My good friend and Wonder Woman of the media literacy world, Andrea Quijada, offers this nice, short introduction to why media literacy is so crucial. She is the Executive Director of the Media Literacy Project in Albuquerque, NM.
Which future will BP fuel? One that ends civilization as we know it? [video link]
“The Earth is not dying – she is being killed. And those who are killing her have names and addresses.” Utah Phillips
If you haven’t read it yet, Bill McKibben‘s recent Rolling Stone article, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” is absolutely required reading. To summarize, he points out that the carbon industry–mainly the globe’s major oil and gas companies like ExxonMobil, Chevron and BP–have valued their stock based on the extraction and burning of enough fossil fuels to raise global temperatures by 11 degrees celsius. What that means is that if they do what they promise for their investors, civilization is over as we know it. It’s hard to imagine such perverse and short-sighted thinking, but such is the state of our current economic system.
So what can media literacy advocates do about it? McKibben argues that there is power in identifying the enemy. If we can target and discredit their operations, the perceived value and reasons for continuing business as usual can be crippled. Such was the case with Apartheid and how a global movement made the cost of doing business with the South Africa regime bad for business. And as media literacy advocates know, Big Tobacco was severely hampered by educators and media campaigns that countered their nefarious messaging.
Right now the major oil companies are able to dominate the discourse around climate change. Moreover, they deploy sophisticated communications strategies to greenwash their operations. One example is the BP “Fueling the Future” ads (see above video clip) and the Team USA ad running in the US during the Olympics. Shame on the Olympics for partnering with BP, which should have gotten the corporate death penalty for trashing the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem. Instead, the Olympics give a veneer of legitimacy for a shady corporation that is doing little to prevent the global catastrophe that is ingrained into its business plan.* Instead BP offers up a “target neutral” strategy for corporations to engage in unsustainable, shallow ecology.
The Climate Reality Project has already produced several videos aimed at linking the climate deniers with the PR strategies of the tobacco industry. Likewise, I believe that media educators should put deconstructing and challenging the oil industry at the center of their projects. The same skills that we use to critically engage alcohol or tobacco marketing can be applied to the way in which the carbon industry dominates discourse around climate change.
* I’ll need to comment in a separate post about the incredible integration of Olympics media coverage on NBC and the corporatist agenda. Suffice to say that there is a seamless fusion between patriotism, branding, corporatism and sport. Add to this the amazing capacity for the Olympics to transform any host site into a police state.
My media literacy instincts are so engrained I rarely think about them. Sometimes, though, they become visible, like the time I was at the Bonnaroo music festival in Tennessee. I was there working on a documentary about the festival’s recycling and green efforts (which are extraordinary) and had free run of the place. One evening I was munching away in the food court when a college-aged fellow sat down across from me. In the background I could hear Tom Petty perform a live version of his greatest hits CD (the difference between the two was nominal). The young man, who was from a Southern state (Alabama or Georgia–my memory fails me), started a friendly conversation. At some point–I don’t know why–I launched into a diatribe about the culture industry, noting the various sponsorships, marketing opportunities and corporate presences throughout the festival and in the music world in general. I talked about how his demographic is targeted and that the illusion of choice hid the fact that media corporations had consolidated power and were engaging in ethnographic research to get into his mind.
What seemed so perfectly obvious to me–the big corporate take over of the cultural commons–came as a total shock to this poor dude. He wondered out loud if I was some kind of wizard–he didn’t use this term, but I think that’s what he meant. No, I said, it’s quite simple. It’s media literacy. Then I realized how dangerous to the status quo media literacy is, and that without these basic skills corporations will run amuck.
I don’t want to presume that this particular kid didn’t have agency or free thought. In fact, he seemed quite interested in what I had to say, albeit his shock was palatable. I offered him my card and said that if he ever wanted more information about the things I had ranted about, he could contact me. He thanked me and we parted ways.
I never did hear from him again. However, that short experience had a big impact on me. How many of these kids are out there? That is, kids who are curious but not to the point of seeking information outside what is available to them in their immediate environment. Or what it is that enables me to see the pervasive system of manipulation, whereas he doesn’t. I’m not saying this to be superior, but I’m trying to understand the skills that enable some people to see beyond the veil of hegemony. Is it just media literacy, or is there more to it?
Naturally, as a media literacy educator I spend lots of time thinking about what it is that makes students media literate. But it occurred to me that I rarely turn the table on myself. What is it that makes me a media literate person? What tools and thought processes do I use on a daily basis that enable me to “read” media critically? Rather than postulate about students in abstract terms, perhaps by examining my own practices it will help me design a better educational environment. So what does media literacy look like when practiced by a “pro”?
This NYTimes article, “Wasting Time Is New Divide in Digital Era,” is currently making waves in the media ecosystem. I find it troubling, but maybe not for the reasons that others have written about. It basically reports on new research that suggests poor, young people are wasting more time with digital media than their more affluent counterparts, and that policy makers need to ramp up their digital literacy funding.
I’m bothered by the metaphor of “time-wasting” being used without qualification–it’s a metaphor about how the net is used that has some implicit biases–even class bias. Whereas the educated and affluent don’t waste time, poor people do. Are they somehow supposed to be more productive, but are not because they are not intellectually active members of society? I think the article alludes to the problem of why poor young people lack supervision (overworked parents)–but why is it that their activities are considered inherently time-wasting? Do we really know how and why they are using media? This reminds me of Gramsci’s discussion of the organic intellectual: “All men are intellectuals, one could therefore say: but not all men have in society the functions of intellectuals.”
The other problem I have for how the article is framed has to do with its uncritical use of the term “digital literacy.” While it is true that many advocates for digital literacy (such as governments and mainstream educators) see it as a path to greater participation, there are other people who see digital literacy as requiring a dimension of critical engagement that leads to cultural citizenship. I think critical digital literacy makes more sense in this situation. This way, rather than encouraging the further “waste of time” of uncritical engagement with media technology, young people can be encouraged to become active, reflective cultural citizens of their media environment. Here is one example of how it could be done. But don’t expect such solutions to come from corporate funders who prefer young people not think too critically about issues like social justice and ecology.
I think the solution advocated by the Times article is essentially a neoliberal response by encouraging an unobtrusive private sector literacy approach that reinforces preexisting power relations in which youth are encouraged to “waste time” with a corporatized Internet through a semi-passive, uncritical form of literacy.
Compare and discuss.
PS How do you think Kony 2012 fits into this scheme?
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.
It’s time for a manifesto. Everyone should write one every once in a while, it’s a good way to blow off steam. Here we go:
OPEN MEDIA LITERACY MANIFESTO
Humans are learning creatures. We evolve through sharing. Everyone has something to contribute to the cultural commons. And the cultural commons must remain open.
Meanwhile we are being globally mindfraked by less than a handful of multinational corporations. Our education system is crumbling and being ripped to shreds. The public good is being put into debt slavery for the global banking and finance system. It is clear the enclosure of the commons cannot happen without corporate media’s complicity with the neoliberal agenda and its daily propagation of free market propaganda.
Most importantly, our planet cannot be sustained by further growth. That means consumerism as we know it must end. But corporate media won’t tell you that.
Yet there is hope. Participatory and open media are alive and evolving. People are sharing and doing stuff for free. They are giving time and creativity away because it feels good and it is fun. But enclosure always lurks behind our backs. We have to be vigilant.
So now our education practices should reflect the open culture. We can’t afford not to.
But when it comes to media literacy, we have some cultural barriers. Media education is as old as mass media, and therefore has modeled its approach on mass media.
The mass media of the industrial era has shifted radically. But media literacy has not. Often times media literacy is just anti-media, and still thinks the way industrial media thinks. Often it focuses on content and information, but not practice or lifelong learning.
We have content literacy, tool literacy, image literacy, information literacy. But what about open culture literacy?
Media literacy books, videos and tools are often copyrighted and locked behind walled gardens. A media literacy documentary should not cost $100. Media literacy curriculum should not cost $100. Media literacy education should not cost anything. It should be free.
Nor should we brand or market our materials for corporations.
We have no business with standards, we have no business with testing. We are in the business of freeing education and opening culture.
Therefore, it should be resolved that our resources be put on the Web for free; that we take down copyright barriers and prohibitive institutional pricing of our tools and give them away.
OK, that’s all folks. I know we need to earn a living, no doubt. But we can develop alternative models for generating income, such as consulting, customization, teaching, lecturing, designing, and writing. But our activities should ultimately be in service the planet and human evolution. Any suggestions? Is this position too extreme?