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Sunday, January 7, 2018

Media Ecology: A Cartesian Review of Lance Strate's Book

As a few of you may know, I got my PhD from New York University in 1979, in Neil Postman's "Media Ecology" (then new) program.  Postman likely got the name from Marshall McLuhan, who used it in the 1960s, and whom I met and came to know and work with after Postman asked me to write a preface to McLuhan's "Laws of the Media," an early, short presentation of his "laws of the media" that Postman published in the journal et cetera (that was the name of the journal - you can read the article with the preface here).  There's more about the tetrad in my Digital McLuhan and McLuhan in Age of Social Media, and in this talk I gave at Fordham University this past October.

People always wonder what "media ecology" is.   Lance Strate, who got his PhD in the Media Ecology program in 1991, about a decade after me, wrote a book in response, and I can't think of a person better suited to provide a knowledgeable answer.  Strate, my colleague at Fordham University and indeed the person who hired me in 1998, took up the "media ecology" banner when Postman was in his declining years.  Strate created the Media Ecology Association in 1998 and it's still going strong across the world with yearly conferences.  (If you think this makes me a biased reviewer of Strate's book, too bad - read the book, see if you agree, and, if not, tell me on Twitter or wherever where you think I'm wrong - I'm @PaulLev over at Twitter, by the way.)

When reviewing scholarly books - whether in proposal form for would-be publishers, or for a review like this after publication - I always apply a Cartesian test: how accurate is the book in describing theories, ideas, and facts that I know best?  Strate's book does an A-1 job of describing my work in media theory (I generally prefer theory to ecology, but that's just me), including delving into aspects of my work - like my Tetrad "Wheels" of Cultural Evolution - that are not widely known.   As a second indicator, Strate gets Josh Meyrowitz's work just right, too.  I sat next to Josh in our PhD seminars at NYU, and I know more about Josh's work than just anyone else's other than mine.

But Media Ecology does much more.  It situates the field in the larger areas of human scholarship and discourse, connects it to dozens of scholars in addition to Meyrowitz and me, addresses the synapse of communication in everything from the universe at large to the smallest mark on a page.   So, yes, it will tell you, eminently, vividly, clearly, and compellingly what media ecology is all about.

Which I'm not going to tell you here.  Read the book.

Ok, here's a very short answer:  media ecology is about how communication in one form or another, interconnected like living organisms (hence "ecology") makes things happen in our history and our world, because communication is essential to human life.  Or, to borrow from McLuhan, the way I like to put it nowadays is:  media ecology is about how without radio, there would have been no Hitler, and without Twitter, no Trump.

All right, McLuhan, who left us in 1980, was responsible only for the radio part of that.   All I did was apply it to the present.  But that's the point about media ecology:  its principles, which as Strate abundantly shows, predate McLuhan and Postman, and now extend far beyond them, are even more relevant today than when we sat in those seminars at New York University.

To be clear, Strate and I by no means are in agreement about the impact of all or any given media on our lives.  I tend to be more optimistic than Strate, on technologies ranging from space travel to social media (notwithstanding what I think about Twitter and Trump).  But this field has always been about mastering the principles and formulating your own views.   If you'd like a handbook on how to do this, and maximize your understanding of what's going on, get a copy of Media Ecology.

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