Brave New Water: New Media and Stories in California
By Andrea, Alarcon, Soledad Altrudi, Azeb Madebo
On April 19th, three of us Civic Paths members had the chance to go with professor Henry Jenkins to the Association of Water Agencies 26th Annual Water Symposium (AWA) in Oxnard, California to run a workshop titled: Brave New Water: New Media, New Stories focused on how we tell stories through new media. AWA’s mission is “to develop and encourage cooperation among entities for the development, protection, conservation and improvement of the total water resources for Ventura County”. The attendees to the Symposium (approximately 200) were mostly professionals of different water agencies, members of surrounding local communities and water-related businesses. Thus, although the speakers included academics and industry media professionals as well as a few professors. In terms of audience, we were distinctly out of our academic/activist element.
Signs with statements like “Congress created a dustbowl” and “No Water = No jobs” line the 5 Freeway as it enters the Central Valley and send a clear message about California’s fraught water battles. California has been called the most hydrologically altered landmass in the world. Reservoirs store water that is later moved to arid land. Wetlands have been converted to farmland. California’s water resources now support 35 million people and irrigate more than 5.68 million acres of farmland (Mount 2014). About 62 percent of California’s water goes to agriculture, 16 percent to urban use and 22 percent is dedicated to instream flows and to maintain drinking water quality (Mount, 2014). Procuring the scarce resource has led to political conflict, animosity, and even outright confrontations. On the one hand are the needs of a growing population, the agricultural industry, businesses and developers. On the other are priorities that seek to protect water quality, environment, fisheries and wildlife. The fundamental controversy is one of distribution, as conflicts continue to be exacerbated by population growth and periods of drought.
The purpose of the event was to discuss narratives of water: how to tell them, their effects, and the larger histories of environmental storytelling. Bringing our Civic Imagination framework into such a different arena gave us some key insights in to how we may tap or spur conversation that is future-oriented as well as well as inclusive with such a specialized, technical audience. We came out with a few insights on how to run a workshop in this space, but also inspired by the fact that whereas some questions had a clear, unanimous answer (such as the future of water being desalinated ocean water), others were a bit more complex (such as the link between agriculture and water).
Imagining the Future of Water
Professor Jenkins opened the event and workshop with a description of the Civic Imagination: he defined it as the capacity to imagine alternatives to current cultural, social, political, or economic conditions. The civic imagination requires—and is realized through—several interrelated functions, including the ability to imagine what a better world might look like, to construct a model of change-making, to see one’s self as a civic agent, to feel solidarity with others whose perspectives differ from one’s own, and to belong to a larger collective with shared interests, among others.
In this context, they want to find new language – new ways to think about future/politics, bringing in the link to the Harry Potter Alliance, and the use of the Hunger Games for social protest. He then asked: How can we link this to water? What are the politics, and struggles over water? He then led the audience to pieces of pop culture where narratives of the future of water were important to the plot, such as Mad Max: Fury Road, a film that is set in a post apocalyptic desert wasteland where petrol and water are scarce commodities; Waterworld, which is set after the melting of the polar ice caps, most of the globe is underwater. Some humans have survived, and even fewer still, have adapted to the ocean by developing gills. ; and Stranger in a Strange Land, where the main character, coming from Mars, values water much more than the humans he encounters, and where water is part of bonding and religious ritual. The presentation highlighted water as a resource, but also as symbolic, human, and its movement and significance within the human and social interrelations.
Because we had such a large audience, we utilized a tool (the Mentimeter) we hadn’t really used before to try to get them to think creatively about futures. The tool allows everyone to enroll with a displayed number into responding to questions on a screen, which automatically display the answers with word clouds. We asked participants to answer the question from the Mentimeter, and then discuss their answers among the attendees in their respective tables. Henry also encouraged some to share their thoughts with the room.
For example, in relation to the first question displayed, “How would you describe the ideal state of water distribution in 2060?,” an audience member remarked that he was surprised to see that the word “clean” was so prominent while another talked about the presence of the word “affordability,” something that is hard to address given the different regulations on pricing which lead a third audience member to ask: How do we talk about valuing the water well?
The other questions asked during the workshop elicited different responses from participants, some of which focused on particular aspects of the current state of the water economy in Ventura county, while others had a more historical approach as they reflected on the past of agriculture and farming in the region.
The nature of the words that popped up on the screens did was something attendees commented on, such as when a participant mentioned that she found interesting that “sustainable” and “unsustainable” were equally important responses on word-cloud, meaning an ambiguity, or a tension between how it should be and what will actually happen.
Vastly different audiences
As opposed to other spaces where we have had the workshop, whether with younger children at Penny Harvest, activists or in other educational contexts, these were highly technical professionals specialized in a very particular field. Our Civic Imagination workshops tend to be broader and end up with more fantastical, futuristic scenarios: we think about the general future of politics, transportation, immigration, and women’s rights. This allows us to connect more easily to our participants and be able to be part of the wider conversation of comprehensive imaginaries not pinned down on the capacity and skills of the present. Given that none of the other speakers were water experts either, there was an expected disconnect between presenters and audience. Nonetheless, the workshop shifted the actions of communication professionals to imagination as an activity that each of them could engage with. Although the questions we asked are likely discussed within the industry on a regular basis, our workshop added value by being prompted by outsiders to think about them collectively.
New audience size, new tools
Our new Mentimeter tool worked very well in engaging such a large audience and, as mentioned, the word cloud activity spurred on conversation in the round tables across the conference room. A few people approached Henry afterwards to tell him they really enjoyed it and the conversations it generated. Henry was able to navigate the questions we had originally planned for the end to be inter-weaved with the Mentimeter questions, that way the activity shifted enough to keep most people interested. It also gave the word clouds a direct use as conversation catalysts. Given that the rest of the morning had been very panel/speaker heavy, this was a good way of making a low-effort audience participation, particularly from people who do not tend to do this type of work. Simultaneously, the design of the activity also allowed us to serve mostly as mediators on a topic we were so unfamiliar with.
For future consideration
Some drawbacks included that the screen was a little far from the back end of the room, so only the larger words in the word cloud could be seen from that distance. As the word cloud got more and more words, it was difficult for people to see what was on it. Only the top 3-5 words were visible to the audience. Also, after the 1st word cloud, there was about a 40% drop in participation. We cut some of the questions, since the novelty factor of the tool does dwindle after a certain point, and to walk the line is relatively tough.
Mount, J., Freeman, E., Lund, J. , Water Use in California, Public Policy Institute of California, July 2014