Contributors: Sasha Geukjian, Amanda Paul, Dawn McGuckin, Elita Partosoedarso, Nathan Bugden, Jan Mazulla


Media ecology is the study of media environments and their effect on human society in regards to their change in perception, understandings, feelings and values. It looks at what roles these medias play, as well as why they make us act and feel the way they do. The theory was produced by Marshall McLuhan in the 1960's. Perhaps the first preeminent work was the 1962 book .


McLuhan, media ecology, medium, communication, social environment

McLuhan's Premise of Media Ecology

"McLuhan contends that all media in and of themselves and regardless of the messages they communicate exert a compelling influence on man and society. Prehistoric, or tribal, man existed in a harmonious balance of the senses, perceiving the world equally through hearing, smell, touch, sight and taste. But technological innovations are extensions of human abilities and senses that alter this sensory balance. An alteration that, in turn, inexorably reshapes the society that created the technology."

McLuhan's View of Communication in Media Ecology

McLuhan saw the media as fundamentally changing our communication as a whole in society. To McLuhan, communication was everything to the theory. If you examine the other theorists at the forefront of this concept they had other angles, for example Lewis Mumford’s was technology, Susanne Langer’s was aesthetics but for McLuhan, communication was it.

McLuhan saw the role of communication in all forms of media, from the beginnings of print to the technological age, as well as in things like money, cars, weapons, etc. For example, for McLuhan, the kinds of print you utilize be it alphabet or hieroglyphics, determined what kind of communication was sent. As well, the kind of car you drive or if you prefer a grenade to a gun communicates something about the kind of person you are (Levinson, 2000).

For McLuhan, the way that we prefer to communicate or in other words, the media we choose to communicate through, determines the message that is sent. In some cases he argues this choice can change the course of a civilization.

McLuhan obviously did examine the other facets of the theory, for example he explored as many technologies as Mumford but he related everything back to communication. This consistent relation to technology gave media ecology a point of gravity or a moral compass for those who study the theory today (Levinson, 2000).

McLuhan saw the message that was communicated in a very different way from other communication theories. There are countless other theories and academic communication programs that advocate looking at the message of what is being communicated. The actual words, symbols, pictures, etc are what are to be focussed on and studied. For Media Ecology it is not what is actually being said, implied or shown. The basis is the selection of the media used to communicate the message. Reiterating what I said above, choosing the phone over texting not only alters the communication, it alters the message that comes across. We look more at the consequences of choosing the phone and its interaction with the message, over the actual words in the conversation.

Neil Postman and Media Ecology

Neil Postman was one of McLuhan's intellectual children and spent much of his professional life examining, thinking and writing about media ecology. He was not always impressed by what he saw.

Postman states that media ecology " the ways in which the interaction between media and human beings give a culture its characteristic and, one might say, help a culture to maintain symbolic balance." (Postman 2000) and that "Media ecology looks into the matter of how media communication affect human perception, understanding feeling, and value; and how our interaction with media facilitates or impedes our chances of survival (quoted in Salas 2007)

"A medium is a technology within which a culture grows; that is to say, it gives form to a cutlure's politics, social organization, and habitual ways of thinking." (Postman 2000)

Postman is concerned with the way a media helps a society to develop rational thought. (Postman 2000) However, some writers claim that Postman is biased toward literacy and the culture that arose out of it (Gencarelli 2000)
" is the business of the educator to assess the biases of the information environment with a view toward making them visible and keeping them under control." (Postman quoted in Gencarelli 2000)

Media Ecology in the Classroom

An Ideal Media Ecology savvy classroom is able to cause technology to work together to benefit the students without causing chaos or competing for attention. Students need to use technology to learn not be distracted by it.

Ways to incorporate Media Ecology into your classroom:

1) Use smart boards to aid in learning not to replace conventional learning.
2) Minimize noise and distraction by structuring the technology learning environment. (ie. a computer station.
3) Create projects that encourage learning new skills and incorporate technology (ie. take a picture on a digital camera and then create a multimedia presentation about it
4) Teach students how to use the tools so they become a valuable teaching aid instead of a distraction.

Bringing Media Ecology into the Present (Social Networking Sites):

“Change the environment and you completely alter the sensory life of the inhabitants of that environment.” (McLuhan, 1970, p.1).
  • What his means is that new environements change how people interact and the how people undertand the society surrounding them. In terms of social networking sites a brand new environment of the computer centred generation has produced new environments such as facebook, twitter, and even blackboard that provide that structures of a traditional soociety online.
“In the electric age people make their world in an entirely new way; the whole environment is created. Here, for instance, there would be no environment if that light went out.” (McLuhan, 1970, p.1).
  • This is interesting in the sense that these online cultures require certain elements for us to take part in them. For example for many people if they lose their blackberry or iPhone all social networking and the culture that goes with it almost shut down. People check there mobile communication devices on an hourly basis. Removing the device is like turning out the light.
“The thing that is most intimate and most totally surrounding us at all times is our own body percept. We create a body percept from minute to minute, or second to second by simple sounds and inputs that we experience…” (McLuhan, 1970, p.1).
  • Social networking sites have produced a new way in which people develop their personalities and body percepts. We are now able to develop a personal evaluation that is distinct from face to face interactions. Furthermore, we can post pictures, videos, and even thoughts for people to develop their opinions of us. These networking resources also enable others to impose thier views about us through liking our status or commenting on pictures.

The Medium is the Culture (Social Networking Sites):

"McLuhan contends that all media—in and of themselves and regardless of the messages they communicate—exert a compelling influence on man and society... an alteration that, in turn, inexorably reshapes the society that created the technology." (McLuhan, McLuahn, & Zingrone, 1996, p.233-234).
  • What McLuhan means is that all changes affect the culture, the technology, and the people interacting with the changes. Furthermore, people change the environemnt to an online environment such as facebook, or twitter. This intern develops new ways of looking at people and even meeting and connecting with people. This also develops new conventions such as language specific to the media that is a culture in and of itself. For example the term lol. Social networking sites have taken on the role of both culture and medium through the development of terms such as facebook culture or google generation. Not only are these websites tools or mediums, but they are also communities that produce a culture that exists within the medium.
“We put the word “media” in the front of the word “ecology” to suggest that we were not simply interested in media, but in the ways in which the interaction between media and human beings give a culture its character and, one might say, help a culture to maintain symbolic balance.” (Postman, 2000, p.11).
  • This details how the interaction between people within social networking sites develops not only its own culture, and language, but also rules and conventions that are stereotypical of that resource. For example typing in bold, caps or red font may be a sign on anger and yelling.

Levinson, P. (2000). McLuhan and media ecology.Media Ecology Association. Retrieved from
McLuhan, M. (1970). Education in the Electronic Age. Interchange, 1(4), 1-12.
McLuhan, M., McLuhan. E., & Zingrone, F. (1996). The Essential McLuhan. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Postman, N. (2000). The Humanism of Media Ecology. Proceedings of the Media Ecology Association, 1, 10-16.