Jump to Content Jump to Main Navigation

Communication Media Ecology
by
Kate Milberry

Introduction

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.

Introductory Works

Broadly defined as the study of complex communication systems as environments, media ecology has emerged as a metadiscipline that seeks integrated and holistic accounts of the consequences wrought by the collision of technology, culture, and consciousness. While there are some texts that offer a thorough exploration of media ecology as a field, these tend to be in shorter supply than detailed treatments of its various and particular elements. Postman 1970 offers the founding definition of media ecology. His student’s doctoral thesis, Nystrom 1973 observed that media ecology did not have a coherent theoretical framework under which to organize its research questions and directions, a deficiency the author tried to correct in her pioneering work. Key anthologies include the Carpenter and McLuhan 1960 collection, which traces the essential media ecology outline in its early exploration of the influence of “media grammars,” and the Crowley and Heyer 2011 survey of the major thinkers in the tradition, now in its sixth edition. Lum 2006 and Strate 2006 provide comprehensive overviews of media ecology that offer an excellent starting point for students entering the field. ETC: A review of general semantics, a peer-reviewed quarterly journal, is a rich resource for historical and contemporary media ecology scholarship. Certainly media ecology has been the subject of deserved critique: in the classic work Carey 1989, the author provides a general corrective to the tendency toward grand and totalizing narratives, instead advancing a media ecology of the particular.

  • Carey, James W. 1989. Communication as culture: Essays on media and society. Boston: Unwin Hyman.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Carey rejects the transmission view of communication in this classic text, which builds upon Mumford’s 1934 insight that time is the original environment and advances Innis’ 1951 work on time and space. Carey highlights the space bias of modern civilization and details the social, political, and economic changes wrought by communication technologies, illustrated by his famous case study of the telegraph.

    Find this resource:

  • Carpenter, Edmund, and Marshall McLuhan, eds. 1960. Explorations in communication: An anthology. Boston: Beacon.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Seminal anthology featuring 24 short essays first published in the authors’ journal, Explorations. There are offerings from founding father McLuhan, his Toronto School compatriot Carpenter, and other original media ecologists. Offers insight into the nascent discipline of media ecology, particularly the idea that the containers of human ideas (media) influence human relations, mores, and sensibilities.

    Find this resource:

  • Crowley, David J., and Paul Heyer, eds. 2011. Communication in history: Technology, culture and society. 6th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon/Pearson.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Now in its sixth edition, this anthology is widely used as a textbook in undergraduate courses in communication studies. Using a media ecology framework, Crowley and Heyer rely on a generous selection of key texts to demonstrate the relationship between the coevolving histories of humanity and technology and the role of media in maintaining and challenging social order.

    Find this resource:

  • ETC: A review of general semantics.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Founded in 1943, ETC is a quarterly academic journal devoted to publishing academic works that enhance and advance the understanding of language, thought, and behavior. The synergies between media ecology and semantics were evident to Neil Postman, who edited the journal from 1977 to 1986.

    Find this resource:

  • Lum, Casey Man Kong, ed. 2006. Perspectives on culture and communication: The media ecology tradition. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This celebratory edited collection focuses on Postman’s contribution to media ecology. It marks the maturation of the approach into a recognized discipline with an intellectual history and community of scholars that share a set of theoretical perspectives. Relatively short on foundational thinkers but succeeds in explaining the basic concepts and can be effectively used in the classroom.

    Find this resource:

  • Nystrom, Christine L. 1973. Toward a science of media ecology: The formulation of integrated conceptual paradigms for the study of human communication systems. PhD diss., New York University.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The pioneering work is the first major treatise to examine media ecology as a formal field of study. Noteworthy for the observation of environment submersion—the idea that we are least likely to notice surroundings in which we are deeply immersed—and the early recognition of parallels between media ecology on the one hand and cybernetic and systems theory on the other.

    Find this resource:

  • Postman, Neil. 1970. The reformed English curriculum. In High school 1980: The shape of the future in American secondary education. Edited by Alvin C. Eurich, 160–168. New York: Pitman.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Based on Postman’s famous 1968 address where he asked: What is media ecology? This article contains the first definition: “Media ecology is the study of media as environments.” Although the question is still being asked in the early 21st century, this answer remains foundational for the field.

    Find this resource:

  • Strate, Lance. 2006. Echoes and reflections: On media ecology as a field of study. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This wide-ranging book includes Strate’s earlier work on media ecology and its development as an academic field. It eschews a definition of concepts and methods for a grammar of media ecology—its rules, language, technology, and biases, taking an ecological approach in nature and structure that makes it less a chronology of research and more an emphasis on the connections, conflicts, and criticisms within the field.

    Find this resource:

Foundational Thinkers and Texts

There are several key thinkers who form the theoretical core of media ecology. The central themes and ideas found in their major works provided the fruitful soil in which the approach took root and eventually blossomed. McLuhan’s 1964 (McLuhan 1964) formulation of media effects, or medium theory, served as a lightning rod for the emerging discipline, neatly distilled into the famous aphorism that “the medium is the message.” Although McLuhan served as a catalyst, his ideas complemented and enhanced earlier ideas, particularly the Innis 1951 conception of media effects in his theory of time- and space-biased media and Mumford 1934, on the formative nature of technology for social and cultural development. Contemporary works Ong 1967 and Ellul 1964 both posited media as environments that shaped the direction of society: for Ellul this was only negative, as technology escaped its subservience to humanity, while Ong, taking an historical perspective, showed how different media operate in the creation of stable cultures. Postman 1986 was the most “popular” media ecology work after McLuhan, but unlike his mentor, the author was a public intellectual engaged in social criticism. In one of the most frequently cited works in the media ecology literature, he critiques contemporary “image culture” as trivializing serious discourse.

  • Ellul, Jacques. 1964. The technological society. Translated by John Wilkinson. New York: Knopf.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The most pessimistic of media ecologists, Ellul paints a dark picture of technology as no longer in service to humankind but autonomous and self-expanding, encroaching on all aspects of social life and the natural world. He uses the term “la technique” to conceptualize technology as a system, a world view, and a way of life with negative consequences for humanity.

    Find this resource:

  • Innis, Harold. 1951. The bias of communication. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A political economist who brought historical and sociological approaches to the study of media, Innis was a major influence on McLuhan. In this groundbreaking work, he offers both grand theorizing and detailed studies of the effects of media and technologies on social and cultural developments, outlining his idea of time- and space-biased media, and their implications for communication and power relations.

    Find this resource:

  • McLuhan, Marshall. 1964. Understanding media: The extensions of man. New York: McGraw-Hill.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The charismatic popularizer of the media ecology approach, McLuhan produced this cardinal synthesis, which formulates what would come to be known as medium theory based on his famous insight that the effects of communication are found in the container (technology) that delivers the content, rather than the content itself. A challenging but essential introduction to the study of media environments.

    Find this resource:

  • Mumford, Lewis. 1934. Technics and civilization. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A precursor to media ecology, this important volume presents the history of technology as it interacts with culture and society. Anticipating medium theory, Mumford details how different ages are defined by different technological complexes, providing the basis for McLuhan’s 1964 discussion of electronic media and technologies as biological extensions.

    Find this resource:

  • Ong, Walter. 1967. The presence of the word: Some prolegomena for cultural and religious history. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A student and contemporary of McLuhan’s, Ong explores the characteristics and implications of oral, scribal, print, and electronic societies in this pioneering work bridging cultural studies and media ecology. He develops the thesis that major cultural and cognitive developments are related to the transition from primary orality (verbal expression) to secondary orality (electronic media).

    Find this resource:

  • Postman, Neil. 1986. Amusing ourselves to death: Public discourse in the age of show business. New York: Penguin.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The best-known book and one of the most frequently cited works in the media ecology literature from the founder of the first-ever media ecology program. A strong McLuhan influence is evident in Postman’s scathing critique of American television as a media environment that degrades public discourse, transforming it into entertainment.

    Find this resource:

The Toronto School

The Toronto School refers to a community of scholars at the University of Toronto conducting research based on a theory of the primacy of communication in the structuring of human cultures and cognition (Watson and Blondheim 2008). It converged around the paradigm shift in media theory wrought by the radical conjectures of Innis 1950 and McLuhan 1962 about the effects of communication (conceptualized as a process) mediated by technology (conceived as an environment central to social and historical change). In turn, these founding fathers were deeply influenced by Havelock 1963’s studies on the effects of writing in the transition from orality to literacy. Goody 1977 examines the consequences of the writing in general, confirming Havelock’s research on orality-literacy from an anthropological perspective. Logan 2004 offers a comparative analysis of alphabetic and pictographic writing systems, positing the transformative effects of the alphabet for Western civilization. The media ecology approach goes global in Carpenter 1973, an ethnographic study of the impact of electronic media on tribal culture. McLuhan attempts to establish a scientific foundation for determining the effects of technology on society in his posthumously published McLuhan and McLuhan 1989. McLuhan and McLuhan 2011 expounds on the nature of causality both as a creative process and as one inherently connected to a systems view of communication.

  • Carpenter, Edmund. 1973. Oh, what a blow that phantom gave me!. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Out of print, but available online. A founder of the Toronto school and a longtime McLuhan collaborator, Carpenter’s contribution was a comparative approach to the study of communication and perception as he transgressed the border between ethnography and media. Here he details his experiences in Papua New Guinea as one of the first scholars researching the effects of electronic media on tribal peoples.

    Find this resource:

  • Goody, Jack. 1977. The domestication of the savage mind. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The first to make reference to the Toronto School, Goody considers the role of written communication in the development and organization of contemporary social and cultural institutions. An anthropologist, his cross-cultural approach to orality-literacy studies confirms the historical and literary work of Havelock 1963 and creates a more universal approach to media ecology.

    Find this resource:

  • Havelock, Eric. 1963. Preface to Plato. Cambridge, MA, and London: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The best-known work from this pioneer in orality-literacy studies addresses the effects of media embedded deep within the mechanics of the writing system. It offers an exploration of oral culture, analyzing the relationship between Platonic thought and the development of literacy, which Havelock argues changed the content and organization of thought.

    Find this resource:

  • Innis, Harold. 1950. Empire and communications. Oxford: Clarendon.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A groundbreaking work exploring the impact of communication technologies on the rise and fall of empires and the relevance of time and space for media in Western civilization from ancient to modern times. Introduces a notion of the “bias” of each medium and the need for balance to avoid “monopolies of knowledge,” which create power imbalances.

    Find this resource:

  • Logan, Robert K. 2004. The alphabet effect: A media ecology understanding of Western civilization. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Begun as a collaboration with McLuhan, this critical survey follows the impact of alphabetic writing across various Western cultures, in contrast with the role of Eastern pictographic writing systems. It presents the alphabet as a medium that propagates an analytic and abstract form of organization that contributed to the science- and logic-based nature of Western civilization.

    Find this resource:

  • McLuhan, Marshall. 1962. The Gutenberg galaxy: The making of typographic man. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A study in oral culture, print culture, cultural studies, and media ecology that builds upon Innis’ 1950 breakthrough notion of the complex interrelation between the process, effects, and technologies of communication. Provides the historical and theoretical context for McLuhan’s media theory (McLuhan 1964, cited under Foundational Thinkers and Texts), fleshing out the connection between communication technology and cognitive organization, and their effects.

    Find this resource:

  • McLuhan, Eric, and Marshall McLuhan. 1989. Laws of media: The new science. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Cowritten by father and son, this text introduces the tetrad: four laws of media intended to provide a structure for analyzing the impact and significance of any medium or innovation. The laws express effects, which the authors contend are inherent and simultaneous in all media.

    Find this resource:

  • McLuhan, Marshal, and Eric McLuhan. 2011. Media and formal cause. Houston, TX: NeoPoiesis.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An excavation of media and its relation to causality in the digital realm, this quartet of essays considers how new media alter the way we construct our social reality and our communication.

    Find this resource:

  • Watson, Rita, and Menahem Blondheim, eds. 2008. The Toronto School of communication theory: Interpretations, extensions, applications. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This essay collection reassesses the existence of the Toronto School and reevaluates its contribution to media theory, focusing on the central figures of Innis and McLuhan and their highly original attempts to conceptualize communication as an impetus of social change.

    Find this resource:

The New York School

The origins of media ecology also lie in the New York School, which refers to New York City area academics influenced by McLuhan, particularly after his one-year visiting professorship at the Bronx’s Fordham University in 1967, as well as to the intellectual community that developed around Postman and the graduate program in media ecology he founded at New York University in 1971. However, the New York School can trace its lineage back to Mumford 1934, which is generally considered to have laid the foundation. While Strate 2004 offers an invaluable overview, others explore more specific terrains of the media ecology landscape, including media effects on cultural institutions (Gumpert 1987); human relationships with communication technology (Levinson 1988); and connections between media environments and language (Postman 1979), linguistics (Forsdale 1981), and the improvement of the human condition (Perkinson 1995).

  • Forsdale, Louis. 1981. Perspectives on communication. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A Columbia University professor of English Education, Forsdale was an early champion of McLuhan, serving as mentor to Neil Postman and other pioneering media ecology scholars. In this book he explains how McLuhan’s media ecology extends the linguistic theory associated with Benjamin Lee Whorf and others—the hypothesis that different languages produce different worldviews. Out of print.

    Find this resource:

  • Gumpert, Gary. 1987. Talking tombstones and other tales of the media age. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Gumpert, who first met McLuhan as a doctoral student, worked in the media ecology tradition at Queens College of the City University of New York. He takes up a neglected area of communications study in this entertaining book: the impact and role of communication technology on social and cultural institutions.

    Find this resource:

  • Levinson, Paul. 1988. Mind at large: Knowing in the technological age. Greenwich, CT: JAI.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A former student of Postman, Levinson presents a theory of media evolution heavily indebted to McLuhan wherein human beings function as technology’s environment, selecting for characteristics that most resemble our experience of the world, which he terms “anthropocentric.”

    Find this resource:

  • Mumford, Lewis. 1934. Technics and civilization. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A precursor to media ecology, this important volume presents the history of technology as it interacts with culture and society. Mumford, as the putative founder of the New York School, details how different ages are defined by different technological complexes, providing the basis for McLuhan’s discussion of electronic media and technologies as biological extensions, and anticipating medium theory (McLuhan 1964, cited under Foundational Thinkers and Texts).

    Find this resource:

  • Perkinson, Henry. 1995. How things got better: Speech, writing, printing, and cultural change. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Perkinson was introduced to media ecology and communication studies through his interactions with Postman at New York University. Although he eschewed Postman’s pessimism regarding media and technology, Perkinson shared his colleague’s humanist approach: here he reviews media history to show how each major innovation in communication led to improvements in the human condition.

    Find this resource:

  • Postman, Neil. 1979. Teaching as a conserving activity. New York: Delacorte.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Postman’s first, book-length explanation of media ecology, where he famously defines it as the study of information environments, concerned with the social effects of communication technology. Published mid-career, this book generalizes Postman’s early concerns for language and pedagogy to the total media environment. A primary reader for media ecologists.

    Find this resource:

  • Strate, Lance. 2004. A media ecology review. Communication Research Trends 23.2: 3–48.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Another student of Postman and founder of the scholarly journal Explorations in Media Ecology, Strate conducts an exhaustive review of the literature that traces media ecology’s historical roots and intellectual connections to a wide range of academic disciplines, drawing from literary and philosophical perspectives as well as anthropological and psychiatric sources. A great primer for beginners and a useful resource for students of media ecology.

    Find this resource:

Visual Communication and Media Ecology

Media ecology includes the study of visual culture and how it interacts in any given environment (McLuhan and Fiore 1967). The Langer 1953 theory of art as the creation of forms symbolic of human emotion offers a new entrée into the study of media ecology, considering the bias or meaning of a variety of different art forms, each of which can be understood as a medium in its own right. Benjamin 1968 offers a nuanced appreciation of the ambivalence of print technology for visual culture as well as the broader society. This work was widely influential across disciplines, inspiring the Baudrillard 1983 exposition on the inability of media technologies to represent reality and the Boorstin 1987 analysis of “image culture” as generated by television. The award-winning essay Sontag 1977 discusses photography as a “mass art form” and considers the effects of the camera on modern society.

  • Baudrillard, Jean. 1983. Simulations. Translated by P. Foss, P. Patton, and P. Beitchman. New York: Semiotexte.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Building upon Benjamin’s discussion of the technological reproduction of art, Baudrillard explores the implications of hyperreality. Because new media technologies are capable of endless reproduction, they are incapable of authenticity and as such no longer represent reality but constitute it.

    Find this resource:

  • Benjamin, Walter. 1968. “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction” In Illuminations: essays and reflections. Edited by Hanna Arendt, translated by Harry Zorn. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Although Benjamin is more often associated with Critical Theory and the Frankfurt School, his work shares a number of affinities with media ecology. He examines the negative effects of print technology, specifically lithography, as well as its democratizing potential in this highly influential essay.

    Find this resource:

  • Boorstin, Daniel J. 1987. The image: A guide to pseudo-events in America. New York: Atheneum.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Boorstin draws upon Benjamin for his critique of contemporary American society, which focuses on image culture. His observation that television news is designed not to inform but to sell advertising and debases public discourse was significant for Postman 1986 (cited under Foundational Thinkers and Texts).

    Find this resource:

  • Langer, Susanne K. 1953. Feeling and form: A theory of art. New York: Scribner.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Langer develops a comprehensive theory of art in the sequel to Philosophy in a New Key. She explores the particular meaning of different forms or media, characterizing art as the creation of forms symbolic of human feelings and highlighting the importance of emotion in human cognition.

    Find this resource:

  • McLuhan, Marshall, and Quentin Fiore. 1967. The medium is the massage: An inventory of effects. Corte Madera, CA: Gingko.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A graphical representation of the famous aphorism, this book is an experiment in graphic design—a comingling of collage, text, image, and blank space, juxtaposed in unexpected ways, answering the question “what is visual language?” A visual demonstration of the media effects or “massage” on the human sensorium.

    Find this resource:

  • Sontag, Susan. 1977. On photography. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    In this collection of essays, Sontag focuses on the consequences of photography. She conceptualizes the camera as a medium, noting its function in the generation of voyeurism, pacifism, and spectacle in mass-mediated, capitalist society and concluding with a call for an ecology of images.

    Find this resource:

Orality, Literacy, Linguistics, and Semantics

As an open-ended field of study, media ecology gathers within its fold a range of academic disciplines, notably those focused on the word and the evolution of its production in language, writing, and print (Ramos 2000). The transition from orality to literacy represents a radical moment in human history, with transformative effects on cognition and consciousness, as the complementary works Ong 1982 and Havelock 1986 detail. Schmandt–Besserat 1996 traces the origins of writing to an ancient accounting technology, while Eisenstein 1979 examines the cultural transformation wrought by the invention of the printing press. Where Goody 1977 (cited under The Toronto School) focuses on the particular effects of the alphabet for Western thought, Whorf 1956, case studies of Native American languages, shows how different languages produce different worldviews. Sapir 1921 and Lee 1959 help us understand how different languages represent different modes of mediating. Langer 1957 bridges philosophy and media ecology, demonstrating how the structure of different symbol systems shapes the human experience.

  • Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. 1979. The printing press as an agent of change: Communications and cultural transformations in early modern Europe. 2 vols. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An exhaustive study of typography and the impact of the Gutenberg press on early modern Europe that was inspired by McLuhan and ultimately confirms his theory of media effects. It draws upon the historical record to support the thesis that print media enabled modernity, including the Protestant Reformation and the Scientific Revolution.

    Find this resource:

  • Havelock, Eric. 1986. The muse learns to write: Reflections on orality and literacy from antiquity to the present. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    In many ways a companion piece to Ong 1982, this work summarizes the impact of the shift from orality to literacy in the Hellenic world, highlighting the restructuring of consciousness and epistemology by the technology of writing.

    Find this resource:

  • Langer, Susanne. 1957. Philosophy in a new key: A study in the symbolism of reason, rite and art. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A key transitional figure in media ecology, particularly the New York School, Langer broadens the definition of symbol to include art, music, and ritual in this bestseller. She develops insights into the relativity of language, examining how the structure of different symbol systems shapes the human experience.

    Find this resource:

  • Lee, Dorothy. 1959. Freedom and culture. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    In this highly influential work, Lee examines culture in relation to language, symbols systems, and modes of communication such as orality and literacy, connecting literacy to the linearity inherent in thought, perception, and writing.

    Find this resource:

  • Ong, Walter. 1982. Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London and New York: Methuen.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An introductory text that summarizes orality-literacy studies, this book foregrounds Ong’s findings on “secondary orality” and the transformative effects of print technology. A useful companion to Havelock 1986.

    Find this resource:

  • Ramos, Lori. 2000. Understanding literacy: Theoretical foundations for research in media ecology. Atlantic Journal of Communication 8.1: 46–55.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This review article surveys key media ecologists’ major works on the evolution of writing systems and printing. It provides a useful overview of the theoretical frameworks of Innis, Havelock, McLuhan, Goody, Ong, and Eisenstein, discussing their integral contributions to the study of media, communication, and culture.

    Find this resource:

  • Sapir, Edward. 1921. Language: An introduction to the study of speech. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    One of the most influential figures in North American linguistics, Sapir created a media ecological theoretical framework that considered the limitations and possibilities of language as a medium in relation to the problem of thought and the nature of the historical process, race, culture, and art.

    Find this resource:

  • Schmandt-Besserat, Denise. 1996. How writing came about. Austin: Univ. of Texas Press.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This influential yet accessible text documents the discovery that phonetic writing descended from an archaic counting device and not pictography as was widely believed, linking the origins of accounting, writing, and linear thought. Suitable for a public or classroom audience.

    Find this resource:

  • Whorf, Benjamin. 1956. Language, thought, and reality: Selected writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Edited by John B. Carroll. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An early media ecologist, Whorf advances the concept of linguistic relativism—the notion that language is not a neutral conveyor of ideas but a symbolic environment of thought whose structures vary according to different speech communities and therefore construct different conceptions of the world—based on his famous studies of Native American languages.

    Find this resource:

Interpersonal Communication and Symbolic Interaction

Symbolic interaction—the notion that communication forms the scaffolding of society and our sense of self—is a sociological perspective derived from pragmatism. It falls under media ecology’s general purview in its understanding of language as creating a symbolic environment or situation that shapes communication exchanges. The sharing of symbolic messages is at the heart of both interpersonal communication and cultural communication, which together comprise a dynamic, dialectical social world and must be analyzed in relation to one another. The roots of symbolic interaction are found in Mead 1967, a sociologist whose key insight was that people construct identity during interpersonal communication based on how they define or interpret situations. Blumer 1986, the work of Mead’s student, developed these ideas, laying the groundwork for a field of study distinct from its philosophical origins in pragmatism. Goffman 1959 bases his dramaturgical approach on symbolic interactionism, examining interpersonal communication in everyday life as situations (or environments) with constraining and enabling effects. Hall 1992 introduces the notion of proxemics, the study of the human use of space from interpersonal interactions to the construction of the built environment. Cathcart and Gumpert 1983 highlights the role of technology in interpersonal communication, representing the “third way” of media ecology in communication studies. Meyrowitz 1985 bridges symbolic interactionism and medium theory in his analysis of the relationship between media and interpersonal communication. Barnes 2002 introduces the computer as a new environment for communication.

  • Barnes, Susan B. 2002. Computer-mediated communication: Human-to-human communication across the Internet. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Suitable for the undergraduate level, this textbook examines the computer as an environment for digitally mediated communication and maps the rules and patterns that forge interpersonal relationships on the Internet. Clearly organized and engaging, Barnes—a student of Postman’s—takes a media ecological approach and provides a good introduction to computer networking and the Internet.

    Find this resource:

  • Blumer, Herbert. 1986. Symbolic interactionism: Perspective and method. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A student and interpreter of Mead 1967, Blumer coined the term “symbolic interactionism” and laid out the basic premises of the perspective in this influential summary related to meaning, language, and thought. A cornerstone of symbolic interaction and influential beyond the sociological canon.

    Find this resource:

  • Cathcart, Robert, and Gary Gumpert. 1983. Mediated interpersonal communication: Toward a new typology. Quarterly Journal of Speech 69:267–277.

    DOI: 10.1080/00335638309383654Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This succinct journal article argues for a new typology that includes media technology in order to bridge the gap between mass communication and interpersonal communication studies, following the “third way” of media theorists like McLuhan. “Mediated interpersonal communication” refocuses attention to the role of channel or medium in communication processes prominent in earlier media scholarship.

    Find this resource:

  • Goffman, Erving. 1959. The presentation of self in everyday life. New York: Anchor.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Goffman’s dramaturgical model employs the analogy of a theatre performance to understand social situations as environments and their role in the construction of the self and the social order. Also called situationism, it considers the structuring effects of broader environments, which accounts for its incorporation into media ecology.

    Find this resource:

  • Hall, Edward T. 1992. The hidden dimension. Anchor: New York.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Focusing on the form of interaction rather than content, Hall explores the human use of space in this classic text. His work on the hidden formal dimensions of time and space that create social environments that constrain communication finds affinity with Innis’ work on time- and space-biased media.

    Find this resource:

  • Mead, George Herbert. 1967. Mind, self, and society: From the standpoint of a social behaviorist. Edited by Charles W. Morris. Chicago: The Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Published posthumously, this work provides the theoretical foundation for exploring interpersonal media ecological studies. Mead’s suggestion that the self is constructed through interactions with others posits interpersonal communication as a symbolic environment, which interacts with the broader cultural environment and requires analysis along with messages or content. Originally published in 1934.

    Find this resource:

  • Meyrowitz, Joshua. 1985. No sense of place: The impact of electronic media on social behavior. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A groundbreaking book from another of Postman’s students synthesizing medium theory as the social scientific component of media ecology and symbolic interactionism to analyze the impact of media on interpersonal communication. Argues that situations, like social space and cultural contexts, can be viewed as a type of medium and that electronic media create new situations that dissolve the historic connection between physical place and social space.

    Find this resource:

Cybernetics and Systems Theory

Cybernetics and systems theory are twin influences offering a holistic ecological approach that parallels media ecology (Broadhurst and Darnell 1965, Campbell 1982, Laszlo 1972). Electricity and electric devices, particularly the electronic media of communication, were key to the development of both cybernetics and systems theory (von Bertalanffy 1973, Wiener 1988), forming, along with information theory, the basis of communication as an emerging field of study after World War II. With the development of television, the digital computer, and information and communication technologies (ICTs), there was much reflection on the role and ramifications of electronic media (Beniger 1986) in modern society. Cybernetic and systems theory approaches also applied to ecologies of mind—the study of consciousness in relation to external environments (Bateson 2000)—and understandings of the biological influence on the formation of consciousness (Maturana and Varela 1992). Media ecology is especially relevant for the study of new media, as Levinson 1999 demonstrates.

  • Bateson, Gregory. 2000. Steps to an ecology of mind: Collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This collection of essays explores the “ecology of mind”—consciousness as an emergent phenomenon resulting from the complex interplay of the brain, body, and external material environment. Rooted in information theory, it also draws upon cybernetics, systems theory, ecology, biology, anthropology, psychiatry, and semantics.

    Find this resource:

  • Beniger, James. 1986. The control revolution: Technological and economic origins of the information society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Based on Wiener’s cybernetic theory, this acclaimed study of the economic and technological origins of the information society details the impact of both the Industrial Revolution and the communication technologies it inspired to help control and coordinate increasingly complex human and machine activity.

    Find this resource:

  • Broadhurst, Allan R., and Donald K. Darnell. 1965. An introduction to cybernetics and information theory. Quarterly Journal of Speech 51:442–453.

    DOI: 10.1080/00335636509382744Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This general introduction to cybernetics and the relevance of information theory for the “science of communication” and media ecology as an emergent field has withstood the test of time. Although technical in parts, it remains a concise overview.

    Find this resource:

  • Campbell, Jeremy. 1982. Grammatical man: Information, entropy, language, and life. New York: Simon & Schuster.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An accessible overview of cybernetics, information theory, and the systems approach that incorporates media ecology’s emphasis on communication.

    Find this resource:

  • Laszlo, Ervin. 1972. The systems view of the world: The natural philosophy of the new developments in the sciences. New York: George Braziller.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Uses von Bertalanffy’s founding work in systems theory to develop a science of organized complexity, integrating science, religion, human values, and nature, highlighting the role of consciousness—abstract language and self-reflection—as humans coevolved with other elements of the system.

    Find this resource:

  • Levinson, P. 1999. Digital McLuhan: A guide to the information millennium. London and New York: Routledge.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Levinson brings McLuhan’s prescient ideas, principles, and constructs into the digital age. Although McLuhan died before the popularization of personal computer, Levinson shows how his ideas hailed the coming Information Revolution and remain critical for understanding our social relationship to technology.

    Find this resource:

  • Maturana, Humberto, and Francisco Varela. 1992. The tree of knowledge: The biological roots of human understanding. Boston: Shambhala.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This highly readable book offers a systems theory view of how human consciousness is constituted. It informs the study of media ecology by considering the realities of the biological world and the role of the brain in cocreating our perceptions of reality.

    Find this resource:

  • von Bertalanffy, Ludwig. 1973. General system theory: Foundations, development, applications. New York: G. Braziller.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Selected writings from the founder of general systems theory, which attempts to formulate common laws that apply universally across the sciences. Shows the evolution of the theory and how it may be applied. A dense read, but essential for understanding systems as environments with a wide range of biological and cultural effects.

    Find this resource:

  • Wiener, Norbert. 1988. The human use of human beings: Cybernetics and society. New York: Da Capo.

    Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Develops cybernetics—the science of control—for a popular audience, finding common ground between electronic technology and biology as information systems based on feedback loops. Explores human/machine relationships, mediated by new communication technologies, and the implications of automation for human progress.

    Find this resource:

LAST MODIFIED: 05/23/2012

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199756841-0054

back to top

Article

Up

Down