take so long to get and search through; A librarian is the person you go to when the computer won’t work or you need directions to the bathroom.
Is this familiar? To be sure, these are caricatures, but they speak to the shift in how libraries are viewed and their role in society. Seth Godin, who’s blog is one of the few ‘must reads’ on my list, recently wrote about the future of the library.
What should libraries do to become relevant in the digital age?
They can’t survive as community-funded repositories for books that individuals don’t want to own (or for reference books we can’t afford to own.) More librarians are telling me (unhappily) that the number one thing they deliver to their patrons is free DVD rentals. That’s not a long-term strategy, nor is it particularly an uplifting use of our tax dollars.
Here’s my proposal: train people to take intellectual initiative.
Seth’s proposal is one that cuts across all three of the characters that I described above. The marvel of tools like Twitter and other social media tools is that they help provide you answers to questions you never thought to ask. Libraries can support this by training people to use information resources and networks to take the initiative to ask questions and create answers more effectively in a manner that is effective for people to find and to understand. In short, the future of the library is also what it always has been about: literacy.
Literacy describes a constellation of learning skills, mental model development tools, and methods of expressing ideas to effectively engage with the social and informational landscape around us. This could be in its most basic forms of reading and writing, or learning about science, computers, or media. It can be on issues of health, information seeking or take forms like ‘meta-literacies’ such as eHealth literacy, which combines all of these forms together.
It is for that reason that the news yesterday that the Canadian Council on Literacy, an advocate and innovator on literacy issues in Canada and internationally, was told that its federal funding (it’s greatest source) would be canceled as of March 31st, 2010. It strikes me that in an era where information is plentiful (even overwhelming in its volume) and the demands (and necessity) for citizens to use information from a variety of sources to make ever-more complex decisions that this is a move backwards.
Perhaps if citizens take up this cause of literacy and support Seth Godin’s renewed mission for libraries we might not have to watch as more literacy organizations, including libraries, disappear because it seems to me that their opportunity to shape a knowledge-driven, learning culture has never been greater than it is now.
An interesting discussion has been taking place on the SourcePOV blog (hosted by Chris Jones) this week on the importance of communication — specifically the need for clarity and the methods that can promote it — and the trouble that ambiguity brings in a digital world. The debate, critique and insight from the many participants (myself included) has been a breath of fresh intellectual air this chilly week, not only because of the level of thought put into the discussion, but because the dialogue is challenging our collective assumptions about language in the present day digital era. Alas, we haven’t solved the problems of language and clarity in the information landscape, but we have posed some interesting questions.
One of the challenges that has come up is improving clarity in communications given the changing nature of the tools we use and the contexts in which we apply them. I’m not going to re-hash the debate here, rather I’d encourage you to join in at the source (no pun intended!) and add to the rich conversation going on there. What I am interested with this post is building on those ideas and offering some new ones on the future of communication. A few weeks ago I posted a highly unscientific, partly tongue-in-cheek poll to confirm or challenge something I was seeing in my personal communications, which was a shift from Facebook to Twitter and blogs in the number and nature of messages being shared. Facebook seemed to be getting quieter and Twitter and my blog-roll were heating up with messages and I wanted to know whether this was something unique to me and my network or something broader.
A few brave readers responded with 63 per cent (N=5) saying that Twitter and blog traffic is going up, while 1 participant felt there was no change and 2 voted for ‘other’. Unfortunately, no one commented and suggested to me what ‘other’ meant, as I’d hoped. Lesson: don’t expect much from half-serious polls.
Perhaps another lesson is that our electronic communications and online social networks are beginning to change. A look at the traffic for both sites over the past year shows that there was a big gain in March and April and a steady move upward or level since then. But what I see, and cannot be gained from these numbers, is a shift in the sophistication and quality of the content that I’m seeing on Twitter and my favourite blogs versus what is on Facebook. I would argue that 80 per cent or more of the very best content that I get on a daily basis can be traced back to my Google Reader and Twitter feeds.
It is not from academic journals or books or from formal presentations, rather it is content in the form of narrative fragments, little bits of information linked together, either unorganized or disorganized, and often free of any larger narrative beyond a general area of interest. Critics (too many to list here) suggest that this is a threat to literacy, a juvenile form of communicating, and out of sync with the way humans naturally communicate, which is based on stories with a beginning, middle and end.
While I agree that we are storytelling beings, I’d challenge the suggestion that stories (at least complete ones) are natural, while others suggesting that the electronic world of narrative fragments might very well be taking storytelling to a new level. The idea of ‘natural’ complete stories is a myth. When was the last time you sat down and told a complete story to someone (other than reading a bedtime story to a child) that could be reasonably understood and interpreted by someone other than the person you were communicating to? (In other words, you could take a transcript and show it to someone out of context and they would know what you’re talking about? No insider knowledge would be necessary, no shared history, no temporal or physical connection present). Probably not very often. The truth is that we communicate in fragments all the time. Twitter posts and Facebook updates work because the fragments we use have some other shared contexts with the audiences — intended or otherwise. These contexts shift and change and tools like Twitter, or text messages or other media provide a concise way to adapt quickly to rapidly changing contexts. This is why I think Twitter and blogs more generally are becoming the more powerful tool set for communicating and why I am seeing a change in my communication patterns.
In the days of Dickens people’s lives were far less complex than they were today. A person would communicate with a few dozen others at best and assume a few social roles. Today, we communicate with potentially thousands in many roles because of our vast networks and global reach through technologies. Yet the stories we tell are still done in fragments most of the time and require context to fully appreciate. So while our future of communication will require tools that enable us to communicate quickly in a variety of contexts to a broad audience, the importance of context will become as important as in Dickens time. A tool that allows us the ability to attract the right people (that is develop a shared context) and allow us to adapt it to the changes in context will be the one that fits with our natural communications and more likely to thrive. So the future will indeed be the past. Fire up the Delorean!
Join the discussion at the SourcePOV blog or here and in keeping with Dickens may I wish you all a Merry Christmas for those celebrating it and a happy holiday and insightful 2010 to all.
This morning the newswires are buzzing with a story that alleges Britain’s Climatic Research Unit fudged some of its climate change data and suggesting that a ‘bunker mentality’ took hold in the unit, which led to this kind of skewing of the data and science. One scientist told Doug Saunders from the Globe and Mail that “It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that this has set the climate-change debate back 20 years.” Indeed, with the Copenhagen Climate Summit about to start, there is real concern that these allegations – whether proven true or not — will impair the delegates’ ability to reach a deal.
On a different, yet related note, yesterday I went and got my H1N1 shot and was told by the official guiding people through the clinic that about 37 percent of the population of Toronto have had the vaccination. I went to the downtown clinic and waited about 2 minutes to see someone, which is in stark contrast to what we saw a few weeks ago.Why? The threat of H1N1 seems much less in the here and now than it did a few weeks ago when, in the span of one weekend, when U.S. President Obama declared swine flu a national emergency, and two young people in Ottawa died from H1N1. Towards the end of October, H1N1 seemed a lot more scary and that made the issue a lot simpler: get protected or die (or so it seemed)
So what do these two stories have in common? Both illustrate the problem of complexity in the information landscape. H.L. Mencken is quoted as saying: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong“.
The problem that public health and scientific research faces is that it is in the business of complexity, yet the business of the media is too often in simplicity. This caused that. That person is bad, this person is a hero and so on. The archetypes and stereotypes come in spades and that is the problem. On the issue of climate change, most scientists worth their salt looking at the data are concerned about what is happening to our climate, not because they know for sure, but because they don’t. In a complex system like the environment, the overlaying causes, consequences and potential confounders of data make it impossible to say for sure that something causes something else in a specific dose. What can be done is that we can observe large scale patterns of behaviour and anticipate changes based on models developed using past, current and possible future (estimated) data and scenario planning.
In public discourse however, this makes for a less compelling story. Many like to think that buying a hybrid car, recycling, and carrying a reusable shopping bag will help solve the problem of climate change, when the truth is an entire system of small changes needs to take place if we really want to make a difference. This speaks to a fundamental lack of understanding of complexity.
With the H1N1 example, complexity is less about the cause and effect relationship of the disease and host and more about the vaccine developed to help prevent it. There are an entire littany of websites, pundits and voices who have turned something that is complicated like a vaccine, with potential complex outcomes in rare events such as allergic reactions, into overly complex issues around patient safety, conspiracy theories and the like. I commented on some of these issues in a previous post. At issue here is a fundamental lack of understanding of statistics and probability.
The problem is that the two are related. For those of us in public health, this is an issue that can lead to sleepless nights. How to both make complex information accessible and interpretable to those without the interest, time or ability to sift through it and make reasoned, informed decisions AND how to enhance people’s understanding of probability? Just yesterday in my course on health behaviour change a student in epidemiology remarked that even something as fundamental as an odds ratio to her field gets debated and misunderstood among her peers. John Sterman at MIT has studied his students — ones that learn about system dynamics — and found that many of them have difficulty grasping the fundamentals of the ‘bathtub problem’ and accumulation, which I discussed in a previous post.
I would argue that this is one of our most fundamental challenges as educators, scientists and members of society.
Think you know about stats and complexity? You might be surprised (and entertained) by how randomness creeps into our lives by listening to the recent podcast on recent episode on stochasticity, or randomness, from WNYC’s Radio Lab.