Media Ecology

Kate Milberry

in Communication

ISBN: 9780199756841
Published online May 2012 | | DOI:
Media Ecology


Neil Postman famously used a biological metaphor to explain “media ecology,” a term he borrowed from McLuhan to spearhead an intellectual tradition. In biology, a medium is defined as a substance within which a culture grows; in media ecology, a medium is a technology within which human culture grows, giving form to its politics, ideologies, and social organization. Previously, “medium” had been conceptualized in terms of transportation; now in communication studies it is typically understood as an environment. Media ecology focuses on media as environments, and environments as media, with an explicit concern for their evolution, effects, and forms. It comprises a theory about the complex interplay between humans, technology, media, and the environment, with the aim of increasing awareness of mutual effects. Media ecology is an expansive, inclusive, and therefore multidisciplinary field, borrowing from a range of academic disciplines, including technology and information studies, linguistics and semiotics, and cultural studies. “Media” refers to communication technologies as well as other communicative forms, such as the brain and body, the classroom and the courtroom, and the languages, symbols, and codes of successive historical eras. “Ecology” is also a transgressive and encompassing term, drawing upon systems theory and cybernetics in order to make sense of the evolution of humans and technology in the coproduction of culture. Media ecology is distinct from communication studies proper in its focus on the integration, interdependence, and dynamism of media and technology in human affairs. It assumes that the symbol systems and technologies people use to think with, communicate, and represent our experiences play an integral role in how we create and understand reality. As our symbols and media have evolved significantly since the invention of the alphabet—hailed as the first communication technology—so have our thinking processes, social and political structures, and conceptions of reality. Media ecology provides a lens for understanding these changes as we experience and represent “the world” through ever-new media and symbols. Media ecology thus explores the cultural consequences of how media change—and change us—over time. One lingering criticism of the approach is that of technological determinism, not least because of the early thinkers’ preoccupation with the causal role of media in societal change. Media ecologists have responded by underscoring their focus on the interaction of communication, culture, and consciousness as a dynamic process rather than on communication technology as the singular and driving force of social transformation.

Article.  5951 words. 

Subjects: Communication Studies

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