What is Media Ecology and Who Are Media Ecologists?
According to Wikipedia, “Media ecology theory is the study of media, technology, and communication and how they affect human environments. … McLuhan proposed that media influence the progression of society and those significant periods of time and growth can be categorized by the rise of a specific technology during that period.” According to the Media Ecology Association: Media Ecology is the study of media as environments.”
The Problem with Knowing Something.
The above definitions are misnomers. Harold Innis in “Communication and Empire” and “The Bias of Communication” suggested that civilizations tended to be more influenced either by properties of space that favored trade, expansion, and monopolies of knowledge or those of time that preserved knowledge and favored philosophy and religion. Typically these were the empires of the West and the East. Innis believed that these differences were due to the physical properties of communications media and their strengths and limitations. This is also one of the origins of the discipline known as Orality-Literacy studies.
Here is a good example of competing environments: Alexander the Great’s father King Philip of Macedonia hired Aristotle as his tutor. Aristotle taught Alexander Greek knowledge. Aristotle figured out how to formalize that knowledge as a series of questions -a novel and radical departure and reversal of the traditions of oral-formulaic poetry as a way of preserving a cultures’ knowledge. He called it “the four laws of cause.” Today we should recognize it as the cause part of the cause and effect characteristic of the modern scientific worldview. The new media or novel genre was science. Later scholars would discover that final, material, and efficient cause are the content of formal cause.
With Aristotelian logic, Alexander conquered the known world by Helenizing it. He founded the library in Alexandria, Egypt. Cleopatra saw the problem of overlapping environments too. She hated the growing priestly hierarchy and bureaucracy that hampered her empire by retrieving astrology charts from the library and advising her what to do. So she burned down the library. Later she stopped the sale of papyrus altogether to Rome which she knew ran on literacy and paper. So you can see people knew the value of those ideas a long time ago. It seemed to have gotten lost in time. Today no ancient would recognize China which has westernized.
An obsolete and forgotten art by then, Harvard University’s Millman Parry would retrieve our knowledge of how Greek oral-formulaic poetry functioned in the 20th C. The Illiad and the Odyssey are good examples of oral-formulaic poetry. Some of the roots of storytelling are to be discovered in its forging of generational identity out of conflict. Novel genre was generated from the old again when Joseph Campbell retold it as “The Heros’ Journey,” when CG Jung turned it into typologies and archetypes when George Lucas wrote the trilogy “Star Wars”, and Neil Howe and William Strauss transformed it into “The Fourth Turning- An American Prophesy.”
New Media are Novel Genres are New Ways of Knowing
McLuhan observed that with the advent of electric media, which begins with the telegraph, time and space and materiality disappeared as factors such as mechanical speed-up that led to monopolies of knowledge as Innis noted. It was for him the one medium that had no content because he believed that light was pure information. A little like three of Aristotles’ laws they get swallowed up by the new media but under electric conditions then they disappear altogether. Hence the need for novel genres and ways of knowing.
McLuhan was much maligned during his lifetime and unfairly dismissed often as “a technological determinist.” He defended himself vigorously and said, “nothing is inevitable as long as you are willing to pay attention.” This meant people are too distracted by their media to understand it and its impact on their sensory lives. He is quoted as saying his ideas were a mere footnote to Innis’ work. Innis and McLuhan’s idea of a medium was much more inclusive than mere technology and suggested a way out of technological determinism which only tells half the story.
McLuhan’s son Eric who was his protege believed that his father’s work retrieved lost knowledge that belonged somewhere with that of early Enlightenment thinkers Sir Francis Bacon and Giambattista Vico. The later Enlightenment sped past their work but did circle back after the late Enlightenment. Similarly, there was a period of time where McLuhan was skipped by a generation who had no interest in or knowledge of his work but then a revival of sorts. It was his friend Neil Postman who at his behest started NYU’s Media Ecology Ph.D. program. The first and I think only one of its kind. Since Postman’s death, it has been discontinued.