Celebrating 40 years with SFU’s School of Communication

cmns_40_poster It's hard to believe it was 20 years ago that I nervously attended my first university lecture at Simon Fraser University - a life changing moment to be sure. My alma mater just turned 40 this fall - SFU's School of Communication, now part of the Faculty of Communication, Art, and Technology - and they celebrated in style last night at the elegant downtown Segal Graduate School of Business.

I was asked to speak and share my thoughts on their theme of Staying Relevant, something that not only plagues middle-aged graduates, but post-secondary institutions themselves in challenging economic times.

I joined other alum Aaron Cruikshank who runs the Hive co-working space just up the block from us here and Shannon Ward of Babyproofing Your Business fame. It was great to catch up with some familiar (if not slightly older looking) faces and meet some new ones as well.

Thanks again to all of the outstanding alumni who attended last night, Dean of FCAT Cheryl Geisler, Director Alison Beale, event organizer Ovey Yeung, and to the professors who left an indelible mark on an impressionable mind.

Text of my speech:

Good evening everyone. It's an honour and a privilege to be a part of this event. Happy Birthday School of Communication; you don't look a day over 38.

So it wasn't without a bit of trepidation that I accepted the invite to speak here. Looking at the attendee list, telling all of you, including some of my former professors how to be relevant... well...This suggests that a) I am or somehow was relevant. And b) that I know something about how that process happened and c) through a combo of A and B I might know how to prolong it or achieve relevance again in the future...

And so, in a very contemporary response - I headed straight to Google.

I looked up the definition of relevance.

And that sent me to Wikipedia.

What I found there was the information studies definition of relevance. It was also one that I'd happened to encounter once before when working on an intranet strategy project for a client of mine.

Here's the definition:

Something (A) is relevant to a task (T) if it increases the likelihood of accomplishing the goal (G), which is implied by T.

Source: Hjorland & Christensen. 2002.

Now it's nearly 20 years since I started designing and developing websites. That all started here in 1994 at SFU at the trailers under the AQ where The Peak Newspaper made its home and then later as a Research Assistant that year at the Centre for Systems Science working with Barry Shell.

I have to admit: this concept of relevance has continued to be a difficult, dare I say wicked, design problem.

The reason being: it requires you to understand what a particular user's task is, how information fits into that task, and what goals are implied by that task.

Gaining knowledge about these seemingly obvious components in the act of design is more difficult than you may think, especially when you are trying to build large public websites that support the tasks of hundreds of thousands of users...

In my company's case, those users may range from the local citizens of Vancouver seeking to access their civic services online, to the global fans of the trading card game Pokemon.

(img credit: Natalie Cheung ‏@natlamlam)

The actor in the "subject knowledge view of relevance" is never mentioned, but assumed. It's the person performing the task, striving to attain their unknown but implied goal.

When we encounter this definition, we often put ourselves in that actor's shoes, the task-completer, the goal-seeker, being the arbiter of what's relevant and what is not.

This is certainly the case as we recall many fruitless visits to Google and Wikipedia searching for something that never quite materializes...

But what happens when we replace the Something (A) with Someone (A)


Someone (A) is relevant to a task (T) if he/she increases the likelihood of accomplishing the goal (G), which is implied by T...

and I'd append: performed by another Actor (X).

What happens when we replace not just Someone (A), an anonymous anyone, but you.

How are you relevant in this new definition?

This way of thinking of relevance makes you the object of someone else's tasks and goals.

And in doing so, we might contemplate relevance as an attribute you possess - a property - something to be gained and lost, (pause) bought and therefore possibly sold.

In doing so... We objectify ourselves.

We instrumentalize our selves.

We perceive our unique personal value in terms of our utility for others in a marketplace of information and attention.

Regarded this way, relevance is no more than what late 19th century sociologist Thorstein Veblen described as a positional good—goods which are in limited supply and which become more sought after and expensive as prosperity increases—functioning like glamour, coolness, or any other marker of status in our desire economy.

Relevance considered in this light strikes me as sharing an unfortunate aspect of the popular idea of meritocracy: by organizing ourselves based on a leader's claim to rule that they are the best and brightest, we simultaneously denote the position of the worst and dumbest in this arrangement. So too with the positional version of relevance: in order for you to be relevant, it follows that someone else needs to be deemed irrelevant.

Call it the search engine optimized presentation of self in every day life.

So that's a pretty bleak, pessimistic take on relevance.

And it left me wondering: is there a redeeming quality within the concept of relevance, one that is worth pursuing for its virtue, rather than this pessimistic instrumentality? Is there something beyond relevance as a careerist tendency that threatens to undermine our personal integrity along the way?

I'd like to suggest that the relational aspect of relevance is both its greatest weakness and its biggest strength.

Relevance is a concept that can only be understood in the presence of our relationship with someone else.

Yes it can be reduced to a pessimistic, transactional view.

But it can also be elevated to the inclusive, empathetic, and conformational.

We needn't objectify ourselves, or others.

Instead we can acknowledge, encounter, and confirm.

And we, the people assembled in this room tonight, students past and present, graduates and professors of Communication, we come especially equipped with the analytical tools to understand this affirming concept of relevance—an idea after all, that only makes sense, that can only exist when meaning is exchanged between two parties.

For that, after all, is Communication.

So it should be no surprise to all of you that I learned how to consider the other in relation to ourselves, and consider ourselves in relation to the other here at SFU- it was most likely in Lynne Hissey's Communication 205 that I encountered these ideas, in a reading of Martin Buber in a tutorial buried deep in the Classroom Complex.

I learned how to understand the role of context in communication—asking the question of "by who, for whom, under what circumstance, and to who's benefit?" from my first moments in Communication 110 to my last courses contemplating critical theory of technology.

Being able to discern who the actors are, what their relationships is, and how power is exercised through those networks of relationships—these are ways of seeing that I've long taken for granted.

I learned how to make these concepts come to life in my professional career, utilizing ethnographic methods to gain insights into the lives of others, the meaning they ascribe in their technologies of communications, the involvement of their perspectives in how to better design large-scale information systems: much of it was there in CMNS 363 with Catherine Murray and Steve Kline, then described in the mid 90's as the "ethnographic shift in audience research."

And where would I be without the ability to investigate a concept's positive and negative aspects simultaneously, pulling and pushing an idea from figure to ground and back again, without Roman Onufrijchuk's tour through Innis, McLuhan, and Grant. (I know it was offered as a Canadian Studies 491, but really, in my memory it was and will always be a Communication's class)

So, what then is more relevant than a critical ability to enter into the domain of shared meaning, and contemplate the nature and dynamics of communication?

This institution and the exceptional people in this School taught me how to think critically.

It exposed me to a remarkable breadth and depth of thought in the 5 short years I was here.

Those concepts, ideas, debates, and discussions, continue to stick with me today, 20 years since I attended my first CMNS course as a curious and slightly intimidated teenager.

So if there is one bit of advice I can leave you about being relevant here tonight, to this accomplished, successful, and privileged room, and it's one that I am not sure is entirely tweetable or easily digestible, it is this:

Savour the tension between the critical and the pragmatic, between the needs of yourself and the needs of others, and try your best, as frustrating and difficult as it may seem, to leave them unresolved for as long as you can.

That tension can be a remarkable, productive energy in your life and the lives of those around you.

And I hope it challenges you to accomplish remarkable things and be a better person, and not solely in the marketplace for employable talent but more importantly as a just and thoughtful member of humanity.

Your skills are much required at our present time.

Thank you.