Josh Kahen / Unsplash / ModifiedJosh Kahen / Unsplash / Modified I know that some may question having media ethics as the theme of this year’s Media Ecology Association Convention, given Marshall McLuhan’s well known preference for withholding moral judgment. Indeed, McLuhan’s view on the matter was very much on Neil Postman’s mind when he delivered his keynote address at the first MEA convention in the year 2000, and I want to quote from it. Postman (2000) said that McLuhan:

thought that . . . moral neutrality would give the best opportunity to learn exactly how new media do their stuff. If one spent too much time on the question of whether or not that stuff was good, one would be distracted from truly understanding media. As a consequence, although I believe McLuhan liked me, I feel sure he would not have much liked my books, which he would have thought too moralistic, rabbinical or, if not that, certainly too judgmental.

I think there is considerable merit in McLuhan’s point of view about avoiding questions of good and bad when thinking about media. But that view has never been mine. To be quite honest about it, I don’t see any point in studying media unless one does so within a moral or ethical context. I am not alone in believing this. Some of the most important media scholars—Lewis Mumford and Jacques Ellul, for example—could scarcely write a word about technology without conveying a sense of either its humanistic or anti-humanistic consequences (p. 11).

Postman and McLuhan may therefore be said to represent opposing viewpoints on whether media ecology scholars should be concerned with ethics. And if nothing else, this brings home the fact that the field of media ecology is in no way monolithic. I want to suggest, however, a different way of interpreting McLuhan’s remarks on the subject. I believe that McLuhan was responding to the way that his colleagues reacted to the study of popular culture and mass media back in the mid-twentieth century, which was to dismiss and condemn any such scholarship. Movies were the opiate of the masses. Comic books represented the seduction of the innocent. Radio was the cause of widespread panic. Television was the idiot box. Newspapers were fish wrap. Pulp magazines were trash, dime novels garbage. All these media were debased and degenerate forms of expression that stood in the way of the appreciation of the great art, music, and literature of Western civilization. Media were deemed unworthy of any form of recognition or acknowledgement, let alone serious study. Against this prevailing sentiment of moral indignation, McLuhan asked us to withhold judgment. He recognized that the true significance of any medium is not the quality of its content, but the extent of its effects.

Understanding media requires us first of all to recognize that media are in fact worthy of study, indeed, that our codes and modes of communication, our technologies and techniques, and inventions and innovations, our ways of doing things, have had a profound impact on human affairs, arguably greater than any other factor. If we want to understand ourselves, our minds and bodies, our societies and cultures, our history and our future, we need to understand media, the category of media being defined in the broadest possible terms. It is patently absurd for us to engage in moral and ethical evaluation without first having some understanding of the very phenomena we are evaluating. And while McLuhan was not a scientist, he understood the value of withholding judgment, of dispassionate assessment, of objectivity as an ideal that we can never quite obtain but that we can still aspire to and approach. We begin by observation, by paying attention to our surroundings, by making the invisible environment visible.

But what happens after we gain some measure of understanding? What happens after we assess what is gained and what is lost, the functions and dysfunctions, the positive and the negative effects, the costs and the benefits? What happens when we have a handle on the complexity of the subject matter, and can weigh the desirable and the undesirable, the pluses and minuses, the uses and abuses? Then, and only then, can we proceed to evaluate the good and the bad, the ugly and the beautiful, the beneficial and the harmful qualities of any given medium. And based on that evaluation, we can then make decisions on whether to adopt or reject, reinvent or demolish, retrieve or rebuff, and we can make decisions as to what are the appropriate uses of the medium, the appropriate times and places and purposes. This is exactly what McLuhan envisioned as the goal of media ecology, to arrive at a thoughtful and deliberate deployment of our resources and capabilities, one that will enhance human life, and all life, spiritually as well as physically. In short, I do not believe that McLuhan and Postman were all that far apart after all.

But now I want to switch gears, and refer to another, earlier address that Postman gave. This one came almost thirty years before the founding of the MEA in 1998. The year was 1968, the date November 29th, the location Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and the occasion was the fifty-eighth annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English, and specifically a program entitled, Media Ecology: The English of the Future. The first time that the term media ecology appeared in print was in that convention program, but just about everyone who read the title would have had no idea what it meant until Postman delivered his address, which was titled, “Growing Up Relevant”; the address was later published under the title of "The Reformed English Curriculum" (Postman, 1968, 1970). And Postman did in fact present media ecology as the English of the future, that is, as a replacement for high school English. I should add that, as far as I know, no English teachers ever lost their job on account of it. But he did provide us with the first, and in my view the best, definition of media ecology, that it is “the study of media as environments” (Postman, 1970, p. 161). And he also explained,

An environment is, after all, a complex message system which imposes on human beings certain ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving. 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 (p. 161).

At this point, Postman could have added something along the lines of, an environment also specifies what forms of conduct are considered moral or ethical, and what will be deemed immoral or unethical . But for now, I want to return to the definition of media ecology as the study of media as environments, and suggest, as I have done in the past, that we can also add that media ecology is the study of environments as media (see Strate, 2017). What this further suggests is that environments are media, just as media are environments. That is, they are equivalent terms, referring to equivalent phenomena. And what we refer to as media and what we refer to as environments constitute the conditions we live under, the conditions we live in. That is why I gave my Media Ecology book the subtitle, An Approach to Understanding the Human Condition (Strate, 2017). In this, I took inspiration from the philosopher Hannah Arendt (1958), and her magnum opus, The Human Condition. Let me quote a passage from that work:

In addition to the conditions under which life is given to man on earth, and partly out of them, men constantly create their own self-made conditions, which, their human origin and their variability notwithstanding, possess the same conditioning power as natural things. Whatever touches or enters into a sustained relationship with human life immediately assumes the character of a condition of human existence. This is why men, no matter what they do, are always conditioned beings. Whatever enters the world of its own accord or is drawn into it by human effort becomes part of the human condition (p. 9).

What I want to take from Arendt first of all is that media and environments are conditions because they affect, influence, and shape us, or in the language introduced by Ivan Pavlov (1927, 1941), because we are conditioned by them. Arendt (1958) notes that we are conditioned by both the conditions of life on earth, and by the conditions we create as a species, that is, both by the natural and the artificial. Of course, the dichotomy between natural and artificial is a false one, for, as Lynn White, Jr. (1967) put it, “All forms of life modify their contexts” (p. 1203). And returning to the human condition, this means that we create the conditions that in turn condition us. This parallels John Culkin’s (1967) observation, that “we shape our tools and thereafter they shape us” (p. 52), itself a gloss on McLuhan's (1964) famous maxim, “the medium is the message” (p. 7). The changes that we introduce into our environment, that alter the environment, feed back into ourselves as we are influenced, affected, and shaped by our environment. The tools, technologies and techniques, the conditions that we make are used to create a buffer or shield against the conditions that we inherit, so that our self-made conditions are meant to stand between us and what we would consider to be the natural environment. In this sense, our self-made conditions mediate between ourselves and the pre-existing conditions that we operate under, which is to say that our conditions are media of human life. And in mediating, in going between our prior conditions and ourselves, the new conditions that we create become our new environment. And as we become conditioned to our new conditions, they fade from view; being routinized they melt into the background and become essentially invisible to us.

It is important to add that the conditions of life are not just those external to us, but those that are internal as well. Our own bodies are part of the human condition, as individuals and as a species, for example in the way that our sensory organs differ from other animals. So too are the things we put into our bodies, the food we cook, the medicine we produce, as well as the way that various technologies shape the human body, for example, the way that the posture of peasants working in the fields was changed by the hoe, or how reading changed the way we use our eyes, or the way that our digital devices are changing the shape of the back of our heads as we continually bow down to their screens. And the human condition also includes the intangibles that we internalize, like the languages and symbol systems that we learn, that change the way our minds function. Our conditions, our media, our environments, are inside of us as well as outside of us.

Additionally, we can divide the human condition into three basic categories. The only one that is more or less unique to our species is the symbolic, our capacity for language, our creation of art and music, our poetry and narratives, our myths and rituals, our construction of codes of communication and modes of representation. Our languages and symbol systems are media, and we live in symbolic environments that influence how we know about and act upon our world. The symbolic is what sets the human condition apart from those of other forms of life, that give us our capacity for what Alfred Korzybski (1950, 1993) termed time-binding, for the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next, for the potential for making progress, for making things better, not just materially, but also morally.

The second condition of human existence is the technological. Like all forms of life, we modify our environment, the only difference being the extent to which we have developed extensions of our own biology in doing so. These extensions include our tools, implements, and weapons, our machines, devices, and gadgets, our containers, architecture, villages and cities, our forms of communication and transportation, the materials that we use and the sources of energy that we employ. They also include the soft technologies, that is, our software and the instructions that tell us how to use our tools and devices, and our techniques and methods, our ways of getting things done. McLuhan (1964) helped us to understand that our technologies are media, in that they mediate between ourselves and our world, extending our senses through instruments like telescopes and microscopes, our power of action through our tools and machines and procedures, and our ability to limit our contact with the world by, for example, building walls, to bring up a subject of some controversy of late, and by clothing ourselves, the first human technology according to the Book of Genesis. That is why McLuhan argued that every extension is also an amputation. Put another way, our extensions, in extending us, come between us and our world, and in doing so cut us off from direct contact with our world. And whatever comes between us and our world, that is, whatever mediates between us and our world, becomes our world. Our mediations are what we know. They are all we know. Our extensions are our environment.

The third condition of human existence is the biophysical, which corresponds to what otherwise might be termed the natural environment, the conditions we identify with the hard sciences, with physics, chemistry, and biology. As Buckminster Fuller put it, “[the] universe is technology—the most comprehensively complex technology. Human organisms are Universe’s most complex local technologies” (Fuller & Applewhite, 1975, p. 17). Put another way, the universe is, from a scientific perspective, the ultimate environment, the ultimate medium, and human organisms are more modest forms of media, including the human body as an environment for the mind, as well as for the many cells and foreign organisms it contains.

At this point, I would like to suggest to you that McLuhan (1964) was too modest when he gave his book the title of Understanding Media, that it more accurately should have been called, Understanding the Human Condition. This would encompass understanding the human mind, and human behavior, human culture and society, and human history. It points to some of the fundamental questions that we ask, as media ecologists, which include, what does it mean to be human?, how can we retain our humanity as the conditions of our existence change due to technological innovation?, and what are the prospects for human survival, and indeed planetary survival, as we move into the future?

Turning now to the topic of ethics, first of all, I want to acknowledge that there are very distinct and important differences between ethics, morals, and laws, and it is not my intent to suggest otherwise. But, I am not going to concern myself with those distinctions in this discussion, and I hope you will forgive me for this blatant ethical lapse. And I apologize in advance for my mistakes in addressing the subject. But I will never apologize, I hope you understand, for addressing the subject as a media ecologist. As a media ecologist, the first question that comes to mind for me is, are ethics media? And as a media ecologist, the first answer that comes to mind is, sure, why not? This may sound a bit flippant, but what I am really asking is, are ethics a means of mediating between ourselves and our environment, including others who form part of our environment? And I think the answer to that question is clearly, yes!

I imagine some of you may be asking, if we consider ethics as a medium, what would be its content? The answer would be any specific act that would be subject to ethical evaluation. More importantly, though, would be the question, if the medium is the message, what is the message of ethics as a medium? This involves going beyond the particulars of any ethical system, to considering the presence of ethics, as opposed to their absence. And I think the answer has much to do with what it means to be human. The message of ethics is to be conscious of our conduct, rather than to act on impulse or instinct. To be purposeful in our actions, practicing self-control and aspiring to self-mastery. To be mindful of how our behavior is perceived by and affects others. The message of the medium of ethics is closely bound up with the basics of symbolic communication, first that there are rules to follow, which is to say a grammar to every situation. Second, that we can symbolize and therefore conceive of the highly abstract notion of negation; as Kenneth Burke (1966) put it, human beings are “the inventor of the negative” and “moralized by the negative” (p. 16); ethical codes are founded on the ability to just say no and specify a series of thou shalt nots. Third, as detailed by George Herbert Mead (1934), is the capacity for empathy, to feel what others are feeling and to imagine how others will react to our actions. Rules, negation, and empathy are fundamental aspects of the symbolic, and are the foundation of ethics as a medium.

As a medium, ethics also are influenced by different media environments. For example, under the conditions of what Walter Ong (1982) terms primary orality, the kind of media environment in which writing is essentially absent, ethical principles tend to be expressed not as abstract rules, but in the form of parables, concrete narratives such as Aesop’s fables, the parables of Jesus, or the story of Cain and Abel. They can be given mnemonic form as sayings and clichés, which in turn are often attached to narratives, for example, slow and steady wins the race as the moral of the fable of the tortoise and the hare. In oral cultures ethical codes are shared by all and strongly adhered to, but they are also particularistic, applied differently or not at all to outsiders as opposed to members of the group; for example, a basic principle is more likely to be love thy neighbor than love the stranger. Above all, in an oral media environment ethical codes will be flexible, just as the oral tradition they are a part of would be flexible. This means that they would easily change and adapt over time to meet changing circumstances, a characteristic Jack Goody (1977) referred to as homeostatic.

As we move from an oral to a chirographic media environment, we gain the ability to express ethical principles as abstract rules and formally established codes. For example, there is the Sixth Commandment, which is properly translated as, thou shalt not murder. As opposed to the concrete narrative of Cain and Abel, the Sixth Commandment provides no specific situations, no specific agents performing specific actions, just an absolute prohibition. Literacy also opens the door to philosophical investigations, which deal in high level abstractions, for example Plato and Aristotle trying to identify the essence of the quality we refer to as good. And abstract thinking allows for universal concepts of ethical conduct, principles, codes, and philosophies that apply to all human beings, not just the members of a particular society. As abstract principles are applied universally, they no longer benefit from group solidarity and in-group pressure to conform. And, as the literate mindset gives rise to individualism, the idea of individual decision-making in regard to ethical issues is introduced, as well as the inner-directed idea of the conscience. The written word also renders ethical precepts relatively rigid, in contrast to the flexibility of oral tradition. This in turn requires interpretation of the written text, as it is applied universally and widely disseminated over space, to disparate populations, and especially over time, as situations and the very language it is written in become increasingly more distant and alien. The need for interpretation is what gives us Talmudic scholarship, as well as various forms of exegesis, and hermeneutics. And it also leads to discussion, debate, and disputation in philosophy. While interpretation does not fully restore the homeostatic quality of oral cultures, it does lead to evolution and progress in moral philosophy and moral theology, especially as we move from chirographic to typographic media environments.

And now we come to the electronic media environment, and the present day. In contemporary postliterate cultures, abstract principles have been declining in significance in favor of more concrete expressions in the form of audiovisual media. The images we are shown, sometimes live, of actual events occurring all around the world, elicit powerful emotional responses, including moral outrage. Images of injustice, of moral and ethical violations with their villains and victims, lead to public outcry and demands for action. And while those cries and demands are not always met with appropriate or effective political response, at least some of the time they are. For this reason, Henry Perkinson (1991) argued that television has contributed to our moral progress. Moreover, he suggested that every innovation in communication makes humanity better because the new medium encodes the world in a new way, allowing us to learn new things about the world, and ourselves, thereby reducing mistakes, errors, and wrongdoing, and improving the human condition (1995, 1996). And while Perkinson’s point is well taken, it is also true that audiovisual media make it easier to manipulate our emotions, and the moral outrage that is generated is not always based on accurate information, or appropriate to the reality of the situation. The point is that images are a double-edged sword, and for good and ill both, they introduce a new, more concrete emphasis into our ethical experience (see Postman, 1979, 1982, 1985; Strate, 2014).

Having previously moved from particularism to universalism, we now seem to have moved on to relativism. Moral and cultural relativism in many ways represent a natural progression from print culture. The idea that ethical evaluation is a matter of individual conscience rather than collective concern suggests that ethics are entirely subjective. The truth or validity of ethical codes cannot be tested empirically, and therefore cannot be verified objectively. Scientific method can only be used to describe the ethical standards of individuals and groups, and therefore can only establish their intersubjective existence. Social and behavioral scientists, therefore, can describe ethical principles, but they cannot prescribe or proscribe them. And if there is no scientific way to determine whether any given ethical system is any better or worse than any other, then the logical conclusion is that every such system is equally valid. This is part of a larger phenomenon that Jean-François Lyotard (1984) referred to as the postmodern condition, which he associated with the disappearance of shared systems of belief, or metanarratives. Lyotard points to the electronic media as the cause of this postmodern condition, with special emphasis on the computer, but fails to provide a clear explanation for how this comes about. Perkinson (1996), however, does so in No Safety in Numbers, arguing that it is quantification, especially as amplified by computing, that is to blame. The problem with quantification is that it does not allow for qualitative decision-making, and ethics is entirely concerned with qualitative decision-making.

Over the course of the twentieth century, references to moral and ethical principles were to a large extent replaced by the concept of values. As a term derived from the social and behavioral sciences, values have the benefit of appearing neutral, and non-judgmental. At the same time, value is an economic metaphor, as we speak of the value of a house or car. And like monetary values, these kinds of values can be researched empirically and quantified. For example, I can present individuals with a list of values and ask them to rank them in order of importance. In this way, we can determine, for example, how muchhonesty is valued in relation to beauty and compassion, or whether freedom is valued more or less than equality. Values, along with the social science term norms, reduce questions of human conduct to subjective, or at best, intersubjective phenomena. This in turn leads to references to value judgements, a term that is often an expression of disapproval.

Again, there are positives and negatives to this development, but I do believe there is cause for concern as the combination of images and numbers push aside linguistic communication, leading to what Jacques Ellul (1985) called, The Humiliation of the Word. As with other aspects of literacy and typography, we find our long tradition of religious and philosophical ethics hard pressed to adapt to the realities of the contemporary electronic media environment.

Perhaps this is the reason for the various calls for character education that have gone out over the past several decades. Character is connected to Aristotle’s concept of ethos, which refers to people’s ethical standing within their community. Reputation was paramount in the classical tradition of ancient Greece and Rome, while the Judeo-Christian tradition came to emphasize inner character as well, the integrity of the individual, a measure of wholeness and consistency, conscience and conscientiousness. There is a clear nostalgia for this older sense of character that was once taken for granted, and for the qualities that went with it, known as virtues. By way of contrast, the postmodern person is a decentered subject, a saturated self, to use Kenneth Gergen's (1991) phrase, divided into a multitude of roles that need not be consistent with one another. We are only beginning to think about what kinds of ethical systems can be constructed for fragmented identities dispersed across a digital landscape.

If ethics in oral cultures are flexible and homeostatic, and in literate cultures become rigid and in need of interpretation, in electronic cultures they become dynamic and volatile. Whereas most ethical issues are eternal, for example whether to practice nonviolence or strike back at oppressors, our progress and accelerating rate of change leave us with a plethora of unprecedented problems, such as stem cell research, CRISPR gene editing performed on human embryos, algorithms regarding collisions programmed into self-driving cars, hacking into email accounts, and so on. In the absence of the clearly articulated principles found in literate cultures, and the strongly shared understandings found in oral cultures, ethical decisions are made in a vacuum, not according to a coherent code. Or as a code, the ethical decisions made today, especially by the tech industry, are the equivalent of speaking in tongues. The main guiding principle seems to be more. More speed. More information. More users. More eyeballs. More dependency. More profits. And the one underlying principle, as Ellul (1964) identified over a half century ago, is efficiency. More efficiency. More efficiency with no other end than, more efficiency.

In the face of all this, I would suggest to you that what we need is not just media ethics, but media ecology ethics. What that would entail goes well beyond my meager abilities to determine, but I may be able to offer some starting points. And the temptation is irresistible to begin with a variation on McLuhan’s famous maxim, in this instance stating that the medium is the morality. By this, I mean that every medium represents a particular set of moral and ethical questions, issues, and problems. For an example, I would point to Susan Sontag’s essays entitled On Photography (1977), and her later follow-up, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003). Does the camera carry with it a moral imperative to document events? How do we weigh the decision to take photographs as opposed to the need or desire to take action in a situation where that choice might make a difference? What are the ethical questions introduced by the practice of capturing the images of others? These are not questions unique to media ecology, but as media ecologists we can understand that these are questions unique to the particular medium, and that they need to be addressed with that understanding in mind.

In a book aptly entitled, Ends and Means, Aldous Huxley (2012) unequivocally states that, “the ends cannot justify the means, for the simple and obvious reason that the means employed determine the nature of the ends produced” (p. 10). And this clarifies the idea behindthe medium is the morality, because what we mean by medium is any means to an end. And a media ecology ethics would insist that we must always pay attention to how we do things, because how we do things will have much to do with what we end up doing, and what we end up with, and who we ultimately become. A media ecology ethics would insist that the phrase, by any means necessary, is inherently unethical, if not utterly abhorrent. A media ecology ethics would require the ends to determine the means, and would demand that, before a new medium or technology is adopted, there be an answer to the question, to what end? And if the answer is that it will increase efficiency in any area, a media ecology ethics would deem that insufficient as an end. As Ellul (1964) makes clear, efficiency is not a human purpose, it is simply the technological imperative, the logic of the means applied to the means itself, a meta-means if you like. Ellul’s arguments were very much on the mind of computer scientist and artificial intelligence pioneer Joseph Weizenbaum (1976) when he wrote Computer Power and Human Reason, and in that work, he used a word that we seldom hear nowadays, the word ought, and argued that it needs to be restored to our professional and personal vocabularies. He explained that we need to understand that just because we can do something does not mean that we ought to do it. Given limited time and resources, our efforts should be directed not at technological wizardry, but at solving real, human problems. And human standards ought to be employed in evaluating technical activities, to avoid the risk of dehumanization. For an example of the kinds of standards that ought to be applied, we could turn once again to Postman’s (2000) keynote address at the first MEA convention, where he posed the following four questions that need to be asked regarding any innovation: “To what extent does a medium contribute to the uses and development of rational thought?” (p. 13). “To what extent does a medium contribute to the development of democratic processes?” (p. 13). “To what extent do new media give greater access to meaningful information?” (p. 14). “To what extent do new media enhance or diminish our moral sense, our capacity for goodness?” (p. 15).

To go meta once again, the basis of a media ecology ethics would be to question, to encourage the asking of questions, and to promote the asking of good questions, especially questions about the means we employ, and questions about what we ought to be doing.

A media ecology ethics would require that context be taken into consideration. This is not meant to go to the extreme of situational ethics, but to acknowledge that both ends and means do not exist in a vacuum, and that meaning is also a function of context.

A media ecology ethics would place special emphasis on balance. Are we contributing to the balance of a system or destabilizing it? If balance is being disturbed, is it to foster growth in the face of unwanted stasis? Are we pursuing balance to achieve dynamic equilibrium or merely in automatic resistance to change? Are we enhancing the flexibility of the system? Are we creating or contributing to its sustainability? Is it to facilitate evolution in order to adjust to changes in the system’s environment?

It follows that evolution would also be a matter of ethical concern. Are we accepting the inevitability of change, transformation, and growth, rather than denying its existence? Are we seeking change for its own sake, rather than for the sake of making things better? Are we fostering the diversity necessary for evolutionary adaptation? Are we allowing for interdependence within the environment? Are we creating and maintaining an environment conducive to growth, maturation, intellectual development and creativity? Ong (1982) argues that human consciousness evolves, and we are in desperate need of that today. Are we creating conditions that would foster the evolution of consciousness, or hinder it?

Evolution is often associated with progress, and a media ecology ethics would neither dismiss progress as evil nor embrace it as an unmitigated good, but rather ask, are we contributing to progress not just in science and technology, but in human freedom and social justice? Progress in our political, economic, and social environments? Progress in our intellectual, aesthetic, creative, and emotional environments? Progress in human relations to match our progress in relation to the material world?

Progress depends on a concern with truth, with a recognition of facts and an acknowledgement of evidence, with the application of logic and the openness to refutation, with reality-testing and error-checking. This requires respect for science, as tentative and fallible, but as a very effective means of learning about our environment. Science not situated above human concerns, but in their service, and not in the service of ideology, theology, or expediency.

A media ecology ethics would be sensitive to concerns about time, along the lines that Harold Innis (1951) advocated for, understanding historical context, taking the long view, not giving in to the need for speed and immediacy.

A media ecology ethics would also be based on the conditions of our existence, which is to say that it would be concerned with the quality of our environments and, of course, our media. This would include the symbolic. Korzybski (1993), Postman (1976), and others, have advocated for the kind of language that improves the human condition, that accurately reflects our environment, that is not false or misleading, that enhances knowledge and education. Edmund Carpenter (1973) argued that preserving the many languages and cultures that have been disappearing over the years constitutes a moral imperative. In addition to McLuhan (1964), Lewis Mumford (1934, 1944, 1952), and many others have emphasized the importance of the arts. This would also include the technological, and Mumford (1934, 1967, 1970) powerfully defended what he termed the organic ideology of human-centered technology against what he termed the ideology of the machine, technologies that are fundamentally oppressive and dehumanizing. And the concept of organic ideology is a reminder that a media ecology ethics would also include the biophysical environment. This includes the ideal of living in harmony with nature; it would include environmental advocacy and activism, and efforts to build a sustainable future. It also means living in harmony with our biology, coming to terms with the limitations that the universe imposes on us, and accepting our own mortality, the finite nature of our existence. That is exactly the argument that Corey Anton makes so very cogently in his book, Sources of Significance (2010), which makes an essential contribution to our media ecology ethics.

In my view, media ecology ethics would be humane and humanistic while respecting the fact that we live in a more-than-human world, to use David Abram’s (1996) happy phrase. Media ecology ethics would be life affirming and life enhancing, open to change and making things better without placing us at odds with the universe, encouraging the evolution of consciousness, and yes, spiritual growth.

In 1968, Postman introduced media ecology as the name for a field that, he explained, had already long been in existence. By the same token, we can begin to address media ecology ethics by name with the understanding that this is a conversation that can be traced back to antiquity. In the Pirkei Avot or Ethics of Our Fathers, the following saying is attributed to Rabbi Tarfon: It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it . As media ecologists, we are not required to solve all of the world’s problems, including its ethical dilemmas. But neither are we excused from the effort to grapple with them, to contribute to our understanding of them, and to consider ways to address them. Let’s get to work.


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  • Lance Strate is Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University, one of the founders of the Media Ecology Association, and the author of seven books, including Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman's Brave New World Revisited (Peter Lang, 2014), Media Ecology: An Approach to Understanding the Human Condition (Peter Lang, 2017), and the poetry collection, Thunder at Darwin Station (NeoPoiesis, 2014). He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..