Alfred Korzybski introduced the terms neuro-semantic and neuro-linguistic, and in conjunction with his emphasis on the organism-as-a-whole-in-an-environment, made reference to the neuro-linguistic and neuro-semantic environment that we inhabit. Following Korzybski's lead, Wendell Johnson introduced the concept of the semantic environment in his classic work on general semantics, People in Quandaries (recently reissued by the Institute of General Semantics).
Neil Postman devoted a chapter of his 1976 study, Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk, to the topic of the semantic environment, explaining that, "a semantic environment includes, first of all, people; second, their purposes; third, the general rules of discourse by which such purposes are usually achieved; and fourth, the particular talk actually being used in the situation." Noting that there are many different types of semantic environments, he described them as situations and social structures "in which people want to do something to, for, with, or against other people, as well as to, for, with, or against themselves."
Postman specified that he was particularly concerned with "those semantic environments which give form to our most important human transactions." And in an earlier essay entitled "Demeaning of Meaning," he maintained that, "in considering the ecology of the semantic environment, we must take into account what is called the communications revolution," going on to observe that, "the invention of new and various media of communication has given a voice and an audience to many people whose opinions would otherwise not have be solicited, and who, in fact, have little if anything to contribute to public issues."
For the previous two years, we had the rare opportunity of presenting programs featuring out-of-towners who have converged on New York City to attend the annual Media Ecology Association board meeting, and we continued that practice on January 24th, 2020, as we asked them to comment on the state of the semantic environment in 2020, locally and globally. The participants on this program were:
Cathy Adams is a Professor in the Faculty of Education and Vargo Teaching Chair at the University of Alberta. Drawing on links between phenomenology, philosophy of technology and media scholarship, her research addresses digital technology integration across K-12 and post-secondary educational environments. She is particularly interested in the ethical and pedagogical implications of the widespread use of digital media, and increasingly smart technologies, as cognitive extenders in teaching and learning. She is co-author of Researching a Posthuman World: Interviews with Digital Objects (2016).
Paolo Granata teaches in the Book and Media Studies program at the University of Toronto, St. Michael’s College. He joined the University of Toronto after spending 15 years at the University of Bologna, Italy, where he almost entirely established his own academic career in research, teaching, and public engagement. He is the Coordinator of the Book & Media Studies program, and Director of the Media Ethics Lab at the University of Toronto. He is also the president of the Media Ecology Association. Since October 2018, Professor Granata is a member of the Executive Committee of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO as Chair of the Culture, Communication and Information Sectoral commission.
Jaqueline McLeod Rogers is Professor and Chair of the Department Rhetoric, Writing, and Communication at the University of Winnipeg. She has presented numerous papers and been invited to speak about Marshall McLuhan at a number of international scholarly conferences. Her publications include Finding McLuhan: the Mind, the Man, the Message (2015 ) and McLuhan and the Arts (a special issue of the journal Imaginations, 2018). She is currently awaiting the publication of a six-chapter study of McLuhan and the City, McLuhan’s Techno-Sensorium City (Lexington, forthcoming). She is also currently co-editing a volume on technology and family practices, Mothering/ Internet /Kids (for Demeter Press) and has begun a more expansive examination of creative tourism and locality. She has recently been elected to the Media Ecology Association board as member-at-large.
The discussion was moderated by NYSGS President Lance Strate, Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University, Trustee of the Institute of General Semantics, and author of Media Ecology: An Approach to Understanding the Human Condition (2017), and Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman's Brave New World Revisited (2014).
It was a wide-ranging and stately discussion!