Media Ecology

Posted in Theory by tpdr on February 12, 2009

This post is based on a text I wrote last year for a seminar called ‘Media Ecology – Beyond Cross Media”, under the inspiring guidance of mr. Willem Van Weelden.


‘Media ecology’ (ME) is not easy to define, but still I will make a modest attempt to be as thorough as possible. At the same time I will try to make clear in what way this field of research could still be interesting to me in the future.

Actually I am a real fan of the term ME, because as Matthew Fuller also remarked, both words individually carry a big load. (Matthew Fuller, 2005, Media Ecologies, Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture. Cambridge Press MIT, p.2) The word ‘media’ refers to a whole domain and ‘chain’ of different media types, including the process of ‘remediation’. Instead of eliminating each other, old and new media help one another to find their (new) place in the media landscape. For example the invention of the Internet did not main the end of television or newspapers, but it did force these media to change their way of functioning. The second word, ‘ecology’, refers to the study of organisms, their structures, their mutual relations, their dynamic behaviour, …, in short the study of the systems related to living organisms.

Neil Postman described the term ME in 1971 as the study of how media influence our perception, feelings, values and our chances of survival. He would also describe it sometimes as the study of media as ‘environments’, linking the term immediatly to the actual study of ecology, but in both cases the most important subjects for him were the structure, the content and the impact of the media. In one way or another people are influenced by their media environment, especially when we talk about their behaviour, feelings and actions since the aspects of the media related to their structure and content determine how and what we can communicate or use the media for in a given situation or context. (Wikipedia (open content), n.d., (, 20/04/2008)

In the same period Marshall McLuhan also defined ME. To him it was about studying the way we could connect all different media in a way in which they would help each other instead of eliminiating one another. (Wikipedia (open content), n.d., (, 20/04/2008) When you put it in this way, I am afraid it feels to much like a definition of ‘cross mediality’. This last term also often seems to have become a fancy word, especially used by ‘marketing boys and girls’ trying to impress their client or boss. In this way ‘cross mediality’ just points to much in the direction of ‘trying to get a commercial message to the customer in as many ways as possible’. To me ‘cross mediality’ doesn’t go much further than ‘an excursion along different mediated moments’. ME, in my opinion wants to go beyond this, which is why I prefer a more moralistic and filosophical definition like the one of Postman. At the same time I have to remark that his description needs an update. These days you can hardly separate the structure, content and impact he mentioned, especially with the new technologies we know today. I guess it needed somebody with a more contemporary view, like Matthew Fuller, to redefine this field of research.

According to Neil postman, media also shape the cultural norms and values, the political and social organisation of a certain society. (Jensen Dehaes (jan 2005), ‘Scouting a New Media Ecology’. (, 20/04/2008). In this way he already suggests a certain interdisciplinarity, but it is Fuller who mentions this in a more explicit way by refering, in his book ‘Media Ecologies'(MIT Press, 2005), to thinkers in the domains of literature, cybernetics, filosophy and art. The examples he uses in the same book to underline certain thoughts emphasise this approach by linking ME to phenomena like hacking, revealing the political and social concequences at the same time. As for one of most important remarks, I would have to refer to the connection he makes between ME and the ‘merzbilder’ of Kurt Schwitters. This statement reminds us of the thought that by connecting different components, the outcome of this becomes bigger than the usual outcome of the addition of the components. This phenomenon seems to be the consequence of the poetic potential that can be found within every object, by means of associations or by formal aspects. In this way a ‘conceptual-in-between’, an extra meaning as meta data appears as part of the connections. To Fuller it is there for important to consider the way in which we can become aware of and make use of these new dimension of the objects. (Matthew Fuller, 2005, Media Ecologies, Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture. Cambridge Press MIT, p.1-4) Because of the links he makes between ME and literature this comes very close to what you could call ‘intertextuality’, again refering to what happens in the ‘in-between’, the ‘inetr’ of two contents or two objects.

I would propose that, taking into account the fact that content, structure and impact are almost completely mixed up, we add the interdisciplinary insights of Fuller to the original definition of Neil Postman. ME should in this way pay more attention to the extra meaning that comes with objects by means of their aesthetic or poetic potential and the meta data of their connections. The suggestion of Fuller to examine what happens when certain connections are made, by studying the effect actually making these connections, seems to me to be an important proposal when it comes to a workable methodology.


I am aware of the fact that even after this attempt to define ME, the term still remains sort of ‘slippery’. Part of this is due to my insufficient knowledge of the theories of certain filosophers, quoted by Fuller. On the other hand the field is still very dynamic, which is a positive thing for me, but it makes it hard to give a clearly defined description.

In another text of Matthew Fuller ‘Towards an Ecology of Media Ecology’ I could conclude that we are moving in the direction of more media ecological projects that try to mix media ecologies with natural ecologies. First of all this would mean that we will try to create works that take the ecological consequences of media into account. Secondly, future projects will try to examine ways in which ecological organisms can create a powerful alliance with certain media.

We can be sure that media will be more and more interwoven with our natural/physical environment, and since all these networks we already know today take care of the global connections, it is not so strange that people will look for a this kind of opportunities. I am looking forward to the future and lets keep an eye on this to make sure we discuss new developments in a thorough way.


One Response

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  1. sveng said, on February 12, 2009 at 10:09 pm

    Send in the nanobots! 😉
    Interesting read.


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