media ecology - pushing the metaphor
© Copyright 2005 by Ralph E. Kenyon, Jr.

December 11, 2005

I first became acquainted with "Media Ecology" through Neil Postman's Korzybski lecture entitled Media Ecology in the Third Millennium.  As it caught my attention, I attended the Media Ecology weekend conference later that year (1975). Sometime after that, I met with Neil Postman, and I had a chance to discuss the discipline and and the perspective with him briefly.  Here's how he described media ecology twenty-five years later.

You may be surprised to know that our first thinking about the subject was guided by a biological metaphor. You will remember from the time when you first became acquainted with a Petri dish, that a medium was defined as a substance within which a culture grows. If you replace the word “substance” with the word “technology,” the definition would stand as a fundamental principle of media ecology: A medium is a technology within which a culture grows; that is to say, it gives form to a culture’s politics, social organization, and habitual ways of thinking. Beginning with that idea, we invoked still another biological metaphor, that of ecology. In its origin the word had a considerably different meaning from how we use it today. As found in Aristotle, it meant “household.” He spoke of the importance to our intellectual equanimity of keeping our household in order. Its first use in its modern meaning is attributed to Ernst Haeckel, a German zoologist, in the late 19th century. He used the word as we do now, to refer to the interactions among the elements of our natural environment, with a special emphasis on how such interactions lead to a balanced and healthful environment. We put the word “media” in the front of 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 give 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. (1)

For me, the metaphor instantly provided a structure with which to organize media. My epiphany was like opening the soundproof doors to a concert hall in full performance.  The structure of biological ecology and evolution "rushed in" and organized the notions of media.  How do biological entities interact?  Species exist in an ecological niche.  Individuals of a species generally compete with each other for various resources.  What do individuals do?  They eat, grow, mate, reproduce, defecate, and die.  How do media entities interact?  They serve niche markets. Individual media of a particular niche market generally compete with each other for market share.  What do individuals do?  They provide information to consumers (people or organizations), in the process they carry information away from other people (the editors, producers, etc.)  They grow by gaining market share.  They mate by merging.  They reproduce by publishing "spin-off's".  The go bankrupt or otherwise cease publication or operating.  How do they compete for market share? They "seduce" humans to use them, but humans have a limited attention span and a limited ability to process information, so media compete for this human attention.  It's their "food". The more human attention a medium can get, the bigger it grows in market share.  If it can't get any human attention, it "dies". How does a species survive?  It evolves to adapt to the changing environment.  How does a medium survive?  It adapts to changing times, so media evolve.  How about cross-fertilization that produces hybrids?  Does that happen in media?  You bet it does.  We once had radio, and we once had telephones.  Then we had the hybrid "radio-telephone", which has now become "cell" phones.  A TV and a typewriter evolve into a computer terminal.

The concept of a media ecology is helpful because it acknowledges that multiple media are used as part of communication within an organizational environment. In addition, it recognizes that how media are used in an organization is a function of more than just the physical aspects of a medium or technology. ... the metaphor of ecology is valuable because it suggests adaptation and variation of media use for similar circumstances, ... Biological ecologies are not designed or planned. Instead, environmental, situational, and genetic influences shape the adaptation and evolution of organisms over time. (2)

You won't find "symbolic environments" in Korzybski. It comes from follow-on work done in the '70's. I take symbolic environments from the work that Neil Postman built on Korzybski in the discipline known as "Media Ecology" at New York University. A "medium" is treated like a living entity. They extend the senses of human beings, but, because humans have a limited ability to respond to inputs, media "entities" "compete" for human attention. Radio competes with TV. Plays compete with movies. Books compete with magazines. Magazines compete with each other. Time competes with Newsweek. The whole class of printed media compete with the whole class of electronic media. A medium is any means by which a person can get or send information, including whole classes of media, so the word has a multi-ordinal sense. Marshall McLuhan is known for saying, "The medium is the message", and media ecology studies the effect on people of the shape or form of the medium as much or more than its information content. They study "the structure of the communications environment". Media evolve just like organisms. They form hybrids and create new "species". There are "individuals" within "species". (Time and Newsweek, Channel 7 and channel 8, "The Hot L Baltimore" and "The Tempest", etc., etc.) It does not matter that humans create and change the media, the metaphor corresponds information media to species and populations of organisms. I've been using this metaphor since Neil Postman was the Korzybski lecturer, and I subsequently attended the following Media Ecology conference, in 1975, I think. So, symbolic environments are where media "live". Organisms compete for physical food; media compete for human attention. The "food" of media is the information produced and consumed by people. Do a Google search for "media ecology" "general semantics" (with the quotes). (3)

A LOT of stuff we don't think about and are not generally aware of affects how we communicate. Neil Postman's work in media ecology began to explore some of these effects. My first-hand experiences there showed me that some people can behave in what we might describe as a "less than fair" manner when they think they know things about the communications situation that their co-communicators do not know. I'll not be more explicit than that, except to recall the old adages, "knowledge is power" and "power corrupts". (4)

Notes and References

  1. The Humanism of Media Ecology, Keynote Address Delivered at the Inaugural Media Ecology Association Convention Fordham University, New York, New York June 16–17, 2000 by Neil Postman
  2. The Media Toolbox January 2004, Regular Paper Presentation
  3. Ralph E. Kenyon, Jr., December 7, 2005 - 09:34 am, posted to the IGS Time-Binding Message Boards: Learning GS Topics: organism-in-its-environment-as-a-whole
  4. Ralph E. Kenyon, Jr. Wednesday, November 9, 2005 - 02:14 pm, posted to the IGS Time-Binding Message Boards: Learning GS Topics: Where are we going as a species?