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Technology, Media Literacy, and the Human Subject

Richard S. Lewis

Part I. Situating the interdisciplinary concepts

3. Understanding the Medium Through the Technological Relation

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1 Human subjects are inundated with new mediums of technology, both of the hardware variety (smartphones, smartwatches, digital home assistants) and software infrastructures (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat). What elements go into our decisions to invite any of the plethora of choices we have into our lives? How can we go beyond the promised benefits of the technologies and become more aware of the possible downsides—the constraints—that these technologies always bring with them?

2In order to begin developing a more inclusive and situating approach for media literacy, the first step is to better understand the effects that the technological medium plays in the constitution of not only media messages but also the constitution of the human subject. To be clear, my intent is to complement media literacy, not to replace what media literacy already does so well (cf. the four approaches in the previous chapter). Media literacy should continue with its varied approaches towards media messages and skills-based media literacy. However, attending to the effects of the medium can help make media literacy a more robust and effective field of inquiry.

  • 1 A good starting point for media ecology is: Anton, 2016; McLuhan, 1994; Postman 1974, 2006; Strate  (...)

3In this chapter I explore the effects of the technological medium through two aspects. The first uses postphenomenology to better understand technological mediation—how our specific relations with technologies transform not only the media messages, but our own selves. The second uses media ecology to understand the technological medium as an environment of complex relations. The first aspect is a micro approach and the second a macro approach. Concepts from each of the two fields are brought together to help create a way to understand the posthuman subject that is developed later in Chapter 4. This chapter is not meant to be an extensive review of either postphenomenology or media ecology, as there are many excellent resources that do this already.1 Rather, I extract concepts from them to begin a holistic investigation of the technological medium, which is not sufficiently developed in media literacy.

In Medias Res2

  • 2 Latin for ‘in the middle of things’. It is also the name of the Media Ecology Association’s newslet (...)

4To better understand the human subject that is transformed by media relations, it is beneficial to begin by explaining the relations with technologies that contribute to the subject’s constitution. I therefore begin in the middle, in medias res. This is apropos when discussing the in-between of mediation—how media technologies constitute our selves by being in between the world and us. However, in order to refrain from falling into a Cartesian subject/object duality, the relation is not something that comes in between two already established entities (cf. Lemmens, 2017; Smith, 2015; Van Den Eede, 2012; Verbeek, 2005), but rather the relation and entities are constituted through the act of relating. The subject is not the standalone humanist subject from the Enlightenment and modernity but a posthuman subject (cf. Chapter 4) that experiences ongoing constitution through its ever-changing relations. It is this constituting relationality that is the foundational building block for the approach I develop. These relations mediate and co-constitute the world and our selves, and as Sonia Livingstone (2009) posited, ‘everything is mediated’ (4).

Micro and Macro Approaches

  • 3 While the plural of medium is media, I am using media to refer mainly to the content-focused media (...)
  • 4 John Peters (2015) wrote an excellent book on Elemental Media that is directed at some of the non-t (...)

5The focus of this chapter is on understanding the mediums3 of media technologies. While not all mediums of media communications are technological,4 the focus of my research is directed toward the ones that are, especially the digitally networked variety that are currently so prevalent. In order to understand these technological mediums, it is helpful to have a firm grasp of the concept of perception. According to Maurice Merleau-Ponty (2002: 373),

The thing is inseparable from a person perceiving it, and can never be actually in itself because its articulations are those of our very existence, and because it stands at the other end of our gaze or at the terminus of a sensory exploration which invests it with humanity.

6Perception is never passive; rather, it is active and constructive. It is an embodied process, as Merleau-Ponty (2002) describes: ‘a theory of the body is already a theory of perception’ (235). It is not the body alone, but the entanglement of our bodily sense with our sociocultural situatedness, what Don Ihde (1990, 2002) calls macroperception. Ihde (1990) devotes the second half of his seminal work, Technology and the Lifeworld, to this concept of macroperception, which he also refers to as cultural hermeneutics. He further develops the concept of cultural hermeneutics in Bodies in Technology (2002) through the concept of ‘body two’. This idea is similar to Michel Foucault’s (1995) concept of a culturally constructed body, as opposed to ‘body one’, which is ‘the located, perceiving active body’ (Ihde, 2002: xviii). Ihde continues by saying, ‘Traversing both body one and body two is a third dimension, the dimension of the technological’ (xi). Researchers within the field of postphenomenology investigate how technologies mediate and constitute bodies one and two.

7Body two—or the macroperceptual—is used to understand how cultural relations influence our technological relations. For instance, different cultures have different approaches towards time. The clock in China was invented (circa 1077), ‘not for telling hours but for setting the astrological calendar for an Imperial need’ (Ihde, 1990: 130). Ihde explains (1990: 29),

There is no microperception (sensory-bodily) without its location within a field of macroperception and no macroperception without its microperceptual foci. The relation between micro- and macroperception is not one of derivation; rather, it is more like that of figure-to-ground in that microperception occurs within its hermeneutic-cultural context; but all such contexts find their fulfillment only within the range of microperceptual possibility.

8While postphenomenology does discuss macroperception, it most often stays grounded in an embedded and embodied perspective, analyzing the enabling and constraining aspects of mediating technologies. Unlike media ecology, postphenomenology generally stays clear of making sweeping statements concerning the effects and biases of technologies. For the most part, researchers in the field avoid criticizing technologies, which has caused some to criticize or challenge postphenomenology to be more critical (cf. Borgmann, 2015; Feenberg, 1999; Lemmens, 2017; Michelfelder, 2015; Scharff, 2006; Smith, 2015). Technologies are viewed as being multistable, meaning they are never just one thing; they are always able to be used in multiple ways, which is why postphenomenology usually keeps to describing technological relations instead of judging them.

9Media ecology, on the other hand, most often looks with a macro lens at the broad influences that the mediums of media have on individuals and cultures. Lynn Clark (2009) describes how ‘the role of media in social change is a primary concern in media ecology’ (12). Media ecologists tend not to shy away from making sweeping statements concerning the effects and biases of a medium’s influence on individuals and cultures. This does not mean that researchers in media ecology do not pay attention to the micro level, especially when they focus on media education. Marshall McLuhan et al. (1977) demonstrate this micro approach in City as Classroom. However, on the whole media ecology is an effective field of study for looking broadly at the effects of media technologies. While there has not been much interaction between the media ecology and postphenomenology (Van Den Eede, 2016), there has recently been a tentative bridge developing between the two (Irwin, 2016; Ralón, 2016; Van Den Eede, 2016), where scholars are exploring their conceptual commonalities.

10Ihde (1990) points out that the micro and macro are not discrete or exclusively binary positions. They can both be used in order to contribute important ways of considering the effects of media technology. Looking into specific technologies, such as speed bumps, hammers, smartphones, or typewriters, we should keep both micro and macro perspectives in mind. A smartphone is multistable, with various—but not infinite—possible ways of being used in particular situations. At the same time, we can look through a macro lens and see how the smartphone, widely speaking, has transformed both individuals and cultures. Both perspectives together offer an inclusive understanding of the impact of media technologies. I begin by discussing concepts from postphenomenology and then discuss concepts from media ecology.

Postphenomenology and the Technological Relation

Postphenomenology is the practical study of the relations between humans and technologies, from which human subjectivities emerge, as well as meaningful worlds. As a result of this practical and material orientation, postphenomenology always takes the study of human-technology relations as its starting point. (Rosenberger & Verbeek, 2015: 12–13)

11Like much of media literacy, postphenomenology is pragmatic and often grounded (embedded and embodied) in the user’s experience. Arising from philosophy of technology, postphenomenology uses several concepts that can be beneficially applied to media literacy, specifically: 1) non-neutral technological mediation; 2) sedimentation; and 3) multistability. I first situate postphenomenology and its concept of the non-neutral, co-constituting technological relation. As the co-constituting relation is the foundational component from which I formulate the posthuman approach, I discuss it in detail. I then introduce the concept of sedimentation and how it relates to time and transparency. Finally, I discuss the concept of multistability, which is a key concept that pushes back against an essentialist approach to understanding technology.

Situating Non-neutral Human-Technology Relations

  • 5 However, Smith (2018) writes, ‘there is no reason why this turning towards the empirical has to occ (...)
  • 6 For some examples, see: Boltin, 2017; Ihde, 1990, 2002, 2012; Ihde & Selinger, 2003; Irwin 2014, 20 (...)

12Postphenomenology has grown out of the empirical turn, which shifts ‘away from’ transcendental and reifying approaches to technology5 and moves instead toward an empirical approach (see Achterhuis, 2001; Kroes & Meijers, 2001; Smith, 2015, 2018). In order to create postphenomenology, founder Ihde (1990, 2012) builds on the concept of phenomenology and adds pragmatism, which helps to empirically ground research on technology and avoid making sweeping claims (mostly negative) in an essentialist manner. This is in contrast to Martin Heidegger (1977), Jacques Ellul (1964), and others, who have tended to approach technology in a more reified and deterministic way. Postphenomenologists6 often explore the specific constituting relations that occur between subjects and technological objects, such as ICTs, helping to dissolve a strict duality between the two and working to describe how technologies co-constitute both subjects and the world.

Neutrality, Determination, and Agency

[I] n each set of human technology relations, the model is that of an interrelational ontology. This style of ontology carries with it a number of implications, including the one that there is a co-constitution of humans and their technologies. Technologies transform our experience of the world and our perceptions and interpretations of our world, and we in turn become transformed in this process. Transformations are non-neutral. (Ihde, 2009: 44)

13This quote from Ihde (2009) refers to an interrelational ontology, meaning that humans are relational; we are always being constituted through our relations. Furthermore, these relations are non-neutral; they influence us and contribute to constituting our subjectivity, although they are not completely determining. Because our relations constitute us, when our relations change, we change. This change is always non-neutral, meaning it transforms the way we perceive and interact with the world (cf. Lewis, 2020). Both Bruno Latour (1999) and Ihde (2003) describe this concept by referencing the gun debate in the U.S. and the attitude reflected by the slogan of the National Rifle Association (NRA), guns don’t kill people, people kill people. This slogan represents a neutral view of technology, one where the technology does not affect any change in the individual subject. The complete opposite (deterministic) view places all the blame on the guns.

14The non-neutral approach suggests the understanding that once I have a gun, I am transformed. Neither I, nor the world around me, are the same. The gun does not completely determine my actions (as technological determinists might contend) nor is the gun a completely neutral object (as the NRA might contend). This holds true for ICTs such as a smartphone. I am a different traveler if I have a networked smartphone than if I travel without one. My actions are not determined by the smartphone, but they are influenced.

15One way of understanding the non-neutrality of technologies is through the concept of shared agency. In a neutral view of technology, the user has complete agency. In a determined understanding of technology, the user has little to no agency. The non-neutral approach to technology represents the middle ground of a shared agency between humans and technologies (Ihde, 1990; Latour, 1999; Pickering, 1995; Puech, 2016; Verbeek, 2005). As Robert Rosenberger and Peter-Paul Verbeek (2015) offer, ‘Agency, then, is not an exclusively human property anymore: it takes shape in complicated interactions between human and nonhuman entities’ (20). Andrew Pickering (1995, 2005) refers to this as the dance of agency.

16One of the strengths of postphenomenology is how its approach helps researchers to analyze relations with specific technological objects and describe what is enabled and what is constrained (cf. Ihde, 1990; Kiran, 2015; Rosenberger, 2012; Van Den Eede, 2012; Verbeek 2005; Wellner, 2016). Postphenomenology helps to shed light on effects that might be hidden or have become transparent through habitual use of technologies and to understand how we, and our lifeworlds, are transformed by those technologies. As Ihde (1990) notes, ‘There is no “thing-in-itself”. There are only things in contexts, and contexts are multiple’ (69). In other words, objects are always situated objects-in-relation.

The Relation as Building Block

17In order to create an approach to help media literacy become more effective, I begin with a foundational component: the relation. In this chapter I will specifically focus on the technological relation. There are three interconnected aspects that comprise a relation. In Chapter 5 I will expand this to include five other groupings of relations beyond the technological. Though I discuss them one at a time, it is important to note that they become part of a whole as the relation occurs. This is similar to Karen Barad’s (2007) use of the concept of phenomena: ‘phenomena are the ontological inseparability of agentially intra-acting components [… which are] basic units of reality’ (33). In other words, the basic unit of the phenomenon is comprised of (at least) two things in relation, which are intra-acting (or co-constituting in postphenomenological terms). Barad points out, ‘the “distinct” agencies are only distinct in a relational, not an absolute, sense, that is, agencies are only distinct in relation to their mutual entanglement; they don’t exist as individual elements’ (33, italics in original).

18Because this co-constituting relation is the core concept upon which I design the approach, I have designed a symbol to demonstrate, in one holistic view, the significant components (see Fig. 3.1). This loosely builds on the idea of entangled particles and waves that are explored in quantum mechanics (Barad, 2007). I equate the ‘particles’ with the human and technology, and I equate the ‘wave’ with relationality that connects and (at least in part) constitutes the two. The Deltas (the triangles), used in mathematics to represent change, represent the change that occurs for both the subject and technological object, as a specific relation (represented by the wave) between them is enacted.

Fig. 3.1 Symbolizing the Co-constituting Relation. Image by author (2021), CC BY 4.0.

Fig. 3.1 Symbolizing the Co-constituting Relation. Image by author (2021), CC BY 4.0.

19While postphenomenology uses a hyphen to signify the relation between the human and technology (human-technology), this leaves more chance to potentially misinterpret the relation as a subject-object duality, especially from outside of the field. The relation demonstrated in Figure 3.1 is the actual irreducible building block from which our lifeworlds and our selves are constructed. From this relation we can begin investigating the mediating relations.

Technological Mediation: Four Types

20In postphenomenology the fundamental concept of technological mediation is represented by the formula, I-technology-world (Ihde, 1990; Rosenberger & Verbeek, 2015). While the term ‘mediation’ highlights the in-between role that technology performs between a person and the world (Van Den Eede, 2011), several postphenomenologists point out that the term can erroneously imply that the person and the world are already independently established before the mediation takes place. Instead, it is more appropriate to understand that both subject and world (as well as the specific technology) are constituted through the mediating role of the technology (cf. Fig. 3.2). There is a transformation of subject and world that takes place when relation occurs, what Barad (2007) calls intra-action. As Peter-Paul Verbeek (2005) states, ‘When analyzing the mediating role of artifacts, therefore, this mediation cannot be regarded as a mediation “between” subject and object. Mediation consists in a mutual constitution of subject and object’ (130). This constituting role of technological mediation is how I define the word mediation throughout this book.

Fig. 3.2 Symbolizing the Co-constitution of Technological Mediation. Image by author (2021), CC BY 4.0.

Fig. 3.2 Symbolizing the Co-constitution of Technological Mediation. Image by author (2021), CC BY 4.0.

21With the building block of the relation explained, I will now discuss the types of relations described by postphenomenology. Ihde (1990) specifies four types of technological relations (embodied, hermeneutic, alterity, and background) in order to more specifically describe the general I-technology-world formula.

22Embodied Relation. The first relation, embodied, describes the mediating relation where we perceive, or interact with, the world through the technology. The classic example is a pair of eyeglasses. Our focus is not on the glasses (unless there is something wrong with them), but the view through them. By wearing glasses, our perception of the world is mediated and transformed, both in an enabling way (things become clearer) and a constraining way (they are a weight on our face; we need to take care of them and keep them clean; and they are breakable). In this relation, the technology has the tendency of becoming transparent (cf. below), as our intention moves through the technology towards something else. This relation is revisited in chapter five, as it is a key component of the framework developed.

23Hermeneutic Relation. The second relation is a hermeneutic relation. This is where we read the technology in order to get a new understanding of the world. Robert Rosenberger and Verbeek (2015) describe how ‘the user experiences a transformed encounter with the world via the direct experience and interpretation of the technology itself’ (17). The common example for the hermeneutic relation is the thermometer. We read the technology in order to gain an understanding of the world (how cold or warm it is). The thermometer mediates our understanding of the world and we gain insight without necessarily feeling or sensing the temperature directly.

24Alterity Relation. The third type of relation is called alterity, where the technology becomes a quasi-other. Evan Selinger (2012: 6) describes alterity relations as,

when we enter into practices with artifacts that display the feature of ‘otherness’ (i.e., an evocative quality that transcends mere objecthood but resonates with less animateness than actual living beings such as people or animals). Unlike embodiment relations and hermeneutic relations, alterity relations focus attention upon the technology itself.

25Examples of this relation include video games and ATM machines. This is the one relation where the intentional focus is on the technology itself.

26Background Relation. The final relation is described as background relations. These are relations that affect us but we are mostly unaware of them, such as the heating and cooling system in our house. We set the thermostat, and as long as the system operates properly, we do not pay much attention to it. These are the four traditional types of relations described in postphenomenology. Occasionally, researchers suggest new relations, such as Verbeek’s (2008) cyborg relation or Galit Wellner’s (2017a) writing relation. Verbeek (2015) also describes immersion relations which describe smart interactive background technologies and augmentation relations which cover augmented reality, such as Google Glass.

Sedimentation and Multistability

27There are two concepts that are important for the development of the posthuman approach: sedimentation and multistability, both of which concern perception. Sedimentation brings in an aspect of time, referring to how our past experiences with technologies affect the way we interact with those technologies. This often leads towards a type of transparency that occurs, where we simply use the technologies without needing to focus on them. Multistability refers to the way technologies are never simply one thing; they can be used and perceived in multiple stable ways.

Sedimentation’s Impact on Transparency

28The concept of sedimentation comes from phenomenology. Sedimentation is the idea that our past experiences with a phenomenon influence our current experiences of the same phenomenon (Husserl, 1973; Merleau-Ponty, 2002). Merleau-Ponty (2002: 149–50) states that our previous experiences offer,

a ‘world of thoughts’, or a sediment left by our mental processes, which enables us to rely on our concepts and acquired judgments as we might on the things there in front of us […] without there being any need for us to resynthesize them. […] But the word ‘sediment’ should not lead us astray: this acquired knowledge is not an inert mass in the depths of our consciousness.

29Rosenberger (2012) uses sedimentation ‘to refer to the particular level of habit, the particular degree to which the past provides meaning to the present, in a given human–technological relation’ (85). Sedimentation also ‘provides the pre-perceptive context that enables our current perceptions to occur with immediate meaningfulness’ (Rosenberger & Verbeek, 2015: 25). Sedimentation brings into the conversation the concept of time and how our past experiences contribute to the way mediating technologies currently constitute us. This temporal component is developed in more detail in chapter five.

  • 7 For a more thorough discussion into various approaches to transparency, see Van Den Eede (2011).

30Our experiences with technologies become sedimented within us the more we use them, eventually causing a technological object that we are using to recede into the background, becoming at least partially transparent. Transparency7 is a term used in philosophy of technology to describe,

the degree to which a device (or an aspect of that device) fades into the background of a user’s awareness as it is used. As a user grows accustomed to the embodiment of a device, […] the device itself takes on a degree of transparency. (Rosenberger & Verbeek, 2015: 14)

31Merleau-Ponty (2002), along with several other scholars (Dreyfus & Dreyfus, 1986; Heidegger, 2010; Ihde, 1990; Van Den Eede, 2011; Verbeek, 2012), use various examples to describe the different ways technologies can become transparent. Merleau-Ponty describes the blind man’s stick and how it is not an object that is perceived by the blind person using it; rather, the person uses it as an extension of their self. The stick becomes ever more transparent as an object as it is used to sense the world.

32Heidegger (2010) refers to this transparency when he describes the hammer as being ready-to-hand (zuhanden), where a person simply uses it for their purpose and does not attend to the tool itself. For Heidegger, ‘the tool or equipment in use becomes the means, not the object, of the experience’ (Ihde, 1990: 32). This changes only if the tool is broken or in some way disrupts a person’s use of it, thereby changing to a presence-at-hand (vorhanden).

33While Ihde (1990) concurs with Heidegger’s assessment, he believes that there are more nuanced ways of describing our technological relations. His four relations (cf. above) back this up. His embodied and hermeneutic relations can be considered similarly to Heidegger’s zuhanden, where a person engages with the world through the technology and the technology is mostly transparent. However, Ihde describes alterity relations with technology as a way of engaging with technology itself, even when it isn’t broken.

34A common example of sedimentation and transparency is the first time we drive a car; our concentration is almost completely focused on the car as we attempt to operate it. However, as we become more and more habituated through experience, the car begins to become ‘transparent’, receding into the background of our awareness and transforming into an extension of our selves while we use it to move from one place to another (Dreyfus & Dreyfus, 1986; Merleau-Ponty, 2002; Verbeek, 2012). This transparency contributes to the difficulty of being aware of the effects of how media technologies affect us.

Multistability of Technology

35Perception is the cornerstone to phenomenology (cf. Merleau-Ponty’s, 2002) as well as postphenomenology (cf. Ihde, 1990, 2002). Ihde (1990) uses the Necker cube (see Figure 3.3) to begin his explanation of the multistability of perception, which leads to his concept of the multistability of technology.

36As Ihde (1990: 145) explains,

The Necker cube is an ambiguous perceptual object, essentially bi-stable, in which (a) the uppermost part of the figure is seen as the far corner of its top face; but, through a ‘spontaneous’ gestalt switch, (b) the uppermost part is seen as the near corner of its top face, with a second three-dimensional stability. These two variations may switch with each other in the viewer’s gaze, in a set of alternations distinct from one another, exclusive but related as three-dimensional appearances of a cube.

Fig. 3.3 Necker cube. Named after Louis Albert Necker. Image by BenFrantzDale (2007), Wikimedia,​wiki/​File:Necker_cube.svg#/​media/​File:Necker_cube.svg, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Fig. 3.3 Necker cube. Named after Louis Albert Necker. Image by BenFrantzDale (2007), Wikimedia,​wiki/​File:Necker_cube.svg#/​media/​File:Necker_cube.svg, CC BY-SA 3.0.

37Ihde continues to go beyond the two variations of perception (bi-stability) that are the most common to the Necker cube and describes a way of perceiving the cube as an insect as well as two variations of a weirdly cut gem (145–46).

  • 8 McLuhan et al. (1977) also point this out in their explanation of figure and ground.

38Ihde’s point is that we have the ability to perceive things—specifically, technologies—in multiple stable ways. We can perceive something in a stable way, but then we can change our perception and see it in a different stable way. Multistability is a core concept in postphenomenology and the main idea that is used to counter essentialist or normative claims concerning technologies. Ihde (2002) states, ‘No technology is one thing, nor is it incapable of belonging to multiple contexts’ (106). Ihde makes a point of the gestalt switch of perception8 when it comes to multistability. We get used to perceiving technology in one or two ways, but it can be transformed into something completely different through a ‘simple’ gestalt switch in our own perception.

39While the object’s physical attributes influence how they are perceived in multistable ways, objects do not have multistabilities; this is not an ‘essential’ quality of the object itself. Rather, through the object’s affordances and material attributes, a subject can perceive an object in multistable ways. According to Ihde (2002), all structures and patterns ‘display multistable sets of limited possibilities’ (33). This view counters essentialist ideas of technologies, which can lead toward normative values being placed on technologies. Technological objects have multiple, though not infinite, stabilities. A hammer can be perceived as a tool used to pound and pull nails, but it can also be used as a paperweight, a doorstop, or even as a weapon.

Summary of Postphenomenology

40Any new technology mediates our relation with the world and is transformative. Postphenomenology does not perceive technology as neutral or completely determining, nor does it attempt to describe an essence of technology. Rather, a postphenomenological approach views mediating technologies as non-neutral, which are able to become transparent through sedimentation and are multistable. I incorporate these three postphenomenological concepts later into the posthuman approach in order to better understand how technological relations co-constitute the subject, technology, and the world.

Media Ecology

41The field of media ecology has a particular way of approaching media studies. This section investigates the effects of media technologies through the lens of media ecology, which views media as environments. These environments play a role in shaping message, sender, and receiver.

42Corey Anton (2016) describes how, ‘The particular expression, “media ecology” grew out of a conversation in 1967 between Neil Postman, Marshall McLuhan and Eric McLuhan, and, within a year, Postman was using it in public talks’ (126). Anton continues by describing Walter Ong, Marshall McLuhan, and Postman, the primary thinkers (along with several others, such as Harold Innis) who laid the foundation for what would become known as media ecology (127). Lance Mason (2016: 86) describes how,

To McLuhan, a medium is an environment that structures interactions among and between humans and the rest of the world. This can be contrasted with the traditional understanding of media as a conduit for information transfer, which I identify as a neutral conception of media employed by those that emphasize media content analysis, while ignoring media forms as objects of study.

43I explore these ideas in order to demonstrate the importance of how media technologies and ICTs affect not only individuals but cultures and societies. Media ecology’s concept of media as environments complements postphenomenology’s emphasis on the embodied microperception and media literacy’s focus on the message. This complementarity demonstrates the benefit of using an interdisciplinary approach to build an inclusive method for studying media.


44Media ecology approaches media in a very broad and mediumfocused manner. Researchers within the field often do not shy away from making sweeping statements concerning the effects of specific mediums, even broadening their scope to analyze the larger paradigms of communication and how they affect individuals and society; an example being Ong’s (2012) seminal work, Orality and Literacy. One of the tenets of media ecology is that media environments are mostly invisible to us. We exist within them and are affected by them, but we often do not realize the effects they have on us. Only by becoming aware of them can we begin to retain some agency. This is further discussed in the ‘Figure/Ground’ section below.

45Media ecology takes a systems—or complexity—approach towards understanding media and communications in order to understand the differences each medium affords (Logan, 2015). Anthony Giddens (1990) says that the mechanized ‘technologies of communication have dramatically influenced all aspects of globalization since the first introduction of mechanical printing into Europe’ (77). Media ecology investigates and probes these influences of specific mediums in order to understand how each are different, uniquely enabling and constraining individuals, societies, and cultures.

Media Ecology as a Field of Inquiry

46Media ecology is better conceived of as a field of inquiry rather than an established discipline or subject (Postman, 1970; Strate, 2017). Lance Strate (2017), a student of Postman and one of the key voices in media ecology, contrasts the field of inquiry concept to the disciplines found in contemporary academics. Disciplines are considered well-established subjects with ‘a widely accepted cannon, introductory curriculum, theories, methods, etc.’ (10). However, an established body of knowledge does not usually define a field. Instead, a field is held together through a mutual interest in a particular topic and is generally interdisciplinary in nature. Strate continues by indicating ‘media ecology may be described as interdisciplinary, drawing upon not only all of the social sciences and humanities, but the fine arts and hard sciences as well’ (10).

47Media ecology contrasts with media literacy in that it is less interested in the content of each medium and more interested in the unique effects of each medium. Postman (1974: 76–77) describes media ecologists as researchers who,

want to know what kind of environment we enter when we talk on the telephone or watch television or read a book. We want to know the answers to such questions as, at what level of abstraction does a medium operate? What aspects of reality does it isolate and amplify? What aspects of reality does it exclude? What is the nature of the information it gives? What are its spatial biases? Its temporal biases? What does a particular medium require us to do with our bodies and our senses? In what directions does it encourage us to think? And how do such biases determine our relations with others and ourselves?

48Media ecology is a loose group of interdisciplinary scholars who approach studying the effects of media technologies through various avenues. In the following sections, I explain their approach to understanding media and how specific media have specific biases. While this leads some to make claims that media ecologists are technological determinists, I counter that accusation. Finally, I use the concept of the Gutenberg Parenthesis (Pettitt, 2007) to demonstrate how media ecologists can use a macro view to investigate the effects and biases of broad communication paradigms, specifically focusing on a comparison of print photographs and digital images.

Defining Media as Environments

49The cornerstone of media ecology’s contribution to media literacy is in how the field defines the term media. Rather than narrowly defining the term, media ecology expands the term and equates it with the idea of environments. John Naughton (2012: § After Gutenberg, What Next?) defines the term as follows:

The word ‘media’ is the plural of ‘medium’ […] The conventional— journalistic—interpretation holds that a medium is a carrier of something. But in science, the word has another, more interesting, connotation. To a biologist, for example, a medium is a mixture of nutrients needed for cell growth [… and which] are used to grow tissue cultures—living organisms. […] It seems to me that this is a useful metaphor for thinking about human society; it portrays our social system as a living organism that depends on a media environment for the nutrients it needs to survive and develop. Any change in the environment—in the media that support social and cultural life—will have corresponding effects on the organism. Some things will wither; others may grow; new, unexpected species may appear. The key point of the metaphor is simple: change the environment, and you change the organism; change the media environment and you change society.

50This definition of the medium as an environment emphasizes that the media environment is primary, the thing through which our culture grows. This contrasts with a media literacy view ‘where media are situated within culture, and are seen as a product of a culture’ (Strate, 2017: 26, italics added). Since media are approached as environments, we are able to try to understand how each specific media can,

affect human perception, understanding, feelings, and value […]. In the case of media environments (e.g., books, radio, film, television, etc.), the specifications are more often implicit and informal, half concealed by our assumption that what we are dealing with is not an environment, but merely a machine. Media ecology tries to make these specifications explicit. It tries to find out what roles media force us to play, how media structure what we are seeing, why media make us feel and act as we do. (Postman, 1970: 161)

51Though complexity is dealt with more fully in the next chapter, it is worth a brief mention here since it is a commonly acknowledged component of ecology and environmental studies (cf. Hirsch et al., 2011). Therefore, when viewing media as environments, it is not surprising that there is also an element of complexity, and this element is a useful way of understanding the effects a medium-as-environment has. Complexity helps to manage expectations when we interact with such systems. Edgar Morin (2007) discusses an ecology of action, suggesting that once any action enters an environment, it leaves the control and intention of whoever or whatever created the action. It ‘enters a set of interactions and multiple feedbacks and then it will find itself derived from its finalities, and sometimes to even go in the opposite sense’ (21). These complex environments behave in non-linear ways, where simple cause and effect can no longer be counted on.


52Marshall McLuhan (in McLuhan et al., 1977) points out that a quality of one’s environment is that it is usually not in the foreground of our awareness. McLuhan uses the idea of figure/ground to describe this. He credits Edgar Rubin for introducing this concept in 1915. ‘Rubin adopted the terms figure and ground to assist the study of structure in visible phenomena’ (9). For McLuhan, ‘figure and ground are not categories: they are tools that will help you discover the structure and properties of situations’ (31). And, as a tool, it can be leveraged in media literacy. For example, McLuhan et al. (1977) discuss how it can provide ‘a useful method of finding meaning in advertising’ (27).

53In describing how environments tend to be invisible, McLuhan (1970) was fond of saying, ‘Fish don’t know water exists till beached’ (191). The water, in this case, is the environment or ground for the fish, which is so immersed within the environment that it has no perspective to perceive the water. McLuhan (McLuhan et al., 1977) points out that it is the media messages that are the figure and capture our attention, and the medium is the environment or ground that people rarely focus on. However, it is the medium that exerts a significant influence on the creation of the messages, the messages themselves, and the receivers of the message.

54While the technology fades from our focus—moving from figure to ground—it continues to transform our abilities, a transformation we typically do not pay attention to. Strate (2017) explains that anything can become routine and taken for granted, causing it to recede from our awareness and effectively become invisible to us. At this point it can be considered environmental. Often, the only times we actually perceive mediums on their own terms is when a medium is new to us, when it breaks down, when we exert an active control over its operation, or when people use it creatively or artistically.

55This is an important concept in the everyday aspect of media literacy. Our focus tends to steer away from the medium that is being used to communicate the message. However, Strate continues, ‘an older medium may serve as what McLuhan […] termed an antienvironment or counter-environment, an alternate environment that, by its unfamiliarity, brings our current environment into conscious awareness and visibility’ (112–13). For example, I recently have been collecting old manual typewriters. When I type on them, I experience a counter-environment to using a word processing program on my laptop, allowing me insights to how each technology enables and constrains differently. The danger of media receding into the background (such as using word processing programs to write with) is that we become less likely to notice its effect on us or on our culture. This is where the concept of media bias can be leveraged. By becoming aware of media bias, we have the potential to regain some agency in our engagement with media.

Media Bias

56I now look into how these environments have a bias that affects individuals and cultures, which often is not explicitly recognized by the users of the medium. While identifying a bias of communication mediums has caused some to accuse McLuhan and media ecology of technological determinism (cf. Moores, 2012; Smith & Marx, 1994; Williams, 2004), I explain why I believe claims of determinism are in error. Finally, I use the example of the Gutenberg Parenthesis (Pettitt, 2007, 2012) to demonstrate how the communication eras of orality, print, and digital can be understood through the different affordances of print photography and digital images.

57Harold Innis (2008) describes cultures as having a certain bias due to the dominant communication medium. He discusses the effects of heavy media (such as stone) and light media (such as papyrus or the air for speech or radio waves) (33):

A medium of communication has an important influence on the dissemination of knowledge over space and time and it becomes necessary to study its characteristics in order to appraise its influence in its cultural setting. According to its characteristics it may be better suited to the dissemination of knowledge over time than over space, particularly if the medium is heavy and durable and not suited to transportation, or to the dissemination of knowledge over space than over time, particularly if the medium is light and easily transported. The relative emphasis on time or space will imply a bias of significance to the culture in which it is embedded.

58Looking at what is afforded by each broad paradigm of communication is a way to understand the fundamental influences that each can have on a culture. For instance, oral traditions rely on and value memory. A person’s memory is then likely to be more developed in an oral culture than a print culture, where print acts as an extended memory (Ong, 2012).

59When writing was being developed, there were people who were skeptical of this new medium. In Phaedrus, Plato lamented that writing would give us the semblance of knowledge without the knowledge itself (Phaedrus, 274–77). While people would have the written word, Plato questioned how much actual meaning and knowledge would be transmitted by the words alone, especially if the written words traveled far from the author and were read by people who might not be ready for them. The initial use of writing was as an external memory device. For example, early religious texts did not have punctuation or spaces as they were simply meant to jog the reader’s memory in order to be read out loud. The performance was up to the reader and experienced orally by the audience (Martin & Cochrane, 1994).

60Writing and print still contain aspects of orality. As McLuhan (1994) states, ‘the “content” of any medium is always another medium’ (8). Robert Logan (2000) points out that Innis and McLuhan often speak of three ages, or eras, of communication: oral, written, and electric. It is acknowledged that not every culture goes through, or has gone through, all of these ages—let alone at the same time. However, by looking at the macro perspective concerning the paradigms of human communication and the effect each has on individuals, societies, and cultures, we can gain insight into how these specific communication media have influenced us.

Technological Determinism and Agency

61The focus of media ecology on the way media technologies affect individuals and cultures is often criticized—mostly from those outside the field—as being technological determinist. In other words, media ecologists are criticized for believing that technology determines people’s actions, taking away most, if not all, human agency. Raymond Williams (2004) responds to McLuhan’s approach by saying, ‘For if the medium—whether print or television—is the cause, all other causes, all that men ordinarily see as history, are at once reduced to effects’ (130).

62Claims of technological determinism are sometimes well founded. For example, consider the words of Edmund Carpenter (1973), who worked with Marshall McLuhan:

I think media are so powerful they swallow cultures. I think of them as invisible environments which surround and destroy old environments. Sensitivity to problems of culture conflict and conquest becomes meaningless here, for media play no favorites: they conquer all cultures. One may pretend that media preserve and present the old by recording it on film and tape, but that is mere distraction, a sleight-of-hand possible when people keep their eyes focused on content. (191)

63This statement, that media ‘conquer all cultures’, comes across as quite deterministic. It also represents a pattern in media ecology, likely influenced by McLuhan himself, who was known for possessing a rather dramatic style of writing. Clark (2009) mentions, ‘Metaphorical allusions, poetic flourishes, and theories on a grand scale have remained some of the hallmarks of style within the field of media ecology itself’ (11). It may be that McLuhan writes this way in order to effectively shock society’s attention into noticing the influence of the medium that is all but invisible, even to many academics. In addition, because media ecology is a varied field with many voices, it is natural to have some scholars who might lean more towards technological determinism than others.

64Ong (1977) defends his own work against being perceived as deterministic by saying that his analysis of orality, print, and digital mediums of communication do not explain everything about culture and human consciousness. Instead, he claims that there is a relation between the major developments in culture and human consciousness and the evolution of the word from a primarily oral state to its present state. However, the relationships are ‘varied and complex, with cause and effect often difficult to distinguish’ (10).

65Strate (2017) claims that technological determinism is, for the most part, ‘a label applied by critics, rather than a term used, let alone embraced, within the field’ (34) of media ecology. He explains, ‘A bias does not represent absolute command over us, however, but rather a path of least resistance. […] The concern within the field of media ecology, then, is the degree to which we cede control to the biases of technology’ (36). This is similar to postphenomenology’s concept of the non-neutrality of technology. Just because a technology is not neutral does not mean that it is completely determining.

66To guard against the determining aspects of the technological medium, education can help bring about awareness of these effects. Developing this awareness is invaluable, allowing us greater agency, without which we risk living as beings determined by the technologies in our lives. Michel Puech (2016) explains, ‘The lack of awareness implies here the absence of self-construction: living as an object in commercial and societal networks, not as a self’ (173). This is where media literacy has a role to play. Education is a key way of helping people pay attention to the effects of media (McLuhan et al., 1977). By bringing the effects of a specific medium to a person’s awareness, that person then has a better chance of retaining some of their agency in their relationship with the medium. Rather than a binary between neutral and determining views of technology there is a continuum; where one is on that continuum at any moment depends in part upon our awareness of the multiplicity of relations that are influencing us at any moment.

Media Ecology in Action: The Gutenberg Parenthesis

67In sum, we can understand media bias by looking at how the dominant medium of communication for an age has specific effects on individuals, cultures, and societies. By understanding the current media environment through a broad historical context, we can bring more awareness to the affordances of specific media. In this section, I explore the print and digital mediums through the concept of the Gutenberg Parenthesis, using it to compare the different media biases between a print photograph and a digital image.

68Thomas Pettitt (2007, 2012) explores three different communication paradigms: 1) the pre-print age before Gutenberg’s printing press allowed for the dissemination of easily acquired printed materials; 2) the age of print dominance, where the primary way of communicating was through the printed word; and 3) the current age of digital and electronic media. Pettitt (2007: 3) describes this middle age, where print was the dominant means of communication, as the Gutenberg Parenthesis:

Since the Renaissance, the communication of Western culture has been dominated and in many ways determined by mechanically massproduced texts, symbolized by (but not restricted to) the printed book, but this is now discernible as merely a phase, discernibly coming to an end under the pressure of developments in relation to the electronic media, the internet and digital technology.

69When Gutenberg’s printing press popularized the ability to make copies of texts, print-based literacy became democratized, moving reading and writing out of the hands of the elite, and into the lives of the masses. This was a major disruption, at least in the Western world, especially for the Christian church and in politics (Postman, 2006). It was estimated that ‘between 1640 and 1700, the literacy rate for (white) men in Massachusetts and Connecticut was somewhere between 89 percent and 95 percent’ (Postman, 2006: 31). As one example of the socio-cultural impact, this literacy rate, combined with the printed news stories, was integral for the United States’ revolution against Great Britain (Humphrey, 2013).

70Western culture is now just emerging from the print-dominated era, but our mindset is still heavily influenced by the print paradigm. Ong (2012) provides an in-depth study on the differences that orality and print have on societies and cultures. While orality is heavily reliant on, and limited by, memory, the shift to print allows for externalized memory. Books become repositories for knowledge and information.

71We are now entering an age dominated by a digital medium. While it might be assumed that as we move forward, we have more in common with the recent past than the distant pass, this is not always true. By looking at the affordances of an oral, print, and digital communication paradigm, we begin to notice, somewhat surprisingly, that digital communication has a lot in common with oral tradition, often more so than with the era of print communication. This is why Pettitt (2012) refers to the age of print as a parenthesis. According to Pettitt, the inception of a parenthesis in a sentence ‘interrupts an earlier phase, which resumes when it concludes, if inevitably with modifications resulting from what has happened in the meantime’ (96). In other words, the era of print communication has interrupted and changed our oral means of communication. Ong (2012) describes this new digital/ electronic age as a secondary orality that, ‘has striking resemblances to the old in its participatory mystique, its fostering of a communal sense, its concentration on the present moment, and even its use of formulas’ (133–34). As we move fully into the digital age it will not be surprising to find specifically print-based affordances like copyright being challenged by the affordances of the new digital medium.

Investigating Print Affordances

72How exactly did the era of print as a dominant communication paradigm change individuals and culture? Ong (1977) posits, ‘The tendency to closure had to do with a state of mind encouraged by print and its way of suggesting that knowledge, and thus indirectly actuality itself, could somehow be packaged’ (330). In other words, print packaged ideas into a beginning, middle, and end, and this influenced the thinking process for print-based cultures. Print is static and materially bound. As Pettitt (2012) describes, ‘A work in a book is self-contained, and resists any textual intrusion or extraction that would compromise this integrity. The technology places not merely physical but psychological boundaries around the text’ (102). The print medium adds a sense of stability, a static nature to knowledge, even lending a sense of permanence.

  • 9 However, oral traditions will often have certain people whose role is to be a keeper of knowledge.

73Writing enables us to externalize our thoughts, which helps us develop more complicated ideas. Writing functions as an extended mind (Clark & Chalmers, 1998), helping to advance not only science and technology but also critical thought and social theory. By writing down what we know and turning this information into an object, the words are lent an air of objective truth, which has both benefits and drawbacks. This process allows knowledge to become an externalized thing; a thing that can be copyrighted and owned. The thingness of print is quite important, affording different abilities than the ephemerality of oral communication. Text is also linear, a straight path through time and space. It is read in one direction and is meant to be read in a sequential order, one word following another. And finally, there is a sense of authorship, of ownership, which leads to copyright and the ownership of knowledge, something that is not found in oral traditions.9

74However, the externalized, static print model can be understood as an anomaly in how we have historically communicated. As Pettitt (2007) explains, ‘the post-parenthetical period after and the pre-parenthetical period before may have more in common with each other than either has with the parenthetical phase that came in between’ (3) Since we are directly evolving out of an age dominated by print, much of our media literacy is still greatly influenced by print. In order to exemplify this, I look next at the differences between print and digital photography.

Print Photographs and Digital Images

  • 10 The table below illustrates Pettitt’s (2007: 2) original terminology:

75Since the investigation I use to develop an instrument in chapter six involves a specific digital image of a museum selfie, I use an example of the Gutenberg Parenthesis in order to explore the differences in medium-affordances between print photographs and digital images. Building upon Pettitt’s (2007) original language,10 I have updated the terminology—which I will explain—in order to compare the traits in terms of ICTs (see Fig. 3.4). These are considered on a meta level; they have a general influence on the society as a whole but are not meant to be prescriptive for every individual case in every situation. This is what media ecology describes as the bias of the medium, which then leads to cultural biases (Innis, 2008). Again, these biases have influence on us, but through media literacy education we have the ability to regain some of our agency.

Fig. 3.4 Modified Gutenberg Parenthesis. Image by author (2018), CC BY 4.0.

Fig. 3.4 Modified Gutenberg Parenthesis. Image by author (2018), CC BY 4.0.
  • 11 Dodging and burning are used to lighten or darken specific parts of the rendered print photograph.

76Photography battles with the fantasy that it captures a neutral view of reality without modifying it. Susan Sontag (1973) refers to a judiciary use of the printed photograph that ‘passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened’ (3). However, she states her opinion that ‘photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings’ (4). Additionally, the art of dodging and burning11 during the transfer from negative to print was well established before Photoshop and digital photography. Ansel Adams is known for spending many hours in the darkroom developing a single print and said, ‘dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships’ (as cited in Li et al., 2015: 131). However, digital images tend to be one more step removed from reality. While the negative in print photography is still an image, the file of a digital image is comprised of bits—computerized 1’s and 0’s—that are not an image until interpreted and displayed by a combination of software and an electronic display device.

  • 12 They had more control before the invention of high-definition color copiers.

77Additionally, a print photograph is a tangible artifact, a physical object with unique qualities. Though it is possible to replicate photographs, a photographer can have a reasonable amount of control12 over how many copies are produced and how they are printed (size and quality, as well as original framing). The print photograph is not necessarily one specific thing or another, but it is rather as a vehicle, a medium, which can portray and achieve various designations (art, document, snapshot, mnemonic device, etc.). Joanna Zylinska (2017) describes the act of photography as ‘cutting reality into small pieces [… where] we enact separation and relationality as the two dominant aspects of material locatedness in time’ (43). The materiality of the photograph adds concreteness and limits its spatial existence. Using the qualities in Figure 3.4 under ‘print’ and ‘digital’ we can compare a print photograph with a digital image. I italicize the words from this figure that I am referring to when making the comparisons.

78Print Photographs. The affordances of the print photograph are that it is a stable medium; it is light, transportable, and somewhat fragile, but under the right conditions can be still quite recognizable after 50–100 years. Print is an external memory device, able to invoke memories, especially of the people immediately concerned with the subject of the photograph. It is linear, a snapshot in time, occurring after some events and before others. It is an artifact, a material object. It is authored. Someone took the photograph, and they are the creators of the object, legally acknowledged (unless they work for a company or a government agency that is paying them to take the photo) as the copyright owners. Finally, being a material object that re-presents an image of reality, there is a semblance of objective truth. This is reflected in the ability to use photographs in court as evidence.

  • 13 While it is true that some of these possible futures can be remedied through automated processes, t (...)

79Digital Images. In comparison with print photographs, a digital image is temporary. It is a computer file, represented by 0’s and 1’s, which is only able to be displayed (performed) through its contextualizing metadata. It can be saved onto many different types of physical mediums (e.g., thumb drives, hard drives, and DVD/CDs). While saving something to ‘the cloud’ sounds immaterial, the actual file is stored on at least one material server/storage device. If it is not rewritten after a period of time (around 10–15 years, depending upon the specific medium), there are several issues that can threaten the integrity of the stored information:13

  1. The deterioration of the medium itself (DVD’s have a 15–20- year lifespan or up to 50 years for the archival variety).
  2. The file format can become unreadable as software programs and formats continue to advance. Twenty-five years ago, WordStar was a very popular word processing program, but trying to get a computer to display a WordStar file now would be quite difficult. Eventually, the file format needs to be ‘saved as’ a newer version.
  3. The memory storage device eventually becomes unsupported due to the physical structure. 5 ¼ inch disks gave way to 3 ½ inch disks, which gave way to CD-ROMs, then DVDs then USB drives, etc.

80The digital image also has a networked memory, meaning that it affords the ability to be accessed in a networked manner. This allows many people simultaneous access to the same file, unlimited by proximity if the digital image is connected to the internet (where a print photograph is more limited by proximity and space). This also relates to hypertext, where the image can be linked non-linearly. With a shared link, the image can be embedded into most digital documents, accessible either by being embedded or by clicking on a link.

81The digital image is greatly affected by what is performing the image (the printed photograph is also a performance of the negative but has more fixity and materiality than the digital image). The type of screen and software interpreting and performing the digital bits has an impact on how the image looks. The exact same file can be a grainy thumbnail displayed on an old cellphone, or it can be viewed on a very large high-definition widescreen display. While a print photograph is ‘performed’ in an analog process using chemicals, light, and special paper, a digital image is performed by both hardware and software that mediate its appearance, whether on a smartphone, a website, a laptop, or a large screen television display. A single digital file of an image depends upon the technological mediation of the software and hardware to display the file. However, as Figure 3.5 demonstrates, the actual image is built upon code—binary bits and bytes—which are then interpreted and performed through many technological steps.

Fig. 3.5 Partial Display of a Digital Image File as Performed in Hexadecimal. Image by author (2021), CC BY 4.0.

Fig. 3.5 Partial Display of a Digital Image File as Performed in Hexadecimal. Image by author (2021), CC BY 4.0.

82Much more so than a static object, the authorship of a digital image is open to appropriation. It is very easy to take a screenshot of somebody’s digital image, potentially modifying it, and portraying it as your own. Due to the ease of copying or pirating digital content, there has been much effort to create digital rights management policies in order to protect original authors. However, it is the ease of the digital format that creates this need, as it both enables and constrains.

83Coming to the final word in Figure 3.4, the digital image lends itself to post-truth rather than the semblance of objective truth of print photographs. This is because of the ease of modifying the original photo, making the ‘reality’ of its original capture appear quite different yet still realistic. Software such as Adobe Photoshop can dramatically alter the original image in a way that is very hard to detect (Hanson, 2004; Manovich, 2013). For instance, the ability to remove or add people from the image is quite simple. Because this is possible, digital images need to be (or at least should be) professionally analyzed to detect any modification if they are going to be used as evidence in court cases. Mark Hansen (2004) writes, ‘Following its digitization, the image can no longer be understood as a fixed and objective viewpoint on “reality” […] since it is now defined precisely through its almost complete flexibility and addressibility [sic], its numerical basis, and its constitutive “virtuality”’ (7–8). He continues by describing the digital image as no longer being ‘restricted to the level of surface appearance, but must be extended to encompass the entire process by which information is made perceivable through embodied experience’ (10). The digital image, therefore, needs to be understood not only by how it looks, but also through interpretation by software and hardware.

84These examples demonstrate the need for unlearning the previous construct of the print photograph as we are now primarily dealing with digital images. By deterritorializing (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987) the photograph from the print paradigm and reterritorializing it within the affordances of the digital, we can let go of our previous concepts of ‘the print photograph’ and develop more realistic expectations afforded by digital images. The communication paradigms—orality, print, and digital—are transformative, enabling some things while constraining others. Becoming aware of these details can allow us to modify both our own expectations and help us to decide what is important (or not) to fight for once something we value becomes constrained.

85Copyright issues are a useful example of the affordances of specific communication mediums. Copyright does not exist in a strictly oral society. It only comes about with the externalization of knowledge into an object—the written word. This allows for the ability of ownership, of authorship. What should we do now that the digital paradigm makes it much easier to break copyright laws? Do we still value copyright and believe it should be retained? If so, what are the policies and technological developments that need to happen to continue enabling and respecting copyright? Investigating this further is beyond the scope of my research (cf. Chen, 2017, for further discussion on copyright and the link to print), but this brief overview demonstrates the importance of understanding the broader communication paradigms, and these issues warrant further study and discussion.

Concluding Thoughts

86While there have traditionally been two sides of the ‘media coin’, the message and the medium, this book focuses on changing this binary to an assemblage of medium, content, and context. I have approached understanding the effects of the medium through a micro and a macro lens. Postphenomenology and media ecology help improve our awareness of the impact of technology on the constitution of the subject, understanding that the subject is constituted through technological relations.

87Postphenomenology contributes to our understanding of the non-neutrality of technological mediation. It helps us become aware of how media technologies can become sedimented through our experiences, causing them to fade from our awareness and become transparent. Postphenomenology also adds the concept of multistability of media technologies, keeping us from falling into essentializing claims. Media ecology can help us understand media as complex environments that have unique biases, which influence us. Media ecology also emphasizes the use of a figure/ground approach, a tool that can help us identify the media biases that are often backgrounded and not part of our awareness. Both of these fields of study can be used to construct an inclusive, holistic approach to enhance media literacy.

88While we now have a solid foundation in understanding technological mediation, the focus until now has been directed toward the media technologies themselves. These technologies can be understood as having a shared agency with human subjects, as we relate to the media in our daily lives. However, as some of the agency moves away from the subject and into technological objects, Tamar Sharon (2014) points out that disciplines such as postphenomenology seem to focus more on ‘breathing life into objects […] than delving into the implications of having breathed life out of subjects’ (9). She proposes that we take a closer look at what is going on with the subject. In the next chapter, I take on Sharon’s challenge in order to understand the transformational effects of technologies that occur within the subject. I also explore what is meant by the posthuman subject.


1 A good starting point for media ecology is: Anton, 2016; McLuhan, 1994; Postman 1974, 2006; Strate 2014, 2017. And, for postphenomenology, see: Ihde, 1990, 2002, 2009, 2012; Rosenberger & Verbeek, 2015; Verbeek, 2005.

2 Latin for ‘in the middle of things’. It is also the name of the Media Ecology Association’s newsletter.

3 While the plural of medium is media, I am using media to refer mainly to the content-focused media studies definition of media. When I want to indicate the specific media technology that is the ‘channel’ (in the traditional language of communication) I will attempt to use the singular medium. However, this tends to become a bit challenging when trying to discuss the many types of mediums, so I will use the plural mediums.

4 John Peters (2015) wrote an excellent book on Elemental Media that is directed at some of the non-technical mediums—water and air primarily—and how they also influence how humans and non-humans communicate. For instance, air is the medium for oral communication (see Innis, 2008; Ong, 2012). Its properties greatly contribute to how far our voices travel, limiting how far apart we can communicate without technologies to extend our range. At the same time, air allows us to see quite far. Peters makes the case that more of our brains are consumed with visual rather than auditory perception because of this. Water, on the other hand, allows sound to travel quite far and sight to be more limited. This has likely been a factor in the development of whale and dolphin brains to devote more area to auditory rather than to visual perception (Peters, 2015: ch. 2).

5 However, Smith (2018) writes, ‘there is no reason why this turning towards the empirical has to occur at the price of a turning away from “transcendental” concerns regarding conditions’ (78). Smith advocates for keeping both transcendental and empirical.

6 For some examples, see: Boltin, 2017; Ihde, 1990, 2002, 2012; Ihde & Selinger, 2003; Irwin 2014, 2017; Kiran, 2012, 2015; Lewis, 2018; Rosenberger, 2012, 2014, 2017; Rosenberger & Verbeek, 2015; Selinger, 2012; Smith, 2015; Van Den Eede, 2011, 2016; Van Den Eede et al., 2017a; Verbeek, 2005, 2008, 2011; Wellner, 2016, 2017a, 2017b.

7 For a more thorough discussion into various approaches to transparency, see Van Den Eede (2011).

8 McLuhan et al. (1977) also point this out in their explanation of figure and ground.

9 However, oral traditions will often have certain people whose role is to be a keeper of knowledge.

10 The table below illustrates Pettitt’s (2007: 2) original terminology:

Gutenberg Parenthesis

11 Dodging and burning are used to lighten or darken specific parts of the rendered print photograph.

12 They had more control before the invention of high-definition color copiers.

13 While it is true that some of these possible futures can be remedied through automated processes, there is a parallel between traits from an oral tradition and the need for each generation to decide what information is ‘saved’ in order to be transmitted to future generations. Decisions of what to transmit and what not to transmit are important as knowledge is passed down through generations. Inherently, information will be lost. It is also not possible to know what information and knowledge will be relevant or significant for future generations with shifts in culture, language, lifestyle, relationship with technology, etc. Even with the intention of transmitting something, the most proven medium devised with the longest and most successful means of archiving is still microfilm. Its estimated longevity is 500 years and can be read with a strong magnifying glass.

Table des illustrations

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Titre Fig. 3.1 Symbolizing the Co-constituting Relation. Image by author (2021), CC BY 4.0.
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Titre Fig. 3.2 Symbolizing the Co-constitution of Technological Mediation. Image by author (2021), CC BY 4.0.
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Titre Fig. 3.3 Necker cube. Named after Louis Albert Necker. Image by BenFrantzDale (2007), Wikimedia,​wiki/​File:Necker_cube.svg#/​media/​File:Necker_cube.svg, CC BY-SA 3.0.
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Titre Fig. 3.4 Modified Gutenberg Parenthesis. Image by author (2018), CC BY 4.0.
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Titre Fig. 3.5 Partial Display of a Digital Image File as Performed in Hexadecimal. Image by author (2021), CC BY 4.0.
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