Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Complexities of 'Belonging' in the Digital Age, Part 1

I recently read an interesting article on Fast Company by Sebastian Buck titled "The Best Brands Are The Ones That Build 'Belonging'." There is much to recommend this article, but I want to focus on 2 things:

First, I buy it. When I think about where my brand loyalties lie, they are clearly influenced by that sense of community. I'm a Mac person. I'm a Disney fan. I'm a Google user. All of these companies have sold me a lifestyle, but also a community. They have made it possible for me to find others who share my interests, and they have encouraged my ongoing interaction with their products. They have designed a culture that I can describe and contribute to. That's powerful stuff.

To be clear, I am not "buying in" blindly. I have the wisdom of age and experience. I recognize that the purpose of these companies is to get my money. They have an ethos that they are selling, and I am buying off the rack. I could just as easily have been a Dell person, a Universal fan, and a Microsoft user. I picked the brands that felt like who I wanted to be, and then (to the extent that I could), I did the work of personalizing my experience. I convinced myself that among these options, I chose wisely. To do otherwise would have meant that I had succumbed to Barry Schwartz's Paradox of Choice, and accepted a less satisfying life. My complicity in brand-loyalty (an act of self-deception) has to be driven by something very primal, which leads me to my next point...

The power of Buck's article is that he lays out a compelling argument for why we are likely to desire and seek out belonging, especially now. We do seem to live in a time of social isolation in which we have fewer institutional options for finding our tribe while, simultaneously, we have many more individual options for doing so.

Technology has made it possible for me to connect with more people (and brands) who are more like me. I can get really granular in my search for the ideas, things and people who reflect my tastes back to me, AND I have 24/7 access to those things. Once I find them, automation and algorithms ensure that I remain in contact with them at the expense of other ideas, things and people, because really, with the limited time I have, can I waste it on something I know I won't buy?

I think you can see the good and the bad here.

It's small wonder that with the exponential growth in choice and the immediacy and convenience of access, that our sense of civic obligation, our trust in our institutions, and our empathy for others are all in decline. As long as there are brands that are capable of filling my particular needs, not only will I be less likely to look elsewhere, I will grow to trust my choices of brands uncritically, while seeking every reason to disparage competing brands (whether it be my choice of cell phone, my preferred place to buy my groceries, my source for news, or my political party affiliation).


This has enormous implications to those of us in education.

It was difficult enough to think critically and independently before the Internet and 24-hour news and market research. Thinking is hard. Asking yourself if you are wrong in a world of personalization is even harder. Everything is set up to affirm our notions, to satisfy our appetites, to cater to our preferences, and to ensure our choices remain predictable.

Additionally, given this level of personalization, I am reminded of a passage from Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 in which the character Beatty explains the demise of the book. Essentially, in this dystopian universe, people's interests became so personalized that books that held a particular point of view (and that could consequently offend someone) fell out of fashion. It was better to be distracted by fun, non-controversial diversions than to have to confront someone else's beliefs. As a result, society self-selected away from challenging ideas and toward meaningless drivel.

I wonder if we are at the beginning of that process. There are still plenty of controversial ideas, and they are pitted against one another daily on cable news, in our mobile news feeds, and through social media. Right now, it feels like we're anything but avoiding controversy.

HOWEVER, I also know how tired of it many of us are. We aren't engaging in meaningful dialogue or truth-seeking as much as we are broadcasting our truths into the void of our individual echo chambers. How easy would it be for us all to just give up the fight and instead be distracted by mass media designed to make us feel good?

Maybe that is what is already happening. Perhaps the fact that we can all pick the people who inhabit our virtual islands is a twisted form of happiness. Yet, we are still at war with the other islands. Inclusiveness is easier when it is enabled by exclusiveness.

The next natural step might be Bradbury's world. In our world, brands are facing big choices today. They can either stand with one camp and risk the backlash of another (for example, Dick's Sporting Goods' recent announcement) or avoid controversy at all costs (for example, L'oreal and Revlon's responses to the political statements of their representatives).

If multinational brands are struggling to navigate these waters, imagine how our kids will fare?

It may have never been more critical that we teach our students media literacy than it is today. Our kids deserve to have a clear understanding of how all brands seek to influence us, how big data uses everything we do online to target us with messages, and how the algorithms that social media uses gradually isolates us from new ideas. It's equally important to help them develop the wisdom they will need to make thoughtful contributions to a complicated world and the empathy and interpersonal skills they will need to live in a world filled with a rich diversity of beliefs.

In future posts, I plan to look at two related issues: 1. What are the roles and realities of educators and schools in this age of hyper-personalization, and 2. How can classrooms and schools create a more sensible space in which students can find and create belonging.

In the meantime, I'd love to know your thoughts. Are we a match for the persuasive power of brands?  Are there benefits to the role brands play in creating a feeling of belonging? Are there sensible choices we can make to repair the isolation our digital world can create? Do we still live in a world that is capable of deliberation, compromise, and productive dialogue? Do we want or need to? What is the role of education in all of this?


Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Has It Really Been 3 Years?

One of the goals I set out for myself this year was to return to blogging as a means of reflecting on my own learning and as a way to share ideas and resources with others. Somehow, I allowed myself to get away from that. There probably aren't any really good excuses or explanations. I did other things instead.

So I just fired up the old blog, and the first thing I realized is that my last post was in 2015.

Three. Years. Ago. 

I'd love to wax poetic about the passage of time, but that is not my ultimate purpose of this post. Here is the purpose of this post: To plant a flag in the ground of my life. To make a symbolic commitment to myself that my voice matters in a sea of other voices. To remind myself that I have the opportunity to influence my world and my profession through my hard-earned experience. And, probably more than anything, to break through the rust that has accumulated in 3 years of disuse.

This is me doing that.

The Argument Against Returning

I have worried, especially recently, that our social media has become a burden on our lives. I worry that we all feel a little too empowered to share our every thought as if it is truth or as if it is a challenge to others to either agree with us or expose themselves as fools. I worry that when we post, we are creating reasons for others to feel separate from us or feel harmed by us. I hate the thought that sharing ideas in the public arena is a form of participating in a culture war. Who am I speaking to if the only two options are an audience who will drink my Kool-Aid, or an audience that wants to tear me down?

I also worry that when we do this we are just adding to the noise of the world. Do my reflections need to be public? Does it matter if no one ever knew what I think about? Do I want to be another distraction to be consumed in a world that offers enough without my help?

Finally, I have been concerned with sharing my thoughts because of the overall tone of our discourse. It seems that there is no longer room for uncertainty, compromise, or grey areas. We seem locked into camps (on all sorts of issues, not just political ones). I truly worry that learning out loud means either limiting my curiosity to safe ground that will connect me with a smaller set of accepted ideas (in one camp or another), OR it means inviting the slings and arrows of both camps when I don't move in lockstep with either. Everything feels like a hot button issue. Everything is high stakes. Every word feels like it could set off a time-consuming flame-war or painful process of explaining myself due to a poorly chosen image or unimagined trigger.

All of this has made me reticent to pick up the virtual pen again.

So why this moment to return? Why step into a space that raises some serious angst?

Two things: First, I look at the remarkable courage of people who every day use their voice to try to make the world a better place. I am constantly inspired by people who ask challenging questions, who fly in the face of conventional wisdom, or who shine a light on something I've never seen before. All of these people rise above the noise, rather than contributing to it. I aspire to do that. I'm even jealous of that.

Second, I was struck by a quote that appeared in one of the end-credits scenes of the movie, Black Panther (which was an awesome movie, by the way). In it, the character T'Challa says:

Now more than ever the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.

This strikes me as getting to the core of our current problem. We are being forced by the "illusions of division" into a world where what connects us is lost in the noise of what separates us. Our media experiences are echo chambers to the point that neighbors can, in a real sense, live in different worlds based on the information and opinion they consume. And unless there are those who have the courage to construct bridges, to live in the center, to find common ground, we will just continue to descend into warring tribes over every issue.

Make no mistake, our children are learning to fight wars, not create better worlds. They are being trained to dehumanize those who disagree with them, rather than to seek to understand another point of view. They are conditioned to react to sound bites rather than do the long, difficult work of truth-seeking.

So that's why I'm back to this. If nothing else, maybe I can model sincere learning that is focused on building from the center instead of defending from one side or another. Perhaps I can increase the amount of hope and positivity that we bring to our shared journey. Maybe I will share an idea or strategy that will inspire someone else to build something cool, or draw new connections, or consider another point of view. Maybe I can find a way to be one of those rare threads that connects otherwise disconnected worlds.

No promises, but a guy can dream.