Greening a digital media course

I’ve been a media literacy educator for over a dozen years. And since participating in the punk movement during the early ‘80s, I’ve been a lifelong proponent of do-it-yourself media. Since entering the field of education I’ve worked in numerous arts programs with youths, spending considerable time in under-served communities. Consequently, working with Native Americans, Latinos and Afro-Caribbean youth has helped me to formulate a multicultural, multi-perspective approach to media literacy that has pushed me to reconceptualize cultural assumptions embedded in traditional media education.* Learners in those communities are under greater stress than mainstream Americans, and their particular needs call for attention to social justice, environmental issues and cultural citizenship, things that many privileged Americans take for granted.

While working on the rez, at one point a Native American elder said of the information highway: “any road can get you somewhere.” Unfortunately, many programs that embrace digital media tools are too enamored with the technology to think more critically about the “somewhere” we are moving towards. It was during the period when I worked on the rez that I realized the importance of appropriate applications of technology and the ethnocentrism embedded in the idea of “progress.” More importantly, I was forced to think more carefully about who or what I was ultimately serving in my work.

As a fellow media geek it might surprise you, then, to suggest that my approach since then has been to serve  the planet: humans and nonhuman alike. In particular I feel a strong calling to speak to the best of my abilities on behalf of our silent partner: nature. These days in my current role as a professor of media studies at an American university in Rome, I find myself in the unlikely position of having to argue for a greener approach to media. I have taken to heart the task of incorporating lessons I learned beyond the walled garden of academia to green the field of media studies. What follows, then, is a field report from my most recent effort, which was to green a digital media culture course.

The Root of the Problem

Last Spring, about halfway through the semester of my undergrad Digital Media Culture class I asked students to raise their hand if they expected the course to be about ecology. None did, which didn’t surprise me. But I did in fact incorporate ecology as a major element of the course material. Was I forcing an unrelated issue on an unsuspecting class? Is there a legitimate connection between environmental issues and digital media culture?

Absolutely! The impact of electronics on the biosphere is staggering. The entire production chain of our media gadgets damages the environment in several ways. Issues include:

• the toxins used to make gadgets and their impact on the health of workers and their communities;

• the CO2 emissions of fossil fuels needed to run our electronic networks (which is now equal to the global aviation industry);

• the ecological “mindprint” on our perception of time, space and our sense of “place”;

• the enabling of a destructive globalized growth economy; and

• the e-waste generated from over-consumption.

It’s not all negative. There are many positive aspects to digital media culture that may also help us prevent an impending global ecological catastrophe, in particular the emergent culture of sharing, connecting and self-organizing prevalent on the Web. I also hope that the kinds of social revolutions occurring in the Arab world and Occupied movements will translate to the environmental movement.

A holistic digital media course should make connections between cultural practice and the environment. Even if we are teaching technical skills and aptitude, reducing these skills to an isolated digital literacy encloses them within a mental bubble that is likely to repeat the mistakes of our techno-scientific revolution that have brought on our ecological crisis. Moreover, no matter how neutral our educational model is, technology always has embedded cultural attitudes that impact our pedagogical approach and are ingrained within the tools.

So, if the environment is intimately linked with digital media, why is it so rare to see the two issues connected?

One of the misconceptions concerning environmental education is that it is a topic that is outside all subjects except those pertaining to “nature” (such as the biological sciences). Even though the primary cause of our ecological crisis is cultural, few who teach culture-related courses incorporate sustainability into their material. This is not to place blame. The cause for this goes back to the origins of modern academia, and even the creation of the term “ecology.” Based on the Greek oikos, which means household, “eco” also is the root of economics. Consequently, the combined meaning of ecology and economics is “household management,” which is an appropriate and holistic approach to thinking about humans and the natural world. We need to remind ourselves that the world is our home, and that we need to treat it with as much care as the places that we inhabit on a daily basis.

Yet, due to the prejudice of the techno-industrial-scientific revolution, material and immaterial issues were divided up between the different disciplines and we are left with the famous split in Western culture between mind and body. Earth, in this case, falls under the category of “body,” albeit abstracted by mechanistic science. Culture, being a subject of the mind, is usually not taught in conjunction with environmental issues. Curiously, though, the term “culture” originates from agriculture, and has to do with the act of cultivation: we cultivate food and beliefs (food for thought!).

Finally, environmental educator David Orr has made the point that all education is environmental education. What he means is that whether acknowledged or not what we teach has a bearing on how we view the environment, especially when it is omitted altogether. When we don’t talk about it, the lesson becomes, “The environment is not relevant to what we do. This is someone else’s problem.” Or, in the example of economics, we are taught that the ecological impact of growth and consumption is irrelevant to an economy’s bottom line. Given the state of our biosphere, we cannot continue like this, nor should we assume some technological fix is awaiting on the horizon. What we need is a human fix.

Conceptual Strategy: Open and Closed Systems

So how does a digital media culture class look when ecology is incorporated into its curriculum?

For starters, as a framework we discuss open versus closed systems. In agricultural terms, a monocultural crop of genetically engineered corn is a closed system. It is governed by numerous control mechanisms and a form of science that doesn’t allow for the open ended integration of natural systems. Open systems are like permaculture gardens, which are structured in such a way as to work with the given conditions of the local environment. It is not controlled with pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizer or laboratory engineered seeds. It is open to the conditions of its local ecology and interacts with unpredictable elements, such as weather, insects and native plants. And since agriculture is humans acting upon the environment, the kind of approach one makes entails a worldview. Societies that engage in monoculture are far different in outlook than those that use permaculture.

How does this translate in the digital media world? Numerous scholars are concerned with the difference between open and closed systems, be they gadgets or the Internet. Jonathan Zittrain talks about the iPhone (“iBrick”) versus Google’s Android. Tim Wu looks into the rise and fall of media empires, examining how monopolies are essentially closed systems. James Boyle believes there is an information ecology that is threatened by enclosure. And Lawrence Lessig talks about the difference between Read-Only and Read-Write information economies.

A keystone essay I use is Benjamin Barber‘s “Pangloss, Pandora and Jefferson: Three scenarios for the future of technology and strong democracy” (published in Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age) In it he argues about potential scenarios facing the future of the Internet. Pangloss is the status quo, and has a do-nothing stance in which the Internet evolves according to the needs of governments, corporations and consumers. If this scenario continues according to its internal momentum towards closed monopolies, we end up with the Pandora scenario. Pandora is represented by two-tired Internet, DRM, Great Fire Wall of China, increased repression and surveillance, and the use of anti-piracy measures to shut off dissent and peer-to-peer sharing (as is the case with Wikileaks and ACTA). The Jeffersonian model represents hope, and would entail the active participation of users to continue developing and utilizing the Internet for opening up democratic participation.

The status quo (Pangloss) has elements of both a cautionary and hopeful future, but we are at a crossroads and it remains to be seen how open or closed the future Internet will be. In terms of the environment there are similar parallels. Closed, monopolized media systems further the interests of those powers that refuse to solve the ecological crisis. Climate change has to be resolved through democratic processes, and sustainable culture has to be cultivated through sharing and connecting. The Jeffersonian scenario goes hand-in-hand with transitioning from the centralized and closed energy system of petroleum, natural gas and nuclear power, to the decentralized and democratic potential of clean energy. One is corporate powered, the other is people powered. There also is middle ground where some corporations are choosing open systems as their primary operational model (such as many of the Web 2.0 start-ups), but it’s still not a guarantee that the climate crisis will tackled by technology users.

It’s important to not be overly Utopian or dystopian. Ultimately the key is to think systemically. Ultimately my goal is to encourage a shift from the standpoint of mere consumerism to a kind of practice based on cultural citizenship. Or, more importantly, green cultural citizenship. What follows is my experiment to move in this direction.

Design Strategy: The Four Perspectives

My design strategy is based on a four-pronged approach inspired by cultural studies’ circuit of culture model and sustainability design. The circuit of culture looks at media phenomena from as a set of iterative, interacting forces that include identity, regulation, representation, culture and consumption. It sees the development of consumer gadgets, like the Sony Walkman, as not an isolated economic practice, but coming from an interactive feedback loop between culture and economics. But it also reflects the bias described earlier: where is the environment in this matrix? Surely it needs to be part of the mix.

Enter sustainability design which is holistic and approaches problems from multiple angles. Gaia Education has developed an Ecovillage Design initiative that approaches human experience according to four dimensions: lifeworld, ecology, economics and society. I hybridized both the circuit of culture and ecovillage design approaches to divide up the course according to the following disciplinary lenses:

Worldview: the phenomenology of time and space. This section covers topics like technological determinism, the history of media technologies, and the impact of digital media gadgets on the user’s perception of time, space and place. Assignments include keeping diaries of gadget usage and to get lost in Rome (which is where I teach) without any media devices, including pens, paper or maps. Students then write and share their experiences in a class blog.

Environment: the material reality of digital media, including extraction, production, e-waste, energy and emissions. To get a picture of the environmental impact of gadget production, we watch the documentary Manufactured Landscapes. We also view the Story of Stuff and the Story of Electronics. There are a ton of videos on YouTube about e-waste. We also look at material relating to “cradle-to-cradle” design and Green IT. Additionally, we read and discuss the various reports on ecological impact created by critics such as GreenPeace, and internal communications from parent company Web sites of gadget makers.

Economy: Drawing on themes from political economy, we look at the ideological structure of the global economics system, paying attention to the reasons why designers design what they do. We compare consumer designed products (Sony’s Walkman, Motorola’s Xoom tablet, Apple gadgets) with computers designed for low-income education, such as the One Laptop Per Child project and the Open Source Ecology project. The goal here is to understand how intention influences the production process of our gadgets. During this section we watch Objectified, a documentary about industrial design.

Culture: Multiple strategies are used in this section, but predominantly it is hermeneutics. Throughout the course we look at promotional videos and advertisements to deconstruct the thinking behind the marketing of gadgetry. This reiterates the point that that though these categories are distinct sections of the course, they spiral around each other. None are completely separate, they are embedded within each other. In the culture section, however, we go more deeply into how digital media usage is impacting by cultural practice. This includes looking at Henry Jenkins‘ model of convergence culture, Lessig’s Read-Only vs. Read-Write model of cultural production, participatory/social media, and the cultural commons (intellectual property, mash-ups, etc.). None of these are isolated from economics, environment and worldview.

These zones are then explored through the perspective of a “boundary object.” For the purpose of this course a boundary object is a media gadget (iPhone, Ipad, Blackberry, laptop, etc.) that has different purposes according to how it is used and how its potential is perceived. So even though a gadget has objective properties in the sense that we all know what an iPhone is, it can also be many different things to different people. It can be a way to call your friends, an instrument of revolution, or a tool for triggering a roadside bomb. To get my students to think in terms of boundary objects, I show clips from the 1980s film The Gods Must be Crazy to demonstrate how a coke bottle, though on the surface is something fairly neutral and innocuous, can do completely different things according to people’s culture.

For their final project students analyze their personal media gadget of choice according to the four zones of experience. I also incorporate a multiliteracy approach. In addition to the content elements of the course, I also want to embed certain skill literacies. So for each section I assign a specific skill-related task. For the first section it is autoethnography and blogging. The ecology section is about tool literacy: what is the “nature” of our gadgets? The third and fourth section are a mix of information and visual literacy, i.e. how to read and deconstruct marketing and information about the gadgets, including how to research the design and production aspects of the gadgets online. Students do mixed activities ranging between collaborative, solo, writing and multimedia. The final project is a paper and a Prezi presentation.

You can only do so much in a 14 week course, and a lot is left out. Ideally this would be a year-long (let alone lifelong) process.

Conclusion

The model I offer here is experimental and not definitive. My main goal is to argue for sustainability as multidimensional, and to integrate ecological issues into a standard digital media course that typically eschews the environment. My vision for the future of education is that “green” subjects are not ghettoized and treated as distinct or off topic from those subjects that are familiar to us. I imagine that all media courses one day will incorporate sustainability, and it will be “natural” to do so.

Barriers to such a project include a lack of familiarity with ecoliteracy (pedagogy and a basic literacy of environmental issues), resistance from academic gatekeepers who don’t acknowledge the connection between the environment and social studies/humanities, and a lack of concern or desire to change cultural practice. I think all these can be overcome, but it will take concerted effort and will be up to the practitioners (i.e. teachers, scholars and learners) to push for more integrative approaches to teaching media.

Please feel free to contact me for more information. I plan to do an online training for educators to learn this model. If you are interested in participating in the training, contact me at info@worldbridgermedia.com

* My book, Mediacology: A Multicultural Approach to Media Literacy in the 21st Century deals with this topic in more detail.