Media literacy is among the most popular buzzwords. Many governments and other influential organisations such as Unesco and the European Union have embraced this term and call for more efforts toward media literacy skills. The aim is to provide people with the skills and abilities for critical reception, assessment and use of modern communication media in their professional and personal lives. This is highly commendable and valuable. It reflects the empowerment of individuals by preparing them for the opportunities and threats that media provide. But as I will explain below it disregards the two-way nature of today’s media and fails to point at the negative moral, ethical or economic impact that empowered individuals in turn can have on other groups and individuals.
Media literacy is an all-embracing term that extends literacy (reading and writing) with our interaction with media. Over the decades we’ve seen many different interpretations of media literacy. In order of appearance:
- Mass media
After almost a century of mass media such as film, radio and television we have become well aware of their negative influence and manipulative qualities. We have learned to recognise and understand how the authorities, leaders and manufacturers used mass media for their own interests via propaganda, censorship, commercial advertising and other lies. We know that we should never believe any advertising spots. Even so, we’re defenceless against them and keep buying the advertised stuff.
- ICT skills
After the advent of the microcomputer ICT skills became highest priority: being able to turn on the computer, open files and run applications. In early days quite some ict training providers emerged and made good money by reassuring people to “just press those buttons”. But today the training of operational skills has lost relevance because most software is self-explaining, contains embedded help functions and uses WYSIWYG screen layouts. Five year old kids can do all tricks effortlessly.
- Information skills
After the emergence of the world wide web and an abundance of information became available people were supposed to become information literate, that is, being able to effectively search, find and evaluate information on the web. Surely there are useful tricks to improve searching the web, but most of these assume that you know what you’re looking for beforehand (which is rarely the case). Generally you need to be either persistent, indifferent or just lucky to have a hit. Judging the trustworthiness of information remains a big issue though, since there is no reference that provides absolute truth.
- Social media literacy
In recent years the internet has transformed itself from a network of information to a network of people. The patterns of one-to-one communication (e.g. phone calls) and one-to-many communication (e.g. television) were merged into personalised, many-to-many communication. Media literacy’s focus is now on privacy and self-protection, school children’s nagging, grooming and social media dependence.
So far so good. In all cases media literacy refers to making sense of incoming messages. But by focussing on self-help and coping skills media literacy is very much about self-defense, self-protection, and individualism, if not egoism. It has been based on the asymmetric relationship between media and media users, as was predominant in the era of radio and television: safeguarding the individual against unwanted external influences.
For quite a while now, however, this asymmetry has been broken. Media users aren’t passive consumers of messages, but actively reach out to the world by their actions. By our virtual actions such as online shopping, online banking or online booking we trigger unknown material changes and processes in production, transport and other areas. We’ll be informed about the outcomes of the process (“Your new clothes will be delivered by tomorrow morning…”), but the process itself and its true impact remains concealed: we don’t know about the consequences. Increasingly, we will be interacting with the world in very detached and output-oriented ways, very similar to the ways drone pilots press their buttons and destroy their supposed enemies without bothering about collateral damage. We will be acting like stock traders who simply press their buttons to buy or sell their stocks, but who aren’t aware (or don’t want to be aware) of the true impact of their actions: sweating the poor, child labour, slave-running, bankruptcies, pollution, money laundering. This is exactly what makes a detached, incoherent and distorted view of the world.
Media literacy should enter a new stage by breaking through the one-sided, asymmetric focus on the user’s self-protection. Instead media literacy should focus on the true ethical, moral and material impact of our virtual actions. For a long time media literacy has aimed at removing barriers for media usage and it has encouraged people to press any button without hesitations. Now that more and more of our actions will be carried out online we should do the reverse: we should teach people to be responsible and to cautiously consider the ethical, moral and material impact of their anticipated actions. A general guideline would be: “don’t press any button unless you are fully aware of its expected impact”.