BY TOM COOPER
Many thanks to Paolo Granata, Paul Soukup, and others for the epic scope of this event and topic. I also wish to acknowledge Lance Strate and Media Ecology Association (MEA) for, more than any other association, carrying the central core curriculum of the Innis/McLuhan breakthroughs into the next level of explorations.
One of the ancient meanings of the word “Toronto” is “the meeting place.” Toronto is where McLuhan’s literary arts met Innis’s social sciences and gave birth to media studies and a Canadian school of transformative thinking—and now all of us meet in the intellectual, geographical, and transformative meeting place where ecology meets ethics.
I have some preliminary thoughts which overlap with Strate’s, and then I’ll address his remarks specifically.
First it is unethical not to study media ecology when we consider the Ross Hume Hall effect. You may recall that Hall was McLuhan’s cousin and an important biochemist who taught at McMaster University and who discovered that no chemical food additive should be studied out of context nor should any medium, message, culture, technology, or interaction. If we study an additive outside its context, we may not discover that it is toxic or lethal and thus unethical when introduced to other additives in food. And so it is with media which in combination may raise, amplify, and morph ethical questions, issues, and problems.
Next you recall McLuhan’s tetrads so well developed by his son Eric. Every technology retrieves, amplifies, morphs, obsolesces, and we could add downsizes and upgrades previous media or technologies, and then flips, but the same is true of ethical issues. For example, spam amplifies junk mail and retrieves sandwich boards just as satellites, drones, and rogue software amplify local to global invasion of privacy.
For those of you who prefer the quantitative approach, we were tracking 13 media ethics issues in 1993, and 52 “new media” ethics issues in 1999. And of course today there are literally hundreds when you consider the cross-pollination of the coming 3,000 channel universe with the 500,000 app galaxy, and with the multiple changes in platforms annually as we move from 5G to 6G to 7G and to literally thousands of media playing with different accents in hundreds of cultures and subcultures.
And you must consider that the implication of ecology is de facto that you cannot understand the part without understanding the whole—and so it is that an ethical system which analyzes the part but not the whole is potentially if not inherently unethical. If I study the recent Nancy Pelosi or Mark Zuckerberg deep fakes for their content or appearance alone, they may seem ethical, but when I consider their environment, their authorship, the possible motivations and their potential effects—all as part of their media environment, I may perceive them as quite unethical.
When you study the hundreds of definitions of ethics worldwide, the primary ones you encounter are the all-encompassing ones: 1) a way of life—such as the Judeo-Christian, capitalist or Marxist ethic, 2) all of the synonyms for codes or professional moral decision-making such as policies, standards, guidelines, etc., and 3) the study of #1 and #2 as we do in universities. In our cultures a fourth definition is the vernacular “virtue” or “integrity,” such as, “he ain’t got no ethics,” meaning “he’s a politician,” which actually means he or she is not trustworthy. All four of these definitions are radically challenged if not changed in the digital sphere.
And that is all prefatory to what Strate has said, and what he articulated deserves the strongest reinforcement if not high praise.
Strate is the perfect person to trace media studies from McLuhan to Postman with the understanding that Ong, Mumford, White, Ellul, and many others are the intervening slopes between the primary summits of McLuhan, Postman, and we might well add Innis.
McLuhan loved the encyclopedic and there is a successful multi-disciplinary, multi-generational, multi-perspective encyclopedism revealed today which must be applauded. And this scene is right out of the media itself as when the wounded cowboy who has just been shot and doesn’t know if they will have to amputate his leg turns to the doctor and says, “All right, doc, give it to me straight.” And today we got it Strate. As King Arthur used to say to the Knights of the Round Table, “We need to hear from Lance … a … lot.”
To the tribe of ethicists to which I belong, Strate is pulling the rug from under the rug, since we ethicists tend to see everything, even media ecology, through a lens which moves from black to white via shades of gray. But Lance is saying that even ethics itself has been sculpted by media genealogy such that say (and I’ll add my own example here) only literate culture could have developed codification. But the “codes of ethics” which were so popular in post-Enlightenment culture are now down-graded, dissolved or superseded by what is deemed politically correct, a highly transitory group mentality which is propagated much more easily by the tribal culture of digitized social media, in which everyone becomes a surface level ethicist undisturbed by those who have studied and applied classical ethics from literate culture for decades.
We recall that for Innis every medium allegedly had a bias toward either space or time. For Strate, every medium also lends itself toward a moral bias whether obvious or subterranean—and that could inspire a whole new field of study within media ecology ethics—by which we research the interactive field of media moral biases, that is, if Strate’s assumption holds water.
Strate reminds us of Postman’s first MEA address, “The Humanism of Media Ecology,” as a cornerstone laying out the primary value of humanism and pro-social thinking, rationality, democracy, and our capacity for goodness.
In that sense this lecture is “The Humanism of Media Ecology” Part 2, where these same values are underscored and we affirm these values rather than moral relativism, neutrality, nihilism, or apathy. To these values Strate adds the importance of context, balance, the vertical evolution of consciousness, naturalism, and of course education in its best sense of asking the right questions and questing to provide our best thinking if not penultimate answers.
Strate has laid out both the existence and the need for a media ecology ethics, and I cannot agree more wholeheartedly. In this regard I think the Force, or rather the Grand Marshall McLuhan is with us.
Although Strate is right that McLuhan proclaimed moral neutrality, the literature and interviews, upon close inspection and my own encounters with Marshall, point out that the public Marshall wore the mask of moral abstention. However, Emerson stated: “Stop talking. Who you are thunders over you so loudly all the while that I can’t hear a word you are saying.”
So if you want to see Marshall’s real ethics, look at what he did, what he taught his children, why he went to Mass at noon even on campus every day, why he paraded his own brood to Mass. There is no doubt he strongly adopted the morality of the Church and wanted others to do so. He was quite concerned about the erosion of civility, and he certainly pointed his own children—whom he and Corinne constantly taught behavioral ethics when they were younger—toward being closer to the saints than sinners end of the spectrum. So he, and Innis, and Postman, were much more aligned with the Judeo-Christian ethic rather than say the Confucianist or feminist or Marxist or Hindu ethic.
And although Innis broke from Christianity and argued with McLuhan about its limitations, I think we can safely argue that the entire trajectory of media ecology from Innis to McLuhan, to Postman, to Strate, to this conference favors a humanist ethic, favors life and not genocide, favors the dignity of human life, not the rape of a human life, let alone the rape of an entire planet.
And in this regard I am Professor Strate’s affirmation, not his respondent. So, as they say in tag-team wrestling, if you want to disagree, you’ll have to take on the both of us.
It is for this reason that I have been very happy to accept the offer of the United Nations to be part of an international team who have developed an ethics curriculum, including media ethics, for worldwide implementation wherever countries and cultures will welcome it. I would be very happy to tell any of you about it. So it is good to have the United Nations make this topic global in its geographic scope and to hear Strate make it intellectually global with his holistic thinking.
What is essential here is that ethics, like media studies, has often been studied in a vacuum. For example, we often restrict ethics to the field of philosophy and to the Western canon of Aristotle, Kant, Mill, Rawls, Gilligan, and more modern ethicists. But if, for example, we use Mill’s utilitarianism to solve an ethical dilemma, and we ask “what is the greatest good for the greatest number?” we know that we mean the greatest number of people. But what if we use the original meaning of ecology and ask “what about the greatest number of plants and animals?” Or, if we go to Rachel Carson’s studies, we mean the greatest number of all species, even insects and billions of invisible organisms. Or if we include the ethics of First Nations, we consider “the greatest good for the greatest number of forthcoming generations?” and et cetera.
So we can always draw a larger circle around the existing one, and that is why ecology is so important. All of the circles interact in multiple dimensions including the invisible and the eternal. And if we add the media, we ideally also mean by the “greatest good” the greatest number of unfiltered, uncensored, unpackaged, un-fake, uncommercialized, unredacted messages to the greatest number of eyeballs and eardrums, which drastically transmutes the way in which all is understood. This largest possible context is the most important one because if the planetary species do not survive—and we are told that we lose at least one species every minute—we will have no media and more importantly no humans left to discuss and debate any other ethical issues. So how we handle the greatest ethical issue ever facing our planet—and how the media convey that largest issue—will determine whether and how we approach all the other ones and with which, if any, media.
Many thanks to Paolo Granata, Paul Soukup, Lance Strate, and all of you for choosing “ethics” and thus by implication posing what is the largest ethical question of all by which all others are contained—the ethical issue which depending upon how it is answered can save or let perish all ecology including that of human media—and which cannot be met with mere theory.
As Rabbi Tarfon via Strate put it: It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it . We are the generation for whom the most visible role models for children via the media are the likes of Putin, Kim, and Trump, the first president of the United States who dissolved the ethics requirement of his staff and whose ethics officer was among the first to step down. So the answer will not come from so-called world leadership.
Nor will the ethical answers or even best questions come from the mainstream media. As media experts, you know that the number one message which comes from commercialized media is not from news, weather, sports, drama, comedy, documentary, nor any other established genre—nor from the now visible large contender, porn. No, the most pervasive message of all commercialized media now is quite simple: “Something is wrong with you—buy something!” But I say to my students, “No! No! No! Something is right with you—do something!” For ethics to have real traction, it is up to all of us to do something. As Strate puts it, “let’s get to work.” If not us, who? And if not now, when? So, thank you, Lance, Paulo, Paul, University of Toronto, and Grand Marshall McLuhan. Let’s do something. It is literally now or never. So, carpe diem—let’s seize this day. Viva la revolución.
- Tom Cooper is Professor of Visual and Media Arts at Emerson College. The Association for Responsible Communication which he founded was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and he has received many awards and scholarships. Cooper taught at Harvard, where he graduated magna cum laude, and at Temple University, the University of Hawaii and at U. of Maryland. A former assistant to Marshall McLuhan, he is the author, editor, or co-author of seven books and over one hundred academic and professional published articles on media ethics and related topics. Musician, poet, playwright and Black Belt in Tae Kwon Do, Cooper was consultant to the Elders Project which included Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, and Kofi Annan.