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August 30, 2009

Connecting a Community Like Cleveland for Tikkun Olam

(An edited version of this blog entry was published in the Cleveland Jewish News. Thanks for the feedback on the first blog. Intentional community building has always been of considerable interest to me. The feedback from readers and commentators suggests a general view that the current state of the Internet is less enabled to support community building than it is self expression and individual discovery. In this piece I try and outline some opportunities for more intentional community building in a Jewish and Cleveland context. I trust the themes have some universal interest as well. As always, thanks for the feedback).

It's Time to Be First Again, for Tikuun Olam

Greater Cleveland should become the first geography in the United States to embrace and commit to legislative and community-based initiatives to design, build and operate a ‘fiber to the premise’ infrastructure that can re-imagine, re-invent, and ultimately re-invigorate both our Jewish and broader communities in pursuit of tikkun olam.

We need to bring fiber optic lines, which transmit more Internet data more quickly over long distances than cable or other methods, to the front door of every home and community facility like schools, libraries, health care facilities, and museums. Fiber connectivity is our generation’s version of rural electrification or the inter-state highway system. All over the world communities, cities, regions, and whole countries are competing to win in the 21st century with advanced fiber infrastructure.

Cleveland has a long and distinguished history of infrastructure firsts. Charles F. Brush’s arc at Public Square in 1879 brought urban lighting to the world. The first electric streetcar in 1884 introduced a new infrastructure for public transportation. The Old Arcade downtown in 1890 introduced a radical way to think about the exchange of goods in the marketplace. The foresight in opening the first airport and air-traffic controller tower in 1925-27 ushered an infrastructure that for most of us is the default way we think about enabling how we do business all around the world.

The cost to do the initial deployment of fiber is on the order of $1,500 per household if we scale it to the entire region. Better yet, northeast Ohio has an internationally recognized leading effort through the nonprofit organization OneCommunity, which already connects more than a million users in 1,500 education, health, non-profit, and government buildings in 26 counties in the region. Successful “networked improvement communities” -- like-minded people who share knowledge, experience, and caring and work together to contribute, learn and reciprocate to improve the world -- will depend on such next generation infrastructure. The Jewish community can help strategize how to blueprint this infrastructure build-out for the region by beginning to connect our own community facilities to fiber optics, perhaps most importantly our education facilities.

Education matters

Twenty-first century learning and innovation will be guided by peer-to-peer discovery, mentoring, and a portfolio of experiential and structured opportunities that provoke self-reflection, re-cognition, and a wide range of literacies, including screen and new media. While it is anything but a foregone conclusion, the underlying philosophical basis for 21st century learning and innovation could be tikkun olam or networked improvement communities.

The future of our community is intimately and inextricably linked to education. That is as true for the Jewish community as it is for the broader community. Sparking innovation in learning is the journey to the Promised Land – and will have to occur in spite of our school system. Twenty years ago the definition of technology in education was to add computers to the school computer ‘lab.’ Fifteen years ago, teachers began to get a computer station at the front of the class. Whether the teacher had the skills, inclination, or incentives to use the tools, the computer sat next to the teacher’s desk where most of the learning continued to get organized and transmitted. Ten years ago, computers were added as an activity pod in the back of the class, so as to not disturb the real learning going on in desks and chairs nailed to the floor.

In the past number of years, one to one laptop initiatives have begun to pepper the landscape. Having access to a personal digital, Internet-enabled learning device is a necessary but insufficient condition for 21st century learning. Indeed, traditional school systems will continue to grapple with the transformational potential of the Internet. The most compelling opportunities for sparking innovation and learning for the next 10 years will happen outside the formal and traditional school systems: community centers, museums, libraries, camps, Sunday schools, after-school, healthcare educational outreach opportunities, virtual schools, gaming clubs, user groups.

Cleveland Jewish Video Project

What if we established a Cleveland Jewish community video channel on YouTube (or another current or future online platform for community building)? Learning and innovation in the 21st century has shifted from millennia of oral traditions, to a few centuries of written traditions, to an emergent tradition of rich media and video-based learning and literacy.

One million videos are loaded onto the Internet every day. We are living through the transition from the priesthood and the period before the Guttenberg press to the democratization and the broad availability of reading materials. The difference is that it took the written tradition more than 250 years to hit the inflection of creating a mass market. The transition to rich media and video literacies is happening right in front of us. But it is not only the medium. Storytelling and re-telling over the past decade are intersecting with what we call a mashup culture of re-mixing stories with simple and incredibly powerful tools. Every day, hundreds of thousands of people re-mix pieces of other people’s stories on the Internet through video editing tools. Sometimes this is for aesthetics like adding a new track for layering an additional instrument. Sometimes it’s the community service of translating a compelling video in one language to another.

The Jewish Cleveland Video Project could be a video repository about the community by us for us. An active project for bubbies to tell their stories of early Cleveland, Jewish jocks and wanna be sports heroes, musicians, storytellers, professionals, world travelers, community activists, and devout scholars. No producers, no TV guide, no experts. We could create a series of simple incentives including ongoing competitions and rewards excellence, creativity, and inventiveness. The video project would be augmented by video blogs, community wikis embedding video content, and a wide range of collaborative technologies such as mobile smartphone. In a matter of a year the project could aspire to one million stories and re-mixed episodes from the life and times of a vibrant community intentionally engaged in a re-imagination, re-invention, and re-invigoration.

The Video Project could contain both scheduled personalized channels: your Rabbi’s favorite lineup, the top 10 video pieces suggested from your mahjong girlfriend, whatever self-identified sports jocks are watching, or you can simply browse and discover your own experiences. Instead of letting television ‘produce’ the event for us, we can collaboratively produce our own town hall meetings or debates on any topic at any time. We can also re-watch, re-mix, and reuse those episodes anytime in the future.

Learning is Not a Spectator Sport

We celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first man on the moon that gave us the now well-known and famous picture of our world from the outside looking back at us. That map of the world shaped important cognitive worldviews like “Think Global Act Local,” the rise of the environmental movement, and, I think it is fair to say, the resurrection of the Jewish tikkun olam. We’ve all seen John King or another broadcaster use Google Earth to show us a dynamic picture of a hurricane, election result, North Korean missile launch, or a visualization of Osama Bin Laden’s assumed most recent hideout in the mountain ranges between Afghanistan and Pakistan. These incredibly powerful tools inherently call for collaboration and interaction, and not simply one-way communication and demonstrations of events, out there.

What if we took Google Earth and constructed a series of ongoing projects to layer the stories and experiences of our community over space and time? The Cleveland Jewish Community Google Earth Education Project could include the story of every community member’s family tree told in stories, pictures, sounds, and movies, and the ability to travel back through time across the globe.

For example, my family comes from a small town called Selisht that was wiped off the face of the earth during the World War II. But its coordinates on the map are well known and the stories of the shtetl and the families who escaped are important educational and personal stories that I would like to contribute to my family’s and to our community’s collective memory. We could work on an extended set of oral histories and reconstruction projects with the historical societies and museums and individuals all across our community to recreate the Jewish historical experience in Cleveland, again with pictures, stories, sounds and movies. Jewish summer camp experiences over time and across space, the stories layered across space and time of Jewish sports heroes, entertainers, labor union organizers, scholars. A Google Earth project with our sister city in Bet She’an, Israel is a natural. Google Earth projects are an invitation for young people to discover and participate in their own education. Learning, it has been said is not a spectator support.

A community-based Google Earth education project could become its own eco-system thriving with user contributions, much like the Apple iPod phenomenon. Every community center, library, museum, Sunday school, or health center, for example, could have a Cleveland Jewish Community Google Earth education projection system that illuminates the surface of a large piece of educational furniture. Hands-on individual or group activities change the projected images from street-level images to riding a magic carpet at 50,000 ft above the earth.

To make learning more relevant, it must be engaging and connected to our values of sharing with our young people their connection to the long and varied stories of Jewish life through the ages. This type of project is also an invitation for inter-generational learning and strengthening the bonds among grandparents, parents, and children. The education gained by participants includes research skills, documenting, reflecting, synthesizing, developing narratives, reasoning, and effective communication. The project could be replicated and re-mixed by communities both near and far.

Economic Development and Technology Commercialization

Over the past 50 years, and for the next 50 years, the center of gravity of human interaction in the urban setting is shifting from European and North American cities to the megalopolises of Asia, Latin American and soon in parts of Africa. Cities of 10 million or more will shift the center of the world economy forever. A growing middle class in these cities will redefine the meaning of fashion, music, food, entertainment, and mass culture. The social chaos occasioned by this dynamic will disrupt traditional norms, values, and social patterns everywhere. We will necessarily become more connected, multi-cultural, with a broader appetite for culinary choices, palate for fashion and aesthetics, consumers of world music. If we are forward leaning we will also find ways of becoming co-producers of the emerging forms of mass culture.

The economic future of Jewish Cleveland and Greater Cleveland at large is linked to our ability to think strategically and create a broad vision of the future of our community. Technology needs to be an integral part of the vision, not placed into its own silo so we can ‘check off” technology on a grocery list. The vision must include a self-conception of our community as forward thinking, technologically savvy and committed to seeing itself as capable and determined to intentionally embrace the new technologies as a vital part of our very future.

Right now, the most common meeting place for technology professionals in Greater Cleveland is the check-in line at Continental Airlines on Monday morning, as they leave families, civic interests, and the local economy for 4 days, most every week for assignments outside the region. We should embrace an innovative and unorthodox set of practices to create incentives that attract hundreds of new IT entrepreneurs to Cleveland, perhaps through successive rounds of international competitions for great technology ideas that will change the world and Cleveland too. New ideas, risk-taking, social networks in new markets, access to new sources of capital, and different supply chains are all parts of the approach we can and should take. There are relatively few incentives for the current establishment to take this leap of faith. The alternative is for communities and community-based social networks to launch and model this activity in concern with community foundations. Certainly the Jewish community of Cleveland, through its own means and in collaboration with other resources like TiE Ohio (Talent, Ideas, Entrepreneurship; see http://ohio.tie.org ) with its origins in the Indian community can be at the forefront.

This community’s commitment to tikkun olam should include supporting those most at risk. However, if the community itself is not to be a recipient of someone else’s charity, we need to have our networked improvement community also include a commitment to tikkun olam through innovative practices that incentivize new ideas, ties them to relevant challenges here and elsewhere to produce a catalyst for a new innovation economy.

Whatever It Takes – Final Words

There is a tendency to dismiss the latest technology platforms as yet more examples of nerds amusing themselves. At best, some would say, we technologists are permanently distracted and engaging in obfuscation that does little more than disrupt the remaining remnants of the rational world we once knew. More charitably, Cleveland’s Jewish community and the broader community in Northeast Ohio rarely see our own identities and our vision of our own futures as being tied to the transformational potential of this new generation of advanced technology-enabled collaboration tools and solutions. It may be changing, enabling, or transforming some other community but ‘not here’, not in my back yard.

Yet the mishnaic imperative for tikkun olam challenges us to address in new ways our common future in the face of unprecedented economic challenges, social dislocation, and a way of life at risk.

All around the world, and certainly here in Cleveland and in our Jewish community, we see the spirit of tikkun olam offering us an opportunity for what anthropologist Mike Wesch calls a “new conversation” -- a new social pragmatism and call for “whatever it takes by whatever means it necessary.” The networked improvement community approach to building new kinds of infrastructure, re-thinking education, or engaging in unorthodox approaches to new economic development is neither utopian nor technologically deterministic. Rather, an intentional community can be formed and extended with the aid and progressive use of collaborative tools. While anything but a completed blueprint, I hope the Jewish community here and elsewhere, students, professionals, scholars, activists and nerds alike, will reflect and build a more complete and coherent strategy to enable us to re-imagine, re-invent, and re-invigorate our community.

Striving to contribute to the building of a mosaic of innovative, authentic communities bound together through a commitment to the leveraging of new technologies is a noble undertaking that most any rabbi in the Mishnahic or present era would find worthy.


Lev Gonick
Case Western Reserve University
Cleveland, OH

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August 29, 2009

Tikuun Olam, The Internet, and The Future of Cleveland

An edited published version of this piece appeared in The Cleveland Jewish News. I haven't written about the Internet through a Jewish lens before. I welcome feedback. Part II of this piece appears tomorrow in my blog.

The phrase tikkun olam may resonate with many readers of the Cleveland Jewish News as an imperative to repair or improve the world. In the Mishnah, the phrase mip'nei tikkun ha-olam ("for the sake of tikkun of the world") indicates that a practice should be followed not because it is required by Biblical law, but because it helps avoid social chaos.

It’s a big, even audacious idea that informs the history and ethos of the Jewish people.

Fast-forward some 1,800 years to the current era of unprecedented change and disruption. Ours is a global village filled with opportunities for tikkun olam, which today are interpreted as good deeds that inform personal commitments, community action and national and international service, Our efforts often focus outwards to those less fortunate in faraway lands like the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia, and Argentina. Closer to home, tikkun olam finds common expression by our support of the frail, the marginalized, and the at-risk. These important humane acts of charity and kindness are signature features of great Jewish communities like Cleveland.

But the social chaos is not “out there” alone. The Internet began to change everything starting 30 years ago, making the boundaries between ”there” and ”here” less than a click away. The Internet has forever changed the way media mediate our culture. Gone is the era of the television news anchor being the “most trusted man in America.” Gone is the deference to the editorial page. Gone too are the traditional economic models of selling our culture and our news.

For the first time in history we have put our scientific innovation to work to create a worldwide advanced telecommunication infrastructure: the Internet. It has contributed to the massive dislocation of traditional economies and communities like ours; the Internet giveth and the Internet taketh. And while it began by privileging the privileged, the Internet knows no borders, honors no hierarchy or authority, and is fundamentally built on an interactive communications protocol, an entirely new and radical new way for massive numbers of humans to interact and collaborate with each other, whether conducting business, educating, governing, or organizing our communal activities

The Internet helps search and deliver goods and services in a more efficient manner than ever before; from anywhere in the world. It also contributes significantly, and without hesitation, to the decimation of the once invincible bedrock institutional giants like the auto industry. The only certainty that remains is that there are no certainties. The pace of change will continue to accelerate and the quality of life and the very viability of once vibrant communities all around us are at risk. Change brings winners and losers.

Our Jewish community of Northeast Ohio and our Greater Cleveland community face huge risks. Most everyone has a story about loss or fear of losing a child to the opportunities that present themselves in the global internet-enabled economy. As a community we are well beyond collective denial. If we look carefully at tikkun olam, if we are to avoid even more social chaos, we have no choice but to undertake unorthodox actions to engage in a collective set of practices that will, if we are intentional, lead to re-imagining, re-inventing, and ultimately re-invigorating both our Jewish and broader communities. How we use and respond to these new dynamics is ultimately a personal and community-wide set of choices.

Technology and the Land of Giants

Technology, it has been said, is anything that was invented after you were born. Anything that gets invented after you have turned 30 is against the natural order of things. For most of us reading these words in the pages of the Cleveland Jewish News, the Internet represents nothing less than a tsunami facing our cities, regions, and most every way we live our lives and make our livings. Most people’s instincts are to try to outrun the tsunami of technology by deferring the challenges to the next generation and to ride out the storm.

But there is no way to avoid the tsunami and all that lies in its wake. The only way to overcome the epic challenges is to directly confront the technological imperative and apply the genius, faith, gumption, and courage of our individual and collective beings to re-invent ourselves. In the next 25 years, tikkun olam needs to translate into repairing our world, right here, as an integrated and intentional effort in making Cleveland and the Jewish community in Cleveland the most innovative, connected, and Internet-aware community we can. If we are to realize the noble goal of repairing the world around us, we need to be able to balance our instincts to improve the lot of others with the more difficult challenge of realizing the deep and profound challenges we face in improving our own communities.

Douglas Engelbart, engineer and humanist, created the roadmap for a network-based, connected community that can help in our task. Now in his late 80s, Engelbart and his lab in the 1960s at the Stanford Research Institute pioneered almost every major technology innovation we now associate with the Internet Age: interactivity, the mouse, hyper-linking, video conferencing over the internet, social networking tools, blogs, wikis. He discovered and demonstrated almost all of them at the “mother of all demos” in 1968 (http://tinyurl.com/9km7).

Reflecting on the prophetic insights of that demonstration, Alan Kay, co-founder of the personal computer with Steven Wozniak and the pioneer of the graphical user interface, shared “I don’t know what Silicon Valley will do when it runs out of Doug’s ideas. … Doug was like a biblical prophet. His talks were not for information, but to show a promised land that needed to be found and the seas and rivers we needed to cross to get there ...”

Beyond Engelbart’s brilliant engineering was an even more impressive set of philosophical and prophetic insights for technology, a geek version of tikkun olam which he called “networked improvement communities.” The humanist impulse in Engelbart’s life work is that the Internet can be an unprecedented and powerful platform for improving the human condition. It enables like-minded people to share knowledge, experience, and caring in more impactful ways, and work together to contribute, learn and reciprocate in building common destinies moving forward.

A networked improvement community is an intentional community working to re-imagine, re-invent, and re-invigorate its members. Not exactly a Super Sunday event or joining a synagogue committee for a year, building a networked improvement community is a journey to a promised land filled with giants. It starts with embracing new language, new ideas, new tools, and being prepared to at least consider questioning some of the received wisdom, language, and ideas that have long represented our own sacred cows.

Lev Gonick
Case Western Reserve University
Cleveland, Ohio

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