The Rise of a Symbolic Culture and Online Education in the Information Age

In “Leisure Theory in the Information Age” by Wes Cooper and “Reflections on Recreation, Park, and Leisure Studies” by Daniel L. Dustin and Thomas L. Goodale, the authors raise two very important issues about the growth and impact of an increasingly symbolically constructed culture. This new culture has developed due to information technology and these changes in our culture have created a more narrowly specialized type of education for professional careers which is increasingly taught electronically. In turn, these changes in education have undermined the traditional community of scholars concerned with values and contributing to the public good.As Cooper describes it, our work and leisure has increasingly taken the form of “symbolic manipulation” rather than manipulating the physical environment, so that more and more “we and our environments are increasingly becoming symbolic constructs.” This increasingly symbolization of our society has affected both work and leisure, so that whether one is at work or involved in recreational activities, one is more and more not interacting with the physical world as with a symbolically-created virtual world.For example, instead of going bowling at a bowling facility with a group of friends, one may participate in an online bowling game with a network of other online bowlers one communicates with electronically. Instead of meeting friends to talk about an event in person or even on the phone, one may experience an event through TV or an online presentation and then text back and forth with others about it. Instead of going to a movie theater with friends and family members, one may download a movie from Netflix or see a video or series of short video Webisodes on Hulu or YouTube, and then share emails about it with other viewers. The rise of video gaming through social gaming sides like FarmVille and Mafia Wars, where one gets virtual supplies and equipment to help one get ahead in the game, are another example of this growing manipulation of symbolic constructs in everyday life.Cooper’s essay is devoted to considering what to do about this transformation into a more symbolic society. His Alpha model suggests that in the future, these symbolic worlds will become more and more important, and we have to be better able to adjust to this increasing ratio of the symbolic to the non-symbolic in our world, based on whether we see this shift as something to be valued or a warning about a future which is more and more a symbolic construct. Or as Cooper puts it: “Alpha…gestures towards future possibilities, such as the increasing importance of virtual spaces in our lives.” (p. 469). In this Alpha view, this growth of sociable virtual spaces will become more and more a natural part of our lives, which we take for granted, much like we have taken for granted the development of a subjective consciousness as an essential part of our personal identity. As such, this growing influence of virtual spaces will contribute to creating new forms of educational institutions, work, and leisure, such as reflected in the growing number of online courses and graduate programs, telecommuting at work, and online leisure activities.As an alternative to this growing virtual takeover, Cooper suggests that there might be a Beta Trial-and-Error Hypothesis, which represents a middle-ground approach between giving in to an inevitable takeover of this social virtual world replacing a grounded reality and a Luddite-like effort to a return to “a golden age of freedom from high technology.” Instead, in this trial and error approach, an individual can choose to seek out the best of both worlds by combining an involvement in a symbolically constructed environment with participation in real life activities. Likewise, organizations and institutions can choose which approaches work the best for them, such as by deciding to combine virtual courses and real ones.Finally, Cooper proposes the Gamma Symbolic Utility Hypothesis in which he suggests that the symbolic meanings one has for something have a symbolic utility (or SU) which should be taken into account along with the expected utility (EU) of something, and both can influence the decision someone makes by contributing to the decision value (or DV), which is composed of both types of utility. In other words, we don’t just make decisions based on rational factors, as proposed by Rational Choice Theory (RCT), which is the kind of approach economists use in assessing the choices people make in spending their money, but by other considerations. As Cooper puts it: “decision value (DV)…aims at finding a balance between maximizing outcomes or payoffs and maximizing what has positive meaning for an agent.” The implications of this hypothesis for examining the influence of the increasingly important symbolic constructs is to recognize the ways different people may assign different meanings to the choices they make to participate in physical activities or in virtual worlds.I think this discussion of the growing influence of symbolic structures and virtual worlds in our life today is an important one, because this discussion raises issues for those assessing the health of our modern culture and for the providers of leisure and recreation, which has become increasingly the domain of private enterprise as the funding for public leisure organizations has shrunk. While many people, including Cooper, seem to have a negative perspective in viewing the high-tech take-over of society and blaming it for the separation between people who are engaged in virtual activities, such as social gaming, I think this a wrong-headed approach. In fact, I have seen studies in the news that suggest that those who are most active in online virtual worlds also have more social connections, since they socialize in the everyday real world based on their experience in the virtual world and they use that to supplement their other real world physical activities.Certainly, there are some social misfits who find the anonymity of virtual worlds a way to have a social life which they cannot have in everyday life because they lack social skills. But for most people, participating in online activities is not an escape from everyday life, but a supplement or complement to it. An example of this is the popularity of social gaming for the popular crowd in high school and college. Also, many employees and independent contractors, including myself, have found becoming technologically savvy and participating in or presenting everything from Webinars to online conferences crucial for being employed in today’s economy. At the same time, these employees and independent contractors, myself included, participate in a wide variety of real time meetings, such as referral clubs, Chamber of Commerce mixers, and industry conferences. It is not an either-or situation but the use of both worlds that is necessary today to be competitive.Although Dustin and Goodale don’t use the terminology of symbolic constructs or refer to the Alpha, Beta, and Gamma hypotheses in their article, they discuss how this increasing symbolization of life affects education, and in particular how it has impacted the education of leisure and recreation professionals. They suggest that this change has undermined the traditional use of education to prepare students not only to enter a profession but to have humanistic values leading them to want to contribute to making a better world. Dustin and Cooper also express concern that the new technology enabling these virtual worlds has undermined the traditional educational institutions that have provided a geographical place where students can gather and have a personal social interaction with one another. Instead, there has been a growth of online courses and programs, enabling students to gain the professional credentials for a field without having to interact with other students or their professors.As Dustin and Goodale observe, the field of leisure studies first emerged at the University of Minnesota in 1937, where it was guided by a public service ethic to provide leisure services that “contributed to a better quality of life for individuals in the community.” Then, in the 1960s, which was marked by the rise of the National Recreation and Park Association as the primarily organization for the professional and lay community in the leisure field, leisure studies were devoted to preparing students to work as professionals in the field. However, since the 1970s, as public leisure services have lost funding, the private sector has become more important, and more and more students have been educated to serve these private enterprises.As a result, the focus in leisure education, as well as in other fields, has shifted more to preparing students to get well-paying jobs in their career specialty, and this education has increasingly been provided through distance learning, making it more convenient for students to take courses at their home or office at whatever time is most convenient for them. As Dustin and Goodale observe: “The ultimate expression of this is distance learning, correspondence courses and degree programs in electronic form…Not since the printing press has technology had such an impact on learning and the dissemination of information.” This shift has also meant that there has been a decline in face-to-face interaction, and degrees and certificates have become like commodities, which are purchased to make one more marketable for a career.These are important transformations, made possibly by the rise of new technologies and new systems for delivery of information, and they have been transforming educational systems, just as they have been transforming interaction in everyday life. For example, computers, along with cell-phones, e-mail, and online accounts have become necessities in everyday life, as well as in education, whereas they were more like personal luxuries a decade ago.However, while Dustin and Goodale argue that these high-tech developments are detrimental to the educational experience, I think these developments open up tremendous opportunities for individuals who once could not get an education because they can now access it at their convenience. Certainly, this system can be abused, such as when someone hires someone else to take their courses, write their papers, and post them on line for them, without any way for the professor to verify exactly who is taking the class, because of the anonymity of the computer (unless some system is devised to record who is in front of the computer typing a paper or online reply). But in general I think the system offers great opportunities. For example, there are now extensive digitized libraries of material online, and it is no longer necessary to spend hours going to a physical place, which involves fighting traffic, waiting in line, or searching on stacks to get that information. Also, the privatization of leisure has opened up many new career opportunities in the private sector for those who are able to respond to these opportunities or create new careers for themselves, such as a leisure researcher or consultant, who advises people on the new leisure and recreational possibilities. Indeed, this has become a brave new world with all sorts of new possibilities for those who can respond and adapt.