Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Escape from the Electronic Cave

“Television and the Presentation of Reality,” Philosophy 197, is a Portland Community College course being taught this summer by Matt Stockton, a young philosophy instructor well versed in contemporary media.

My friend Joan Rutkowski and I are both active in the media literacy movement so we went out to the Rock Creek PCC campus to meet Matt and to attend the first class.

Matt told the 16 or so students that the course is really was about media literacy.

The syllabus description lays out some of the dimensions of the subject. Electronic media, Matt writes, “has emerged as the most popular source of information concerning our perspectives of reality.” He notes that the 2000 census reported the average American spends nearly 1,600 hours a year watching television. That’s about 4.25 hours a day, or 29 percent of our waking hours.

Philosophy 197 looks like a great class. I came away from my visit with two or three new ideas, not the least of which is that our expectations shape (Matt actually said expectations “dictate”) our experience.

Of course, the media are all about shaping expectations — about appearance, about resolving conflict (usually violently), about the meaning of success (the one with the most toys wins), about time and its value, about entitlement, about knowledge and about what is “cool” or not “cool.”

More than shaping experience, media expectations shape our values, our decisions, our lives.

Matt put it another way too. We are born into a world with a gap between who (or what) we are and who (or what) we want to be. Media managers and advertisers happily fill that gap for their own purposes.

But this is a philosophy course and the first class wasn’t without its philosophy, in this case Plato’s Cave Analogy, which, when you reconsider it, is a pretty good description of our relationship with media.

You’ll recall that Plato describes a situation in which a group of people is confined from birth in a cave so that all they can see are shadows cast on a wall. (Think, very big screen but no cable fee.) The shadows are what the prisoners understand to be reality. One day a member of the group escapes only to find that the shadows, far from being reality, are really images made by a person standing in front of a fire and manipulating the shadows. Any escapee who leaves the cave and its manipulated images will find a “new” “true” reality.

Through understanding, discussion and critical thinking, the students in Phl 197 may be on the verge of their own escape.

That is what media literacy is all about.

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