My media literacy wish list for Earth Day

Surviving Progress trailer [video link]

Just as every month is Black History Month, every day is Earth Day. To mark this year’s passing, Alternet.org features a fabulous review of nine environmental documentaries that bring ecology to the center of our cultural awareness. In particular it led me to Surviving Progress, a necessary critique of our current notion of “progress.” Based on the book, A Short History of Progress, this film has been called a mash-up of Koyaanisqatsi and The Corporation. I’m all for anything that problematizes our notion of technological evolution.* Moreover, I feel this is an area of critique generally lacking in media education. For one, youth media educators could problematize how mediamaking devices are produced and disposed of. Media lit educators focused on textual analysis could zoom in on how technology works as a trope for a variety of values associated with consumption and unlimited growth. Along these lines, here are some more suggestions for ways media education can be greened:

Discourse analysis: Media literacy has pioneered techniques for analyzing the way media frame and discuss issues, both visually and textually. Since discourse analysis can be applied to news and propaganda, green media educators can use this tool to examine how a critical issue like climate change is covered in the news, or how to detect greenwashing. Claims makers–from BP to GreenPeace–vie for public attention. What strategies do they use, and what systems enable some voices and not others?

Semiotics: Basic media literacy is a primer for the deconstruction of symbols. Often times semiotics is used for studying representation, in particular racial, gender, and cultural stereotyping. Animals and living systems are also used and stereotyped in a variety of ways. Why and for what purpose?

Marketing: Media literacy techniques have mastered deconstruction, drawing attention to nearly 30 different persuasion techniques used to manipulate and hook our attention. The primary technique, emotional transfer, is represented by how marketers (or propagandists for that matter) generate feelings in order to transfer those sensibilities to brands. But the various emotions generated by sex, fear, and humor are tied to more ancient needs related to our connection with living systems. Media literacy could point out that when advertisers are playing with our emotions, they are trying to tap into deeper experiences of authenticity and resonance that can be fulfilled by activities that don’t require consumption, and could even tie into our primary need to connect with humans and nature.

Ideology: This is usually applied in the form of critical media literacy, and aims to challenge the claims made by corporations and governments. In the age of Occupy, much attention will be applied to the way in which economic values are propagated through media. To this extent it is absolutely necessary to examine those discourses surrounding growth and consumption, and how they lead to debt on multiple levels: personal, social, and ecological. To what extent are both economics and ecology ultimately two sides of the same coin?

An additional dimension can be explored: different media promote a range of environmental ideologies–beliefs about how we act upon the world– spanning from anthropocentric to ecocentric perspectives. What implications do these different worldviews have for ecology? Moreover, given that most media literacy aspires to greater democratic participation, it would be good to examine the kind of democracy we believe in. Is it anthropocentric, or could we work towards what Vandana Shiva calls Earth Democracy, which incorporates living systems?

The Cultural Commons: Educators pushing for media justice can link the enclosure of the techno-communication system by telecoms and media corporations with the enclosure of culture. IP law, anti-piracy legislation, and corporate mergers all have the effect of limiting democratic participation and access to cultural resources. This process began with colonization and witch hunts, which eliminated indigenous and female participation in order to promote patriarchal control. Now these processes are extending to the enclosure of all ideas: it is the colonization of our interpersonal realities. This can be challenged by highlighting the importance of open culture, reformed copyright laws, and a less restrictive approach to sharing.

Intertextuality: People should not just think about ecosystems, but think like ecosystems. This means looking at our mental models and learning to think in terms of systems, relationships, and connectivity. Our social networks do this naturally, but what about media texts? Traditional media literacy tends to focus on single texts (like an alcohol ad), but what if we looked at texts as if they were a node in the media ecosystem? The way the web makes all texts open works does that for us. Consider how Kony 2012 became a dialog between many different texts produced by a vast range of critics and supporters. Or how a WikiLeaks document becomes linked to a Web of ideas and practices. Or look how we make sense of a film like Avatar, with its linkages to various genres and tropes from other films, and then how fans and activists remixed and spread various memes from the film.

Gadgets: As mentioned, media education programs rarely critically engage the tools used to make media. We should celebrate the creative process and promote the empowerment of media making, yet we should not take our eye off the fact that the gadgets we use have an increasingly negative impact on global ecology and social justice. Can we get away with making critical documentaries without also examining our own complicity within this production system?

Phenomenology: Most media literacy looks outwardly to ask questions about what media do to us. Sometimes the question is changed to focus on what we do with media. But what about the manner in which media influence our cognition–for better or for worse? How does media engagement impact our sense of space, place, and time? What are the “splaces” we are engaging? How might this experience of extending ourselves into media networks impact our sense of planet? How can we become more mindful of our attention so as to not lose ourselves in the dreamworlds of other people’s design (Kony 2012 seemed to be quite hypnotic in that sense)?

Alternative Cultural Practices: There is a tendency among many media educators to focus on the negative aspects of media. But we also need to support positive media practices. After all, media are a necessary means for solving problems. While I fully endorse critical approaches, I also would like to warn against too much negativity that leads to learners feeling powerless and victimized. We need to pull people towards aspirational solutions. This is a slightly different take on problem-solving pedagogies that focus on how to fix problems. Rather, we should encourages learners to create solutions. The difference is subtle but important. What we are aiming for is supporting lifelong learning skills that build towards sustainable cultural practices that can envision a positive response to a very wicked problem.

These suggestions are part of a larger project I’m working on to re-orient media education towards a green worldview. These points barely scratch the surface of what I’ve been developing. If you are interested in joining me or offering feedback, please comment below.

Happy Earth Day!

* For what it’s worth, to question technology is to not be anti-technology. Hopefully people will come to realize that thinking critically about technology is not a desire to go back to the Stone Age, but rather to consider the boundaries and limits that can be placed on how technology fits within the context of ecology and human experience, and not the other way around.

Bookmark and Share