I have been teaching at the university level for more than 25 years now. I have taught first year students, seniors, graduate students, community college students, and returning adults. I have taught skills-based courses, such as public speaking and public relations, and theory heavy courses, such as interpersonal communication, semiotics, language and behavior, gender and communication, and decision-making. And hybrid courses, such as persuasion and oral interpretation. I have taught at public and private institutions. I have taught thousands of students.
And yet I tell you now that higher education is no longer the game I was taught to play. In so many ways, it is not what I signed up for.
Somebody changed the game on me. On us all. I could discuss at length the nature of these changes, but that is a tangent too long and too heartbreaking to herein pursue.
But recently, across the weather enterprise, I suspect many professionals are currently experiencing a parallel set of changes. The business of forecasting weather is not what is used to be, not what some of you trained for, and not as comfortable as it once was for you.
I will borrow a phrase from my good friend and insightful colleague, Wes Browning, who is the MIC at the St. Louis, MO weather forecast office, and call these changes “sea changes”. Wes directed my attention to this in 2011, when I served under his leadership (and that of Dr. Frank Marks) on the Service Assessment Team for Hurricane Irene. The changes to which Wes was then referring are transpiring across NWS even now, and these changes constitute a major shift in the nature of weather forecasting by moving forecasting squarely into the circle of social transaction, in turn situated in a larger sphere of culture and digital technology.
And that is a different game. And not only for the NWS.
The game used to be housed in the domain called “science”. This domain was a kind of sanctified space, the gates well-guarded to keep the purity in and most forms of social exchange out. And while it might be argued that this is not strictly speaking true because, after all, forecasts are issued to/for someone else, many conversations and observations lead me to the understanding that so many forecasters preferred (and prefer) this ideal form of their professional reality.
You see, that was the game folks had been taught, and more than a few came to play it quite well: A worthy pursuit of scientific understanding measurable by increasingly accurate predictions at increasing distances in time.
An applied science, one of increasing value as humankind traversed the globe and conquered space and then time. For human technologies, especially digital technologies, put us mere users in control of space and time in striking and powerful ways. We can talk virtually face-to-face with persons halfway around the globe. As I write this on-board a flight that is taking me from NYC to Savannah in well under 2 hours, I take note that I am not bounded by the geographic distance as would have been hundred years ago.
Yes, technology has altered the way humans perceive and understand their relationship to the natural world. It has changed human experience.
And that is quite the game-changer.
This part of the game changing has resulted in a kind of flattening of the social and economic global structures. One of the consequences seems to be that we now expect our interface with technical and technological bodies of knowledge to be personalized, seamless, and always available. These goods and services must be attractive, instantly digestible, and meet immediate needs and specific wants.
In short, forecasts are now part of the currency of social exchange, the everyday kind of exchanges we have with our handheld technologies hundreds of time a day. Forecasts are fodder for the gaping maw of rarely satisfying but addicting digital transactions in which we participate nearly automatically.
What are the ethics of these digital social transactions? What are the terms of engagement? Is there a line to be drawn in the virtual spaces between a forecast as a consumer product and a forecast as a social good? Can the marketplace imbue severe weather warnings with a value in a new kind of currency that gives such warnings a privileged places among the turmoil of digital and traditional consumer messages?
In an era in which medical professionals hawk products of dubious medical value on talk shows, and social and digital media give amateurs and superstitious individuals and others an easy platform and a handy megaphone, what’s a serious, well educated, professional meteorologist to do?