A Year in Media Ecology

And what media ecology even is

tywen kelly
5 min readNov 13, 2020

For the next year I will study, work, and complete projects that are related to the field of media ecology. The goal is to create a media ecology portfolio of both artwork and written essays.

The force driving this portfolio is play. I will use art as a research tool to explore multiple mediums in our media ecology. By using art as a tool I can more easily play with ideas and materialize them, which will allow me to understand them in new or different ways.

Lastly I will document my process and share my work publicly along the way. This way I can receive immediate feedback and use it to guide the later projects.

The world will be painted in data.
Media is expanding from bits to atoms. The new media ecology is physical, spatial, and real. It is quite literally ecological. It covers all surfaces. (Source: Mr. Bean “Do It Yourself”)

What even is media ecology?

Traditionally, media ecology has been an interdisciplinary field of study, taking bits and pieces from anthropology, systems studies, literature, and film. Media ecology focuses on the effects of mediated messages upon society. It does this by analyzing the technological mediums that permit such messages to exist, rather than dissect the contents of the message directly. The study of media ecology treats technological mediums not as an effect of the message, but as a cause of the type of message delivered. One of the founding members of the field, Marshall McLuhan, famously wraps up the mojo of media ecology into one aphorism: “the medium is the message”.

Neil Postman, another media ecologist, in his book “What is Media Ecology”, notes that media ecology is about treating technology not as an machine object, but as environment. He enumerates the properties of an environment:

  • “It structures what we can see and say and, therefore, do.
  • It assigns roles to us and insists on our playing them.
  • It specifies what we are permitted to do and what we are not. Sometimes, as in the case of a courtroom, or classroom, or business office, the specifications are explicit and formal.”

Today, we find it intuitive that the properties of an environment are similar to the properties of technology. If someone says “technology structures what you can see and say” you wouldn’t bat an eye. The perceived determinism of technology on our personal lives and on our sociality at large is not controversial. For instance, most people are aware of the effect social media has on their mental health. We are also aware of the “media bubbles” we inhabit which filter out what we consume at all.

Where I think media ecology should continue to grapple with, and where I hope to be able to contribute to (and play with), is the idea that the so-called environment of technology is expanding. Technology is extending beyond the realm of bits into the realm of atoms. Rather, technology has always been extended into both bits and atoms, but we are collectively becoming more aware of its pervasiveness.

Today we are already “coding” with DNA and we are already “growing” designs for manufacturing. Conversely, the virtual is becoming more lifelike. Game and simulation engines continue to become more photorealistic, AI is more convincingly sentient. Developing and maintaining digital media ecosystems is requiring more non-virtual resources. Steaming services, training AI models, and mining cryptocurrency take up huge amounts of electricity. The border between digital and physical, biological and mechanical, virtual and real, is disappearing as the two more apparently converge.

The new media ecology is becoming more about the study of literal ecology.

This is my hypothesis: the new media ecology is becoming more about the study of literal ecology. Media ecology is not just the study of how media affects human-made environments: marketplaces, political spaces, the justice system. At an increasing rate media is now affecting the physical environment. The new media ecology is now also the study of the the effect of media on physical, three-dimensional, organic space.

This expansion in mindset begins to take into account the fact that media has transcended from human-made worlds. In the book “In the Dust of this Planet” philosopher Eugene Thacker writes about nature’s environmental collapse. In doing so he sets up an interesting classification that distinguishes between the terms “The World”, “The Earth”, and “The Planet.” “The World” is a way of saying “the world-for-us”. Meaning, that when people say The World, they mean the ways in which the world affects humans.

“The Earth”, on the other hand is a way of saying “the world-in-itself.” The Earth broadens the subjectivity of The World and expands it to all life, not just humans. The Earth concerns the landscape, the weather, flora, fauna, evolution, natural disasters, and is not contingent on human presence. Finally, Thacker describes “The Planet.” The Planet is “the world-without-us”. It is a place without any life, and in particular, without human life. It is a post-apocalyptic landscape.

Media ecology in the days of McLuhan and Postman was concerned with The World. How did the medium of radio and television affect public perception? In what ways does a physical book convey a different message than a television? How is human consciousness extended into media?

Media ecology should now also be concerned with The Earth, and in unideal future, The Planet. Media now affects the health of the planet directly. It also affects the human spaces of our homes, cities, and civilizations more directly.

We run simulations of the world to prepare for natural disasters, we grow foods in vats, we transplant forests into downtowns, we take photographic scans of the landscape, we create digital twins of every manufactured object, we are coding designer babies, and we are extracting data from the dirt as we do with oil.

This new media ecology asks how media affects physical worlds as well as human worlds. How is media becoming more physical and spatial? How does media affect human health? How does media affect planetary health? How is media ecology differentiated across different human demographics and different environmental biomes?

The new media ecology seeks an understanding of media to better control it for the sake of not just The World, but also for the sake of The Earth and The Planet too.