Thursday, January 25, 2007

In The Guardian: John Naughton on "Media Ecology"

This past March, John Naughton posted an essay in The Guardian where he discusses Neil Postman's concept of Media Ecology. (Thanks to Dennis Haarsager and his blog Technology 360 for this citation.)

In discussing the rapid development of the World Wide Web, Naughton suggests that Media Ecology is a better approach to understanding technological change.

"The conventional approach involves what computer scientist John Seely Brown calls 'endism' - the perspective that sees new technologies as replacing older ones. Thus when the CD-rom arrived, people predicted the demise of the printed book; television meant the end of radio and movies; TV news the end of newspapers. And so on.

None of these extinctions came to pass. But although the CD-rom didn't exterminate the book, it did change forever the prospects for expensive reference works. (Remember Encyclopedia Britannica?) So the interactions between new and old media are complex. That's what led cultural critic Neil Postman to propose the notion of media ecology. The idea is borrowed from science: an ecosystem is defined as a dynamic system in which living organisms interact with one another and with their environment. These interactions can be very complex and take many forms. Organisms prey on one another; compete for nutrients; have parasitic or symbiotic relationships; wax and wane; prosper and decline. And an ecosystem is never static; it's in a state of perpetual ferment. "

I like that fact that Neil Postman's notion of media ecology is getting some coverage, but I think Naughton missed the fundamental idea behind Media Ecology. Naughton's article seems to focus on the content of the media, or the particular business model that a medium supports. As I understand Postman, the idea of a "media environment" is not meant only to evoke a Darwinian competition among species of media. Media come and go, although, as Marshall McLuhan pointed out, if they adapt, older media can exist quite nicely along with new media. For example, in order to accommodate television, radio in the 1950's changed from a primary source of entertainment and news to a provider of background music. Furthermore, sometimes this is beneficial to a medium. There is a good case to be made that we never would have had FM radio without the competitive pressure of TV. And perhaps "movies" would never have evolved into "cinema."

Postman's more important idea as presented in the term "media ecology" is a play on the word "medium." In biology, a medium is an environment within which a culture can grow. In a similar manner, a communication medium fosters the growth of a certain type of human culture, favoring some individuals, neglecting others; promoting certain beliefs and assumptions and obsolescing others; changing the way we use the combination of our senses to interpret all the messages. As Postman put it, in the adoption of any new medium of communication there are winners and there are losers. He wasn't referring to competing media, but rather to members of the society, some whom the new medium benefits, and some whom the new medium harms.

The concern about the "digital divide" highlights Postman's notion, but also requires further elaboration. "Digital divide" is a term used to talk about how those who don't have easy access to high speed Internet service are at some sort of disadvantage. It assumes that the harm comes due to the inability of some part of the population to enjoy the benefits of computers and the Internet. This is not what Postman meant. Obviously, whatever benefits a new medium grants would not be available to anyone lacking access to that medium. However, once the medium takes hold, it is free to enforce its hidden biases. Those individuals who can best adapt to those biases will most benefit from the presence of the new medium. For example, to be a star reporter in the newspaper era, you needed to be able to write well and to work under the pressure of deadlines. Those same skills may be of negligible benefit to a reporter of television news, but being photogenic and able to speak well in public are definitely advantageous. This is a simplistic example of Postman's winners and losers.

A "medium" is not just the box that we plug into a wall or the printed matter we hold in our hands. It encompasses the entire infrastructure to support the medium, including the choices and compromises a society makes to use the medium. Printing fostered individualism, the Protestant Reformation and nationalism, but it would not have happened without an infrastructure of paper and ink manufacture and the development of a distribution network, nor could it have succeeded without a vast education system designed to promote literacy.

Still, it is nice that Postman's "Media Ecology" is finally getting attention.

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