Present-day, early twenty-first century media spaces are frequently overrun by implicit and explicit references to youth. In spite of new media scholarship’s tendency to highlight the unsettling of identity and the body, a concern for young people (at all points on the political spectrum) and a fetishization of youthfulness is a constant in many governmental and academic theories of new media. The aim of this essay is to subject this intersection of new media and youth to a critical and historical analysis. This link-up is generally written about and reinforced along two different trajectories: either in terms of a pedagogical pragmatics (in which a notion of “youth” is explicit) or a theoretical dwelling on the “new,” the “playful,” and the “possible” (in which a notion of “youth” is implicit). In the case of the former, it is necessary to highlight how this discourse of youth tends to channel attention toward a governmentality of the self, an emphasis that understands broader institutional and structural forces as most effectively available at the site of the self. For the latter, it is necessary to tease out the structuring absence of a sense of youthfulness in the face of an emphasis on a slippery, resistant subjectivity. Taken together, new media discourses powerfully resonate with and activate notions of youthfulness and this tendency requires critical explication through an analysis of some concrete examples as well as a broader situation in film and television studies and history.
In 2002 a report entitled, Youth, Pornography, and the Internet, was completed by the National Research Council’s Computer Science and Telecommunications Board. The document summarizes a three-year period over which researchers “visited a range of communities across the United States to hear firsthand” concerns pertaining to the relationship between young people and the Internet (Lin and Thornburgh x). Including the findings of “about 10” white papers, the report reviews the “technical, legal, law enforcement, educational, and economic dimensions of the problem of coping with materials and experiences on the Internet that are inappropriate for children” (Lin and Thornburgh xi-xii). The report also articulates “a range of social and educational strategies, technology-based tools, and legal and regulatory approaches that can help children to use the Internet more safely” (Lin and Thornburgh xi-xii). A provision of a kind of “framework” is made in order to empower “responsible adults” to come up with their own solutions (“embodying [each adult’s] own values”) relative to their specific cultural and political circumstances (Lin and Thornburgh xii). Pervasive throughout the document is a sense that the “problem” is too big to merit a clearly prescribed and articulated programmatic answer. The only possible route available to the committee charged with authoring the report (entitled “The Committee to Study Tools and Strategies for Protecting Kids from Pornography and Their Applicability to Other Appropriate Internet Content”) is to establish a field of information and assumptions within which “reasoned discussion” can commence and locally-oriented solutions can emerge (Lin and Thornburgh xii).
In light of recent US Census figures suggesting that “two-thirds of US school-age children had home access to the Internet” and “90 percent of our children have Internet access in either homes or schools,” the report notes that “most of the librarians and teachers with whom the committee spoke” cited a “need for information and media literacy” (Lin and Thornburgh xvi, 246). According to such testimony, young people “accept” information passively and “uncritically” without inquiry, curiosity, or subversion (Lin and Thornburgh 246). As a way to prop up young people’s defenses against the dual threat of “misleading information” and “disturbing” images, information/media literacy can instill in young viewers the cognitive capacity to measure and assess levels of truthfulness through the folding of context over text (Lin and Thornburgh 246).
Programs in media literacy generally focus on understanding media messages in context. That is, the “face” content of a media message is only one aspect of it. A media-literate individual understands how to evaluate the truthfulness and reliability of a media message, and also knows to ask about the motivations and intent of the party or parties responsible for distributing that message (Lin and Thornburgh 247).
An individual instilled with the powers of media literacy is cs media literacy “help to promote a more detached, more evaluative, and more reflectiveapable of regulating the trustworthiness and excesses of the screen by tracing its situation vis-à-vis a knowable and comprehensible real world as well as an author with an agenda more or less structured by definable self-interests. As the report continues it becomes clear that the regulatory powers of media-literate persons operate both externally and internally. Not only doe view of the media [and its] messages,” it also contributes to a higher sense of self-awareness on the part of the subject, a governing of “one’s own self” (Lin and Thornburgh 248). The committee notes that information and media literacy “may well strengthen impulse control and empathy, and help lead one to question one’s own behavior – and is likely to reduce the exposure resulting from impulsive behavior” (Lin and Thornburgh 248). Impulse-management or a self-defense against the productivity of one’s own unchecked desires and responses is as important as, if not synonymous with, the regulation of meaning emanating from the text. Most striking is the way in which this policy document readily admits that – at a certain level – the enabling of critical capacities in young subjects is just as much about the disenabling of others. This new media moment in which accessibility to the Internet is rampant calls out for new tactics and strategies of self-formation and regulation.
Feelings of change and transformation have also contributed to progressive calls for new literacies by an array of academic researchers over the last ten years. At the National Languages and Literacy Institute in 1997, Carmen Luke conveyed a sense of qualitative change (both social and technological) in which rapidity and density are so elevated and heightened that a kind of disorientation can result. Luke notes:
Of all the innovations in communications technologies over the past two decades, the video cassette recorder (VCR), computer, and now the global network of the internet have had the most profound effect on home entertainment, education, and workplace practice…but our everyday social relations that increasingly are electronically mediated are also undergoing profound changes…change has been so rapid that the rate of technological innovation continually outstrips the rate of research output on the social, cultural, and educational consequences of electronic and global communication systems (Luke).
This “outstripping” or quickened pace of transformation calls for a broadly constituted pedagogy that “will help all students to become both proficient with a range of technology-specific skills, and to become aware of the larger social context and consequences of the role of technologies in their own lives and in contemporary society” (Luke). To such an end, Luke proposes a literacy that is both critical and multiple. This literacy would be critical by emphasizing two registers of textual interrogation and mastery. First, students would be trained to have a “meta-knowledge” of different media and generic systems entailing sensitivity to the ways in which these systems effect and structure the user’s reception (Luke). And, secondly, students would be asked to engage in a reverse movement by which these same systems are situated in “relations and interests of power within and across social institutions” (Luke). Such a critical literacy would also need to be multiple or “multi-” in order to prepare students to navigate media spaces premised upon hybridity, convergence, and intertextuality.
A multiliteracy of digital electronic ‘texts’ is based on notions of hybridity and intertextuality. Meaning making from the multiple linguistic, audio, and symbolic visual graphics of hypertext means that the cyberspace navigator must draw on a range of knowledges about traditional and newly blended genres or representational conventions, cultural and symbolic codes, as well as linguistically coded and software driven meanings (Luke).
This “range of knowledges” would blend technical and analytical propensities in order to empower students to “assess the socio-cultural and political consequences” bound up with techno-mutations (Luke).
These two texts reflect different tributaries of thought feeding into a grander sense of the need for a new kind of screen literacy. The first text, a research document rendered for state bureaucracies, conflates sexual anxieties about pornography with other anxieties associated with racism and violence to articulate a literacy that is explicitly protectionist in – as mentioned above – two interconnected ways: it would protect children from screen phenomena as well as from themselves through techniques of “impulse control.” The second text, representative of a more progressive vision, places greater emphasis on a kind of empowerment that is less about protecting and more about triggering subjective mappings that enable students to trace their own location in relation to broader systems of power. Consoling rather than controlling one’s self in the face of “rapid” and traumatic changes in the spaces of everyday life is the priority in this more radical take on media literacy. However, in spite of these real and consequential differences, it is clear that there is an overlapping of sensibility as regards media spaces and the relationship these new spaces have with the self. Modernist and postmodernist sensibilities clash and intermingle as overwhelming disorientation and dislocation is registered alongside of a hope for new navigating tactics which will empower new subjects to rise above the fray and develop a new media consciousness. These discourses inherit a long tradition in which “literacy” as it is traditionally conceptualized is transformed and transferred to different realms involving the visual and technological. Moving beyond the mere technical training of grammatical and syntactical skills as applied to an inert text, these two documents activate and contribute to an ongoing Freirean history of re-configuring literacy to encompass critical or meta knowledges concerning contextual planes and the shaping of the self. Most importantly, we should recognize these documents as representative of a contemporary moment in which discourses of youth and development are inextricably linked to anxieties and euphoric claims pertaining to the rise of a new techno-culture. As the National Research Council’s document suggests, the object of analysis is as much a theoretically unrestrained “child” as it is unharnessed technologies. For Luke, the figure of the student is the point at which a new orientation and re-mapping of the digital needs to begin; students in her discourse, whether adult or youth, are powerful future-figures whose relationships to new media spaces are overburdened with dread and hope. Beyond these specific references to youthful subjects, the very novelty of the total media environment described by these two documents interpelate even “non-youths” as young in the sense of being unfamiliar with the new social relations engendered by digital transformations as well as with media spaces themselves, whose shape-shifting characteristics overrun our cognitive orientations and leave us lost in a world we feel we don’t know in a manner akin to a rebirth.
At the core of many such discourses is a youth-figure. Whether the object of a discourse is a child, teenager, or simply a student, an overburdened figure is often directly evoked, one whose fragile constitution carries the fate of the technologically mediated culture in which he or she is situated. This figure is overburdened for two reasons, both of which nourish its qualities of youth. First, unlike the authors of such discourses who are associated with the present, the figure is associated with an uncertain future, with paths yet to be forged much less pursued. Second, this figure is also articulated as a kind of Lockean blank slate: a vulnerable, amoral, and open palette whose value resides in its raw potential. This coupling of possibility with vulnerability in the form of a central figure surfaces in a wide array of academic, industrial, governmental, and popular articulations of concern over new techno-cultures. “Young people,” “children,” “teenagers,” “adolescents,” and “students” all contribute to an imaginary construct of the youth-figure as it is evoked in a wide array of discourses on new technologies. This youth-figure, then, occupies a tenuous position in which fears and euphoric claims abound regarding dangerous effects/uses of digital technologies and new modes of expressivity. But, secondly and more broadly, the cybernetic environment and shifting/multiplying subject-positions supposedly engendered by a new mode of information brings to the fore youthful metaphors as well as a fetishization of endless renewal or rejuvenation. In this latter sense, the youth-figure serves as a wellspring for symbolic renderings and metaphorical tropes structuring our understanding of twenty-first century media spaces as, not only new, but endless regenerations (a continual outstripping).
Recent attempts to account for the relationship between new techno-cultures and discourses of youth include Rob Latham’s Consuming Youth: Vampires, Cyborgs, and the Culture of Consumption (2002). For Latham, the unique characterizations of youth in contemporary culture are the products of a post-Fordist regime in which a rupturing of the labor-leisure circuit has structured a new relationship between production and youth. The post-Fordist epoch is characterized by a radical de-stabilization of an always precarious equilibrium between production and consumption. Developments associated with this term include the elevation of batch over mass production (or economies of scope over economies of scale), the erosion of the US manufacturing base and an expansion of service and capital sector jobs (or S sector and K sector jobs, as James K. Galbraith would call them in his analysis of the “three level economy”), de-unionization, as well as the decline of the nation-state and the rise of currency speculation (Latham 17). Reviewing the literature on this post-Fordist or postindustrial age, Latham identifies a set of assumptions pertaining to notions of youth in this new context. First, a reversal sets in – one that suggests a new relationship between labor and leisure spheres. He notes that rather than accommodate demands of production machines through the prioritization of dexterity and malleability, youthfulness (a youthfulness “out there” in the world of consumption and play) has come to define and structure the sphere of production (from youth-MACHINES to YOUTH-machines). For many theorists of post-industrialism, the “play-time pleasures” of youthfulness “have become the virtual fountainhead of wealth creation and business success” (Latham 159). The reason for this reversal has to do with the central role attributed to new technologies in the post-Fordist era. In light of the hi-tech developments associated with the post-industrial moment, Latham notes a dual usage of youth in post-industrial literature that reflects the twin character of the youth-figure as both a metaphor for empirical persons and a reservoir of essences to be tapped. “On the one hand,” he writes, “postindustrial theorists argue that the massive technological change associated with the information revolution necessarily privileges youth as social subjects, since they are not only those most likely to experience its fallout but also best prepared to respond to its challenges; youth are depicted as especially savvy about new technologies to the point of taking on their qualities of effortless efficiency and built-in expertise” (Latham 144). But, “on the other hand,” Latham recognizes that youth offers up crucial metaphors – “curiosity, pliability…” – for the figuration of the digital age: an age in which “cybernetic apparatuses” are increasingly described “in terms evocative of adolescent energy and enthusiasm” (Latham 144). Latham’s situation of youth in post-Fordist discourses and its relationship to new technologies calls to mind Mark Poster’s “Mode of Information” or “Second Media Age,” a different accounting for economic and social transformations since the seventies – one that owes more to Michel Foucault than to Karl Marx.
For Poster, the elevation of screen cultures to a place of prominence in contemporary social life calls out for a distinct and determined emphasis on “linguistic forms,” such as television and the computer, that have dramatically impacted the patterns of communication shaping our lives (“Social reality, then, changes its shape: social interactions are a combination of face-to-face verbal exchanges and electronic audio-visual emissions”; Poster, Foucault, Marxism, & History 165). Calling for a critical theory in tune with these conditions, Poster establishes the phrase “Mode of Information” as a new designation for the linguistic forms that have saturated the very texture of twentieth and early twenty-first century communication. In further elaboration, he writes:
Taken together, the study of the new forms of language experience and the relation of these new forms to other social institutions constitutes the substance of the term ‘mode of information.’ I am not arguing that the mode of information completely replaces the mode of production: society could not continue without the uninterrupted production of commodities. Nor am I arguing that the mode of information is the only or even central concern of critical theory. What I am saying is rather that the social field is changing rapidly, that new forms of social interaction based on electronic communications devices are replacing older types of social relations and that the place of language experience is an important area in the new social fabric (Poster, Foucault, Marxism, & History 168).
In some ways, post-Fordism and the Mode of Information are equally ambivalent and problematic in their claims to highlight an essential novelty in socio-economic conditions transpiring over the last twenty-five years. Post-Fordist scholars debate the degree to which Fordist structures still persist and Poster recognizes above that the Mode of Information doesn’t necessarily replace the capitalist mode of production but highlights a need for a shift in emphasis from economic determinist theories to ones more inclusive of the role of language (it “affects small but important aspects of everyday life”; Poster, The Second Media Age 33). It is more than a little ambiguous whether Poster believes that this Mode of Information simply foregrounds the productive role of language in structuring social relations or if this new epoch actually registers a qualitative step forward and enhancement of its role (Poster seems to suggest the latter). However, rather than endorse one label over another – both have problems – it is important to note that Poster’s discourse on the Mode of Information implicitly taps into essences and qualities derivative from the youth-figure; in this sense, his work parallels the post-industrial and post-Fordist work surveyed by Latham.
In his book, The Second Media Age, Poster writes that he is primarily interested in illuminating the “historical emergence of the decentered subject and explor[ing] its links with new communications situations” (35). Specifically, he suggests that in order to attain a thorough comprehension of these new situations one must assess the “type of subject” encouraged by new communications technologies (23). He further notes that any “viable articulation of postmodernity must include an elaboration of its relation to new technologies of communication” (23). This is a discourse concerned with an historical transformation carrying profound consequences: new subjects, new technologies, heavy implications for a politics of multiculturalism and radical change. Like Carmen Luke and the National Research Council, Poster underscores the novel quality of our socio-cultural conditions. At this level, he activates metaphors associated with the youth-figure and developmentalist mentalities by emphasizing the new-ness of these conditions. In particular, these “new” subjects are characterized by Poster as “unstable, multiple, and diffuse” – dredging up dimensions of the youth-figure associated with vulnerability and raw potentiality, threatening/promising to develop in any direction depending on the circumstances (32). As Poster discusses virtual reality, this particular domain of communications technologies foregrounds the youth-figure even more persuasively. Following Katherine Hayles, Poster proposes that the “lightening of the weight of the referent” associated with new technologies institutes new possibilities for “play” that can highlight unspoken assumptions underpinning late capitalist formations (38). Virtual reality machines, for Poster, “should be able to allow the participant to enter imagined worlds with convincing verisimilitude, releasing immense potentials for fantasy, self-discovery and self-construction” (39). Such language is infused with youthful metaphors. “Fantasy” is generally acculturated as playful imaginative musings and “self-discovery” grounds fantasy in a narrative of youthful exploration of which Edward Stratemeyer would approve. He continues:
In the second media age “reality” becomes multiple…But the duplication incurs an alternation: virtual realities are fanciful imaginings that, in their difference from real reality, evoke play and discovery, instituting a new level of imagination. Virtual reality takes the imaginary of the world and the imaginary of the film or video image one step farther by placing the individual “inside” alternative worlds. By directly tinkering with reality, a simulational practice is set in place which alters forever the conditions under which the identity of the self is formed (30-31).
This potential new identity is overdetermined by terms such as “play,” “discovery,” and “imagination” in Poster’s description of these duplication machines. Most provocative is the phrase, “tinkering with reality”: an action that calls to mind early twentieth century images of male and often boy hobbyists engaging new technologies with a fervor assumed to be intrinsic. A hundred years earlier, magazines such as Scientific American and Popular Mechanics “marketed to mechanically inclined male hobbyists [and] devoted many articles to motion picture and radio technology” (Fuller 144). These associations are reflected in Herbert Hoover’s claim that the radio boom was directly attributable to the “genius of the American boy” (qtd. in Barnouw 39).
But, in spite of such associations with the youth-figure and new-ness, Poster is often concerned with the tensions between new possibilities and the hindrance of persistent regulatory powers. For example, even as he contemplates the possibility that a postmodern condition buttressed by a new infrastructure of electronic communications “is emerging which nurtures forms of identity different from, even opposite to those of modernity,” he points out that discourses on such an infrastructure lean towards treating it and its attendant transformations “as enhancements for already formed individuals to deploy to their advantage or disadvantage” (The Second Media Age, 24). Put simply, he recognizes that a “discourse on new communications technology is in process of formation, one which is largely limited by the vision of modernity” (The Second Media Age, 26). The key problem or tension becomes how capitalism is to “contain the word and the image, to bind them to proper names and logos when they flit about at the speed of light and procreate with indecent rapidity, not arborially, to use the terms of Deleuze and Guattari, as in a centralized factory, but rhyzomically, at any decentered location” (Poster, The Second Media Age 29). In his discussion of multiculturalism, Poster articulates his hope that new media spaces such as virtual reality are the harbinger of new technocultures representing “no return to an origin, no new foundationalism or essentialism but a coming to terms with the process of identity constitution and doing so in ways that struggle against restrictions of systematic inequalities, hierarchies and asymmetries” (The Second Media Age 42). While enabling a form of subject experience transcendent of corporeal realities such as gender and race, let me suggest that the persistence of youthful metaphors and developmentalist tropes in the description and inscription of these technologies enable the retention of hierarchical mentalities and powers. I say this because the youth-figure is not abstract. It often allows for the activation of white, male, hetero-chauvinist cultures within the confines of a romanticized sense of youth. In glossing over differences, the term “youth” can empower a re-writing of white, masculine normativity. And, more than obscuring difference, the symbolic weight of the youth-figure yields a resignation to a kind of developmentalism. “Development” is a term that has not only been applied to the human body by Western sciences, but is also a term used to understand and re-inscribe differences between cultures and nations. Related terms such as “maldevelopment” and “underdevelopment” can contribute to supremacist modes of thought, hence undermining the rhizomatic potential of new technologies by virtue of development’s intrinsic arborial connotations. Latham makes a similar point in his review of virtual reality technologies when he (following Tim McFadden) recognizes that the facilitating machines whose task it is to wire us in to virtual realities always retain the potential for transforming experience into a “quantifiable metric of human experience as well as a commodity” (Latham 241). Virtual Reality may regulate subjectivity itself in much the same way developmentalist discourses serve to narrate subject conditions as growth, stagnation, or regression.
What the National Research Council, Carmen Luke, Rob Latham, and Mark Poster all register in their work is the pervasiveness of a certain cultural logic that organizes new technocultures according to a youth-figure: a term that calls to mind both young bodies as well as notions of youthfulness and development. It is precisely this logic that needs unsettling through a historicization that situates it in relation to other media manifestations such as film and television. John T. Caldwell and Anna Everett have suggested that moving image scholars “are uniquely prepared for the present task of envisioning, theorizing, and articulating issues around the digital media revolution and its impact on and implications for contemporary cultural theory and praxis” (Caldwell and Everett xii). Such is the case because the “hyperbolic discourses that construct the new digital media’s impact in terms of simplistic utopic/dystopic binary oppositions” are in need of countervailing voices that not only highlight the pluralist nature of digital technologies but also draw upon media histories to temper persistent “pre-curve” prattle (Caldwell 4, 16). As Caldwell has stated, “[h]istorifying digital rhetoric and theory is essential for media studies scholars and students” (2).
Moving image culture – specifically film, television, and video – has a long history of orienting media around young or “under-developed” subjects. The National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, established in 1909 as the New York Board of Motion Picture Censorship, sought to balance the idea that movies had value as popular entertainment with the anxiety that many films were exerting a negative influence upon new immigrants and their children (Jacobs 30-31; also see Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson 102-104, Sklar 30-31). Don Carlos Ellis and Laura Thornborough, advocates for film education in the twenties, attempted to re-shape the debate on passivity in relation to film spectatorship by articulating passivity’s relevance to learning and hence blurring its assumed opposition to activity (Ellis and Thornborough). According to Lea Jacobs, the published conclusions of The Payne Fund Studies offered “an account of the cinema’s power to create internal ‘states of excitement’ in children and suggested how cinema might affect the behavior of spectators according to their age, gender and class” (32). One researcher, Jacobs notes, emphasized “emotional possession” among the young people who participated in his findings. Emotional possession was “defined as the spectator’s loss of control of feelings, actions and thoughts in favor of an identification with characters or actors within the scene” (Jacobs 33). The significance of this finding was asserted by Werrett Wallace Charters, another contributor to the Payne Fund Studies. It was his belief that “children were more vulnerable than adults to the phenomenon of emotional possession” (Jacobs 33). For Charters, children lacked the capacity to distinguish the moving image from reality and, therefore, were more inclined than adults to cave in to the allure of emotional possession (Jacobs 33). Interestingly, the contributors to the studies also assumed that such inclinations were much more heightened amongst children and teenagers growing up in immigrant families (Jacobs 33). Such a stated assumption foregrounds the classist and xenophobic tendencies embedded within developmentalist discourses.
Jacobs also highlights the ways in which the film education movement in the thirties sought to develop pedagogical methods to instill critical faculties into young people’s moving image viewing habits, although this was largely inspired by the belief that young viewers were naturally predisposed toward emotional possession, unfiltered reception of whatever happens to be onscreen. But for many educators it was felt that this passivity could be countered by integrating “writing exercises” and “classroom discussion” into the viewing experience (Jacobs 35). In contrast to the goals of earlier film educators, such as Ellis and Thornborough, organizations like Teaching Film Custodians and the National Council of Teachers of English had a non-utilitarian view of film education. Rather than use non-fiction films to help teach geography or science, these bodies pursued the teaching of films-in-themselves, or – more precisely – the viewing of films. Writes Jacobs:
I see the film education movement as…an attempt to offset the putative effects of film viewing among those sectors of the audience which had been singled out as particularly at risk…Through writing exercises, classroom discussion, and film clips, teachers attempted to instill new habits of film viewing and to teach their students new ways of interpreting what they saw (Jacobs 35).
Echoing the National Research Council’s views on literacy in relation to new media, film viewing was understood by some educators in the thirties as a kind of “skill” that needed to be nurtured and developed in young, vulnerable children and adolescents. The aim was to instill in young people a kind of self-regulation of viewing habits in which psychic investment in films is restrained by a values and aesthetics of realism. It was assumed that the best way to bolster the internal fortitude of young viewers was to train them to feel disdain for films “which make the audience so excited or…so absorbed that they are not able to think about the meaning and truthfulness of the story” (Jacobs 38). A high-brow dismissal of spectacle and mass entertainment was seen as the ideal attitude for proper impulse control.
Much of this history is still in need of exploration and research. This is the case perhaps because writing moving image history in a chronological fashion writes out media education as it writes in more industrially oriented phenomena. However, reviewing the history of moving image cultures and their relationship to youth from the vantage point of today yields an entirely different perspective that underscores not only youth uses and effects on youth, but also spheres of media education and the governmental, civic, academic pressures that are brought to bear on them. The new literacies called for by Carmen Luke and the National Research Council register, perhaps unwittingly, a history of arranging moving image technologies around the youth-figure so as to promote and foster certain kinds of behavior.
Stephen Michael Charbonneau is a doctoral candidate in Critical Studies in the Department of Film, Television, and Digital Media at the University of California, Los Angeles. His dissertation is entitled, Global and Local Selves: Youth, Documentary, and Global Media Cultures, 1984-1999.
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