In the first part of this series, I discussed what media ecology is, and in the second part, I covered major media shifts and what effects they had on humanity. In this part, I hope to examine some ways media shape us.
There are five senses with which we interact with the world around us: tasting, touching, smelling, hearing, and seeing. There are also the properties of the mind that help us to interact with our environments: rationality and imagination. The mind, together with the five senses make up the “sensoria,” and are the seven ways by which we experience and process the world. The word “sensibility” then refers to the cultivation of the sensoria, which can be a deliberate cultivation or unintentional cultivation. Since sensoria adjust to whatever they are exposed to, “each exposure makes the sensoria more apt at experiencing that reality” (Gordon lecture, 2007). It is also important to stress that exposures to the sensoria are not neutral. Gordon explains that “every perceptive act cultivates the sensoria one way or another.”
An example of this is how a child comes to learn the language of their home. Children are not born speaking a language, nor are children in different countries born with differing ears, tongues, and eyes. But a child who grows up in a French speaking home will learn to speak French merely by being exposed to the French language while an American child will learn to speak English by being exposed to English. The more the child is exposed to the one language, the more their minds can understand the language.
To use another analogy, Gordon likes to explain that our sensoria are like a baseball glove fresh from the store. The glove does not function well automatically and must be broken in. The more one pounds a baseball into the glove (and conditions it, sticks it under one’s bed while sleeping, bakes it in the oven, etc.), the more it conforms to the baseball and becomes good at catching the baseball. A glove conditioned to catch a baseball will not catch a softball very well, and vice versa. So with our sensoria and what we are exposed to.
The more we are exposed to the trivialities of electronic media, for example, the more we will be receptive to them and not receptive towards other media. The more TV news we watch with their mile-a-minute ads and contextless reporting, the smaller our attention spans will get and the harder it is to interact meaningfully with a book, for one. The less we use physical Bibles in corporate worship, the more biblically illiterate we will become. The more we are exposed to certain things, the more we notice and perceive them, and conversely, the less we are exposed to other sensory acts, the less our minds can perceive and understand them. Therefore, “what we perceive in the future is based upon what we have perceived in the past.”
Living in the electronic age, then, we are behind the proverbial eight ball in developing our sensoria. Because we are immersed in a world dominated by electronic media (which I explained in the second part as ephemeral, space-biased, trivial, and will I add here increasingly narcissistic), we must be even more self-conscious of exposing and developing our sensoria to meaningful media. Otherwise, man as made in the image of God would be lost in the triviality. By conforming to electronic media culture is one way we have eyes but do not see and ears but do not hear (Psalm 115, Matthew 13, etc.).
If this is the case, a main question that proceeds from this is, What can we do about it? What can we do to cultivate our sensoria to honor God better? Since electronic media promote the transitory, the fleeting, and the trivial, one way we can cultivate our sensoria away from such things is to limit our exposure to them and turn to God’s Word, which will stand forever (Isaiah 40:8). We should challenge ourselves to grow in areas like knowledge of God and His Word, appreciation for beauty in art and music, and more effective and intentional human interaction.
Neil Postman, in his conclusion to Technopoly, suggests that we should become “loving freedom fighters.” We need to reclaim a sense of the significant in every area of our lives, including entertainment, the arts, our churches, politics, and education. It must be taught that not all worthwhile things are instantly accessible or easily understandable but that there are levels of sensibility that must be explored.
One way this educational growth can take place is by asking questions. Remember that media and sensory experiences are not neutral, but sway us in one way or another. Ask yourself what negative things will happen to your mind and senses if all you are exposed to are television sitcoms, video/computer games, gangster rap lyrics, or inane Christian radio. Also, ask yourself what positive things will happen to your mind and senses if you are exposed to reading original texts of seminal authors, singing the Psalms in corporate worship, or learning how to appreciate a good wine. The lists can go on and on. Discernment and conscientiousness are key. Gratitude and glory to God for His good gifts and graces along with personal growth are the goals.
[many thanks to Dr. Gordon’s media ecology course and some of his other lectures for help with this series]