In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Media Ecology

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Foundational Thinkers and Texts
  • The Toronto School
  • The New York School
  • Visual Communication and Media Ecology
  • Orality, Literacy, Linguistics, and Semantics
  • Interpersonal Communication and Symbolic Interaction
  • Cybernetics and Systems Theory

Communication Media Ecology
Kate Milberry
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 September 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 May 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0054


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.

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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.

  • ETC: A review of general semantics.

    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.

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

    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.

  • 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.

    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.

  • 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.

    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.

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

    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.

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