Mapping Media Ecology

Introduction to the Field

by Dennis D. Cali (Author)
Textbook XXIV, 258 Pages
Series: Understanding Media Ecology, Volume 4


Until now, the academic foundations of media ecology have been passed down primarily in the form of edited volumes, often by students of Neil Postman, or are limited to a focus on Marshall McLuhan and/or Postman or some other individual important to the field. Those volumes are invaluable in pointing to key ideas in the field; they provide an important and informed account of the fundamentals of media ecology as set forth at the field’s inception. Yet there is more to the story.
Offering an accessible introduction, and written from the perspective of a «second generation» scholar, this single-authored work provides a unified, systematic framework for the study of media ecology. It identifies the key themes, processes, and figures in media ecology that have coalesced over the last few decades and presents an elegant schema with which to engage future exploration of the role of media in shaping culture and consciousness.
Dennis D. Cali offers a survey of a field as consequential as it is fascinating. Designed to be used primarily in media and communication courses, the book’s goal is to hone insight into the role of media in society and to extend the understanding of the themes, processes, and interactions of media ecology to an ever-broader intellectual community.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Advance praise for Mapping Media Ecology
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Foreword
  • Preface
  • Section One: Foundational Questions
  • Chapter 1. What Is Media Ecology?
  • Media Ecology as Metaphor
  • Media Ecology as Theory Group
  • Media Ecology as Bibliography (Great Books)
  • Media Ecology as the Study of Media as Environments
  • Media Ecology as Discipline
  • Media Ecology as Metameme
  • Media Ecology as Perspective
  • Chapter 2. What Are the Primary Themes of Media Ecology?
  • Consciousness
  • Technology
  • Change
  • Balance
  • Environment
  • Culture
  • Interconnectedness
  • Chapter 3. What Are the Margins of Media Ecology?
  • The Philosophy of Technology
  • Computer-Mediated Communication
  • Medium Theory
  • Mediatization
  • Section Two: Canonical Figures
  • Chapter 4. Marshall McLuhan—Canada’s and the Field’s Intellectual Comet
  • Religious Influence
  • Mentors’, Colleagues’, and Students’ Influence
  • Scholarly Contributions
  • Heuristics
  • Chapter 5. Walter J. Ong: Voice of Consciousness in Orality-Literacy
  • Geographic Influence
  • Jesuit Influence
  • Scholarly Contributions
  • Dialogic Orientation
  • Heuristics
  • Chapter 6. Jacques Ellul: Prophet of La Technique
  • Influences
  • Scholarly Contributions
  • Heuristics
  • Section Three: Orality-Literacy Studies
  • Chapter 7. Orality-Literacy Studies
  • Eric Havelock: Hound of the Homeric State of Mind
  • Jack Goody: Domesticator of the Savage Mind
  • Elizabeth Eisenstein: Historian of the Printing Press
  • Section Four: Technology Studies
  • Chapter 8. Technology Studies
  • Neil Postman: “Postman” of a Field and of a Moral Message
  • Lewis Mumford: Postindustrial Prophet and Field Forerunner
  • Albert Borgmann: Detective of Device Design and Philosopher of Focal Practices
  • Section Five: Culture Studies
  • Chapter 9. Culture Studies
  • James Carey: Restoring Conversation and Ritual in Communication
  • Edmund Snow Carpenter: “Phantom” of the Field
  • Camille Paglia: Fiery Phenom and Culture Critic
  • Section Six: Bias Studies
  • Chapter 10. Bias Studies
  • Harold Adams Innis: Herald of Communication Studies
  • Daniel Joseph Boorstin: Surveyor of Pseudo-Reality
  • Jean Baudrillard: Hyper-Intellectual of the Hyperreal
  • Section Seven: Language Studies
  • Chapter 11. Language Studies
  • Alfred Korzybski: Mapping Semantic Environments
  • Susanne Langer: Finding a New Key to Symbolic Transformation
  • Benjamin Lee Whorf: Relating Language to Culture and Cognition
  • Section Eight: “Doing” Media Ecology
  • Chapter 12. Doing Media Ecology
  • Multiple Approaches
  • A Roadmap for Doing Media Ecology
  • Springboards for Media Ecological Study
  • Index
  • Series index

← viii | ix →


The publication of Professor Dennis Cali’s Mapping Media Ecology is a noteworthy development in communication, for a number of good reasons. To begin with, it is a rich and extremely well-written introduction to a fascinating subject in the study of media and culture. Media ecology—as an intellectual tradition in understanding the symbiotic relationships among culture, communication, and technology—evolved into being from a multitude of academic disciplines since the beginning of the ecological movement in the 1800s. Whereas most existing research in the discipline has tended to focus on studying the roles and impacts of communication media as they pertain to content, representation, economics or ownership, and the like, media ecology is a theoretical perspective on understanding media as physical, sensorial, perceptual, and symbolic environments or structures within which people’s sense-making experience manifests itself through and in communication. That is, it seeks to shed light on how changes in communication technology may facilitate social and cultural changes, and vice versa. Some of the most notable seminal figures in media ecology include Lewis Mumford, Eric Havelock, Harold Innis, Walter Ong, Jacques Ellul, Marshall McLuhan, Elizabeth Eisenstein, James W. Carey, and Neil Postman, to name just a few. ← ix | x →

But media ecology has also been a relatively new theoretical perspective in the communication discipline even as its intellectual roots germinated as early as in the late nineteenth century. The term made its formal debut in an address by Postman to the 1968 annual meeting of the National Council of Teachers of English. In fact, the term media ecology was largely unheard of through the mid-1990s in mainstream communication publications, including the like of Journal of Communication. However, a resurgence since the late 1990s of interests in McLuhan’s writings and a number of other developments had helped promote media ecology scholarship since.

The gradual rise of media ecology as a theory group in the past twenty years has been the result of ongoing contributions in teaching and research by a loose network of like-minded colleagues from multiple disciplinary as well as institutional backgrounds, namely, those associating themselves with the Toronto School, so-called in part due to its deep-seeded intellectual heritage tied to the work by the like of Edmund Carpenter, Eric Havelock, Harold Innis, and McLuhan at the University of Toronto; scholars from the research tradition set forth at St. Louis University, the home base of Ong, one of media ecology’s paradigm thinkers; graduates from the doctoral program at NYU under Postman or “the New York school,” a number of whom found their academic home at institutions in the New York Metropolitan Region and elsewhere; and so on.

A number of what can be considered significant events in this regard are noteworthy in the ongoing development or institutionalization of media ecology as a field of study: the 1998 founding of the Media Ecology Association (MEA) in New York City by five graduates from the doctoral program at NYU mentioned above, the 2000 inception of MEA’s first annual convention at Fordham University, the 2002 launching of MEA’s official quarterly journal, Explorations in Media Ecology (EME), as well as Lance Strate’s book series with a focus on publishing books with an explicit media ecology theme first at Hampton Press and at this writing at Peter Lang.

As NYU’s Ph.D. in Media Ecology Program was gradually being phased out after Postman’s untimely passing in late 2003, the MEA—with its increasingly robust annual convention and an active listserv easily accessible on the Internet—has become a vital meeting place of colleagues in the media ecology diaspora for the ongoing exchange and generation of ideas. One only needs to see the increasingly diverse institutional backgrounds of members on the association’s Board of Directors and its sponsorship outside of New York of its annual convention to understand how the MEA is no longer, and should no ← x | xi → longer be, what may have been perceived as a “New York school-based” institution: Boston College (2006), Santa Clara University (2008), the University of Maine, Orono (2010), Grand Valley State University, Michigan (2013), and Metropolitan State University of Denver (2015). In addition, the MEA’s annual convention also plays an indispensable role in the internationalization of media ecology scholarship, as it is evident in the convention’s cross-border outreach in recent years, such as in Mexico City in 2007 (Tecnológico de Monterrey, Estado de México), in Edmonton in 2011 (University of Alberta), in Toronto in 2014 (Ryerson University), and in Bologna in 2016 (University of Bologna).

The journal EME by the MEA and Strate’s book series have also helped to legitimate media ecology as a field of study. As EME continues to showcase state-of-the-art research in media ecology, it was Strate’s book series at Hampton Press that published the first two book-length treatments of media ecology as an intellectual tradition as a whole: Casey Lum’s Perspectives on Culture, Technology, and Communication: The Media Ecology Tradition and Strate’s Echoes and Reflections: On Media Ecology as a Field of Study, both published in 2006. An increasing number of scholarly books and research articles have also been published in recent years on various aspects of contemporary media ecology, including those that venture into the realm of new media and digital humanity within the larger global, geo-political contexts. Still others venture into expanding upon the scope and explanatory power of ecological thinking in the study of media and culture, such as the recent two special issues on Probing the Boundaries of Media Ecology published by EME in its volumes 12.3 and 12.4 in 2013 and then 14.1 and 14.2 in 2015. In addition, some of the books with a media ecology focus or theme originally published in English have also been translated and published in multiple other languages, such as in Chinese, French, Italian, Korean, Spanish, and so on. But as it is very difficult, if not impossible, to mention herein all the scholars whose works have contributed to media ecology’s growing relevance and prominence, the readers of this book will find Professor Cali’s exposition in the following pages most inviting and illuminating. And this leads us to the second reason as to why Mapping Media Ecology is commendable.

With his unique blend of academic backgrounds, such as history and historiography, speech communication, ethics and religion studies, Professor Cali approaches his book from a refreshing, interdisciplinary perspective on the study of media ecology. I met Dr. Cali for the first time at the 2012 MEA annual convention at Manhattan College in Riverdale, New York, which was ← xi | xii → organized by Thomas Gencarelli, one of MEA’s five cofounders. I still fondly recall how Dr. Cali characterized himself as “an outsider” to media ecology during our first meeting and that he was there “just trying to figure out” the internal dynamics of the group—the scholars gathered at the convention as well as what theories were espoused, promoted, and or downplayed and by whom, how, why, and so on. That turned out to be a good thing, for one outcome from his own explorations in media ecology is this book, in which he provides a new approach to understanding media ecology.

There is yet another very significant aspect of Professor Cali’s book that is worthwhile of special mention, in that it is written as an introductory textbook specifically for graduate students and upper-division undergraduates who may find having some grounding in the field useful. If and when widely adopted as such, then the book would likely help in the mainstreaming of media ecology. In the sociology of knowledge, standard textbooks have long played a pivotal role in educating future generations of students, scholars, and practitioners as well as helping to legitimize the “normal science” of the subject or field of study in question.

As Professor Cali put it in a previous conversation, and I think his voice is important in this specific context, “Students had collections of articles or edited volumes by and about various authors but I wanted to give them a relatively uniformly organized, cohesive, solo-authored book so as to be able to help orient them to the field and to recognize more readily similarities and distinctions among foundational facets of the field.” Hence, after a clear introduction to media ecology’s ontology, intellectual origins, primary themes, and canonical figures, the book provides a lucid and systematic description, analysis, and reflection on a number of specific areas of study that help to define the paradigm content of media ecology. The discussion of each of these areas of study in media ecology—such as orality and literacy studies, technology studies, bias studies—is amply supported by a well-conceived synthesis of the work by a small number of major theorists whose original scholarship has been considered to be foundational to media ecology’s paradigm content. Basing upon these discussions, Professor Cali offers his readers a sets of tools he calls “heuristics” distilled from each major theorist’s work as a means to assist them in “doing” media ecology, the focus of the book’s final section. In it, Dr. Cali guides the readers through a process of applying the heuristics from these theorists or paradigm thinkers—such as McLuhan’s tetrad, Postman’s “5 things,” Ellul’s “Psychological Crystallization”; he also talks about doing media ecology without such heuristics, such as exploring “new” media ecologists. ← xii | xiii →

But as they are “doing media ecology” as per Professor Cali’s brilliant introduction, the readers would soon realize that their new academic skills-set can also allow them to make connections to or with various other fields of study in communication and beyond and, by extension, various aspects of their communicative life. To date, for example, media ecology has rarely been linked to intercultural communication. But many theories or concepts in media ecology are, at least in my view, intimately tied to intercultural communication not only as a field of academic study or professional development in corporate or international consultancy, but also as an everyday practice in our increasingly multicultural society. One of media ecology’s canonical concepts has been the notion of “Faustian bargain” or, to put it more mildly, “tradeoffs” brought about by different media or forms of communication. Every medium has its own biases, that is, strengths and weaknesses. From this perspective, for example, one should consider the relative benefits and pitfalls inherited in the interaction or sense-making experience of two teenagers from different cultural backgrounds that is conducted entirely in web-based venues over the course of three months and in a home-stay setting of the same duration. That is, the question in this regard is not about if the two teenagers may learn something cross-culturally. Instead, it is about what they actually experience and the roles that the two different forms or environments of communication may play in their intercultural experience and why.

To give but just one more example: Media ecology can also be easily linked to or help inform inter-generational communication, and vice versa. From one perspective, the study of the contrast between orality and literacy concerns itself with communication across generations of dominant media forms—such as from orality to literacy, from literacy to typography, from typography to electronic media, and from electronic media to the cybernetic and digital realm—as well as the people and their cultures that live in, through, and transform with and by them. Concepts that this book’s readers are about to learn can help them better understand communication differences across generations not only as an academic subject but, perhaps more importantly, as a personal experience with family members who have been born and raised in different media generations or eras. Such are important and necessary connections to forge for media ecology should not be approached as an isolated field of study in communication. In fact, its multidisciplinary roots assume its inalienable connection to various fields of communication and media studies and beyond. In addition, it is similarly important that what we learn about and from media ecology can help us relate to the challenges and opportunities ← xiii | xiv → in human communication in our own everyday life in an increasing mediated world. In other words, to the media ecologists, living media ecology is just as important as studying and doing it.

Professor Dennis Cali’s Mapping Media Ecology is a well-conceived, richly researched, and clearly written introduction to media ecology, a multidisciplinary approach to studying the symbiotic relationships between culture, technology, and communication. It provides an excellent survey of a number of key concepts and specific areas of study as well as the major thinkers most associated with them for a fascinating discussion on the intellectual origins of the subject. The book also offers a corresponding skills-set called “heuristics” to help prepare the readers to further explore the many facets of media ecology on their own.

Casey Man Kong Lum, Ph.D.

Professor of Communication, William Paterson University

Co-Founder and Founding Vice President, the Media Ecology Association

← xiv | xv →


XXIV, 258
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (August)
Media Ecology Media and Society Media and Culture Marshall McLuhan Walter Ong Jacque Ellul
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. XXIV, 258 pp.

Biographical notes

Dennis D. Cali (Author)

Dennis D. Cali (Ph.D., Louisiana State University) is Professor and Chair of the Communication Department at the University of Texas at Tyler, where he has been awarded the President’s Scholarly Achievement Award. He has authored or edited two other books, and his research appears in book chapters and in journals including China Media Research, Critical Studies in Media Communication, Explorations in Media Ecology, and the Journal of Mass Media Ethics, among others.


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