Twenty years ago I was asked to prepare an introductory reading list for the website that was set up for the newly formed Media Ecology Association, and that original annotated list can be found here. Much has changed in the world over the past two decades, but the media ecology intellectual tradition remains a book-oriented field that favors independent and insightful scholarship and commentary. This updated list includes many of the works that appeared on the original list because media ecology, as a curriculum, is a great books tradition. I have, however, replaced some of the books that appeared on the original list with others that are more recent and relevant, and I want to thank Corey Anton for feedback and suggestions that were incorporated into this revised set of readings.
I have also added several key works that were not included in the earlier list. Twenty years ago, it seemed best to confine the list to works dealing with media and technology, and not other forms of mediating that are very much a part of media ecology. Given the ways in which the field has evolved over time, I now think it important to expand the scope of this list.
In my introduction to the 1999 list, I wrote
I have endeavored, in the following list, to provide newcomers with a guide to basic readings in media ecology. For those already familiar with some of the scholars who share the media ecology perspective, this list may provide suggestions for further reading, as well as conveying a sense of the breadth of the field.… And while I trust this list provides a good representation of the media ecology perspective, I am certain that others familiar with the field would disagree with some of the selections I have included, and others that I have left out. I would therefore ask that you view the following… books less as canon, and more as fodder for further study.
Perhaps the biggest change that has occurred has been the publication of several works on the field of media ecology itself. This represents a new and significant category, so I will begin with these books (and I hope you will forgive me for including my own work on this list):
1. Lance Strate, Media Ecology: An Approach to Understanding the Human Condition (2017)
Intended to be an introduction to the field as well as a new synthesis, media ecology is presented here as an approach or method whose subject matter is the human condition in its entirety. Beginning with Neil Postman’s definition of media ecology as the study of media as environments, and noting that it is also the study of environments as media, this study delves into the meanings of the key term medium, the bias and effects of media, and the concept of environment, including the biophysical, technological, and symbolic.
2. Dennis Cali, Mapping Media Ecology: Introduction to the Field (2017)
The first textbook intended to introduce the field to undergraduates. There are chapters on “canonical figures” including Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, and Jacques Ellul, and others grouped around the key themes of orality-literacy studies, technology studies, culture studies, bias studies, and language studies.
3. Casey Man Kong Lum (ed.), Perspectives on Culture, Technology and Communication: The Media Ecology Tradition (2006)
An edited anthology with contributions by Neil Postman, Christine Nystrom, Clifford Christians, Paul Heyer, Bruce Gronbeck, Lance Strate, Thom Gencarelli, James Morrison, and others, focusing on key figures in the field, including McLuhan, Ong, Ellul, Lewis Mumford, Harold Innis, Neil Postman, James Carey, Benjamin Lee Whorf, Susanne K. Langer, and others.
4. Lance Strate, Echoes and Reflections: On Media Ecology as a Field of Study (2006)
The main part of the book consists of a review essay providing a very broad survey of books related to media ecology. The review is complemented by an essay exploring the sense of self in relation to language and orality and literacy, with special attention to autism.
These four books can serve as an introduction to the field for those interested in an overview and entrée into the intellectual tradition, but reading the primary sources is an essential component of a media ecology education. Here is my list of recommended readings, which can be pursued in any given order:
1. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964)
No single individual is more central to media ecology than McLuhan, not because he was the first to employ this perspective, but rather because he popularized the perspective, and produced the first great synthesis of media ecological thought. For some, McLuhanism or McLuhan Studies is sufficient in and of itself, and all the answers can be found in his writings. To others, it was the questions he asked that had the true significance, as he opened up a relatively new field of study, probed uncharted territories, and introduced many to the media ecology perspective in an exciting and inspiring manner. While there are some media ecologists who are highly critical of McLuhan, for the vast majority, it was this book that turned them on to the study of media as environments.
2. Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962)
Published just two years before Understanding Media, this book provides the historical and theoretical context upon which Understanding Media is based. Many consider this McLuhan’s most scholarly work.
3. Marshall McLuhan and Eric McLuhan, Laws of Media: The New Science (1988)
Published in 1988, almost a decade after Marshall McLuhan’s death, this book was originally intended to be a revision of Understanding Media. In this volume, the McLuhans present the tetrad, four laws of media that serve as a structure for analyzing the impact and significance of any medium or innovation. An important complement to this work, Media and Formal Cause, was published in 2011.
4. Harold Innis, The Bias of Communication (1951)
Often considered one of McLuhan’s most important influences and the founder of the Toronto School, Innis was a political economist who utilized historical and sociological approaches, as opposed to McLuhan’s emphasis on literature, art, and perception. This collection of essays, articles, and addresses includes both grand theory in a Hegelian mode and detailed studies of media and technologies’ interrelationships with social and cultural developments.
5. Harold Innis, Empire and Communication (1950)
Less well known than The Bias of Communication, this volume provides a more focused examination of the role of media and technology in the history of Western civilization, and particularly the ancient world.
6. Walter Ong, The Presence of the Word (1967)
Both a student and a contemporary of McLuhan’s, Ong is widely respected for his scholarship in literary studies and cultural history. In this work, he explores in some detail the characteristics of oral, scribal, print, and electronic psyches and societies. As a Jesuit, Ong also ventures into the theological implications of media ecology. Scholars familiar with Ong’s work consider this to be his most representative publication.
7. Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy (1982)
Published in 1982, this book serves as a review of this area of study, which has significant overlap with media ecology, as well as a review of Ong’s own work. More than anywhere else, Ong here emphasizes the gulf that exists between societies that have no form of writing and those that are fully literate. This volume is one of the most frequently cited in the media ecology literature.
8. Walter Ong (Thomas J. Farrell and Paul A. Soukup, eds.), An Ong Reader (2002)
A collection of many of Ong’s most important essays, from summaries of his seminal study of Peter Ramus to commentaries on information technology and digital communications.
9. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985)
No media ecologist outside of McLuhan himself has enjoyed Postman’s success as a writer. Postman was also the founder of the media ecology program at New York University. In this, his best known book, he both explains the perspective (under the guise of media epistemology) and uses it to critique the role of television in contemporary American culture. Amusing Ourselves to Death is one of the most frequently cited works in the media ecology literature, this is also the final work in Postman’s television trilogy, complementing Teaching as a Conserving Activity (1979) and The Disappearance of Childhood (1982).
10. Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1992)
In this book, Postman synthesizes the media ecology literature on technology and technological systems, again taking a critical stance on contemporary developments in the United States, including the advent of information technology.
11. Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969)
One of the most popular books that advocated education reform during the ’60s, this work is notable for its application and popularization of McLuhan’s media theory as well as Alfred Korzybski’s general semantics. Some have noted the contrast between the radical rhetoric contained in this 1969 book, and the cultural conservatism of Postman’s later writings, but of great significance is the consistency in the presence and development of the media ecology perspective. This volume also introduces the Sapir-Whorf-Korzbyski-Ames-Einstein-Heisenberg-Wittgenstein-McLuhan-et al. hypothesis.
12. Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (1934)
Mumford is, for many, the founder of the media ecology approach, even though he does not use the term “media” very much. In this volume, he presents a historical overview of the development of technology and its interrelationships with culture and society. Following in the tradition of human ecology, here he is cautiously optimistic about the potential of 20th century technologies such as electricity to reverse the effects of industrialism and aid in the construction of more humanistic environments. Of special note is his chapter on the origin and significance of the mechanical clock, and his contrast between mechanical and organic ideologies.
13. Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine, Volume One: Technics and Human Development (1967) and Volume Two: The Pentagon of Power (1970)
The two volumes combine technological history with sharptechnological criticism, as Mumford takes on the megamachine, from the pyramids to the space age.
14. Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (1954)
The most pessimistic of media ecologists, Ellul paints an Orwellian picture of western societies in this book. Rather than regarding technology as concrete tools and machines, Ellul focuses on technique as the ideology, metanarrative, or simply metaphysics of our age, one based on the sole criterion of efficiency.
15. Jacques Ellul, Propaganda (1962)
This work continues the argument begun in The Technological Society, specifying the role that media and communication play in establishing the reign of technique.
16. Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (1979)
In the media ecology literature, no single technology has been studied as deeply as Gutenberg’s printing press, and no study of typography has been as exhaustive as Eisenstein’s magnum opus. In this exemplary work of scholarship she marshals extraordinary evidence to support the contention that the modern age was made possible by print media.
17. Eric Havelock, Preface to Plato (1963)
Havelock’s field was Classics, and unlike many other media ecologists, he mostly confined himself to that one area. A pioneer in orality-literacy studies, he brings this perspective to bear in a comparison of the Homeric epics and the philosophy of Plato. Also worthwhile is his final work, The Muse Learns to Write: Reflections on Orality and Literacy from Antiquity to the Present, published in 1986.
18. Denise Schmandt-Besserat, How Writing Came About (1996)
Archeologist and art historian has been hailed as making one of the most important discoveries of the 20th century in uncovering the origins of writing. In this study, she discusses the connections between the origin of writing and accounting in Mesopotamia, and their link to linear thinking.
19. Edmund Carpenter, Oh, What a Blow that Phantom Gave Me! (1974)
A colleague and collaborator of McLuhan, Carpenter was an anthropologist who viewed media as “swallowing cultures whole.” In this work which follows up on McLuhan’s Understanding Media, he contributes a key comparative approach to the study of communication, perception, and culture.
20. Dorothy Lee, Freedom and Culture (1959)
Edmund Carpenter attributes many key insights that he and McLuhan shared to his fellow anthropologist, Dorothy Lee. This work collects many of her essays which emphasize linguistic relativism, as well as orality-literacy contrasts, and introduce the notion of linearity linked to written language.
21. Jack Goody, The Domestication of the Savage Mind (1977)
An anthropologist associated with orality-literacy studies, Goody’s research supports the media ecology perspective. This book is especially noteworthy for its discussion of the list as a product of written communication. Also significant are his later books, The Logic of Writing and the Organization of Society published in 1986, and The Interface Between the Written and the Oral published in 1987.
22. Joshua Meyrowitz, No Sense of Place (1985)
Meyrowitz introduces a strongly sociological synthesis of McLuhan and other media ecologists with Erving Goffman and the symbolic interactionist approach. He equates physical space and face-to-face situations with media by viewing both as information systems, thereby exploring the effects of the electronic media on identity (i.e., gender), role transition (i.e., childhood and adulthood), and authority (i.e., political leadership). This book introduces the term “medium theory,” which can be considered synonymous with media ecology, but tends to be used only in social science contexts.
23. James W. Carey, Communication as Culture (1989)
Carey makes Innis the central figure in his essays on “American cultural studies,” a term in some ways equivalent to media ecology. Carey favors a more particularistic approach to social science research, as opposed to the grand theories and criticism of many other media ecologists.
24. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (1968)
Benjamin is more typically identified with the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School and its descendent, cultural studies, but he has definite media ecological tendencies. Of particular note is his 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” originally published in 1936, one of the most influential articles published in our field. The book was edited with an introduction by philosopher Hannah Arendt.
25. Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1962)
Originally as The Image or What Happened to the American Dream, Boorstin draws upon Benjamin and in turn influences Postman in this critique of contemporary American culture that focuses on the “Graphic Revolution,” which gives rise to our image culture. Boorstin introduces the term pseudo-event here in reference to manufactured news, as opposed to events that would occur whether there were news media to report on them or not, and this book also includes the first major discussion of celebrity, which he contrasts to traditional concepts of the hero.
26. Susan Sontag, On Photography (1977)
Informed by both McLuhan and Benjamin, Sontag focuses on the camera’s effects on perception and culture in this 1977 collection of essays. A follow up to this work, Regarding the Pain of Others, was published by Sontag in 2003.
27. Tony Schwartz, The Responsive Chord (1974)
A McLuhan associate based in New York, Schwartz added the point of view of a media professional, based on his outstanding career in advertising, in applying and extending McLuhan’s ideas. Of particular importance is his concept of resonance as an alternative to transportation or pipeline views of communication.
28. Paul Levinson, The Soft Edge (1997) and Digital McLuhan (1999)
The first an overview of the history of media, leading up to the information revolution, emphasizing the evolution of media and technology in human environments, the second an explanation and application of McLuhan’s key concepts to new media, and what Levinson would later term, “new new media.”
29. Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation (1999)
Following up on McLuhan’s insight that media can take other media as part of their content, Bolter and Grusin explore the ways in which media remediate their other, either by way of following a pattern of transparent immediacy or a reflective hypermediacy.
30. Susanne K. Langer, Philosophy in a New Key (1941).
An important influence on Postman and others, this book is noteworthy for her discussion of symbolic form, and the distinction between discursive and presentational symbols, e.g., words and images. Langer emphasizes the differences between different types of symbol systems and art forms, with special emphasis on music and myth. A follow up to this work, Feeling and Form, was published in 1953.
31. Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972)
Bateson serves as a bridge between the information theory of Claude Shannon, the cybernetics of Norbert Wiener, and the emerging systems view of the postwar-WWII era that brings an ecological perspective to bear on any and all subject matter. The essays in this collection address a variety of subjects, including communication, biology, psychiatry, anthropology, and more. A follow up to this volume was published in 1979 under the title, Mind and Nature. Also worthy of note is the co-authored volume, Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry by Jurgen Ruesch and Gregory Bateson, published in 1951.
32. Paul Watzlawick, Don D. Jackson, and Janet Beavin Bavelas, Pragmatics of Human Communication (1967)
A systematic introduction to Bateson’s perspective, emphasizing the distinction between the content and relationship levels of communication, or communication and metacommunication, as well as the distinction between digital and analogical codes.
33. Edward T. Hall, The Silent Language (1959) and The Hidden Dimension (1966)
As an anthropologist, Hall was significant for defining culture as communication, and analyzing different aspects of culture as forms of language. Also incorporating the study of nonverbal communication in The Silent Language, Hall turned to the study of space in The Hidden Dimension, coining the term proxemics, and the popular phrase personal space. These books influenced McLuhan’s work, and Hall followed them up with Beyond Culture in 1976, and a book on the human use of time, The Dance of Life, in 1984.
34. Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1956)
A highly influential book that analyzes face-to-face situations from a social psychology approach. Following in the tradition of symbolic interactionism of George Herbert Mead, Goffman’s dramaturgical analysis is concerned with the ways in which people perform roles, the use of front and back regions (the equivalent of onstage and back stage), and the art of impression management. A worthwhile supplement would be Strategic Interaction, published in 1969.
35. Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae (1990)
Paglia links art and ritual in her historical examination of western culture. Identifying herself with North American intellectual tradition exemplified by McLuhan, her work draws on Freud in understanding biology and sexuality as, in effect, media, as well as art. Also, her contrast between the Dionysian and Apollonian correspond to that of orality and literacy.
36. Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics (1993)
In graphic novel format, this book shows as well as tells the reader all about the comics medium, and also serves as a fine introduction to visual communication in general. McCloud followed up this work with Reinventing Comics in 2000, and Making Comics in 2006.
37. Julianne Newton and Rick Williams, Visual Communication (2006)
An introduction to art and graphics with an emphasis on the role of media, and the underlying biology of perception. Newton and Williams are influenced by McLuhan and also the psychoanalytic understanding of archetypes associated with Carl Jung.
38. Douglas Rushkoff, Media Virus (1994) and Coercion (1998)
Rushkoff has written a number of popular works on the contemporary media environment. Media Virus takes up the topic of memes as a product of mediated communication, and introduces the viral metaphor. Coercion provides a critique of marketing and promotion in the age of new media.
39. Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela, The Tree of Knowledge (1984)
A treatise on knowledge, understanding, and cognition from the biologists and systems theorists who coined the term “autopoiesis.”
40. David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous (1996)
A philosopher’s phenomenology of the senses, and orality-literacy contrasts.
41. Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid (2000)
An accessible discussion of the effects of literacy on brain structure and function, based on neurological research. Wolf’s book provides scientific support for many of the insights previously put forth by McLuhan, Ong, and others. She followed up this work with Reader, Come Home in 2018.
42. Sherry Turkle, Alone Together (2011)
Turkle provides an incisive critique of AI and robotics, and social media, based on interviews and observation. This book was followed up by Reclaiming Conversation in 2015.
43. Corey Anton, Communication Uncovered (2011)
A collection of essays based on media ecology and general semantics, emphasizing the role of language and the interplay of symbols.
44. Langdon Winner, The Whale and the Reactor (1986)
As a political scientist, Winner examines the relationship between politics and technological change.
45. Don Ihde, Technology and the Lifeworld (1990)
Ihde is a noted philosopher of technology and phenomenologist, and this work represents his most accessible work on understanding technology.
46. Wendell Johnson, People in Quandaries (1946)
The introduction to general semantics favored by Postman among others, this book is particularly helpful in introducing the key concept of abstracting, and the importance of operational definitions, as well as the idea of the semantic environment. The sections towards the end of the book relating to speech pathology should be discounted, however.
47. Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings (1950)
An accessible introduction to cybernetics, the forerunner of systems theory and an important component of ecological thinking.
48. Jeremy Campbell, Grammatical Man (1982)
A popular introduction to information theory, with a connection to linguistics.
49. Ray L. Birdwhistell, Kinesics and Context (1970)
Paralleling the work of Edward T. Hall, this anthropological study provides the basis for what is popularly known as “body language” (specifically, human body motion), which can translate to the body as a medium, relating nonverbal communication to sense perception and to cross cultural contrasts and comparisons.
50. Christine Nystrom, Towards a Science of Media Ecology: The Formulation of Integrated Conceptual Paradigms for the Study of Human Communication Systems (1973)
A doctoral dissertation completed in 1973, this is the first major examination of media ecology as a field of study, by way of comparison with systems theory. Two volumes of Nystrom’s work are in preparation for publication, and will include relevant excerpts from this study.