Media Literacy: Preparing for the Collision of Worldviews

In “The Judgment of Thamus”, the introductory chapter to his book entitled Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1992), Postman identifies the dangers of embracing new technologies blindly; he argues, as did McLuhan, that technologies inherently determine what use people will make of them.  His perspective mimics that of King Thamus: it is cautionary, even pessimistic, in the face of new technologies.  He states that “When media make war against each other, it is a case of world-views in collision” (p. 16).

Postman’s arguments demonstrate a tendency to adhere to technological determinism (Chandler, 1995) and generalized dichotomies (Chandler, 1994), theories that not all scholars espouse (Chandler, 1994). However, the idea that certain technologies foster or even create certain behaviours, practices or psychological phenomena is a very persuasive argument. In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935), Benjamin elaborates on how replication technologies have altered the concept of art and the artist, much like writing and subsequent chirographically-based technologies have altered the concept of literacy.  Combining the ideas set forth by Postman and Benjamin, respectively, leads to an understanding of various art forms as ‘texts’.  While works of art, photographs and films may not include writing in the sense of letters or pictographs (Ong, 1982), they nonetheless represent messages, which, like written texts, can communicate narratives, feelings and ideas without a specific context.  Benjamin (1935) puts particular emphasis on photography and film as art, and spends much of his essay elaborating on how these new art forms have irrevocably altered the definition of art.

Using Postman’s argument that writing is a technology, and that as all technologies it may have monumental effects on the way people live and think, it is imperative to examine the technology of film and television, or audiovisual texts, to discover whether the medium has and continues to alter human understanding, communication or behaviour.

Like most speech-based communications, audiovisual texts, particularly narratives, are (generally) made up of sounds and sights, carrying with them a certain context (lighting, costumes, etc).  However, all of these aural and visual elements stem from scripts, which are written, textual, context-removed and subject to actor, director and even lens interpretation (Benjamin, 1935; Ong, 1982).  Nuances missing from the written script are thus returned to an oral form through these interpreters.  All of these elements combined call for careful attention to how individuals process (or ‘read’) audiovisual texts, which are neither completely oral nor entirely literary.

Research in film and television indicates that viewers understand audiovisual visual texts differently from literary texts (Iguarta, 2010; Pasquier, 1996; Samaniego & Pascual, 2007). While writing tends towards the objective and intellectual faculties (Chandler, 1994), audiovisual media awaken the senses, emotions and impulses of the viewers, lulling or even completely bypassing rational thought processes (Iguarta, 2010; Pasquier, 1996; Samaniego & Pascual, 2007).  In essence, the changes in psychological thought brought about through literacy (Ong, 1982) are not automatically engaged in the ‘reading’ of audiovisual texts, which makes film seductive, both to viewers and those who would exploit the medium’s enthralling qualities.

While film and television condemners abound in several fields, from medicine to education (Bacon, 2012, and references mentioned therein), contemporary society has essentially capitulated before all audiovisual mediums, making films of all kinds available in almost any location, on demand.  Postman, opting for a cautionary approach, claims that “the computer […] in conjunction with television […] undermines the old idea of school” (p.19). While Postman does not necessarily equate school with learning, it is possible that, given its psychological effects, audiovisual media may alter the way in which future generations—and even our current generation—learns.

Though Postman advocates “protest or at least awareness” (p.19), an alternative to technophobia is to equip individuals with the skills to analyze and make better use of widely prevalent technologies.

An interesting example of equipping individuals for technology can be found in the Bible. As an ancient text, the Bible necessarily relied on the oral tradition for its earlier portions (the Pentateuch, in particular), but always emphasized the veracity of God’s word, whether spoken or written, above the technology that propagated it.  Creation, for example, was an oral act, even recorded in an oral pattern, first briefly listing the major events of Creation before going into detail about the specifics of the birth of humankind.  The idea of the spoken word is also found in the New Testament, where Paul states that “all scripture is God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16, NIV).  On the other hand, the importance of the written word is also prevalent throughout the Bible; In the book of Habakkuk, God insists that the prophet “write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it” (Habakkuk 2:2, NIV).  He is essentially using writing to propagate His spoken word, putting emphasis on the message rather than on the medium.

Similarly, training individuals to recognize their thought patterns can prepare them to make the best use of the messages with which they are bombarded through audiovisual texts (Igartua, 2010; Klein, 2011; Owen, Silet, & Brown, 1998; Samaniego & Pascual, 2007; Witkin, 1994). By fostering identification with characters, individuals can learn compassion and empathy by living vicariously through a character (Igartua, 2010).  These skills may also provide the awareness that Postman advocates, while foregoing his wariness towards new technologies.

While the value of technological determinism is debatable, those who espouse the theory must not lose sight of the messages within the media.  Rather than promoting caution towards the media themselves, we should seek to examine our thoughts and hone our skills in understanding the message behind the media, so that we are not taken off guard when our worldviews collide.

References

Bacon, M. H. (2012) Aliens in the classroom: Teaching about diversity through televised aliens. Retrieved from https://aliensintheclassroom.wordpress.com/

Benjamin, W. (1935). The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction [Online]. Retrieved from http://design.wishiewashie.com/HT5/WalterBenjaminTheWorkofArt.pdf

Chandler, D. (1994). Biases of the Ear and Eye: “Great Divide” Theories, Phonocentrism, Graphocentrism & Logocentrism [Online]. Retrieved from http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/litoral/litoral.html 

Chandler, D. (1995). Technological or Media Determinism [Online]. Retrieved from http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/tecdet/tecdet.html

Igartua, J.-J. (2010). Identification with characters and narrative persuasion through fictional feature films. Communications, 35(4), 347-373. doi: 10.1515/COMM.2010.019

Klein, B. (2011). Entertaining ideas: Social issues in entertainment television. Media Culture Society, 33(6), 905-921. doi: 10.1177/0163443711411008

Ong, Walter. (1982.) Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.

Owen, D. B., Silet, C. L. P., & Brown, S. E. (1998). Empower students by teaching television. Education Digest, 63(8), 10-18.

Pasquier, D. (1996). Teen series reception: Television, adolescence and culture of feelings. Childhood, 3(3), 351-373doi: 10.1177/0907568296003003004

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage Books.

Samaniego, C. M. & Pascual, A. C. (2007). The teaching and learning of values through television. Review of Education, 53(1), 5-21. doi: 10.1007/s11159-006-9028-6

Witkin, M. (1994). A defense of using pop media in the middle-school classroom. The English Journal, 83(1), 30-33. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/openurl?issn=0013-8274&title=&volume=83&date=1994&issue=1&spage=30

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