Part Three: Production and Structures
32 Political Ecologies of Media
At the outset of this chapter, we defined political economy as the study of production, and subsequently considered what it means to study the production of media. Then we looked at how production reveals a set of political relationships which are far from ideologically neutral by looking at a range of issues pertaining to ownership, intellectual property, relationships to government, and funding mechanism. This was especially via advertising, and we considered in some detail how these factors can be understood to influence the content and messages commonly encountered within media texts. However, understanding the production of media and the political issues which arise from media to be limited to the ways in which meanings are generated by the texts which can be thought of as the outputs of media, neglects what could be considered a range of ethical and political issues which relate to the production, consumption and disposal of the technologies which are necessary for media systems to function.
Considering issues which arise from the design, production and sustainability of hardware systems has traditionally been considered outside the bounds of media studies as a discipline, which situated within the humanities has been focussed upon the cultural impacts of symbols and messages, rather than exploring the ethics of mining the metals and minerals needed to make cameras and computers, tablets and telephones. Indeed, early approaches to media and ecology explicitly stated that their goal was:
To make people more conscious of the fact that human beings live in two different kinds of environments. One is the natural environment and consists of things like air, trees, rivers, and caterpillars. The other is the media environment, which consists of language, numbers, images, holograms, and all of the other symbols, techniques, and machinery that make us what we are. Postman 2000:11
This type of thought can be understood as dualistic; it reinforces the notion that there are binary oppositions between nature and culture, discourse and materiality, the sciences and the humanities. Dualistic modes of thought can be understood as holding a privileged place within the canon of Western philosophy, whereby the divisions between man and God, nature and culture, immanence and transcendence, and body and soul were pivotal to the religious doctrines which organised modes of life for centuries.
In contrast to this type of approach, there has been a contemporary drive within elements of media studies scholarship to move towards a disciplinary approach which highlights the interconnectedness of nature and culture, technology and expression, science and art. This move towards expanding the scope of political economy to include the social and environmental impacts of technologies of mediation can be understood as being closely related to the approach found within political ecology, which Paul Robbins (2004:12) defines as follows:
Political ecology seeks to expose flaws in dominant approaches to the environment favoured by corporate, state, and international authorities, working to demonstrate the undesirable impacts of policies and market conditions, especially from the point of view of local people, marginal groups, and vulnerable populations. It works to “denaturalise” certain social and environmental conditions, showing them to be the contingent outcomes of power, and not inevitable. As critical historiography, deconstruction and myth-busting research, political ecology is a hatchet, cutting and pruning away the stories, methods and policies that create pernicious social and environmental outcomes
Political ecology then, strives to break down the perceived barriers between nature and culture, demonstrating through detailed analyses the ways in which human relations and politically conditioned activities affect and impact upon the environment, which in turn conditions our understandings of nature. Unlike the approach espoused by Neil Postman, a political ecology of media does not seek to separate media systems from the “natural” environment, it seeks to explore the multiplicity of ways in which media condition our preconceptions of what nature is, whilst simultaneously exploring how media production and consumption produces material impacts upon ecosystems and social systems.
Consequently, there have been a range of attempts made within the past few years to begin addressing what some of the social and ecological issues associated with the life cycle of media hardware are, and to explore some of the ways that these issues are being addressed by a disparate range of groups. According to this perspective:
Media and communication scholars have had no problem in the past dealing with a range of critical insights to other ethical problems, including those related to social harms (violence), cultural harms (prejudicial stereotypes), economic harms (ownership), or political harms (propaganda)… The eco-crisis presents media studies with an eco-ethical choice: either continue to document and assess the growing consumption of media technologies without understanding their ecological context, or advocate policies and influence polities to reduce the consumption of media technologies—not an easy choice for a field hooked on iPodpeople and PCers. We think it’s time to assume intellectual responsibility for the ecological dimension of the media, and deal with difficult ethical challenges posed by the eco-crisis. Miller and Maxwell 2008:4
For an outline of issues relating to political ecologies of media, ranging from mining tantalum in the Democratic Republic of Congo, through the manufacture of devices in sweatshop like conditions, the energy and carbon footprint of manufacturing and powering microelectronics, to issues surrounding the manual dismantling of highly toxic electronic waste by impoverished workers is Ghana, China and Pakistan, see http://culturemachine.net/index.php/cm/article/view/468/487
- Why do so many of the damaging effects of digital media technologies seem to affect some of the poorest people on the planet?
- How might we go about assessing the ethics of using technologies which have individual and social benefits, but often hidden social and environmental costs?
- What kinds of positive contributions could you make to some of the issues surrounding the political ecologies of media?
Taffel, Sy. Escaping Attention: Digital Media Hardware, Materiality and Ecological Cost 2013.