What is media ecology?
The world that God created understandably troubles us today. … Some are inclined to blame our present woes on technology. Yet there are paradoxes here. Technology is artificial, but for a human being there is nothing more natural than to be artificial.
Walter Ong (Faith and Contexts, Vol 1, 1:7.)
Media ecology is the study of communication technologies as cultural environments. If that doesn’t make your heart race (like me), then don’t worry: there’s still hope. In the infancy of the digital information age, it’s hard to imagine a field of study that’s more important ; or that can better explain why the new edition of the iPhone is messing with our minds.
Come on, we all know its messing with our minds.
Steve Jobs aside, there are some names to know. We’ll start with three.
The first is Neil Postman. The New York University professor was the first to create a doctoral program in “media ecology”– at New York University in 1970. The term had biology class in mind: think of that round glass petri dish you used to grow bacteria. The “medium” was the substance placed in the dish to grow the “culture.” In this case, it’d be like eye-dropping mini iPhones (iDropping – ha) into a dish of popular culture, and seeing what grows.
But here’s where things get complicated. You could easily think of this in reverse. In this case, let’s make the mini-iPhones the “medium” sauce, and eye-drop in little bits of culture to see what happens. Yeah, that gets crazy. One question of media ecology is “Does technology grow in the culture or culture grow in the technology?” Answer? Yes.
But we were discussing names. And the most well known scholar in the room is certainly Marshall McLuhan , whose aphorisms and cultural commentary in the 1960s repeated their way into popular culture enough for Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations to record two of them “The medium is the message,” and the one that is remembered by its last two words, “The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of the global village.”
Because these phrases were as likely to appear at cocktail parties as scholarly journals, journalist Tom Wolfe in 1965 asked if McLuhan might be “the most important thinker since Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein, and Pavlov” McLuhan interpreter Paul Levinson, after noting that Pavlov is misplaced on Wolfe’s list, insists that McLuhan is not.
Here are some key McLuhan thoughts:
A medium is any extension of a natural human faculty, either mental or physical. The vehicle (more precisely, the wheel) is an extension of legs and feet. An axe can extend an arm. Both the axe or the wheel are technological mediums. But so are the more mental extensions such as the alphabet and subsequent print, which extend human thought, or forms we now associate with the term, such as radio, and TV, which McLuhan would say are extensions of our central nervous system.
The content of a medium is always another medium. Huh? Here’s what we mean: it’s like those rubbermaid boxes or russian dolls, each one fitting into each other. The telegraph encodes the medium of the printed word, which contains the alphabet, which contains human speech, which contains human thought. Why is this important? The impact of messages are obscured. We think it’s the “content” that matters. But content is inseparable from container. The making the container—the medium—the message.
New media do not replace prior media but modify or obscure them. The printing press does not replace handwriting, but alters the way it is used. The question is not whether books on the iPad or Kindle will replace printed, bound books, but how it will change our perception of them. This is fundamental (and often missed).
Not all media are the same. Some media contain a high level of data–let’s call it “high definition.” McLuhan would call it “hot.” Movies are a good example–swirling imersrive experiences in sound and light and story. By contrast, other media are low definition—or cool—and therefore require the physical senses to engage more heavily to fill in missing data, such as the telephone or cartoons. Th
The effect of adding a new technology (medium or extension to human function) is numbness. Really. McLuhan would say that our senses get thrown off by new technologies: we don’t accurately feel its effects until later. That is, minus the prophets and artists. We can talk about them sometime.
One big point to take from these? We’re like fish-in-water when it comes to culture and technology. It’s hard to see when we’re swimming in it.
One more name: Walter Ong. He’s got the quote at the top, and as a popular Jesuit priest-professor in St. Louis, got famous for an 1982 work entitled Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. Let’s lay aside that Ong is pretty much my hero, and just focus on what he thought was important to understand: the history of communications technologies.
And we’re not talking the move from the Apple IIe to the aluminum Macbook Pro. Technology starts with things like speech and language. Grunting and pointing is different than a fully formed grammar and vocabulary right? And when writing hits the scene (bonus word: chirography=hand writing), it changes everything. Ong said it “restructured human consciousness.” Plato and Socrates famously complain about this new writing thing that is going to destroy the memory of students because they can just look it up. Ah, the first complaints by teachers about how technology is ruining young lives.
Using Ong (and some after him) we can track big stages in communications history.
- Orality (talking only)
- Early Writing (pictorial writing then eventually phoentic alphabets; “craft literacy”;parchment)
- Later Writing (scrolls then early bound books i.e. codices)
- Early Print (Gutenberg and friends)
- Later Print (the mass market begins)
- Electric (Telegraph, telephone)
- Electronic (TV and radio)
- Digital (internet, cell phones)
That’s the cheap version of the chart, but it starts us out.
There are a ton of other names to mention. In terms of other names after Postman, McLuhan, and Ong, we might include: James Carey, Harold Innis, Elizabeth Eisenstein, Jacques Ellul, Christine Nystrom, Camille Paglia, Eric Havelock, and Susanne K Langer. Interpreters for the current generation might include Lance Strate, Paul Levinson, Casey Man Kong Lum and Paul Soukup. Among others.
So what is media ecology? It’s a framework to start understanding how text messaging affects love, how computer keyboards restructure brain patterns, and how my photo editor undoes my philosophy of life. It asks how we think about authority, what the rules of arguments will be, and if there is a difference between the beginning and end of a song. Perception, knowledge, fundamental social structures, and quite definitely God, are all in the mix.
What is media ecology? It’s the key to understanding the times, my friend.