Thursday, September 6, 2007

On Media Literacy and Media Ecology

I reported on a media literacy conference, held at the end of May and beginning June, in a series of posts here (Screenings and Conversations, More Conversations, Last Round of Screenings and Conversations), which was sponsored, in large part, by the European Observatory of Children's Television (OETI), headquartered in Barcelona. OTEI puts out a periodical, PaideiaTV, and I completed an e-mail interview for them a few days ago, and thought I would share some of my answers here.

PaideiaTV: What path and motivation have led you to your present work?

Me: I have always had an interest in intellectual and creative activities, and found that higher education was a good environment for me to pursue my interests. As an undergraduate at Cornell University, I was introduced to some of the key concepts that form the basis of the media ecology intellectual tradition, such as the approach to understanding media and technology of Marshall McLuhan and Jacques Ellul, among others, along with general semantics and linguistic relativism, and cybernetics and systems theory. My studies continued as a masters student at Queens College of the City University of New York, where I was introduced to other key thinkers such as Walter Ong, Harold Innis, and Walter Benjamin. And I completed my doctorate at New York University working with Neil Postman, who first formalized media ecology as a field of inquiry. I firmly believe that the media ecology intellectual tradition offers the best approach to understanding human history in its entirety, as well as understanding our contemporary situation, and providing insight on how we might makes things better for the future.

PaideiaTV: What fundamental difference is there between Media Literacy and Media Ecology?

Me: They really are two very different kinds of concerns. Media Literacy is often characterized as a movement, and is specifically concerned with education and schooling, and with practical approaches to educational and media policy, to teaching and curriculum development, to developing mastery in media production and/or instilling a critical approach to media reception. Media ecologists share these concerns, and media literacy has traditionally been seen as part of the media ecology tradition, although many of those who are associated with media literacy seem to be unaware of the foundations laid by media ecologists such as Marshall McLuhan, Edmund Carpenter, Walter Ong, Neil Postman, among others, during the 1950s and 1960s.

Media ecology, on the other hand, is not a movement, but rather an intellectual tradition with roots in antiquity, one that starts to take form in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and coalesces following the Second World War. Media ecology casts a much wider net than media literacy, as the concept of "medium" and "media" is used in the braodest sense to include all forms of technology and technique, all codes, symbol systems, and forms of language and communication, and all kinds of contexts, situations (e.g., the classroom as a medium) and systems. Media ecologists often prefer a philosophic approach to understanding these phenomena, engaging in forms of cultural history as well as extrapolations concerning the future of communication, consciousness, and culture. While there is a wide range of interests and methodologies associated with our field, many media ecology scholars focus on the big picture in their scholarship, in contrast to individuals more closely associated with media literacy.

While we have a strong common ground in our interest in media education, media ecologists would particularly emphasize understanding the history, nature, and effects of different media and technologies, understanding how speech is what defines us as a species, how the rise of cities and complex societies is intimately tied to the development of writing, how the modern era begins with the invention of the printing press with moveable type in 15th century Europe, and how electronic media such as television and the internet have moved us into an entirely new era of history. Our concern is with the differences that make a difference, and that is why media ecologists sometimes object to the term, "media literacy," because it implies that different media can all be subsumed under the same heading of "literacy," and ignores the fact that "literacy" (which means "lettered") actually refers to one specific category of media, those in which an alphabet is used to create written documents. The distinction between the written word and television, radio, and movies, for example, is lost when we refer to all of them as involving "literacy," and all of them as comprised of "texts" that are to be "read" in some manner. While it is understood that "literacy" is a useful metaphor for dealing with school boards and officials who do not really understand why media education is important, there is a sense in which the term "media literacy" is an oxymoron, and actually using the term "media literacy" suggests that a kind of "media illiteracy" is present. But I want to emphasize that there is no quarrel with what the term represents, only this particular choice of words.

PaideiaTV: In a society where audio-visual and media culture is more and more relevant what place does education occupy, and should occupy within this culture?

Me: Education is central to every culture, or else the culture fails to reproduce itself and dies out. But education for most of human history was a function that was dispersed throughout the society itself, and that was carried out simply through the child's interaction with elders, and though more formal relationships such as apprenticeship. It was only after the invention of writing that schools were in turn invented as a mechanism for teaching individuals how to read and write. And while the nature of schooling has varied widely over the centuries and across cultures, the basic connection between literacy and schooling has remained. The introduction of a variety of different communication technologies over the past two centuries have gradually eroded the near-monopoly that schools held over education, so that for some time now schools have been competing with other educational institutions collectively known as the mass media, and the new media. Competing and losing the competition, I should add, because children start learning from the media at an earlier age than from schooling, spend more time with the media than in the schools, and prefer their mediated experiences to sitting in a classroom. And they learn more from media, although the value of what they learn is a matter of some debate. So too is the question of how the schools should respond to this situation. Some media ecologists argue that schools need to become more like the media in order to appeal to children, capture their attention, and provide an education more relevant to contemporary social conditions. Others argue that schools need to serve as a counterbalance to the prevailing media biases, and try to preserve the literate culture that they are associated with, even if it is a losing battle, because all that we value about our world today is a product of literate culture. Either way, there is consensus on the need to teach children the historical context for understanding our contemporary media environment, to teach critical thinking and decoding skills, and to teach something about how technology works and how messages are created. But this requires a solid grounding in arts education, including the literary arts, as well as comparative religion.

PaideiaTV: How is it possible to incorporate Media Ecology into education, both formal school education and non formal – Boy Scouts, day camps? What methodological perspectives are put into practice?

Me: We have to begin by having the students analyze the situation they find ourselves in. If it's formal schooling, let's start by talking about the classroom. What are the rules, both the ones that are formally acknowledged, and those that are unspoken but generally known by all? What would happen if someone violated those rules? Why is the classroom set up the way it is? How would things be different if it were set up in a different configuration? Or, if there were different furniture, lights, etc.? Every situation brings with it a learning opportunity where we can ask, why do we do the things we do here, and what about this situation shapes the way that we feel, think, and act? And we can start to ask these same questions in relation to the way we experience a newspaper, or television program, or website, or the way we talk on the telephone or instant message someone online. This kind of approach could work equally well outside of the school. Also, we could explore the problems of memorization, or how to organize a group to perform coordinated actions without recourse to written instructions. A more traditional project would be researching the history and characteristics of a particular medium or technology, or touring a factory, or interviewing people who work in a particular media industry. It is also possible to engage in ethnographic research, observing people's media usage, as well as one's own. One particularly interesting exercise requires individuals to go on a media fast, avoiding all media use, mass media, new media, perhaps even telephones, possibly even reading and writing (with an exception made for school assignments), and then to write up their experiences.

And there you have it. Of course, it will probably sound, and look a lot better when it's translated into Spanish, although the publication will also include the original English. I probably should have included something about analyzing the fact that this was an interview, one conducted by e-mail which means it was not so much an oral interview as it was a kind of written examination, but that it will appear in a form that suggests a conversation, but it will appear that way in a typographic medium.

1 comment:

Robert K. Blechman said...

I've always considered media literacy to be a necessary precondition to engage in effective Media Ecology analysis. I don't mean the type of K-12 media literacy that proposes that children will understand the impact of a medium by learning how to use that medium. This results in YouTube productions that are more often more precocious than prescient.

Claude Levi-Strauss once noted that a truly effective ethnographer must also be a botanist, geologist, zoologist and astronomer (among many other specialties). In other words, to understand a culture, you must be conversant with all the elements that permit that culture to flourish.

As they analyze the cultural impact of a medium, Media Ecologists benefit from practical knowledge of the mechanics, esthetics and economics of that medium. That is why the Media Ecology tradition has always encouraged the dismantling of academic silos and exercised a healthy skepticism concerning statistical studies and purely empirical evaluations.