On the future of new media, media ecologies and media as the death of nature

Dead Media/Live Nature

On October 31st I attended the first ASCA matinee with speaker Jussi Parikka from Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, UK. His talk, titled “Dead Media/Live Nature: Media Ecologies of Animal Intensities,” focused on the transpositions of media and nature through recent art projects such as Harwood, Wright and Yokokoji’s Eco Media (Cross Talk) and Garnet Hertz’s Dead Media lab.

In preparation of his talk we were sent three readings:

  1. Matthew Fuller (2007), “Art for Animals.
  2. Jonathan Sterne, “Out with the Trash: On the Future of New Media,” in Charles Acland, Residual Media.1
  3. Garnet Hertz (2009), Dead Media Project
On the Future of New Media

Sterne describes how the “new” in new media consists of two types of newnewss for scholars:

In short, there are really two models of “newness” to which scholars of media change need to attend: (1) the “newness” of a medium with respect to other media, and (2) the so-called state of the art in design and function within a given medium.  Scholars, journalists and many others who write about computers have tended to collapse the second sense of newness into the first. (p. 18) […] In a weird, recursive way, new media are “new” primarily with reference to themselves. (p. 19)

What constitutes the new is the halfwayness2 and planned obsolescence of new media:

Combined with the “halfwayness” of most new media, planned obsolescence guarantees the continued recursive experience of digital media as “new”. The newness of new media is sustained by people continually disposing of the equipment they have in anticipation of something better. (p. 23)

I admit. I am one of those people. Last summer I replaced my fully functional 30 gig iPod video with an 16 gig iPod Touch because it offered me something more advanced and something better. Not so much storage wise but purely in functionality. I no longer see my iPod (Touch) as my iPod but as a small portable computer device (with tons of great and useless apps) that happens to play music. My other iPod is now obsolete, it lies in the corner of my room waiting to be used because it is still fully functional, yet I have discarded it as old and no longer useful. Yet, I do not throw it away. Sterne attributes this to the fact that equipment is expensive so we do not immediately throw it away after we have discarded our obsolete hardware. However, once we do, it becomes part of the junkyard of computers which leads to environmental problems. This is where Garnet Hertz’ Dead Media Project comes in.

Dead Media Project

In Hertz’ Dead Media Initiative he addresses the crossroads of media archeology and media ecology. The project links between themes of nature and technics and points to the material contexts of media. The Dead Media Project has three interests:

  1. Repurposing media as a creative artistic project: it addresses the problems of electronic waste (gasses etc). A new temporality: cycle of consuming, human time of use value.
  2. Extending media beyond individual use: Media as a community and artistic production as seen in do-it-yourself  and circuit bending practices. It aims to extend media to what is at hand.
  3. Innovation through analysis of media history. It entails a shift of emphasis that looks as the usefulness of obsolescence: it offers us cheap research and design. The dynamics of media change.
Media as the death of nature

According to Parikka there are new waves of media studies: media archeology, media ecology and dead media studies. These semantics point to a crucial need to rethink media culture that takes into account the overlapping and boundaries of nature, technology and culture. Jussi Parikka addresses the animal forces within technology.

A medium is often described as a communication network, which is a broad definition. The Cross Talk project looks at new media spheres that pass through humans where the body becomes part of the media network. Its objective is to try to find processes in the natural world, for example bodies, as conduits for communications. What are natural technics that can function as carriers of signals or messages?

Relationality is the approxamity of relations. If you want to understand an media essemblage you have to look at its relations. What are the compositional dynamics that constitute media ecologies?3 Parikka is interested in the links between the themes of nature and technics and the material contexts of media. In his Spam Book he describes the Anomalies of Network Society which connects to his current research because it is a way of looking at media in ways it is not usually looked at. Nature has been seen as secondary signification, especially in the UK based strand of Cultural Studies which focusses on the politics of media. Nature is seen as merely  an affordance.

In a non-representational approach/analysis we could ask what kind of objects are circulating within media ecologies? Moving to the field of Software Studies, software may be used as the basis for the study of non-human autonomous agents. Examples of this type of research is focused on swarms (for example Galloway on Swarm Games) and object-oriented programming. These swarms are algorithmic insects and they are what produce second order effects.

The two strands of Media ecology (Neil Postman & Matthew Fuller) seem to be merging where, according to Parikka, media ecologies becomes less of a critique but more of a new strand.

The origins of the field of media ecology lie in the Toronto School and the New York School. In ‘What is Media Ecology?‘ Lance Strate4 describes it as

technological determinism, hard and soft, and technological evolution. It is media logic, medium theory, mediology. It is McLuhan Studies, orality–literacy studies, American cultural studies. It is grammar and rhetoric, semiotics and systems theory, the history and the philosophy of technology.

Neil Postman, seen as the father of Media ecology, defines it as follows:5

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 word ecology implies the study of environments: their structure, content, and impact on people. […]

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.

Media ecology is the study of media as environments.

What Fuller and Parikka contribute to the Postman’s Media ecology is the increasing solidification and naturalization of the non-technological within our society. By doing so it would like to expand media studies’ agenda by borrowing from nature. Approprating and expanding our standardized uses and understandings by reconsidering what on earth have we have previously considered as media and why. Koert van Mensvoort examines this reconsideration of media and nature in the Next Nature blog. In the Next Nature publication Michiel Schwarz describes this reconfiguration of media ecology through media, technology and nature:

In the age where we have genetic engineering, artificial beaches, nature-identical food flavourings and virtual environments, what we traditionally used to view as ‘nature’ has now become an object of human design. ‘So-called nature’ has become a culturally-constructed nature in a mediated world. In this world, it is perhaps fitting that we now manipulate not only what we believed to be nature, but we happily also manipulate our images of nature. (..) What the images of multiple natures reveal to us, then, is the ‘new ecology’ in which we now find ourselves. A new ecology, where natures, technologies and media are all caught up together. (Schwarz)

  1. Acland, Charles R. Residual media. Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press, 2007. p 16-31.[]
  2. As described in: Pacey, Arnold. The culture of technology. MIT Press, 1983.[]
  3. Fuller, Matthew. Media Ecologies. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005: p. 131[]
  4. Lance Strate, “Understanding MEA,” In Medias Res 1 (1), Fall 1999.[]
  5. Neil Postman, “The Reformed English Curriculum.” in A.C. Eurich, ed., High School 1980: The Shape of the Future in American Secondary Education (1970[]

3 thoughts on “On the future of new media, media ecologies and media as the death of nature

  1. Pingback: Michael Steger
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