“If you’re not paying attention, you’re going to miss something.”
That’s probably the core belief at he heart of why we watch the news. Something vital, something important and life-changing is going to whizz on by us and we’re going to miss it.
It’s very easy to get caught up on all the things to which we’re supposed to pay attention. Super dooper easy. Political news, celebratory exclusives, war zones, disasters, and the latest high-profile spat or scandal. You get to see what’s happening in the outside world through TV news, or news feeds on your phone or through social media. And it’s easy to start thinking that you are really getting a handle on what’s happening, what’s really going on and that it’s all very super important.
Once I started home educating though, I found my perspective changed. It wasn’t just that I stopped watching TV news every night, or skipped reading graphic reports on the daily horrors (having a toddler who can read over your shoulder makes you super aware of what you don’t want them exposed to just yet). But this did not change the way I viewed the world – it just turned down the volume a little.
No, what really changed the way I started to view the world around me was learning alongside my kids. Books and programs for kids are generally designed to be fun and educational (at least the stuff I stumble upon tends to fit that mould). Most adults seem to have an allergic reaction to ‘educational’, which is understandable – school might not have been that fun, and we tend to remember the worst bits rather vividly.
What became glaringly obvious though, once I started to look at the way information was reported, was that stuff for kids was full of hows and whys, it emphasised wonder and the coolness of the idea or thing being reported and would also pull apart why an idea wouldn’t or didn’t work.
In contrast, the adult version seemed to be focused on the controversies, the problems, the he-said-she-said-ness of a new thing. It also seemed to gloss over or ignore the life-changing parts of these ideas. There was also a built in cynicism that decayed any feelings of good or worthwhile-ness.
Even more worrying, was that this narrow-focus ignored vast swathes of news. News that was important. News that would change the lives of millions of people – for better or worse. Somewhere in there, it had been decided that the news didn’t report these things, didn’t talk about these things . . . it didn’t even know they existed.
I’ve spent hours with my son as he has poured over the designs for the new Melbourne train station / level crossing designs. We’ve watched videos that patiently explain why each level crossing needs to be fixed. We’ve watched time lapses of the amazing engineering work that has gone into making these changes, and we’ve studied the (pretty awesome) designs for some of the new train lines (can I put a vote in now for the sky-train?). Sadly, there hasn’t been much in the way of good mainstream news coverage – it’s generally focused on the controversy, which while a fair focus, seems to have completely ignored the amazing engineering going on under our noses, and didn’t even seek to help people understand why we needed it, or the various ways it could be approached (with the notable exception of Crikey’s the Urbanist).
There’s a pervasive idea in our culture (or maybe it’s just a human-thing, I don’t know) that seems to think that the way things are is somehow pre-ordained. It just happens, and there’s nothing much you or anyone else can do about it. At best it leads to people shrugging their shoulders, at worst it leads to people starting conspiracy theories, like ‘big pharma’, ‘big government’, or ‘the inexorable power of the market’.
The thing is, none of the way things are is inevitable. There is no great big arrow pointing to the future saying, ‘that’s the way folks, onwards’! It’s all been designed. Sitting in your flat listening to sound of your neighbours upstairs? Designed. Grumbling about being stuck in traffic? Designed. Wandering the supermarket wondering why the milk is always at the back? Designed.
Now, before you start screaming conspiracy theory at me, I didn’t say it was well-designed. Just designed. Everything in our built environment, everything in our electronic environment, and a fair chunk of the day-to-day minutiae of life has, at some point, had someone sit down and design it. The thing is, the people who do this aren’t mind-readers. They’re just people. There was a problem to solve, and they solved it as best as they could. But with any problem, there are many parts, and someone has to decide which parts are more important, and which are not. Sometimes collecting data can help (designers like data). But often, after all the data is collected, when figuring out what’s important, they have to ask the people around them, or the people paying them . . . or just guess. When you think about it, that’s kind of a big deal.
But if you stick to watching the news, you’re not going to hear about this at all. Because somewhere down the line, someone decided that reporting on what the designers are doing that will change our world (for better or worse), was someone else’s problem. And the best way to report and talk about designs that have the capacity to rewrite how everyone lives is to, in modern parlance ‘play to the controversy‘.
This isn’t new. This is exactly what newspapers and reporters have been doing for hundreds of years.
Joseph Bazalgette was lampooned in the media in his day (the 1850s and 60s!). The media focused on the disasters, on the cost overruns, on the overall silliness of what he was doing and how it was a waste of time. The man put up with it for decades. But when he was finished, his new sewer system virtually eliminated Cholera in London, and his boulevards along the Thames (built to hide the sewer pipes and rail lines) became an icon. No more muddy stream beds (though naturally people complained about being unable to forage for food along the mud flats). London became cleaner and safer. No one remembers him these days – but everyone in every modern metropolis depends on systems he invented.
And what was filling the newspapers in the day? Political fights, wars, the lives of the rich and famous, and spats and scandals. Really, little has changed.
Amazing things are happening right now, in your city, your town, your country. Really amazing stuff. Things that are going to change everything about how you experience the world. None of it is inevitable. It’s due the virtually invisible world of designers – engineers, scientists, programmers and architects who are creating and changing the world.
Maybe we can trust that they’ll just make the right decisions. Maybe. Maybe it’ll be OK if we just let them get on with it, I mean, why should we pay attention?
When I was a little girl, an elderly family friend showed me a picture. It was of a little boy, his face rather forlorn. He was hanging for dear life half-way up a telegraph pole . . . and flood water was raging passed him less than a metre below.
“That’s me,” he said. “It happened just down the road, over there,” and he pointed in the direction of a well-known bridge in our town. It made an impression. That’s when I started to notice things – brown lines at my local school above my head, showing where the wallpaper had been stained, and the signs over the roads, marking height above the ground – in case they flooded and a driver needed to know if they could still use the road. Those signs were usually 2 to 5 metres high.
As I asked questions, I learned about the massive levy banks, and the vast amounts of land, right near the centre of town, set aside to channel the waters away from where people live. Now, even when other towns and even cities nearby go under (and they do) – towns far richer, bigger and with more resources, I should add – this one doesn’t, even when the floods are just as dangerous. They didn’t think their fate was pre-ordained, or inevitable, or hopeless. They designed their way out.
For example, right now, whether you know it or not, there is someone deciding whether or not your home is going to exist in 20-30 years. They’re not malicious, or evil. But they are budget constrained, and guessing what’s important. For me, with my experiences, I really believe flood mitigation is important. And so do a lot of other people. Venice, Mexico City, Kuala Lumpur and New York City are all engineering their way out of difficult situations. The tragic flip side is places like Miami . . . and New Orleans. And this is just one example of how design can change lives.
When we leave the discussion of how we design, what we design and why we design to other people, without reflecting on it, we’re trusting that someone, somewhere will get it ‘right’, that the people designing (or not designing) are doing what we want them to do. And they mostly do. But when they don’t . . . if we’re not paying attention, there’s no way we can even start the conversation, because we don’t know what’s happening.
“If you’re not paying attention, you’re going to miss something.”
So, where could you go to find this different news?
- For Science, I usually use Science Alert or Science Daily. But any decent science magazine will do – try Science, Nature, Scientific American or New Scientist. Some of these Australian Science blogs are good too.
- Engineering can be a little trickier, but Engineers Australia is one I occasionally read (it can be a bit dry, but it’s still good). NB. most national engineering bodies will put out a magazine or equivalent. For the built environment, I like Crikey’s The Urbanist (Australia focus, transport and infrastructure). And for niche news on apartments, Life Edited (US focus). Science Daily also has an Engineering page. For engineering projects, a good internet search is your friend – every project has a webpage!
- Technology: Wired magazine is excellent. I also like Alex Knapp, from Forbes. But this is a pick your own poison kind of deal, there are a lot of tech magazines out there.
And if you want to learn how this stuff works, where do you start?
- Science: Go to the Youtube channels, like VSauce, Veritasium, minutePhysics, periodicVideos, Numberphile, 60 Symbols, and many, many more . . .
- Engineering: Big, Bigger, Biggest is a favourite, as is MegaStructures and Extreme Engineering.
- Technology: Coursera and other MOOCs have some great courses on learning to code, as well as how computers work. But also consider: Scratch, and visual Python.