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Take five: Media theorist Eric McLuhan carries on his father Marshall's message

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 19, 2009 - Eric McLuhan writes, lectures and teaches about media ecology, something that media consumers unknowingly practice. McLuhan is the son of the late media theorist Marshall McLuhan, who coined the phrase "the medium is the massage," also the title of his most famous book.

Eric McLuhan, who co-authored "The Laws of Media" with his father, is also the author of "Electric Language: Understanding the Message" among other works. On Thursday, McLuhan spoke at the 10th annual convention of the Media Ecology Association at St. Louis University. In an interview with the Beacon, McLuhan elaborated on his theories of media ecology.

What is media ecology, and where did the idea come from?

Ecology relates to the natural environment and trying to keep things in balance. Media ecology does the same thing -- only in media -- to try to balance the effects of new media and old media. Media can kill a culture just as much as an effluent from a factory can. Media ecology is a kind of cultural anthropology.

My father and I were teaching at Fordham University in New York for a year, and we came up with the idea. Ordinary ecology was brand new and very hot. So why not apply it to media? The same principles were involved in protecting yourself. I don't know anybody who -- before they release something (whether a computer, phone or MP3 player) into the population -- looks at the effects it's going to have. Media ecology would look at what's this going to do. The same medium won't have the same effect on two different cultures. The idea of ecology takes some account of the changes these people are going to go through. The medium changes you.

How does media ecology play into people's everyday lives?

If you know, for example, that computers are going to destroy literacy -- which they have -- then you might sit back a little and say, "Is that what you want to do?" Mostly, people don't want to read or write. There are much easier ways. They can pick up the phone. Word processing doesn't develop a reading public, but writing on paper did. Word processing is a very weak medium. (Electronic) word character recognition is getting pretty good. In fact Kindle has a program where it will read the book to you. So, you don't have to exert yourself much.

What is a media ecologist's take on the internet?

Every new medium means a new culture. You can't say it's good or bad unless you're a diehard fixed on preserving one (medium). But from an ecologist's standpoint, if you introduce a medium, that means a new culture. TV for example took the family circle and broke it in half into a family semicircle. Now, everybody has a TV in their pocket or on their wrist.

How did your father influence you?

Well, hell, man, he's my father. I planned on being an engineer or a pilot. I wound up in English literature and working in the area of media and culture. My father made quite a name for himself as a student of media. I'd recommend "The Medium is the Massage" and "Understanding Media." I'd expect people see him in me, but I don't know.

What do you think of reality TV?

Reality TV means you are the show. They don't show you the whole apparatus. You don't see any crew members, cameramen, microphone operators. It takes about three or four hours of reading to counterbalance one hour of TV. Literacy is now counterculture. The whole thing with TV is the way it's going to morph the internet. News used to be facts. Now it's "how do you feel?" and getting responses from the audience. The whole dynamic flipped around and nobody noticed.

Christian Losciale, an intern with the Beacon, is a student at the University of Missouri Columbia.