28 June 2005

Media Ecology Unplugged

Last weekend the 6th Annual Convention of the Media Ecology Association was held at the Lincoln Center Campus of Fordham University, with the theme The Biases of Media. The MEA was founded in 2000 (it may have been earlier; the first convention was in June 2000) as an academic association "dedicated to promoting the study, research, criticism, and application of media ecology in educational, industry, political, civic, social, cultural, and artistic contexts, and the open exchange of ideas, information, and research among the Association’s members and the larger community" -- as it says on the media-ecology{dot}org home page. Among its founders was the late Neil Postman, who also supplied this definition: "Media ecology looks into the matter of how media of communication affect human perception, understanding, feeling, and value; and how our interaction with media facilitates or impedes our chances of survival."

The Moses of the MEA is Marshall McLuhan, who first proposed that media be regarded as an environment in order to understand its nature, its workings, and its effect upon our lives, and the study of environments is ecology. (Sorry, ye grammaticall prescriptivistes, but in this register the singular of media is mediA, not mediUM. The old definition of medium as means of information transport has been replaced in current usage by the term technology, as in print technology, broadcast technology, online technology. Media, as an environment, is a singular thing. Get over it.)

I think as much as his ideas and formulations, it is McLuhan's *sensibility* that informs the ethos of the MEA, or rather of its constituent members and fellow travelers. He was a maverick in the academic world, regarded by many colleagues and critics as a buffoon at worst and a paradoxer at best; his seminal publications were not academic papers and books but pop-art manifestos, broadsides, and talk-show appearances; his deepest immediate influence was on students in his classes, some of whom became apostles who spread the gospel so effectively that only 25 years after his death, there now exists a kind of church, the Media Ecology Association.

I won't pursue the early-church analogy here (I'm working on a paper), but only say that the enthusiasm, openness, sense of mission, and above all feeling of fellowship among the membership in attendance made for a heady weekend indeed.

The Convention actually sprawled across 5 days, Wednesday through Sunday, and comprised some 250 demos, panels, and presentations, with topics ranging from Bringing General Semantics-Based Media Literacy to Younger People to The Wiring of Bhutan: A Test Case for Media Ecology in the Non-Western World. There was, perhaps predictably, a session dedicated to blogging, entitled rather cryptically Media Bias and the Emerging Online Communities. The entire program is somewat awkwardly encased in a 20-page .pdf at the site if you want to browse through and see what you missed.

If you do check it out, you'll find on page 13 of 20 an item labeled Performance: Media Ecology Unplugged, presented by Bill Bly -- Fordham University and John McDaid -- New York University. And therein lies the tale of this entry.

I knew nothing of media ecology and had only heard of McLuhan (well, and seen him in Annie Hall) when John, who was then (as now) a Ph.D candidate in media ecology, proposed we do a joint presentation at the 1st annual Convention of the Media Ecology Association, at which he was presenting a paper and also I think sitting on a panel. Hardly a traditional academic, I'd only presented my first conference paper the previous fall, and so was appalled, until he said we should play our guitars and sing, the Simon and Garfunkel (or more likely, I thought, the Smothers Brothers) of media ecology. We did pretty well, on the applause meter at least, and have continued to lighten the load if not the path of the proceedings every year since (except the last, when neither of us could make it to Rochester). This may make the MEA the only academic organization to have a house band; if so, I'm not surprised -- it's that kinda gang.

After that first performance, John and I were sufficiently pumped that we decided to make a CD, Media Ecology Unplugged, which won the 2002 John Culkin Award for Outstanding Praxis in the Field of Media Ecology. We haven't sold enough copies to recoup recording expenses, but then I've been in charge of marketing, so that's no surprise. Nevertheless, you can sample our wares at infomonger{dot}com, and if you'd like a hand-burned copy with liner art output from my Epson ColorPhoto 820, drop me an E at bbly{at}infomonger{dot}com.

Let me just say a word of appreciation for Lance Strate, brilliant media theorist and historian, co-founder and president of MEA, former chair of Communication & Media Studies at Fordham (he hired me), fellow grad student with John at the New School, and all-around mensch. Without his encouragement (some might say indulgence) I wouldn't be here, nor have this wondrous tale to tell. Lance, you give me reason to live.

10 June 2005

What we could have been

If Britain's generals had been more enterprising, if the French had failed to supply vital military and financial assistance, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and the rest would be known to us not as political & philosophical giants but as reckless (and hanged) losers, supporting players in a single act of Britain's imperial drama. We would all be Canadians now, with lower prescription drug costs and an inordinate fondness for winter sports.
— Barry Gewen, "Forget the Founding Fathers," New York Times Book Review, June 6, 2005, p.30.