Month: April 2011

design thinkingresearch

What If Research Was Like the Restaurant Industry?

A model for research?

Spend some time engaging with the service industry reveals a stark gap between what they do to deliver a product that satisfies and what research does and maybe there are lessons to learned for those of us in the scientific world. 

I’ve recently had the privilege to spend a week in the Sonoma and Napa Valley areas of Northern California. If there ever was a place devoted to food and drink, it is this part of the world.

Spending time sampling wine and exotic locally produced, handcrafted foods, beyond being enjoyable, also raises awareness of the craftsmanship that goes into a good drink or meal. From the way a food is grown or raised, prepared, delivered and consumed, it is hard not to appreciate the amount of effort that goes into making that meal a good one. Add in the restaurant, its ambiance, design, and the people there to serve the food to you and soon you are prepared to say “thanks” before every meal whether you are religious or not.

Sitting at a table looking at all that was around me, I couldn’t help but notice the finer details of my experience and wonder about why we have no equivalent in research. Whether it was the texture of the linen table cloth, the arrangement of flowers on the table across from me, the blown-glass lantern and flickering light it produced on my table, to the smell of the food, its temperature, its presentation and, of course, the taste. What about the cadence of the service? How about the way that the server introduced the menu and commented on the options for pairing a wine with each course? Restauranteurs create experiences and products and work to make sure that they are matched to what I want and how I want it now.

In research, we spend at least as much time thinking about how to produce a product that is worthwhile as farmers, ranchers, and vintners do, yet once created we do comparatively little to further develop a worthwhile experience for our end user — if we think about them at all. When was the last time a researcher — or knowledge producer (it could be a clinican sharing their knowledge — helped you to gain a deep appreciation of what they had to offer by working with where you were and what you kind of experience you were looking for?

I can say confidently that this has never happened to me. And why shouldn’t it have? Or better yet: why haven’t I done it for my audiences?

Anticipating some answers that others might give, I offer a back and forth / Q & A:

1. Position: That is not a researcher’s job. We are trained to do research, not sell ideas.

Response: Times change. I can’t think of another role, job or position that doesn’t have to adapt to changing times and where there is no accountability for the outcomes of that job to someone else. I am not suggesting that a researcher, particularly those doing more basic/foundational research, will, can or should know the myriad possible applications of that research, but the idea that they ought not have thought of some possible, eventual application is problematic. I have heard time and again that such applied thinking undermines discovery, but there is no evidence that this is the case, nor does it seem reasonable when those who pay the bills are the public. Even a discovery that makes it easier to make further discoveries is an application of translational thinking and it is time to change.

2. Position: Others don’t understand my research; it’s too complicated to explain.

Response: Any service organization that is unable to explain its purpose goes out of business. There are a lot of ideas that seemed complicated at first, but became easier to grasp once those offering such services reached out. Investing and mutual funds are two examples of complicated business models that have gained widespread purchase. Nearly every concept can be broken into pieces that can be understood by someone else. For a great example, look at the Academic Minute program on WAMC Radio where academics take one minute to share their research with the world. It can be done.

3. Position: The time I spend selling my ideas takes away from generating knowledge. I will be far less effective if I have to do one more thing.

Response: This might be true, but that is only if a researcher does all her or his own knowledge translation and communication. The service industry uses many models. Great chefs aren’t always out on the street wearing a sandwich board trying to convince you to eat at their restaurant, or romancing a dish at your table, there are specific roles that do that. But a great chef is always prepared to play that role if needed and at many great restaurants, the manager or chef surveys what is going on in the front and back of the house to make sure things are going well. In research, we don’t do this much at all. We produce knowledge and maybe share it with other producers, spending little time with other audiences and even less wondering whether we produced the right kind of research for the.  There are some models that are promising, like the knowledge broker , who can play the role of the sommelier for research , but like restaurants that have a role like this for wine, they only work when the system is in place to use those talents well. The analogy here is that there needs to be the right stock of research, the right options for using it, and a mechanism to connect the knowledge broker to the audience.

4. Position: Selling research cheapens it and makes it like a commodity and it is so much more than that.

Response: If you don’t think that there isn’t some commodification of knowledge, then maybe you need to consider what is happening to academia and the trends in research, education and publishing.  Louis Menand‘s great historical review of the North American university views the battle for ideas as a marketplace shows that this isn’t even a new phenomenon, rather its just looking different than it did before.  He has gone further to discuss the problem with PhD’s, echoing recent work published in the Economist on the disposable academic,  pointing to the commodification and professionalization of academia. Researchers may like to imagine that their ideas and work are pure, but the reason we get funding is that someone is interested in what we do for reasons that go beyond reason and science and into passion and some acknowledgement that something will be better because we ask the question. Yes, knowledge is greater than just its application, but we must acknowledge than we compete for attention and that when people pay attention to what we do, we have greater impact than if they don’t.

5. Position: There is no support for this kind of selling of research.

Response: Have you looked at the Internet? Walked into a bookstore? Perhaps turned on the TV? There is research being used all the time. Do the major grant councils pay for this? Not always. But times change (see point #1). The idea that knowledge translation should be funded by grantors is new in itself and will evolve. We need to evolve with it and, if it is not supported, do it anyway. Tweet, blog, share. There is too much information available out there to not be active in its promotion or use, otherwise our intended audiences will choose to use something else.

Restauranteurs know this. They know that no matter how good they are, there are hungry (literally!) customers and competitors who will walk down the street to another place. A Michelin star or Zagat rating this year doesn’t mean that you’ll be successful next year.

Take a moment and envision what research could look like if we handcrafted it to meet the needs of our audience, still taking the time to create art like great chefs, warm our day like a host, and treat us like royalty like a great server. What might that look like and why should we not take some queues from the diners we visit and the restaurants we visit as models for a tasty future for knowledge generation and translation.

Making our customers feel good about our product

** Photo Waitress at Il Folletto by boocal used under Creative Commons License from Flickr

** Photo Sandwich Board by zappowbang used under Creative Commons License from Flickr

art & designcomplexitydesign thinkinginnovationresearch

Creative Intelligence or Design Thinking?

Two minds of Design: Creative Intelligence or Design Thinking

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Design commentator Bruce Nussbaum shook up the world of design thinking this week arguing that it is a “failed experiment” and that Creative Intelligence is an appropriate term to replace it. What might this mean for design and its increasing role beyond its traditional boundaries?

Reading the blogs (and comments) at FastCo Design this week it would seem that anyone invested in design thinking might want to take cover. Design thinking apparently has jumped the shark and is, as Bruce Nussbaum claims, a failed experiment. In its place should be creative intelligence, a process that Nussbaum describes as:

I am defining Creative Intelligence as the ability to frame problems in new ways and to make original solutions. You can have a low or high ability to frame and solve problems, but these two capacities are key and they can be learned. I place CQ within the intellectual space of gaming, scenario planning, systems thinking and, of course, design thinking. It is a sociological approach in which creativity emerges from group activity, not a psychological approach of development stages and individual genius.

This proposal comes from a visible frustration with the way in which design thinking has been taken up as a tool with the critical component — creativity — left out in the cold.

Nussbaum’s rally against design thinking has not to do with its successes (in which he outlines many, including the widespread application of it to service and non-profit development), but rather where it becomes a barrier and where it fails to deliver:

But it was creativity that Design Thinking was originally supposed to deliver and it is to creativity that I now turn directly and purposefully. Creativity is an old concept, far older than “design.” But it is an inclusive concept. In my experience, when you say the word “design” to people across a table, they tend to smile politely and think “fashion.” Say “design thinking,” and they stop smiling and tend to lean away from you. But say “creativity” and people light up and lean in toward you.

Nussbaum clearly struck a chord with many. Within hours of the article being posted, dozens of comments were posted to the site, with most favouring the cause of creativity over design thinking.

Frog Design‘s lead on health projects, Robert Fabricant, weighed on this issue as well with another FastCo Design post comparing CQ to Wile E. Coyote’s efforts to get the Roadrunner, speculating that CQ may not fare much better than design thinking in the long run if not applied strategically:

Creativity is generally viewed as an inherent quality within a person; there’s a notion that you find out early in life whether you are creative or not. How many times have you heard a business person say “I am not creative” in a meeting? The concept of “Creative Intelligence” (or CQ) extends that model by implying that our level of creativity can be assessed in a quantitative manner similar to an IQ score. By bringing creativity into the sphere of assessment, I fear that CQ will ultimately suffer a similar fate as Design Thinking.

Fabricant worries about the institutional co-optation of the term CQ much as design thinking was/has/is by many in the business world.

While I respect the efforts to extend the creative power of design beyond the confines of mere terms, the rhetoric of pro- or anti-design thinking has already left me exasperated. It is evident that many are dissatisfied with what design thinking hasn’t brought and how it has been used, but my concern is that we may be throwing the baby out with the bathwater and undoing the good it has done by claiming such things as it being “a failed experiment” .

I argue that it never had the chance to be fully implemented in the first place, nor have we ever raised it to the level where any scientist (behavioural or otherwise) could claim an experiment ever took place. I’m nit-picking the words because that is exactly what the design thinking critics have done, but in this case I am arguing for more research not a new term.

Design practitioners and scholars may wish to consider the answers to the following questions before closing the book on design thinking:

  • What are the central theoretical foundations of design thinking?
  • How does design thinking map on to what is known about how people change their behaviour? or organize in groups, teams and communities?
  • In what ways does the science of complexity and system dynamics fit with the design process?
  • What are the personality and delivery variables that influence an acceptable facilitated design process?
  • What is “success” in a design thinking intervention?

None of these questions have been answered. Books have been written, talks have been given, and magazines fill themselves with articles on design thinking, yet in all my intellectual travels I have not found answers to these questions. As a behavioural scientist and emerging design practitioner myself, I would rather know these answers before making such claims to abandon the idea.

Further, the concept of CQ is, as Robert Fabricant noted, fraught with pitfalls ahead. Every time a new “intelligence” is introduced, the rush to assess it, measure it and teach it produces a wave of scholarship aimed at tree-loving rather than forest appreciation. Where I think design thinking could have gone further was not so much in instilling/harnessing/discovering creativity, rather in getting people to consider the systems that people fabricate to do creative work in.

It is perhaps ironic that in a week where design thinking is under attack in the social media world that FastCo Design’s parent, Fast Company, published an interview with one of the founding fathers of the concept, David Kelley of IDEO on designing better workplaces and workforces. In that interview, he frames design thinking in a process and outcome that is worth listening to for those interested in adding to the science of design thinking and how to make these better environments:

The main tenet of design thinking is empathy for the people you’re trying to design for. Leadership is exactly the same thing–building empathy for the people that you’re entrusted to help. Once you understand what they really value, it’s easy because you can mostly give it to them. You can give them the freedom or direction that they want. By getting down into the messy part of really getting to know them and having transparent discussions, you can get out of the way and let them go. The way I would measure leadership is this: of the people that are working with me, how many wake up in the morning thinking that the company is theirs?

I welcome more discussion on CQ and believe anytime creativity is bared for people to explore and nurture society benefits. But the risks of abandoning one idea without science to create a new one is that design’s influence itself might wind up the victim. Creativity is an old concept and many disciplines hold it as part of its central tenets and design risks losing the good in design thinking while reaching too far into creativity unless it has the science to back it up (see an interesting link between science and design in this month’s Metropolis magazine — that’s for another post)

Of the few that have managed to traverse this area between design, creativity, and science is Keith Sawyer at Washington University in St. Louis. Check out his books on the subject.

**Photo entitled “Is the traditional business world at war with creativity?” by opensourceway used under Creative Commons license from Flickr

design thinkingeducation & learningpublic healthsocial systemssystems thinking

Thinking Different Requires Different Thinking

Think Different

Novelty, innovation and doing things differently are seen as the key to competitive advantage and scientific discovery. How we think is as important as what we do and use of the term thinking might be one of the most valued things we do of them all.

Recently Tony Golsby-Smith wrote on the Harvard Business Review blog about the potential contributions of those from non-traditional disciplines (aka: the Humanities) to improving innovation. He states:

People trained in the humanities who study Shakespeare’s poetry, or Cezanne’s paintings, say, have learned to play with big concepts, and to apply new ways of thinking to difficult problems that can’t be analyzed in conventional ways.

The reason? those in the humanities and related disciplines are trained to consider “what if?” questions at the outset. Golby-Smith adds:

This is because our educational systems focus on teaching science and business students to control, predict, verify, guarantee, and test data. It doesn’t teach how to navigate “what if” questions or unknown futures. As Amos Shapira, the CEO of Cellcom, the leading cell phone provider in Israel, put it: “The knowledge I use as CEO can be acquired in two weeks…The main thing a student needs to be taught is how to study and analyze things (including) history and philosophy.”

Ouch. That has to sting for those who just spent $80K on an MBA to get to the C-suite.

But this is not just about business, it extends to a lot of sectors, including health. The focus — almost tyranny — of evidence in health systems has created the same kind of mindset that we see in the scenario described above and the absence of “what if” thinking. Evidence, as it is distilled and presented in the health sector, tends be used to guide actions based on what has happened on the past, not the future. In many cases this is perfectly reasonable and, indeed, ideal (life saving even!), yet evidence can be used as a blunt instrument in areas where precision and learning from the past do not apply. Much of health policy and public health fall into this realm.

To understand this requires another different kind of thinking beyond discipline to areas of transdisciplinary arenas like that of systems thinking. Systems thinking is not systematic thinking, rather it is a different way of seeing problems. It is the difference between hard and soft systems, described by Peter Checkland as the following:

The key difference between them, little understood as yet in the literature, is that the hard tradition assumes that systems exist in the world and can be engineered to achieve declared objectives. The soft tradition assumes that the world is problematical, always more complex than any of our accounts of it, but that the process of enquiry into the world can be engineered as a learning system…

What Checkland suggests is that we can create systematic ways of knowing about the complexity around us and that is what (soft) systems thinking is about. Another way of looking at these problems is using the Cynefin Framework, which illustrates areas where hard systems thinking might prove useful and where a “softer” (to use Checkland’s terms) might be more appropriate.

But neither of these particular models are useful without the shift in thinking outright. Until one starts to see systems, to acknowledge complexity, and to devise ways of organizing that recognize both of these in the way in which knowledge is produced, curated, translated and integrated this is a moot point. Further, until one considers applying such thinking consciously and with in intent to shape the world around us, which I would describe as (partly) design thinking , we will continue to use evidence, the past, and the wrong questions to get the answers we look for (not the answers we want) in addressing health-related challenges and issues.

Taking up the point that Golsby-Smith makes in HBR, getting new players into the mix is one start. I have some others:

  1. Teach thinking. We rarely get taught how to think in school, just what to think and why to think about it. The two are very different. Include systems and design thinking in courses aimed at training people who work in areas of complexity. Whether it is in formal school settings or continuing education environments, don’t assume that people know about these thinking approaches or that they will pick them up quickly. The non-linear, highly contextualized nature of complex systems and the strategies used to navigate through them are difficult for most people trained in the Western scientific tradition. Yet, the rewards are great for those willing to persevere.
  2. Take the boundaries of discipline and their points of confluence seriously. While a “hot topic”, transdisciplinarity — working at the intersection of disciplines, not just at the margin of them, is important. Understanding where you come from — in terms of training, experience, life philosophy — helps place you within a system of enquiry and enables you to see boundaries. Too often we fail to acknowledge boundaries at all, assuming that evidence is universal and understood across settings and contexts, which isn’t true.
  3. Build in diversity..and support it. Humanities scholars and engineers working together? Why not. However, throwing people together isn’t the same as nurturing an environment where diversity is respected. Scott Page’s work on diversity and complexity has looked at the dialogical nature of this relationship and how one feeds the other. Creating — designing — environments that bring the best of diversity out is something that requires much attention and brings many rewards.
  4. Thinking is a participatory sport.Although thinking is most often considered a solitary, cognitive activity, support for teams and wide engagement with thinking-related materials and methods is the way to support true integration of knowledge and learning. It is one thing to think of systems, it is another to really experience them. One strategy I’ve tried with some success is to have systems learners use photographs or videos or other arts to capture the tacit and everyday expressions of systems in their lives. When learners go beyond what the evidence tells them, see systems for themselves, and share that with others they are better able to point to spaces where new thinking can generate innovations and how what is known matches with what is possible.

Understanding not only what we think about, but how we think about it in relation to the issues we face is important if we are derive strategies that take the complexity of human systems into account. Teaching for thinking and not for knowledge in itself requires different thinking and acting. The question is: Are we ready and willing to do this? Most people love change so long as they don’t have to do anything different. Hopefully, our health and research systems are different. And if not, how can we inspire the thinking to make them so?

*** Photo Think by jon_skilling used under Creative Commons Licence from Flickr

knowledge translationresearchsocial systemssystems thinking

The Know-Do Gap in Knowledge Translation Human Resources

Lots of thinking, not as much doing

Knowledge translation is about putting evidence into practice, but what about putting practices into place that support evidence creation and the people who are in charge of this? Until this missing link is addressed, our knowledge-practice gap will not shrink anytime soon.

Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do – Goethe

There is a widely held, mistaken belief that knowledge translation (KT) is all about knowledge. During my post doctoral work on KT and systems science I came to know just how strongly this view is held and how faulty it is in terms of practice. Spend time observing how people actually generate, share and take in knowledge and you’ll see that the actual content is a small part of the equation. Quality relationships, networks of people working together, and the right systems and environments in place to facilitate interaction of those people and ideas is what moves knowledge into action.

I was part of a review team that looked at the evidence for knowledge translation and how it fit within cancer communications and we found that much of what has been published focuses on content, not context. While good, appropriate and timely content is a necessary factor in KT, it is hardly sufficient if there are no people or environments where that knowledge can be appropriately contemplated, learned and applied. This is knowledge integration and it requires people and systems working together.

The systems part is tricky enough and has received growing attention over the past decade (see the linked paper above for a short history of knowledge-to-action research), but it is the human side that remains neglected. To make matters worse, it is our future leaders who are bearing the brunt of this lack of attention.

Consider three examples that presented themselves to me over the past week:

1. A young, bold, charismatic and clear communicator with all the skills, knowledge and enthusiasm and desire to be a knowledge broker who is working on the latest of a string of one-year contracts for different organizations. How is this person supposed to be effective at building relationships when she has to start over in a new role in a new organizational every 12 months?

2. A knowledge mobilizer who speaks highly of his team and role on an enthusiastic, dynamic project aimed at transforming academic knowledge into useful, usable, and accessible forms for policy makers and how he is going to miss it as his contract is up (because his part of the project was funded for just one year). What is going to happen to his knowledge when he leaves?

3. A knowledge generator and health promoter who brings a talent for engaging the community and building networks between disparate voices and groups contemplates what it means to be told in one breath that her work (and that of her team and their projects) is so highly valued and impactful and with the next breath that the project will not be funded again, because it is only a one-year initiative. Are those networks she helped create going to grow without someone paying attention to the whole and not just the parts?

These are not content issues, they are human resource issues and systems ones. All the wonderful research scientists do and the amazing innovations that clinicians introduce are not going to amount to anything lasting without someone to carry the torch and to pay attention to getting that knowledge into practice. The knowledge-to-action system is too complex, too fast moving, and attentional resources are too thin to expect that all this can be done on its own without some forethought and committed focus on KT.

And KT and the relationships necessary for true knowledge integration are not things that can be compartmentalized and squished into one year contracts.

What Allan Best, Bob Hiatt and the panel we worked with found (as have others) is that the content itself needs systems in place to do support its integration into practice. These are human systems and those are built on relationships, and relationships are contiguous, not arbitrary or episodic. Yet that is how we view these activities given the way we structure projects and roles for people working in KT.

We are starting to pay more attention to the way in which content is created now it is time to pay as much attention to how it is translated in real human terms and create the same kinds of supports for people that we try to do for content. Otherwise, the young leaders I profiled above will leave the system and take with them their enthusiasm, energy and, ironically, their knowledge leaving us with little more than a name (KT).

 

*** Photo “Thinker” by dirvish used under a Creative Commons License from Flickr

design thinkinginnovation

Failure Fetishism and the Language of Success

Failure is always an option

This month’s Harvard Business Review is focusing on failure, showcasing a concept that was once avoided at all costs. But is this new lexicon of success by failure really helpful?

The global design firm IDEO has a mantra that caught my attention when it was first shown to me many years ago.

Fail often to succeed sooner

The thinking behind this is that lots of ineffective ideas create the likelihood that one of them will be effective. In other words, to generate good ideas, you need to first generate a lot of bad ones.

This month, the Harvard Business Review, features a special issue on the subject of failure and how it impacts organizations and innovation.

It seems we have come a long way from a culture that once embraced the words of NASA flight director Gene Kranz who, in speaking of the efforts to save the Apollo 13 mission and crew, told his charges:

Failure is not an option

It is perhaps ironic that the Apollo 13 mission is held as one of greatest examples of creative problem-solving ever cited.

Failure is a tricky beast as it invokes a lot of emotion. Decades of formal education have taught us to fear failure and that it was a negative thing. It was one thing to get a low grade on an assignment, but to outright fail a course was (for some) a fate worse than death. It is for that reason that the widespread embracing of the concept seems so unusual.

In his column in HBR, Daniel Isenberg seeks to calm the enthusiasm for failure that has taken over much of the discourse on innovation:

Well-intentioned though they may be, these attempts to celebrate failure are misguided. Fear should not be confused with anxiety—and celebrating failure seems aimed at reducing anxiety.

To deal with the anxiety part, Isenberg points to three strategies:

1. Accept failure as a natural part of doing business

2. Remove structural obstacles to reduce the objective risks of a failed venture

3. Turn failure into fodder

The last one is perhaps the most important for anyone seeking to make good from bad, but this language in itself is what I find problematic (including my use of the term “good” and “bad”). As Shakespeare’s Hamlet suggests:

Why, then, ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so

The concept of failure, as discussed above, hinges on language of fear and cultural expectations of success. In some cultures, this can be overly intense (see my post on Tiger Moms). Rather than viewing outcomes as failures or successes, might it not be worth considering a spectrum of effectiveness from “highly relevant discoveries” (making obvious strides towards achieving an objective) to “less relevant discoveries” (non-obvious strides towards an objective). It’s a small point, but one worth noting.

If we fear failure and it has been engrained as something to fear most of our life, any celebrating it now is going to fall on deaf (unconscious) ears. And if that is true, we will be losing opportunities to innovate. If people embraced failure all the time, HBR wouldn’t need a special issue.

Our entrainment to what we see as “success” also leads us to certain dominant perspectives of what that means, shutting down discourse on other ways of seeing the problem. My post yesterday on the Toronto slutwalk hints at this: if we focus on the sensational elements we miss the deeper meaning; by diving too deeply into an issue we risk missing ways to connect more broadly.

The entire success / failure language requires recasting the entire language into something less anxiety producing and more optimistic: a sort of Twitter Fail Whale for innovation. By removing the fear of discovery, we are much more likely to innovate and that is good for all of us.

Failing is fun

** Photo from tinou bou used under Creative Commons License from Flickr
complexitysocial systems

What the Slutwalk, Marshall McLuhan and Rebecca Black Have in Common

How famous are you?

The speed at which information is translated into ideas, intentions and actions is now global and nearly instantaneous, which has consequences for collective action.

In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes. – Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol‘s oft-quoted phrase from 1968 hinted at a future that Marshall McLuhan saw encaptulated in his famous concept of the global village and the idea that the medium is the message:

The medium is the message – Marshall McLuhan

UK artist Banksy has gone so far to proclaim that in this new social media, always connected, perpetually broadcast media world we will all be anonymous for 15 minutes (see above photo). If true, this has implications that go beyond simply getting ready for fame, but more deeply into the way in which media messages are constructed and construed within a social media landscape. Some cases of how the quick-release created by media this week got me to thinking more about what this might mean for health and creating better communities.

One case is the Internet sensation-of-the-moment Rebecca Black and her widely viewed (which was up to more than 80 million hits as of the time of this writing), parodied, and celebrated video “Friday” . Within the span of two weeks, a 13-year old girl who was largely unknown outside her classmates, friends and family was portrayed as everything from a new talent to a no talent in social and mainstream media circles by pundits, the public and journalists as a whole. One small, yet intricate, act of creating a video and publishing it set off the most talked about musical event since Susan Boyle.

On a matter far more serious, Torontonians — women and men — came out in the thousands to voice their concern over insensitive, negative stereotyping of women in the first ever slutwalk. The website for the organizing team described the instigating issue like this:

As the city’s major protective service, the Toronto Police have perpetuated the myth and stereotype of ‘the slut’, and in doing so have failed us. With sexual assault already a significantly under-reported crime, survivors have now been given even less of a reason to go to the Police, for fear that they could be blamed. Being assaulted isn’t about what you wear; it’s not even about sex; but using a pejorative term to rationalize inexcusable behaviour creates an environment in which it’s okay to blame the victim.

What Marshall McLuhan (add Warhol and Banksy here too), Rebecca Black’s “Friday” (and Susan Boyle’s “I have a dream”), and Slutwalk have in common is that they all gained, retained, and explained themselves through widespread media, intense emotion, and great misunderstanding resulting from the media form.

With McLuhan, the emotion is less (unless confusion counts), but there is still much resonance with his work and celebration of his theories aimed at helping people understand the relationship between media, the messages conveyed, and the cultural reproductions created through them all. While McLuhan’s words are well known, his theories are not, nor has there been much effort to get to know them. I know few who have read his original texts, slightly more who have read secondary accounts of his work in scholarly manuscripts, and most who have done neither or, at best, caught him in his movie cameo in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall.

Rebecca Black has the (mis)fortune to be one of Worhol’s famous people, albiet for more than just 15 minutes. Just as Susan Boyle no longer graces our aural landscape as she did, I suspect Rebecca Black will move closer to what Banksy speaks of within the span of a few weeks with her work to join Double Rainbow and Steven Slater (the JetBlue flight attendent who jumped out of the plane with two beer) as memes that have come and gone.

Slutwalk, I hope, finds a more generous fate. At present it is tied between something of substance (like McLuhan) and celebrity (Black), and is as misunderstood as both. Whereas McLuhan’s work is often overlooked in detail because it is rather dense and challenging, applied without consideration of the manifest ways in which media and messaging intersect, Black’s video is taken up without any thought at all, yet not critically analyzed. (For music fans, I suggest spending an hour with Lady Gaga on her recent visit to Google to see someone who walks the line between McLuhan and Black well, taking the highest art form from both and addresses Black’s fame in answering an audience member’s question).

Reading through the Twitter feeds with #swto and #slutwalk found some cheers, and some questions about what Slutwalk is. Sadly, some of the comments were the (to be expected, I suppose) sexist comments that represent the take-without-thinking approach (Black) from misinformed or misogynist (or both) tweeters. Yet at the same time, there were some who thought about the issue a lot, yet may have been overly analytical about certain aspects of the situation (McLuhan) to the point of making small things into bigger ones. In the latter, there were over-generalized attacks on the police officer who initiated the walk in the first place (and has apologized – the sincerity of which is unknown by me) and the establishment of the police service as a whole.

Neither of these perspectives tell the whole story, but when viewed through the lens of social media, safe ground is harder to find. Nuance is not something that Twitter posts do well. A post by the Toronto Sun shows what would have to be the most stereotypical picture of the “sluts” on its cover (which I see as intentional), with no hint at the diversity of women (and men) who joined the march to specifically highlight that it doesn’t matter what you wear, all women have rights to be who they are and be free from violence. The immediacy of social media and online media, makes this a more complex argument when either the overly simple is favoured and the overly complex is posed as a counter. It is easier to attack someone or to mock them, but harder to understand that person. If we are to design better social systems, understanding is key.

Why write about this here? Because these are the issues we face in health promotion all the time. Poverty, racism, access to health services, mental health and wellness, and education are all issues that are complex. They cannot or will not allow themselves to be understood in simple terms, yet are issues that speak to the wellbeing of society. Slutwalk was about rights and freedoms for more than one half of our population. It was about respecting people for who they are, honouring their sexuality, and educating everyone about the prevalence, consequences and risks associated with unwanted sexual advancement and assault. When it becomes a Rebecca Black Friday issue, it is about things like the salacious use of risque’ language and when it is a McLuhan issue, it takes a library to understand it.

Surely with our amazing tools we can find some middle ground to make the complex accessible, and the simple more sophisticated.

** Photo by fstutzman used under a Creative Commons License from Flickr.