This essay was originally written as part of my PhD comprehensive exams. It was written in response to the prompt: “Define Media Ecology.”
The meaning of the phrase “media ecology” will likely depend on the context in which it is used. When the phrase appears in popular discourse, it is often used in a journalistic or editorial context to refer broadly to the array of extant media forms in a sense that could also be captured by similar expressions such as “media environment” or “media landscape”. President Barack Obama used the phrase in this sense in an interview published in the November 2016 issue of Vanity Fair. While his discussing his success in reaching demographically diverse audiences, and particularly younger Americans, Obama referred to “this whole other media ecology of the Internet and Instagram and memes and talk shows and comedy.” Obama characterized his decisions to appear on late night talk shows and the online comedy series “Between Two Ferns” as strategic adaptations to a changing media landscape, one in which young Americans are receiving news and information through social media sites rather than through traditional media channels and news sources. In order to reach a demographic that is largely not tuning in to TV and other traditional media outlets, Obama appeared on “Between Two Ferns” to discuss the Affordable Care Act in a comedy video that went viral online, and ultimately reached more members of a younger age bracket than he might have through a standard speech or news sound bite.
This essay offers a different definition of media ecology, although one that is not entirely dissimilar to the popular usage of the term. Within the fields of media and communication studies “media ecology” denotes a distinct line of inquiry shaped by certain questions and assumptions. Even in this specialized use of the phrase, media ecology can be understood in many different ways. Media ecology is a perspective on media effects. Media ecology is a tradition of scholarly inquiry characterized by common concerns and related areas of inquiry. Media ecology can also be understood as a body of literature in media and communication studies. The writing and research that make up this body of literature, however, demonstrate many of the concerns about media that are indicated by deployment of the phrase in popular discourse. For example, many media ecologists have focused their studies on the changing nature of public discourse in the context of a rapidly changing media landscape, as well as questions of media usage and relevancy across different demographics of media users and audiences.
In order to develop a general definition of the media ecology perspective this essay will consider three of the major conceptualizations of the term throughout the literature, as offered and exemplified by three scholars most closely affiliated with the tradition. The first of these figures is Marshall McLuhan, a central thinker in the media ecology literature and perhaps the most influential theorist in the field. McLuhan is a significant figure in the development of media studies, and several of his insights and aphorisms about media effects serve as foundational elements of the media ecology perspective. The key aspect of McLuhan’s use of the ecological metaphor is his notion of media as extensions of human faculties. The second figure is Neil Postman, an intellectual, educator, and founder of the program in Media Ecology at New York University. Postman trained and inspired a generation of card-carrying and certified “media ecologists.” Postman’s use of the ecological metaphor is tied to his idea of media as environments. Lastly, Lance Strate is a graduate of the NYU media ecology program and a founding member of the Media Ecology Association. The MEA is a scholarly and professional association that works to continue, refine, and expand the media ecology tradition. Strate’s understanding of the ecological metaphor is defined by his approach to media as media.
Media ecology is an intellectual perspective concerned with the impact of communication technology on human culture and behavior, particularly in relation to environmental and ideological effects attributable to the inherent characteristics of technological forms. Across the theories surveyed here (as well as many others not mentioned in this essay) these various perspectives that comprise media ecology share these features in common.
McLuhan and the Toronto School: Media as Extensions
Herbert Marshall McLuhan was born in 1911 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. As a graduate student he studied at Cambridge and was particularly interested in the trivium, the part of the liberal arts comprised by logic, grammar, and rhetoric. McLuhan wrote a dissertation on the Elizabethan playwright Thomas Nashe, a somewhat obscure figure who was a prodigious pamphleteer. McLuhan held several academic posts before settling at the University of Toronto. His interest in classical literature and print culture, as well as education and pedagogy, lead him to an interest in how emerging electronic modes of communication would impact traditional literacy and learning. His first book, The Mechanical Bride, looked at the role of the mass communication media in producing popular culture, with a particular focus on advertising. McLuhan wrote in the book that for the first time in human history thousands of the best-educated minds were actively engaged in the business of influencing the “collective mind”. McLuhan used Edgar Allen Poe’s short story Descent in the Maelstrom as a recurring literary reference but also significant analogy for his purpose in writing the book. In Poe’s story, a mariner is the sole survivor of a shipwreck and finds himself drawn into a whirlpool. The mariner studies the effects of the whirlpool on other objects (barrels, ropes, and other detritus from the sunken ship); by observing the maelstrom’s effects on each of these objects, the mariner is able to comport himself in such a way that he manages to swim away, rather than be carried under and drown. McLuhan makes an analogy between the situation of the mariner and the threatened by a whirlpool of pop culture and mass media messages. His second book, The Gutenberg Galaxy, posited an array of sweeping societal effects ushered in by the Gutenberg printing press. McLuhan argues that the introduction of movable type printing had major ramifications for European consciousness and culture. Specifically McLuhan highlights the uniformity and repeatability of the texts produced by the printing press, connecting this uniform and repeatable character to the rise of nationalism, new specializations and regimentation in society, and associated feelings of alienation. It was in this book that McLuhan first used the phrase “the global village” to refer to the linking and homogenizing effects of the mass media.
McLuhan’s breakout book and most lasting contribution to media studies came in 1964 with the publication of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. This book also presented McLuhan’s ideas about media as extensions, a concept that would become a fundamental aspect of the media ecology perspective. Central to McLuhan’s use of the ecological metaphor is his notion of sense-ratios, and the idea that the characteristics of each communication media altered the relation of the five senses to each other. Key to this concept is the dichotomy between aural space and visual space. Before the invention of written language humanity lived in acoustic space, defined by the primacy of spoken communication. Acoustic space, McLuhan says, engages all of the senses at once (besides hearing the spoken communication you also visually register the source of the sound, and the sonorous even has an embodied/tactile element, etc.). By contrast, the printed word of typographic space engages primarily with the visual sense. In McLuhan’s terminology, acoustic space is characterized by an “all-at-once-ness,” a simultaneity of sensory engagement. An additional component of this aspect of acoustic space is that spoken language is not recorded or “frozen in time” as written language is, further contributing to this temporal notion of “all-at-once-ness.” Typographic space is characterized by a linear, segmented, “one-at-a-time-ness.” Just like reading the printed word, typographic space (or typographic consciousness) comprehends discrete elements in a linear fashion. McLuhan believed that the advent of electronic media signaled a return to acoustic space. The flow of images and disjointed nature of channel surfing introduced by television disrupted the linear character of typographic culture. Television enables a stream of images and information from different times, places, and sources, thereby retrieving the “all-at-once-ness” of acoustic space and inaugurating the electronic global village.
Understanding Media also included McLuhan’s first use of the expression “the medium is the message.” Through this phrase McLuhan sought to convey the idea that the lasting significance of any communication technology is not the specific content it transmits, but rather the change of pace and scale introduced into human affairs by virtue of the technology’s inherent characteristics. This articulation represents a further development of the ideas first put forth in Gutenberg Galaxy. The electric lightbulb is an archetypal example for McLuhan, as it has no specific “content” per se, but its introduction into society lead to significant changes as artificial light made possible a range of activities to be done indoors and times of the day that would not have been practical previously. As evident by the book’s subtitle, McLuhan saw all media and technology as extensions of human faculties, either physical or psychic. The wheel is an extension of the foot, as it “extends” the capacity for human travel by enabling the covering of distances beyond what is capable by mere human locomotion. Clothing and housing are extensions of the skin and body, increasing capabilities for shelter and protection. The technology of written language is understood as an extension of the eye, as it enables a “seeing” of things not actually present but represented in the language. Every extension, however, is accompanied by an amputation. McLuhan says that in response to the shock and disorientation of these extensions changing the sense-ratios, the central nervous responds by “numbing” other areas in order to cope. Radio may extend our aural senses, but there are associated deficiencies in other senses, such as the visual. These extensions and amputations have psychic and physiological effects. This represents a key use of ecological metaphors in McLuhan’s media theories, one based on the self-regulating perspective on ecological systems, where a change in one part of the system results in changes in other areas in order to maintain equilibrium or homeostasis.
There is an additional component of McLuhan’s use of ecological metaphors. He argued that not only did media alter the relationships of the five senses to each other, they also altered the relationships between different media. Thus the introduction of popular radio broadcasts impacted how news was reported, and also affected the use of sound in motion pictures. When media combine, McLuhan said, the form and use of each are altered. Furthermore, the pace, scale, and intensity of human affairs are affected, as are the sense-ratios of the users. McLuhan used the ecological metaphor again in reference to a holistic implementation of various media technologies so as to compensate for ways in which they might “cancel each other out.” Specifically in relation to using media to facilitate classroom learning, McLuhan suggested using different media for different purposes in such a way that the media complement each other and provide the fullest sensory engagement. McLuhan’s writings on the societal impacts introduced by communication media proved very influential. Walter Ong, whose MA thesis was supervised by McLuhan, went on to write Orality and Literacy, a book comparing differences between oral cultures and literate cultures through a broad historical survey. Orality and literacy studies remains an important aspect of media ecology-related communication studies. Elizabeth Eisenstein cited McLuhan in her book The Printing Press as an Agent of Social Change. Her work investigates social and cultural changes in literate western European society following the introduction of the Gutenberg printing press, and has been credited with bringing needed clarity and scholarly rigor to McLuhan’s notions of oral and literate cultures. McLuhan came to be retroactively associated with a group of other scholars who had been working at the University of Toronto around the same time, although all members of this loose affiliation had worked separately from one another. This group became known as the Toronto School of Communication Studies. The influence of these scholars would eventually lead to another school arising from similarly minded thinkers in the United States, which would become known as the New York School.
Postman and the New York School: Media as Environments
Neil Postman was born in 1931 in New York City. He earned a PhD in education and wrote prolifically about learning and pedagogical practice. In 1969 he co-authored Teaching as a Subversive Activity with Charles Weingartner. In the book, Postman and Weingartner posited an inquiry-based method of pedagogy. They outlined a set of ideals and practices that should guide teachers, as well as specifying techniques that should be avoided, with the goal of inculcating characteristics of “good learning” among students. In 1971 while at NYU’s Steinhardt School of education, Postman founded the graduate program in Media Ecology. Postman thus coined the phrase, although the exact origins of the term are somewhat disputed. Postman seems to have believe at times that McLuhan used the phrase “media ecology” in Understanding Media, though in fact that term does not appear in the book although the ecological metaphor of media effects and relationships is clearly present. Marshall McLuhan’s son Eric has suggested that he and his father came up with the phrase during the year McLuhan was teaching at Fordham University in 1967; Eric has said that McLuhan then mentioned the term to Postman, and Postman “ran with it.” Graduates of the Media Ecology program have mentioned to me anecdotally that Neil Postman used the phrase precisely because of its nebulous nature. “People will ask you, ‘What’s media ecology?,’” he told students, adding, “Then you get to define it!” In 1982 Postman authored The Disappearance of Childhood. In this book Postman argued that the notion of childhood was a relatively recent social phenomenon. Historically “child” had merely designated that someone was a “daughter of” or “son of,” but it had since come to refer to a stage of development before adulthood. Postman pointed to the role of the printing press in this change, arguing the introduction of literacy created a “world of adult secrets” that was only accessible to literate adults. This also led to changes in learning, as literacy now became a necessary part of education. As his argument here indicates, Postman was primarily interested in the social effects of communication technology, rather than the sense-ratio effects that McLuhan emphasized.
In 1985 Postman’s best-known book was published, titled Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Postman begins the book by comparing the dystopic visions of George Orwell’s 1984, where a totalitarian government controls an austere state, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where the populace self-medicates themselves into a blissful narcotic state. Part of Postman’s argument is that Huxley’s vision is much closer to contemporary society than Orwell’s, and he compares the soma drug of Brave New World with the effects of television consumption on the populace. Following McLuhan’s maxim that “the media is the message,” the first chapter of Postman’s book is titled “the medium is the metaphor.” Postman states “form excludes the content” in arguing that each medium of communication can only sustain a certain level of ideas or discourse. When literate culture (and oratory based on written language) predominated, public discourse consisted of statements and propositions that an audience would evaluate as true or false. This sort of exchange contributed to public communication based on rational discourse. Postman highlights the introduction of the telegraph as a turning point in the nature of public discourse. The telegraph made possible communication and information exchange virtually unbounded by geographic distance. The near-instantaneous transmission of information was revolutionary. This brought about several significant changes to the character of discourse. For one thing, Postman states, just because Maine could now talk to Texas doesn’t mean that they had anything worthwhile to say to one another. In other words, the mere possibility of persistent communication came to be seen as a necessity for persistent communication, in a manner that devalued and degraded the quality of the discourse. Part of the reason for this degradation lies in the inherent characteristics of the telegraph to transmit certain quality and quantity of information. Another significant aspect of this development is the great increase in information that the telegraph contributed to. Postman points to the persistent communication of the telegraph (along with the mass reproduction of images around the same period of time) as resulting in a deluge of information. In response, there was a shift from audiences discerning the context of information and evaluating it, to instead collecting information (often irrelevant information) largely independent of any context. Television represents a further change in the nature of public discourse. Postman states that he is not against television as a means of entertainment, but rather his concern is that the very nature of television reduces all serious discussion to the level of entertainment. All television content is packaged and presented as a commodity, leading to a leveling of all televised content in a way that further contributes to the lack of rational debate in public discourse. Postman references politics as a key arena where these changes play out, as election campaigns become “battles of advertisements,” where candidates are turned into images and brands that then craft sound bites to sell a generalized notion of what they think the country lacks, just as advertising functions.
Postman may have been the first person to offer a definition of media ecology, stating: “Media ecology is the study of media as environments.” He said that media ecology is concerned with how media affect thoughts, feelings, and values. He also said that the role of media technology in influencing human affairs is directly implicated with the species’ prospects for survival. In 1973 Christine Nystrom became the first graduate of the Media Ecology program, writing a dissertation titled “Toward a Science of Media Ecology.” Nystrom characterized the sweeping social changes indicated by McLuhan and Postman as a transition from a compartmentalized Newtonian world to a more holistic world defined by interrelatedness and interdisiciplinarity. Other graduates of the Media Ecology program would continue the process of defining media ecology, and further contribute to the field’s interdisciplinarity.
Strate and the Media Ecology Association: Media as Media
Lance Strate graduated from the Media Ecology program in the 1990s. While at NYU he had worked with Neil Postman on several published studies, and Christine Nystrom had served as his dissertation advisor. In 1998 he was a founding member of the Media Ecology Association, inaugurated at Fordham University, and served as the association’s first president. The association holds an annual conference, and mains a strong presence at related scholarly events. They also publish a journal, Explorations in Media Ecology, named for the “Explorations” publication that McLuhan was involved in at the University of Toronto, and where many of the key concerns of media ecology were first articulated.
Strate has contributed not only to the institutionalization of the media ecology perspective, but also its ongoing definition. Strate writes: “Media ecology is the Toronto School, and the New York School. It is technological determinism, hard and soft, and technological evolution. It is media philosophy, and medium theory, and mediology.” This part of Strate’s definition refers to the Toronto school associated with McLuhan, and the New York School associated with Postman. In referring to technological determinism, it also references one of the most persistent criticisms of the media ecology perspective, that the theory is inherently deterministic (see Curry Chandler’s “Marshall Arts: An Inventory of Common Criticisms of McLuhan’s Media Studies,” in Explorations in Media Ecology). By doing so, Strate seeks to acknowledge determinism as part of the media ecology legacy, and one that is commensurate with the theory rather than an internal contradiction that undermines it. Strate also references other strands of media theory that can be traced to media ecological roots, including “medium theory” which was coined by Postman and Nystrom’s student Joshua Meyrowtiz in his book No Sense of Place. His definition also includes other strands of scholarship that are typically included in or conflated with the media ecology perspective: McLuhan studies, orality-literacy studies, and media philosophy and history.
In a 2008 article, “Studying Media AS Media: McLuhan and the Media Ecology Perspective” Strate builds a definition of media ecology around McLuhan’s maxim “the media is the message.” The medium is the message, Strate says, because the medium precedes the message; communication cannot exist without a channel, information cannot exist in a vacuum. As these variables change, so too does the message being communicated. Furthermore, Strate states that the nature of structure of technology is ultimately more significant than our intentions in using it. The materials we use, and the methods with which we use them, will ultimately determine our outcomes. The symbolic form of our communication is the lasting significance of that communication, rather than the specific and individual messages that are conveyed. In all of these ways, Strate argues that “the medium is the message,” and therefore that the media ecology perspective entails studying media as media. It is in this sense that Strate meaningfully distinguishes media ecology from other perspectives in communication and media research, which also acknowledging and affirming the various intersections and related fields. Strate suggests that the differences in definition surrounding media ecology are an inherent strength of the perspective, rather than a weakness.
This essay was originally written as part of my PhD comprehensive examinations. It was written to address connections between theories of the public sphere and concerns about public space, and to conceptualize the urban environment as a public realm.
Questions of space have always been implicated with the concept of the public sphere, but the idea of space has been conceptualized and applied in various ways within this context. Carragee’s challenge for scholars to address the nexus between public sphere theory and the study of public space has a solid foundation in the pertinent implications for civic life, attempts to connect academic perspectives and planning disciplines, and his own analysis of the impact of urban design on the character of public interaction. I agree with Carragee’s assertion that a vital public sphere requires vital public spaces. I am less inclined to agree with his claim that communication scholars have been silent on the issue, as there have been moves to address the communicative implications of the built environment through approaches such as material rhetoric. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to consider how scholars of communication and other fields have approached this nexus, and how this line of inquiry might be extended.
To properly address this question about the relationship between public space and the public sphere it is helpful to define our terms. Both “public space” and “public sphere” have been used by different actors to signify differing meanings. The Habermasian formulation of the public sphere posited a novel form of social interaction facilitated by a network of institutions comprised by physical locations and mediated discourses. Following this model, scholars have understood the public sphere as a discursive space rooted in place-based communication as well as mediated exchanges. Catherine Squires has defined the public sphere as “a set of physical and mediated spaces” in which people come together to identify, express, and deliberate interests of common concern. Nancy Fraser has characterized the public sphere as “a theater” for social interaction where political activity is actualized through the medium of speech. The public sphere can also be understood as a particular kind of relationship among participants. This relationship is mediated by these historical forms of sociability enacted at specific points in space and time. Kurt Iveson refers to public spheres as “social imaginaries” that are always in the process of being formed. The public sphere has also been understood procedurally (or processually), as a normative ideal founded on a set of principles intended to guide interaction.
The meaning of “public space” may seem obvious, but this term too has been conceptualized in a variety of ways. Notions of “public space” can be rooted in the physical characteristics of a location, the institutional structures and policies affecting a place, or the types of uses and activities undertaken in the space. Seyla Benhabib offers a procedural definition of public space. Understood procedurally, “public space” is any space that, through public address at a particular time, is transformed as a site of political action through speech and persuasion. In Benhabib’s formulation, “public space” is not merely “open” space, or physical, absolute, geographical space. More to the point, public space is never merely space in this physical sense. This represents an approach to public space that contrasts with Carragee’s view of public space as material, empirical, and concrete, as opposed to the public sphere which he sees as more conceptual and virtual. In Benhabib’s procedural definition these realms are not so clearly distinguished from one another.
This essay will further explore influential notions of public space, the public sphere, and their relationship to one another. The first section will review significant and influential approaches to this nexus as represented by three prominent theorists. The second section looks at how the contemporary city has figured as a key referent in discussion of public space and the public sphere. The third section considers how the introduction of networked communication technologies has complicated understandings this relationship. Finally, I conclude with some contemporary issues facing work in this area.
Three Models of the Public Realm: Arendt, Habermas, Sennett
Hannah Arendt was a political theorist who wrote about power, authority, totalitarianism, and democracy. In one of her best known and most influential works, “The Human Condition,” she surveyed different conceptions and enactments of human activity beginning in ancient societies. The second section of this book is dedicated to “the private and public realms.” According to Arendt, life in ancient Greek society was divided between the private realm and the public realm. The private realm was the sphere of the household, and the public realm was the site of “action”. Activity in the private realm was preoccupied with bodily necessities, whereas the public realm was free of these necessities and in which one could distinguish oneself through great works and deeds. Arendt further proposes a dichotomy of human life based on the concepts of “zoe” and “bios”. Both words are etymologically linked to mean “life,” but Arendt is distinguishing human activity into two modes: animalistic (zoe) and humanistic (bios). This distinction between zoe and bios is connected to Arendt’s notion of life in the market versus public space, which she also refers to as the private realm (oikos) and the public realm (polis). Arendt considers the market an impoverished place where subjects are treated as animals, mere consumers driven to satisfy bodily and selfish needs. In the context of the oikos, one’s human identity and individuality is of no importance: in order to purchase a commodity, you need only pay the appropriate price, regardless of who you are. In the public realm, by contrast, the individual identity of each subject does acquire prominence. Through public discussion subjects or speakers are recognized as unique human beings who are inexchangeable with anyone else. Without language, human beings live on the level of “laboring animals,” merely concerned with continuing their lives. Through the medium of linguistic communication, humans open themselves up to the existence of others as well as the existence of a world that is shared with others. This then is the key idea in Arendt’s distinction between the private and public realms: people live privately as animals, and as humans only in public. Arendt valorizes the types of relations in ancient cities such as Athens, but she distinguishes between the built environment and the polis. She says that the polis, properly understood, does not refer to the physical city-state but to the relations that emerge from acting and speaking together, regardless of where the participants are. “Not Athens, but Athenians, were the polis.”
Jurgen Habermas defined the public sphere as “the sphere of private individuals come together as a public.” Similar to Arendt, he also considers this “public” relation as rooted in and a consequence of discourse and communication. Habermas’ notion of the public sphere is based on an empirical study of voluntary social associations and literary practices that emerged in Europe in the 18th century. The emergence of a “debating public” and an ethos of local governance were tied to the development of “provincial urban” institutions. These included coffee houses, salons, and theaters. Habermas’ study of the bourgeois public sphere is not only an account of specific historical phenomena, it also represents a normative ideal for rational-critical debate and deliberative politics. As such, Habermas’ theory has been interpreted as distinctly aspatial, not concerned with physical spaces but rather only an abstract discursive space. Several critics have argued that in order for Habermas’ theory to function as both a historical social explanation and a normative political idea, as his study proposes, it must be founded in an understanding of situated contexts of specific communities.
Richard Sennett is an urban sociologist who has written extensively on city design, public life, and civic engagement. His first book, “The Uses of Disorder,” argued that excessively ordered environments stifle personal development, and that people who live in such environments end up with overly rigid worldviews and insufficiently developed political consciousness. Sennett calls for practices of city design that allow for unpredictability, anarchy, and creative disorder that will foster adults better equipped to confront the complexities of life. In “The Conscience of the Eye” Sennett suggests that the built forms of modern cities are bland and neutralized spaces that diminish contact and wall people off from encounters with the Other. His remedy for this condition is a creative art of exposure to others and city life that should instill an appreciation for and empathy with difference. “A city,” Sennett says, “should be a school for learning to live a centered life.” Sennett’s book “The Fall of Public Man” outlines the decline of public life since the 18th century. In the 18th century, Sennett argues, public and private space were more clearly delineated than today. The disappearance of public space in the 20th century is attributed to a rise in intimacy and narcissism associated with industrial capitalism. In an essay titled “The Public Realm,” Sennett situates his approach to public life in relation to Arendt and Habermas. Sennett describes Arendt’s model of the public realm as inherently political and based on public deliberation in which participants discard their private interests. He calls Arendt the champion of the urban center “par excellence,” as the population density of urban centers provides the condition of anonymity that he sees as central to Arendt’s ideal. Sennett considers Habermas less interested in place than Arendt, as his theory includes mass produced texts such as newspapers as sites for the public sphere. For Habermas, Sennett states, the public realm is “any medium, occasion, or event” that facilitates free communication among strangers. Regarding his own approach, Sennett defines the public realm as “a place where strangers can come together.” He emphasizes that the public realm is a place, traditionally understood as a location on the ground, but Sennett states that developments in communication technologies have challenged this sense of place. Today “cyberspace” can function as a public realm as much as any physical place. Sennett also argues that “the public realm is a process.” As is evident in the arguments from his books summarized above, Sennett believes that shared spaces that accommodate unplanned and unmanaged encounters between strangers are beneficial for personal and social development. His emphasis on incompleteness and process, as opposed to fixity and determination, recalls Chantal Mouffe’s concept of agonistic Pluralism. Mouffe challenges the ideal espoused by Habermas that the deliberative ideal should be consensus reached by rational individuals. She argues that for freedom to exist the intrusion of conflict must be allowed for. The democratic process, Mouffe says, should provide an arena for the emergence of conflict and difference. Similarly Sennett says that daily experience doesn’t register much without “disruptive drama.”
The Modern City as Public Realm
In her book “Justice and Political Difference,” political theorist Iris Marion Young writes of city life as a normative ideal for communicative and political interaction. Young states that urbanity must be understood as an inherent aspect of life in advanced industrial societies, and that the material of our environment and structures available to us presuppose the forms of interactions that occur in these spaces. By “city life” Young refers to a type of social relation that she refers to as “a relation among strangers.” Urban experience, and in particular urban spaces, provide ideal conditions for the exposure to difference lives that a politics of difference should be predicated on. Young states that public spaces are crucial for open communicative democracy.
In “City of Rhetoric,” rhetorical scholar David Fleming argues that the city is the ideal context for the revitalization of the public sphere. He proposes an ideal space of relation that is between the intimacy of friends and family, on the one hand, and the mutual suspicion of strangers on the other. Fleming argues that the built environment and public space of the city is perfectly situated between users, relating and separating them at the same.
Don Mitchell has written about the “disappearance of public space” in the modern city. In a similar vein to influential critiques of the Habermasian public sphere, Mitchell states that the ideal of public space “open to all” has never been an existing state of affairs, but the ideal of public space circulates to powerful effect. For instance, Mitchell says, the circulation of the “open” public space ideal has served as a rallying call for successive waves of political movements to utilize space for activism and inclusionary ends.
Mediated Spaces and Mediated Spheres
Since Habermas’ formulation the idea of the public sphere has included elements of mediation. Habermas directly implicates the mass media in “The Structural Transformation,” citing the role of literature and the press in establishing the bourgeois public sphere, and the impact of television and other commercial mass media in diminishing the public sphere. The advent of the World Wide Web in the 1990s spawned enthusiasm from some regarding the deliberative and participatory potential of the medium. To some, the Internet seemed to realize all the ideals of Habermas’ public sphere. It was universal, non-hierarchical, based on uncoerced communication, and enabled public opinion formation based on voluntary deliberation. By these principles, and many others, the Internet looked like the realization of the ideal speech situation. Iveson suggests that the procedural understanding of public space allows various media to be understood as “public spaces” because they facilitate the formation of publics. Other scholars have considered media as new “spaces” for interaction. Sheller and Urry have compared new media to Arendt’s “space of appearances,” suggesting that in the digital age this “space” may be a “screen” on which public matters appear.
Still other scholars have voiced opposing accounts of the relationship between virtual spaces and the ideals of the public sphere. Don Mitchell has argued that the Internet can never meet or surpass the street as a public space, saying the infrastructure of the medium precludes certain uses and political opportunities. Public space remains crucial because it makes it possible for disadvantaged groups to occupy the space in a way that is precluded in virtual space. This space is especially important for homeless people because it is also a space to be and live in; a space for living rather than just visibilization. Iris Marion Young also addresses the distinction between physical space and virtual space with her concept of “embodied public space.” She says that media can facilitate public address and formation, and in this sense is not dependent on physical space. To the extent that public space is shrinking, or that individuals are withdrawing from public space, there is a democratic crisis. She uses the term “embodied public space” to refer to streets, squares, plazas, parks, and other physical spaces of the built environment that she deems crucial to allowing access to anyone and enabling encounters with difference. These spaces allow varieties of public interaction that are fundamental to her notion of city life as a normative ideal.
Jodi Dean has persistently criticized the “inclusionary ideal” promoted by the internet as an ideology of technocracy that she calls “communicative capitalism.” Dean’s article “Why the Net is Not a Public Sphere” challenges claims that the Internet can enable the ideals of the public sphere. In the public sphere ideal, communicative exchange is supposed to provide the basis for real political action. Under conditions of communicative capitalism, these exchanges function merely as message circulation rather than acclamations to be responded to. Political theorist Robert Putnam posited a decline of social capital in U.S. communities since 1950 in his book “Bowling Alone.” Putnam cites evidence of civic decline indicated by decreased voter turnout, public meeting attendance, and committee participation. The book’s title refers to the fact that while the number of Americans who bowl has increased in past decades, the number of people who participate in bowling leagues has declined. He attributes this fall in social capital to the “individualizing” of leisure time enabled by television and the Internet. Sherry Turkle has similarly argued for a technologically-promoted decline of physical proximity and interaction in the book “Alone Together.” Iveson has responded to such criticisms by arguing that the “stage” and “screen” (or “print” and “polis”) should not be seen as mutually exclusive arenas. Rather, he points to examples where movements of co-present interaction were facilitated through, managed by, or arranged around mediated forms of interaction.
There are several areas where continued research into the relationship between public space and the public sphere could be productive. First, it is important to consider how networked technology and mediated communication have changed the use of public space. Have the dispersed networks of power, access, and participation diminished the potency of public space for realizing political agency? Are these changes reversing Arendt’s formulation of the public and private realms? Has the logic of the market short circuited the function of the polis? Have new uses of public space emerged, and have traditional uses disappeared? It is now common for bodies to occupy physical space while their gaze and consciousness are directed not at their environment but at their various devices. How does this change our understanding of and approach to public and shared spaces? What does mean in relation to Mitchell and Young’s arguments about the role of “embodied public space”? In light of pervasive mediation in daily life it is important to affirm the fundamental importance of physical locations as public space.
Secondly, it is important not just to consider physical and virtual space in a dichotomous relationship, but also how they interrelate. How are digital technologies and mediated communication intersecting with the use of public space, and vice versa? To be clear, the phenomena at the core of this question are not new. Habermas’ model of the bourgeois public sphere concerns the relation between mass media and association in public space. More recently, the political uprisings collectively referred to as the “Arab Spring” brought attention to this issue. After social media and text messaging were use to organize demonstrations in Cairo, Egypt that eventually led to the removal of president Mubarak, pundits and media theorists began referring to this social movement as the “Twitter revolution.” Again, it is important to differentiate between the means of communication used to exchange information and organize bodies, and the site of political protest as represented in this case by Tahrir Square.
Finally, the implementation of information technology into the built environment is raising questions about the role of technologies in public space and civic life. In a November 2016 article, urban media scholar Shannon Mattern considered this issue in relation to the implementation and subsequent shuttering of the LinkNYC terminals in New York City. The LinkNYC initiative involved replacing telephone booths throughout the sidewalks of Manhattan with kiosks that provided access to electricity and wireless internet service. The city government promoted the terminals as places where tourists could access maps and online information and New Yorkers could charge their cell phones. The resultant “misuse” of these terminals, exemplified by people using the service for watching pornography or illicitly downloading media, resulted in the program being suspended indefinitely. Mattern uses this example to argue the importance of “vital spaces of information exchange” in our public spaces. She suggests that ideologies of “data solutionism” have influenced planning commissions to the detriment of small, local, and analog data perspectives that she considers essential to urban life. Mattern encourages city planning boards and project committees to include librarians and archivists in their ranks in the interest of such spaces of information exchange. At stake, Mattern argues, is the nature and well-being of our democracy.
These are just a few of the issues and questions that I think should inform future research into the relationship between public space and the public sphere. My own work is informed by these questions, and my interest in “smart city” policies and practices of implementation seeks to extend and challenge the conceptual zones outlined in this essay. Related questions explored in my research include: changing conceptions of public and private infrastructure; shifting models of civic engagement; and the predominance of market rationalities and discourses in (re)shaping the built environment. These questions are likely to only increase in prominence in the foreseeable future, and unforeseen developments are always arising. The essential questions of public space and the public sphere, however, will remain of crucial importance in our increasingly interconnected collective lives.
The Institute of General Semantics has recently posted videos of presentations given at the 2011 General Semantics Symposium. Included is my presentation: “Marshall Arts: Retrieving McLuhan for Communication Scholars”. This was my first conference presentation, and the paper eventually became my first academic publication. The focus of my work has shifted considerably in the time since, but this was a personal milestone and I enjoyed being able to revisit it four years on. You can watch the talk, along with others from the symposium, through the official IGS Youtube channel, and via the embed below:
Seltzer’s essay on serial killers and the pathological public sphere immediately calls J.G. Ballard to mind. Eventually Seltzer does cite Ballard, but it is in reference to Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition, a selection that renders the author’s omission of Ballard’s subsequent novel, Crash, all the more conspicuous (Crash was adapted into a film by David Cronenberg in 1996, the year after Seltzer’s article was published). The article’s introductory anecdote about Sylvestre Matushka, who engineered train wrecks and claimed to only achieve sexual satisfaction when witnessing these accidents, is obviously evocative of Crash. Ballard’s story follows characters who are sexually excited by car crashes, and stage car accidents and recreate famous wrecks. Seltzer cites The Atrocity Exhibition in order to borrow Ballard’s phrase and relate it to his own notion of the pathological public sphere: “spectacular corporeal/machine violence, a drive to make mass technology and public space a vehicle of private desire in public spectacle: the spectacles of public sex and public violence” (p. 124). Though he never refers to Crash, Seltzer’s language here could have come direct from the book’s dust jacket: “The coupling of bodies and machines is thus also, at least in these cases, a coupling of private and public spaces” (p. 125).
Seltzer’s argument is also evocative of a different Crash: the identically-titled but textually-dissimilar Crash, a 2004 film exploring race relations in contemporary Los Angeles through the interweaving of multiple characters and plotlines. Los Angeles is famous for its iconic freeway system, and the city is often regarded as the apotheosis of car culture, an alternatingly visionary or dystopic manifestation of car-dependent society. The film Crash uses the city’s freeway network as a thematic device, beyond the relation of the story’s interweaving plot threads and intersecting characters to the on-ramps and cloverleaf interchanges of L.A.’s freeways as seen from above. The film opens at the scene of a car accident one of these L.A. freeways, and the first lines of dialogue (spoken by a character riding in a car involved in the accident) establishes the thematic significance of the film’s Los Angeles setting:
Graham: It’s the sense of touch. In any real city, you walk, you know? You brush past people, people bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches you. We’re always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.
Compare this sentiment with these words of serial killer Ted Bundy quoted in Seltzer’s article:
“Another factor that is almost indispensable to this kind of behavior is the mobility of contemporary American life. Living in a large center of population and living with lots of people, you can get used to dealing with strangers. It’s the anonymity factor.” (p. 133)
Seltzer does cite a Los Angeles-based film in his discussion of public and private space: the action-thriller Speed, a sort of wish-fulfillment Hollywood fantasy for Angelenos where the city’s congested freeways are cleared of all traffic and the hero’s speedometer never drops below 50 miles per hour. Seltzer notes the film’s use of “public vehicles of what might be called stranger-intimacy” (p. 125): elevators, buses, airplanes, and the city subway system. Seltzer’s highlighting of transit systems to illustrate the collisions of public and private space resonated with my own research in this area. Seltzer cites urban sociologist Georg Simmel’s account of “the stranger” in urban life; Simmel’s theories have influenced a great deal of urban studies, including theories of transportation and public space.
Toiskallio (2000) applied Simmel’s sociability to an analysis of “the interaction between the taxi driver and the fare as an example of an intensive urban semi-public situation where feasible and face-saving social interaction is needed” (p. 4). The term “semi-public” refers to that are neither public nor totally private, as taxicabs are neither public nor private transportation, but “paratransit” (p. 8). Such distinctions are further complicated by the recent advent of “car-share” or rideshare services such as Uber and Lyft. These services are essentially hired car services, and function much like taxicabs, but with significant differences. Most relevant to the current discussion is the fact that rideshare drivers do not drive company vehicles as taxi drivers do, but operate their private vehicles to transport customers. This situation transforms a person’s private car into a space of stranger-intimacy. There are consequences here not only for transformations of public and private space, but also the coupling of bodies and machines, as well as implication for affective labor and transportation services.
On September 24th and 25th, I was on hand for the Urban Media Studies conference, hosted at the University of Zagreb’s Faculty of Political Science. The conference was organized by members of the ECREA temporary working group on media and the city. It was a thoroughly international event, with participants from across Europe and the United States, as well as Russia, Japan, and Brazil. It was also interdisciplinary, with various academic fields represented by scholars from communication, sociology, geography, and other faculties. In addition to academics, the participants also included artists, policy makers, and urban planners.
A key concept that I noticed appearing in several presentations is that of assemblages. Presenters spoke of ecologies and assemblages for staging mobilities, sites such as airports as assemblages of digital interfaces, and cities as communicative figurations involving constellations of actors and practices.
Another recurring theme was visibility. Many participants highlighted the often imperceptible functioning of digital technologies. While they may not rely on the visible infrastructure of previous technology, these media regulate bodies in material ways, often establishing and enforcing otherwise unmarked borders. In his keynote address on staging mobilities, Ole Jensen stated that technologies must become visible to the community in order for them to realize them as a field for action.
A recurring question, still unresolved, concerned the distinction between urban and rural. If this is a conference on urban media studies, could there be a rural media studies? With all the discussion of planetary urbanization, is the distinction between urban and rural still meaningful? Participants were divided on this issue. Some suggested that through the networking of the globe via media and ICTs, the “urban” has become the predominating way of life across the planet. Others argued that rural areas are very much an extant reality and way of life, and the distinction between urban and rural people and places is still very clear.
The conference program included an optional excursion to tour some of the housing developments built during Croatia’s socialist period. I was impressed with beauty of central and historic Zagreb, so this excursion provided a fascinating view of parts of the city not normally visited by tourists (nor, as I learned, by locals).
Our tour went not only around the socialist housing blocks, but also to the top of one. Despite the hazy and overcast weather, we had a spectacular view of Zagreb, the surrounding area, and into Slovenia. It was a wonderful addition to the program, and a personal conference highlight.
In Remediation: Understanding New Media (1999), Bolter and Grusin present a genealogy of media forms as it relates to current North American media phenomena built around three key terms: immediacy, hypermediacy, and remediation. The authors use the term “remediation” to refer to “the representation of one medium in another” (p. 45). They are primarily interested in the representation of older media within digital media. Remediation, then, is the central concept, but the authors state that it “always operates under the current cultural assumptions about immediacy and hypermediacy.
Bolter and Grusin conceptualize hypermediacy as a multiplication or intensification of mediation. The term itself may seem to represent the opposite of immediacy, and the authors make this connection clear: “At the end of the twentieth century we are in a position to understand hypermediacy as immediacy’s opposite number, an alter ego that has never been suppressed fully or for long periods of time” (p. 34). This binary or polar relationship between the two functions so that the absence of one is always implied in the presence of the opposite. “In every manifestation, hypermediacy makes us aware of the medium or media and (in sometimes subtle and sometimes obvious ways) reminds us of our desire for immediacy” (p. 34).
Immediacy, as the authors use the term, describes “a family of beliefs and practices,” and “the common feature of all these forms is the belief in some necessary contact point between the medium and what it represents” (p. 30). They refer to “the logic of transparent immediacy” to characterize how artists and designers have attempted to create immersive or immanent experiences that provide a sense of immediacy, or non-mediated experience. Computer interfaces become a key concept for the authors when considering immediacy in digital media. “What designers often say they want is an ‘interfaceless’ interface, in which there will be no recognizable electronic tools” (p. 23). This inclination toward invisible interfacing is associated with the essential logic of digital media. “The transparent interface is one more manifestation of the need to deny the mediated character of technology altogether. To believe that with digital technology we have passed beyond mediation is also to assert the uniqueness of our present technological moment” (p. 24).
Ben McCorkle (Rhetorical Delivery as Technological Discourse) refers not to computer graphics when addressing the transparent interface, but to printed books, writing of the “illusory interface of print as a transparent window into the mind of the author”(p. 149). McCorkle is concerned with communication media and technology as each relates to the practice of rhetoric, and especially the practice’s origins as spoken communication. The rhetorical canon of delivery is being redefined, McCorkle argues, and equated with a medium. McCorkle states that “redefining delivery works based on the logic of immediacy” (p. 153): “Delivery and medium become coequal terms not under the reign of print with its blank aesthetic but with the arrival of electronic and digital writing technologies that are perceived to be more flexible, alterable, and performative than print” (p. 154).
McCorkle sees the historical transformations of rhetoric as contributing to the process of remediation. Changes in modes of communication brought about by new technological forms and paradigms result in associated changes in how rhetoric is conceptualized and practiced. Digital media, therefore, affect contemporary rhetorical practice. “In the era of digital writing, rhetoric has disembodied the canon of delivery, placing it atop nonverbal texts and, in effect, transforming those texts into surrogates of the performing body” (p. 160). As media forms and technology remediate spoken communication and rhetorical practice, rhetoric in turn remediates media forms and technology, recalling Bolter and Grusin’s seemingly tautological formulation of “remediation as the mediation of mediation” (p. 56).