A Tradition of Media Ecology (literature review)
Sun Huan is a graduate student at Comparative Media Studies and research assistant at Center for Civic Media of MIT. She received a B.A. in Journalism from Tsinghua University, Beijing. Her research interest lies in the rise of digital media and its socio-political implications on China. She is closely involved with NGO2.0 Project, which aims to build up Chinese grassroots NGOs' digital literacy. Her undergraduate thesis quantitatively examines Chinese college students' use of social media and their political participation.
A Tradition of Media Ecology (literature review)
The term of media ecology has been used in various contexts, so when we ask about the themes under the media ecology tradition, different intellectual groups might give distinct answers. One theory group has been thoroughly illustrated by Casey Man Kong Lum and many other contributors in the book “Perspectives on Culture, Technology, and Communication: The Media Ecology Tradition”. Lum described that the term media ecology has been used as a metaphor including McLuhan, while it was Neil Postman that gave the term a formal definition as the study of media environments encompassing new field of media studies dated in 1968. (p.10-p.11). Postman addressed the fundamental principle of media ecology as “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 way of thinking” and the word ecology suggests “interaction between media and human beings give a culture its character; and one might say, help a culture to maintain symbolic balance.” (p.62)
A coherent body of theoretical literature was identified as the intellectual foundation of media ecology tradition. McLuhan is the most visible early key thinker in the field who received attention from both academic and popular venues, and other major players include Jacques Ellul, Harold A. Innis, Lewis Mumford, Walter J. Ong, Postman and others. Just to think about these thinkers’ theoretical contribution, we could have a taste of how broad and deep the definition of media ecology from this group could be. It is a body of theoretical perspectives on understanding culture, technology and communication. Ong’s account on the distinction of orality and literacy draws readers’ attention to a history that spans thousands of years (Ong, 1982). Innis examined the bias of communication supported by histories across many ancient cultures (Innis, 1951). Other research interests summarized by Lum in this field include media and culture (McLuhan, 1951, 1962, 1964), history and technology (Mumford, 1934, 1967, 1970) and urban studies (Mumford, 1938, 1961), behavioral sciences (Watzlawick, Bavelas, & Jason, 1967; see also Watzlawick, 1967), structural anthropology (LeviStrauss, 1966), sociology of technological culture (Ellul, 1964) and propaganda (Ellul, 1965), perceptual psychology (Cantril, 1960), information and systems theories (Shannon & Weaver, 1949; see also Wiener, 1948, 1950), general semantics (Hayakawa, 1964; Korzybski, 1933), cultural anthropology (e.g., Hall, 1959), nonverbal communication (e.g., Birdwhistell, 1952, 1970), classics (e.g., Havelock, 1963, 1976), history of typography (e.g., Eisenstein, 1979) and physics and philosophy (Heisenberg, 1962). As can be seen, the study of media ecology draws from multi-disciplinary intellectual frameworks. Postman generalized the interest of media ecology as communication environments derived from the biological term. (p.62) Relevant research questions might include what the relationship between human beings and the communication environment is, what influence of the shift from oral, typographic, to electronic culture have on our sensory and thinking ways, and how different forms of communication as organisms that interact within environments.
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