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Humanity in the 21st century — what is our new frontier? You could say it’s technology, but in many ways we’ve mastered that already. We can create pretty much anything we can conceive of in the way of gadgets large and small, simple and complex. If we haven’t done it yet, we’re working on it; and if we haven’t thought of it yet, it’s only a matter of time before we do.

Our challenge is to exist as healthy, harmonious, self-determined humans within the new virtual world shaped by our technology. Who is in charge here? What determines the sensory inputs of my day? Who determines those? My postage-stamp backyard yet breathes with the quiet and quickening rhythms of nature, a surprising variety when I can be still enough to observe. But my attention is mostly riveted to a screen, which is often streaming with messages and images sequenced and juxtaposed with relentless randomness or actual intent to befuddle. Either way, I am multi-tasking my way to not doing anything vital at all, if I’m not careful.

Click, play, watch, listen, comment, like, friend, invite, meet-up, tweet, retweet, blog, reblog, send, check, send, check, send, check, like, like, like. Thoughts are involved, relationships, ideas and information. But the intriguing stuff is getting sliced and diced into thinner and more mixed-up segments all the time. The mixing up of inputs is as troublesome as the speed and brevity of them.

In previous centuries, artist-scientists turned their attention to the natural world. True, they and all of humanity had always existed within it, but the organizing thoughts of civilization had previously focused on spiritual ideas about supernatural forces that directed human activity. Our inquisitive types decided to look to the evidence of the natural world for insight into the way things actually worked. They began to carefully document their observations in pictures and words. These could be compared and studied with a degree of objectivity; theories derived; suppositions tested; and future effects predicted. Artistic expression and scientific exploration have always been with us, inherent inclinations of the human mind that cannot be suppressed. Once we woke up to the patterns and processes of the natural world in which we exist, there would be no going back. We came to a broad consensus about “the real world” and, with or without lingering spiritual feelings, we have been living in it ever since.

Until lately. Now we are in a virtual world. Not the stuff of spirits but of bits – magic of another sort. It has its own lore and legend, priests and rituals, cults and sects (and lots and lots of sex). The deciders of culture would like to establish their current power as unassailable by shaping the way the memes are streamed and making that seem inevitable. (“Every drama on TV includes gun violence because that’s what the viewers want – look at these ratings…”) They widened a country lane to a highway and now feel entitled to send any and every piece junk down it that they please, followed by a parade telling us how much we liked it.

Fortunately, a new generation of inquisitive independent thinkers is taking an objective look at the mass media landscape with all of its component parts and documenting their findings for all. And just like their artist-naturalist predecessors, they are demonstrating a process of examination and critique that we can all engage in and benefit from – in the same way our counterparts in past times (up to the present), while not biologists themselves, kept their garden notes and birdwatching journals.

We call today’s discipline Media Literacy, and once you get the hang of paying attention to the design and details of mass media messages, it will always be with you. At that point, you will find yourself having more of an opinion about and exercising more control over your personal media “backyard” and, I hope, contributing to an improved media ecosystem for all of us. What I love about the study of mass media is that while there is a great deal of academic work going on, the principles are quite easy for anyone at any age to understand, apply and share. Whatever your background, you will find a welcoming and vibrant community at any media education event. These upcoming conferences are highly recommended!

Brookline March 21 and Boston March 21-23
Teaching Media Education/Literacy: Curricula, Skills and Issues
Consuming Kids: Reclaiming Childhood from Corporate Marketers
Denver, April 5–7,
National Conference for Media Reform

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