Media ecology is a multidisciplinary field that studies the evolution, effects, and forms of environments. Media ecology is most often defined as both the study of media as environments and the study of environments – such as situations or contexts – as media. Scholars work within expansive definitions of media, ecology, and technology. Although “medium” is often conceptualized in terms of transportation or a pipeline, the term actually means “environment.” Media therefore include not only communication technologies but also such entities as the brain and body, a lecture hall or galaxy, and languages, symbols, and codes. Media ecologists study all types of technology, not just communication technologies, and often use the terms “media” and “technology” interchangeably. “Ecology,” too, encompasses a complex range of meanings for media ecologists, who draw on systems theory to analyze the co-evolution of the human organism and technologies. In addition, media ecologists are concerned with the general role of technology in society.
Media ecology as a field distinguishes itself from communication per se, positing an open, dynamic, interdependent, and living system of forces. When studying human communication systems, media ecologists work from an inclusive perspective, exploring the creation, exchange, mediation, and dissemination of information, as well as the reciprocally influential relationship among means/content of communication and communicators/ users. Media ecologists frequently employ a model of four major media environments and concomitant cultures: oral, scribal/manuscript/ chirographic, print/typographic, and electronic.
Lance Strate, co-founder and president of the 10-year-old Media Ecology Association (MEA), categorizes media ecology as a field of study, eschewing the concept of discipline or even cross-disciplinary study in favor of inviting overlap among multiple disciplines in search of holistic theoretical approaches and explanations for communication phenomena. For example, media ecologists might ground theory in the traditionally distinct ideas of Aristotle and Plato, science and art, or journalism and literature. The goal – and indeed the genesis – is complementarity and simultaneity rather than separate, oppositional categories. Strate stresses that media ecology is “an intellectual tradition, a perspective and a shared sensibility . . . a network of related literature, a series of conversations and arguments that span the centuries” (Strate 2006, 2).
Neil Postman is credited with coining the term “media ecology” in 1968. However, the history of this expansive approach to studying meaning-making and dissemination is often traced back to ancient times, with particular attention to analyzing contemporary media forms in context with the oral traditions of early humans. Media ecologists point to communication forms external to the body – such as gesture, cave art, speech, and in particular writing – as evolving from and influencing the evolution of communication forms that are internal to the body – such as mental structures, patterning, memory, and creativity. A foundational hypothesis is that each form of communication simultaneously evolves from and affects the nature of thought itself and therefore affects message content and perception. This idea is most famously expressed through Marshall McLuhan’s axiom “The medium is the message.” Asked what happens to content in such an approach, Eric McLuhan responds, “My father was asked that many times. His answer? The user is the content.”
The three foundational theorists in contemporary media ecology are Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, and Neil Postman. Although McLuhan’s first book, The mechanical bride: Folklore of industrial man (1951), laid the groundwork for future theory through its scrutiny of popular culture as revealed through advertising and other media imagery, his Understanding media (1964) expresses a number of influential themes: media extend the body, media transform the user, media transform other media, media transform culture, and the medium is the message. Among the major influences on McLuhan were political economist Harold Innis and anthropologists Edward T. Hall and Edmund Carpenter.
Walter Ong, who studied with McLuhan, emphasized evolution of media environments and intersections of consciousness, communication, and culture. One of his best-known works, The presence of the word (1967), presented his conceptualization of primary orality, or communication before the time of writing, and secondary orality, or communication influenced by writing and subsequently by electronic forms of media. Ong’s Orality and literacy (1982), which further explores differences between oral and literate societies in terms of communication and cognition, has been particularly influential.
Neil Postman, who founded and directed the Media Ecology Program at New York University until his death in 2003, has been influential in both scholarly and public arenas. An advocate of the need for schools to preserve print-based literacy as a way to preserve cultural values, he also achieved fame as a media critic. He is known for a number of books, including The disappearance of childhood (1982) and Amusing ourselves to death (1985), in which he admonishes television and electronic media for their negative effects on culture and language. The Media Ecology Association, led by scholars who began their careers under the tutelage of Postman, meets annually.
A common theme among the works of McLuhan, Ong, and Postman is that the development of writing, and in particular the Greek alphabet, significantly altered how humans think, behave, and make meaning. The scholars asserted the value of written communication over other forms of mass media, crediting “the word” with helping humans develop a sense of individuality and intrapersonal communication. A related theme is the influence of communication systems on social organization and culture. In this vein, notation and writing systems are linked with the origins of civilization, the city and empire. The visuality and linearity of the Greek alphabet, for example, are viewed as primary determinants of western civilization, including laws and systems of government. Media ecology literature frequently refers to the influences of the alphabet and Gutenberg’s printing press on the development of such modern-world concepts as nationalism and individualism. In turn, the pervasiveness of contemporary electronic media now undermines nationalistic boundaries. Another common thread is the idea that we now live in an “acoustic age,” in which media dimensions extend beyond the visual through sound and emotion, fostering multi-sensory experiences.
Other major scholars from disciplines ranging from linguistics to sociology to physics form a nucleus of the literature providing key threads of theory supporting and influencing media ecology scholarship. Frequently referenced are Edward Sapir, George Herbert Mead, Lewis Mumford, Benjamin Whorf, Edward T. Hall, Erving Goffman, Daniel Boorstin, Jacques Ellul, Eric Havelock, Buckminster Fuller, and Gregory Bateson. Particularly influential is Susanne Langer, whose Philosophy in a new key (1942) expanded the concept of symbol to include art, music, and sensory perception. Other thinkers who have influenced the field include Noam Chomsky, Niklas Luhmann, Susan Sontag, Humberto Maturana, Francisco Varela, Ilya Progogine, Isabelle Stengers, Jay David Bolter, Richard Grusin, Robert Logan, Joshua Meyrowitz, James Carey, Denise SchmandtBesserat, David Altheide, and Kathleen Hayles.
Media ecologists employ cultural history, seeking to discern historical patterns that illuminate the present and offer insight into the future. In The myth of the machine (1967), Lewis Mumford explained: “If we do not take the time to review the past we shall not have sufficient insight to understand the present or command the future: for the past never leaves us, and the future is already here” (1967, 13). Additional methods include ethnography; case study; context, textual, aesthetic, philosophical, and critical analysis; and creative literary and artistic forms used as probes to facilitate awareness, understanding, and innovative exploration. Media ecologists occasionally employ traditional quantitative methods, particularly in triangulation with qualitative methods.
One method unique to media ecology scholarship is application of the tetrad to intepret and predict media effects on society and culture. Articulated by Marshall McLuhan and Eric McLuhan in Laws of media: The new science (1988), which Eric McLuhan completed after his father’s death in 1980, are four laws, or questions: What does a medium enhance or extend? What does it obsolesce or background? What does it retrieve? And what does it reverse into when pushed to the extreme? Eric McLuhan describes the tetrad process as similar to playing a musical chord in which a medium’s effects are experienced synchronally, dynamically, and through multiple dimensions. Another presentation of the tetrad is found in Marshall McLuhan and Bruce Powers’ The global village: Transformations in world life and media in the twenty-first century (1989), which Powers completed after his colleague’s death. This version illustrates the four laws via a Möbius strip through which media forms and effects continually shift or resonate. Both versions emphasize simultaneity, complementarity, and an endless, nonlinear, dynamic process of transformation. Recent work extends application of the tetrad to the analysis of practices, institutions, and concepts.
A number of major themes and issues can be identified: (1) Tension between organisms as technologies and organisms as creators of technologies; (2) co-evolution of organisms and technologies, though scholars such as Mumford emphasize development of brain over development of external tools; (3) influence of a medium on content, users, and cultures; transformation through and because of technological use; (4) multidisciplinarity, in which art/science, literature/journalism, fiction/fact, popular/elite, internal/external, figure/ground, and visible/invisible reciprocally inform and transform; (5) concern about deterministic aspects of potentially out-of-control technology, particularly in relation to humanistic values and global sustainability; (6) tension between understandings of word and image, oral and written, visual and acoustic, organism and machine; (7) holistic, contextualized views of particular occurrences; (8) emphasis on synchronous and complementary, rather than distinctive and oppositional, processes and influences; (9) inclusive topics of study ranging from autism to artificial intelligence; (10) playful exploration balanced with theoretical commitment to relationships among organisms and ideas; (11) openness to creative approaches and intellectual risk-taking in the interest of discovery.
In his keynote address to the first conference of the Media Ecology Association in 2000, Neil Postman asserted that media ecology “exists to further our insights into how we stand as human beings, how we are doing morally in the journey we are taking.”
- Langer, S. (1942). Philosophy in a new key: A study in the symbolism of reason, rite and art. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Lum, C. M. K. (ed.) (2006). Perspectives on culture, technology, and communication: The media ecology tradition. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
- McLuhan, M. (1951). The mechanical bride: Folklore of industrial man. New York: Vanguard.
- McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media: The extensions of man. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- McLuhan, M., & McLuhan, E. (1988). Laws of media: The new science. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
- McLuhan, M., & Powers, B. (1989). The global village: Transformations in world life and media in the twenty-first century. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Mumford, L. (1967). The myth of the machine: Technics and human development. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.
- Ong, W. J. (1967). The presence of the word: Some prolegomena for cultural and religious history. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- Ong, W. J. (1982). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.
- Postman, N. (1982). The disappearance of childhood. New York: Delacorte.
- Postman, N. (1985). Amusing ourselves to death: Public discourse in the age of show business. New York: Viking.
- Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Knopf.
- Strate, L. (2006). Echoes and reflections: On media ecology as a field of study. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.