Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

I’ve been thinking a lot about change and the contexts in which we engage in this process. Change, of course, is not a measurement but more of an infinite continuum. The seasons change, people change, we make change, we live through change.

If everything changed all the time, we wouldn’t know how to behave. Organization is essential to our society making progress. Maybe that’s why we keep ending up in the very same kinds of situations that we’ve staged revolutions and decades of counter-force against. It sometimes makes me wonder whether our world is just on auto-pilot cycling through forced changes. How much of an impact do our maneuvers really have? As T.S. Eliot wrote, “Do I dare / Disturb the universe? In a minute there is time / For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.”

Yet T.S. Eliot’s contributions to thinking on change weren’t all grim resignations to everything returning to its natural course, despite the disrupting fluctuations we inflict. Eliot also wrote: “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”

How can we read this through a lens of understanding the paradox of change?

The example I almost always use is education. Having lost significant portions of their endowments and braced for even greater losses in the coming years, private universities, in the face of this immense disruption to carefully balanced finances, are being encouraged to take risks. Marketing consultants and politicians alike are telling them to engage in unprecedented innovation and exhibit creative and forward-thinking leadership. What is the goal of this direction? Is it to seek stability in the face of utter uncertainty? Or, is it to take the lowest point in recent economic history as an opportunity to instigate reforms that would have previously been unimaginably bold?

It’s unlikely that anything that happens now in direct response to the economic crisis, at least in terms of education, will have a profound impact on the way we understand and implement education as an institution in this country. If history holds true, this is one bump in the ongoing cycle of ups and downs, reforming previous reforms by returning to the reforms that came ever before them. But what if Eliot is telling us something—what if this time of economic concern is our exploration, this is our learning journey, and at the end of it, no matter whether our system looks the same or the battle we fought seems to have been in vain, we have gained a greater understanding of how we and our institutions work? Through creativity, innovation, and leadership, we can take meaningful steps towards a more in-depth, comprehensive understanding of the inner workings of our long-lasting institutions and the way we interact with them, and maybe one day, we will find the tiny pinhole in the cycle, and we will know, for the first time, what to do.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Mathilda Is

Facebook and the rest of the Web 2.0 world have changed a lot of things, revolutionizing the way we communicate and how we maintain our social networks. To keep up, we are living dual lives. We constantly interrupt our engagement in the physical world that surrounds us by logging on to this massive other galaxy, accessed through the tiniest pieces of equipment and existing somewhere that no one has ever really been, a place where we remotely build and maneuver representations of ourselves.

There’s been a lot of talk about the social network side of this whole phenomenon. I spend more than enough time thinking about how to appropriately merge my real life exchanges with what are quickly becoming the social norms of the e-world. Should I “friend” that person I just met? If I friend him too soon, will he think I’m weird? If I wait, will he forget me?

Though at times eliciting confusion, the social functions of these relatively new internet communities are unfolding fairly straight-forwardly. But what about their impact on self-perception? Facebook and its step-child, Twitter, have changed the way I think about myself on a moment-to-moment basis. The Facebook “status” feature, the sole component of sites like Twitter, invites people to state not just what they are doing at that particular moment, but also what they’re thinking about, what they need people to know, and what they want people to wonder about.

This “status” indicator has disturbingly permeated my life. I find myself walking down the street thinking, “Mathilda is going to the grocery store. Mathilda is very pleased with her grades. Mathilda is so happy that winter is ending.” My thoughts, these very personalized bits (most of which I never utter), are transferred into the third-person for easy digestion by friends, colleagues, and lots of other people who I barely even know, whether I ever even post them on Facebook or not. By constantly conjugating my train of thought, I’m directing the timbre of my own self-perception for another audience.

And so it goes: Mathilda is thinking about Paris. Mathilda is avoiding the question. Mathilda wonders why we can’t just talk face-to-face.

I want to take a step back. What are all the things that we’re not saying on these sites? And for all the things we are saying, why are we so willingly and excessively disclosing them? This constant status update is part and parcel of the transformation of social networking and the reframing of communications into instant headlines, but how much does this venture into how we define ourselves individually?

Mathilda is walking home wondering.