‘Cognitive surplus’ calls for more media-literacy

By Anne Collier

The information (and production) overload of the digital era creates more of everything: both high- and low-quality content coming from everybody, amateur to professional. To quote the quoter (policy pundit Adam Thierer reviewing tech pundit Clay Shirky’s book Cognitive Surplus), “Shirky argues (p. 47), ‘The low-quality material that comes with increased freedom accompanies the experimentation that creates the stuff we will end up prizing. That was true of the printing press in the 15th century, and it’s true of the social media today’ (p. 51).” To that, Thierer says, “Each era produced its fair share of quality and crap. There’s just more of both these days and that’s what some critics don’t seem willing to accept. But I’ll take that deal any day over the limited choices of the bygone scarcity era.” Me too. And I’ll take it even though I have the typical parental anxieties about what my (and all) children are experiencing on the negative side of the quality spectrum. I also agree with Thierer where he criticizes Shirky for not giving equal weight to both the good and bad implications of the shift to digital media and technology. It’s just a giant shift whose impacts we’ll all be sorting out for some time to come. I have no idea if the effects on our children are more bad than good or vice versa. It’s way too early to decide (e.g., the new body of social media research is too new, but it’s growing fast).

Most of all, I strongly believe it’s counterproductive, if not risky, to give ourselves over to fearing the media shift. Because by its very nature it represents an urgent call for rational thought, not blinding fear. All the new conditions and properties of digital media – that they’re user-driven, instantaneous or realtime, easily copied, enduring, etc. – call for more critical thinking, more instruction in media literacy – a new media literacy that uses and builds on the critical thinking that we (hopefully) have been teaching our children all along about what they read, consume, and download. Now media literacy must apply to what we post, share, produce, and upload too. Fear, if it sends us into denial or lessens communication with our media-embracing kids, does not help us or them navigate the “cognitive surplus” or the unsettling characteristics of today’s media environment, good and bad. As I argued in my review of PBS Frontline’s Digital Nation, we’ve just got to stop fearing the shift and – for our kids’ and our own protection and well-being online and in digital media – get busy figuring out, modeling and teaching our children how to use new media in safe, enriching ways! [See also “Checking in on the media shift” and NewMediaLiteracies.org.]

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