Introduction to Media Ecology, Part I

Media Ecology is a relatively new field in academia, with Neil Postman establishing the first Media Ecology department at New York University in 1971. I wanted to give a brief introduction to the field of media ecology here. Who knows, I may teach an intro course in media ecology sometime in the future.

Media ecology fraternizes with media theory, linguistics, rhetoric, communication studies, philosophy, sociology, psychology, cultural anthropology, orality/literacy studies, history, semiotics, (post)modernity, humanities, English, globalization, religion, and many other fields. Because media ecology overlaps with so many other fields, some definitions are needed.

First, what is a medium (singular for media, for those of you scoring at home)? I’m not using it here like the popular meaning of the word which refers to the news media. Marshal McLuhan defined a medium as “an extension of man” (in Understanding Media). A medium, then is something that mediates between two things. We observe and interact with the world around us largely through media. Media can be thought of also as technologies, or tools. A pen, a laptop, the spoken voice, stone tablets, or a car can all be thought of as media.

Next, ecology refers to environment. In this context, the main question at hand is how media shifts affect human environments or cultures. Environmental changes are never merely additive. When you introduce something into an environment, it is not the same environment plus the new addition – it is a different environment altogether. When the printing press was invented, it changed the world forever. An example of this, which I examined in a graduate paper, is how the printing press helped to bring about the Protestant Reformation. Other cursory examples include how the introduction of papyrus changed oral cultures or how the use of PowerPoint brings about ecological change in a church.

You may have heard the phrase “the medium is the message,” a phrase invented by McLuhan. What it means is that a medium transcends the content being transmitted and transforms our understanding of our environment and ourselves. More specifically, a medium is a powerful stimulant for change on individual and cultural levels: “The total effect of the introduction of a new technology is greater than any specific content, and is therefore the true message of that technological innovation” (McLuhan). As an aside, this is why the argument for relevance at church is silly. Some say that the gospel message stays the same, but it has to be mediated differently. But when the God-ordained medium of preaching is substituted for other media like a video presentation, inspirational chat, or emergent-esque conversation, the message is affected. *Aside complete.*

Postman, in Technopoly, expands on McLuhan by claiming that every technology, medium, or tool has embedded in it an “ideological bias, a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing over another, to amplify one sense or skill or attitude more loudly than another.” Media are not neutral. We may shape our media, but our media in turn shapes us. To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.To paraphrase Postman: To a man with a pencil, everything looks like a list. To a man with a camera, everything looks like an image. To a man with a computer, everything looks like data. To a man with a grade sheet, everything looks like a number. To a man with a blog, everything looks like a blog post.

Media ecology, then, examines what roles media force us to play, how they structure what we process through our senses, and why media provoke certain feelings and actions. Media ecology is the study of media as environments. In Part II, I’ll discuss the main technological eras that media ecology recognizes as well as how media shape us and our senses.

For further study, check out some prominent media ecology scholars (regardless of whether they studied before or after the discipline was founded) like Postman, McLuhan, Walter Ong, Harold Innis, Jacques Ellul, and others. There is also a Media Ecology Association, which provides a recommended reading list.

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