We Are All Media Ecologists: We May Simply Not Know It Yet

Media ecology is an emerging and progressive field of study that elegantly yet practically weds a desire to optimize the power of ever-evolving communicative tools with a deep and profound humanism. A favorite definition of media ecology comes from a group of young filmmakers visiting Ann Arbor, Michigan during the City’s annual film festival. They designated themselves as both media ecologists and cultural jammers, so during the question-and-answer session, when asked for their definition of media ecology, “pattern recognition” was the prompt and immediate response.

Media ecologists first recognize the need to make sense of complicated communication systems and second learn how to better use them. What tools are available (and what tools need to be acquired) to help make sense of the often chaotic and disorienting mix of ideas, information, descriptions, assumptions, and yes, that thing called NEWS, that constitute the ever-evolving and morphing media worlds? Media ecology is an attempt to find answers to these and other questions.

Postman founded the field of Media Ecology and inaugurated it as a formal academic discipline when he launched the program of study at New York University. The etymology of the word ecology is “house,” and Postman uses the word both metaphorically and practically to urge us to keep our earthly house in order. Writing in his Amusing Ourselves to Death, he explains, “We use the word ecology to suggest that we were not simply interested in media, but in the ways in which the interaction between media and human beings gives a culture its character; and one might say, help a culture to maintain symbolic balance. If we wish to connect the ancient meaning with the modern, we might say that the word suggests that we need to keep our planetary household in order.”

In its essence, media ecology looks at a culture in the biological sense of the word; it is a communication theory based on scientific and biological metaphors, writes Marc Leverette, an award-winning American photographer, author, and multi-media artist. In biology, if something new enters a culture, it changes the entire culture, not just the entering phenomenon. This is an underlying principle firmly rooted in both systems theory and ecology. “When a new factor is added to an old environment, we do not get the old environment plus the new factor, we get a new environment,” says communications professor Josh Meyrowitz, author of No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behaviour. Thus, the environment is always more than simply the sum of its parts.

The concept of media as environments is one of the key tenants of the media ecology tradition. From this perspective, media “become, and are our culture because of their pervasive effect on everything we do.” So instead of fixed forms that simply send and receive information or more disturbing, tools to release poisonous fare on an uniformed public, media ecologists see media as dynamic environments and systems that evolve (and continue to evolve) as a result of the way humans use and respond to them.

Media ecologists work to better understand this power and creative potential and the corresponding responsibility inherent in using communicative tools, practices and institutions wisely and well. Years before the social media phenomenon, Postman asked: “To what extent do new media enhance or diminish our moral sense, our capacity for goodness?” Answering this question individually and collectively is perhaps one of the highest societal priorities. These are complex challenges for which Pulitizer Prize–winning reporter Alex Jones and other experts in the journalism field have yet to discover workable solutions. Like William McKibben, Neil Postman poetically articulates the very real harms created by the American technopoly and the pervasive and dire societal consequences of the unexamined media reception, but he does not offer to “fix” the problem. That is our responsibility.

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