What Does Media Studies Do?

What does Media Studies Do? Clearly, it’s an academic discipline that is in some way related to media and communication, but what does it do? What’s the point? Notice, the question, I’m not asking about what media studies is as a field, nor am I asking about it’s intellectual history or even what type of jobs you might get if you study media — instead, the question concerns what kind of results does the performance of media studies yield? Or, what can we learn from the tools that media studies allot us. What are the critical and practical elements that we might gain from doing media studies?

Media studies, at its core, holds that it is the media itself, rather than the messages media carry, that shape our world. Stopping and thinking about this idea for a minute is actually pretty provocative. This means, for example, that the medium of writing shapes human culture more than anything written on the page itself. Or, the medium of television itself shapes culture more than any inflammatory thing Donald Trump might say.

At this point, this sort of idea might be a hard sell — Really? Donald Trump has dominated public discourse and news media for months and months. How could Television, something barely controversial, be more formative for our culture as a whole. If you were thinking this, or something similar, you’ve already arrived at the most important point: media, like television, writing or even the internet, are largely invisible to us. We follow their lead without even thinking about it!

Marshall McLuhan, an incredibly important figure for the field of Media Studies, is famous for saying “All media work us over completely.” Media comprise the structures we live and move between in our daily life and they shape us and the way we think largely without us even realizing it. Think for a minute, when was the last time you wrote a sentence by hand in cursive? It’s certainly been awhile for me — do you remember how to make a cursive “f”? It’s impossible!

In case you were wondering.

Alternatively, think about the last time you typed a sentence by hand — when was that? Today? This morning? Moments ago? While you were reading this? The point is that we engage with an number of media without really thinking about how drastically it shapes us! Has your handwriting gotten worse since you first learned to write the alphabet? Personally, my penmanship is still on the level of a 4 year old.

Who is to blame here? Do you just not practice penmanship regularly, or has the technique of writing by hand just fallen out of style? Typing at a keyboard is the norm for most people in the western world––have you ever really thought about what effect that has on your life? When we sit and work at computers for most of our day, what happens to our bodies? We become shaped like the offices we sit in.

These are just a few jumping off points for media studies––though we can go even further by asking questions about the very materiality of the media itself. For example, examining the cultural effects of the internet is a huge task for media studies, but if we were to direct our attention to the infrastructure itself, we’d gain a bit of a different understanding.

The internet is not only just a place of trolls, dank memes and gifs, but it’s also a complex network of fiber optic cable, conduit, servers, access points, radio waves. Not to mention the constellation of infrastructure necessary (like the production of electricity or mining rare earth metals) to keep the Internet operational.

Now, back to the question at hand — what does media studies do? Media studies is a field of study that deploys ways of looking at the world that direct our attention to the social, cultural, economic and sometimes even religious affects our interactions with the media have! Media studies is not just about cultural analyses, but it also include the insight from a number of other fields: design, engineering, computer science, geology, environmental sciences and ecology. Media Studies give us the interdisciplinary tools to understand the ways human experience is shaped and altered by technology. When we do media studies we look critically at the media itself and how it changes our world and ourselves.