New media literacy videos reinforce 19th century thinking

[video link]

Canada’s MediaSmarts media literacy hub has recently put together a series of videos (episode one posted above) to teach people about their six basic principles of media literacy. MediaSmarts is one of the organizations I analyzed in my dissertation, which in general seems to be ahead of most other North American media literacy organizations in terms of shifting their paradigm towards digital media. However, when it comes to these basic principles, I think they are still stuck in 19th Century thinking.  The videos are fairly simplistic–perhaps too simplistic–reducing media literacy to a formula that loses a lot of nuance. In essence, this is media literacy for a short attention span audience.

I’m also a little suspicious of the organization since MediaSmarts receives a lot of funding from major media corporations (check the sponsor links at the bottom of its homepage). While I don’t know if that has a direct influence on their methodology, I can’t imagine big media corporations backing a curriculum site that would be contrary to their interests.

I’ll break down why I don’t believe some of these principles serve us anymore. In short, the general problem is how they reinforce mechanistic thinking based on industrial-era science and technology, which inhibits ecological thinking about media. Mechanism views the world as a machine composed of reducible parts and is foundational for the view that nature is a thing that can be exploited for human use. As Einstein is oft quoted, we can’t solve problems with the same thinking that created them. For this reason, I don’t think this approach to media literacy will help us solve the great challenges that face us in the 21st century.

Media Minute Introduction: What is media anyway?

One of the biggest problems with media education is the metaphor we use for media. Here it is used in the singular form, which implies that media are some kind of entity. By using the singular form they really mean “mass media.” The video strongly reinforces the one-to-many paradigm of mass media, which elliminates a whole set of practices that involve media making by individuals, activist groups and non-traditional organizations, essentially denying the role of people to “be the media.” My perspective is that media are an ecosystem… an environment that grows culture. Viewing media as a thing reinforces a mechanistic view that media are a kind of machine that programs us. As an ecosystem, media comprise a habitat in which we are members with rights and responsibilities.

Media Minute Episode 1: Media are constructions. 

The construction metaphor reduces media to a mechanical collection of parts. This reflects 19th Century ideas about communication in which messages are transmitted through space. In contrast, media are more like nonlinear conversations, a series of “utterences” that refer to other communications. While I do see the value of learning the “nuts and bolts” of message construction, ultimately media are always contextual and cannot be analysed in isolation from the environment they are embedded in.

Media Minute Episode 2: Each medium has a unique aesthetic form

This is an important point, one that is often neglected. It is very important that people understand that all media have different characteristics. However, the way it is framed in this video reinforces the “content delivery” model of media, presenting each media technology as a kind of medium-specific channel as opposed to different ecosystems that afford possibilities.

Media Minute Episode 3: Media have commercial implications

This principle is my least favorite and always irks me when I see it taught. Media do not always have commercial implications. Though it is true that a vast majority of what we engage in is produced by or within commercial platforms, this principle negates all the media that have no commercial implications. It reinforces a market-view of media that all media are relegated to the laws of consumerism.

Media Minute Episode 4: Media have social and political implications

This is a principle I basically agree with. It essentially argues that media are a kind of socio-politcal education. I would extend this to say that media are also environmental education–they teach us how to act upon the environment.

Media Minute Episode 5: Audiences negotiate meaning

This is probably the best insight from these principles. It goes without saying that all communication is negotiated.