Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Media Ecology: Some Details Regarding My New Book

So, if you know me personally, or connect to me via Twitter, Facebook, or the Media Ecology Association's discussion list, this may not be news to you, but it's time to make the announcement here on Blog Time Passing, my official blog of record. And even if you have already got the message, I'll add some extra details that may make it worthwhile sticking around.

So here goes, drum roll and trumpets please: My new book, Media Ecology: An Approach to Understanding the Human Condition (New York: Peter Lang, 2017) is now in print and available for sale through Amazon and many other fine booksellers. Hurray!!!


And here's the publisher's write-up of the book, a bit of promotional hyperbole there, but still it will give you an idea of what it's about, in case that's not entirely clear:

Media Ecology: An Approach to Understanding the Human Condition provides a long-awaited and much anticipated introduction to media ecology, a field of inquiry defined as the study of media as environments. Lance Strate presents a clear and concise explanation of an intellectual tradition concerned with much more than understanding media, but rather with understanding the conditions that shape us as human beings, drive human history, and determine the prospects for our survival as a species.

Much more than a summary, this book represents a new synthesis that moves the field forward in a manner that is both unique and unprecedented, and simultaneously grounded in an unparalleled grasp of media ecology's intellectual foundations and its relation to other disciplines. Taking as its subject matter "life, the universe, and everything," Strate describes the field as interdisciplinary and communication-centered, provides a detailed explication of McLuhan's famous aphorism, "the medium is the message," and explains that the human condition can only be understood in the context of our biophysical, technological, and symbolic environments.

Strate provides an in-depth examination of media ecology's four key terms: medium, which is defined in much broader terms than in other fields; bias, which refers to tendencies inherent in materials and methods; effects, which are best understood via the Aristotelian notion of formal causality and contemporary systems theory; and environment, which includes the distinctions between the oral, chirographic, typographic, and electronic media environments. A chapter on tools serves as a guide to further media ecological research and scholarship. This book is well suited for graduate and undergraduate courses on communication theory and philosophy.

And you gotta have blurbs, so here are mine (and I really do appreciate them, thank you Julie, Paul, and Josh!):

With characteristic passion and soulfulness, Lance Strate embarks on a metatask: to synthesize thinking about ‘life, the universe and everything’ through the lens of media ecology. In the process, he locates media ecology as the dynamic shift between figure and ground and as the basis for ‘understanding the human condition.’ Writing with an almost disarming ease that belies the complexity of the ideas he communicates, Strate brilliantly and reflexively mediates media ecology itself, bringing clarity to the Kekulรฉ-like conundrums of an immense and increasingly relevant field. Anyone who thoughtfully enters and engages the environment of Strate’s book will be rewarded with moments of profound clarity, connecting ideas typically viewed as disparate or oppositional into patterns of deep understanding about media ecology―and about the process of living.―Julianne H. Newton, Professor of Visual Communication, University of Oregon 

Lance Strate’s synthetic thinking in Media Ecology: An Approach to Understanding the Human Condition opens up media ecology, allowing the reader to see how, as a field of inquiry, it applies to everything from language, media, and philosophy to our very understanding of what it means to be human living in a dynamic environment. Along the way Strate shows how media ecology connects with all the major approaches to communication study.―Paul Soukup, Professor and Chair, Department of Communication, Santa Clara University

Lance Strate asks big questions―and provides a myriad of perceptive answers. This book is at once playful, poetic, and precise. The clear writing about complex ideas is a pleasure to read and offers many gifts of understanding.―Joshua Meyrowitz, University of New Hampshire

And let me tell you about the cover. The publisher asked if I had  any instructions for the graphics designer, and I did have some ideas. One was the color, violet, like the color of the cover of Hannah Arendt's most influential philosophical work, The Human Condition:


While the color isn't exactly the same, it does evoke Arendt's work, and her understanding of the human condition serves as a foundation for my own media ecological discussion of the conditions of human life, which is another way of saying the environments that shape and are shaped by our species. 

As an added bonus, violet also has a connection to New York University, home of the original, late lamented Media Ecology Program founded by Neil Postman and Terry Moran, who were soon joined by Christine Nystrom. While NYU's colors are purple and white, their athletic teams are called the Violets, and according to the Wikipedia entry on the NYU Violets

For more than a century, NYU athletes have worn violet and white colors in competition, which is the root of the nickname Violets. In the 1980s, after briefly using a student dressed as a violet for a mascot, the school instead adopted the bobcat as its mascot, from the abbreviation then being used by NYU's Bobst Library computerized catalog.

Additionally, for a period of time, I would join Postman, Nystrom, and others for lunch or a snack at an NYU eatery called The Violet. But I should also note that the way the colors turned out in different shades, the cover also offers a hint of Fordham University's school colors, maroon and white. Again, however, my main goal was to pay homage to Hannah Arendt.

In addition to the color scheme, the use of the three internally tangential circles follows one of the main diagrams included in the book, one depicting the three basic human conditions or media environments (the biophysical as the outer ring, the technological inside of it, and the symbolic as the inner ring; I used internally tangential circles rather than concentric circles because I wanted a point of intersection between the three, rather than having the symbolic fully cut off and separated from the biophysical by being surrounded by the technological, because there is direct interaction between the biophysical and the symbolic).

The way the three circles are arranged is also meant to evoke another book cover, one of the many editions of Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, the most commonly cited work in the field of media ecology, and in many ways the work most central to it. The edition in question was one of the old pocketbook-sized paperback editions, with an image of a light bulb done up in Christmas-like colors:

I should note at this juncture that the original title I had in mind for this book was Understanding Media Ecology, and that goes back some two decades. But when I agreed to launch a new media ecology book series with the publisher Peter Lang,  they wanted a name for the series that would distinguish it from the Media Ecology series I had with Hampton Press, and I tossed out a few possibilities including Understanding Media Ecology, and that was the one they wanted to go with. So this book is, in fact, Volume 1 of Peter Lang's Understanding Media Ecology book series (this despite the fact that several books were published in the series prior to mine, a decision I had nothing to do with I hasten to add).

So I gave up my direct allusion to McLuhan's main work, and decided to go with a simpler and more direct title, Media Ecology. As for the subtitle, I use approach because it avoids the visual metaphor of perspective or even theory, as McLuhan and other media ecologists have been critical of the visualism of western culture, favoring acoustic metaphors instead; I also used this term because I wanted to place a certain degree of emphasis on media ecology as a method or way of understanding, a path, or tao if you like, and not just a field or intellectual tradition or set of theories. 

I did retrieve understanding in the subtitle to retain a connection to Understanding Media. And I had it read, An Approach to Understanding the Human Condition, to indicate the connection to Arendt, but also and perhaps more importantly to emphasize the fact that media ecology is about much more than media as the term is commonly understood. Indeed, media ecology is very much about the human condition, about the conditions that we exist within, that influence us, and are in turn influenced by us. Or to invoke Douglas Adams, as I do in the book, it's about life, the universe, and everything.

But back to what I was saying about the graphic design: I also suggested having the circles take up all or most of the front cover, and given their relative lengths, having my name in the innermost and smallest circle, having the book title in the middle circle, and having the rather longish subtitle in the outermost and largest circle. So, that was my input, and I am very, very pleased with the way it turned out. It's rather striking, don't you think?

Now, maybe you'd like to know a little more about the book before going ahead and buying it? To which, I respond, what's the matter, don't you trust me? But sure, I understand, so let's start with the book's own listings:

Does that help a bit? Maybe a little, but I bet a more detailed listing of the contents would be even better. I actually wanted to include a Table of Contents that included the breakdown by sections within each chapter, which I decided to number, following the example of Lewis Mumford in many of his books, but the publisher just went with the one I showed you above. (I have also incorporated the List of Illustrations here, which does appear in the book, and which are numbered according to their requirements, based on chapter number and order within the chapter.) What follows does not include the page numbers, since it was produced with the manuscript, before it went into page layout, but I think it will help provide more of a sense of what's in the book:


Figure 4.1 The Three Human Conditions/Media Environments
Figure 7.1 A Model of Communication Based on Formal Cause
Figure 8.1 The Ziggurat Model of the Oral Media Environment
Figure 8.2 The Ziggurat Model of the Chirographic Media Environment
Figure 8.3 The Ziggurat Model of the Typographic Media Environment
Figure 8.4 The Ziggurat Model of the Electronic Media Environment
Figure 8.5 The Alternate Ziggurat Model of the Electronic Media Environment
Figure 9.1 Pathways for Media Ecology Scholarship

 1: A First Word

Chapter 1   An Introduction
 1: Life, the Universe, and Everything
 2: Defining Media Ecology
 3: The Study and the Object of Study
 4: Field of Inquiry, Field of Study

Chapter 2   Intersections
 1: The Field of Communication
 2: Grammar, Linguistics, Semiotics, Aesthetics, Etc.
 3: General Semantics
 4: Information, Cybernetics, and Systems
 5: Media and Society
 6: Medium Theory
 7: Media Studies and Cultural Studies
 8: Human Ecology
 9: Psychology and Biology
10: Science and Technology Studies
11: History and Historiography
12: Futurology
13: Media Education and Media Literacy
14: Philosophy and Theology
15: Formalism and Materialities
16: Humanism
17: Technological Determinism
18: Praxis and Activism

Chapter 3   Understanding Media Ecology
 1: What Is Media Ecology?
 2: The Medium is the Message

Chapter 4   The Human Condition
 1: The Human Medium
 2: Nature and Culture
 3: The Technological Condition
 4: The Symbolic World

Chapter 5   Medium
 1: Understanding Media
 2: Media and Medium (A Note on Usage)
 3: From Printing to Mass Communication
 4: Transportation and Transmission
 5: Mediated Communication, New Media, Social Media
 6: Substance and Sensation
 7: Words
 8. Form
 9: Human Bodies as Media
10: Relationship
11: Technology and Technique
12: Environment and Process
13: Summation

Chapter 6   Bias
 1: The Bias of Communication
 2: The Nature of Bias
 3: The Myth of Neutrality
 4: Design and Function
 5: The Bias of the Medium

Chapter 7    Effects
 1: An Effects Tradition
 2: Impact and Ecology
 3: Some Basics Regarding Science and the Limits of Knowledge
 4: Causality
 5: Formal Cause
 6: Systems and Emergence

Chapter 8   Environment
 1: Me and Not-Me
 2: Ecosystems and Networks
 3: Towards a Media Eco-Logic
 4: Media Environments

Chapter 9   Tools
 1: Context Analysis
 2: Studying Media as Media
 3: Studying the Biases of a Medium
 4: Studying Effects
 5: Studying Environments

Chapter 10   Conclusion
 1: A Last Word


And while I didn't get my author's copies of the book until later, according to Amazon, the book was officially published on the Fourth of July. So I guess you could say it represents an Independence Day of sorts, maybe in some ways for media ecology, certainly for me. What I mean is that, over the years, I have encounter many misunderstandings about media ecology, as well as a number of objections to various aspects of our field, and the book incorporates my responses to those misunderstandings and objections, and hopefully answers them in a way that might put them to rest (probably not, given that it's hard to change people's minds, even in the face of rational argument and evidence, but hope springs eternal). So, along with being a summary and new synthesis intended to move the field forward, it should also serve as a defense against the dark arts that have been aligned against media ecology over the years.

I do feel a certain sense of obligation to my mentors, Neil Postman and Christine Nystrom, and especially to Chris who tried her best to present media ecology as a coherent and organized field, rather than simply a series of probes and percepts. And in that sense, this was a book that I needed to write. I kinda had the feeling that if I died before this book was completed, my shade would not be able to rest easy. Which is also why the book is by no means all that it could be, because I had to limit what I would cover and the amount of time I would put into it, or the book would never have been finished (not to mention that I had word count limits imposed by the publisher, which I significantly exceeded). But with this book, I do believe I have fulfilled the obligation that I felt to Chris and Neil (an obligation that they never placed on me I hasten to add), as well as to my colleagues, students, friend, and fellow travelers, to media ecologists present and future. Whew!

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