The computer revolution of the past quarter of a century has profoundly changed our culture, and a recent book by three respected scholars takes readers on an intriguing, thought-provoking exploration of two related elements of the revolution that are becoming increasingly important to our society.
Harvard’s Howard Gardner is perhaps best known for his Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Claremont’s Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi is best known for his concept of flow (the meshing of skills and challenge). Stanford’s William Damon is best known for his work in social and moral development. Their book, Good Work: Where Excellence and Ethics Meet (2001) had its beginnings in informal conversations during a year in which the three were working on other projects at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.
Their conversations finally led them to a collaborative project in which they explored issues in excellence and ethics that were central to those who work in genetics and journalism. The two fields seem unrelated at first thought, but genetics is about the nature and movement of information within an organism, and journalism is about the nature and movement of information within a society. Further, both fields deal with the desire to understand and appropriately process immense amounts of information. The environment in which both fields work, however, is currently experiencing rapid technological advances, market pressures, and corporate consolidation — and all of these create professional problems.
The computer revolution led to the development of powerful research technologies that could observe and process previously unknowable biological information. Advances in information technology similarly allowed journalists to rapidly process and disseminate far more information than they previously could. Both fields thus confront such issues as: is cloning appropriate just because it’s possible; are all people and events equally newsworthy; how should our society explore and resolve emerging unprecedented moral/ethical issues?
Good Work emerged out of an extensive series of interviews with over 200 developing and mature geneticists and journalists. In essence, the project asked practitioners to describe what they consider to be good work in their field, and to identify the problems they encounter in their search for excellence and ethics. The interviews probed their understanding of their field’s mission (its defining features), standards (its established preferred practices), and identity (the personal integrity and values of folks in the field).
Genetics is in a golden age—with a continuous flow of exciting developments that promise to enhance health and longevity. In contrast, journalism appears currently confused. At a time when news media should provide a thoughtful venue for emerging complex social issues, the public seems obsessed with gossip and trivialities, and news media management with profits.
Geneticists communicated the sense of excitement and altruistic commitment that permeates their field, but also a foreboding sense of concern as a corporate mentality increasingly affects research goals and procedures. Research costs in genetics are astronomical, but so are the potential rewards. Will years of graduate school poverty help to determine whether a geneticist’s career matures within the pure research environment of a university lab or within the more lucrative applied research focus of a biotech corporation? Or is it possible to have the best of both worlds?
Young journalists tend to share the geneticists’ sense of idealistic service—but they similarly must confront the practical realities of their increasingly centralized vocation. The project discovered a greater sense of dissatisfaction in journalists, but this has led to imaginative shifts in the dissemination of news. A relatively few corporations control much of mainstream print and electronic media, but the production and distribution capabilities of the Internet and self-publishing technologies foreshadow positive decentralizing changes in journalism.
Geneticists are thus constrained in their personal goals by the immense costs of biological research, and imaginative journalists see possible freedom from corporate control in the emerging potential of inexpensive news dissemination.
The authors suggest five areas in which those involved in genetics and journalism can gain greater control over their fields: (1) Create new institutional forms, (2) Expand the functions of existing institutions, (3) Expand and reconfigure the membership of existing institutions, (4) Reaffirm the values in excellent existing institutions, and (5) Be willing to take a personal stand to maintain excellence and integrity.
Good Work is an excellent book for educators who work with adolescents. It contains much about career choices and goals that teachers can imaginatively explore with students. But it’s also an excellent book for adolescents themselves to read as they contemplate a career. Although the sections on data analysis may slow the flow of the text for some, the information is useful.
The 20th century seemed focused on the production of objects that move. The 21st century may well focus on the movement of information—and genetics and journalism are good examples of many related rapidly changing careers that young people should explore.