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Bill Wasik Introduces Flash Mobs
Wasik is the author of And Then There's This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture (Viking, 2009). He is also the editor, with Roger D. Hodge, of Submersion Journalism: Reporting in the Radical First Person from Harper's Magazine (New Press, 2008)
Question: What are flash mobs?
Bill Wasik: Okay. Well, flash mobs are gatherings of people somewhere in physical space that last for 10 minutes or less and they are brought together on the fly via text message or email and then everyone disperses and leaves no trace.
Question: Can flash mobs make political statements?
Bill Wasik: I think that flash mobs are a demonstration of what technology can do, they’re demonstrations of how you can use fun and the kind of a sense of being a secret agent on a mission to get people together in really large numbers. I think that because the idea of flash mobs as being absurd and being ten minutes or less sort of means that they are not very great vehicles for expression or for actual, you know, creating political change, but I do think that they are an incredibly powerful demonstration of what these kinds of gatherings can do and I think that a lot of people are using flash mob type ideas to try to affect change or try to express themselves in interesting ways. For me, the flash mob is sort of more showing what could be done but that the more serious stuff is a step beyond
To me, flash mobs were a kind of performance art and, you know, they weren’t protests, they certainly weren’t a substitute for protest. They were a social experiment, they were a demonstration of what the technology of internet chain emails could do and text messaging can do and a demonstration of social networks in the way in which people can just through you know one person forwards it to ten people and they forward it to 10 people and before you know it you can gather really tremendous crowds. And I also think that they were an important demonstration to the people who took part in them where, you know, especially in this kind of era of Facebook where we have these large communities of “friends” but our relationship with them are so virtual and they’re so bound up in this very ephemeral or kind of just purely digital transactions where you see a face on the screen and you send a message or you see a post on the wall. There’s something about flash mobs where those connections are suddenly made really explicit or really virtual and they remind us that we are still people who have bodies and still people who have the ability to create change in the real physical world.
Question: What was your most memorable flash mob?
Bill Wasik: Probably our biggest flash mob here in New York was at the Toys R Us in Times Square. I don’t know if you’ve been to that Toys R Us but it’s this incredible spectacle, you know, there’s a working ferris wheel inside the store that is sort of like three stories tall and there’s a giant animatronic T-rex dinosaur up on the top floor where you know it has this lifelike dinosaur movements and it roars and so we have a flash mob up there in the second floor where everybody filtered in secretly and they were just hanging out around, you know, in the Barbie Place or with the G.I. Joes, that sort of thing and then at the appointed moment they all rushed this dinosaur and they got down to their knees and they coward behind their hands like this dinosaur was a terrible god and this was really just a phenomenal thing to see. You know, this is one of the biggest, most kind of impressive stores in the whole city and we basically just shut down the whole second floor with this impromptu kind of enacting of fealty to this dinosaur and it was really a kind of magical moment of crystallizing personhood. We had sort of disruptive the flow of this store in a way that was just, that was just really remarkable to see.
Question: Do flash mobs trespass on private property?
Bill Wasik: A lot of flash mobs happen in public space or they happen in sort of semi-public space where you are allowed to come in as someone who’s just going to shop for example but when you try to express yourself in any way, when you try to do anything that’s outside of the so called prescribed things that you do in that space then suddenly you’re considered to be a trespasser, suddenly you’re considered to be an interloper, you know, and I think one of the reasons why flash mobs were so powerful for people especially here in the United States is that we’ve lost so much of our tradition of public space in this country, you know, that today in the sorts of suburbs where most people grow up or even here in New York City or in cities around the country, what passes for public space might be a shopping mall, well that shopping mall is technically private space but you sort of think well that’s where you go and meet your friends and that’s where you go and, you know, walk the supposed streets of the mall in order to do your shopping. Of course, try to express yourself in that kind if space and you’ll quickly find out just how nonpublic that space is and so, you know, a lot of the fun of the flash mobs is that because they were 10 minutes or less usually the police would show up just as the point that everyone is leaving. Usually they wouldn’t be so mad about it, you know, the police. They would have just gotten the call, you know, there were some weird occurrence going on by the time they got there, you know, they would see that everybody was just having a good time and they were all leaving and there wasn’t any threat. But, I do think it managed to be a sort of an intrinsic political statement that way, you know, that it was very much a meditation on public space and what you can and what you can’t do in a lot of spaces today.
Question: How can someone join a flash mob?
Bill Wasik: Well, you know I think the best way to do it is to start one of your own. It’s just a matter of sending an email out to the people that you know and telling them to send it along. I was anonymous as the organizer of the flash rooms in New York, in part because I felt like that the mob would make itself based on people forwarding the message around and even though I would sort of arbitrarily give it a place to go and give it something fun to do that really the mobs were leaderless in the sense that I couldn’t make a mob out of just the people that I knew. I had to rely on the networks of the people I forwarded to and then the networks of the people forwarded to and so on in order to get the group together. So, I think anonymity is a great way to do it because it makes it clear that, you know, you’re not just organizing a flash mob for your own personal aggrandizement. It’s instead, you’re doing an experiment to see, you know, how many people you can get to come together in the physical space and when other people pass it along they are essentially taking on the project, they’re essentially taking on the project for themselves and saying, you know, by forwarding the message along they are in the same position that you’re in. They’re taking on the experiment as their own.
Recorded on: June 3, 2009
The Harper’s editor explains the evolution of a very original kind of performance art.
Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?
- Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
- It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
- COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during the Arizona State University graduation ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium May 13, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. Over 65,000 people attended the graduation.
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
Sallie Krawcheck and Bob Kulhan will be talking money, jobs, and how the pandemic will disproportionally affect women's finances.
Scientists uncovered the secrets of what drove some of the world's last remaining woolly mammoths to extinction.
Every summer, children on the Alaskan island of St Paul cool down in Lake Hill, a crater lake in an extinct volcano – unaware of the mysteries that lie beneath.
Manly Bands wanted to improve on mens' wedding bands. Mission accomplished.
- Manly Bands was founded in 2016 to provide better options and customer service in men's wedding bands.
- Unique materials include antler, dinosaur bones, meteorite, tungsten, and whiskey barrels.
- The company donates a portion of profits to charity every month.
These new status behaviours are what one expert calls 'inconspicuous consumption'.