Here are my lecture notes from the lecture I gave to the MA in Creative Practice at UWE a couple of weeks ago. They’re only notes, so there are probably a few places where they wont entirely make sense to anyone else, but hopefully they give a general sense of where media ecologies is coming from and some of the ways it might be as a useful methodology.
The presentation that went alongside the lecture is available here
1.What is Media Ecology?
What is ecology?
Before attempting to define media ecology, I ought to take a step back and begin by discussing ecology more generally. Ecology is not a trendy metaphor for environment. Etymologically ecology comes from the Greek oikos- meaning home/household and -logy meaning study of. It is not the study of things in themselves, (which within the realm of living systems is biology) but the study of interconnection, relationships and the transfer of energy within complex networks of matter.
While the term environment suggests something outside of human systems, some kind of ‘natural’ exterior, the term ecology makes no such distinction between human and nonhuman, living and non-living nodes within these networks, and as such has a utility in connecting humans both to the nonhuman ecosystems which we are dependent upon for food, water, clean air etc, and also to the technical nodes within the socio-technical networks which underpin social organisations and media systems.
We can begin to conceptualise media ecology then as the application of eco-philosophical or ecosophical thinking to the field of media studies. The recent application of eco-philosophical concepts to various aspects of critical theory and academic practice is by no means exclusive to media studies, and there are nascent movements towards for example eco-psychology, eco-sociology and eco-design in other disciplines.
Key Ecosophical Concepts
Positive/Sustainable growth: not growth in the econocentric approach which fetishises GDP as the only measure of growth to the detriment of all other measures such as ecological sustainability and personal well being. Ecological thinking values personal, social and environmental balance and well being. Ecological thinking also values diversity, ecosystems tend to thrive when they are complex and contain a multitude of heterogeneous actors, rather than the monocultural systems of industrial production.
Feedback: Processes of negative feedback (homeostasis) and positive feedback (potential for increased complexity or runaway. Roots in cybernetics (negative feedback based) and later systems biology/autopoiesis/complexity theory (positive feedback as useful – not just noise).
Cybernetics from kybernetes or steersman, the metaphor of someone steering a boat down a river as an example of a negative feedback loop.
Ecological thought pertains to systems which frequently involve multiple feedback loops, such as media systems which involve complex networks of silicon, precious metals, electromagnetic spectrum, operating systems, software, screens and humans. In these systems causality is rarely experienced as a linear force because of the impact of feedbacks.
Ecology presents systems as various scales as being governed by the same processes of feedback and emergence. Consequently we don’t need to know everything about every subsystem to get a picture of the scale of system we are investigating, indeed if this was necessary, then science would never have gotten anywhere, as it would be perpetually bogged down in explaining all chemical biological and ecological systems at the quantum scale. We can envision the world as we know it as a series of scalar dynamic systems, when you focus in on any subsystem what you discover is not a fully formed part, but another ecology which operates at a different scale.
When we think of ourselves we generally think of individual wholes. An ecological perspective however stresses instead that actually we are a dynamic assemblage which includes for example a multitude of strains of bacteria living within our guts, without which or digestive systems wouldn’t work. As negentropic or open systems, humans, like all other living systems (and indeed numerous nonliving systems like hurricanes) require a constant flow of energy in order for them to maintain their degree of organisation. In our case this flow of energy comes from food, water and sunlight, from which we extract the chemicals, vitamins proteins etc which are necessary for our continued existence.
As well as these internal dynamics our capacities are largely shaped by external factors, the people we speak to, who have taught us how to communicate, the diverse range of technical and media systems we engage with all affect what we consider to be ‘our’ abilities but they are only created through the interconnections between our bodies and external apparatus.
Moving up a scale we can think of human social systems as another scale of ecology. As with the ecology of body/mind, social ecologies are systems composed of a multitude of networked heterogeneous components with numerous feedback mechanisms.
Within ecophilosophy, both Gregory Bateson and Felix Guattari use this model which they describe as the three ecologies; of body/mind, culture/society and the environment as a useful way of conceptualising a series of scalar ecosystems in which humans are embedded, and which need to be considered concurrently if we are to take collective ethical actions with regards to pressing ethical concerns.
- 42. It is quite wrong to make a distinction between action on the psyche, the socius and the environment… We need to kick the habit of sedative discourse… in order to apprehend the world through the interchangeable lenses of the three ecologies.Guattari 1992:42
Furthermore, ecological thinking contends that at different scalar ecologies, we see the emergence of new qualities, tendencies and capacities, which are not attributable to any of the subcomponents of that ecosystem. This is a clear contradiction to the methodologies of analytic reductionism and physicalism which contend that complex structures/systems can be broken down into smaller systems, which provide all the information necessary to analyse the more complex system. Causality is always attributed to the micro-level, and can be traced upwards as a linear set of determining forces.
Emergence instead proposes that the ecological system as a whole can exhibit behaviours which emerge only at larger scales.
An example of this kind of emergence is the complex behaviours observed by ant colonies. Individual ants are very simple creatures which follow a simple series of rules regarding producing and following pheramone trails. Despite the simplicity of the ‘parts’ ant colonies as an emergent whole can display remarkably complex behaviour. Ant colonies can discover the shortests most efficient routes to food supplies and exhibit a collective memory which far exceeds the capabilities of the individual ant.
Similarly we cannot grasp what is happening in game of chess or go simply by adding up the number of pieces on the board. To understand the game we need to look at the position of the pieces in relation to one another, it is through this relationality that meaning in terms of game state emerges.
Most approaches to media are based on humanism, the belief that humans are rational animals which are quantitatively different to other forms of life. This stems from the mechanistic or dualistic philosophies associated with enlightenment thinkers such as Rene Descartes and Issac Newton.
This lineage of thought prescribes that nonhumans, be they other life forms or technical beings are mere automatons; predictable and linear systems whose properties can be ascertained through the analytic reduction of the whole into the parts which compose the larger system. By contrast to these determinate automatons, humans are thought to possess free will, that is humans have the capacity to freely choose between alternative possibilities.
This is the basis of the nature/culture dualism, which has been a key component of Occidental thought, and which is throughly opposed by ecological thought which instead presents a monistic pluralism, in which there is no concretised dividing line between humans and nonhumans. Indeed an ecological perspective instead views the human as always being situated within both environmental and technical networks, and contends that an analysis of the human must not proceed from an abstract essence, such as the concept of the soul or free will, but instead should compose an investigation into the networks in which humanity is situated.
- In the posthuman view, conscious agency has never been ‘in control.’ In fact, the very illusion of control bespeaks a fundamental ignorance about the fundamental nature of the emergent processes through which consciousness, the organism and the environment are constituted. Mastery through the exercise of the autonomous will is merely the story consciousness tells itself to explain results that actually come about through chaotic dynamics and emergent structures.
As pioneering eco-philosopher and cyberneticist Gregory Bateson argued back in the 1970’s
- Let us consider for a moment the question of whether a computer thinks. I would state that it does not. What thinks and engages in trial and error is the man plus the computer plus the environment. And the lines between man, computer and environment are purely artificial, fictitious lines. They are lines across the pathways along which information or difference is transmitted. They are not boundaries of the thinking system. What thinks is the total system which engages in trial and error, which is man plus environment.
Ecological thinking as opposed to dualistic thinking
- free will/determinism
We invoke one dualism only to challenge another. We employ a dualism of models on in order to arrive at a process that challenges all models. Each time mental correctives are necessary to undo the dualisms we had no wish to construct, but through which we pass. Arrive at the magic formula we all seek- PLURALISM = MONISM – via all the dualisms that are the enemy, an entirely necessary enemy, the furniture we are forever rearranging.
Deleuze and Guattari 1982:23
Applying Ecosophy to Media Studies
Within the context of media ecology, Mat Fuller describes the utility of the term by stating that:
The term ‘ecology’ is used here because it is one of the most expressive language currently has to indicate the massive and dynamic interrelation of processes and objects, beings and things, patterns and matter
A usable definition of media ecology then, is that: Media ecology is the study of connections between actors and processes in media systems at various scales.
Usually when we consider media we think about content, and how that content affects humans, and potentially how those affected humans can then take action (exercise agency) to influence social systems.
Media ecology opens up thinking about other scales of system to that of content. For example what are the affordances of the systems of production used to manufacture the hardware which creates, distributes and plays the content? Similarly with the current hegemony of digitally created and distributed media content, what kinds of software systems are used to mediate between the hardware devices and the human producers and consumers of digital media? Are these systems value neutral or does the method of producing software, the algorithms, language choices, code, interface designs and licensing systems employed produce certain values? For example when we type search terms into Google, there is an algorithm which produces the results, and which will embed paid for Adwords links into the page. Adwords is one of the ways that Google makes its money, but it has nothing to do with providing a neutral or value free series of search results. Because someone has paid the search engine operator to prominently link their site, the results we get from our searches reflect this model of organisation.
Why might Media Ecology be a useful way of approaching media studies and practice
Rethinking Technological Determinism
To consider the way media ecologies challenges the types of thinking around technology and technological determinism in media studies, it is useful to look back to the debate over technological determinism which occurred in the 1960’s and 70’s and which has informed the way the media studies has broadly approached the subject ever since.
In Understanding Media (1964), Marshall McLuhan boldly declared that ‘the medium is message.’ According to McLuhan the primary meaning or effect of ‘any medium or technology, is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.’ (1964:16) This contrasts with what McLuhan describes as ‘our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how it is used that counts,’ which he terms ‘the numb stance of the technological idiot.’ (1964:26). McLuhan’s analysis was pioneering insofar as it bequeathed agency to the technology itself, as opposed to a humanist account in which all nonhumans (natural and technological) were reduced to the status of Cartesian automatons in contrast to the free will enjoyed by human agents.
McLuhan’s argument centres on the concept that humans use technology in order to extend their bodies and senses into the environment, and that each individual technology or medium’s chief effect is this sensorial extension, which is simultaneously accompanied by the numbing of the body part which is extended.
McLuhan’s chief critic at the time was Raymond Williams, a British Marxist and theorist of media and literature who played an integral role in the foundation of media and cultural studies as academic disciplines in the UK. Williams contended that ‘If the medium is the cause, all other causes, all that men ordinarily see as history, are at once reduced to effects.’ (Williams, 2003:130) and ‘If the effect of the medium is the same, whoever controls or uses it then we can forget ordinary political and cultural argument and let the technology run itself. Williams 2003:131’
Williams’s argument then, is that McLuhan essentialises the technology and claims that it alone determines the effects of the medium, relegating human agency and intention out of sight. When McLuhan makes claims such as ‘The older patterns of mechanical, one way expansion from the centres to margins is no longer relevant to our electric world. Electricity does not centralise but decentralises’ (2003:55).’ it’s very hard to see any kind of room for human agency within the framework of the technological determinism that McLuhan proposes. It’s also hard to reconcile McLuhan’s words with many of the experiences of electronic media which occurred in the 20th century. Its difficult to see how electronic media such as the propaganda films of Leni Riefenstahl, Stalinist apologists, Fox news and other similar uses of media can be described as decentralising forces.
Consequently technological determinism was largely relegated to a footnote in media and cultural studies, a fatally flawed thesis from the 60’s which it was thought had been firmly refuted. As Williams concludes, ‘ we have to reject technological determinism, in all its forms.’
The re-examination of technological determinism in the current media system comes from a couple of places, partially to do with the pace and scale of technological change which has been occurring with ever greater speed since the introduction of personal computers in the early 1980’s, and partially because of some advances in scientific understanding which have changed the way we think about deterministic systems.
Complexity theory, which is connected to ecological thinking through philosophers such as Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari and Manuel DeLanda basically states that for open, or negentropic systems, while there may be ways to formally (mathematically) describe the systems using simple deterministic equations, the results of these equations are not deterministic, they can be drawn as a field of probabilities, but never reduced to a single answer. Consequently, the Cartesian/Newtonian view of nature as predictable automatons is firmly rebuffed, and a new understanding of determinism in nonlinear systems, that is dynamic systems characterised by the presence of feedback loops, or put another way: ecologies, emerges. In this new view there is no dualism between free will and determinsm, instead determinisitic systems are re-conceived as systems which have certain degrees of freedom to operate within a determined probability space.
Applying this to think about technology and media we rethink determinsim not as the linear and definite statements such as McLuhan’s claim that electricity decentralises, but instead that there are various determinisms surrounding technology, that they afford certain types of usage and can tend towards various outcomes in specific contexts, but that technological determinism always occurs within concrete social contexts which will also contribute to the uses and resultant meanings of technological use. Consequently media ecologies contends that the effects of technologies are not solely determined by either the technological nodes or the human ones, but by the network as a whole.
A second area of scientific discovery which provides useful insight into understandings of technological determinism is cognitive neuro-science, and in particular discoveries around of the plasticity of the human brain.
‘It is well known that the brain’s plasticity is an inherent biological trait; human beings are born with their nervous systems ready to be reconfigured in response to the environment. While the number of neurons in the brain remains more or less constant throughout a lifetime, the number of synapses—the connections that neurons form to communicate with other neurons—is greatest at birth. Through a process known as synaptogenesis, a newborn infant undergoes a pruning process whereby the neural connections in the brain that are used strengthen and grow, while those that are not decay and disappear (Bear, Bear, Connors, and Paradiso 175–96). The evolutionary advantage of this pruning process is clear, for it bestows remarkable flexibility, giving human beings the power to adapt to widely differing environments. Although synaptogenesis is greatest in infancy, plasticity continues throughout childhood and adolescence, with some degree continuing even into adulthood. In contemporary developed societies, this plasticity implies that the brain’s synaptic connections are coevolving with an environment in which media consumption is a dominant factor. Children growing up in media-rich environments literally have brains wired differently from those of people who did not come to maturity under that condition.’
When cognitive scientists have conducted experiments which have involved neural imaging scans of children before and after playing video games they have found that not only does the form of attention required by the games alter brain activity not only during but after playing games. If we can quantitatively see that our material engagements with technology effect the wiring of our brains, then we see strong support for the thesis that technology does determine aspects of our world view. The philosopher Bernard Stiegler explores these ideas, proposing that technology forms a kind of externalised memory, where ‘ “All technical objects constitute an intergenerational support of memory which, as material culture, overdetermines learning and mnesic activities’ Stiegler 2009:9
This notion of technology as an exteriorised collective form of memory connects with the posthuman and ecological notions of distributed cognition, whereby the ecology of mind is not just something bound by the contraints of the body, but is immanent in the connections between the body and its environment. In this view the reason that humans today appear smarter than cavemen is nothing to do with spirits or souls, but is due to the fact that humans have collectively evolved smarter social ecologies within which to live.
Looking at evolutionary processes rather than objects:
Traditional approaches to media have tended to examine media texts as objects, which in the context of a film, a novel, a newspaper article or a radio broadcast seemed to make sense because you were largely dealing with a fixed text which proliferated from a central point, be it a printers or broadcast centre. When we look at the contemporary media ecology though, we see a lot of media forms which don’t resemble traditional media objects. Whether we’re looking at Wikipedia, World of Warcraft, Facebook or Twitter, what we see are a multitude of media forms which are more like evolutionary processes than objects. These media types are dynamic, open systems, sustained through the attention of both the programmers who are constantly updating the platform itself, as well as the users who are constantly producing an ever changing series of encounters. When we look for conceptual tools with which to analyse the way these processes evolve, there seems to be some quite productive homologies in using some of the tools that are used to analyse other registers of ecology, as the form of the distributed network and the patterns of emergent behaviours and feedback loops are common to these types of network at all scales.
The presentation of media as scalar dynamic systems affords the exploration of things which happen at global as well as local scales, the register of the global industrial hardware production processes as well as the register of micro-networks of thematically linked blogs.
By offering a methodology which affords analyses between different scales ranging from the extremely local to the global, media ecologies affords a synthetic method which allows us to address the complexity of ethical and political problematics faced in an increasingly globalised society without neglecting local concerns. As such it cuts across the dualisms of global/local and macro/micro which both prove immensely problematic as the scalar networks which connect the binaries up are frequently obscured.
Media ecologies as presenting a form of ontological realism which is based on material systems – resists the metaphors of virtuality, informationalisation and post-industrialism. The problem with these types of discourse is primarily the fact that they seek to de-materialise media systems, which are always predicated on a huge amount of matter and energy. By seeking to analyse media systems as virutal, somehow not quite real, these approaches have the effect of obscuring the ethical issues pertaining to social and environmental justice which are abundant throughout the contemporary industrial production process. If we want to meaningfully engage with the ethics of media systems we need to take a systems based view which incorporates the material as well as the informational issues these systems raise. If we ignore ethical issues pertaining to the material status of these technologies we can in fact become technophillic advocates for global injustices.
Case Study: Hardware: Media Materiality and Ethics
The best way for media studies to really make sense is to think outside media – of where it expands, takes us, if we persistently follow its lead. So far, for a long time, it took us to think about humans, human relations, intentions, unconscious desires, economics as much as politics as power. Such paths need to take us to the other direction too; to things less intentional, but as important; to nature, bacteria, chemicals, forms of life outside our headspace but inside our gut; to milieus of living in which our conscious agency is only a minor part of what matters.
To understand media systems, we need to trace the complex networks they exists within, which frequently takes us away from the traditional approaches to media studies which contend that it is just the content of media, and the effect this has on an audience that matters.
Media ecology presents a method of working which is about tracing networks of matter through, around and between media technologies, softwares, standards, protocols, users, designers and the social and environmental contexts these networks exist within. Such an opening out of the field of study might appear off putting and daunting, but if we are to renergise media theory and practice in ways that can create positive changes to the complex challenges that we’re faced with when we think about complex issues such as anthropogenic climate change and sustainable economies. I’m not suggesting that media ecologies has the answers to these problems or provides a teleology towards utopia, but if we don’t at least attempt to engage with the complexity and nonlinearity of these issues then it seems to me that we have little chance of impacting upon them in a meaningful way.