By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Media Education for a Digital Generation on 27 August 2015

Media literacy was always a tough sell.

After all, as most of us understood it, TV was supposed to be for entertainment–a respite from the drudgery of work or, worse, school. Just putting a word as severe as “literacy” next to “media” turns it from an escape into yet another chore. It brings to mind the educational programming of PBS, not the decadence of I Love Lucy, Lucha Libre, or even Lost. Media Literacy was for people who read TV, not for those who want to watch it. And if the subject somehow managed to deliver on its promise, it could render TV unwatchable forever more. The incomprehensible magic and storytelling replaced by the neutered crafts of technology and rhetoric, as well as the political economy fueling them. Instead of offering escape, the literalized media just extends the problems of the real world into that last refuge.

But that’s precisely the point: media is not a refuge. Never has been. We didn’t get mass media because Jack Benny and Milton Berle were sitting in their cabanas in Hollywood wondering how they could bring their music and comedy to the world. No, it was invented to serve the needs of the new giants of industry, who wanted to reach an entire nation of consumers with their brand mythologies. Without mass media, there would be no mass market.

Once we know things like that, however, we can’t look at media content quite the same way. Magazines begin to feel less about the articles than the demographic niche they are delivering to their advertisers. Radio begins to sound like a string of commercials with a few bits of sports, weather, or news slipped in between to keep us listening. TV shows make sense only as environments fine-tuned to sell certain goods and lifestyles.

Being able to see through media’s spell to the agendas driving it is a form of critical thinking. And it’s not always fun–not for the audience, and certainly not for the programmer nor the sponsor paying him for our attention. Indeed, there’s an argument to be made for rejecting this whole subject area as too disruptive, too disillusioning, too antagonistic to the marketplace for anyone’s good. How are we supposed to grow the economy and sell more goods to more people in less time if everyone is busy deconstructing the media for its messaging techniques or, worse, the power structures behind it?

Every year in America, a new crop of students arrive at college, blissfully unaware of the forces shaping the media they watch and use. That’s because the United States is the only developed Western nation without a mandated media literacy curriculum in elementary or secondary school. We just don’t do that sort of thing. Maybe that’s why we’re the biggest consumer economy on earth. Or vice versa.

But kids grow up perfectly happy this way, and often right into adulthood. If it weren’t for all of us well-meaning but cynical media educators, so many people would be spared the development of critical faculties and the attendant reluctance to believe, shop, aspire–at least in that naive way–ever again. In other words, why should it be so very important for people to know that the voting on American Idol is rigged, that automobile brands pay for placement on TV shows, or that dancers are hired for rock videos based less on their talent than the number of Instagram followers they can reach? If the middle class is happy this way, and they don’t vote too much, where’s the harm? If the system truly stops working for them, they’ll take to the streets soon enough. Marxism and Madmen just don’t mix, so why piss on what’s left of the American dream?

It’s a blinders-on argument espoused on talk radio to this day, and it does contain a grain of truth–at least as far as the GNP, military conscription, and mega-church enrollment are concerned. Like for the turncoat in The Matrix who decides to forget everything and return the illusion, the steak tastes real–and maybe that’s good enough.

But no more. While ignorance may have been an option in the era of broadcast media, it can’t work in a digital environment. The luxury of ignorance only works in a landscape where we are reading the media, not one in which we are making the media. In the read-only media universe of television, we are already in the position of consumers. Sure, we can read deeply, deconstruct the imagery, and alter the cognitive frame through which we receive our media. But we’re still essentially consumers. That’s why they call the stuff on television “programming”: they’re not programming a schedule or a TV set, they’re programming us. We can pick which channel to watch, but we’re still the ones being programmed. In such a media environment, critical distance is still just an upgraded style of reception.

In a digital environment, we are no longer just the audience but the programmers–or at least the content creators. No, many of us may not realize it quite yet. The tools of new media are as simple and user-friendly as a TV remote–in many cases, easier. Posting an update on Facebook is simpler and more commonplace than recording a season of Game of Thrones on the DVR.

Besides, instead of watching TV shows, young people today are spending more time shooting and posting their own programs to YouTube–and then watching those of their peers. Sure, they know what’s on in primetime, but that’s all just part of the same sea of video, and just as easily time-shifted. Likewise, they know what a professional site or sponsored Tweet looks like, but they’re just pages on the same web and messages in the same stream that they post to themselves.

There’s an unintentional media literacy that comes along with learning to do all this oneself. You can’t look at a news report the same way once you’ve edited your own news story. Nor can you see a branded Facebook page the same way once you have solicited the very same Likes as it did from your friends for your own new profile picture. As content creators, most digital natives now read content as well as any 1980s semiotician. They know how Disney creates a pop star like Ariana Grande, and they really don’t mind because they feel they are part of the same machine.

But that’s not enough. For just as our reception of content was limited by our ignorance of its construction, our creation of content is now limited by our ignorance of the platforms on which we do it. Media literacy addressed our ability to read the media. Digital media literacy must address our ability to make it.

Digital technologies cannot simply be read. They do not impose themselves on us solely through their content. They express themselves in the ways that they dictate what we create on them, and whom those creations serve. Facebook is not a neutral social networking platform any more than FOX News is a neutral television network. But understanding a technology’s biases is a dimensional leap beyond reading a piece of content.

The choice between YouTube and Vimeo, Facebook and Twitter, Wordpress and Squarespace, Google and Bing, Apple and Linux, are choices between different architectures, business models, abilities, and limitations. In some cases, the distinction may be as ethereal as branding; in others, as fundamental as the ownership of one’s own creations, or the acquiescence to surveillance and predictive analysis. In still others, it can mean the difference between creating apps that enable and encourage peer-to-peer value exchange, and those that require transactions to go through a centralized, extractive authority.

The platforms we use are embedded with values that inform more than how we see the world; they inform how we create the world. As participants in a digital media environment, our interaction with and dependence on media extends far beyond what we are choosing to read and watch. Digital media literacy means seeing the values embedded in the highly mediated world of social interaction, business transaction, and even healthcare. Amazon and Uber are as much media in a digital age as Xena and Knight Rider were in a broadcast one. The behaviors they encourage, the platform monopolies they create, and the financial destruction they leave in their wakes are now the province of media literacy. If not us, then whom?

This is about so much more than entertainment. The structure of a television network may dictate what sorts of sitcoms we see, but the structure of a digital network can dictate who we’re friends with, what our parents know about us, what we can earn money for, what the government knows about us, what mechanisms we use to vote, who informs us about the world, whether a robot or AI takes our job, or who controls the terms of the user agreement on our cochlear implant.

Our society seems hell-bent on creating an app for every desire, and a platform for every major challenge. And so our solutions come increasingly in the form of new media, which are then implemented with far too few questions about what values they bring along with them. As Frechette and Williams advocate, digital media literacy is the art and discipline of asking those questions. It is crucial that we follow their lead. Herein lie the first great probes into what it means to be literate in a digital age, and how educators can still take us there.