What is Media For?
In David Orr’s landmark essay, he asks the same of education—what is it for?
The essay is a dark sketch of a system that has gone off the rails. In his words:
“The results of a great deal of contemporary research bear resemblance to those foreshadowed by Mary Shelley: monsters of technology and its byproducts for which no one takes responsibility or is even expected to take responsibility…”
Could the same be said about the current state of media, that in the name of giving the masses what they want, the current culture has created a monster, a junk mill of madness, where violence, fear and idiocy reign?
Of course there is great content out there, but it still seems drowned out by the prevalent model, to entertain at all cost. As a result the media madness has become more extreme, more sensational, more idiotic. It begs an obvious question: Is there no alternative?
If it can be used to numb us, cannot the opposite be true? Can it not awaken the best in us?
As Marshal McLuhan pointed out, media, as is the case with technology, is a tool. Its inherent nature is neutral. The choice of what to do with it is ours.
I am not proposing a program of strict control, only an awakening of greater possibilities. In answering the question, What is media for, I would propose that media can be a force for good. Especially with the explosion of on-line video streaming, which has drastically lowered the cost and barriers to entry.
It is up to us, individually and collectively to throw the current model on its head. We can choose to create and engage with content that enlightens and not frightens, that engenders compassion and not fear, that inspires and elevates, instead of trying to stoke the worst in us.
For this to happen there needs to be an understanding, first and foremost, that media is indeed a powerful tool: we are responsible to direct it on the right course.
Just as the “monsters of technology,” that have produced so much harm have been made possible by a system that externalizes everything in the name of the bottom line, the media monsters that aggrandizes violence, celebrates death, and objectifies the female human species, as if their only contribution is a body and a face, has only been able to exist because the culture has externalized these negative effects as a natural by-product of the entertainment experience, as if we are somehow immune to them.
Recently I saw an interview with the actor Dustin Hoffman where he discussed his role as Tootsie. He said that when he first saw himself as a woman during the makeup tests he was shocked that he wasn’t more attractive. He wanted to be made more attractive or he didn’t want to do the film. He said that later he was hit with an epiphany, one of those moments of insight that sheds light on oneself. In seeing himself on screen as a woman, he realized the man that he was would never have bothered to talk to such a woman because she didn’t fit a certain model of beauty he was trained to see. The point, as he admitted himself, is that he was conditioned and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that media, the images that inundate our daily lives, played a major role in that.
Perhaps it’s time for labels, a forewarning. We call some food, “junk,” or “fast,” others, “whole, organic, local.” Cigarette packages are more blunt: “Smoking kills.”
I like the word “conscious,” for media. I’m sure there are other appropriate words, but at least it’s a starting point, an arrow pointing us in the right direction.
Conscious suggests presence, mindfulness, life.
Yes, media is for the living. It can be a beacon reflecting the light. The light in every one of us.
So, how do you answer the question:
What is media for?