Yesterday, I had the pleasure of visiting beautiful, downtown Cornwall, Ontario (yes, it is pretty nice) to muse about the disappearance of “audience” at the annual conference of alPHa—the Association of Local Public Health Agencies. The issue arises from the observation that, although very few seemed to pay attention to the admonition to go and get vaccinated during the H1N1 flu-foorah, we all seemed to get the message that the flu potential was pretty serious and we seriously changed our behaviour with respect to public hygiene (among the key elements, I think, was the loosening of absentee policies for businesses – that is, not treating their employees like naughty schoolchildren – enabling people who were sick to stay home and get well, rather than feeling an obligation to either come to work thereby infecting transit users and office dwellers, or traipsing off to the doctor’s office to get a “please excuse Janey from office today because she’s sick” note; ditto).
The answer to alPHa’s question about how to better reach audiences today – at least the one the conference wanted to explore – is “social media.” However, I sensed that much of the default discourse wanted to focus on can those who have legitimated authority co-opt and subvert the complex effects of contemporary, massive interconnectivity, and turn it back into television, radio, and the printing press—broadcast media run by central authorities which have the effect of hypnotizing audiences into compliance. This is a tough mindset to break, especially for those who are necessarily tied to governments that are used to broadcasting, if not spinning, a message. There was considerable focus on YouTube’s ability to disseminate humorous and clever, if a bit shocking, health-message videos, and a few of us presenters attempting to convey the idea that it’s all about engaging, not messaging (Twitter notwithstanding).
After describing my 3,000-years-of-Western-history derivation of UCaPP and the historic generation gap through which we are all now living, I suggested that one of the effects of UCaPP is that (informal and non-formal) information and knowledge is environmental. Consequently, this means that truth no longer conforms to the post-Enlightenment notion of an absolute truth that exists outside of us that can be determined by direct observation, scientific experimentation, and statistical analysis. Truth is no longer exclusively that which is codified and endorsed by institutions that convey Knowledge authority.
Rather, truth in the UCaPP world is understood as being highly contextualized by the juxtaposition of diverse cultures, histories, and lived experiences. Thus, truth and knowledge can only be expressed in relative terms, that is, relative to the human systems that produce them. And, as I have described extensively in my doctoral thesis, those systems are generated, in large part, by the conceptions we have of these human systems, and those models are not merely descriptive, they are also generative. In particular, this notion speaks directly to positivists’ inability to see the limitations of science—namely that, when it comes to human and social systems, there is no objective truth that lies outside of human experience; that knowledge, understanding, and hence, responsive behaviour among social groups, are the result of a complex process of sense- and meaning-making, having only little to do with authoritatively transmitted information.
Social media create environments of conversation and engagement from which individuals immersed in interlocking social groups create sense and meaning out of an often confusing, contradictory, and complex world. This means that social media cannot be co-opted as the new form of broadcast. That strategy is doomed to failure at the cost of the credibility of legitimated authority. If we think strategically about it, social media are the means through which so-called experts may be invited in to participate in collaborative construction of knowledge. It means that the hierarchical structures of knowledge authority, and specifically the paternalistic model of public health education is rejected out-of-hand by those formerly known as “audience.” The good news is that social media provide a tremendous opportunity to use the relationships created as a result of UCaPP to empower each member of society individually, to imbue them with a sense of personal responsibility among all to whom they are connected. And that enables us all to collectively and collaboratively do the Right Thing, based on the emergence of shared values, and personal ethics in a pervasive knowledge environment. In effect, we can consider the society in a particular community as a valence organization.
Many thanks to the organizers of this year’s alPHa conference for inviting me, and to those with whom I had the opportunity to interact.
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