Media Ecology


The term ‘media ecology‘ was formally introduced in 1968 by cultural critic Neil Postman (who would later become well known for his 1985 book about television, ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’), but the concept was originally proposed four years earlier by Canadian philosopher of communication theory Marshall McLuhan. Media ecology theory centers on the principles that technology not only profoundly influences society, it also controls virtually all walks of life. It is a study of how media and communication processes affect human perception and understanding.

To strengthen this theory, McLuhan and graphic designer Quentin Fiore claim that it is the media of the epoch that defines the essence of the society by presenting four epochs, inclusive of Tribal Era, Literate Era, Print Era, and Electronic Era, which corresponds to the dominant mode of communication of the time respectively. McLuhan argues that media act as extensions of the human senses in each era, and communication technology is the primary cause of social change.

To understand how media affect large structural changes in human outlook, McLuhan classified media as either ‘hot’ or ‘cool.’ The former refers to a high-definition communication that demands little involvement from audience, whereas, the later describes media that demands active involvement from audience. McLuhan with his son Eric expanded the theory in 1988 by developing a way to look further into the effects of technology on society. They offer the ‘tetrad’ as an organized concept that allows people to know the laws of media, the past, present and current effects of media.

Media ecology is a contested term within media studies for it has different meanings in European and North American contexts. The North American definition refers to an interdisciplinary field of media theory and media design involving the study of media environments. The European version of media ecology is a materialist investigation of media systems as complex dynamic systems.

In 1934, after receiving an MA in English from the University of Manitoba, McLuhan moved to England to study at Cambridge University, a school which pioneered modern literary criticism and here he met one of his notable mentors I.A. Richards, a distinguished English professor. McLuhan admired Richards’ approach to criticism, a view that English studies are themselves nothing but a study of the process of communication. Richards believed that, ‘Words won’t stay put and almost all verbal constructions are highly ambiguous.’ It was this element of Richards’ perspective on communication that led McLuhan to express many of his ideas using metaphors and phrases such as ‘The Global Village’ and ‘The Medium Is the Message.’ Both have proven enduring concepts that encapsulate the theory of Media Ecology.

McLuhan used the approaches of Richards and English literary critic William Empson as an ‘entrée to the study of media.’ However it took many years of works before he was able to successfully fulfill their approaches. McLuhan determined that. ‘If words were ambiguous and best studied not in terms of their ‘content’ but in terms of their effects in a given context and if the effects were often subliminal, the same might be true of other human artifacts, the wheel, the printing press, the telegraph and the TV.’ This led to the emergence of his ideas on Media Ecology.

The first major attempt to make principles of media ecology relevant to the Internet age was the publication of the ‘ecological cognition framework’ in 2007. Level 1 of the framework describes what drives individuals to carry out actions in online communities such as posting messages and adding content. Level 2 looks at the cognitions they use to determine whether or not to take such actions. Level 3 looks at the means by which they go about carrying out the action in the environment. The framework can be applied to the problem of encouraging members to participate in media environments taking into account how people can be persuaded to participate by changing the way they interpret their desires and their environment as part of their socially constructed media ecology.

In 1977, McLuhan said that media ecology: ‘…means arranging various media to help each other so they won’t cancel each other out, to buttress one medium with another. You might say, for example, that radio is a bigger help to literacy than television, but television might be a very wonderful aid to teaching languages. And so you can do some things on some media that you cannot do on others. And, therefore, if you watch the whole field, you can prevent this waste that comes by one canceling the other out.’

Inspired by McLuhan, Neil Postman founded the ‘Program in Media Ecology’ at New York University in 1971. He described it as follows: ‘Media ecology looks into the matter of how media of communication affects human perception, understanding, feeling, and value, as well as how our interaction with media facilitates or impedes our chances of survival. The word ecology implies the study of environments: their structure, content, and impact on people.’

Corey Anton, editor of ‘Explorations in Media Ecology’ at Grand Valley State University, defines media ecology as: ‘A broad based scholarly tradition and social practice. It is both historical and contemporary, as it slides between and incorporates the ancient, the modern, and the post-modern. . . .More precisely, media ecology understands the on-going history of humanity and the dynamics of culture and personhood to be intricately intertwined with communication and communication technologies.’

The European version of media ecology rejects the North American notion that ecology means environment. Ecology in this context is used ‘because it is one of the most expressive language currently has to indicate the massive and dynamic interrelation of processes and objects, beings and things, patterns and matter.’ Following theorists such as Felix Guattari, Gregory Bateson, and Manuel DeLanda the European version of media ecology as practiced by authors such as Matthew Fuller and Jussi Parikka presents a post-structuralist political perspective on media as complex dynamical systems (a major theme of poststructuralism is instability in the human sciences, due to the complexity of humans themselves and the impossibility of fully escaping structures in order to study them).

The North American theory of media ecology is best phrased by Marshall McLuhan as ‘The medium is the message.’ The medium is a specific type of media; for example, a book, newspaper, radio, television, film, or email. We are accustomed to thinking the message is separate from the medium, McLuhan saw the message and the medium to mean the same thing. The audience is normally focused on the content and overlook the medium. What we forget is that the content cannot exist outside of the way that it is mediated. McLuhan recognized that the way media works as environments is because we are so immersed in them. ‘It is the medium that has the greatest impact in human affairs, not specific messages we send or receive.’ The media shapes us because we partake in it over and over until it becomes a part of us. Different mediums emphasizes different senses and encourages different habits, so engaging in this medium day after day conditions our senses. Different forms of medium also affect what their meaning and impact will be. The form of medium and mode of information determines who will have access, how much information will be distributed, how fast it will be transmitted, how far it will go, and most importantly what form it will be displayed. With society being formed around the dominant medium of the day, the specific medium of communication makes a remarkable difference.

The media has penetrated the lives of almost all people on the planet, arranging people into an interconnected human community. McLuhan used the phrase ‘Global village’ to describe that, ‘humans can no longer live in isolation, but rather will always be connected by continuous and instantaneous electronic media.’ This global village let mankind step into a new ‘information age’ in which human communication is ‘growing so fast as to be in fact immeasurable.’

McLuhan believed there are three inventions that transformed the world: the phonetic alphabet, the printing press, and the telegraph. Due to these technologies the world was taken from one era into the next. In order to understand the effects of symbolic environment, McLuhan split history into four periods: the tribal age, the literate age, the print age, and the electronic age. Throughout the structure of their distinctive methods of communication (e.g., oral, written, printed, electronic), different media arouse patterns in the brain that are distinctive to each and every particular form of communication.

The first period in history that McLuhan describes is the Tribal Age, a time of community because the ear is the dominant sense organ. This is also known as an ‘acoustic era’ because the senses of hearing, touch, taste, and smell were far more strongly developed than the ability to visualize. During this time, hearing was more valuable because it allowed you to be more immediately aware of your surroundings, which was extremely important for hunting. Everyone hears at the same time makings listening to someone in a group a unifying act, deepening the feeling of community. In this world of surround sound, everything is more immediate, more present, and more actual fostering more passion and spontaneity. During the Tribal Age, hearing was believing.

The second stage is the Literary Stage, a time of private detachment because the eyes is a dominant sense organ; also known as the visual era. Turning sounds into visible objects radically altered the symbolic environment. Words were no longer alive and immediate, they were able to read over and over again. Hearing no longer becomes trustworthy, seeing was believing. Even though people read the same words, the act of reading is an individual act of singular focus. Tribes didn’t need to come together to get information anymore. This is when the invention of the alphabet came about. During this time, when people learned to read, they became independent thinkers.

The third stage is the Print Age, mass production of individual products due to the invention of the printing press. It gave the ability to reproduce the same text over and over again, making multiple copies. With printing came a new visual stress, the portable book. It allowed men to carry information, so they could read in privacy, isolated from others. Libraries were created to hold these books and also gave freedom to be alienated from others and from the immediacy of their surroundings.

Lastly, the Electronic Age, an era of instant communication, started with Samuel Morse’s invention of the telegraph and lead to the telephone, the cell phone, television, internet, DVD, video games, etc. This ability to communicate instantly returned us to the tradition of sound and touch rather than sight. Being able to be in constant contact with the world leads to a nosy generation where everyone knows everyone’s business and everyone’s business is everyone else’s (the ‘global village’). ‘We have seen the birth of nationalism which is the largest possible social unit. It occurred because the print media made it possible for government systems to coordinate, which facilitated homogeneous cultures. Now other nations join our nation to form a global community. Nations can easily break apart as fast as they join together like we see in case throughout the former Soviet bloc, in the developing world, or in Iraq and with Al Qaeda. [Lance] Strate hopes we can find the freedom to step outside the system to understand our media environment and that we can find the discipline to systematize that knowledge and make it available to others.’

Another aspect of media ecology is the ‘Laws of Media Theory,’ depicted by a tetrad which poses questions with the outcome of developing people’s critical thinking skills and to prepare people for, ‘the social and physical chaos’ that accompanies every technological advancement/development. There is no certain order for the Laws of Media, the effects occur simultaneously. The four effects are: Enhance: What does it enhance? Obsolesce: What does it obsolesce? Retrieve: What does it retrieve? Reverse: What will it reverse? ‘McLuhan (1951) found inspiration in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, ‘A Descent into the Maelstrom,’ in which a shipwrecked sailor is trapped within a whirlpool, but escapes death by finding the pattern hidden within the vortex. McLuhan relates this to ‘the social and physical chaos’ we feel as we move from one technological development to the other.’ “The maelstrom is our media environment, and the only way out is through synthesis or pattern recognition. We cannot get out through linear logic and cause-and-effect thinking alone. We need to work dialectically and ecologically, riding through complex systems on the edge of chaos.’

According to Neil Postman, Media ecology is concerned with understanding how technologies and techniques of communication control the form, quantity, speed, distribution, and direction of information; and how, in turn, such informational configurations or biases affect people’s perceptions, values, and attitudes . . . such information forms as the alphabet, the printed word, and television images are not mere instruments which make things easier for us. They are environments-like language itself, symbolic environments within which we discover, fashion, and express humanity in particular ways. Postman focuses on media technology, process, and structure rather than content. He described making moral judgments as the primary task of media ecology: ‘I don’t see any point in studying media unless ones so within a moral or ethical context.’ Postman’s media ecology approach asks three questions: What are the moral implications of this bargain? Are the consequences more humanistic or antihumanistic? Do we, as a society, gain more than we lose, or do we lose more than we gain?’

McLuhan’s critics state the medium is not the message. They believe that we are dealing with a mathematical equation where medium equals x and message equals y. But really ‘the medium is the message’ is a metaphor not an equation. His critics also believe McLuhan is denying the content altogether, when really McLuhan was trying to show the content in its secondary role in relation to the medium. McLuhan says technology is an, ‘extension of man’ and when the way we physically sense the world changes it to will collectively change how we perceive it (but the content may or may not affect this change in perception). McLuhan said that the user is the content, and this means that the user must interpret and process what they receive, finding sense in their own environments.

One of McLuhan’s high profile critics was Italian philosopher Umberto Eco, who comes from background in semiotics, which goes beyond linguistics in that it studies all forms of communication. Eco reflected that a cartoon of a cannibal wearing an alarm clock as a necklace was counter to McLuhan’s assertion that the invention of clocks created a concept of time as consistently separated space. While it could mean this, it could also take on different meanings as in the depiction of the cannibal. The medium is not the message. An individual’s interpretation can vary. Believing this to be true Eco says, ‘It is equally untrue that acting on the form and content of the message can convert the person receiving it.’ In doing this Eco does merges form and content, the separation of which is the basis of McLuhan’s assertion. McLuhan does not offer a theory of communication. He instead investigates the effects of all media mediums between the human body and its physical environment, including language.

As media theorist Lance Strate said: ‘Other critics complain that media ecology scholars like McLuhan, Havelock, and Ong put forth a ‘Great Divide’ theory, exaggerating the difference between orality and literacy, for example. And it is true that they see a great divide between orality and literacy. And a great divide between word and image. And a great divide between the alphabet, on the one hand, and pictographic and ideographic writing, on the other. And a great divide between clay tablets as a medium for writing and papyrus. And a great divide between parchment and paper. And a great divide between scribal copying and the printing press. And a great divide between typography and the electronic media. And now a great divide between virtuality and reality. I could continue to add to this list, but the point is that there are many divides, which suggests that no single one of them is all that great after all. The critics miss the point that media ecology scholars often work dialectically, using contrasts to understand media.’

The North American variant of media ecology is viewed by some theorists as meaningless ‘McLuhanacy.’ Mcluhan biographer Neil Compton said in 1968 that it had been next to impossible to escape knowing about Mcluhan and his theory as the media embraced them. Compton wrote, ‘it would be better for McLuhan if his oversimplifications did not happen to coincide with the pretensions of young status-hungry advertising executives and producers, who eagerly provide him with a ready-made claque, exposure on the media, and a substantial income from addresses and conventions.’ Theorists such as Jonathan Miller claim that McLuhan used a subjective approach to make objective claims, comparing McLuhan’s willingness to back away from a ‘probe’ if he does not find the desired results to that of an objective scientist who would not abandon it so easily. Other critics of McLuhan’s ideas argue that he lacked the scientific evidence to support his claims. American translator Raymond Rosenthal said, ‘McLuhan’s books are not scientific in any respect; they are wrapped however in the dark, mysterious folds of the scientific ideology.’

New media is characterized by the idea of web 2.0, coined in 2003 and popularized by media consultant Tim O’ Reilly. He argues that a particular assemblage of software, hardware and sociality have brought about ‘the widespread sense that there’s something qualitatively different about today’s Web. This shift is characterized by co-creativity, participation and openness, represented by software that support for example, wiki-based ways of creating and accessing knowledge, social networking sites, blogging, tagging and ‘mash ups.’ The interactive and user-oriented nature of these technologies have transformed the global culture into a participatory culture which proves Neil Postman’s saying ‘technological change is not additive; it is ecological.’

As new media power takes on new dimension in the digital realm, some scholars begin to focus on defending the democratic potentialities of the Internet on the perspective of corporate impermeability. Today, corporate encroachment in cyberspace is changing the balance of power in the new media ecology, which ‘portends a new set of social relationships based on commercial exploitation.’ Many social network websites inject customized advertisements into the steady stream of personal communication. It is called commercial incursion which converts user-generated content into fodder for marketers and advertisers. So the control rests with the owners rather than the participants. It is necessary for online participants to be prepared to act consciously to resist the enclosure of digital commons.

There are some recent researches which put the emphasis on the youth, the future of the society, at the forefront of new media environment. Each generation, with its respective worldview, is equipped with certain media grammars and media literacy in its youth. Each generation inherits an idiosyncratic media structure (e.g. those born into the age of radio perceive the world differently than those born into the age of television). The media ecology interpretative framework is helpful in deconstructing how today’s new media environment increasingly mirrors the values and character attributed to young people. First, it is ‘the world’s first generation to grow up thinking of itself as global. The internet and satellite television networks are just two of the myriad technologies that have made this possible.’ Second,’there may actually be no unified ethos.’ With ‘hundreds of cable channels and thousands of computer conferences, young generation might be able to isolate themselves within their own extremely opinionated forces.’

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