Well, one could argue that, at least for a part of the world, we are living in a mediatized society or – as modernization theorist Scott Lash puts it – in a second modernity that should be characterized as an age of generalized mediatization. A whole bunch of studies within especially media and communication studies, philosophy of information and of course sociology exemplify different processes that are fostered or even catalyzed due to the spread of information and communication technology: the driven connection and connectedness of humans with humans (and of technology with technology), the blurring boundaries and pluralization of formerly known roles, the increased amount of options, the progressive datification of action and interaction, or the extensive acceleration of life’s speed – just to mention some processes. However, it was and still is hard to predict the directions of these cultural and social tendencies, not only because of the good old Collingridge dilemma that we know from the technological impact assessment (we never know the consequences of spreading inventions). And it’s not only because of the appropriative quality of society’s members, constantly negotiating activities in their surroundings, stressed especially by cultural studies. The unknown ‘nature’ of mediatization at least to a major degree is based on the enormous speed of economically driven innovation. It is driven by a solutionist mindset of today’s companies, developers and tinkerers: self-driven network based cars, flying Wi-Fi-balloons, shrinking health devices…
Of course, and against this euphemism, the last century’s history of human kind until today is accompanied by different pessimistic voices, also coloring dystopian pictures of technological success. However, if we take a closer look at recent scientific endeavors we discover a certain implicit narration: no matter what we are doing, what we are thinking, we are confronted with an unstoppable socio-technological progress – or as Ulrich Beck in his Book “Gegengifte” (“Antidotes”) puts it: a societal built-in automatism of progress. Furthermore, it was Beck who reminded us, that there are possible turning points or ruptures within societal development. Becks’ argumentative figure is built upon risks, arising out of modern institutions’ – e.g. capitalism or scientific research – success. He therefore argues that we are living in a time of non-intended side effects – in a risk society.
As we all know, Becks’ examples mostly cover risks that threaten all humanity (e. g. atomic energy). Also, the non-intended side consequences of mediatization weren’t systematically discussed until recently. But in public discourse, economy as well as everyday practice we find different risk constructions and counter measures that are directly connected to digital media and its spread. For example:
- When WhatsApp was bought by Facebook, millions of users anticipated the omnipresence of surveillance regarding their data which led to an exodus away from these platforms.
- At first online poker was seen as the Promised Land where platforms as well as players could easily make a fortune. But the quantification and acceleration that came with online poker and its possibilities led to a sudden crash regarding the poker boom and resulted in new forms of anonymized poker.
Actually, there are plenty of examples where people are engaged in counter measurements against these unwelcome mediatization effects. In a recently started research project at the department of sociology in Vienna we are focusing exclusively on these drafts and practices that question mediatization in its core. Let me just mention two cases on which we focus our research:
- The LLC Digital Detox promotes, that “we are more globally connected than ever before, but life in the digital age is far from ideal.” Following that promotion (on their own website), they “provide individuals, families and companies the opportunity to put aside their digital arm, gain perspective, and reemerge with new found inspiration, balance and
connection.” This idea fits neatly into a well-thought-out business model that relies and results basically in selling people a temporary exit, an experience in unconnected spaces. And it is successful. Obviously (new but also old) economic actors pick up a wider uncertainty and worry about a life in a digitally-connected world.
- Another example comes with the so called “slow media movement”, whose driving actors represent a new way of mediatized life. Here we are dealing with a growing number of people, jointly engaged in a deeply value driven movement. Their idea is that of a careful use of the right media at the right time, and by doing so they not only propose a temporary exit of a digitally connected world but also describe and collectively prove a lifestyle within a digital media saturated – at least western – society.
At the time, we don’t know much about the societal impact of such phenomena, and neither if they promise turning points or even ruptures. But most obviously we live in times where the digital-technological progress itself is not only heavily questioned but also foiled. In other words: In today’s times we are witnessing the birth of differing constructions regarding wanted and unwanted futures – in plural…
Tilo Grenz studied sociology at Dresden University of Technology and received his PhD at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT). In December 2014 he joined the Department of Sociology in Vienna as university assistant where he works on mediatization and processes of reflexive mediatization.