Cinema and Media Studies Media Ecology
Thom Gencarelli
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 October 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0345


Media ecology is a clearly defined branch of the field of media studies and, among scholars who define themselves as media ecologists, is often recognized as a discipline in its own right. It offers a coherent, specific, and highly generative framework for thinking about and understanding media. Media ecology is specific in that practitioners in the larger discipline of media studies tend to focus on one (or a combination) of four areas: media content, audiences, the industry and industrial practice, or media themselves. Media ecologists focus expressly on the latter: the nature of media themselves. To do so, they often call upon an approach that compares and contrasts media to one another, and which is based upon a certain view of the history of our media of human communication. This history, as it is largely agreed upon, is comprised of four “revolutionary” inventions in media: fully developed and conventionally shared systems of oral, or speech language; systems of writing, with their pinnacle achievement in alphabetic writing; the mechanical, movable-type printing press and its consequences; and the development of our electric/electronic means of communication beginning with the 19th-century invention of telegraphy. The jury remains out with respect to the idea of a revolution or revolutions after television arose as our most powerful medium of electronic mass communication. Disagreement on this matter has led to some of the most fruitful developments in media ecology scholarship, as scholars argue whether digitization, computer-mediated communication, the Internet, mobility and the mobile Internet, and social media, while themselves electric/electronic, represent not merely a fifth revolution in our contemporary age but possibly a series of revolutions in the making, or which have already taken place. In addition, media ecology can be said to be comprised of two “schools.” The first is the Toronto School of Communication Theory—the very term “media ecology” having arisen out of the probing wordplay of H. Marshall McLuhan, who is considered both the founding figure and patron saint of the discipline. The second school is the New York School, founded by the educationist Neil Postman. As an English-language educator at the moment television was having its initial impact on US culture, Postman was, along with McLuhan, presciently concerned about the impact of the medium’s visual/image-based emphasis for the traditions and gifts of the print-literate culture up to that time. Postman was greatly influenced by McLuhan’s work, became both a champion and a clarifier of McLuhan’s ideas, and established a PhD program in media ecology at New York University in 1970. This bibliography presents the Essential Readings in the field, followed by works about: Orality and Its Antecedents; Writing; Print; Electric/Electronic Media; “New” Media and Perspective on the New Revolution/s; and Fully Understanding Media and Media Ecology.

Essential Readings

The essential readings in the field cross both media ecology’s roots within the two schools but also the most prominent and significant recent works. The roots-based works are of course necessary to understand the foundations and underlying principles that evolved into a coherent theoretical framework. The recent works speak to the fact that the very purpose of scholarship is to expand upon and extend ideas as part of our ongoing great conversation, but also to reflect the currents of the times. In addition, they speak to the fact that media ecology continues to be a vibrant and vital field, as well as a community of committed, interested, and self-defining scholars. The foundations of the field can be best found and understood in one work by Innis, two by McLuhan, two by Postman, and one by Christine Nystrom. Innis 1951 offers the foundational contribution about our revolutions in human communications, albeit stopping at radio broadcasting. McLuhan 1962 builds upon Innis, but with an understanding of and concern about the impact of electric/electronic media. This work is followed by McLuhan 1964, which launched its author’s career as a public intellectual and which also represents the fusion of the traditions of scholarship in communication, grounded in the study of rhetoric and dating back to the trivium of logic, grammar, and rhetoric, and scholarship in mass communication and mass media, grounded in sociology and the propaganda studies of the early to mid-20th century. Postman 1970 and Postman 1979 can be said to be the works responsible for laying the imprint for media ecology. The former work represents the first time the term “media ecology” appears in print. The latter explicitly lays out Postman’s philosophical framework for media ecology as a philosophy of education in the latter half of the 20th century. Nystrom was one of the NYU program’s original doctoral students and later became Postman’s colleague. Her work here, Nystrom 2020, represents a collection of her writings. Beyond this, four works represent the most significant recent contributions in media ecology. Lum 2005 brings together a series of experts who speak to the contributions of key figures in the media ecology canon. Moran 2010 offers a somewhat alternate take on the history of the communications revolutions presented herein. Cali 2017, as its title suggests, seeks to provide an “introduction” to the field by defining it, outlining its most significant themes, and also addressing key theorists and their work. Finally, Strate 2017 seeks to advance the framework by situating media ecology as an intellectual tradition that speaks not only to media study, but to the entirety of our human experience across the ages and toward our future.

  • Cali, Dennis D. Mapping Media Ecology: Introduction to the Field. New York: Peter Lang, 2017.

    DOI: 10.3726/978-1-4539-1871-5

    While Cali’s book offers perspective on the transdisciplinary thinkers and their thinking that media ecology brings under one tent, his book is of importance in two respects. The first is the extent to which his target readership is the uninitiated. As a result, his book can easily serve as an undergraduate-level textbook. The second is his first three chapters, which offer the reader a synthesis of various ways to consider, define, and best understand media ecology.

  • Innis, Harold A. The Bias of Communication. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1951.

    Innis’s previous book, Empire and Communications (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1950), was based upon a series of lectures he gave at Oxford University in 1948 and set the table for this work. He argues that media are either time-biased or space-biased. Time-biased media are heavy and durable and predisposed to centralization, continuity, and history. Space-biased media are light and transportable and biased toward decentralization. He ultimately posits that the demise of civilizations is a result of their overreliance on one medium over all others.

  • Lum, Casey Man Kong, ed. Perspectives on Culture, Technology and Communication: The Media Ecology Tradition. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2005.

    Lum’s introductory chapter is of great import in that it represents one of the initial attempts to define and present the transdisciplinary intellectual history of media ecology. Beyond this, the task of each of his authors is to sum up the complete contributions of a prominent theorist whose work is considered part of the media ecology canon, and to fully explain and situate the import of these theorists and their contributions within the media ecology tradition.

  • McLuhan, H. Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962.

    An alternative subtitle to some editions of this book is “The Making and Unmaking of Typographical Man.” McLuhan, with his background in literature, addresses how print literacy promotes modes of thinking—habits of mind—that brought about our great achievements since Gutenberg’s invention, but which are being impacted by the onset of electronic media. Influenced by Innis, the Canadian economist turned media scholar, McLuhan examines the historical sweep of our media of human communication up to the contemporary age.

  • McLuhan, H. Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964.

    Originally a project for the US-based National Association of Educational Broadcasters, “Report on Project in Understanding New Media,” this groundbreaking work forever changed the field of media studies. McLuhan reorients media scholarship to the study of media themselves with his adage “the medium is the message.” He also introduces the idea that media and technology are synonyms, as we insert our media in between us and our environment in an attempt to extend ourselves into and impact our world.

  • Moran, Terence P. Introduction to the History of Communication: Evolutions and Revolutions. New York: Peter Lang, 2010.

    DOI: 10.3726/978-1-4539-0002-4

    Moran, who was a member of the first media ecology PhD class at NYU and also became a colleague of Postman’s, takes stock of his long experience as a media ecologist to argue his own take on the history of our media of human communication. He separates the visual communication of graphics, photography, and cinematography from what he calls the electrographic and electrophonic revolution, and provides a chapter that offers perspective on what he refers to as the “cybernetic revolution.”

  • Nystrom, Christine. The Genes of Culture: Towards a Theory of Symbols, Meaning, and Media. Vol. 1. Edited by Carolyn Wiebe and Susan Maushart. New York: Peter Lang, 2020.

    DOI: 10.3726/b16789

    If Postman can be said to be a clarifier and even a popularizer of McLuhan’s ideas, it is Nystrom’s work that grounds media ecology as a distinct, coherent, and significant scholarly discipline in its own right. This collection of her writings, edited by two of her former students, grows out of an essential distinction she introduces: that humans have invented two kinds of tools, tools of doing and tools of knowing and telling.

  • Postman, Neil. “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, 1970.

    This anthology chapter is the published version of a speech, “Growing Up Relevant,” that Postman gave in 1968 to the National Council of Teachers of English, as part of a program entitled “Media Ecology: The English of the Future.” Its significance is that it represents the first time the term “media ecology” appears in print, during the same year Postman inaugurated the media ecology PhD program at New York University and welcomed its first doctoral class.

  • Postman, Neil. Teaching as a Conserving Activity. New York: Delta, 1979.

    This is one of Postman’s lesser-known works and a response to the book he authored in 1969 with Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity (New York: Delta, 1969), which had established his reputation in educational circles. It is also the media ecology primer. It presents media ecology as a framework for media literacy/media education, positing a balance or “thermostatic” view of education. It foregrounds Postman’s media ecology as a matter of conserving literacy in an age of electronic media and especially television.

  • Strate, Lance. Media Ecology: An Approach to Understanding the Human Condition. New York: Peter Lang, 2017.

    DOI: 10.3726/978-1-4331-4005-1

    Strate’s book goes beyond the recognition of the deep, transdisciplinary foundations of media ecology. It: (a) situates media at the center of everything that is beyond our biological and physical environment (before we add to the latter), including our technologies and symbol systems; and (b) thus situates media ecology at the center of the human endeavor, including our attempts to comprehend our human condition, to improve our lot, and to understand that which we do not yet or cannot know.

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