by Renée Cherow-O’Leary, Ph.D.
Paper presented at Northeast Media Literacy Conference, February 4, 2017.
In March of 1997 a new and strange show for children premiered. It was produced in the U.K. and called Teletubbies. In it, four puppet-like creatures, each a different color and temperament, live in two worlds, an idyllic grassy and floral landscape on earth and a metallic shelter below the earth accessed by a hole which is replete with electronic devices including voice trumpets resembling periscopes that arise from the ground to command the Teletubbies to behave as the voices tell them. The major physical feature of these creatures was that they had antennae on their heads and televisions in their tummies, hence the name Teletubbies. The show was an enormous hit at the time and certainly seemed to capture the zeitgeist of children being so immersed in media that they received signals through an apparatus attached to their heads and literally ingested them internally. At the time the program was seen as subversive and potentially even dangerous but no one could dispute that the baby in the sun that opened the show or the toddler Teletubbies themselves were immune to the media that lived underground just below their natural, seemingly innocent world.
Fast forward 20 years later, to today! In 1997 there were no pervasive I-Phones , no I-Pads, no ubiquitous Internet, no texting, no social media, no tweeting Presidents. If the Teletubbies were created today, their fingers would be permanently attached to their phones, their ears would be stuffed with ear buds, their eyes permanently glued to their machines. They probably would not live in nature (and nature might slowly be disappearing anyway) but would be permanent residents of the borderline world between human and machine—a new species perhaps of homo sapiens who not only know (which is what homo sapiens means—man the knower) but who know more and more through the intermediation of the machines we call the media.
It is this world and the world twenty years hence (that’s 2037 to be exact) that I would like to address today. It is my contention that the Human-Machine Connection is ever more important as a phenomenon of our contemporary lives. If we detach from our machines, who are we? What does it mean to be human? How have we changed in 20 years, physically, psychologically, politically, philosophically, spiritually? What is reality when we have now differentiated it into mediated experiences such as augmented reality and virtual reality? What is mediated time when we have DVRs and streaming and binge watching and 24/7 access to programming in the broadest possible sense from all our devices (that can be experienced simultaneously?) What does it mean to have an avatar or to be involved in massive multiplayer games? What does it mean to communicate globally and instantaneously? What does it mean when one of the biggest problems today is cybersecurity, the potential for cyberwarfare, and hacking all of our most private information? What does it mean to communicate with robots that are becoming ever more humanoid? What does it mean to look at patterns of “big data” that transform the way we see issues and problems? And this is just for starters. So, when we consider existing, emerging and developing communication models, what media are we talking about when we talk about media literacy? I will get back to this question.
Let me give you a few examples from the news in the past couple of weeks. An article in The New York Times that was called “Make Robots Great Again” suggesting that unless we reclaim the lead with robotics in American factories we will not be able to supersede China’s accomplishments in manufacturing. (1/30/17, p.B1). Another Times piece “New prospects for Growing Transplantable Organs for People in Animals” in which it describes how biologists have succeeded in growing human stem cells in pig embryos, “shifting from science fiction to the realm of the possible the idea of developing human organs in animals for later transplant. The animals are called chimeras, composed of two different genomes. Driverless cars are now part of expected contemporary transportation. (1/27/17, B1) So is commercial space travel. And whether our leaders believe it or not, we are in the midst of deep climate change and a race to save our natural world from destruction. If this were only science fiction, perhaps we could breathe easier. But we are living in a world of accelerated change. The whole definition of human is changing as is the landscape of our attachment and dare I say dependence on, machines?
So, what does this have to do with media literacy? When media literacy began to gather steam in the 1990’s, the media were controlled by large conglomerates that had gatekeepers. When we spoke of media we primarily meant television, advertising, journalism, public relations, publishing, and subsets of the media professions like marketing. We also studied propaganda and “subliminal advertising” and ways that media could be subversive if we were not vigilant. The idea was to create a critical capacity and a way to “read” the media messages which were constructed by others so that we would not be deceived. Our physical television set was not interactive, our phones were not smart, and our nascent computers were not in every vehicle, office, school, bank, hospital—you name the institution. In fact, until the turn of the millennium (at the approach of the year 2000) when we realized how the linkage of computers might actually cause a “crash” called Y2K in all our systems, we did not fully understand the total impact of these systems on our functional national security and personal safety. Media literacy was akin to school literacy, another form of learning that in many areas like English curricula added Viewing to Speaking, Listening, Reading and Writing. As I think back, it was a very innocent time, though we didn’t know it then. Some felt that media were threats and media literacy would protect us from manipulation, of course. And that is true, but I ask now what does it mean to live in ultra complex world of media today. Like the Teletubbies, media are dominant in our external lives and have permeated our consciousness to such a degree that they might as well be in our tummies!
Here is an example of the difference between a syllabus I might have used in the 90’s to teach Media Studies and one I used just this past Fall when I co-taught an interdisciplinary course for Arts, Culture and Media students at Rutgers University. We began looking the broad category of Humans and Technology. One can certainly say that humans are beings that invent and use tools, harness nature for our own purposes, and build both edifices and systems of knowledge that transmit our technological and social advances to the next generation to build upon. Technology expands our capacities exponentially. When Marshall McLuhan wrote his seminal book, Understanding Media, in 1964 he called our media (pre-Internet by more than 20 years) “extensions of man,” an external nervous system the literally and figuratively keep us in touch. Buckminister Fuller—20th century architect, inventor, poet and philosopher and so much more– in his extraordinary book, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth in 1969, he conceived of Man as a passenger in a cosmic spaceship. This passenger’s only wealth consists of energy and information. The energy of the universe cannot be decreased and knowledge including the creation of technologies increased. Research engenders research and each technological advance, said Fuller, multiplies the productive wealth of the world community. Consequently, Spaceship Earth is a regenerative system whose energy is progressively turned to human advantage and whose wealth increases by geometric increments. https://www.brittanica.com/biography/R-Buckiminster-Fuller
In the course we visited a robotics lab and spoke to professor developing assistive and manufacturing technologies. We studied the enormous new role for artificial intelligence, also in the news daily, including a recent article that Google sees its future in the development of artificial intelligence. We read Michio Kaku’s book, Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100. We viewed the movie Her set in the near future where humans fall in love with their operating systems on their phones that have been developed to be personalized for you! (Imagine talking to Siri or Alexa or OK Google late at night with a being that has a voice like Scarlett Johanssen (who played the operating system in the film without ever seeing her). We looked at ethics and norms created by machine interaction with culture (for example, the loss of manufacturing jobs as a result of technology, banking done totally online, the protection of minors from unwanted predators on social media, scams, hacks, and “alternative facts” that go viral! We looked at the pervasiveness of gaming online and whether as Jane McGonigal says in her book, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Change the World (2011). We looked at James Gee on What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (2003) and Henry Jenkins views of the evolution of Participatory Culture. We went to the United Nations to speak about Global Citizenship and how technology is fostering a youth movement all over the world. We explored how technology is competing with nature and how our children are glued to machine and do not explore the natural world as they used to. We watched an extraordinary documentary by artist, Edward Burtynsky called Manufactured Landscapes about the production of I-Phones in China in factories bigger than football fields filled with people working on huge assembly lines and producing extraordinary industrial waste such as you have never seen! We also read from Richard Louv’s books, Last Child in the Woods Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder and The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age as well as Bill McKibben’s book: Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age. We concluded the course with a visit to the Whitney Museum to see Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art 1905-2016 to look at the evolution of representation in multiple arts and we read Julie Satow’s article in The New York Times about new modes of storytelling, “Storytelling in the Virtual Age at the Future of Storytelling Fest.” We ended with the film by the challenging filmmaker, Werner Herzog called Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World.
Coming fresh from teaching the course I mentioned above to undergraduates from a range of media studies disciplines, I know that these heady topics may be a little abstract at first. And yet, through sweat and tears and years in the media literacy field, I tell you this because on a deep level, I consider a course like this a Media Literacy course. I think we need more immersion in theories of technology and understanding of scientific progress AND simultaneously, we need to look at the ever growing and critical question “What does it mean to be human??” The fact that there is a huge push now toward Empathy, Kindness and Compassion in children’s media (a new curriculum coming out on Sesame Street and the theme of an enormous international children’s media conference called Kidscreen that will kick off in Miami next week). The world that Sherry Turkle wrote about in her book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Ourselves in 2011 , about the loss of human connection that technology has brought is now catching up to educational initiatives in schools, homes and yes, in media production.
So, I would like to propose for the future what I consider two critical additions to Media Literacy Study: First, the History of Science and Technology and how its evolution connects to the vast technological world of today that will only be expanding. Second, I would like to add to Media Literacy, a deep dive into Philosophy—into Ethics, into Beauty, into Truth, into Nature and understanding the heart of our humanness and its evolution or the crude destruction of our highest beliefs and capacities into an illiterate, irresponsible, and ultimately irretrievable world of vulgarity and distrust. Today the media are an intrinsic part of this quest to understand ourselves, a lens through which we see the world reflected and reinterpreted. Where do we get the strength and capacity to reflect back a world that is steeped in our intrinsic values?
Kevin Kelly, former editor of Wired Magazine (which I consider essential reading) and now a reporter-at-large wrote a book in 2010 called What Technology Wants, one of the most brilliant analyses of the role of media that I have ever read. In it he says: “ The technium –a term he created to include the breadth and scope of all of our technologies—is evolution accelerated. Homo sapiens is a tendency not an entity. “As both parent and child of the technium, we are nothing more and nothing less than an evolutionary becoming…So, if the technium has a direction, where is it pointed? If the greater forms of technology are inevitable, what is next???” (p. 118)
That is my question for both our media and our humanness. So let me end with a children’s story, just as we began with Teletubbies. The story is Pinocchio as examined in the beautiful book by Willard Gaylin, M.D. called On Being and Becoming Human written in 1990. We probably all know the story of the puppet created by Papa Gepetto in his workshop who wants to become a real boy. He goes through many trials and tribulations on the way. Pinocchio, says Gaylin, ultimately is a parable of the processes by which a caring and loving human being is created out of the narcissistic self of the infant. It is not necessary that Pinocchio become obedient, pure or perfect. He wishes only to be human…He must appreciate the specific qualities of identification, imagination and empathy…he must learn to hear the voice of conscience, to identify with those who are hungry, poor or in misery…In the words of his guardian angel, The Blue Fairy, to possess all that she subsumes under the heading of “a good heart.” (p. 129)
We need to understand what it means to have “a good heart” now more than ever and our media can help show us the way by our own explication of media processes but also through conscious, humanistic media content. Our human-machine connection is a marvelous opportunity to explore where we have come from and where we are going. I believe that an evolutionary media literacy can be a force in leading the way.