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MEDIA ECOLOGY. Exploring the metaphor.

Carlos A. Scolari - Universitat Pompeu Fabra - -
Media Ecology

1960s 1968 1971 2000

McLuhan introduces N. Postman Media Ecology MEA
the concept National Council of program at Inaugural
in private Teachers of English NY University Convention
communications Conference

1960 1970 1980 1990 2000

“Medium Theory”
Meyrowitz , J. 1985 No sense of place: the
impact of electronic media on social behavior
‘Every writer creates his own precursors.
His work modifies our conception of the past,
as it will modify the future’
(1964: 199).

Jorge Luis Borges

Kafka and His Precursors
N. Postman M. McLuhan

W. Ong
J. Goody

H. Innis
J. Ellull
L. Mumford

E. Havelock
Metaphor and theory
 ‘Metaphors matter’ (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980).
 Metaphors are basic for scientific discourse and theoretical modelling

Boom of the ecological metaphor

 Cultural ecology (1955)
 Biosemiotics (1962)
 Biolinguistic (1967)
 Ecological anthropology (1968)
 Media Ecology (1968)
 Political ecology (1972)
 Sociobiology (1975)
 Human behavioral ecology (1975)
 Industrial ecology (1989)
 Spatial ecology (1989)
Howard and Eugene Odum (1953)
 Ecolinguistics (1990) Fundamentals of Ecology

 Communicative ecology (1995)

 Historical ecology (1998)
 Information ecologies (1999)
Interpretations of metaphor (I)

Media as environments
 ‘ME is the study of media as environments’ (Postman, 1970).
 ‘ME looks into the matter of how media of communication affect human perception,
understanding, feeling, and value (Postman, 1970).
 ‘Media are extensions’ (McLuhan, 1964).
 ‘Technology alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without any
resistance’ (McLuhan, 1964).

This is the environmental dimension of Media Ecology:

media create an ‘environment’ that surrounds the individuals
and models their perception and cognition.
Interpretations of metaphor (II)

Intermedia relations
 ‘The steadying influence of the book as a product of sustain intellectual effort was
destroyed by new developments in periodicals and newspapers’ (Innis, 1951).

 ‘The potential of the telegraph to transform information into a commodity might

never have been realized, except for the partnership between the telegraph and the
press’ (Postman, 1985).
 ‘No medium has its meaning or existence alone, but only in constant interplay with
other media” (McLuhan, 1964).

This is the intermedia dimension of Media Ecology:

media are like ‘species’ that live in the same ecosystem
and establish relationships between them.
Exploring a scientific metaphor means analyzing the semantic
universe of the analogy, translating the basic assumptions from one
field to another to check the strength of the metaphor and identify
new questions and challenges for media studies.
I will limit my reflection to a short list of concepts:



 Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859)

Mutation, natural selection, competence, extinction,
bifurcation, micro-evolution, macro-evolution.

 Ecology thinks in space while evolution thinks in time.

Evolution - Diachronic
(Temporal axis)

Ecology - Synchronic
(Spatial axis)

Expansion of the metaphor

 Evolution has been immediately applied to Social
Sciences (Marx --> 1867 Das Kapital)
 Evolution of technology: Simon, 1969; Basalla, 1988;
Kelly, 1992; Diamond, 1999; Saviotti, 2006; Ziman,
2000; Frenken, 2006; Arthur, 2009.
 Evolution of communication: speech, body-language,
fiction and music (Mellor, 1990); art (Dutton, 2009);
narrative (Boyd, 2009); literary genres (Moretti, 2005).
‘It is time to look at the arts in the light of Charles Darwin’s
theory of evolution […] Recent years have seen immensely
productive applications of Darwinian ideas in anthropology,
economics, social psychology, linguistics, history, politics,
legal theory, and criminology, as well as the philosophical
study of rationally, theology and value theory […]’

Denis Dutton (2009)

The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution
‘Evocriticism (evolutionary-criticism) lets us link literature
with the whole of life, with other human activities and
capacities, and their relation to those of other animals, as
they compete, cooperate, and play, as they observe,
understand, and empathize with other. It can reconnect
literature with the whole range of human experience […]’

Boyd, B. (2009)
On the Origin of Stories. Evolution, cognition, and fiction
 Can media become extinct?
 Are we assisting to the extinction of mass media
and broadcasting?
 The history of media is full of technological fossils
(from papyrus to telegraph).
 But do media really become extinct? Do they,
as McLuhan postulated, survive in the content
of the ‘new’ media?

Carlon, C. / Scolari, C. (2009)

El Fin de los Medios Masivos.
El comienzo de un debate
Big Bang

Punctuated equilibrium (Eldredge and Gould, 1972)
 Rapid events of branching speciation
 Applied by:
- Franco Moretti (2005) -> literary genres (1740-1900)
- Bob Logan (2007) -> explosion of languages

 Are we assisting to an explosion of ‘new’ media
and communication practices?
 Can we re-write the history of media from this
Interface: a key-concept?
 Like system in the 1950s, structure in the 1960s,
or text in the 1980s, interface may be the key concept
of the new generation of social scientists.
 Human-machine interface
 Technology-technology interface

 Every media has an interface (human-technology
interface) and, at the same time, every media
is an interface (technology-technology interface).
Media interfaces
 The interface is the place where the evolution of
the media is negotiated -> human-media coevolution
 The interface is also the place where media interact
between them -> intermedia coevolution

 The interface is the ‘environment’ that media
have been analyzing for the last 50 years.
 The study of the interfaces could be considered
the micro-level of Media Ecology analysis,
the minimal unit of analysis (like the sign for Linguistics
or the gene for Genetics)
 Coevolution is also a key concept for Media Ecology.

Human-media coevolution
 How do consumers (readers, viewers, users) coevolve
with their media?
 How do media coevolve with their consumers?

Intermedia coevolution
 How do two or more media coevolve together
(cinema/TV, web/newspapers, etc.)?
 Hybridizations / Remediations
Intermedia coevolution
Hybridizations / Remediations

Scolari, C. (2008)
Elementos para una
Teoría de la Comunicación
Digital Interactiva

In a few words…

 To expand the ecological metaphor…

… mans to increase the dictionary and explore new research lines:

 Media evolution
 Interface
 Human-media coevolution
 Intermedia coevolution / Hybridizations

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Carlos A. Scolari
Universitat Pompeu Fabra

Gracias! Barcelona