Fool's paradise by the dashboard light

The click-and-copy culture of “fast capitalism” breeds credulity. Tara Brabazon on educators’ duty to unsettle, probe and offer alternatives

October 16, 2008

How do we know what we know? Why do we believe what we see, hear and read? Ten years of multi-literacy theories and the long-term influence of Neil Postman, Gunther Kress and Henry Giroux have structured and mediated our engagement with the new, the visual and the political. But the challenge remains over how these models, methods, approaches and ideas are taught, disseminated and applied.

The problem is obvious. How do students – how do we – test, probe and unsettle personal truths and Daily Mail “common sense” that is often very common but frequently not very sensible? How do we stop believing what parents, politicians, religious leaders and television presenters have told us and forge a new, distinctive and thoughtful path through information and knowledge?

This challenge has been transformed through the proliferation of digital platforms. There were always lies, misrepresentations and injustices perpetrated through analogue documents and media. Meat Loaf’s hit Paradise by the Dashboard Light was not a sonic documentary about love and sex in the 1970s. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers did not capture the authentic and lived experience of post-Depression America. The historical audience has always accepted or questioned – believed or critiqued – the cultural productions of a time. Information was and is deployed, reshaped, warped or ignored to suit an individual or community’s needs, goals and aspirations.

Popular culture does not reflect or mirror the world. This reflection model of the media has been critiqued for decades. But there remains a commonsensical notion – or a nostalgic yearning – for truth and reality to arch from our media as if by magic. We want to trust the news to inform us in a neutral way about events beyond our front door. But when the Fox News Channel started to describe their coverage as “fair and balanced”, it was as if George Orwell’s fictional doublespeak had come to life.

Mature media have always masked, reconstructed and reinvented. The internet did not invent propaganda or public relations. What has changed is that the online environment has made more information available at greater speed. This has compressed the time available for thought, reflection and checking. The rip-and-read mentality of the fax machine has been superseded by a click-and-copy culture. Steve Redhead has called this process “accelerated modernity”. Ben Agger has described it as “fast capitalism”.

The problem is not that more information is available. At issue is the shrinkage of time between initiating a search and finding results. Search engines are not only shaping how information is received through the application of an algorithm, but permitting a near-instantaneous click through to a source. It is in that space between clicking and reading that teachers and researchers must intervene.

The world is simpler when we believe what we see, hear and read. But our role as teachers and researchers in education is to agitate, unsettle, confuse, argue, probe, question and offer alternatives.

A way to be inspired in this task is to log into Teachers TV. It is an important portal of resources for educators at all levels of the system. Via both a televisual and an online presence, it offers ideas and options. It is inspiring to see case studies from teachers that detail how to handle the challenges of curriculum with experience and expertise.

Teachers TV is currently offering a visual presentation titled “Secondary ICT Web Literacy” at www.teachers.tv/video/5425. The voiceover is ominous: “Listen to these Year Nines and be afraid, very afraid.” The footage is even more chilling.

The confusion between finding and believing, searching and using, is not only damaging these students’ scholarly development, but also their capacity to comprehend, interpret and argue. It was only when the brilliant James Green took them on a journey through their miscomprehension and the consequences of it that they realised the cost of believing, not thinking.

Their “interpretation” of a fictitious Victorian robot site did not extend beyond enjoying the colours and presentation of the homepage. That was enough to make it “useful for history”. The anti-Martin Luther King and Holocaust-doubting websites were also believed without question. Students found them appropriate and informative. No concerns or doubts emerged through their initial search, viewing and discussion.

This footage demonstrates the gap between being taught a skill and being able to apply it. For all of us – at all levels of the education system – we need to share and develop strategies to ensure that the skills students hold in information management are used in their daily lives. One strategy I have deployed over the past decade was to create a list of ten questions that students should ask of any source they contemplate using for activities beyond shoe-shopping and buying stationery:

1. Who authored the information?

2. What expertise does the writer have to comment?

3. What evidence is used? Are references used in the piece?

4. What genre is the document: government report, academic paper, blog, journalism?

5. Is the site/document/report funded by an institution?

6. What argument is being made?

7. When was the text produced?

8. Why did this information emerge at this point in history?

9. Who is the audience for this information?

10. What is not being discussed and what are the political consequences of that absence?

The most provocative and important questions when teaching Media and Cultural Studies have been three, four, nine and ten. Asking students to think about what is not being mentioned has been the basis of countless honours dissertations and a range of doctoral chapters. What is not talked about is often more important than what is visible, obvious and discussed.

There are many such checklists and interventions generated around the world. Their shared objective is to make sure that students learn to stop and search, inserting pauses in their cycles of Googling, clicking and trusting. In organising this moment of reflection through structured questions, they have a chance to apply what they already know to assist their research.

It is only when creating that pause between clicking and copying that information can be shaped into knowledge. Victorian robots can become a site of humour, not a source to rewrite the history of technology, and Holocaust doubters can be held up for both ridicule and resistance.

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