a new civic engagement?

fruitvale-celphoneThe U.S. Department of Justice recently commissioned an interesting study to help local police departments think through the implications of adopting dashboard and body cameras.  As usual, the hard questions seem less about the technology, and more about how it reflects on us as a society.

It was hard not to think about this over the past weekend, watching Fruitvale Station.  Above to the left you can see a shot from the climactic scene, the protagonists fighting guns with camera phones.

It’s telling that both law enforcement and the community it polices believe public documentation cuts in their favor.  I think they’re both right.  The fact is, everyone’s behavior improves with visibility.  But does that mean it’s a good idea?

As higher ed tries to prepare students for the world they’ll enter, we worry loudest about employment, where technical, entry-level positions are the fastest moving skeet. If we can just aim far enough ahead of the trajectory to get our graduates placed, the feeling goes, then once they move up into management the more durable proficiencies of communication, cross-cultural fluency, and critical thinking will see them through.


Missing from that narrative is recognition that human interaction itself is also changing very fast.  Too often we divide the higher ed mission into “career” and “citizenship,” but if you take away the commodification of labor, then what’s left are just two ways to describe collective, purposeful action with strangers.  And preparing our students for that has a new and faster trajectory all its own.  So far 2015 feels like it’s mostly about this disrupted relationship between the individual and the group.

The Opinion section of this morning’s Los Angeles Times weighs in on police videography, child vaccination, transgender bathrooms, data security, and of course our drought.  Some of these stories reflect perennial tensions, but there’s a new anxiety related to new technologies, and how they undermine the wall between public and private.  Some of the new holes under the fence:

QueVisionSurveillance. This goes beyond dueling cameras for commuters and transit cops.  As you know, the world knows a lot more about you than it did just a few years ago. Educators of a certain age (i.e. mine) tend to worry about this more than our students, who seem okay trading their anonymity for improved service.  And it’s not always about mining an individual’s data:  just letting everyone know how many others are around can improve drive times, health care, and grocery check-outs.

Individual impact.  In a hyper-connected world any one person has more influence on the rest of us than before.  Suddenly a disgruntled NSA contractor, or a pair of alienated brothers from Chechnya, or a depressed co-pilot can change the way millions of people live and think.  Sure, whacky and charismatic individuals have always had an edge, at least since Savonarola.  What’s changing is the barrier to entry:  anyone can play.  Our students know how the new context amplifies individual behavior; ask them about online bullying, or active shooter drills.  As a result, today my mental health is of more rightful interest to you than it used to be.

Rush to judgment. The corollary to your right to know about me:  almost anyone gets access to the findings.  What I like about that DOJ study is that it focuses less on whether cops should make videos and more on who should be able to see them.  It reminded me of a story last February about the appeal to voyeurs of online court filings. It turns out you can read a lot of salacious gossip about your neighbors, names and addresses and all, so long as someone brings suit.  And note:  these are charges, not convictions.  (A couple of recent high-profile cases show the hazard of this new world.  Maybe Bill Cosby had it coming, but no one is defending the “Rape on Campus” article in Rolling Stone.)  So take note:  if you cross someone with little emotional stability and a vivid enough imagination, you risk becoming a meme, your name a verb.  17th century Salem had better due process.

public-humiliationWe need members of the next generation – and the colleges that teach them– to recognize our new intimacy with strangers, and heightened responsibility to each other.  I can think of three priorities that implies:

1.  Educate for a world of intense interpersonal responsibility.  Our students come to us with first-hand experience in adolescent pack behavior amplified by technology, and fresh scars and muscles to flex.  Curriculum — and maybe more relevantly, co-curriculum — should intentionally develop social skills and sensitivity for the new context.

2.  Emphasize fluency in critical thinking and statistical analysis.  This generation will face tougher questions than ours did about the reasonable use of big data and herd judgment to inform personal opinion.  For most of our majors statistics is an elective course, and critical thinking (the CSU excepted) an invisible throughline, surfaced mostly for accreditors.  The status of both subjects may be due for elevation.

3.  Give equal emphasis to our different paths to creating a greater good.  Market capitalism and participatory democracy are different means to a common utilitarian end, organizing groups of strangers.  Graduates who can discern and adjust the new boundary between public and private will be better people and (often) better employed.  If universities keep presenting employment and citizenship as utterly separate, then we have only ourselves to blame when the public undervalues the latter, and treats starting salary as the only thing worth counting.


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