Fred Johnson
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Arthur J. Harvey
Barry Forbes
Fred Johnson
Mary Lester
Jon Darling

Reading Policy into the World: A Media Working Group Policy Education Initiative  

Fred Johnson is founder of the Media Working Group (1987), a non-profit media arts organization that engages in production and educational activities that encourage critical understanding of the artistic, social, cultural and political impact of electronic media. MWG encourages the creation of television, video/film, literature, audio art, photography and multi-media; and provides training and co-production with other organizations in the creation and use of media arts for the expression of diversity, empowerment, self-representation and community development.

Fred Johnson

"The potential integration of texts, images and sounds in the same system, interacting from multiple points, in chosen time [real or delayed] along a global network, in conditions of open and affordable access, does fundamentally change the character of communication." Manuel Castells

It is pretty obvious that most of our institutions, work, schooling and recreation are being reorganized to accommodate new communication technologies. This is really what's behind much business restructuring as well as education reform in all its progressive and reactionary guises.

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Media Working Group's Jean Donohue and Fred Johnson at the 1998 OCCCN conference in Columbus, Ohio.
Certainly it is true of our literacy institutions as well. Literacy scholars have for some time now understood that notions of literacy change depending on their social and technological context. There are all kinds of "literacies." The way we read, write and produce meaning is far different in our networked world from the church and school book literacy of the 19th Century; the way print or texts are used simultaneously in relation to computer data bases and on-line multimedia is transforming what it means to "read" and "write" in profound and unpredictable ways; and, those same changes in what it means to create meaning are, not surprisingly, changing the process of policy advocacy and activism in equally profound ways.

With this in mind Media Working Group has begun work with adult literacy educators to design integrated telecommunications policy curriculum and training for adult literacy programs. Working with a Civil Rights Forum and CTCNet MIRA Telecommunications Policy grant, we are partnering with Operation Read, a state-wide literacy program in Kentucky, and the Carnegie Center for Literacy, who work with low income, rural communities. Although telecommunications policy and politics have always been critical areas for citizen concern they have also been, like all infrastructure policy, obscure and marked by exclusive, arcane language. Now the language is still arcane but not obscure, the importance of telecommunications policy has moved front and center as it has been increasingly recognized as critical to the Network Society. Media and telecommunication technology are the definitive infrastructure of the times. The deployment of these technologies shifts the basic dimensions of life. Their use dissolves boundaries between institutions, redefines public and private space, and changes our fundamental notions of community.

It is important to work for increased awareness and activism around telecommunications issues and opportunities, especially in rural areas where market forces are not as likely to provide public resources. For example, in Kentucky there is no widely understood policy for the development of community-based applications using the Kentucky State Government's high-speed, broadband network, which is capable of transmitting voice, data, video and graphics. There are no policy education opportunities for learning how local, state and national telecommunications can have a positive impact on rural development or rural life in general. Similarly, there is a lack of understanding among Kentucky's rural populace, not unlike in cities and other states, regarding the public policy processes that are creating the telecommunications systems that are increasingly crucial to our lives.

As text, graphics, photography, video and audio move into the digital environment, the notion of text literacy becomes inseparable from "computer literacy." Teaching literacy should, if at all possible, take place in a digital-network environment. And any notion of literacy -- whether it be text, media or computer literacy -- should mean awareness of the social and political processes shaping the communication technologies with which we are literate.

The artists and educators of Media Working Group are very excited to be joining efforts in Kentucky to link grass roots literacy training with concepts of computer literacy and public policy. The curriculum will address how the public policy process works, who the players are, how the public can intervene and have a voice in the public process. It will work to familiarize literacy students with new and emerging information infrastructures, and with issues of access, particularly for telephone and Internet access.

The work is a part of Media Working Group's Open Studio mentoring initiative funded by the Benton Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. "Open Studio: The Arts On-Line" was created to help arts and cultural organizations find a presence in digital space. Media Working Group's Open Studio work is part of its overall effort to work with communities to use the potential of telecommunications for self-direction and self-definition in the emerging global economy and culture.