Tag Archives: literacy

Media Matters


The long view of media effects reminds us that we are never left untouched by new communication forms.

Few ideas are as evocative in communication analysis as those that argue that big social changes are driven as much by particular media forms as by the ideas carried in those forms. The conventional view of communication is that we have ideas, information or thoughts, and then we choose the medium to deliver them, concluding that a given  choice is not that consequential.

A media determinist sees things differently.  Most clearly laid out by Canadian theorist Marshall McLuhan in the 1970s, media theory argues that the vessel turns out to be as important as what it is carrying.  McLuhan’s famous aphorism, “The medium is the message” doesn’t quite get it right.  But a panoramic “big picture” view of communication effects certainly justifies the conclusion that dominant media forms usually create unanticipated and sometimes huge social changes.

Madonna and Child,1284 wikipedia.org
           Madonna and Child,1284                                wikipedia.org

For example, academician Neil Postman and others have argued that television has transformed the idea of childhood, mostly by ending it.1  There’s a little hyperbole here, but also a valid point embedded in the observation.  In the Middle Ages, for example, children were thought of as incipient workers: more or less adults in training.  Even in their first decade the young were expected to take up the burdens of the working world; there was often no particular interest in isolating them from the secrets and challenges of adulthood.  We see hints of this in paintings of children from this period, which often portray the young as just smaller versions of everyone else.

Mary Cassatt, A Kiss for Baby Anne Wikiart.org
Mary Cassatt, A Kiss for Baby Anne                            Wikiart.org

Many generations later the idea of childhood was especially nurtured by the Victorians, helped by more affluence and the spread of age-graded literacy.  They saw the young as a vulnerable and innocent group to be sequestered from the perils and problems of adulthood.  Look at the children portrayed by painter Mary Cassatt or other artists in the last few centuries and you get the idea. The goal of creating a protected world for children  was also supported by the growth of children’s literature, which used age-appropriate language to support adventurous but “safe” narratives.

Yet television imposes no literacy requirements.  Electronic media are nearly as accessible to children as to adults.  Think of a news report that includes an interview with a mother who has just lost her son in a shooting.  There are obviously limits to what children viewing such a news item can understand.  But the raw emotion of the mother is apparent even to a five-year-old.  They will experience the cues of distress directly.  Obviously, that would not be the case if the account existed only as a written news story.

Using the logic of media determinism can make our social histories look very different.

Most parents sense the difference. The pervasiveness of visual/presentational media means there are very few safe refuges from the dark corners of the culture.  As media determinists sometimes put it, there is really no such thing as children’s television.

Using the logic of media determinism can make our social histories look very different.  A few more examples:

  • The Enlightenment and an emerging belief in human rights was abetted by the development of printed texts. Printing decentralizes the control of information and ideas, ultimately weakening the informational monopoly of the church after the 16th Century.
  • The invention of the telegraph hastened the development of news wire services and the journalistic principle of objectivity. Objectivity was needed if the services were going to sell stories to different parts of the country.
  • The photocopier contributed to the downfall of the old Soviet Union. Cheap copies of political tracts made in private countered the power of government-sanctioned printers.
  • Civil stability in one-party states like China and North Korea is continually threatened by the internet and social media. The online content crosses these political borders with difficulty.   But even with government-imposed electronic firewalls isolation from digital content is no longer possible.
  • Our growing obsessions with all kinds of screens is undermining our social intelligence. Heavy personal media use in the young seems connected to their rising social anxieties about engaging in face to face interaction.

Of course attributing large social changes to just one dimension of a complex culture can be risky.  Even so, a macro-view of media effects can be a timely reminder that new ways to connect to the world always change us. They continue to redefine new forms of daily behavior that start with early adopters before they are acquired by the broad center. The cycle completes itself when a new norm is accepted without much notice.  So walking alone and apparently talking to no one no longer suggests schizophrenia.  We now assume a phone is their link to another.


1Neil Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood, Revised (Vintage, 1994).

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu

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The Power to Name is the Power to See


We tend to not notice what we cannot name. Indeed, a lot of high-order thinking depends upon language. So there is truth in the counter-intuitive conclusion that language guides thought. Language is the great engine of consciousness. 

Nothing is so disorienting and also exhilarating than introducing an idea that has the effect of turning the world as we think we know it upside down.  And so it is with the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis, a theory of language use and acquisition that proposes a very different relationship to experience than what we usually assume.

For most people, language is a tool for communicating experience.  It is common to believe that words function as mostly inadequate snapshots of a far more vivid reality. We may hastily put the words together.  But the reality is always there. Or so we think.  But what if the reverse was true?  What if language is in fact the primary window for perceiving, and not having a vocabulary for experience means that we don’t have the experience?  That’s the essence of the hypothesis proposed years ago by two linguists working independently of each other.  Among their studies, Benjamin Whorf and Edward Sapir noted, among many other things that in the Hopi Language of the Southwest some colors familiar to English speakers are not named and often not noticed.  In addition, Hopi doesn’t usually specify past and future tenses, as many other languages do. Not having these “semantic domains” usually means not organizing our thoughts in these categories.

Since a lot of higher order cognition depends upon language, we don’t consciously focus on what we cannot name. Hence, we get to the startling and counter-intuitive conclusion that language guides thought.  Language is the great engine of high-order consciousness.  For example, English exists within a grammar of binaries.  We think of something that “is” or “isn’t,” sometimes a far cry from more nuanced Asian languages that more easily accommodate the idea that something can be both at the same time.

At some levels this kind of linguistic relativity is obvious. Some languages make feminine and masculine references part of nearly every sentence.  They are much more gendered. We also know that children usually acquire the impulse for racist actions often from the language of peers or parents, not their daily interactions with others. And more hopefully,  we delight when a child acquires a name for an activity and expands her world into it.  Indeed, we organize our educational system mostly around the idea of literacy.  Reading and writing are justifiably considered the gateways to a richer cognitive life.  There’s good reason to worry if Johnny doesn’t want to read, or isn’t acquiring the kind of extended vocabulary we expect through each stage of the graded school system.

A great deal of education even at advanced levels essentially continues the process of vocabulary expansion. This kind of linguistic determinism explains how we acquire the insights of an expert. Working as a lawyer is functionally the process of making use of the generative power of legal terminology.

Consider another example:  Most of us at a party just see a room full of people.  But a person who has just finished a course in Abnormal Psychology is probably going to notice more: perhaps the “bi-polar” behavior of the guy in the corner, the clinical “depression” evident in the young woman who went on at length about her family, and the “obvious paranoia” of the couple engaged in all kinds of survivalist activities.  We tend to notice what we can name.  “Depression,” “paranoia,” “bi-polar:” this partial lexicon of mental health diagnosis leads us into a world of ostensible maladies we would otherwise miss.

Even so, taking the theory as a core operating principle in communication is a hard sell to most Americans, who see language as a residue rather than a driver of experience. We routinely underestimate the verbal roots of most of our perceptions: constructions that only come to life because we have the right verbal equipment.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu