First, Thinkers. Then, Media Ecologies: do we actually know what we’re dealing with?

As citizens of this technological world today, it is difficult for anyone to precisely map out the media in terms of its effects on, and power over, societies and cultures that are evolving eternally. Indeed, this is a statement that can be disputed anytime by looking at the dominance of culture over technology.

Technological Determinism

Medium as Message, Medium as Metaphor

As we meet the challenge to explore farther, the concept of “ecology” that depicts the interactions and relationships between matters within a complex network is applied to study this virtual ecosystem. Marshall McLuhan, who proposes that the medium is the message as a “collide-oscope of interfaced situations” (1967, p. 10), has a domineering stance here as he asserts the significance of technology, as an independent factor, in shaping our cultural habits and social mentality. It is no surprise, then, that McLuhan would reduce the value of the content of communication, and, deem it as less worthy than the media by which men communicate (ibid). For this reason, his way of thinking about the changes we’ve made till this day (well, he’s more like a prophet in terms of his capacity to remain relevant and influential to decades after his death) is encapsulated in a rather blunt fashion:

The alphabet, for instance, is a technology that is absorbed by the very young child in a completely unconscious manner, by osmosis so to speak. Words and the meaning of words predispose the child to think and act automatically in certain ways. The alphabet and print technology fostered and encouraged a fragmenting process, a process of specialism and of detachment. Electric technology fosters and encourages unification and involvement. It is impossible to understand social and cultural changes without a knowledge of the workings of media. (ibid, p. 8)

In one dimension, this is precisely what ecology is about, as well as what McLuhan’s imposed epistemic is about:

Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media works as environments. (ibid, 26)

As media ecologies naturally expand and progress into a meta-discipline, its constant development implies and foretells a hyper-potentialised future wherein, in Nystrom’s words,

Media ecology is, in short, a preparadigmatic science. (1973)

Neil Postman (1985) extends the idea to the medium as the metaphor. When media favour particular kinds of content, and in turn, are capable of taking command of a culture, the medium is the metaphor of the content of culture (ibid). As he suggests that medium dictates individuals’ positions as oriented thinkers/viewers on the world, and given that where each medium might lead us to is increasingly unpredictable in this day and age, McLuhan’s aphorism is no longer as pertinent as it might seems, or is claimed as, sometimes.

The forms of our media…are rather like metaphors, working by unobtrusive but powerful implication to enforce their special definitions of reality. Whether we are experiencing the world through the lens of speech or the printed word or the television camera, our media-metaphors classify the world for us, sequence it, frame it, enlarge it, reduce it, colour it, argue a case for what the world is like. (ibid, p. 10)

Shaking his head and Saying NO to McLuhanacy: Post-structuralists in Opposition to Technological Determinism

As mentioned earlier, in one aspect of technological determinism the medium is emblematised as the environment, and therefore, has hollow meanings to the critics of McLuhan, such as Matthew Fuller. Regarded as a product of the European context, the Fuller dislikes the fact that McLuhan has oversimplified the nature of media ecosystems, and neglected the essential content of culture that would be functionally delivered by any medium. This post-structuralist political perspective on media further postulates that

…materialism also requires that the capacities of activity, thought, sensation, and affect possible to each composition whether organic or not are shaped by what it is, what is connects to, and the dimensions of relationality around it. (Fuller 2005: 174)

After this reversed thinking on the interrelationship between technology, culture and media, one may accept the fact that both of these opposing schools of thought stand as potent theoretical constructions of today’s socio-cultural realities. Because they are contextual, as a matter of truth. They seem to be bidirectional also.

Indeed, technologies seem to have controlled the ways in which we communicate with each other. But how the established, and still-developing, cultures and ideas should play out in the dynamic media ecologies is still quested after.

Wait a Second…Now we living in the age of algorithms?? (Red alert!)

How do algorithms shape our world? Perpetually ecologised techniques…

(Just to clarify, “ecologised” is a word I created to denote the developmental capacity and ongoing development of modern ecologies, be it a media or technological or cultural one.)

Kevin Slavin (@slavin_fpo on Twitter), a physicist who has co-founded a game development company ‘Area/Code’, teases out the affordances of unmonitored algorithms in influencing the way human behave outside of the medium in his TED talk in 2011. According to Slavin, the algorithms mathematicians have written to interpret the stock market sometimes spring up to display events that are unreal and actually not happening. For example, the ‘Flash Crash of  2:45’ is the name of the crucial five-minute time when nine percent of the entire market just disappears out of nowhere, leaving us (innocent citizens) bewildered with the wonder: where did our mortgages and pensions go? Nobody had the slightest clue about what had happened because those algorithms that geniuses write are no longer things that people can read (Slavin, 2011). And our incredibly heavy reliance on these algorithms to grasp the dynamism of the stock market is, in essence, a reflection of McLuhanacy wherein the medium parallels to constructs of human behaviour and that of culture. Nevertheless, the question in these gaps between knowing and not knowing open up the debate about how moral values and social meanings come to perform in these contexts.

This recount/culture-shock about the potentiality of algorithms actually unpacks how the medium embeds cultural codes and social messages in the public cognition. So as assemblages and, in a wider scope, as ecologies make up our cultural dynamic as a whole, the importance of awareness and recall of content and meanings is heightened insofar they interact with media, and, in the end, carve our culture.

References

Fuller, Matthew. Media Ecologies. Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2005

Nystrom C. (1973), Towards a Science of Media Ecology: The Formulation of Integrated Conceptual Paradigms for the Study of Human Communication Systems, Doctoral Dissertation, New York University

Postman, N. (1985), Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Penguin Group, New York

Slavin, Kevin. How algorithms shape our world, short video clip, TED, accessed March 10th 2012, <http://www.ted.com/talks/kevin_slavin_how_algorithms_shape_our_world.html>

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