SXSWi: Steven Johnson, Henry Jenkins talk youth and collective intelligence

The two noted authors use their "Opening Remarks" discussion to talk about how the world is changing, with young people using new communications tools to lead the way.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
5 min read
Authors Steven Johnson and Henry Jenkins were the opening keynote speakers at South By Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) on Saturday. They talked at length about collective intelligence and how children today are much more likely to be engaged with their communities and the Internet at large than in previous generations. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

AUSTIN, Texas--In a lively discussion that focused on youth and collective intelligence, noted researchers and authors Steven Johnson and Henry Jenkins officially opened South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) on Saturday in the conference's first keynote address.

Johnson, a well-known journalist and author whose books include Emergence and Everything Bad is Good for You, and Jenkins, an MIT professor who has written books like The Wow Climax: Tracing the Emotional Impact of Popular Culture and Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, talked at length about their ideas related to how youth culture is changing in the face of rapidly emerging communications technologies.

Jenkins opened his remarks by saying he thinks that society is due for a wave of backlash against youth culture since he sees the current dynamic as a bit of a celebration of that culture.

And while society at large may be looking on in wonder as today's youth take modern communications tools and use them to create meaningful interaction and social change, Jenkins said parents may not feel the same way.

"Never underestimate the desire of parents to see their children dumb," Jenkins said. "It's easy to imagine our children as failures...because they go into worlds we're not familiar with."

His point was that while young people may be highly adept at using social tools like MySpace.com, blogs, and other Internet-based technologies, parents may not understand it and may instead see their kids as wasting their time.

And that's true even of parents who are aware of the power of the Internet.

"As a parent, I ended up saying to my son everything I always said as a young man I would never say," Jenkins said.

But he also added that he sees a wide variety of new literacies emerging from youth culture today, things that parents want to understand but don't yet.

South by Southwest hired interpretive artists to create large-scale drawings based on the topics discussed by Johnson and Jenkins on-stage. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

"As I talk to parents," Jenkins said, "I'm constantly hit with questions about MySpace, Second Life and World of Warcraft...They're concerned."

Johnson then talked about his interest in the new literacies that Jenkins had mentioned. The problem with these new literacies, he said, is that society doesn't understand them and doesn't know how to test for them.

Jenkins agreed, saying that the whole assessment model that exists isn't ready for measuring the new kinds of collective intelligence skills that young people are developing today.

In fact, he said, the entire assessment model that has been in place for years is badly geared for today's culture. That's because today's young people are participants in a larger community that is based not just on what they know themselves, but on what everyone knows.

"Nobody knows everything," Jenkins said. "Everybody knows something. It's accessible to everyone as a whole and available on a need-to-know basis."

Of course, that's the model of the Internet, a tool that children and young adults have never not known. That's why to them, these tools have always empowered them to learn along with their peers around the country and the world, while older educators and those tasked with assessing progress in our society are more familiar with a world in which people are judged on what they themselves know.

"The assumption (today) is that every young person has some expertise that they can contribute," Jenkins said, suggesting that is not a fact that society as a whole is ready to contend with.

To Jenkins, then, what we're seeing in the way people incorporate knowledge is very much like the difference between the Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia. He said that he figures no individual person should be able to write an encyclopedia article--the Britannica model--whereas the Wikipedia model, though flawed, allows for a much larger base of knowledge to make up the content.

Another example of that dynamic, he said, is that while traditional norms may assume that a teacher is the one in a classroom with the bulk of the knowledge and intelligence, the reality is that the 30 students together possess far more.

One artist worked on the left side of the ballroom where the Opening Remarks discussion between Johnson and Jenkins was held, while another worked on the right side. Each had their own distinct style. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

Another sea change that Johnson and Jenkins talked about was how television is changing in the Internet era.

Johnson asked the audience which TV program they preferred, The Wire or Lost. Far more people in the packed ballroom cheered for Lost.

To Jenkins, The Wire may be the best television show of all time, but it also may be, he said, "the last gasp of old-style television."

By contrast, he said, Lost presents one of the first examples of a TV show that leverages the collective intelligence, giving viewers the opportunity to create a community around the show online that discusses the show, the many secrets and mysteries it contains, and allowing fans to feel far more involved than was previously possible.

"The Wire may be the best television show inside the box," Jenkins said, "while Lost may be the best show outside the box."

Another example that Jenkins cited of online--mainly young people--communities using popular media to expand their collective wisdom is the many types of organizing that has sprung up around the Harry Potter series.

He pointed to bands that base their songs on Harry Potter story lines and the Harry Potter Alliance, a group that brings young people together to try to take on world problems like Darfur, child labor at Wal-Mart, and so on.

And, delving further into politics, Johnson and Jenkins talked about the Barack Obama phenomenon, and how young people have flocked to the Illinois senator in record numbers.

Jenkins said he was particularly taken with Obama's "Yes, we can" slogan.

That's because, he said, it uses the language of "we" while traditional political slogans have been about "I."

And in a culture where young people are extraordinarily attracted to community, to working together, to bridging gaps with communications, the Obama message is resonating like none have before.

"When I look at Obama, (people say) his platform is not well fleshed out," Jenkins said. "I look at it as a stub on Wikipedia. We're going to flesh it out together...Win, lose, or draw, what Obama's done is bring together a whole generation of young people."

See more stories in CNET News.com's coverage of SXSWi (click here).