Planners and policy professionals should be more than retweeters and forwarders

Rather routinely, technophiles in my field come and out triumphantly announce that essays are over! reading is over! plans are over! It’s all video, now! It’s all this! There’s a New Thing!

Only new things strike me as being a lot like old things, and while planning is about new things, and future imaginaries, it’s also about existing modalities of communication. For the first decade of the web, all I heard were predictions about how digital technologies were going to be “end of reading” or the “end of something or other.” But given what the web is and how it functions, writing is more important now than ever. Sure, video matters, but all those comments below the YouTube video are also about written communications, and it’s very clear who can write effectively and who can’t in this domain, and there are advantages to being in the former.

Clearly, images are important, but they have always been important; the difference now is the ability of many more people, not just painters or architects, who can share images. I do not mean to downplay the social and cultural shifts such changes bring. I just note that it is easy to overstate those changes and much harder to really understand what those changes mean for skills, let alone predicting the death of one thing and the flourishing of another. I’m all for digital literacy here, but I’d note that literacy is still literacy.

To wit, I personally think that most technological changes happen as a function of our existing modes of thinking and communicating. There’s a technology, and many of us just use to make things we are already doing easier than we did them before. And gradually, over time, innovators think of new applications that catch on because of those fill a gap. (Just armchair theorizing here.)

I’m observing, now, the many videos of police brutality to black residents surfacing on the web. Those are powerful. They are more powerful still when combined with the comments from black Twitter and Te-Nehisi Coates’ commentary. (Read this one, too, about Kalief Browder, and the abuse of his rights to due process.)

I’ve noted in my research that learning to communicate effectively on social media is important to planning and planning agencies, and I think it’s no less important to public administrators and policy folks. But don’t forget the role of Coates in the evolving social discussion: while he is on Twitter (and he’s very good with that medium), his blog posts strike me as being both very important and a powerful means of persuasion. And those blog posts? They are digital versions of the traditional argumentative essay that people are always telling me is “over.”

So what should we be teaching in planning and policy school? I personally want to teach students to be capable of Coates’ level of thinking, speaking and writing. There’s no technological substitute for quality thinking or communicating, no matter which medium. Otherwise I think we are training students to be consumers and followers—the retweeters and the followers in the digital world–rather than the creators.