What is Media Ecology? (Neil Postman)
Media ecology looks into the matter of how media of communication affect human perception, understanding, feeling, and value; and 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.
An environment is, after all, a complex message system which imposes on human beings certain ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving.
- It structures what we can see and say and, therefore, do.
- It assigns roles to us and insists on our playing them.
- It specifies what we are permitted to do and what we are not. Sometimes, as in the case of a courtroom, or classroom, or business office, the specifications are explicit and formal.
In the case of media environments (e.g., books, radio, film, television, etc.), the specifications are more often implicit and informal, half concealed by our assumption that what we are dealing with is not an environment but merely a machine.
Media ecology tries to make these specifications explicit.
It tries to find out what roles media force us to play, how media structure what we are seeing, why media make us feel and act as we do.
Media ecology is the study of media as environments.
—Neil Postman, “The Reformed English Curriculum.” in A.C. Eurich, ed., High School 1980: The Shape of the Future in American Secondary Education (1970).
An Overview of Media Ecology (Lance Strate)
It is the study of media environments, the idea that technology and techniques, modes of information and codes of communication play a leading role in human affairs.
Media ecology is the Toronto School, and the New York School. It is technological determinism, hard and soft, and technological evolution. It is media logic, medium theory, mediology.
It is McLuhan Studies, orality–literacy studies, American cultural studies. It is grammar and rhetoric, semiotics and systems theory, the history and the philosophy of technology.
It is the postindustrial and the postmodern, and the preliterate and prehistoric.
—Lance Strate, “Understanding MEA,” In Medias Res 1 (1), Fall 1999.
What is Media Ecology? (Christine Nystrom)
It is, by now, almost a commonplace to remark that the 20th century is an era of change, of change unprecedented in its scope, its pace, and its potential for violent effects on the fabric of civilization.
- For Kenneth Boulding, the changes which have taken place since 1900 are of such enormous significance that he marks the 20th century as the turning point in what he calls “the second great transition in the history of mankind”—that is, the transition from “civilization” to “post-civilization.” According to Boulding, the impetus for that transition is provided by a radical shift in what he calls man’s “image” of reality.
- Thomas Kuhn refers to the same kind of radical shift as a revolution in paradigms; Pierre Teilhard de Chardin calls it a change in the noösphere; Ervin Laszlo, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, and others call it simply a shift in man’s world view.
- What each is referring to is an epochal change in the status, organization, and application of knowledge.
One of the consequences of the change to which Boulding and others refer, or, better perhaps, one of its hallmarks, is a movement away from the rigidly compartmentalized, uncoordinated specialization in scientific inquiry which characterized the Newtonian world, and a movement toward increasing integration of both the physical and the social sciences.
- One of the symptoms of this trend is the proliferation, in recent years, of “compound” disciplines such as mathematical biochemistry, psychobiology, linguistic anthropology, psycholinguistics, and so on.
- Another is the emergence of new fields of inquiry so broad in their scope that the word “discipline,” suggesting as it does some well-bounded area of specialization, scarcely applies to them at all. Rather, they are perspectives, moving perhaps in the direction of metadisciplines.
One such perspective, or emerging metadiscipline, is media ecology—broadly defined as the study of complex communication systems as environments.
As a perspective, metadiscipline, or even a field of inquiry, media ecology is very much in its infancy.
Media ecologists know, generally, what it is they are interested in—the interactions of communications media, technology, technique, and processes with human feeling, thought, value, and behavior—and they know, too, the kinds of questions about those interactions they are concerned to ask.
But media ecologists do not, as yet, have a coherent framework in which to organize their subject matter or their questions.
Media ecology is, in short, a preparadigmatic science.
—Christine Nystrom, Towards a Science of Media Ecology: The Formulation of Integrated Conceptual Paradigms for the Study of Human Communication Systems, Doctoral Dissertation, New York University (1973).
What's New with My Subject?
by Lance Strate
I have endeavored, in the following list, to provide newcomers with a guide to basic readings in media ecology.
For those already familiar with some of the scholars who share the media ecology perspective, this list may provide suggestions for further reading, as well as conveying a sense of the breadth of the field.
I have tried to limit this list to works that are more or less fully in the tradition of media ecology, as opposed to related areas of study such as rhetoric, communication theory, semantics and semiotics, cultural studies and postmodernism, information theory and systems theory, etc.
It is the postindustrial and the postmodern, and the preliterate and prehistoric.
I have also left out for the most part books that are of an advanced nature, requiring significant prior reading in media ecology and related areas. And while I trust this list provides a good representation of the media ecology perspective, I am certain that others familiar with the field would disagree with some of the selections I have included, and others that I have left out. I would therefore ask that you view the following 33 books less as canon, and more as fodder for further study.
Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964. Reprint, with an introduction by Lewis Lapham, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994. ISBN 0-262-63159-8
No single individual is more central to media ecology than McLuhan, not because he was the first to employ this perspective, but rather because he popularized it, and produced the first great synthesis of media ecological thought. For some, McLuhanism or McLuhan Studies is sufficient in and of itself, and all the answers can be found in his writings. To others, it was the questions he asked that had the true significance, as he opened up a relatively new field of study, probed uncharted territories, generated excitement, and served as a source of inspiration. For the vast majority, it was this book, first published in 1964, which turned them on to the study of media environments.
Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1962. ISBN 0-8020-6041-2
Published just two years before Understanding Media, in 1962, this book provides the historical and theoretical context upon which Understanding Media is based. Many consider this McLuhan’s most scholarly work.
Marshall McLuhan and Eric McLuhan, Laws of Media: The New Science. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1988. ISBN 0-8020-5782-9. Paperback reprint, Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1992. ISBN 0-8020-7715-3
Published in 1988, almost a decade after Marshall McLuhan’s death, this book was originally intended to be a revision of Understanding Media. In this volume, the McLuhans present the tetrad, four laws of media that serve as a structure for analyzing the impact and significance of any medium or innovation.
Harold Innis, The Bias of Communication. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1951. Reprint, with an introduction by Paul Heyer and David Crowley, Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1991. ISBN 0-8020-6839-1
One of McLuhan’s most important influences and the first of the Toronto School, of which McLuhan was the best-known representative, Innis was a political economist who emphasized historical and sociological approaches, as opposed to McLuhan’s stress on literature, art, and perception. This collection of essays, articles, and addresses includes both grand theory in a Hegelian mode and detailed studies of media and technologies’ interrelationships with social and cultural developments, and was first published in 1951.
Harold Innis, Empire and Communications. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1950. Reprint, illustrated paperback edition, David Godfrey, Ed., Victoria, BC: Press Porcépic, 1986. ISBN 0-88878-244-6
Less well known than The Bias of Communication, this 1950 volume provides a more focused examination of the role of media and technology in the history of Western civilization, and particularly the ancient world.
Walter Ong, The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1967. ISBN 0-300-09973-8
Both a student and a contemporary of McLuhan’s, Ong is widely respected for his scholarship in literary studies and cultural history. In this 1967 work, Ong explores in some detail the characteristics of oral, scribal, print, and electronic psyches and societies. As a Jesuit, Ong also ventures into the theological implications of media ecology in this volume. Experts in Ong’s work consider this to be his most representative publication.
Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London, New York: Methuen, 1982. 2nd ed., London, New York: Routledge, 2002. ISBN 0-415-28129-6
Published in 1982, this book serves as a review of this area of study, which has significant overlap with media ecology, as well as a review of Ong’s own work. More than anywhere else, Ong here emphasizes the gulf that exists between societies that have no form of writing and those that are fully literate.
Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York: Viking, 1985; New York: Penguin, 1986. ISBN 0-14-009438-5
No media ecologist outside of McLuhan himself has enjoyed Postman’s success as a writer; Postman is also the founder of the media ecology program at New York University. In this, his best-known book, he both explains the perspective (under the guise of media epistemology) and uses it to critique the role of television in contemporary American culture. Amusing Ourselves to Death was published in 1985.
Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Knopf, 1992; New York: Vintage, 1993. ISBN 0-679-74540-8
Published in 1992, this work synthesizes the media ecology literature on technology and technological systems, again taking a critical stance on current developments in the United States.
Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity. New York: Delacorte, 1969; New York: Dell, 1969.
One of several popular books advocating educational reform during the sixties, this work is notable for its application and popularization of McLuhan’s media theory as well as Alfred Korzybski’s General Semantics. Some have noted the contrast between the radical rhetoric contained in this 1969 book and the cultural conservatism of Postman’s later writings, but of greater significance is their consistency in regards to the presence and development of the media ecology perspective.
Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1934; Reprint with a new introduction by the author, New York: Harvest, 1963. ISBN 0-15-688254-X
Mumford is, for many, the founder of the media ecology approach, even though he had relatively little to say about media. In this 1934 volume, he presents a historical overview of the development of technology and its interrelationships with culture and society. Following in the tradition of human ecology, here he is cautiously optimistic about the potential of 20th century technologies such as electricity to reverse the effects of industrialism and aid in the construction of more humanistic environments. Of special note is his chapter on the origin and significance of clocks.
Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine, Vol. I: Technics and Human Development. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967; New York: Harvest, 1971. ISBN 0-15-662341-2
Vol. II: The Pentagon of Power. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1970; New York: Harvest, 1974. ISBN 0-15-671610-0
The two volumes, first published in 1964 and 1966, respectively, combine technological history with technological criticism, in a more pessimistic mode than Technics and Civilization. In these volumes, Mumford emphasizes the importance of symbols and culture over tools, discusses containers as an often overlooked form of technology, and takes on the megamachine, from the pyramids to the space age.
Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society. John Wilkinson, Trans., with an introduction by Robert K. Merton. New York: Knopf, 1964; New York: Vintage, 1967. ISBN 0-394-70390-1
The most pessimistic of media ecologists, Ellul paints an Orwellian picture of western societies in this book first published in 1954 (La Technique, ou l'enjeu du siècle. Paris: Armand Colin). Rather than regarding technology as concrete tools and machines, Ellul focuses on technique as the ideology, metanarrative, or simply metaphysics of our age.
Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes. Konrad Kellen and Jacques Lerner, Trans., New York: Knopf, 1965; New York: Vintage, 1973. ISBN 0-394-71874-7
This 1962 work (Propagandes. Paris: Armand Colin) continues the argument begun in The Technological Society, specifying the role that media and communication play in establishing the reign of technique.
Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early Modern Europe, Vols. I and II. Cambridge, England; New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1979; Paperback reprint, New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1980. ISBN 0-521-29955-1
In the media ecology literature, no single technology has been studied as deeply as Gutenberg’s printing press, and no study of typography has been as exhaustive as Eisenstein’s McLuhan-inspired magnum opus, originally published in two volumes in 1979. Eisenstein marshals an extraordinary amount of historical evidence to support the contention that the modern age was made possible by print media.
Eric Havelock, Preface to Plato. Cambridge, MA and London: Belknap Press of the Harvard Univ. Press, 1963. ISBN 0-674-69906-8
A member of the Toronto School, Havelock’s field is Classics, and unlike many other media ecologists, he mostly confines himself to this one area. A pioneer in orality–literacy studies, he brings this perspective to bear in a comparison of the Homeric epics and the philosophy of Plato in this 1963 publication.
Edmund Carpenter, Oh, What a Blow That Phantom Gave Me!. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973 (Out of print, but available online)
Another representative of the Toronto School, Carpenter was an early colleague of and collaborator with Marshall McLuhan. As an anthropologist, he contributes a key comparative approach to the study of communication and perception across cultures in this 1974 publication.
Jack Goody, The Domestication of the Savage Mind. Cambridge, England and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1977. ISBN 0-521-29242-5
An anthropologist whose research on orality and literacy supports the media ecology perspective, Goody adds a British perspective that includes some engagement with European cultural theories. This 1978 book is particularly noteworthy for its stress on the impact of writing in general, as opposed to the specific effects of the alphabet, allowing for a more universal, less Western-centered approach to media ecology.
Denise Schmandt–Besserat, How Writing Came About. Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1996. ISBN 0-292-77704-3
In this abridged edition of Before Writing, Vol. I: From Counting to Cuneiform and Vol. II: A Catalog of Near-Eastern Tokens (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992), archeologist Schmandt–Besserat discusses the connections between the origin of writing and accounting in Mesopotamia, and linear thinking.
Robert K. Logan, The Alphabet Effect: The Impact of the Phonetic Alphabet on the Development of Western Civilization. Robert K. Logan, The Alphabet Effect: A Media Ecology Understanding of Western Civilization. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2004. ISBN 1-57273-523-6
One more member of the Toronto School, Logan’s 1986 book began as a collaboration with Marshall McLuhan and surveys the impact of alphabetic writing across various Western cultures. Also of interest is the role of the alphabet in Hindu and Islamic societies, and Logan’s comparison of Western alphabetic culture with Chinese ideography-based culture.
Joshua Meyrowitz, No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1985; Paperback reprint, New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1986. ISBN 0-19-504231-X
Strongly sociological synthesis of McLuhan and other media ecologists with Erving Goffman and the symbolic interactionist approach. Meyrowitz equates physical space and face-to-face situations with media by viewing both as information systems, thereby exploring the effects of the electronic media on identity (i.e., gender), role transition (i.e., childhood and adulthood), and authority (i.e., political leadership). In this 1985 book, Meyrowitz introduces the term “medium theory,” which is roughly equivalent to media ecology, but with social-science overtones.
James W. Carey, Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989; Reprint, New York and London: Routledge, 1992. ISBN 0-415-90725-X
Carey makes Innis the central figure in his essays on “American cultural studies,” a term in some ways equivalent to media ecology. Carey favors a more particularistic approach to social science research, as opposed to the grand theories of others in the media ecology tradition, in this 1989 collection of essays.
Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Hanna Arendt, Ed., Harry Zorn, Trans. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968; Reprint, New York: Schocken, 1969. ISBN 0-8052-0241-2
Benjamin is more typically identified with the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School and its descendent, cultural studies (European, not American), but he has definite media-ecological tendencies. Of particular note is his 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” reprinted in a 1955 collection that was not translated into English until 1968.
Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. 25th anniversary edition with a new foreword by the author and an afterword by George F. Will. New York: Atheneum, 1987; New York: Vintage, 1992. ISBN 0-679-74180-1
Originally published in 1962 as The Image, or What Happened to the American Dream (New York: Atheneum), Boorstin draws upon Benjamin and in turn influences Postman in this critique of contemporary American culture that focuses on the “Graphic Revolution,” otherwise known as image culture.
Susan Sontag, On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977; Reprint, New York: Picador USA, 2001. ISBN 0-312-42009-9
Informed by both McLuhan and Benjamin, literary critic Sontag focuses on the camera’s effects on perception and culture in this collection of essays.
Gary Gumpert, Talking Tombstones and Other Tales of the Media Age. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987 (Out of print)
Combining McLuhan and Benjamin, Gumpert explores the ambiguities of perception in a world dominated by the electronic media.
Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1990; New York: Vintage, 1991. ISBN 0-679-73579-8
Often compared to McLuhan, Paglia links art and ritual in her historical examination of western culture, published in 1990. Identifying herself with the North American intellectual tradition exemplified by McLuhan, her work is less overtly media ecological than others on this list, but her preferred terms, Dionysian and Apollonian, correspond to orality and literacy.
Tony Schwartz, The Responsive Chord. New York: Doubleday, 1973; Paperback reprint, New York: Doubleday, 1974. 0-385-08895-7
A McLuhan associate based in New York, Schwartz added the point of view of a media professional, based on his outstanding career in advertising, in applying and extending McLuhan’s ideas.
Regis Debray, Media Manifestos: On the Technological Transmission of Cultural Forms. Eric Rauth, Trans. London, New York: Verso, 1996. ISBN 1-85984-087-6
In this translation of part of his doctoral dissertation at the Sorbonne (Manifestes diologiques. Paris: Gallimard, 1994), this former Communist revolutionary combines McLuhan and Derrida to offer his own brand of mediology, an alternative term for media ecology.
David L. Altheide, An Ecology of Communication: Cultural Formats of Control. Berlin and Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter, 1995. ISBN 0-202-30533-3
Based more on a sociological approach rooted in symbolic interactionism than on the Toronto School, this is the latest in a series of works by Altheide, Robert Snow, and Carl Couch that constitute a somewhat independent media ecology tradition.
Jay David Bolter, Turing’s Man: Western Culture in the Computer Age. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1984. ISBN 0-8078-4108-0
Influenced by Mumford’s technological studies, this book offers a thorough examination of the characteristics of the computer and its impact.
Paul Levinson, The Soft Edge: A Natural History and Future of the Information Revolution. London and New York: Routledge, 1997; Paperback reprint, London and New York: Routledge, 1998. ISBN 0-415-19772-4Christine Nystrom, Towards a Science of Media Ecology: The Formulation of Integrated Conceptual Paradigms for the Study of Human Communication Systems. Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1973. Abstract in Dissertation Abstracts International 34 (1973): 12A. (UMI No. 7412855)
In an overview of the history of media, leading up to the information revolution, Levinson emphasizes the evolution of media and technology in response to human ecologies.
This is the first major examination of media ecology as a field of study, by way of comparison with systems theory.