Navigating the Waters:
Choices and Challenges for an Equitable and Inclusive Techno-Human Ecosystem

MEA President’s Address, 21st Annual Convention of the Media Ecology Association
Adelphi University (online), June 17–20, 2020

Paolo Granata, University of Toronto

Dear members, colleagues, and friends,

It is a true honor and pleasure for me to serve as president of the Media Ecology Association. The MEA has been near and dear to my heart in the past ten years.

In the MEA I found a place for innovative scholarship and interdisciplinary dialogues in an area of study which I truly love. But most importantly, I found in the MEA a diverse community of brilliant minds and wonderful people. I felt welcomed and I knew this was the right place for me to thrive, not just as a scholar but as a human being. Today I cannot but be deeply grateful to the MEA and I’m even more excited about continuing to contribute to development of this organization and our community. While most scholarly associations are based around specific fields of study, the MEA is based on a common interest in interdisciplinary research and interaction, exploring media ecology from a wider range of perspectives and expertise. This creates a diverse membership — a diverse intellectual environment which encourages more open discussion and the greater cross-pollination of creative ideas.

Diversity in our membership is our true strength. Diversity is the mother of creativity. The more diverse we are as a community, the more creative we will be as an organization. And this is true for the media ecosystems as well — when ecosystems intersect, there is an explosion of diversity, as well as adaptive and innovative change. As a scholarly organization, as a community of practice in fact, the MEA fosters social change. But as members of this community, while sharing common interests and concerns, we all take actions at an individual level. As scholars, educators, researchers, artists, we have a great responsibility in society to unleash the potential that human technology ecosystems hold for enacting positive social change, and in doing so we constantly make choices and face challenges. And here we are, the theme of this year’s annual convention is “Communication Choices and Challenges.”

We have moved online. Just twelve weeks ago, when the world was facing the highest risk of the global pandemic, after careful considerations, we decided to transform our 2020 annual convention into an unconventional convention. In fact, moving our event online was a brave choice — coherent with the mission of our association to study the complexity of our media environments — and an ambitious challenge for everyone involved. We believed that going online was a unique opportunity we could embrace together as a community. And so I’d like to express my gratitude for you all attending this convention and for all people involved in the organization of this event.

Under the leadership of our convention coordinator, Peggy Cassidy, this group of extraordinary people — including MEA officers, students and members of the Adelphi University — worked very hard to create a reimagined online convention experience. They were able to bring our first online convention to life — our first “on life” convention, and I’m glad to see that the new format of our annual meeting seems to be working well. I feel a lot of excitement and enthusiasm. Great numbers, more than 200 presentations with presenters from 20 different countries. I also see several young scholars and let me say that you, young scholars, are not the future of our organization: you are the present(!) and your presence makes a huge difference. Furthermore, excellent featured speakers, engaging and inspiring plenaries, stimulating concurrent panels and social events as well. And it’s interesting to note that until a few months ago webinars and virtual conferences used to be the most boring and annoying things online. Now instead these online gatherings seem to be the part of the new “cool.” And we are learning a lot.

We are learning that things change. In fact we are not just navigating these uncertain times, we are not just using our skills or expertise to make sense of this unexpected situation. We are learning something new. Good ideas often start with a simple question. So my question is “what are the lessons we are learning from the current scenario?” Above all, the current crisis is teaching us the value and the importance of an understanding, united, and caring community. As a community in the media ecology intellectual tradition, we are currently learning to cooperate and collaborate in new ways, and this virtual convention is an example of that. Our online gathering is proof that our creative resilience matters and while responding with creativity and kindness to the challenges of this global pandemic we keep our shared commitment to creating rich inclusive environments for learning, understanding, and for pursuing research that unlocks solutions to global challenges.

It has been quite a while since the global pandemic first seemed to occupy all our mental space and our media environments as well. The global lockdown has been described as the biggest psychological experiment ever conducted in humankind. The impacts of the global pandemic have been wide-ranging and far-reaching, touching everything — from economies to health systems to social norms — in every corner of the globe. But some of its most significant impacts have been in the area of education. In light of the current crisis, the need for collaboration in research and education is of crucial importance. While we navigate this challenging time, we have an opportunity to build a greater sense of togetherness. It involves sharing transparently through collaborative networks and making it easier for everyone to take part in and benefit from the human ecosystem of educators and researchers all across the globe. The challenging but exciting future of our education system lies in our ability to continually foster relationships and expanding our global community. It is time to conceive the world as a classroom.

“The future is not what it used to be,” ironically stated Marshall McLuhan. The past few months have shown that what we take for granted can always change at any minute. Our news and social media feeds have been “bombarded” with news of Covid-19. The everyday language used to describe this current pandemic suggests that we are at war with the virus, portrayed as a battle against the cruel and hidden enemy that must be defeated. This is not such a bad thing, if the war analogy leads us to think in terms of a struggle that requires the contribution from all of us. However we know that language itself is a cognitive environment. The language we speak profoundly shapes the way we think. We think in words, by words, and the words we choose affect our thoughts. And it’s time to replace the language of conflict with the language of cooperation, in a global effort. Now more than ever it’s time to cooperate.

Speaking of language, over the past few months, as an emerging narrative it has been said that the virus is the “great equalizer.” That has been posted on Instagram by a pop star to millions of followers from her fancy bathtub. On Twitter someone commented, “if the virus were an equalizer everyone would be posting videos in their bathtubs.” The reality is that of course everyone is affected by the current crisis, but in a dramatically different ways. The virus itself as a biological entity may not discriminate. But our society does. If not an equalizer, the pandemic is an “intensifier.” It will sharpen and amplify inequalities already manifest in our society. In such moments, broken things in society reveal how broken they are.

It goes without saying how the current crisis is hitting some communities such as Black, brown, immigrant, indigenous, LGBT, disabled, working-class and low-income people all across the world. As the crisis progresses we will see how people already living in precarious settings are hit harder in any place, in any community, even in our MEA community, maybe the person one screen over on Zoom. And so, if we zoom in into this situation the main risk is that the crisis will amplify not just inequality but also inequity. So not just a less equal society. It may become a less fair and less just society.

This is not the moment to be silent as we must continue to push for justice and equity as justice and equity are the human values that are necessary to balance our digital ecosystem, as well as the states of equilibrium, harmony, and consistency. In our digital ecosystem, it’s all about justice and equity; it’s all about how we build an equitable digital ecosystem, where everyone is entitled to participate and nobody is left behind. After all, even our efforts to foster digital awareness or digital literacy go in the same direction: building a more equitable and inclusive digital environment where everyone has the skills and the attitude to participate, learn and most importantly succeed.

During a time of social distancing, that practically means physical distancing, in this state of isolation, in a remote learning education, we all have the responsibility to ensure everyone in our communities can connect to the internet. In 2011 the UN Human Rights Council defined the internet access as an indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights such as freedom of expression, information, participation and recommended that Internet access should be a priority for all states. So to overcome barriers to Digital Inclusion while facing this global emergency, Internet access must be conceived as a basic human right necessary to the quality of life, nobody should be left behind. We all can do our part standing and fighting for a better open and inclusive Internet to ensure that all individuals in communities, including the most disadvantaged, can access to it for education, work, personal health, as well as for pleasure. And it’s not just about how many people have access to Internet but whether the access is safe and meaningful for everyone.

In solidarity with the Black community. I’m sure we share profound concerns in response to the recent events affecting Black and racialized communities. We have witnessed many horrible events in the past few weeks and I think we all agree this is not the time to be silent. The brutal and unfair killing of George Floyd catalyzed a wave of massive demonstrations against anti-Black racism and race-based violence, which still exist in the United States, Canada, and countries around the world. I’m sure you can join me in expressing solidarity with the global protests against anti-Black and against other forms of racism and discrimination occurring at this time, in solidarity with the Black community. The opportunity now presents itself to learn from (and listen to) survivors of racial oppression (modern and historic) and to simultaneously un-learn harmful racist tendencies operating at all levels of society — individual, inter-personal, institutional, and systemic.

As a scholarly organization committed to understand and foster a positive social change, it is especially important in such times that we reaffirm our institutional commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion and we do not tolerate any form of discrimination. I’m also confident that all members of the Media Ecology Association remain resolute in our efforts to make our communities inclusive and welcoming, for members of the Black community and all others. We can do more and we need to do more to end anti-Black racism. As citizens, and in particular as media practitioners, media experts, media activists, our concrete actions to eradicate racism in all its forms will be the best evidence of our commitment. It’s time for some straight talk. Together we can thrive for change.

And let me also assure you that as an organization, the MEA is committed to creating and supporting inclusive diverse and equitable community of practice providing a thoughtful respectful and welcoming environment for everyone. In fact, driven by these principles and values in recent years, the MEA implemented a number of new policy initiatives with the goal of making our community more diverse and inclusive. And I’d like to reaffirm in particular the great work being done by our inclusivity committee and working group. It was not just a policymaking exercise, it was a way to foster awareness about these crucial topics within our community. And in this regard let me express my gratitude for all MEA board members and officers. They share a policymaking responsibility, that means identifying the best practices that can make the MEA community flourish according to its goals and mission. I encourage you all to reach out to me and to any member of the board if you would like to be involved with our work.

Finally, since the beginning of the lockdown, another narrative popped up in our news and social media feeds. It goes like this: we can’t go back to normal, we simply cannot return to where we were before Covid-19. Well, obviously there will be profound implications of consequences out of this crisis, but theoretically it is possible to return to business as usual, to be back to normal. But, if normal means returning to those development and conception modes that have exacerbated the socio-economic inequalities, there would be a disaster. And the new normal may be even worst than the old normal. Instead I like to think in terms of an “abnormal” future, in its etymological root, a departing from normal, a profound change for the good.

If we look back at the history of humankind, we see that after the 14th century Plague in Europe, secular education emerged and literacy increased. After the Spanish flu pandemic in early 20th century, many Western countries enhanced or embraced public health care. In this moment, when we are facing one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century, we have a historical opportunity to build a better normal, departing from the normal we didn’t like, and so to emerge from the crisis with the world changing for the better. There are so many other lessons that can be learned from the current situation to rethink our world.

This then is a call to action, an opportunity for change. I encourage you all to become part of that change and play your role as media ecologists in making that change possible. As we look toward the fall and the new year, please maintain the rich, vibrant and stimulating intellectual life for which our association is recognized.

Let me thank you once again, my dear colleagues and friends, for your continuing dedication to make the Media Ecology Association such a diverse and creative place. Latins used to say Per aspera ad astra, through hard times to the stars. There is an entire galaxy of stars waiting to be explored and reimagined: the human galaxy. Take care of yourself and each other, and let’s enjoy this journey together.

Thank you!

Paolo Granata
President, Media Ecology Association

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