Media Literacy
The Mind Age

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The Mind Age

DD Downs, Executive Director, Downs Media Education Center
The State of NMedia Education A Publication of the Downs Media Education Center, Summer 1994
The Age of Information is over and the Mind Age has begun. It came upon us rapidly, more rapidly than the Industrial Age, or even the Space Age. And it may take the media a few more years to recognize that the Mind Age had arrived.

The Age of Information left its mark on us by glutting our mental environment with messages from every quarter. Every industry and area of society produces its message for our consumption. It will be the hallmark of the Mind Age that we grasp this extraordinary reality and become serious about processing information. Currently, it simply litters our unprepared minds and the chaotic and frightening results can be seen everywhere. There is violence, moral decay, and a shorter attention span; a universal increase in greed (even among the very young), and political crimes which go unremarked. Heightened levels of depression and suicide should not be surprising.

Let's take a look at today's mass media forms and try to count the unprecedented numbers of messages our minds are receiving on a daily basis. Mass media messages come to us from radio, TV, muzak, movies, computer games, computer services, books, magazines, comic books, newspapers, advertising, news, flyers, billboards, food packaging, fashion, toys (think of Barbie and everything she has been telling us about young women for the last four generations), popular music, music videos, still photographs, cultural environments. Go ahead--add your own list to this. If you can name it, it's because it has probably entered your awareness through a mass medium.

America is not the most powerful nation on earth just because we have a bigger, stronger arsenal. America is the most powerful nation on earth because she pumps out the mass media which most of the rest of the world consumes. No other nation has ever imposed its values and culture on others quite so thoroughly, quite so glamorously, nor quite so mindlessly. Of course, some of our efforts have been mindfully deliberate such as radio stations which were designed to transmit the American Dream into Communist countries and undermine the Red opposition. However, for the most part, we have naively believed that if it makes money, that's good enough for us. What's the harm in a little sex and violence? It sells products, doesn't it? We're giving them what they want, aren't we?

We probably have been "giving them what they want," but as with children everywhere, sometimes what "they" want is not something they are ready to have. They do not possess the decision making skills yet; they need first to be taught and guided, then they may grow wise in the years to come. Unfortunately, we are all children when it comes to knowing what we want to do with information, because nobody has taught us how to be wise in our consumption and production of mass media.

I was in an African village about ten years ago at a press conference with Cicely Tyson. Ms. Tyson was a UNICEF goodwill ambassador and was there to talk about how American children would be trick-or-treating for UNICEF to raise money for some of the projects in this small village. When the interpreters tried to explain trick-or-treating as a Halloween tradition, all hell broke loose in the room. As the news spread from tongue to tongue, great outrage was expressed; a general uproar ensued with people screaming in anger and threatening to upturn the conference table. Some of the journalists stormed out and everyone was yelling and leaping about in rage. I turned to the UNICEF staffer on my right and said, "What happened?" It took him a minute and then he smiled and explained. "They are saying that they are horrified to learn that Ms. Tyson would have anything to do with the barbaric custom of Halloween. They say they are familiar with this murderous tradition in America because they have seen the movies." "Oh," he shrugged, "the Halloween movies. You know, Halloween 1, Halloween 2..they think it is when you murder small children in your country."

In the thoughtlessness of "entertainment" what is America saying about itself to others? To itself? To its children? Thoughtlessness can no longer be sloughed off as a mere social faux-pas. Thoughtlessness could cripple a democracy and destroy the minds of future generations. In our world, it is the thoughtful mind which will survive.

We should be glad that the Age of Information has led us into the Mind Age. The Mind Age offers us an exhilarating opportunity: the chance to get it right before we blow it entirely. The opportunity of a lifetime you might say. Shot of the cerebral "Last Chance Cafe" on the Information Super Highway.

So, what's on the menu in the Mind Age? Well, first off, I'd have to say that the blue plate special is media literacy, or comprehensive media education. It is a full course meal from appetizer to dessert. Media Literacy is where we learn to use our minds to access, analyze, evaluate and produce all sorts of information which is the legacy of the previous age. Media literacy is where we learn (finally) to use our minds! Welcome to the Mind Age!

With a media literate population, we can think critically about the process all manner of information in a thoughtful way. We can elevate our personal values and judge information without feeling threatened by it. We can make our own information and send it out into the world knowing that it is a mindful, wiser world. And best of all, we would no longer feel helpless or victimized by the vast legacy of the Age of Information.

The rest of the world would probably breathe a collective sigh of relief to see the cultural leadership position mindfully. American has nothing to be ashamed of, but it is time to grow up.