Mitch Resnick Part 2: “From ‘Informing’ to ‘Empowering’ “

(Submitted to the Civic Media Blog by mres on October 30, 2007 – 7:37am)

“For me, our new Center for Future Civic Media at MIT provides an opportunity to weave together several strands of my career. I started my career as a journalist, writing about science and technology for Business Week magazine. Then I decided to make a career shift. I went to graduate school in computer science, and I began developing educational technologies — in particular, technologies to engage children in creative learning experiences.

How do I make sense of these two seemingly-disconnected careers? I have often explained that both careers grew out of the same underlying motivation: to help people understand the world around them.

That’s true. But I now realize that it’s only part of the story. Over the years, I have come to realize that I have a strong preference for certain ways of helping people understand the world. I am skeptical about approaches that focus primarily on “transmitting” or “delivering” information. I believe that the best way to help people understand the world is to provide them with opportunities to actively explore, experiment, and express themselves.”

Note to self: I haven’t been able to express it as clearly as Mitch has, but I think that this is precisely why I have been hesitant about fully diving into journalism (though an insatiable personal curiosity and helping people understand the world are two of the most attractive aspects of journalism), and been pulled toward learning how to create, evaluate and teach forms of self-expression, especially writing, critical thinking and the skills needed to build and use creative technologies.

The journalism/media projects that I admire most initiate curiosity, exploration and experimentation: Radiolab, WBEZ’s Curious City, Zeega’s interactive poetry walks and maps. To me, their storytelling methods, their ability to make the seemingly mundane seem surprising and curious are sparks for exploration, for experimentation and self-expression. And I think that these sparks are lit by the ability of a story to test our assumptions, to make us feel a sense of connectedness to others, to aspects of our surroundings that we hadn’t quite seen in that particular light before.

Most news journalism doesn’t have that ability. It’s informative; a shallow and quick debriefing. It can spark shock, satiate a moment of curiosity. But it’s limited, not in itself able to satisfy those deeper yearnings for connectedness and self-expression that every person has. At its best, it amplifies unheard voices, tells stories to interpret the fast-moving, confusing world around us. But that’s also where its weakness lies.  Information in itself is like currency; the act of informing someone somehow implies a transaction. Being only a medium, it momentarily amplifies and then moves on to the next story; leaving those voices to fend for themselves, unequipped, still lacking the tools needed to grow stronger and stronger. That requires iteration, relationships, feedback, practice. And those are things that journalists looking for “newsy” stories are unable to provide. Perhaps it will be found in the future of journalism? In a kind of journalism grounded in dialog with the audience? Enabled not by broadcasting news but digital tools that pave communication channels between content creators and the listeners/readers, so that at times, they switch their roles; journalists becoming aware and informed audiences and citizens becoming content creators.  

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