The Media in all its Past, Present, and Future Glory

Our parents had console radios, then black-and-white TVs. We got transistor "sets," then color TV (in more than one room). Our kids have furry toys that talk to them and machines that send them "places" within minutes. There's a long gap between all these gadgets, yet we've learned to take them for granted: to rely on them. But we're clearly "beyond" our parents in our use of media, so, by extension, what media toys and tools do our kids take for granted?

These thoughts are spurred by the latest incarnation of a list that makes the rounds of academia every year or so for college freshmen who don't know what the Cold War was, who've only known one Pope, and for whom roller skates have always been in-line. More to the point: they've always had a remote control, heard clear digital sound, and trusted a device that plays recorded movies and broadcasts. Color TV, color photographs, and recorded sound are "normal," while dial phones and black-and-white images are not only "quaint," but alien and pointless.

So, are our kids spoiled? Out of touch with the "natural" world (other than a "Nature Center")? Or are they simply victims of their environment, and should we try to see the world through their eyes? I'd vote for the latter. We should no more blame our kids for being awed by Nintendo than we should kick ourselves for having once watched Dukes of Hazzard or played Pong. So let's look at some media conclusions that are already foregone:

Any story that gets told in one medium will show up in several other media. There's been "media cross-promotion" since before Shakespeare, but only in the Twentieth Century has it been an aggressive marketing technique. Felix the Cat was the cross-media king, expanding beyond silent cartoons. What's changed today is that we expect this. We say, "I've got to read the book that movie was based on" (or vice versa). Our kids say, "That was a cool movie--I can't wait to see the video game they make from it" (ditto).

You don't have to tell a dumb machine what to do; you just wave a barcode at it, or plug in some kind of disc to make it "know" what you have or want. "Information" is more of a commodity than ever; in fact, it's hardware, it's wallpaper. We, and our kids, just assume that information can be gathered and saved for us, as opposed to writing it down. And maybe (worst-case scenario) if we have to write it down we just won't bother.

Disney will make at least one cartoon movie every year, and it'll have songs to help tell the story. Before The Little Mermaid, Disney didn't make a song-and-dance cartoon feature every year. There were no Disney Stores except at Disney Parks, and Warner Brothers stores and the Cartoon Network weren't around either. In ten years, animation has become much more central to our idea of entertainment; it's a kind of entertainment dialect.

It's okay for your term paper to have pictures with the words, and you can put them in yourself. Frustrated artists with forgiving teachers were once the only kids who could stretch the boundaries of "demonstrating knowledge," i.e. writing a paper. Now, all the way to college, assignments are routinely picture-and-text. Some students are getting slippery about whose pictures can be used, borrowed, or stolen.

Television has many things to offer. Many of them come back again and again. Enough said.

Reality isn't what it used to be because we can manipulate its appearance so believably. The photograph doesn't automatically guarantee "truth" nor is "wonder" or "imagination" unique to painting anymore. This is another way in which cartoonization has changed our worldview.

A camera can take any kind of picture. It's pricey right now, but there's a digital camera that can take both still images and video. When my family bought its first and only camcorder at J.C. Penney in 1988, it cost more than this new camera does.

Playing games is a way of learning, storing, and passing on knowledge. The kids' software companies have been telling us this for years, but now as older kids are entering employment, they may be encountering training simulations that are like a "game." This particular fated conclusion is one that we've tried to ignore in the Twentieth Century, but it's actually quite ancient.

Hints of the impact of these beliefs can be found in science fiction, which as always is as much a plan for the future as it's entertainment for the present. I don't read science fiction much but I've collected examples of "future media" that are revealing. Imagine this: a book that tells a story to its owner all his life: its part diary, part textbook, and part therapeutic fiction. Or a TV news show which the viewer can "cast" the reporters and design the set. Or teenage trysts that take place at a virtual reality Web-site tour--our young sweethearts hide "behind" digital drapery to be themselves.

Our gadgets may change and the opportunities to use them may expand, but we'll still be human; we'll just "tweak" our media. Trust your kids to figure this out.


Phil Anderson is a regular reviewer of movies, software, and technology for Minnesota Parent.

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