In the last couple of years, the utopian ideas that inspired the pioneers of networked digital technology – and fuelled countless marketing campaigns – have given way to a growing disillusionment. Technology is increasingly being seen as a threat, not just to democracy but also to our individual well-being. Headlines are dominated by stories about fake news, invasions of privacy, online radicalization, hate speech and social media addiction.
One solution that’s often proposed in this context is ‘digital literacy’. If governments seem largely incapable of dealing with such problems, people (it is argued) need to take responsibility for their own use of media and technology. Both in the UK and internationally, policy-makers imagine that ‘empowered consumers’ will learn to cope with this flood of digital data. But digital literacy – or media literacy more broadly – is often poorly defined, and frequently amounts to little more than a set of rhetorical good intentions.
If media literacy is going to become a reality, it requires a systematic and comprehensive programme of media education in schools. Teaching about media is by no means a new development: in the UK, it can be traced back to the 1930s, both as part of English teaching and (since the 1970s) as a specialist subject in its own right. However, media education has often remained on the margins of the education system: it is frequently derided, and it is now increasingly under threat from backward-looking educational policies. Yet in the modern world, it should surely be a basic entitlement for all children.
Media education should not be confused with educational technology: it is not a matter of learning instrumental skills in operating hardware or software. Nor is it a defensive or protectionist enterprise, that seeks to rescue children from the harm that the media are often assumed to inflict. On the contrary, it’s about critical thinking. It invites children to analyse how media communicate, how and why they are produced and used, and how they represent the world. And it has ways of doing this that engage children’s creativity, and encourage them to reflect on their own cultural enthusiasms.
In The Media Education Manifesto, I make a succinct and passionate case for media education, which will be accessible for general readers – as well as for students, and indeed their parents. However, I also seek to reformulate the argument for a digital world. Over the past twenty years, the media landscape has been transformed, with a whole range of new media forms and practices emerging. Even so, I don’t believe educators need to reinvent the wheel. The Manifesto demonstrates how the existing conceptual framework of media education can be extended and adapted to new phenomena like social media. In doing so, I outline the key principles of media education pedagogy, make practical proposals for teaching, and explain where media education should fit into the curriculum.
Nevertheless, this isn’t just an argument for a particular school subject. We need to rethink how and why we teach about culture and communication much more broadly. In the process, educators need to take account of the bigger picture. We need to address an environment of ‘total mediation’, in which media have comprehensively penetrated the economy, the political process, the arts and culture, as well as our social and intimate relationships. We need to understand and confront what might be called ‘digital capitalism’ or ‘surveillance capitalism’. Ultimately, media literacy education is not a substitute for regulation: the aim is not just to understand and cope with the media world, but also to imagine and demand change.