B. Meta-Problems in Search of Meta-Solutions

The problem is not just the lack of resources. The intellectual challenges are quite daunting in their own right. One reason that strategic answers are so elusive, I believe, is that so many of them lie in what I've called the meta-realm. They hover just below our consciousness in the taken-for-granted norms of the world. Emergent paradigms quietly challenge conventional mental constructs. But will we insist upon calling the new phenomenon a "horseless carriage" or will we explore the new normative concept now known as the automobile? Will we think in terms of "electronic publishing" or will we take pains to understand the distinctive new dynamics of that genre of electronic communications?

What follows is a review of some important meta-issues that need intellectual attention:

Taxonomies and Language. Consider how our taxonomic/linguistic categories sometimes channel our thoughts and actions in the wrong directions. Xerox PARC linguist Geoffrey Nunberg has pointed out that when a social reality changes, but language does not, conceptual errors are common and especially difficult to identify and eradicate. This is because language canonizes a historical domain and naturalizes contingent social categories. Precisely because language is abstract, transparent and decontextualized, its limitations may not be easily grasped. It is therefore difficult to coin new linguistic categories. To the extent that language is constitutive of social types, one of the most significant challenges we face is developing the new language that can canonize a new domain of nonprofit/progressive endeavor.

New Conceptual Strategies. Another meta-challenge for nonprofits is developing new conceptual strategies in carrying out their missions. Silicon Valley companies understand that one of their most potent competitive weapons is their proprietary business models -- their plans for creating new markets in the perplexing electronic/software realm. A now-familiar example is the early realization by some companies (RealAudio, Netscape, Yahoo!) and the failure of others (General Magic) to understand the inverted economics by which giving away one's content is the surest way to capture a market. If one's software system or navigational tool becomes the industry standard, then the ancillary markets (customer support, supplementary service, server software) becomes the market. Free software simply primes the pump.

Such adroit strategic maneuvering requires deep insight into the meta-dynamics of electronic networks -- the novel ways that social, personal, technological and economic factors co-mingle to alter market dynamics and create new paradigms. But the nonprofit world has little awareness of this realm, let alone a critical understanding or pro-active capacity to shape it. (It is revealing, for example, that the Foundation Center's Web site is a proprietary system for downloads -- a design that actually inhibits the Center's outreach and efficacy.) Unfortunately, the smartest, most insightful futurists work for high-tech companies, which consider thinking proprietary; ideas are capital, after all, in an information age. And most academics are not truly on top of the digital scene. The challenge then becomes building a new network of intellectuals.

One example of a misplaced, or limited, conceptual model may be the public interest community's heavy focus on access to the new media. The more critical fulcrum of power may be control over managing attention and assembling audiences. Should the nonprofit world so readily cede this territory to commercial ventures, especially when the costs of being a successful "content producer" are relatively low? "Access" is a vestigial term that is most meaningful in a broadcast regime, where commercial broadcasters have already devoted huge sums of capital and marketing to create a platform (the network) that can reliably capture a significant audience.

In the world of networked information, access is clearly a necessary but insufficient condition to creating a new public space. We need to set our sights higher than "access," and explore the feasibilities of creating our own platforms that can attract and aggregate audiences. Establishing a widely recognized and trusted "branded identity" to assemble new publics may hold far greater paybacks over the long term than access alone. These platforms could be editorial vehicles, information search engines (such as Yahoo!), or cooperative Web sites, among other possibilities.

New Venues for Intellectual Development. Another meta-problem is the lack of venues through which the civic/nonprofit/advocacy/user representatives can meet, converse informally, plan strategically, develop personal relationships, cultivate new institutional collaborations, and organize to address common goals. Business has numerous such forums, ranging from Esther Dyson's PC Forum and Aspen Institute conferences to a wide range of sector-specific conferences and trade forums. But nonprofits involved in telecom/new media issues have few if any conferences or retreats at which they can nurture common interests. The Wenner-Gren Foundation, reports Tracy Westen, assembles leading anthropologists for a "five-day coffee break" at a remote European castle. The unstructured time filled with intense, informal talk about professional concerns in small groups and at common meals, has provoked some of the most significant breakthroughs in the field.

"Our side" needs a similar retreat through which to incubate new ideas and strengthen relationships. They need a crucible through which they can develop a sectoral consciousness and personal affinity for each other, beyond what is possible, say, at monthly meetings of the Telecommunications Policy Roundtable or Benton workshops. (The Airlie House retreats for telecommunications economists served this purpose in the late 1970s before being commandeered by the neo-orthodox economists.) Too much attention has been paid to formal, institutional collaborations and interaction, when the more catalytic changes are more likely to emerge by leveraging the informal, interpersonal relationships -- the kitchen table conspiracies -- that are the real mainsprings of change-movement leadership. Such a setting might stimulate the new conceptual breakthroughs and language that must precede and inform new policy paradigms. It could also give rise to a richly provocative network of thinkers, advocates and innovators, much like the Global Business Network serves as an ad hoc "watering hole" for a strategic elite.

A New Ecology of Public Knowledge. Another meta-issue involves the emergence of new sources of credible public knowledge and new kinds of public knowledge. By its low-cost access and global reach, the Internet has changed the ecology of public knowledge and discourse. It has effected a kind of cultural perestroika. As a result, the historic "warranting structures" of common public knowledge are changing. A front page story in the New York Times or a Nightline show can provoke considerable change among opinion leaders and the educated public. Why? Because the Times and Nightline are daily forums read/seen by an influential common audience. As certain online forums gain a similar prestige and credibility in certain fields of expertise, those forums will become new loci and leverage points for effecting change. This can already be seen in specialized cases, as when a Mideast policy specialist during the Persian Gulf War posted a striking analysis of the situation on a respected electronic newsgroup -- which soon became part of the mainstream Washington discourse and policy decisionmaking. Online postings by respected activists can similar catalyze reactions among certain communities, altering discourse and action in ways that were previously impossible.

New Rhetorical Forms. Yet another meta-issue is the subtle but critical phenomenological differences between print and digital media. This is not an arcane aesthetic matter. It has vital practical implications for nonprofits as they seek to use the new media effectively. Peter Lyman, the chief librarian at UC Berkeley, writes:

Digital words may have a relationship to actions that printed words do not have; they are a doing, a performance, that has the capacity to evoke something like the feelings we normally associate with relationships between human beings.

Computers sometimes evoke an emotional engagement, making them a genuine field of play. In play, thought and action are unified in a sense of "flow," in which the sense of time disappears. This sort of human-tool relationship is not unprecedented, for musical instruments are also tools that become a medium for expression, which seem to become one with the body in a skilled performance which is disciplined yet often experienced as play. Sherry Turkle's ethnographic studies suggest that the computer's responsiveness unites the emotional power of play with learning by enabling the user to "work through" life contradictions and issues.

I cite this lengthy passage to emphasize that nonprofits must be able to exploit the new, protean rhetorical potential of the new media. Failure to "learn the new language" will leave us less able to be sophisticated "content creators" in the online world. A parable: When television was a new medium in the 1950s, George Burns imported vaudevillian rhetorical forms (a stage and curtain, a static camera, etc.) while Lucille Ball took full advantage of the fluid, dynamic possibilities of the TV camera and studio production. Burns' TV career fizzled; Ball's took off. Nonprofits must not become the George Burns of the new media, blindly adhering to the rhetorical conventions of print when the real action has moved on to the world of graphic design, color, attitude, interactivity and soon, motion.

This is particularly critical now that sheer creativity -- and not costly production apparatus -- may be the chief factor in the success of a Web site and other future media. On the Web, at least, upstarts with compelling ideas can actually compete on an equal footing with major corporations having huge production budgets. Hence the importance of attracting audiences over having access per se. And hence the special importance of open-architecture standards to prevent the TCIs and Baby Bells of the world from artificially restricting access to a given telecommunications platform.

But will nonprofits:

  1. Understand the distinct rhetorical dynamics of the new media?
  2. Have the resources to develop their own formats?
  3. Have a critical mass of practitioners to develop their own rhetorical traditions?

Or will the crude production standards that generally prevail at PEG-access cable channels continue in the new media as well -- along with a future of small audiences? Now is the time to take stock of these challenges and to engage the imagination of public-spirited tech innovators -- and many others who may not travel in "our" circles but could help imagine a hospitable media universe for nonprofits and civic purposes.

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