Tag: journalism

complexityjournalismscience & technologysocial systems

Our Paradoxical Age

pokemongodebut

If there was a word we could use to define the current times, paradox would certainly have to be a leading candidate. Can we learn to love this seemingly maddening force or are we doomed to accept this emergent complexity? This first in a series looks at some of the paradoxes of the day, what they might mean for our society and how we might live with them. 

paradox |ˈperəˌdäks|

noun

a statement or proposition that, despite sound (or apparently sound) reasoning from acceptable premises, leads to a conclusion that seems senseless, logically unacceptable, or self-contradictory: a potentially serious conflict between quantum mechanics and the general theory of relativity known as the information paradox.

• a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that when investigated or explained may prove to be well founded or true: in a paradox, he has discovered that stepping back from his job has increased the rewards he gleans from it.

• a situation, person, or thing that combines contradictory features or qualities: the mingling of deciduous trees with elements of desert flora forms a fascinating ecological paradox.

If you think we’re living in strange times you’re not alone. Technology and its influence on our social world has produced things, ideas, encounters that only a few years ago would seem utterly preposterous if not impossible. Self-driving cars, drone delivery, digital social networks and video telephony, as remarkable as they are, have been somewhat pre-saged by science fiction and in a Jetsons-esque manner seem somewhat plausible to those who’s imaginations are sufficiently rich or their attenuation to popular culture sufficiently robust.

What I am talking about are the less dramatic or technologically sophisticated , but powerful shifts that have come from new products and services that are moving from the occasional ‘once-in-a-blue-moon’ kind of occurrence to something common and regular. This is producing paradoxes in droves, which is presenting conundrums for social scientists, policy makers and citizens alike.

Pokemon Go and the case of the walking dead-or-alive(?)

The above photo was taken July 11th in Toronto, Canada. I was walking upon a square when I noticed nearly everyone — dozens of people (with more coming every minute) congregating at the square to look at their phone. Unbeknownst to me at the time, five days earlier a game called Pokemon Go was released in Japan and the United States (a game that would not be released in Canada for another six days so these individuals were all using a version they’d obtained through some kind of digital work-around). These people were all chasing Pokemon characters who happened to “be” in that square.

The Pokemon Go craze had just ignited and the phenomena wouldn’t hit the mainstream news for another day or two so I was left wondering what was going on and thinking how sad it was that one of the nicest days of summer to date was being spent by so many standing looking at their phone. I took some pictures, made some inquiries and was left amazed, confused and slightly depressed all at the same time.

To call Pokemon Go a game seems misleading. So does calling it a community, a phenomenon, a technological marvel, a marketing coup, a social convener, a public health risk, a public health benefit or a waste of time. It’s something completely new and it brings with it a number of puzzling, odd and paradoxical qualities as noted in the piece below from The Pipe Dream Meme.

As one man reports: “I’m not the most physically fit person, obviously, but I have walked more since this game has come out than I have in my entire life” He goes on to talk about how he knows more about his city than ever did before thanks to Pokemon Go, a video game that involves a person being focused on their screen, not the actual city around them even though what is on the screen is based on the physical city (and country and cemeteries and…) that is the foil for the hundreds of Pokemon characters to live through a handset.

Whether you consider the thousands of people walking around your city staring at their handset the walking dead (as disconnected from the world) or the living (as engaging with the world, differently) is a matter of perspective.

Paradox thy name is Pokemon.

Extensions of humanity to what?

Marshall McLuhan wrote (PDF) that the medium is the message and that the tools and technologies embedded in that media initially extend our humanity then culturally envelopes humanity by making us an extension of it. A simple look at capitalism and the use of money as a means of negotiating our sense lives illustrates this as McLuhan points out.

“Money has reorganized the sense life of peoples just because it is an extension of our sense lives. This change does not depend upon approval or disapproval of those living in the society.”

McLuhan cites the work of Carl Jung to support his thesis by drawing on a quote that illustrate the insidiousness of system of paradoxes and what they can have on a society:

Every Roman was surrounded by slaves. The slave and his psychology flooded ancient Italy, and every Roman became inwardly, and of course unwittingly, a slave. Because living constantly in the atmosphere of slaves, he became infected through the unconscious with their psychology. No one can shield himself from such an influence (Contributions to Analytical Psychology, London, 1928).

Thus by enslaving others we ourselves become enslaved.

Perhaps no better example of this paradox is in the way we’ve created tools to learn, exchange information and automate activity — making our work much more efficient — and finding ourselves either overworked or out of a job entirely. We’ve created a capitalist consumption system that relishes in efficiency in order to provide us with more of what we want and need to survive, thrive and be happy and we seem to put ourselves out of work; create stressed over-work for many of those who have jobs; destroy the planet (which is the only place to live), disconnect us from society and ourselves; and in a manner that contributes to mental health disorders along the way.

Things ought to be amazing — and in many ways they are — but the horrors created along with this are as notable and significant not only for our life today, but the future of the planet. This is the paradox of plenty.

Creating stupidity through knowledge

The problems we’ve created from consumption would be manageable if it was simply an issue of lack of knowledge. Solving knowledge-based problems is pretty straightforward: you find the right information, package it appropriately to the right audience, and ensure you deliver that message at the right time and place. This is the basis behind the knowledge transfer model and second generation of knowledge-to-action theories. Ask any marketer and they’ll tell you that while there’s no one way to do this and it does take work and experimentation, the mechanics are pretty straightforward.

Yet, knowledge (and truth, which is linked to this knowledge), is losing its power to sway people in the information society, which is based largely on the production / consumption / use of knowledge. As we have more access to more knowledge about something we are often less informed and more likely to discount the very thing we are using to make decisions. Paradoxical, isn’t it?

The ascendency of Donald Trump from real estate developer/reality TV show host/beauty pageant promoter to Republican candidate for the President of the United States is as good of an example as you’ll ever find. Irrespective of whatever policy positions you might hold, it’s impossible to deny that his track record of outright lies is beyond the pale. Or maybe it’s not impossible and that’s the problem.

Clay Johnson wrote about this phenomenon and drew parallels between our obesogenic culture and that of information consumption. He was inspired by an encounter with a protester in the early days of what would become the ‘Obamacare’ movement who had a sign saying “Keep your government hands off my Medicare” and recalls the circumstance in his book The Information Diet:

I spoke to this protestor about his sign. He seemed rather well educated — sure, he was angry, but he was not dumb, just concerned about the amount of money being spent by the current administration…This man did not suffer from a lack of information. Yet he had failed to consider the irony of holding a sign above his head asking government to keep its hands off a government-run program. To him, it made perfect sense.

 

So what’s to be done? Anything? That’s what I’ll explore in the next post.

complexityjournalismscience & technologysocial media

The more we get together

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As we forge ever-greater connections online to each other and the world of ideas the thinking was that we would be far better off, more tolerant, educated and wise and yet there is much evidence to suggest this isn’t the case. What does it mean to come together and how can we do this that brings us closer rather than driving us further apart? 

The more we get together, the happier we’ll be – lyric from popular song for children

Like many, I’ve grown up thinking this very thing and, for the most part, my experience has shown this to be true. However upon reflection, I’m realizing that most of this experience is related to two things that could reveal a potential flaw in my thinking: 1) I’m thinking of face-to-face encounters with others more than any other type and also 2) most of the relationships I’ve formed without aid of or post use-of the Internet.

Face-to-face interactions of any real quality are limited in nature. We only have so many hours in a day and, unless your job is extremely social or you live in a highly communal household complex, we’re unlikely to have much interaction with more than a few dozen people per day that extends beyond “hello” or something like that. This was explored in greater detail by anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who determined that our social networks are usually capped at 100 – 250 individuals. Dunbar’s number (the commonly held mean number of people in these networks) is commonly considered to be 150.

Why does this matter? When we engage others online, the type of interactions and the number of ideas we engage can be far larger, or at least is certainly different in how those relationships are managed. We see comments on discussion boards, social media posts, videos and pictures shared online, and are exposed to media messages of all types and through myriad news (official, professional and otherwise) sources. Ethan Zuckerman, who I’ve written about before, has written extensively about the paradox of having such incredible access to diversity in the world and yet we often find ourselves increasingly insular in our communication patterns, choosing like-minded opinions over alternative ones.

Looking ahead by looking back at Marshall McLuhan

Journalist Nicholas Carr, who’s written extensively on the social context of technology, recently posted an interview with Marshall McLuhan from 1977 speaking on his views about where media was going and his idea of “the global village”. His piece, the global village of violence, was enlightening to say the least. In it, Carr points to the violence we are committing in this global village and how it doesn’t square with what many thought were the logical outcomes of us connecting — and does so by pointing back to McLuhan’s own thoughts.

McLuhan’s work is often a complicated mess, partly because there is a large, diverse and scattered academic culture developed around his work and thus, often the original points he raised can get lost in what came afterwards. The cautions he had around hyper-connection through media are one of those things. McLuhan didn’t consider the global village to be an inherently good thing, indeed he spoke about how technology at first serves and then partly controls us as it becomes normalized part of everyday life — the extension becomes a part of us.

As is often the case with McLuhan, looking back on what he said, when he said it and what it might mean for the present day is instructive for helping us do, just as his seminal work sought to help us do, understand media and society. Citing McLuhan, Nicholas Carr remarked that:

Instantaneous, universal communication is at least as likely to breed nationalism, xenophobia, and cultism as it is to breed harmony and fellow-feeling, McLuhan argues. As media dissolve individual identity, people rush to join “little groups” as a way to reestablish a sense of themselves, and they’ll go to extremes to defend their group identity, sometimes twisting the medium to their ends

Electronic media, physical realities

These ‘little groups’ are not always so little and they certainly aren’t weak. As we are seeing with Donald Trump‘s ability to rally a small, but not insignificant population in the United States to join him despite his litany of abusive, sexist, inflammatory, racist, discriminatory and outwardly false statements has been constantly underestimated. Last week’s horrible mass shooting in Orlando brought a confluence of groups into the spotlight ranging from anti-Muslim, both anti-gay and gay rights, pro-gun, along with Republican and Democratic supporters of different issues within this matter, each arguing with intensity and too often speaking past each other. Later this week we saw British MP Jo Cox murdered by someone who saw her as a traitor to Britain, presumably on account of her position on the pending ‘Brexit’ vote (although we don’t yet know the motivation of the killer).

 

There are many reasons for these events and only some that we will truly know, but each matter points to an inability to live with, understand and tolerate others’ viewpoints and extreme reactions to them. The vitriol of debate on matters in the public sphere is being blamed for some of these reactions, galvanizing some to do horrible things. Could it be that our diversity, the abundance of interactions we have and the opportunities to engage or disengage selectively

If this hypothesis holds, what then? Should we start walling off ourselves? No. But nor should we expect to bring everyone together to share the tent and expect it to go well without very deliberate, persistent, cultivation and management of relationships, collectively. Much like a gardener does with her garden, there’s a need to keep certain things growing, certain things mixing, certain things out and others in and these elements might be different depending on the time of year, season, and plants being tended to. Just as there is no ‘one garden’ style that fits everywhere, there is no one way to do ‘culture’, but some key principles and a commitment to ongoing attention and care that feed healthy cultures (that include diversity).

As odd as this may sound, perhaps we need to consider doing the kind of civic development work that can yield healthy communities online as well as off. We certainly need better research to help us understand what it means to engage in different spaces, what types of diversity work well and under what conditions, and to help us determine what those ‘simple rules’ might be for bring us closer together so, like the childrens song above, we can be happier rather than what we’ve been becoming.

Complexity isn’t going away and is only increasing and unless we are actively involved in cultivating and nurturing those emergent properties that are positive and healthy and doing it by design, and viewing our overlapping cultures as complex adaptive systems (and creating the policies and programs that fit those systems), we put ourselves at greater risk for letting those things emerge that drive us further apart than bring us together.

 

Photo credit: Connections by deargdoom57 used under Creative Commons License via Flickr. Thanks deargdoom57 for sharing your work!

 

behaviour changepsychologysocial mediasocial systems

My troubled relationship with social media

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Do you care about donuts? I did, once. I’m not so sure anymore.

I used to love donuts, was passionate about donuts and spent the better part of my early career looking at the power of social media to transform our understanding of and engagement with donuts. Just this week, I had a paper published that I co-authored with colleagues looked at Twitter is being used to engage audiences on donuts, er vaping and it’s potential public health implications. I’m still into donuts, but the question is whether donuts are still serving the purpose they once did. It’s left me asking….

Is it still time to make the donuts?

Twitter turned 10 this past month. When it was founded the idea of communicating short 140 character chunks of content to the world by default (unlike Facebook, where you could restrict you posts to your ‘friends’ only by default), the idea seemed absurd, particularly to me. Why would anyone want to use something that was the equivalent of a Facebook status update without anything else? (Keep in mind that link shorteners were not yet in wide use, the embedded pictures and lists that we have now were either not invented or highly cumbersome).

However, social media is a ‘participation sport’ as I like to say and by engaging with it I soon realized Twitter’s enormous potential. For the first time I could find people who had the same quirky collection of interests as I did (e.g, systems science, design, innovation, Star Wars, coffee, evaluation, soccer, politics, stationary and fine writing instruments – and not necessarily in that order, but in that combination) and find answers to questions I didn’t think to ask from people I didn’t know existed.

It was a wonder and I learned more about the cutting edge of research there than I ever did using traditional databases, conferences or books much to the shock, horror and disbelief of my professional colleagues. I’ve often been considered an early adopter and this was no exception. I did research, consultation and training in this area and expanded my repertoire to Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, LinkedIn and pretty much everything I could including some platforms that no longer exist.

I developed relationships with people I’d never (and still have never) met from around the world who’s camaraderie and collegiality I valued as much or more than those people I’d known for years in the flesh. It was heady times.

But like with donuts, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. And also like donuts, where I once loved them and enjoyed them regularly consuming them now starts to not sit so well and that’s maybe for the better.

I’m left questioning whether it’s still time to make the donuts.

The river I stand in

This river I step in is not the river I stand in – Heraclitus

Like with donuts the experience of social media — the context of its use — has changed. As I age, eat better, exercise more wisely and am more mindful of how I feel and what I do, donuts lost appeal. They probably taste the same, but the experience has changed and not because the donuts are different, but my dietary and lifestyle context is.

The same is true for social media.

I have never been a techno advocate or pessimist, rather I’ve been a pragmatist. Social media does things that traditional media does not. It helps individuals and organizations communicate and, depending on how its used, engage an audience interactively in ways that ‘old media’ like billboards, radio, TV and pamphlets do not. But we still have the old media, we just recognize that it’s good at particular things and not others.

But the river, the moving and transforming media landscape, is much faster, bigger and bolder than it was before. Take the birthday girl or boy, Twitter, it’s grown to be a ubiquitous tool for journalists, celebrities and scholars, but saw a small decline in its overall use after a year of flatlined growth.

TwitterMonthlyActive 2016-04-01 13.50.14(Twitter monthly users via Tech Crunch)

As for Facebook, it’s faring OK. While it still has growth, I’ve struggled to find anyone who speaks in glowing terms about their experience with the service, particularly anyone who wishes to change their privacy settings or wishes to stem the flow of ads. Over at Instagram, my feed has seen the rise of ‘brands’ following me. No longer is it the names of real people (even if its a nickname) it’s usually some variant of ‘getmorefollowers’ or brands or something like that. This is all as I see more ads and less life.

Information overload and filter failure

Speaking to an audience in 2008, author and media scholar Clay Shirky spoke to the problem of ‘information overload’ which was a term being applied to the exponential rise in exposure people had to information thanks to the Internet and World Wide Web. At the time, his argument was that it was less about overload of information, than a failure of our filter systems to make sense of what was most useful. 

But that was 2008. That was before the mobile Internet really took off. That was when Twitter was 2 and Facebook just a couple years later. In the third quarter of 2008, Facebook had around 100,000 users and now its got a population of more 1.6B users. The river has got bigger and more full. That might be nice if you’re into white water rafting or building large hydro-electric dams, but it might be less enjoyable if you’re into fly fishing. I can’t imagine A River Runs Through It with a water feature that’s akin to Niagara Falls.

As journalist Douglas Rushkoff has pointed out in many different fora, the Internet is changing the way we think.  Indeed, ‘smarter technologies’ are changing the way we live.

This all brings up a dilemma: what to do? As one who has studied and advised organizations on how to develop and implement social media strategies I would be a hypocrite to suggest we abandon them. Engaging with an audience is better than not doing so. Humanizing communications – which is something social media can do far better than speaking ‘at’ people — is better than not. Being timely and relevant is also better than not. Yet, the degree to which social media can answer these problems is masked by the volume of content out there and the manner in which people interact with content.

Walking through any major urban area, take public transit, or watching people in line for pretty much anything will find a substantial portion of humans looking at their devices. Even couples or friends at restaurants are left to concoct games to get people paying attention to each other, not their devices. We are living in the attentional economy and what is increasingly valuable is focus, not necessarily more information and that requires filtration systems that are not overwhelmed by the volume of content.

Emotional pollution and the antisocial media

I recently wrote about how ‘the stream’ of social media has changed the way that social activism and organizing is done. While social media was once and invaluable tool for organizing and communicating ideas, its become a far more muddled set of resources in recent years. To be sure, movements like Black Lives Matter and others that promote more democratic, active social engagement on issues of justice and human dignity are fuelled and supported by social media. This is a fantastic thing for certain issues, but the question might be left: for how long?

Not so long ago, my Facebook feed was filled with the kind of flotsam, jetsam and substance of everyday life. This was about pictures of children or vacations, an update on someone’s new job or their health, or perhaps a witty observation on human life, but the substance of the content was the poster, the person. Now, it is increasingly about other people and ‘things’ . It’s about injustices to others and the prejudices that come with that, it’s about politics (regardless of how informed people are), it’s about solidarity with some groups (at the willful ignorance of others) and about rallying people to some cause or another.

While none of these are problematic — and actually quite healthy in some measure — they are almost all I see. On Twitter, people are sharing other things, but rarely their own thoughts. On Facebook, it’s about sharing what others have written and the posters emotional reaction to it.

Increasingly, it’s about social validation. Believe my idea. “Like” this post if you’re really my friend. Share if you’re with me and not with them. And so on.

What I am left with, increasingly, is a lost sense of who the ‘me’ and the ‘them’ are in my social media stream. What it feels is that I am increasingly wading into a stream of emotional pollution rather than human interaction. And when my filters are full, this gets harder to do and I’m not sure I want to be less sensitized to the world, but I also don’t want my interactions with others to be solely about reacting to their rage at the world or some referendum on their worldview. It seems that social media is becoming anti-social media.

In complex systems we might see this is as a series of weak, but growing stronger, signals of something else. Whether that’s collective outrage at the injustices of the world, the need for greater support, or the growing evidence that social media use can be correlated with a sense of loneliness, I’m not sure.

But something is going on and I’m now beginning to wonder about all those donuts we’ve created.

Photo credit: Chris Lott Social Media Explained (with Donuts) used under Creative Commons License via Flickr

About the author: Cameron Norman is the Principal of Cense Research + Design and works at assisting organizations and networks in creative learning through design, program evaluation, behavioural science and system thinking.

 

food systemsjournalismpublic healthsocial mediasystems science

Frogs, Pots, Blogs and Social Media

Frog_and_saucepan

Our information landscape has been compared with our diets providing an ample opportunity to compare what we ‘consume’ with how we prepare food and perhaps draw on the analogy of the frog and the boiling point of water. Are we slowly killing our ability to produce independent thought through vehicles like blogs as we draw our gaze to and focus on the social media stream?

Iranian-Canadian blogger Hossein Derakhshan was one of the few who opposed the state-imposed media messaging about what was (and has been) happening in Iran. For that, he was jailed. Writing in the Guardian news service, Darakshan, once referred to as Iran’s ‘Blogfather’, discusses how blogging enabled him to be this voice and how he’s become increasingly concerned with how that option is getting slowly silenced not necessarily by governments but by social media.

Darakhshan’s perspective on social media is made all the more interesting because of his role as a prominent blogger before his arrest and the 6-year prison term that disrupted that role, offering something of a time-travel experiment in social media that he illustrates with a story from the Qur’an (known as the tale of the Seven Sleepers).

Upon his return online, Darakhshan noticed that the patchwork quilt of perspectives that were present in the blogosphere was being replaced by ‘The Stream’ that social media provides.

This stream is no longer about a diversity of perspectives, but rather something custom-tailored to meet our preferences, desires, and the needs of corporations seeking to sell advertising, products and services that align with their perception of what we want or require. This stream also allows us to shield ourselves from perspectives that might clash with our own. Groups like ISIS, he suggests, are enabled and emboldened by this kind of information vacuum:

Minority views are radicalised when they can’t be heard or engaged with. That’s how Isis is recruiting and growing. The stream suppresses other types of unconventional ideas too, with its reliance on our habits.

The Stream & our information diet

What’s interesting about The Stream is that it is about bits and bites (or bytes) and not about meals. Yet, if we consider the analogy of information and food a little further we might find ourselves hard-pressed to recall the snacks we had, but (hopefully) can recall many memorable meals. Snacking isn’t bad, but it’s not memorable and too much of it isn’t particularly healthy unless it’s of very high-quality food. With no offence to my ‘friends’ and ‘follows’ on social media, but most of what they produce is highly refined, saccharine-laden comfort food in their posts and retweets, with a few tasty morsels interspersed between rants, cat videos, selfies, and kid pictures. To be fair, my ‘offerings’ aren’t much better when I look across many of my recent Tweets and posts as I am no more than a box of sugar-topped Shreddies to others’ Frosted Flakes. (Note to self when composing New Years Resolutions, even if they are likely to fail, that I need to add less sugar to my stream).

Yet, we are living an age of information abundance and, like food abundance (and the calories that come with it), we are prone to getting obese and lethargic from too much of it. This was the argument that political communicator Clay Johnston makes in his book The Information Diet. Obesity in its various forms makes us slower, less attuned, more disengaged and often far less mindful (and critical) of what we take in whether it’s food or information. And like obesity, the problem is not just one of personal choice and willpower, it’s also about obesogenic systems that include: workplaces, restaurants, communities, markets and policies. This requires systems thinking and ensuring that we are making good personal choices and supporting healthy, critical information systems to support those choices.

The Stream is actually antithetical to that in many regards as Darakhshan points out. The Stream is about passing content through something else, like Facebook, that may or may not choose to pass it on to someone at any given time and place. I’ve noticed this firsthand over the holiday season by finding “Getting ready for Christmas” messages in my Facebook feed on Boxing Day and beyond.

The problem with The Stream is that everything is the same, by design, as Darakhshan notes in an earlier post on his concerns with his new post-imprisonment Web.

Six years was a long time to be in jail, but it’s an entire era online. Writing on the internet itself had not changed, but reading — or, at least, getting things read — had altered dramatically. I’d been told how essential social networks had become while I’d been gone, and so I knew one thing: If I wanted to lure people to see my writing, I had to use social media now.

So I tried to post a link to one of my stories on Facebook. Turns out Facebook didn’t care much. It ended up looking like a boring classified ad. No description. No image. Nothing. It got three likes. Three! That was it.

An information food web

Diversity of perspective and content is critical for healthy decision-making in complex systems. Our great problems, the wicked ones from terrorism to chronic disease to mass migration to climate change, will not be solved in The Stream. Yet, if we push too much toward creating content in social networks that are no longer controlled by users (even if the content is produced by users) and designed to facilitate new thinking, not just same thinking, our collective capacity for addressing complex problems is diminished.

Wicked problems will not be solved by Big Data alone. We cannot expect to simply mine our streams looking for tags and expect to find the diversity of perspective or new idea that will change the game. As Ethan Zuckerman has pointed out, we need to rewire our feeds consciously to reflect the cosmopolitan nature of our problems and world, not just accept that we’ll choose diversity when our information systems are designed to minimize them.

Much like a food web, consideration of our information ecosystems in systems terms can be useful in helping us understand the role of blogging and other forms of journalism and expression in nurturing not only differences of opinion, but supporting the democratic foundation in which the Web was originally based. Systems thinking about what we consume as well as produce might be a reason to consider blogging as well as adding to your social media stream and why more ‘traditional’ media like newspapers and related news sites have a role.

Otherwise, we may just be the frog in the boiling pot who isn’t aware that it’s about to be cooked until it’s too late.

Postscript

It is interesting that Darakhshan’s piece caught my attention the day after WordPress delivered my ‘Year in Blogging’ review to my inbox. It pointed out that there were just 4 posts on Censemaking in 2015. This is down from more than 90 per year in past calendar years. Clearly, I’ve been drawn into the stream with my content sharing and perhaps it’s time to swim back against the current. This blog was partly a response. Stay tuned for more and thanks for reading.

Image: Frog & Saucepan used under Creative Commons License via Wikimedia Foundation.

journalismknowledge translationpublic healthscience & technology

The Power, Peril and Promise of Health Journalism

Online Prescription Concept

The Toronto Star, Canada’s most widely read newspaper known for its investigative reporting gifted anti-vaccination audiences armament by using poor science to point to a spurious connection between an HPV vaccine and illness. The issue points to journalism’s power to shape the discourse of health issues and it points to the power, promise and peril associated with good (and not so good) science reporting. 

With great power comes great responsibility – Uncle Ben, Spiderman

It started with a story

On Thursday February 5th, 2015 the Toronto Star, Canada’s most widely read newspaper that has a reputation for solid investigative journalism, published an story that connected the experience of young girls and negative health effects with the receiving the Gardasil HPV vaccine. The story was immediately and widely criticized by experienced science journalists and health professionals alike, who argued that it was based on terribly flawed science.

The Toronto Star’s reaction was to defend itself, arguing in many different fora that they indeed mentioned that there was little scientific evidence that supported the link between the vaccine and the negative health effects being discussed in the article. The problem is that these links are buried deep in the article and certainly are not its focus: the hypothesized harms are.

Two days later, the Star published a follow-up op-ed letter which was authored by two health professionals and co-signed / supported by dozens of Toronto’s leading physicians condemning the original article. However, by that time the damage is likely to have been done and one more bit contribution to the fictitious ‘evidence’ for vaccine harms had been added to the anti-vaccine movement’s war chest.

Perpetuating harm

This matter of poor reporting is not a trivial issue. The fraudulent science performed by Andrew Wakefield linking autism to vaccines helped spur an evidence-thin anti-vaccination movement. Today, we are seeing the resurgence of diseases once thought to be eliminated in North America (like measles) because so many people are not having their children vaccinated. Jenny McCarthy is among the celebrities who have taken up the cause of anti-vaccination and has written about and spoken at length about what she sees as the connection between autism and vaccines, using her son’s experience as an ‘example’. Oprah Winfrey, perhaps unwittingly, gave McCarthy a platform to speak about her beliefs on her show offering wider possible credibility to something that has been thoroughly discredited in the scientific literature (PDF).

For the Toronto Star, it was bad enough that the story was published — and is now online, likely for all time in various forms thanks to the Web — but what made it worse was that the Star was so vigorous in its defence of it, unwilling or unable to recognize their role in public health. Medical evidence champion, author, physician and columnist Ben Goldacre was among the many who counter-attacked, pointing to what he called The Star’s ‘smear campaign‘ against the story’s critics.

For an interesting discussion of the issue of just how the Star got it wrong, listen to Vox health reporter Julia Belluz, interviewed on the CBC’s radio show The Current. Belluz, a past MIT Knight Journalism Fellow, is one of a dwindling number of journalists who understand the practice of reporting, science, and medicine and wrote a stellar critique of the Toronto Star article, but as importantly makes the case for why there is a need for specialized, trained, supported journalists out there doing this kind of work.

…and health

I’ve argued in the past that journalism is very much a pillar of public health. When it fails, so does public health. Journalism is not and should not be an arm of public health for the very independence that good, professional journalism strives to maintain is a reason it’s often called the fourth estate, keeping governments and other forces in check to ensure they are not abusive. Yet, that distance is also what makes it a part of public health. Public health is better for journalism and journalism certainly can benefit from health stories as they continue to be popular and sought after by readers.

As a group, scientists and many clinicians are not great at communicating what they do, why their research is important to others outside their field, and what the implications of their findings are for the public and science as a whole. Some are, most are not. It’s for this reason that the entire sub-field of health sciences focused on knowledge translation, exchange and mobilization has emerged. Just as we value the ability of a graphic designer to make visuals come alive, so too have we learned to value those with the skills to communicate information well and that is what journalists are trained and paid to do. They are a big part of this process, or at least should be.

Healthy journalism, healthy science, healthy people

Science journalism is too important to be ignored. There is much skepticism of journalists by scientists and clinicians and indeed, as the Toronto Star shows, journalists sometimes get things wrong. But its one thing to get it wrong through errors of judgement or interpretation it’s quite another to get things wrong by design. The Toronto Star has some good health reporters, but they weren’t the ones on this story. Nor did they bring in the health reporters to consult on this or other health professionals prior to publication– at least as far as one can tell.

The importance to the public’s health of good reporting requires that health and science journalists have more than a rudimentary knowledge of the topics they are covering. What’s strange is how we understand this with our sports reporting, weather forecasts and foreign correspondents. You wouldn’t watch someone who has little understanding of a sport covering it in depth, would you? It’s one thing to read scores, it’s another to provide investigative and deep coverage of a game if you don’t know the players, the rules, the criteria for quality and success and so forth.

Why do we do this with health journalism and science?

Yet, journalism is under pressure and no doubt the Toronto Star, for whatever genuine contrition they experience from what happened, have to like that they are being talked about. The reason is that journalism is under threat for market reasons, the Internet and the changing ways we get our news. It is, as Jürgen Krönig wrote way back in 2004, “A crisis of the Fourth Estate”. That crisis is only getting worse.

As anyone interested in public health, we need to take actions to ensure that the fourth estate is protected, supported and not ignored. Our health might just depend on it.

Image: iStockphoto, used under licence.

journalismknowledge translationpublic healthsocial media

Sane truths in Crazy Town: What Rob Ford’s story offers politics, science and journalism

Crazy Town

Crazy Town

A new book about Toronto’s (in)famous mayor reveals a great deal more than just a story of man known more for what he smokes and says than his governance, to what kind of world we want to live in. Robyn Doolittle’s ‘Crazy Town’ goes well beyond documenting one man’s troubling behaviour and its place in the city he governs to a broader understanding of politics, science and journalism in a day when all three are under threat. 

Toronto has been my adopted home for most of last 15 years. It’s dynamic, clean, safe and North America’s 4th largest city. Toronto is a place of tremendous ethno-cultural diversity (near 1/2 of the population is foreign-born), spectacular food, a thriving arts and culture scene, great universities, home to sports fans with a near pathological faith in their hockey team, and — even with all of that — it’s sometimes a bit dull (and that’s OK).

That last bit about being dull changed dramatically after 2010 and that has to do with one man: Rob Ford, our mayor. Maybe you’ve heard of him.

The narrative arc

Toronto Star reporter Robyn Doolittle was literally at the front line of journalists covering Toronto’s Chief Magistrate and recently published a book on that experience and the story behind the story called Crazy Town. It’s a terrific book that documents the almost surreal events and people behind Rob Ford’s rise to power and current reign as one of the world’s most well-known mayors. It’s a rare work that manages to marry true crime, history, political intrigue, suspense, biography, and a journalism textbook together. I devoured it.

Yet, as a resident and politics fan I was amazed by what I read. I already knew most of the general details of what came out in the book (although chapter 12 is a complete shocker) because I lived through this news. Yet, it was only seeing all of this painted in one long narrative piece that it took a new life and in doing so brought me to a deeper understanding of many issues I’d thought I knew. The reason is largely the narrative arc that only a book (or long-form journalism) can offer.

On the surface, one could argue that what Doolittle did was piece together hundreds of stories she and others had written and compile them with a few additional quips to produce a compendium of Rob Ford’s life in the public’s eye. That in itself is a lot of work, but it doesn’t tell those who were paying attention to the story anything new. Yet, with each story that came out the backstory shows how what was reported — and picked up by others, reacted to, or ignored — was as important as what was learned about the subject and his environment. We read about how — not unlike with police work — the public is exposed to the “facts” but not how the authors chose to disclose (or not) those details and why.

When one considers what these ‘facts’ and the stories behind them entail, it is hard not to see some parallels between the world of political reporting at city hall and the world of science, social innovation, health promotion and policy that I live (and have lived) in. Crazy Town has many lessons for those not interested in Toronto, Rob Ford, politics, journalism or science, yet it is through all of those topics that such lessons are learned. The latter three stand out.

Politics

Rob Ford has defied nearly any explanation of how he has managed to maintain some form of support above 30% (as in, 3/10 polled would vote for him if the election was today). The best I’ve read is from former Canadian hockey legend, educator and parliamentarian Ken Dryden who wrote in the Globe and Mail newspaper about how Rob Ford has found a way to be visible and get the simple things done when other politicians get mired in complexity. He channels people’s frustrations and he makes his constituents feel listened to.

Doolittle’s treatment of Ford – despite the despicable treatment he’s given her, the Toronto Star and journalists overall — is fair and, in many cases, almost flattering when it comes to politics. Ford and his team have, despite appearances on the personal side of things, been very consistent and kept things simple. While Einstein might have challenged that Ford’s simple is too much so, there are lessons for all of us in this.

For those who deal in complexity, which is most human systems, it is easy to get mired in the details and interactions. Ford was steadfast in his over-arching narrative of “the gravy train” and that resonated with people. There is no reason why any other politician couldn’t have picked something similar to drive as their narrative and done much more good than Ford has, but they didn’t.

Ford made himself visible to those who mattered most: his constituents. And they have rewarded him with support.

How often do health care officials, educators, or policy leaders spend time with their key ‘constituents’ in settings that are natural to that audience? Politicos might challenge Ford’s proclivity for door-knocking and BBQ’s in an age of big data analytics, but that resonates with people. Why don’t more leaders get away from staid events in hotel ballrooms, well-crafted PR events, or their own offices to meet with their audiences where they live, work and play?

Good designers know that the design is only good if it gets used in the environment it was intended for and the only way to know that is to go into those environments. Ford knows this.

Science

To be fair, science is my term not Doolittles, but the term ‘evidence’ is one that links my term and her experience as a reporter. By science, I am talking capital ‘S’ science — the enterprise of scientific work as well as the activity.

What follows from the narrative arc that Ford delivered was the ability to frame the evidence held against him. He is masterful at reframing the arguments and keeping people focused on the messages that fit his ongoing  construction of a narrative. For a while, he was able to keep people talking about whether or not he smoked crack or drank alcohol excessively — two very serious issues — in a speculative way and away from the evidence he associated with drug dealers, violent criminals, and lied repeatedly to the press. He still does this.

In 2012 and 2013 the city spent time debating the minutiae of the law around whether or not he was in violation of conflict of interest. Lost in much of this debate was the larger pattern of Rob Ford consistently getting into trouble over all kinds of issues, big and small and how that wasn’t appropriate for any leader, political or not. Recently, Ford was in the news for being drunk in public and speaking in some faux Jamaican patois to customers at a local restaurant.

The issue as discussed in the media was the alcohol and the patois, not the fact that this is a man who, when under the public’s eye, has the judgement to: 1) get drunk in a public place 2) with the person who is accused of extortion related to the infamous crack video, 3) and then get up in front of everyone at the front of the restaurant to make a big, public proclamation.

Two weeks later, at a funeral for his friend’s mother in Vancouver, Ford decides to go to a crowded bar on a weekend night where nearly every young person there has a mobile phone and many proceed to take pictures of him or with him .

This is exactly how scientists and policy makers often behave. The intense focus on the small details leaves out the questions of relevancy and the bigger picture of what the point of the science is. Too often we get sidetracked with specifics and lose sight of a much larger set of issues.

For example, we’ll spend forever arguing the hypothetical possibility that someone might hack into an eHealth record as an argument for not allowing for easy portability and accessibility to that information (despite the fact that it can save lives, engage people, and that banks have been doing it with our life savings and credit for 20 years). (* Note that the details in science can matter a great deal, but just like walking and chewing gum, we can fret details in science and think of the big picture at the same time)

So far, people are willing to pay attention to Ford’s bigger message. Perhaps we need to consider what the bigger message is in our other enterprises and then worry about the details.

Journalism

I love ‘behind the scenes’ looks and this book provides lot to consider when thinking about how journalism is done, particularly that of the investigative kind. Doolittle has been steadfast that Crazy Town might have her name on the cover, but the investigative work that contributed to it was part of a huge team of journalists from the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail and other outlets. Indeed, it takes a team and the kind of institutional support that the Star has put behind Doolittle.

Alas, this may be an exception. Many journalistic outlets are imploding due to poor management, change of readership habits, shifting business models, and also the public’s unwillingness to pay for things they value online. This last point is the one that we often let skate by in our discussions about media and one that Jaron Lanier has exposed as a major flaw in the modern Internet age.

Just this past week, web pioneer Mark Andreessen speculated on the future of media and — as many who have a stake in a faster, less in depth form of media often do — completely overlooked the role of the media as the a key role in communicating and uncovering key stories for society. To him, the model is dying. Maybe the business model is problematic, but unlike Andreessen I see a big need for journalism for society and as a model for science and health.

In health and science reporting, we are at great risk of losing voices like Andre Picard, Julia Belluz, Carly Weeks and Helen Branswell who have all brought to light many key issues that public health, healthcare and policy seem to forget, hide, complicate, or deny from emergent infectious disease patterns to drug regulation policy and practice.

Would we know about Rob Ford’s fitness for mayoralty if we didn’t have the Star? Would we be talking about the perversion of science and pharmaceuticals were it not for people like Ben Goldacre in the UK? What kind of knowledge would the world have about the NSA if Edward Snowden was a lone blogger and didn’t have The Guardian or New York Times to advance his disclosure? Crazy Town makes you realize what a debt we are owed to modern investigative journalism, journalists and those that support them (and are willing to pay for their products).

A bigger story

Crazy Town ends with the acknowledgement that there is much more of this story yet to be written. This is an election year and Rob Ford is one of the few who have already filed their papers to run for office again.

Crazy Town could have been told in 10,000 tweets, videos and Instagram pics. But it would have missed the point. The book is an argument for why in-depth journalism is needed and why — journalism, science, and politics — all often require a longer narrative arc to understand the bigger picture. Bigger stories don’t fit into a social media world, even if that very social media is part of the story itself.

The book is a great read whether you’re in Toronto, Ontario; Calgary, Alberta;  Madison, Wisconsin; or Phnom Phen, Cambodia. It’s a story as much about a man and a city as it is about ourselves and the world we live in. Read that way, you’ll find that not only is there more to tell of Rob Ford, there is a much bigger story to tell all around us.

behaviour changecomplexitypublic healthsocial systemssystems thinking

The New Zombie

Zombie stare

They are among us and hungry for brains

Zombies are attacking us; not for brains, but for attention. The consequences of this is that they are everywhere and sucking the intelligence out of human systems. 

Forget orange, zombie is the new black.

Zombies are hot. TV shows, books and films about zombies are more popular than ever, and this time of year the public’s attention to the undead is at its nadir. The CDC in the United States even got into the act by using zombies as a health promotion vehicle to support emergency preparedness. From zombie walks to art shows, the staggering brain-eating, brain-less are everywhere.

Yet, there is a new breed being formed that doesn’t eat brains and has them, but may not be using them well and they are all around us everywhere.

They walk among us

Look around and what do you see? People online, on the phone, texting and walking and driving, being everywhere except where they are. Examples of people walking into fountains or falling into a sinkhole while on the phone are often seen as comi-tragic, yet they belie a remarkably powerful trend towards disengagement from the world around them. Charlene deGuzman and Miles Crawford‘s beautiful and disheartening short film I Forgot My Phone plays this for further comic and sad effect as they portray a day in the life of someone paying attention to those not paying attention to anything away from their screen. The film highlights the modern paradox of being more connected than ever, yet overwhelmingly alone.

Emerging research is showing remarkable spikes in risks associated with mobile phone use and injury and mortality. We might laugh at people falling into holes or bumping into things, but only when it hurts the ego and not the body. This is serious stuff. Keep in mind that we don’t see non-reported injuries (e.g., someone bruising their head) and the many near misses between person and object — including cars, which have their own epidemic of problems with texting and attention.

Indeed, zombies embody paradox: a brainless being that is undead seeks brains to stay unalive. Whether they are alive or dead depends on where you stand and that is what makes them a complex character despite their surface-level simplicity.

Brains…need…more…(use of science) brains….

Zombie Science

Zombie Science?

While it might be easy to point to those on phones, zombie behaviour occurs elsewhere in places where the effects are far less comic and just as dangerous. The latest issue of The Economist features a cover story on the problems science is having with it credibility and quality control. Some of this is due to what I would call zombie-like behaviour: mindless attention in a manner that restricts awareness and appreciation of one’s immediate context and the larger system to which that behaviour occurs.

The recent expose by science journalist John Bohannon published in the journal Science exposes zombie-like thinking in how open-access science journals accept and reject papers. Bohannon’s inquiry was prompted by questions about the way fees were charged for open access journals (which is how they can remain open to the public) and the peer review require to advance publication. Presumably, an article has to pass review from peer professional scientists before it is accepted and then the fee is paid. No acceptance, no fee (except for perhaps a small application processing charge).

As profiled in an interview with the CBC radio show The Current

Bohannon wanted to find out whether fee-charging open access journals were actually keeping their promise to do peer review — a process in which scientists with some knowledge of a paper’s topic volunteer to check it for scientific flaws…

…In the end, what he concluded was that “a huge proportion” of the journals were not ensuring their papers were peer reviewed.

Even in cases where peer review happened, it didn’t always function correctly. For example, the Ottawa-based International Journal of Herbs and Medicinal Plants clearly sent the paper out to be reviewed by real scientists, who pointed out some flaws, Bohannon recalled. Even so, when Bohannon submitted a revised version of the paper without correcting any of the flaws, it was accepted.

Bohannon’s approach and findings are not without some problems of their own, but they don’t much change the conclusion that there are deep problems within the scientific enterprise.

Much of what Bohannon found can be attributed to greed, but a great deal of it is due to bad scientific practice. As a consultant who is also a publishing researcher and ‘recovering’ academic I know the enormous amount of energy that goes into publishing an academic article in a scholarly journal. As one who is sent between 4 to 5 manuscripts to review from legitimate journals per month I know the demands that are placed on reviews. We also publish far too much for the system to handle. Writing in the Chronicle of Higher EducationMark Bauerlein and colleagues look closely at the ‘avalanche’ of publishing and shed light on many reasons why the problems that the Economist and Science occur (Note: I’d strongly encourage you to read through the comments as it is as instructive as the article itself).

They are everywhere

To add to the examples of zombie culture I need only look to my own daily life outside of science and  mobile phones. Just the other day I witnessed the following example at a community meeting that was organized in part to discuss the expenditure of funds to make a better living area for people in a building:

Presenter: “…and I am pleased to conclude that the new furniture for the outdoor spaces is going to be made by a company that created the same products at [place] out of recycled materials. We will expect to have the new furniture here in 6 to 8 weeks. Any questions?”

First question: “I love the work you’ve done. Can you tell me when the furniture will be here?”

Sadly, I have many other stories that show that many people are not paying attention. They are sitting through workshops and not picking up basic concepts (even after having asked for it and having been given it multiple times over), asking for materials that were already shared on multiple occasions, suggesting ideas that were already discussed and agreed upon over because that person didn’t engage in the discussion and so on. This happens not because people are stupid, but because they are disengaged.

A simple search through statistics compilations finds enormous material on what kind of inputs we expose ourselves to and its impact on attention. There is more coming at us in quantity and context and that is undoubtedly influencing quality of processing and engagement. I can speak of this personally and through observation. The amount of times I find people not hearing what is said, processing it effectively, or even remembering something said is staggering.

It’s not surprising. We are alerted everywhere: a text message, a phone call, a Facebook message, an email, an app alert, someone coming by the office, external noise outside, and visual noise everywhere. The explicit and ambient signals we are exposed to in a day is staggering. Clay Shirky suggests it’s not that we have too much information, it’s that our filters are failing. I think it’s now both and one reinforces the other.

Coming back…a look at systems

While individuals are distracted, they are products of distracted systems. To look at one part of the science zombie situation, professors are now asked to publish more than ever, get grants from a dwindling pool, teach more students than ever and in more crowded conditions and with greater social needs, and to find ways to make their research more accessible to different audiences while engaging more with the communities of interest affected by that research. All of this takes time. Add to that the probability that the professor her/himself has to raise their own salary and that the only way to do this is to be very successful at the above-mentioned tasks and you get someone who is stressed and overtaxed.

Mindfulness-based approaches do not change any of that, but they can help strengthen the filter. By being more individually mindful, but more importantly create mindful organizations. Building resilient tribes of social innovators and the leadership communities to steward them is another. Granting ourselves the time to reflect, sensemake and listen to the systems we work in is also key. By listening better, we are better able to design systems that are innovative, responsive and humane by building them to human scale.

All well and good you might say, but how? That’s what’s to come in some future posts as we look at designing better systems and making them more attractive so people stay engaged.

Stay tuned….and watch out for zombies.

Photo credit: Zombie Walk 2012 SP by Gianluca Ramalho Misiti used under Creative Commons License