Media Ecology

Digital Art History Chapter 1 Chapter 1, cont. Chapter 2 Chapter 2, cont. Chapter 3 Chapter 3, cont. Chapter 4 Chapter 4, cont. Chapter 5 Chapter 6


Media Ecology

Media ecology involves the study of information environments. According to the Media Ecology Association, media ecology can be defined as "the study of the complex set of relationships or interrelationships among symbols, media and culture."

In 1977, McLuhan said that media ecology "means arranging various media to help each other so they won't cancel each other out, to buttress one medium with another. You might say, for example, that radio is a bigger help to literacy than television, but television might be a very wonderful aid to teaching languages. And so you can do some things on some media that you cannot do on others. And, therefore, if you watch the whole field, you can prevent this waste that comes by one canceling the other out."

McLuhan posed four laws framed as questions (his tetrad) as a model for media ecology as a new perspective on culture: 1) "What does it (the medium or technology) extend?" 2) "What does it make obsolete?" 3) "What is retrieved?" 4) "What does the technology reverse into if it is over-extended?" (i.e., hidden consequences).

An interdisciplinary field emerges, called Media Ecology, deeply inspired by McLuhan, Innis, Neil Postman, and Baudrillard. We now watch in amazement as the once revolutionary impacts of television collide with the subversive effects of interactively networked digital media.

McLuhan’s metaphors have new currency, as his clichés have become archetypes. His warning that "we become what we behold," also means that we do live mythically now. This transition is visible, for example, in the larger-than-life screen personas (“chip bodies” or “avatars”) many of us now inhabit online or in the game world. We have become identified with these hyperreal alter egos.

He asserted that each different medium affects the individual and society in distinct and pervasive ways, further classifying some media as "hot"--media which engaged one's senses in a high intensity, exclusive way, such as typography, radio, and film--and "cool"--media which were of lower resolution or intensity, and therefore required more interaction from the viewer, such as the telephone and the television.

The work of another revolutionary, the Italian artist Caravaggio heralded another societal shift. His “Judith Beheading Holofernes” in 1598 had a new and strange meaning when it was first created -- it signaled the liberation of individualism by the printing press -- which by then had infiltrated and permeated human culture.

Today we might process this image as symbolic of Caravaggio's vision of the fragmentation of Western man as he cuts himself away from the body of his past at the end of the Renaissance. This is the moment of the death of Renaissance Man and the Birth of Modern Man.

The birth of 21st century man is exemplified in the global citizenry of the World Wide Web. It is embodied in experimental electronic art work, such as that of fulcrum-artist Laurence Gartel, who pioneered the digital medium in the mid-70s.

If we aren’t "to go on being helpless illiterates" in the new world of technology, passive victims as the "media themselves act directly toward shaping our most intimate self-consciousness", then we had to adopt the attitude of the artist. “The mind of the artist is always the point of maximal sensitivity and resourcefulness in exposing altered realities in the common culture." McLuhan would make of us "the artist, the sleuth, the detective" in gaining a critical perspective on the history of technology which "just as it began with writing ends with television."

For McLuhan, Seurat deserved a privileged position as the "art fulcrum between Renaissance visual and modern tactile. The coalescing of inner and outer, subject and object." McLuhan was drawn to Seurat in making painting a "light source" (a "light through situation"). Seurat did that which was most difficult and decisive: he dipped the viewer into the "vanishing point" of the painting. Or as McLuhan said, and in prophetic terms, Seurat (this "precursor of TV") presented us with a searing visual image of the age of the "anxious object."

In his book, Through the Vanishing Point, McLuhan said of Seurat that "by utilizing the Newtonian analysis of the fragmentation of light, he came to the technique of divisionism, whereby each dot of paint becomes the equivalent of an actual light source, a sun, as it were. This device reversed the traditional perspective by making the viewer the vanishing point."

The significance of Seurat's "reversal" of the rules of traditional perspective is that he abolished, once and for all, the medieval illusion that space is neutral, or what is the same, that we can somehow live "outside" the processed world of technology. With Seurat a great solitude and, paradoxically, a greater entanglement falls on modern being. "We are suddenly in the world of the "Anxious Object" which is prepared to take the audience inside the painting process itself." (McNeil).

The lesson of Seurat is this: modernity is the age of the "anxious object" because we live now, fully, within the designed environment of the technological sensorium. For McLuhan, we are like astronauts in the processed world of technology. We now take our "environment" with us in the form of technical "extensions" of the human body or senses. The technostructure is both the lens through which we experience the world, and, in fact, the "anxious object" with which human experience has become imperceptibly, almost subliminally, merged.

Cyborgs R Us

We are already cyber-organisms. Our technology extends our biology, allowing human beings to extend themselves, affecting our relationships with one another. With technology we can now see beyond the stars into the birth of our universe, and deep into the secrets of the atom. McLuhan emphasized that, "An extension occurs when an individual or society makes or uses something in a way that extends the range of the human body and mind in a fashion that is new.

By putting our physical bodies inside our extended nervous systems, by means of electric media, we set up a dynamic by which all previous technologies that are mere extensions of hands and feet and teeth, will be translated into information systems. Electromagnetic technology requires utter human docility and quiescence of meditation such as befits an organism that now wears its brain outside its skull and its nerves outside its hide. We must serve our electric technology with the same servo-mechanistic fidelity with which we once served our oracle, our canoe, our typography, and all other extensions of our physical organs. But, there is a difference here. Those previous technologies were partial and fragmentary. The electric is total and inclusive. An external consensus or conscience is now as necessary as private consciousness. With the new media, however, it is now possible to store and to translate everything; and as for speed, that is no problem. No further acceleration is possible this side of the light barrier. (McLuhan, Understanding Media - The Extensions of Man, 1963).

In this understanding, technology is an "extension" of biology: the expansion of the electronic media as the "metaphor" or "environment" of twentieth-century experience implies that, for the first time, the central nervous system itself has been exteriorized.

It is our plight to be processed through the technological simulacrum, to participate intensively and integrally in a "technostructure" which is nothing but a vast simulation and "amplification" of our bodily senses. Indeed, McLuhan often used the "narcissus theme" from classical mythology as a way of explaining our fatal fascination with technology, viewed not as "something external" but as an extension, or projection, of the sensory faculties of the human species.

Media tend to isolate one or another sense from the others. The result is hypnosis. The other extreme is withdrawing of sensation with resulting hallucination as in dreams or DT's, etc... Any medium, by dilating sense to fill the whole field, creates the necessary conditions of hypnosis in that area. This explains why at no time has any culture been aware of the effect of its media on its overall association, not even retrospectively.

All of McLuhan's writings are an attempt to go beyond the "Echo" of the narcissus myth, to show that "technostructure" is an extension or "repetition" of ourselves. He explored the numbing of consciousness in the technological massage. Confronted with the hypnotic effect of the technological sensorium, McLuhan urged the use of any "probe" - humor, paradox, analogical juxtaposition, absurdity - as a way of making visible the "total field effect" of technology as medium.

McLuhan's intention was to break the seduction effect of technology, to disturb the hypnotic spell cast by the dynamism of the technological imperative. He was in the habit of saying that the "inclusive" circuitry of the electronic age, was composed of "code, language, mechanical medium - all (having) magical properties which transform, transfigure." He also noted the consequence of the "new age", that its participants were daily "x-rayed by television images."

If, indeed, we are now "looking out" from inside the technological sensorium; and if, in fact, in the merger of biology and technology, which is the locus of the electronic age, "we" have become the vanishing points of technique, then a way had to be discovered for breaching the "invisible environment" within which we are now enclosed.

McLuhan's historical study of the media of communication likened it to the disease (dis-ease) process, structured by the three moments of semiology (classification of symptoms), diagnosis and therapeutics. His "diagnosis" was that the crisis induced by technological society had much to do with the "closures" (numbing) affected among the sense ratios by new technical inventions.

A new "closure" is occasioned in our sensory organs and faculties, both private and public, by new technical extension of man. McLuhan's "therapeutic" solution is the deployment of the "creative imagination" as a new way of seeing technology, and of responding, mythically and in depth, to the challenges of the age of electric circuitry.

For McLuhan, the stress syndrome associated with the coming-to-be of the technostructure could only be met with the assistance of educated perspective. If it is the human fate to live within its (own) central nervous system in the form of the electronic simulation of consciousness, then it is also the human challenge to respond creatively to the "dread" and "anxiety" of the modern age.

McLuhan's historical account of the evolution of technological media was structured around a (medical) account of technological innovation as "counter-irritants" to the "stress of acceleration of pace and increase of load." In stress-expert Hans Selye's terms, the body resorts to an auto-amputative strategy when "the perceptual power cannot locate or avoid the cause of irritation."

In McLuhan's terms, in the stress of super-stimulation, "the central nervous system acts to protect itself by a strategy of amputation or isolation of the offending organ, sense, or function." Technology is a "counter-irritant" which aids in the "equilibrium of the physical organs which protect the central nervous system."

Sense and Sensorium

When McLuhan recommended repeatedly that cultural historians "trace and retrace" the field of technological experience, both as a means of understanding the "closure" effected upon human perspective and as a way of discovering an escape-hatch, he was only restating, in distinctly modern language, the experimental method of ancient medicine.

McLuhan's imagination always played at the interface of biology and technology. His discourse took as its working premise that the most insidious effect of technology lay in its deep colonization of biology, of the body itself; and, moreover, in its implicit claim, that technology is the new locus of the evolutionary principle.

For McLuhan the technological "sensorium" was precisely that: an artificial amplification, and transferal, of human consciousness and sensory organs to the technical apparatus, which now, having achieved the electronic phase of "simultaneity" and "instantaneous scope", returns to take its due on the human body.

The "sensorium" presents itself to a humanity, which has already passed over into "deep shock" over the inexplicable consequences of electronics as a practical simulation of evolution, of the biological process itself. This circling back of the technological sensorium, this silent merger of technology and biology, is the cataclysmic change in human history that so disturbed McLuhan.

His discourse on technology begins and ends with an exploration of the "possession" of biology by the technological imperative. Indeed, in McLuhan's estimation, technology works its effects upon biology much like a disease. It is also the tools of a doctor which are needed both for an accurate diagnosis of the causes of the disease, and for a prognosis of some cure which might be recuperative of the human sensibility in technological society.

Technological experience "wounds" the human persona by affecting a "closure" of human perception, and in "numbing" and thus "neutralizing" the area under stress. It was McLuhan's melancholic observation that when confronted with new technologies, the population passes through, and this repeatedly, the normal cycle of shock: "alarm" at the disturbances occasioned by the introduction, often on a massive scale, of new extensions of the sensory organs; "resistance" which is typically directed at the "content" of new technological innovations.

McLuhan's point was, of course, that the content of a new technology is only the already passé history of a superseded technology; and "exhaustion" in the face of our inability to understand the subliminal (formal) consequences of fundamental changes in the technostructure. It was his pessimistic conclusion that, when confronted with the "paradigm-shift" typified by the transformation of technology from a mechanical, industrial model to an electronic one, the population rapidly enters into a permanent state of exhaustion and bewilderment.”

In McLuhan's terms, the present century is characterized by an almost total unconsciousness of the real effects of the technological media. Without the education of perspective or, for that matter, in the absence of a "multidimensional perspective” on technique, it will surely be the human destiny to be imprinted by the structural imperatives, the silent grammar, of the new world information order. But it was also McLuhan's hope that the electronic age could be transformed in the direction of creative freedom.

In The Medium is the Massage, McLuhan insisted on teasing out the emancipatory tendencies in new technologies. Against the admonitions of an "official culture" to impose old meanings on novel technologies, McLuhan sympathized with "anti-social perspectives": the creative perspectives of the artist, the poet, and even the young, who respond with "untaught delight to the poetry, and the beauty of the new technological environment."

Technological Humanism

The significance of the "poetic process" as the master concept of McLuhan's technological humanism is clear. It is only by creatively interiorizing (realistically perceiving) the "external" world of technology, by reabsorbing into the dance of the intellect mass media as extensions of the cognitive faculties of the human species, that we can recover "ourselves" anew. It is also individual freedom, which is wagered in McLuhan's recovery of the "miracle" of ordinary human perception.

Thus, McLuhan was a technological humanist in a special sense. He often described the modern century as the "age of anxiety" because of our sudden exposure, without adequate means of understanding, to the imploded, instantaneous world of the new information order.
In The Medium is the Massage, he spoke of technology in highly ambivalent terms as, simultaneously, containing possibilities for emancipation and domination. McLuhan’s critical humanism deals with the "central cultural tendencies" of the twentieth-century, confronting the technological experience in its role as environment, evolutionary principle, and as second nature itself.

Environments are not passive wrappings, but active processes which work us over completely, massaging the ratio of the senses and imposing their silent assumptions. But environments are invisible. Their ground-rules, pervasive structure, and overall patterns elude easy perception.

McLuhan's technological humanism was at the forward edge of a fundamental "paradigm shift" in human consciousness. In the 21st century we still await that global change in fundamental worldview, though we have made vast strides toward it. But, culture is more than integrated spectacle.


Postmodern media guru, Jean Baudrillard took off in the 1980s where McLuhan left off. His cyberculture theory rests on the key notion of the “cyberblitz” of new experiences inaugurating a new type of society: consumer, media, information, and technological societies with new values, meaning, and activities.

He sees media as the demiurge of a new society and type of experience, an all-powerful autonomous social force; social control and power are rooted in mass media. Simulations and simulacra, media and information, science and new technologies, and implosion and hyperreality become the constituents of a new postmodern world. In his theory, all the boundaries, categories, and values of the previous forms of industrial society are obliterated while establishing new forms of social organization, thought, and experience.

In 1967, Baudrillard wrote a review of McLuhan's Understanding Media in which he claimed that McLuhan's dictum that the "medium is the message" is "the very formula of alienation in a technical society," and he criticized McLuhan for naturalizing that alienation. By the 1970s and 1980s, however, McLuhan's formula eventually became the guiding principle of his own thought.

Furthermore, following McLuhan, Baudrillard interprets modernity as a process of explosion of commodification, mechanization, technology, and market relations, while postmodern society is the site of an implosion of all boundaries, regions, and distinctions between high and low culture, appearance and reality, and just about every other binary opposition maintained by traditional philosophy and social theory.

By the late 1970s, Baudrillard interprets the media as key simulation machines, which reproduce images, signs, and codes which constitute an autonomous realm of (hyper)reality and which come to play a key role in everyday life and the obliteration of the social. Baudrillard's analyses of simulations and hyperreality probably constitute his most important contributions to social theory and media critique.

Previously, the media were believed to mirror, reflect, or represent reality, whereas now the media are coming to constitute a (hyper)reality, a new media reality -- "more real than real" -- where "the real" is subordinate to representation leading to an ultimate dissolving of the real. In addition, in "The Implosion of Meaning in the Media," Baudrillard claims that the proliferation of signs and information in the media obliterates meaning through neutralizing and dissolving all content.

This process leads both to a collapse of meaning and the destruction of distinctions between mass media and reality. The proliferation of television reality shows demonstrates this. In a society supposedly saturated with media messages, information and meaning "implode," collapsing into meaningless "noise," pure effect without content or meaning. The medium has merged with the real. It is useless to dream of a revolution through content or through form, since the medium and the real are now in a single nebulous state whose truth is undecipherable" (SSM, pp. 102-103).

In “On Seduction” (1979), Baudrillard utilizes McLuhan's distinction between "hot" and "cool" media to describe the ways that media devour information and exterminate meaning. According to Baudrillard, the media take "hot" events like sports, wars, political turmoil, catastrophes, etc. and transform them into "cool" media events, which he interprets as altogether another kind of event and experience.

For Baudrillard, eventually, all the dominant media become "cool," erasing McLuhan's (problematical) distinction between hot and cool media. That is, for Baudrillard all the media of information and communication neutralize meaning and involve the audience in a flat, one-dimensional media experience which he defines in terms of a passive absorption of images, or a resistance of meaning, rather than the active processing or production of meaning.

In Baudrillard’s universe we enter a new form of subjectivity where we become saturated with information, images, events, and ecstasies. Without defense or distance, we become "a pure screen, a switching center for all the networks of influence". In the media society, the era of interiority, subjectivity, meaning, privacy, and the inner life is over; a new era of obscenity, fascination, vertigo, instantaneity, transparency and overexposure begins: Welcome to the postmodern world!

From a Baudrillardian perspective, Internet is a kind of cybernetic terrain working to undermine the symbolic distance between the metaphoric and the real. It abandons "the real" for the hyperreal by presenting an increasingly real simulation of a comprehensive and comprehendible world. This heading points the way toward Baudrillard's "hypertelia," that fated catastrophe when the sophistication of a model outdoes the reality it attempts to comprehend. Tim Leary called it “hyperdelic.”

Baudrillard's concept of simulation is the creation of the real through conceptual or "mythological" models, which have no connection or origin in reality. The model becomes the determinant of our perception of reality-- the real. Homes, relationships, fashion, art, music, all become dictated by their ideal models presented through the media.

The boundary between the image, or simulation, and reality implodes (breaks down). This creates a world of hyperreality where the distinctions between real and unreal are blurred. For Baudrillard, the shift from the real to the hyperreal occurs when representation gives way to simulation.

Arguably, we are standing at the brink of such a moment, marked primarily by the emerging presence of a virtual world. For Baudrillard, the screen presents an example of the "satellisation of the real" by achieving the escape velocity of hyperreality: "That which was previously mentally projected, which was lived as a metaphor in the terrestrial habitat is from now on projected entirely without metaphor, into the absolute space of simulation" (Ecstasy 16). No longer a metaphor for change, the simulated highway of Internet becomes a form of virtual reality.

Baudrillard limited his critique to mass media, rather than extending it to the creative technology of new media. Interactive media used in the artistic process are of a different order, as a means of personal expression and creativity. The process connects rather than isolates, evokes rather than numbs feeling. Baudrillard argues an anti-hermeneutical bias that denies the importance of content and is against interpretation. Yet, technological artists capture that meaning hunting the future through new media and their subject matter. “Know brow” or technological artists are already stepping into the post Postmodern era.

The interiorization of media transmissions within the screen of our mind obliterates the distinction between public and private, interior and exterior space -- both of which are replaced by media space. Here Baudrillard inverts McLuhan's thesis concerning the media as extensions of the human, as exteriorizations of human powers, and argues instead that humans internalize media and thus becomes terminals within media systems. But that is not true of the interactive artist, who again reverses the process with alternative media, transforming the form and content of the media.


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