Media Ecologies and the Essence of Being

Gregory Bateson put forward the idea that defining things in terms of their autonomous substance or the sum of their parts does little but to isolate the thing within an arbitrary name. For Bateson, this phenomenological approach is insufficient as it does little to situate the thing within a context or in terms of a contrast. According to Bateson, it is more useful to consider things in terms of the relations to one another, or as an interconnected ecology that attaches causation to patterns of relation rather than to a single individual.

Matthew Fuller takes up a similar conception, stating that the only way to “find out about what happens when complex objects… interact is to carry out such interactions”. Let us take a musical composition for example. If we consider a single quaver in a composition, alone, then we can say for it that it is an eighth note, it could be indicating a pause or playing in the note of c; we can describe numerous things about the substance of the quaver.  However, the single quaver is unable to infer meaning if it is standing alone. It is a thing considered with no relation and therefore, it is not able to show what it can do by allowing itself to be conveyed in its difference to other notes. In Bateson’s words, it is “the difference that makes a difference”. What he means by this is that in order to define something, we must do it in terms of its relationship using contrast and context instead of isolating it within its etymological name.

So if we were to use Bateson’s method, we would instead consider the quaver in its relation to the other musical notes that come together to create a composition. The quaver, thus, has a function of what it is in relation to (i.e other notes in the composition), not in its individual substance. By contrasting the quaver to the other notes in the composition, we are able to distinguish it from the rest, and thus deduce, how its interaction with the others displays its function.

Bateson asks for us to apply this method of thinking to all aspects of life and communication. By doing so we will begin to understand the media in terms of an ecology, or an environment. Fuller explains how media ecology allows us to understand how “information flows are routed within an organization” and the “dynamic interrelation” of patterns and processes that allow such networks to function.

There lies a correlation between Bateson’s and Fuller’s perspectives and with Aristotle’s conception of being. He stated that “being is not a genus”, meaning that being itself cannot be a universal trait; we cannot divide and subdivide things into various categories based on their common characteristics. Even the differentiae that distinguish one thing from another means that they also ‘are’. The question of being or patterns of relation are essential to the sciences. If we are simply taking being for granted and flattening it as something homogenous then we do little to display true scientific inquiry.


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