Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Media "Literacy"

I first came across Henry Jenkins' blog via Observations on film art and Film Art. The entry referenced by Kristin Thompson is a defense of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End and an introduction to a greater dialogue regarding criticism and mainstream moviemaking, two subjects I have written about quite a bit over the last month or two (here and here). I hope to comment on these issues in the future -- specifically regarding how different visual narrative media influence each other, i.e. television's influence on cinema -- but right now I'd like to highlight Jenkins' recent post about the implications of shifting modes of acquiring information via digital domains, i.e. Wikipedia and other online forms of writing. Though it's not mentioned, blogging definitely enters into the conversation. Here is an excerpt:

"The practices and tools that sustain Wikipedia are designed to insure the highest degree of transparency -- the most controversial entries come with the maximum numbers of warnings. Yet, realistically, many young people are going to the site in search of quick data and may lack the critical vocabulary necessary to use its contents meaningfully. So, at the most basic level, a media literacy practice around Wikipedia needs to focus attention on the basic affordances of the site, so that students are encouraged to move beyond the top level and see what's going on underneath the hood.

Researchers have shown that the current generation of young learners often exploits digital tools to copy and paste information, sometimes getting confused about where any fact came from, or blurring the lines between their own insights and those from secondary sources. Preliminary work from the researchers at a MacArthur funded project at the University of Southern California suggests that differences in access to digital technologies further impact young people's research practices. Those children who have the most extensive access to networked computers are most likely to look critically upon the kinds of information that they draw from Wikipedia: they have the time to experience knowledge production as a collaborative process. For those young people whose only access is through schools and public libraries, however, they need to get in quick, get the information they need, and make way for the next user. These time constraints encourage them to see the web as a depository of information and often discourages them from taking time to closely examine where that information comes from or under what circumstances it was produced. This is only one of the many consequences of what we are calling the participation gap.

The participation gap is shaped by uneven access to technologies but also by unequal access to formative experiences and thus unequal opportunities to acquire the social skills and cultural competencies we are calling the new media literacies. Participation in these online communities constitutes a new hidden curriculum which shapes how young people perform in school and impacts the kinds of opportunities they will enjoy in the future."

While only an introduction to a greater dialogue, Jenkins' piece represents the beginning of an essential dialogue about education, information, and meaning structures in the digital age. Therefore, Jenkins approaches these issues more as an observer and inquirer, and therefore has more questions than answers. But that is his whole point. More difficult and demanding questions must be asked if we are to be responsible advocates or opponents of cultural staples such as Wikipedia and YouTube.

With all that's being taught on electronic and digital technology, how to utilize it and understand its role in the workforce and classroom, it continues to amaze me how little we really know about these various technologies and media. Terms such as "visual literacy" and "media literacy" are routinely used in schools and organizations, yet, outside of serious media and culture graduate and doctoral programs, questions concerning the implications of various media on culture and organizations are rarely asked. If they are, it's often for the explicit purpose of supporting an opinion of favor or doubt. What isn't being looked at in any serious manner is the nature of the relationships and negotiations resulting from our participation an relation to the so-called breakthroughs in technology.

Look at the release of the supposedly revolutionary iPhone. Take notice of what's being discussed, focused on, and the nature of the general discourse surrounding this new device. (Note: I haven't performed a formal analysis of the critical and popular discourse, so I am therefore basing this on my own observations.) Consumer culture dictates that if something can be done, then it should be done. This is a dangerous mentality fueled more by capitalistic ideology rather than the appropriate critical thought. But this is a reflection of an apparent emphasis on commodity in cultural relation and identity negotiation, which has restructured public consciousness inasmuch that it imposes controlled meanings by limiting the possibilities of response and participation, directing our thought-processes and abilities to think critically at all.

What does it mean to be media literate, after all? Moreover, what is media? What is technology? Are they interchangeable? How do they relate to one another? Simple questions such as these often cannot be answered simply because they are never asked. We use these terms daily, in conversation and in practice. Our economic institutions and scientific discourse are structured around them and progress according to them, yet many of us cannot sufficiently understand or even conceptualize the very fundamental terms that make them up. "Culture" and "organizations" are discussed as if they are real, tangible things, as notion of efficience and productivity are continually emphasized. All the while, these functionalist ideas to which we cling largely ignore the fundamentally constitutive nature of the communication, e.g. language, media, technology, through which we structure and produce the world we perceive, interpret, and act on. Therefore, these dialogues regarding media literacy, visual literacy, and (my personal favorite) cultural literacy should be reflexive and critical of the very tools and processes with which we understand these concepts. Communication is the air we breathe. It is not something that be "made more effective," as if its another cog in the machine. It is the machine. A focus on "the message" severely limits one's understanding of and participation in such discourses, which is why we should think critically about the medium itself, not just of these emerging trinkets of convenience like the iPhone, but all socially structured and shared meanings.

On a reflexive note, I say all of this as somebody who engages in many of the digital practices that (as I complain) aren't be thought of and discussed in a productive manner. I am more than aware of this, which is why I take the time to write posts like this... complete with hyperlinks and pictures pulled from the Web. This discussion (at least on this blog) is not going to end, and it affects the very practices of reading and writing in this format, which Jenkins observes in his post. Stay tuned to his blog for at least one more entry on this subject, or perhaps more. And I recommend checking out some of his other entries as well, since it seems he's written extensively about digital information and culture. It's worth your while.

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