INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY
The Columbine High School shootings provoked national soul-searching
about American education, handguns, and violent entertainment. The U.S.
Senate held hearings on "cultural pollution," investigating
whether teens were negatively influenced by the music they enjoyed,
the games they played, the television programs and movies they watched.
Adults dominated these discussions, dismissing Marilyn Manson's music
as "offensive to all Americans who think" or offering lurid
visions of the goths and other subcultures. Few public forums offered
youth a chance to speak or took seriously what they had to say about
their cultural environment. This ensuing "moral panic," in
part, reflected a lack of communication between teens and adults about
popular culture and media change.
This program is intended to solicit communication -- to encourage open-minded
exchanges not with the goal of policing culture but rather of simply
understanding the investments we make in our culture and identifying
the ways media change impacts our lives.
Over the last several decades, numerous new media (ranging from the
camcorder and the VCR to the internet, the web, and the computer game
console) have been introduced. These new media profoundly alter how
we communicate with each other, how we relate to our core institutions,
and how we think of our world. These new media enable us to participate
more actively in democratic decision making, to exert greater control
over our entertainment options, to share our own creative work with
others. These new media also expand the marketing power of major corporations,
expose us to noxious ideas and offensive images, and threaten our privacy.
These media have an uneven impact across the culture: some groups still
lack access to the online world; different generations understand these
emerging media differently.
The current media revolution is roughly equivalent in its impact to
two other moments in human history -- the introduction of the printing
press in the 15th century and the introduction of mass media in the
late 19th and early 20th century. Such moments of technological transformation
provoked profound debates about shared values and institutional reforms.
We need a national conversation about the current moment of media transition
because the outcome is still subject to change. All segments of society
must be heard as we set future directions for technological and cultural
Popular culture has often been the locus of debate. Public amusements
make visible the conflicting values and lifestyles of different segments
of our heterogeneous society. The rise of the novel sparked debates
about the relationship between the public realm of work and the domestic
realm of private life. Jazz was the focus for debates about race in
America, as African- American music entered white culture. The rise
of mass media opened questions about democracy, as elite groups questioned
whether the average citizen could make intelligent cultural choices.
The digital revolution opens debate about generational differences,
in part because teenagers have embraced the new media more rapidly than
We are often told media have effects on us, that they make us more
violent, more passive, more sexual. Plato worried that the introduction
of writing would destroy human memory. Victorians were concerned that
the serial publication of Charles Dickens's novels would leave workers
distracted and anxious. Progressive era reformers worried that the comic
strips might teach children to ridicule public officials.
The ways such concerns are framed, however, often fundimentally misunderstand
the nature of media and the role of media in our lives. Instead of asking
what media are doing to us, we should be asking instead what we are
doing with media. Media are tools. New media make some tasks easier
to perform and therefore encourage new kinds of activities. New media
facilitate new kinds of social relationships and thus impact how we
relate to friends, family, government, and education.
But, new media are absorbed into existing social structures and evaluated
according to previous cultural values. It is no accident that when the
printing press was introduced at the end of the middle ages, the first
printed book was the Bible. When the telegraph emerged at the end of
a period of sustained immigration, one of its core uses was the facilitate
communication between the old world and the new. The new "virtual
community" of the internet compensates for the loss of face-to-face
communities at a time when the average American moves once every five
The contents of mass media become popular culture at the moment they
enter our everyday lives as the songs we sing in the shower, the posters
we hang on our wall, the one- liners we exchange with our friends, the
websites we go to find out what's happening, and so forth. Popular culture
enters our world on our terms. We are not untouched by media, but we
are not blank pages to be writ upon, either. We consume what interests
us. And from that raw material, each of us cobbles together a complex
mythology of images, stories and ideas that matter to us. A few individuals
will draw on the most anti-social images and turn them into vehicles
for their personal demons, their destructive impulses. Countless others
will appropriate the same images in a more constructive fashion.
The materials of popular culture may become raw materials for our creative
expression, vehicles for exploring aspects of our own personalities,
and shared points of reference to facilitate social interaction. Anthropologists
and historians look at artifacts as materials that encapsulate the values
and practices of another culture. We can look at the contents of mass
media as artifacts that help us to better understand our own culture.
In both cases, though, deciphering an artifact's meanings is a complex
process, because the same artifact may serve multiple purposes, operate
in multiple contexts, and become invested with multiple meanings.
We should be very careful in making assumptions about what different
forms of popular culture mean to the people who consume them. But there
is one way to explore what meanings or appeals pop culture holds for
different people. Lets try talking to each other. Doing so will dramatically
reduce the level of ignorance, paranoia and sheer stupidity which currently
characterizes far too many conversations about popular culture.
Often, our response to popular culture is shaped by a hunger for simple
answers and quick actions. It is important to take the time to understand
the complexity of contemporary culture. We need to learn how to be safe,
critical and creative users of media. We need to evaluate the information
and entertainment we consume. We need to understand the emotional investments
we make in media content. And perhaps most importantly, we need to learn
not to treat differences in taste as mental pathologies or social problems.
We need to think, talk, and listen. When we tell students that popular
culture has no place in classroom discussions, we are signaling to them
that what they learn in school has little to do with the things that
matter to them at home. When we avoid discussing popular culture at
the dinner table, we may be suggesting we have no interest in things
that are important to our children. When we tell our parents that they
wouldn't understand our music or our fashion choices, we are cutting
them off from an important part of who we are and what we value. We
do not need to share each other's passions. But we do need to respect
and understand them.
The following questions are intended to spark meaningful discussions about the politics and pleasures of popular culture. We hope they will be used in contexts where adults and teens can talk and listen to each other. The questions are intended for ALL parties, not as the basis for one group to grill or lecture the other. For such conversations to be productive, all parties need to shed their prejudices and preconceptions at the door. The key is to listen and understand before you make judgements.
1) Do you talk about the same media artifacts (television shows, movies, books, games, music, comics etc.) with your peers as you do with non-peer groups (your children, your parents, your teachers, your students)? When you do discuss the same artifacts, do you discuss them in the same ways? Why are some aspects of these discussions different? Are these differences positive, negative or neutral?
2) What media artifacts are important to you? Why?
3) How do you think the media artifacts that you like are misunderstood or understood differently by others? Where and why do these different understandings arise? Are others missing something? If so, what? Are they simply coming from someplace different? Are they valuing different aspects of the experience? Drawing on different assumptions about life? What other reasons might account for these different responses?
4) Select an aspect of contemporary popular culture you find offensive, shocking, or frightening. Try to identify and articulate the basis of your concerns. Do you think the work harms people? Do you have negative feelings about or concerns for the people who consume it? The people who produce it? Talk with someone who has different views. How do they explain their tastes and interest in these materials? Were you surprised by anything they told you? Did the conversation alter your perceptions and opinions?
5) Do you ever feel like you should apologize for your tastes? How do you respond to that impulse? Do you like your response? Would you like to change either how you feel or how you act? Would you like to change whatever it is about the world that leaves you feeling apologetic?
6) To what extent does your taste in media play a role in bonding with your peers? Can having shared cultural interests bring you closer to someone else? Can having different cultural interests be the source of conflict? Are there groups at the school you look down upon because of the culture they consume or the ways they express their affiliations?
7) Media consumption often figures in public debates as a "problem." Do you think media consumption is or can be a problem? Under what circumstances? Which concerns strike you as reasonable? Which do not?
8) How do you "use" media? What functions does it serve in your life? Is it the source of new ideas? A way of relaxing or of escaping? A door to a broader world? A source of excitement in an otherwise dull life? These uses are all a bit of a cliche, which doesn't mean they aren't also true, but try to move beyond cliches. Think of other uses as well.
9) What are your thoughts about the ways different media and specific artifacts are covered by the press? Explain in what ways you find this coverage accurate or inaccurate, appropriate or inappropriate, biased or unbiased.? List as many different contexts where the news media represents popular culture as you can think of. What functions does the discussion of popular culture play in each of these contexts (ie: coverage in a political context might be aimed at making judgements upon which public policy will be based; coverage in an educational context might be concerned with what and how we learn and what aids or impedes learning, and so on.) Does the press do a better job covering media in some contexts than in others? Does it do a better job covering some functions of media than others? Speculate why that might be.
10) Sit down with someone of a different generation and watch television programs and films or listen to music important to each of you. Explain what you like or find interesting. Ask about anything you are not sure you are following.
11) Look at one of the web sites listed in this brochure. Do you agree with what is being argued on the site? Explain. Now, look for other sites that address the same topic. How do they agree or differ in their understanding of this topic? Are these disagreements acknowledged or do they remain implicit assumptions? If they are acknowledged, how do they argue on behalf of their competing positions? Evaluate the evidence and arguments they use to support their claims.
12) Find a participatory web-site. Post something on the site.
13) What subjects are rarely or never talked about in the media? What aspects of experience are ignored? What groups are not represented or are incompletely represented? How might we explain these silences and exclusions? How might media do a better job reflecting a diverse range of human experiences?
14) What kinds of identity are important to you? (Race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, subculture, or other) Do we make different degrees of investment in those forms of identity which you share with your parents and other members of your family and those forms which are unique to you as an individual or which reflect the lifestyles of your generation? How are different facets of identity linked to the media?
15) Why might the cultural tastes of one generation differ from those of another? Map key ideas, values, and images you associate with young people and those you associate with parents. What similarities and differences do you see between the two? What historical factors account for the shifts you notice? What role(s) do these differences in taste play in enabling children to develop some degree of autonomy from their parents? Are there ways in which the dramatic shifts in cultural interests between generations is destructive?
16) Where do you get most of your information about news and current
17) Over the past few decades, we have seen a dramatic influx of new
communications technologies (ranging from the vcr and the camcorder
18) Why do you think violence is so popular within contemporary popular culture? Do you think this is dramatically different from the role violence played in earlier storytelling traditions (Greek drama, Shakespearian tragedy, Grimm's Fairy Tales)? Do you believe fictional violence results in real world violence?
19) What does it mean when we judge a work of popular culture good
20) What makes popular music a meaningful form of communication? Are
21) Many contemporary works of popular culture represent struggles
22) Research another moment when media underwent profound changes. What did contemporary observers predict would happen as consequence of this technological shift? What similarities and differences do you see between that moment and the "digital revolution"? What factors determined the final impact of this media upon culture?
23) Focus on an institution that is responding to the potentials of digital media. For example, you might look at how banks handled financial transactions, how newspapers report the news, how businesses interact with customers, how candidates try to reach citizens, how churches serve the spiritual needs of their members, how schools teach their students, or how governments make laws in this new environment. What has changed and what has remained the same? How would you evaluate the impact of new media upon this institution? What relationship do you see between these institutional changes and the properties of new media?
24) Some have predicted that new skills of "visual literacy" are required to respond to the shifting media environment. What is "visual literacy" and how does it relate to traditional forms of literacy? What relationship do you see between words and pictures? What kinds of information is best communicated through words? Through pictures? What functions do words and images play in our everyday environment? Is there a danger of displacing words with images altogether or do you think we will find a new balance between the two?
High School Underground -- Fringe students share their frustrations
Voices from the Hellmouth -- reports post-littleton student rights
Teen.com -- A general interest teen site.
How to Not Get Busted for Being a Kid -- How to survive in an age of
The Columbine Tapes -- Time Magazine article on the Columbine school
"All Culture, All the Time" -- Reason Magazine explores the
Media in Transition -- Essays on a wide range of media-related issues
Interview with Henry Jenkins about fandom on the web and cultural convergence.
Technorealism -- An argument about the impact of technology on culture.
Children in the Digital Age -- The America Prospect discusses the cultural
The American Teenager: Why Generation Y? -- Slate essay examines why
Protect Popular Culture -- A page "dedicated to protecting popular
Atomic Pop: The Music Operating System -- Music-centric pop culture
PlanetOut Teens -- a site for gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens.
NetNoir -- a site for black issues and interests
Berkley Public Library Teen Services -- "Pathfinders" leads
to a range of
Academia Gothica -- a basic primer on things Goth
The American Religious Experience -- a starting point for the study
The Interactive Digital Software Association. Industry perspective
The Shooters and the Shrinks -- Article from Salon on arguments about
re:play -- Online forum on digital gaming.
The Future of Console Gaming -- A report about the games industry
Access Denied --Report on the impact of internet filtering software
"Complete Freedom of Movement": Video Games as Gendered Play
Spaces -- an essay suggesting some ways video games relate to traditional
forms of play.
POLITICS / ACTIVISM / ADVOCACY
American Civil Liberties Union -- A resource on a range of personal
National Institute on Media and the Family -- Summaries of some media
debates surrounding Littleton -- Senate testimony on the shootings.
Freedom Forum online -- Information on First Amendment issues.
Killology Research Group -- The causes and impact of violent behavior.
"Ten things wrong with the "effects" model. -- A critique
Videogames Under Fire -- an overview of videogame content and actions
Games Don't Kill People -- Do They? -- Article from Salon: "There's