John Hartley's "Navigating through a universe of information" (On Line Opinion May 7, 2007) is a curate's egg (“good in parts”).
We can all readily agree with his premise that communications technology has moved beyond the capacity of most schools, and/or that of most teachers and curricula, to afford it and to deal with what he calls “this new toy”. And it is a scandal that all Australian governments have so under-funded education in the last decade that he can make a truly damning comparison with what they did when print literacy was the new thing.
But, it is not the new technology as such that is the problem. We know that it will soon pass, just as the other outmoded technologies have: celluloid film, cell animation, shellac discs, acetate discs, wire tape, cassette tape, videotape, CD and so on - all in time ephemeral.
The problem is - as it always was - the content of the medium. The technology (the medium) is - as it was, even in the Stone Age - only secondary to what it communicates. In fact, the content is the only reason the technology exists!
The content of the new technology - information (at best) and rumour and gossip (at worst) and mainly the latter, unfortunately - is being passed off, and accepted by our youth, as education, knowledge and wisdom. This is nothing short of a tragedy.
To suggest that pop culture - “purposeless entertainment”, Hartley styles it, validly - is a viable replacement for school education is nothing more than a bootstraps theory of education: the ignorant teaching the unenlightened. An eminent American theorist once styled our use of communications media as “Amusing ourselves to death”.
But, we had all this in the 1960s with the “trendies” who told us Disney had replaced Shakespeare (well, he did try to!). Wikipedia even advises its users not to rely on the validity of its content. “Creative innovation” based on the antics of the sad and ignorant individuals on TV's Big Brother rather than George Orwell's original character will lead only to galloping ignorance.
Despite their vociferous protests to the contrary - teenagers are essentially conservative beings, which is why they dress alike, have gangs and confide in each other. This is an understandable ego-defence mechanism in an environment that continually challenges their psyches.
Education, on the other hand, is progressive (a posteriori as distinct from a priori) - and, thus, potentially threatening to the young individual's status quo. So, all cultures have had - in their various ways, through initiation ceremonies or university degrees - to force education on their teenagers to obviate them staying immature for the rest of their lives.
Hartley vaunts the concept of the “‘long tail’ of self-made content”, which was conceived by Chris Anderson in 2006. But, the “discovery” that there are opportunities to create and market things for which there is not a mass market is no less than the self-deception of the culture of advertisers: their myopia has blinded them to the fact that the local hairdresser, dressmaker, legal firm, advertiser, vegetable shop, winery and so on, ad infinitum, has always survived despite the mass marketing of Coca Cola, Target and McDonalds. Nothing new about the “long tail”!
Hartley is critical of the “expert elites” who insist that there is a canon of worthwhile, educational content. This reminds me of our prime minister who uses “elite” similarly as a pejorative to denigrate those who hold a different opinion from his own. But both are oblivious to the fact that “elites” - who are no more than people who have studied something more than the average - exist in every field (including politics and communications). In fact, they are nothing less than our true educators.
Hartley asserts that “… while [teenagers] may not be able to spell they can tell you their life story on MySpace …” But, to do this, they will have to be able to spell well enough to communicate at least minimally.