Of all the media theorists Marshall McLuhan is perhaps the most famous and in the 60s, there was perhaps no more well known academic figure in the entire communication discipline. McLuhan’s ideas have stood the test of time, yet at the time of their conception they were widely dismissed by the scientific community for reasons we will return to later (Scolari, 2012). In recent years the theory most accredited to McLuhan, the media ecology, has enjoyed a high degree of resurgence, with organizations such as the Media Ecology Association (MEA) leading the way. This theory, as Neil Postman proposed in a 1975 address, focuses not on specialization, but rather on making more generalize, bigger picture, connections (Salas, 2007). The media ecology can best be viewed as a framework, a way of looking at the world through the lens that mediums and technology are far more influential than the content of the messages they provide. This is the basic concept behind the phrase that epitomizes McLuhan’s contributions to this theory, “the medium is the message” (McLuhan, 1964, p. 7). Before we delve further into the tenants and contributions to the media ecology theory, it is useful to look at the metaphor around which it is organized, that of an ecology.
The ecology metaphor
While the majority of the credit for creating the framework of the media ecology goes to Marshall McLuhan, the actual use of the ecology metaphor in public discourse can be traced back to a speech made by Neil Postman to the National Council of Teachers of English in 1968 (Scolari, 2012). While Postman gives credit to McLuhan for introducing the term in private conversation this was the first time it was used in a way that was recorded for posterity (Scolari, 2012). In this conference, Postman defined media ecology as “the study of media as environments” (Scolari, 2012) this definition lends to the framework a biological metaphor, as Robert Logan points out in his study The Biological Foundation of Media Ecology (Logan, 2010). The words ecology and environment lend to this media theory a sense of interconnectedness. Much like the biological implications of the terms, this theory looks at how these mediums impact the structure, content, and impact on the people within the environment (Logan, 2010). Much like a biological environment the media environment is in constant flux, like adding a new species into an ecology “a new medium does not add something; it changes everything” (Postman, 1998). Also like a biological environment the media species within the media ecology interact and evolve with each other. This has been a stress with recent research in media ecology, which has examined the ideas of media convergence (Jenkins, 2006). Media ecology theorists such as Harold Innis and Jenkins trace certain developments in co-evolutionary terms, for example Innis tracked “the parallel development of railroads ad telegraphy in the nineteenth century” (Scolari, 2012, p. 209). These, as Scolari (2012) calls them, intermedia relationships provides prime evidence that mediums and media can be studied through a similar lens as we study the interaction of species in biological ecosystems. So, according to Logan (2007), the media ecology seeks to examine the interaction between the three domains media, technology, and language which together work to form a living media ecosystem. At this point I believe it may be useful to try and separate the terms ‘medium’ and ‘technology’ because, while similar, they have implicitly different meanings.
What is a medium?
The distinction between a ‘medium’ and a ‘technology’ is a somewhat slippery one. While mediums are technologies, not all technologies are mediums. In Amusing Ourselves to Death Neil Postman uses a comparison between the ‘brain’ and the ‘mind’ to help illustrate this distinction. “Like the brain, technology is a physical apparatus. Like the mind, a medium is a use to which a physical apparatus is put” (Postman, 1985, p. 84). This distinction means that a medium, is more than just a machine (as technology is), it is rather the “social and intellectual environment a machine creates” (p. 84). This is not to say that these technologies do not exist without bias, they do in fact exhibit a great degree of bias. Most technologies carry with them a predisposition for some kind of use, to borrow from Postman again for example; television carries with it a bias towards engaging the visual medium (Postman, 1985). While the television as a piece of technology could be used for any number of purposes from a light for the room to that of a radio, but that was not how it was adopted for use because its most novel feature was the broadcast of the visual medium (Postman, 1985). With this distinction firmly in place we can begin to examine the central tenant of the media ecology, “the medium is the message”.
“The medium is the message”
Of all the quotes associated with the framework of media ecology perhaps none is better known or provides better summation of the ideas than McLuhan’s famous quote “the medium is the message”. This idea comes from perhaps McLuhan’s most famous work, Understanding Media (1964). This phrase stresses the importance of the mediums that produce messages over the messages that they produce. As McLuhan (1964) wrote “’the medium is the message’ because it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action. The content or uses of such media are as diverse as they are ineffectual in shaping the form of human association” (McLuhan, 1964, p. 9). An excellent example of this, as Strate (2008) points out, is art. An artistic rendering of a subject will have an entirely different effect depending on its medium, a sculpture is different than an oil painting which is different than a screen print or even playing the same song using different instruments, these all will yield a completely different piece (Strate, 2008). This is why McLuhan and other media ecologists stress the importance of the medium over the content of the messages provided by it. In creating this theory, as with any ecology, it was important to consider the historic developments of the environment. This is exactly what McLuhan considered in his 1962 book, The Gutenberg Galaxy which laid the framework for his later conclusion that the “medium is the message”.
In The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) McLuhan outlines what can best be described as the four epochs of history as defined by the media ecology. These four epochs: the tribal age, the age of literacy, the print age, and the electronic age are each defined by a different technology, which has influenced the social and intellectual environments of society (thereby making them mediums as defined before).
The tribal age consists of the early ages of man before the existence of the written word. In this stage all history is oral and there is an emphasis on non-visual senses such as hearing and smelling because they provided a greater sense of what we cannot see, which understandable in a hunter gatherer tribal community is an important skill. Within this community and age there is a greater sense of community within which privacy was of non-emphasis, this community, McLuhan believed, had a greater awareness of the surrounding existence (Griffin, 2012). Because the spoken word only exists in the moment it is heard, there is little analysis and people are likely to believe what they hear. In the tribal age, people lived in the moment more.
This all changed with the invention of the Phonetic Alphabet. With its inception, the visual sense took reign as the most important which dramatically shifted the symbolic environment (Griffin, 2012). It now became possible to manipulate words out of context, and it jarred the community away from a collective tribal involvement into a ‘civilized’ type of private detachment. The written word meant that people no longer needed to congregate for information, which meant proximity was more important (hence why we began to spread out). Furthermore, McLuhan postures that the phonetic alphabet with its organizational structure, resulted in a more linear logical line of progressive thought (McLuhan, 1962). He believes that the invention of the alphabet birthed and fostered Philosophy, Mathematics, and Science (Laughey, 2007). It also created a line of informational and intellectual superiority and control between those who could read and write and those who could not. This created the aristocratic society that was common before the dawn of the next big technological advancement.
The invention of the printing press in 1450 made the visual dependence brought about by the phonetic alphabet widespread. Perhaps its most important aspect was the ability to replicate the same message and type over and over again, ensuring the integrity of the message (Griffin, 2012). McLuhan believed that the mass production capabilities of the printing press were the forerunner to the industrial revolution (Griffin, 2012). As individuals and groups turned to the written word for instruction and education, the era of detribalization sets in. It became no longer necessary for people to live, speak, listen, and be governed in the intimacy of tribal gatherings now that the written word can be mass-produced and widely distributed. The ability to spread a singular message over large distances helped to unify national languages, and was followed closely by the rise of nationalism; which was the result of a better informed populous (McLuhan, 1964). McLuhan (1964) offers the example of the French Revolution, “it was the printed word that, achieving cultural saturation in the eighteenth century, had homogenized the French nation… The typographic principles of uniformity, continuity, and linearity had overlaid the complexities of ancient feudal and oral society” (p. 14). The aristocracy that I mentioned in the previous age controlled the dissemination of written information to the public. As printing became more accessible the common man was given a voice, and that common man answered with a resounding “No cake for us thanks”. One other major effect of the Print age was a rise in isolation and individualization, because the printing press created portable books, people were able to absorb knowledge privately.
The Electronic age began with the invention of the telegraph in 1838. The telegraph shifted the media ecology back toward sound and touch (the two senses most closely associated with the telegraph). McLuhan, who was a very big proponent of electronic technology, believed this represented a retribalizing the human race, creating the global village (Griffin, 2012).
The global village is perhaps one of the most interesting ideas that emerged out of McLuhan’s theory. The global village is defined as a worldwide community connected by electronic mediums, which is similar to a tribe because everyone is aware of everyone else’s business (Griffin, 2012). We no longer live in tribal villages in the literal sense, but in the metaphorical sense electronic media has expanded our horizons to such an extent that we feel a vicarious intimacy with people and places all over the world (Griffin, 2012). Within the Electronic age, constant contact with the world becomes a daily reality. It is worth noting that what McLuhan essentially imagined here was the World Wide Web, thing is he imagined this thirty years before its realization. McLuhan believed the Internet would act as an extension of one’s consciousness. Within it everyone has access to knowledge about anything, and for people living within this age privacy has become a luxury at best but for most is a thing of the past (again remember that he predicted this in the early 60s). This positive reaction to the advent of the electronic culture was not echoed in Neil Postman’s sentiments. He believed that the speed of the electronic media, championed by the telegraph was an affront to the literate culture that was created by print media, which introduced “a large scale [of] irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence” (Postman, 1985, p. 66; as quoted in Laughey, 2007, p. 37). As fast as the telegraph carried messages it came with a lack of depth due to the medium’s bias towards short, truncated messages.
mCommunication: Present Day
In today’s society, it is clear that McLuhan was spot on with his idea of the Global Village, I do not have a source for this but I would not doubt that the advent of the Internet as a societal force in the 90’s was likely one of the major reasons that lead to the creation of the MEA in 1998. The Internet has changed our society in many, many ways and only now are we starting to be able to study its effects on the media ecology. One of the major things that recent researchers have really focused on is the idea of media convergence. Henry Jenkins talks about media convergence in his (2006) book, Convergence Culture. Using The Matrix as an archetypal example, he discusses how modern media ecology has created texts that are too grand to be contained in a singular medium, creating what he calls “transmedia franchises” (Jenkins, 2006, p. 98).
This same convergence is being realized in the creation of new mediums. This was the focus of the joint study between Logan & Scolari (2010) mCommunication, which set to examine the emergence of the new mobile Internet mediums that have entered the media ecosystem. Logan & Scolari (2010) define mCommunication as “the convergence of the mobile devices and access to the Internet” (p. 170). Any communications process three distinct elements: the sender, the receiver, and the message/information (Logan & Scolari, 2010). Just as the telegraph represented the mobility of messages, the Internet represents the mobility of information. When one adds the element of mobile communications devices (i.e. smart phones, tablets, etc.) it extends that mobility to both the sender and the receiver (Logan & Scolari, 2010). By ‘unplugging’ and utilizing technologies that allow to be bridged between the telephone and Internet like Wi-Fi, users are able to access the wealth of information on the Internet and all the vast communicative possibilities contained within from the palm of their hand, at an instant. The phenomenon that we can observe in today’s society of people being absorbed in their smartphones constantly, or pulling it out to look up any bit of random information, shows just how this new medium is acting as an extension of ourselves, and consequently an extension of the ecology into a new epoch, which Logan & Scolari (2010) have deemed mCommunication. McLuhan’s vision of the global village has undoubtedly been realized, but this extension is far enough beyond that to warrant a new epoch.
Criticisms of the McLuhan’s Media Ecology
As I mentioned at the beginning of this paper McLuhan’s ideas were largely dismissed by the scientific community at the time of their creation (Scolari, 2012). George Gordon, for example, was quoted as denouncing McLuhan’s work as “McLuhanacy” (Griffin, 2012, p. 329). There are a number of different critiques that have been made on this theory, but they tend to center around one of three major lines of criticism: technological determinism, technological utopianism, and nonscientific methodology (Chandler, 2011).
Perhaps the most often used line of criticism is the theory’s perceived reliance on technological determinism, a line of though that makes many people uncomfortable. Technological determinism purports that “the development of society is directed by its technology” (Chandler, 2011, p. 281). This essentially means that technology controls the development of society and free will is minimalized to non-existent. One can readily see why this criticism could be applied to media ecology, but I believe especially in todays media-centric society, it seems that we may in fact be under the deterministic power of technology; unstoppably cascading towards a convergence of man and technology that Ray Kurzwiel has dubbed “the singularity” (Kurzweil, 2005). The second critique that is often used is that McLuhan’s views represent a utopic view of technology that he perhaps looks only for the most positive impacts that it has. Finally, the third critique is that of nonscientific methodology. As I stated before I think that media ecology is far more reminiscent of a framework than a theory, it is a very generalized way of looking at the world and making connections, as Postman said. Because of this however the theory faces scrutiny because McLuhan’s way of thinking (which is incredibly in line with my own thoughts towards research) is based on observation alone, as Eric McLuhan (his son) said in (2008) “[he] start[s] with – and stick[s] with – observation” (McLuhan, 2008). While the scientific community may take contest with this methodological approach, I tend to side with my personal feelings on the matter which is “if you are right you are right” and I think McLuhan hit the nail on the head.
The media ecology is ever changing, just like our actual ecology. We have witnessed countless technologies converge, opening completely new and interesting avenues. In the near future, the media ecology is posed to have another seismic addition, the convergence of virtual realities and the physical world. We see this beginning to permeate our culture with Augmented Reality technologies such as Google Glass and technologies which allow for the transference between the digital and physical (a relationship which previously had operated only in the other direction) with 3D printing. There are a number of technology leaders who are making this push, but perhaps none provides a better example of convergence theory than Elon Musk’s recently revealed rocket parts manufacturing design system. Musk and his team utilized a number of pre-existing technologies which have recently entered the ecology the Leap motion controller (which allows for naturalistic interaction with the visual data on the screen), the Oculus Rift (which creates a fully immersive virtual environment), 3D printing, and a number of other technologies, to create a new way of designing and manufacturing new rocket parts for his private space program SpaceX (Space.com, 2013). As a brief aside, when the article calls Elon Musk “a real-life Tony Stark” I could not agree more, this man is my idol and is setting to change the world. Now this convergence of technologies could lead to the same mobility and speed that has been associated with the digital world to the creation of physical objects, essentially combining and revolutionizing the design and manufacturing process. Developments and revolutions like this one would not be possible if it weren’t for the interactions and convergences within the media ecology.
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