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According to the Media Ecology Association, 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. Ecology in this context refers to the environment in which the medium is used – what they are and how they affect society. The theoretical concepts were proposed by Marshall McLuhan in 1964, while the term media ecology was first formally introduced by Neil Postman in 1968.
To strengthen this theory, McLuhan and Quentin Fiore further claimed that it is the media of the epoch that defines the essence of the society, which correspond 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 effect large structural changes in human outlook, McLuhan classified media as either 'hot' or 'cool'. Additionally, McLuhan with his son Eric McLuhan expanded the theory in 1988 by developing a way to look further into the effects of technology on society, through the tetrad laws of media. They offer the tetrad as an organized concept that allows people to know the laws of media and the past, present and future 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.
- 1 Background
- 2 Core concepts
- 3 Criticism
- 4 Recent research and applications
- 5 See also
- 6 References
- 7 External links
While Harold Innis was not a direct contributor to the theory of media ecology, a lot of his work would inspire McLuhan in developing his own ideas and the foundations of the theory. Innis was a professor of political economy at the University of Toronto, who studied the role of communication technologies in societies and civilizations. He worked with McLuhan at the University of Toronto, serving as his mentor. In his seminal work, The Bias of Communication, Innis looks at various empires in history and notes their use of the written word. He suggests that mediums of communication directly correlate to the spread of knowledge in a society, which can, therefore, wield relative influence in that society. This concept he termed the 'bias of communication'.
Marshall McLuhan enrolled as a student at Cambridge University in 1934, a school which pioneered modern literary criticism. During his studies at Cambridge he became acquainted with one of his professors, I.A. Richards, a distinguished English professor, who would in large part inspire McLuhan's later scholarly works. McLuhan admired Richards' approach to criticism 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". This element of Richards' perspective on communication influenced the way in which McLuhan expressed many of his ideas using metaphors and phrases such as "The Global Village" and "The Medium Is the Message" two of his most well known phrases that encapsulate the theory of Media Ecology.
McLuhan used the approaches of Richards and William Empson as an "entrée to the study of media." However, it took many years of work 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.
In 1977, Marshall 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, as he further developed the theory McLuhan had established. According to Postman, media ecology emphasizes the environments in which communication and technologies operate and spread information and the effects these have on the receivers. "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 with in which we discover, fashion, and express humanity in particular ways." Postman focuses on media technology, process, and structure rather than content and considered making moral judgments the primary task of media ecology. "I don't see any point in studying media unless one does 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?
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.
Along with McLuhan (McLuhan 1962), Postman (Postman 1985), and Anton, media ecology draws from many authors, including the work of Harold Innis, Walter Ong, Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul, Eric Havelock, Susanne Langer, Erving Goffman, Edward T. Hall, George Herbert Mead, Margaret Mead, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Benjamin Lee Whorf, and Gregory Bateson.
North American and European contexts
In Russia, a similar theory was independently developed by Yuri Rozhdestvensky. In more than five monographs, Rozhdestvensky outlined the systematic changes which take place in society each time new communication media are introduced, and connected these changes to the challenges in politics, philosophy and education. He is a founder of the vibrant school of ecology of culture.
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 [terms] 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 De Landa 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.
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.
Assumptions of the theory
- Media is infused in every act and action in society.
- Media fixes our perceptions and organizes our experiences.
- Media ties the world together.
These three assumptions can be understood as: media is everywhere all the time; media determine what we know and how we feel about what we know; and media connects us to others. Communication media has penetrated the lives of almost all people on the planet, arranging people into an interconnected human community. Marshall 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's media history
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 making 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 fosters 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 eye is the 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 books, so men could read in privacy and isolated from others. Libraries were created to hold these books and also gave freedom to be alienated from others and from immediacy of their surroundings.
Lastly, the Electronic Age, an era of instant communication and a return to an environment with simultaneous sounds and touch. It started with a device created by Samuel Morse's invention of the telegraph and led 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 becomes a nosy generation where everyone knows everyone's business and everyone's business is everyone else's. This phenomenon is called the global village.
'The medium is the message'
"The medium is the message" is the most famous insight from McLuhan. Instead of emphasizing the information content, McLuhan highlighted the importance of medium characteristics which can influence and even decide the content. He proposed that it is the media format that affects and changes on people and society.
For example, traditional media is an extension of the human body, while the new media is the extension of the human nervous system. The emergence of new media will change the equilibrium between human sensual organs and affect human psychology and society. The extension of human senses will change our thoughts and behaviors and the ways we perceive the world. That's why McLuhan believed when a new medium appears, no matter what the concrete content it transmits, the new form of communication brings in itself a force that causes social transformation.
Hot vs. cool media
McLuhan developed an idea called hot and cold media. Hot media refer to a high-definition communication that demand little involvement from the audience and concentrate on one sensory organ at a time. This type of media requires no interpretation because it gives all the information necessary to comprehend. Some examples of hot media include radio, books, and lectures. cool media describe media that demand active involvement from audience. Cool media require the audience to be active and fill in information by mentally participating. This is multi-sensory participation. Some examples of cool media are TV, seminars, and cartoons.
"McLuhan frequently referred to a chart that hung in his seminar room at the University of Toronto. This was a type of shorthand for understanding the differences between hot and cool media, characterized by their emphasis on the eye or the ear."
- Eye: left hemisphere (hot) controls right side of the body; visual; speech; verbal; analytical; mathematical; linear; detailed; sequential; controlled; intellectual; dominant worldly;quantitative; active; sequential ordering
- Ear: right hemisphere (cool) controls the left side of the body; spatial; musical; acoustic; holistic; artistic; symbolic; simultaneous; emotional; creative; minor; spiritual; qualitative; receptive; synthetic; gestalt; facial recognition; simultaneous comprehension; perception of abstract patterns
Laws of media
Another aspect of media ecology is the laws of media, which McLuhan outlined with his son Eric McLuhan, to further explain the influence of technology on society. The laws of media theory is depicted by a tetrad, which poses questions about various media, 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 or development. There is no certain order for the laws of media, as the effects occur simultaneously and form a feedback loop: technology impacts society, which then impacts how technology develops.
- Enhancement: What does the medium enhance? Media can enhance various social interactions, such as the telephone, which reduced the need to face-to-face interactions.
- Obsolescence: What does the medium obsolesce? Technological advancements can render older media obsolete, as television did for the radio. There does not necessarily mean that the older medium is complete eradicated, however, as radio, for example is still in use today.
- Retrieval: What does the medium retrieve? New media can also spur effect a restoration of older forms of media, which the new forms may not be able to incorporate into their new technologies. For example, the Internet has promoted new forms of social conversations, which may have been lost through television.
- Reversal: What will the medium reverse? When a medium is overwhelmed due to its own nature, "pushed to the limit of its potential", it ceases to have functional utility and can cause a reversion back to older media from the newer developed.
"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."
The majority of criticism of this theory is a result of its deterministic approach. Determinism insists that all of society is a result of or effected by one central condition. In some cases the condition can be language (linguistic determinism), religion (theological determinism), financial (economic determinism). In the case of McLuhan, Postman and Media Ecology, technology is the sole determinant for society and by breaking up time in measures of man's technological achievements they can be classified as technological determinism. According to Postman:
The printing press, the computer, and television are not therefore simply machines which convey information. They are metaphors through which we conceptualize reality in one way or another. They will classify the world for us, sequence it, frame it, enlarge it, reduce it, argue a case for what it is like. Through these media metaphors, we do not see the world as it is. We see it as our coding systems are. Such is the power of the form of information."
Postman has also stated that "a medium is a technology within which a culture grows; that is to say, it gives form to a culture's politics, social organization, and habitual ways of thinking ."
Scholars such as Michael Zimmer view McLuhan and his "Medium is the Message" theory as a prime example of technological determinism:
...an overarching thread in media ecological scholarship, exemplified by McLuhan's (1964/1994) assertion that "the medium is the message", the technological bias of a medium carries greater importance than the particular message it is delivering. McLuhan saw changes in the dominant medium of communication as the main determinant of major changes in society, culture, and the individual. This McLuhanesque logic, which rests at the center of the media ecology tradition, is often criticized for its media determinism. Seeing the biases of media technologies as the primary force for social and cultural change resembles the hard technological determinism of the embodied theory of technological bias.
The critics of such a deterministic approach could be theorists who practice other forms of determinism, such as economic determinism. Theorists such as John Fekete believes that McLuhan is oversimplifying the world "by denying that human action is itself responsible for the changes that our socio-cultural world is undergoing and will undergo, McLuhan necessarily denies that a critical attitude is morally significant or practically important."
Lance Strate, on the other hand, argues that McLuhan's theories are in no way deterministic, and McLuhan in fact never uses the word determinism or alludes to the idea that human agency is removed from the equation:
McLuhan never actually used the term, "determinism," nor did he argue against human agency. In his bestselling book, The Medium is the Message, he wrote, "there is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening" (McLuhan & Fiore, 1967, p. 25). John Culkin (1967) summed up McLuhan's position with the quote, "we shape our tools and thereafter they shape us", suggesting a transactional approach to media.
This statement from Strate would define McLuhan and Media Ecology as "soft determinism" opposed to "hard determinism" with the difference being that "hard determinism" indicates that changes to society happen with no input or control from the members of that society, whereas "soft determinism" would argue that the changes are pushed by technology but free will and agency of the members of society ultimately have a chance to influence the outcome.
The medium is not the message
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. Accordingly, x = 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 just 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, how we perceive it will also collectively change, 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 Umberto Eco. Eco comes from background in semiotics, which goes beyond linguistics in that it studies all forms of communication. He 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 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.
The Great Divide
As 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 numerous theorists such as John Fekete and Neil Compton as meaningless or "McLuhanacy". According to Compton, 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. These theorists against McLuhan's idea, such as Raymond Rosenthal, also believe that he lacked the scientific evidence to support his claims: "McLuhan's books are not scientific in any respect; they are wrapped however in the dark, mysterious folds of the scientific ideology."
Recent research and applications
Many ecologists are using media ecology as an analytical framework, to explore whether the current new media has a "new" stranglehold on culture or are they simply extensions of what we have already experienced. The new media is characterised by the idea of web 2.0. It was coined in 2003 and popularized by a 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 characterised 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 who is 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. As each generation inherits an idiosyncratic media structure, those born into the age of radio perceive the world differently from those born into the age of television. The nature of new generation is also influenced by the nature of the new media. According to the media ecology theory, analyzing today's generational identity through the lens of media technologies themselves can be more productive than focusing on media content. Media ecologists employ a media ecology interpretative framework to deconstruct how today's new media environment increasingly mirrors the values and character attributed to young people. Here are some typical characteristics of the new generation: 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".
Robert K. Logan
Robert K. Logan is professor emeritus of physics at the University of Toronto and Chief Scientist of the Strategic Innovation Lab at the Ontario College of Art and Design. He worked collaboratively with Marshall McLuhan as colleagues at the University of Toronto, co-publishing various works and producing his own works, heavily inspired by McLuhan. Logan outlines in his work, Understanding New Media: Extending Marshall McLuhan, that a lot of McLuhan's work has been misunderstood, but proved incredibly prescient in forecasting the role of new media technologies, such as the Internet's influence as a 'global village'. Logan updates the era of communications, adding two new eras:
- age of nonverbal mimetic communication (characteristic of archaic Homo sapiens)
- age of orality
- age of literacy
- age of electric mass media
- age of digital interactive media, or 'new media'
In 2009 a study was published by Cleora D'Arcy, Darin Eastburn and Bertram Bruce entitled "How Media Ecologies Can Address Diverse Student Needs". The purpose of this study was to use Media Ecology in order to determine which media is perceived as the most useful as an instructional tool in post-secondary education. This study specifically analyzed and tested "new media" such as podcasts, blogs, websites, and discussion forums with other media, such as traditional text books, lectures, and handouts. Ultimately comparing "hot" and "cold" media at today's standard of the terms. The result of the study, which included student surveys, indicated that a mixture of media was the most "valued" method of instruction, however more interactive media enhanced student learning.
Doctor Mark Allen Peterson of in the Department of Anthropology at Miami University published an article in the Summer of 2011 comparing the media ecology of 1970's Iran to that in Egypt in 2011. The article, title "Egypt's Media Ecology in a Time of Revolution" looks at the difference that social media made in the Egyptian uprising and makes two observations: social media extends the "grapevine" network and that social media, despite the result of the uprising, completely changes the "mediascape" of Egypt. One dramatic difference between the two uprising noticed by Peterson is the ultimate position of the media of choice during each in the end. On the one hand, Iran's news media, the primary source of information at that time, reverted to its original role, while the Egyptian use of social media changed the media of choice for Egypt.
Peterson's study compared his observations to that of William Beeman, who in 1984 published an essay, "The cultural role of the media in Iran: The revolution of 1978–1979 and after" on the media ecology of Iran. Beeman's ultimate conclusion of his review of the Iranian Revolution followed that of what you would expect to find from most media ecologist:
At times newly introduced mass media have produced revolutionary effects in the societal management of time and energy as they forged new spaces for themselves. Thus media are cultural forces as well as cultural objects. In operation, they produce specific cultural effects that cannot be easily predicted.(Beeman, 147)
Although there were many similarities between the Iranian and Egyptian revolutions, such as censorship in media, including newspaper and television, the one major difference was the availability of the internet and social media as a tool to spread messages and increase awareness in Egypt. Social media in 2011's uprising was equivalent to the use of cassette tapes in Iran in the 1970s. The tapes provided a way to spread information that could not be as easily censored and was repeatable through the country (Peterson, 5). The rise of social media helped free Egyptians from censorship of other media. In this case, the medium was the message, a message of freedom and by the Egyptian government's attempt to also censor this medium, they only managed to spread the message further and faster:
Although we may never know the true impact, in fact it likely sped up the regime's fall. In the absence of new technologies, people were forced to rely on traditional means of communication, including knocking on doors, going to the mosque, assembling in the street, or other central gathering places. Thomas Schelling won a Nobel prize in part for discovering that in the absence of information, people will coordinate by selecting a focal point that seems natural, special or relevant to them. Given the protests, Tahrir Square was the obvious focal point. By blocking the Internet, the government inadvertently fueled dissent and galvanized international support for the people of Egypt. (Bowman 2011)
Since 2011, leaders of the protest continue to utilize social media as a method to push democratic reform (Peterson, 4). According to Peterson the role of social media in Egypt is also evolving the political culture as even state figures are beginning to make announcements using social media rather than more traditional forms of media (Peterson, 5).
- Digital ecosystem
- Information ecology
- Medium theory
- "Hot" and "cool" media
- Tetrad of media effects
- Technological determinism
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