A review of Lance Strate’s Media Ecology: An Approach to Understanding the Human Condition
- The review was published in New Explorations: Studies in Culture and Communication, Vol. 2, NO. 2 (2022), April 4, pp 128-132.
On January 7, 2022, Tim Gill, assistant professor of sociology from University of Tennessee, wrote on Twitter: “So many Departments could be virtually eliminated and covered by Sociology: Political Science (political sociology), Economics (economic sociology), Philosophy (soc theory). Even Biology serves little purpose given that most everything is socially constructed. Just thoughts.”
The storm broke in the comments. Suggestions poured in to also “eliminate” chemistry (“electron sociology”) and history (“past sociology”). Some insisted that “most of physics is just how particles form particle societies”. Others recalled, of course, Sokal’s daring revelation that gravity is but a social construct. Somebody warned the author: “Be careful, Tim. Enough economists see this tweet and it could spark WWIII. Invading and taking over disciplines we know nothing about is OUR trademark”. Someone named sociology the “Pacman of the academy.”
Two thoughts in this regard.
First, it is not sociology but media ecology that must take over all other disciplines! Media mediate the world for us in our interactions with everything. Therefore, everything we see and experience is, basically, media representations of that everything. There are no economic, political, physical or whatever else phenomena or events that we can experience immediately without mediation of our tools, interfaces, and technologies. Even our body and language are intermediaries for the mind and therefore are mediating devices with all the features inherent to media. So, what else, if not media, do we need to learn first and foremost about everything to get that everything right?
Second, down with sociology. Sociology, or rather something known in academia as “sociology”, has already encroached into all areas, including studies that have “media” in their description. In fact, sociology-contaminated alleged-media studies look at how something else is reflected in media and are thus blind to media themselves. Their study questions related to communication, anthropology, culture, political economy or critical theory but generally represent different facets of the same subject – power dynamics.
The neglect toward media by disciplines that have “media” in their titles is historically motivated. Media studies originated from the theory of propaganda and PR (Walter Lippmann), cybernetics (the Shannon-Weaver model of information transmission), and the theory of communication (with Laswell’s formula of “who? says what? to whom? with what effect?”). All those theories saw media as a means to achieving some other goals. Those goals, not media, were the true focuses.
It was not until the 1960s that media and their own causalities and effects started to receive attention. Marshall McLuhan stated that it is the medium itself that is the message. He focused on how media transform society and people, not on how they transport something else. It was a powerful but widely opposed in academia attempt to separate State from Church, meaning media from “sociology” of all kinds. Inspired by McLuhan, Neil Postman developed the concept of media ecology, which studies media as media and not something else wrapped in media.
In the times of Lippmann, Shannon, and Lasswell, it was easy to fall into the trap of regarding media as tools for something else. Even the concept of media did not exist, except for the news media, maybe. Nowadays, our cultural, social, political, economic, and even personal life are moving entirely into a medium, the internet. It is becoming clear that media are not just tools – they form the environments in which we live. Hence media ecology.
If media shape environments, then the study of media is the study of environments, and vice versa: studying environments is studying media. This is the main idea of Lance Strate’s Media Ecology: An Approach to Understanding the Human Condition (2017; the first volume in Peter Lang’s series “Understanding Media Ecology”).
Lance Strate is a leading expert in media ecology. He was a doctoral student of Neil Postman in the 1980s and one of the founders of the Media Ecology Association in 1998. While Strate assures the reader that his take on media ecology is only one of many possible, his expertise makes the book the most up-to-date inventory of media ecological trends and concepts.
Strate starts with locating the area of media ecological inquiry. For this, he uses a set of questions that concern media ecologists: “What does it mean to be human? What are the conditions that shape and influence us as a species? How does human communication, consciousness, and culture change over time, and in concert with the changing circumstances in which we find ourselves? What drives human history? What defines the present moment? And what might the future hold for us?” (p. 1).
These questions imply quite an ambitious land claim. To flip the pathos into irony, Strate goes even further and frames the field of media ecological inquiry with Douglas Adams’ Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, the metaphor he uses throughout the book.
Strate traces the origin of the term “media ecology” to the 58th annual meeting of the National Council of Teachers of English held in Milwaukee on November 29, 1968. The term appeared in the title of the session “Media Ecology: The English of the Future”. Neil Postman delivered the address and introduced the concept. The address was revised and published in 1970. It was there that Postman defined media ecology as “the study of media as environments”. Thus the journey of the concept commenced.
The views of media within the tradition associated with McLuhan and Postman are commonly attributed solely to them. They are undoubtedly the towering figures. But media ecology cannot be reduced to their legacy. In fact, the field has developed considerably since then. Many new names and concepts have flowed in. Moreover, many scholars from the past, and the present, and from other areas who formally were never associated with media ecology or even with studying media at all have also contributed to the field. When Postman advanced the concept, he stated that he simply named it but did not invent it. He suggested an extended list of media ecologists who did not use the term but contributed to the field. Among them were Buckminster Fuller, Jacques Ellul, Marshall McLuhan, Peter Drucker, Herman Kahn, David Riesman, Ray Bradbury, Harold Lasswell, Walter Ong, Edward T. Hall, Edmund Carpenter, Harold Innis, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Norbert Wiener, Alfred North Whitehead and many others. Strate emphasizes that the list continues to expand.
Following Postman’s description of media ecology as a “field of inquiry”, Strate proceeds with a chapter called “Intersections”. He observes all the important scholarly areas and concepts that inform media ecological exploration. Historically, the interest in media came from communication. Admitting to the “communication-centred” character of media ecology, Strate, however, refuses to see media ecology as a “subset of communication studies” (p. 17). He charts the broad set of intersections – from grammar, semantics, and cybernetics to psychology, biology, science, and technology studies and from philosophy, history, and theology to futurism, media education, and activism. The inventory deserves a visualization, as it would make a good mind map of concepts and names contributing to media ecology in one way or another.
Strate also pays tribute to several separate theories, such as formalism, humanism, and technological determinism. The latter is of particular significance for media ecology. The common “strawman argument” against the alleged “techno-determinism” of McLuhan, extended by association to the entire media ecology, forced media ecologists to develop a profound “defence” from this terrible accusation. Thus, techno-determinism “contributed” to some extent to the application of Aristotelean formal causality and complex systems theory in media ecology. Formal causality, emergence, and autopoiesis became the core concepts in the “environmental” part of media ecological philosophy ushered in by Eric McLuhan, Lance Strate, Robert Logan, Corey Anton, and others.
The multidisciplinary character and nearly universal scope of media ecology creates an epistemological challenge – how to seize the unseizable. Or, to rephrase Alfred Korzybski, (another forerunner of media ecology who said “the map is not the territory”): how can a map worthy of the territory be made if the territory is multidimensional? It also brings to mind the Borges fable with which Baudrillard began his Simulacra and simulation: seeking to draw a precise map, the cartographers made a map that covered the territory exactly. First, the map is expected to guide, not replace. Second, even Borges’ cartographers could not have covered a “field” (of inquiry) which is multilayered.
This issue is all too familiar to McLuhan scholars. Marshall McLuhan claimed that he did not produce a holistic theory. He said, “I don’t explain, I explore” and insisted that his ideas were just “probes”. They were, indeed, rather a set of observations and multifarious concepts that were not necessarily in systematic relation with each other. For the followers, McLuhan’s legacy is a toolbox, not a single doctrine. Similarly, media ecology is not a doctrine or a theory. It gathers concepts and thinkers from a wide range of backgrounds. The only thing they have in common is the focus on media as media and media as environments. Because of such peculiarity of this “field of enquiry”, finding a method for the systematic and integrative description of media ecology is a difficult task.
Lance Strate has found a solution. He singled out four central concepts of media ecology and grouped around them all other notions, concepts, theories, and names. This epistemological taxonomy is, perhaps, the most important and innovative finding of the book. The four central concepts are “Medium”, “Bias”, “Effect”, and “Environment”. Each of them gives the name to a chapter with the notion’s analysis and a review of the most important ideas and authors. As it turns out, the broad range of material, anthropological, historical, philosophical, environmental, symbolical and all other facets of media ecology, despite their heterogeneity, fit just fine into these four fundamental categories, thus providing a coherent view of the field.
This solution also helps to organize the inventory of media ecological methods. In the last chapter, called “Tools”, the methods are grouped around the same four central concepts. Additionally, the chapter contains a number of extensive lists of study questions that can be used as bearing structures in many syllabuses focused on studying media.
If media ecology looks for answers to the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, then Lance Strate’s Media Ecology: An Approach to Understanding the Human Condition offers the most recent answer to the meaning of media ecology. The readers will find a lot of inventories provoking insights. The book is not a text that is read and abandoned; it rather provides supplies for a trip into the field of inquiry. In addition to a mind map of the field, the book can also be used as an encyclopedia of media ecology. The corpus of the encyclopedia is already here – all that is needed is a reverse reading that starts with the Index as the entry point.
How to cite:
Mir, A. (2022). “The Mind Map of Media Ecology: A Review of Lance Strate’s Media Ecology: An Approach to Understanding the Human Condition.” New Explorations: Studies in Culture and Communication, 2(2), pp 128-132. Retrieved from https://jps.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/nexj/article/view/38343
 Tim Gill’s Twitter – @timgill924. Jan 7, 2022. https://twitter.com/timgill924/status/1479488822203367428