As an ardent childhood fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers–one, in fact, who paid her dollar to keep the team in Brooklyn–it is perhaps natural that I viewed my recent trip to New York as a double header.
Fortunately, I was able to preface my participation in the Columbia University Conference, Changing Dynamics of Public Controversies, with a visit to my grand daughter Sophie’s kindergarten class, where the students were celebrating her 6th birthday. To my surprise, I discovered an interesting connection between the two events. Â It was a link that–as it turned out–relates to norms.
I discovered an interesting connection between the two events–a link that relates to norms.Â
Sophie’s class room is not only cozy and comfortable, it is also flush with excitement, enthusiasm, and riotous color–all of which is mirrored in the artwork and projects displayed in every nook and cranny.
Thinking of my own experience with graduate students, I marveled at Sophie’s teacher’s ability to keep all of these somewhat hyper children consistently and cooperatively engaged while moving seamlessly from one set of activities to the next. Â First there were art projects, then a general gathering with the children assembled on a bright rug at the front of the class, where I had the pleasure of reading to them. Â Returning to their tables, Â the children sangÂ happy birthday;Â ate cupcakes topped with multi-colored icing, and played with their wind-up party favors. Â Before orderly lining up to go home, they had one last chance to expel their energy, dancing together on the rug.
How, I wondered to myself, did Sophie’s teacher orchestrate this ensemble? Certainly her knowledge of, and empathy with, the children was key. But the children also did their part. They were following established norms, which were listed prominently on the classroom wall. Having committed to these few simple rules, each child was able to demonstrate his or her individuality, while working together as a group. Â
My day and a half visit with my grandkids was far too short. Â But it was full of special moments. By far the best was the interaction between Ben and Sophie in which they negotiated their behavior with respect to one another. Clearly, they had a common idea of what it meant to be Â good.Â
“Sophie,” said 8-year old Ben, “I am going to be nice to you today because it is your birthday,” “Ben,” Sophie responded: “I am going to be good today because it’s my birthday.”
Taking my leave, and driving into New York, my thoughts shifted from my childhood in New Jersey to my graduate days at Columbia University. Advancing down the Henry Hudson Parkway, and turning onto 125th Street and Broadway (a recurrent scene in my dreams) I felt like a student again, full of anticipation and excitement for the day’s events. Above all, I wanted to hear what Bruno Latour and Jochai Benkler had to say, not only to the audience, but also-and especially–to one other. Both speakers are featured in my classes, and the students from my Networked Economy class were waiting for a full report.
The conference focused on the question of whether and where effective public controversies will likely be aired, given the recent decline of the newspaper industry and the journalism profession. Participants were concerned lest, in the absence of robust newspapers, the public will lack the knowledge and wherewithal to foster societal norms much less hold the government accountable to them. Dean Nicholas Lemann of Columbia University’s School of Journalism and Paul Starr from Princeton University laid out the problem, while Bruno Latour and Jochai Benkler spoke to it.
Bruno Latour dismissed the problem, as it was defined. Echoing Walter Lippman‘s notion of the phantom public, he contended that neither the public–nor for that matter society–exist in reality. As Latour claims, there really is no social stuff–that is to say, norms–out there.Â Â (See, for an in-depth discussion,Â Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor Network Theory 1995.) Instead, as Latour describes it, actors assemble sporadically when specific issues arise. Lacking in-depth knowledge, the public should not engage in the resolution of issues but rather Â act like lighthouses, signaling their existence to policy actors.
In contrast, Jochai Benkler’s remarks were premised on the existence of norms. Â As he described, using today’s digital technologies, individuals have a far greater opportunity to generate a publicÂ Â than they did in the past. Digital technologiesÂ not only allow them to Â gain greater access to knowledge; they can also employ these technologies to act on that knowledge is conjunction with others. Â However, this collaboration is only possible, given the existence of norms such as trust and reciprocity, which sustain a gift economy.
Riding home on Amtrak, I reflected about the issue of norms, especially Latour’s assertion that theyÂ are ephemeral. Â Questioning his perspective, I asked myself: Have I had not just witnessed their actual existence in my grand daughter’s classroom? Â Moreover, have I not seen how norms are negotiated in the interchange between my two grandchildren Sophie and Ben? Â As importantly, have I not witnessed via the current Â financial crisis what happens when a society–in the name of deregulation–has renounced its norms? Â These experiences lead me to believe that what is needed today is not only an economic stimulus “package”, but also–and more importantly-normative guidelines about how the American people’s monies should be spent.