The Ecology Of Media

From Storytelling To Telecommunications

One of the articles in The Ecology Of Media (IC#23)
Originally published in Fall 1989 on page 10
Copyright (c)1989, 1997 by Context Institute

Getting a handle on the media isn’t easy. After all, the media – television, radio, magazines, movies, and newspapers to name just a few forms – generally want you to look through them rather than at them. Yet the role the media play is so critical to how we are building the future that if we are serious about wanting positive change, we had better stand back and take a good look at the media.


Communications scholars, in trying to define "the media," often focus on the technology of communication. Michael Real, in his book Super Media, says that the term media "today refers to technological extensions of the human sensory apparatus." Then of course there is Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum that "the medium is the message."

I don’t deny the importance of technology in understanding "media," but it seems to me that the real essence of media is deeper. The technological character of the term blinds us from seeing what the essence of media communications really is. To me, that essence is non-personal communications. Personal communication – whether in conversation, in letters, over phone lines or even on computer networks – is shaped by the individuality of the receiver and is often part of a reciprocal, interactive relationship. In contrast, media communications are directed at an "audience," an abstract group of receivers, and the relationship between the crafter of the communication and the receivers is asymmetrical and frequently not very interactive.

It is largely through our media that we define who we are as a society or as a subgroup within society. Media are thus the vehicles of cultural communications. Media technologies – from voice to satellites – help to determine how this cultural communication takes place. And social conditions help to shape how, or even if, we will use the available technologies. Content, technologies, and social conditions together form an interactive whole system – an ecology of media.

Like most self-interactive systems, the media ecosystem has changed considerably throughout history. To free ourselves from the hypnosis of the present and better see where the media ecosystem is going, it will help to sketch out that evolution.

The first "media technology" was simply the human voice. For tens of thousands of years, storytellers were the definers and transmitters of culture. Of course, in modern terms they were "multi-media," using action, costumes, facial expressions and so on. This whole-person communication encouraged an integration of speech and action, thinking and emotion in the societies where oral media dominated. Its face-to-face character also permitted lots of cultural diversity, although good stories spread over wide geographic regions. The inability to record these stories placed a high value on memorization: almost as compensation for the fleeting character of speech, oral traditions are some of the most stable and conservative media traditions.

The advent of writing brought major changes, although it is important to remember that for thousands of years only a small elite could read or write. Written communications travelled more accurately through both space and time. Writing separated the message from the person of the author, for both good and ill. And by freeing the mind from the demands of memorization, it opened the door for a new kind of intellectual creativity. Its linear, sequential form encouraged a similar pattern to develop in the thinking of the literate elite; and through the controlling institutions of state and religion, this literate elite became the dominate voice of their societies.

The printing press, while often lumped in with writing as just another "print" technology, was revolutionary from a whole-systems perspective because it allowed the mass production of print and the democratization of literacy. It is not surprising that the printing press flourished in Europe (starting in 1454 AD), while its earlier development in China languished: Europe was just then starting its process of democratization and industrialization, as the merchant class broke the old state/church monopoly on power, while China remained a firmly feudal society – one of the clearest examples of the ability of social conditions to override technological opportunities. During the following centuries, as industrialization developed, so did the industrialization of print media, with the development of newspapers (1621), magazines (1731), and mass circulation tabloids (1833).

Since the mid-1800s the pace of development for media technologies has grown at an ever accelerating rate. First there were the new electronic media, starting with the telegraph (1844) and telephone (1876) and going on to broadcast radio (1920) and TV (1939). During the same span of years photography was developed, first with stills and then movies. All these technologies broke out of the rarified abstraction of print and moved back towards the aliveness, the wholeness, of the storytellers’ face-to-face communication, and even beyond to the direct portayal of experience in film and video.


The last decade or so has brought a whole new wave of media technology, centered mainly on the computer microchip but also involving satellites, fiber optics, cable TV, video recorders, copy machines, and other new technologies. Their effect has been to expand the diversity of media and to make it much cheaper to be a producer of even quite sophisticated media. The social and political effects are already profound, for these new technologies are helping to destroy the position that used to be held by the mass media.

As a social phenomenon, the mass media depends for its existence on the uncontested supremacy of expensive (and thus centralized) media production technologies combined with cheap (per consumer) reproduction and distribution technologies. It also depends on a sufficiently passive public, willing to be grouped into a mass audience.

In the U.S. these conditions held from about the turn of the century to the late 1960s when, driven by an increasingly affluent and assertive public, special interest publications began to erode the hold of the mass market magazines like Life and Look. In broadcast, the major networks held on longer, but by now all of the old giants are finding they must operate in a much more diverse media environment.

In other parts of the world the effect of the mass media was even starker, for it enabled governments to centralize and control essentially all their media. Peter Drucker, in his book The New Realities, suggests that modern totalitarianism as practiced in the U.S.S.R., China and Nazi Germany would have been impossible without the mass media. Now, in the U.S.S.R. and China, we are clearly seeing the collapse of the old information control assisted by everything from video cameras to fax machines.

The articles that follow explore these new media realities and the often invisible, but not incomprehensible, inner workings of the media. They describe many ways we can inhabit the media ecosystem to promote the health of the planetary ecology as a whole. These new media realities obviously provide an enormous opportunity for catalyzing broad-scale cultural transformation – but that opportunity hinges on us.