Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Long Live Literacy: Lilley's Last Lecture

Those of us who attended all four of Anthony Lilley's lectures felt a certain camaraderie as last night's seminar drew to a close. For four weeks we few, we happy few, we band of brothers (and sisters) had been together as one as Lilley explained why he shouldn't be called the News International visiting professor of broadcast media but the News International visiting professor of networked media.

Okay, he didn't say that in so many words, but if the Oxford mediaocracy takes anything from his sojourn here, it should be that broadcast is dead. (I described his earlier lectures here, here and here.)

Lilley billed this as a user-generated lecture, taking inspiration from comments on his university blog, but, frankly, visitors to his blog didn't really pick up the gauntlet he had thrown down. I include myself in that, even if Lilley did reference a quote I posted on his blog. It's from a fellow named Benedict Anderson. When reading a daily newspaper, Anderson wrote, "each communicant is well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion. Furthermore, this ceremony is incessantly repeated at daily or half-daily intervals throught the calendar. ... At the same time, the newspaper reader, observing exact replicas of his own paper being consumed by his subway, barbershop or residential neighbors, is continually reassured that the imagined world is visibly rooted in every day."

I confess I get a bittersweet and melancholy feeling when I read that, for it describes a world that's on its way out, if it isn't gone already. But there's no use crying. As Lilley said, he didn't approach his subject--the future of media--from the standpoint of "how do we preserve newspapers?"

The market still offers simultaneous experiences--witness the 107 million people who watched the Super Bowl "together"--and some media experiences will go forth and multiply, living beyond the moment of their creation: The Beatles' White Album, for example, which people can enjoy without any temporal association to the Fab Four. Sticky ideas will spread virally, borne along by communities that can coalesce with ease.

Lilley touched on the proposed takeover of Yahoo by Microsoft. It's plain to him that it shows a strong desire to capture more of the lucrative online advertising market and could presage a shift of ads from TV to the Web. He cautioned that anything that threatens to restrict choice should be weighed closely.

In a previous lecture Lilley outlined what a public service broadcaster should accomplish: inform, stimulate, etc. Wasn't that also what an educational institution should do? Should we replace schools with online interactive learning centers? Lilley wouldn't go that far, but he criticized Oxford for refusing to join the 21st century. Why not put lectures online, he asked, a low-cost way of using the power of the network to energize the university's core values?

The digital revolution brings with it an explosion of choice and an erosion of control. With that, said Lilley, comes the Moral Panic, as parents turn to government to protect their children from inappropriate content and internet predators. The answer, Lilley suggested, isn't more regulation (we already have laws to protect children) but education: Parents and children need to be more media literate.

And that was his final message: Whether we like it or not, it's a big, messy, open-source world out there. We all need to learn how to navigate it.

Cynical World
There was an interesting question from a student about whether media literacy required a certain amount of cynicism. I was wondering the same thing myself: Do we tell our children not to believe anything they see on the Web? Or would that deny them the good things they can find there? Perhaps it's good for them to learn as early as possible that the world is full of all sorts of people peddling all sorts of information--and disinformation.


Henry said...

Thanks again for the summary John. Re the question about "media literacy" I would think that *any* kind of literacy required a degree of cynicism, in the sense of healthy scepticism. The whole point about any decent education is to teach people not to believe everything they hear or trust everyone they meet. I get the sense that Lilley's using fancy new jargon to describe an old, still-valid truth.

Being cynical, I wonder whether Lilley is planning to give away all of Magic Lantern's content free to anyone and everyone who wants it - and if not, why he thinks university lecturers should do so?

mark from alexandria said...

I'm still not ready to give up on "daily print media," if such media are well-written and provide more depth than the other forms of news. This is one thing that newspapers should do well. Perhaps they will become more expensive and less read, but I think the market remains there.

SuburbanCorrespondent said...

Children need to be more media literate? Does this man have children? Does he realize that most of them aren't even cognitively mature until age 12? And, 2 years later, their logical thought processes are addled by adolescence? What in the world is he talking about?

Children under a certain age need to be protected, not prepared.

Candadai Tirumalai said...

Benedict Anderson invests the reading of newspapers with the sanctity of a hallowed religious practice. And some would definitely agree.
What online lectures lack is an actual person, whose vital presence can make a great deal of difference. In "Brideshead Revisited" a senior advises the Oxford freshman to attend all the best lectures, regardless of subject.

Richard said...

Is there not at the least an irony, and at the most a subversion of his argument that he intended the last lecture to be user generated, and it wasn't because his users didn't generate sufficiently good content?

I still remain unconvinced that the ease of production and dissemination means the death of the authoritative storyteller. Let's look back the days before newspapers, before writing even. In an oral world, before the invention of writing, there were lots of storytellers, but only one (a few) Homer. Simply because everyone could tell stories, didn't mean that there no respected experts.

Yours, remaining Canute- like


Your Brother said...

The world has been filled with of all sorts of people peddling all sorts of information--and disinformation for years. Snake oil salesman make a living selling….well snake oils and will continue to do so traveling door-to-door (“would you buy something from a gypsy?”) via the print media (adverts used to make the newspaper articles fit into column inches) and the Internet.

Everyone’s selling something, most often with an agenda. Being aware of that is just common sense. It’s not cynicism it’s self preservation.

John Kelly said...

Henry: I agree there are plenty of ways to be literate. You need to be "jungle-literate" to stay alive in the Amazon, which is different from being "city literate" to stay alive on the streets of New York. I think being network/Web media literate does demand different skills from the old broadcast literacy, where strong brands--BBC, ABC, Washington Post--carried with them obvious indicators of their quality or their bias. Or maybe the indicators weren't obvious at first; we just learned them over time. We'll have to do the same all over again.

Give Magic Lantern content away? Interesting. My first reaction is they wouldn't, since the client pays for the work. And that's different from Oxford U. Or is it? Could it possibly be STUDENTS who would protest making Oxford lectures freely available, since it might degrade the value of their degree?

Mark and Candadai: I love newspapers, too, and hope they'll be around for a long time--or at least until I retire. Too many journalists, I think, are getting skittish and jumping the gun on newsprint's demise. But I do think we need to vigorously explore the ways we can make our news work online.

SC: I just read a great book called "Mother Nature" by Sarah Hrdy. It's basically about the evolution of motherhood. Why do babies "love" their mothers? Why do mothers "love" their babies? (She says it's all because of evolution.) Anyway, primates have an almost inborn fear of snakes. Early in human history they were a real danger: They could carry a baby away in the night. I think it's better to prepare children for snakes than to hope we can keep them snake-free at all times.

Richard: I don't think Lilley would say that the Authoritative Storyteller is dead, just that he has more competition. And that the Authoritative Storyteller has to better, has to be more authoritative or a better storyteller than all the other static out there.

Why wasn't his UGC as good as it could have been? I think it's because of an interesting issue: technology. The Oxford blog was just clunky, very user-unfriendly. That tells me the technology isn't there yet. And Lilley didn't update it every day, so no real dialogue developed.

And Bro, I agree it's good to be cynical. I think that's a natural outlook for a journalist. I do worry sometimes about being TOO cynical. Should I stop and smell the roses more often, without expecting the thorns?

SuburbanCorrespondent said...

Yes, but no mother in her right mind would leave a new baby out on the ground where the snakes would definitely get him. Filling children's mind with media junk does not make them able to analyze media, no matter how hard you try to teach them. Yes, a parent should show an older child exactly what there is out there and explain the pitfalls of this interconnected world of ours. But to assume that explaining it to children of elementary age makes it safe to let them spend unsupervised time on the computer is the same as leaving your door wide open and the children alone in the house.

There is also the issue of what the children are not doing when they are spending all their time on the computer. They are not playing, they are not interacting with other human beings (sorry, Facebook and MySpace are not true interaction, esp. for a young kid), they are not functioning in our everyday 3-D world at all. Being media literate does not make up for all they lose by being media saturated.

And, yes, I am an anti-TV nut; why do you ask?

Anonymous said...

I seem to recall my English and history teachers telling the class in junior high, when we began to do research papers, that you couldn't use any printed source you found, that you had to evaluate the author's credibility and motive and compare what he or she said to other sources. This came right before the lesson on always using quotation marks and crediting the source of a direct quote.

For several years now I have been wondering about the number of journalists who get fired for plagiarism or inventing their facts. Now I know why: When a journalist from one of the leading papers in the country asks, "Do we tell our children not to believe anything they see on the Web? Or would that deny them the good things they can find there?" as though your only choice is to believe everything or nothing, perhaps teachers have stopped teaching research skills.

Have teachers stopped teaching research skills?

John Kelly said...

Teachers haven't stopped. And right around middle school is when they start. But if you've been near a child lately you know that kids are exposed to the Web long before middle school. Of course I don't think kids should be allowed to believe anything they read--whether it's online, in the newspaper or on the side of a cereal box. But the questions Lilley raised go far beyond journalism. And surely you have no problem with me raising rhetorical questions, without seeing that as an indictment of an entire profession?

And no, that's not a rhetorical question.