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Communication tools have changed world, say panelists

Electronic communication tools have altered the definition of knowledge around the globe, according to three panelists who spoke at the Faculty Symposium on Arts and Communication: Seeking Common Ground. The event, which took place during inauguration week at the Paramount Center Mainstage and drew 200 audience members, was organized by Linda Gallant, assistant professor of communication studies, and moderated by Eric Gordon, associate professor of visual and media arts.

The panelists were David Weinberger, senior researcher at the Harvard Berkman Center; Suzan-Lori Parks, Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright and screenwriter; and Nicholas Namba, U.S. State Department Acting Deputy Coordinator for Content Development and Partnerships.

Weinberger described how knowledge conveyed in a print culture differs from knowledge in an electronic age. “Knowledge is in crisis. The most prestigious and most stable institutions [of knowledge] are crumbling. Knowledge from its beginnings took on the properties of paper. As knowledge moves onto the net, it takes on the properties of the net.”

Namba observed that the federal government is “good at speaking to an elite class. But a street vendor could ignite a revolution,” as in the Arab Spring, he said. Today’s U.S. State Department has adopted social media tools as a necessary method “to reach out to citizens. We cannot pass this up.” Namba said his office has invested in finding “engagers, well-rounded technologists” to handle communications duties. The beauty of cyberspace, said Namba, is that it is “the great equalizer. Everyone has a say.” He cited the Libyan uprising as having been sparked by a YouTube video. “We’re talking about a platform that did not even exist ten years ago. And now social media is driving world events,” he said. His office employs a range of communications tools, including YouTube videos, mobile applications, tweets, and podcasts. Namba screened a video of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivering a speech. Then he showed a video that his office created from the original Clinton piece. With the addition of music and quick edits, the video was repurposed to attract a different, younger demographic.

Playwright Parks described how she used electronic tools with her theater work. “I woke up one day and said, I think I’m going to write a play each day for a year. I did it, and then a friend asked, now what will you do? So we found theater people to produce them by going online. The Internet enabled us to post the shows online and start a dialogue about the work.” Parks also performed a play called Watch Me Work, in which she typed before an audience. She noted, “We decided to stream it. People tuned in around the world.” The stream spread her work to a broader audience than she could ever have imagined.

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