Innovation Matters’ Hosts Michael Wesch

Cultural Anthropologist Lectures on Creativity and the Future of Social Media

Monday, April 30, 2012

For over 100,000 years, the human species could speak only face-to-face. Now with iPhones, tablets, and GPS systems, the idea of talking only to a physically present companion can be hard to imagine.

Pacing out a timeline of humanity’s history across the stage of UCSB’s Campbell Hall, Kansas State University professor Michael Wesch fast-forwarded through the development of civilization, noting as he walked the advent of farming, then large cities, the division of labor, the written alphabet, and so on — each step representing 500 years of progress. Reaching the edge of the stage was representative, too. “And this last step, this is everything you take for granted,” he said. “Facebook, Twitter — the stuff of the last decade rests, on this scale, at the tip of my toenail.”

With the revolution of social media has come transformation, Wesch said, and either people can become creative and harness its power, or they can remain consumers of media, and — in the end — become consumed by it.

Creativity, though, has long been a vexed subject of education, seeming more like a type of inborn talent rather than a teachable skill. That’s not according to Wesch, however, who believes that all people have the appetite for creation. What they must do to coax it out, he said, is regain their sense of wonder. And people can begin to do that when they appreciate how utterly fascinating social media really is.

“It’s in the air all around us,” he said, referring to the vast and complex network of connections — the “cloud” — hovering invisibly in the skies. “When in wonder, we embrace what’s uncomfortable,” said Wesch. With comfort and complacency, he said, people squander the Internet’s collaborative power, and instead become instruments of “the machine.” But people, generally, don’t want to be instruments—they want to be artists. The key, Wesch said, is to use social media to advance culture and benefit society.

As a professor, Wesch believes a great place to start is updating the model for education. “The way we teach is simply outdated,” he said. “Students bring laptops and iPads in class to surf Facebook, and they pay hundreds of dollars for textbooks they never open.”

The platforms — and the technology — are there for people to revamp how they learn, said Wesch, explaining that when people understand this, “the whole world becomes our Lego set.”

The “Innovation Matters” lecture series at UCSB has recently hosted other speakers such as Kathryn Schulz, the author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, and the acclaimed futurist Ray Kurzweil, whose most recent book The Singularity is Near argues that, in the next half century, humanity will transcend its biology. The last speaker of the “Innovation” series, set to speak on May 17, is author Jonah Lehrer, who will speak about his book Imagine: How Creativity Works.