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Shifting paradigms in communication research

This chapter - an essay based on perspectives raised by The Science of the Commons (Sodré, 2019) - examines the impact of technological changes in communication on paradigms in communication research, in particular issues raised for media studies with respect to cultural expression and creative labour. In this analysis the topic of mediatization becomes central, mainly in the essential connections between social institutions and media technology, wherein subjectivity is prone to being influenced by cultural codifications performed by media devices. We suggest that mediatization is not a metaphor for a material totality, but rather a concept related to the dynamics of qualitative shifts in social patterns through the interconnection of electronic technology and human life.

The new system of social interaction created by the Internet and social networks has been metaphorically linked to the human limbic system, that is, to the medial brain surface, which accounts for behaviour, learning, memory and motivation. In other words, media technology is no longer confined to words and print, but now includes emotions and feelings in a new kind of social inter-media environment. As for the academic field of communication, it is precisely this conception of an ecologically integrated structure that reveals profound shifts in the current paradigms.

Decades ago, a large part of post-modernist criticism was based on the hypothesis that the emerging media, both written and audiovisual, was equivalent to a monopoly of speech, that is, to the impossibility of a strong, symbolic response by the receiver. Thus, there was no possible response to the unilateral nature of the messages. This could be understood as the construction of a system of economic monopoly by corporate media. This system was always present as a multifaceted reality, heavily scrutinized, in fact, by analysts from various theoretical tendencies, from economics to sociology. In reality, it was not only the socio-economic, though basically cultural, aspect of the monopoly by which the decision-making power over the discourse was supported by the centres of the relation between speaker and listener, or the broadcaster; not the discourse of power, but the power of the monopolistic discourse. The communication paradigm was supported by analogue and linear information platforms, which allowed the distance between broadcaster and receiver to shine through.

The Internet era, however, seemed to show initially that interactivity provided a solution to this problem; the connection between users of the electronic network would break the monopoly of speech. The media were becoming intercommuni-cative thanks to unmediated feedback. The hypothesis of an electronic democracy arose from this technical possibility of instantaneous, global communication, supposedly capable of introducing difference into a dialogic game.

In the second decade of the twenty-first century, the situation has been shown to be far more complex. In the expanding environment of‘mediatization’ (the articulation of media with social organizations and institutions), the electronic network has introduced a new paradigm to reflect a structure of invisible interconnection, in which everything is simultaneously both connection and gateway. One can now electronically respond to a receiver, just as on a telephone. Digital social networks have amplified this circuit of discursive exchange; the circulation of speech seems to have broken the communicative monopoly. There is, however, an enormous difference between the technical aspect of the tool and the cultural device of communication. As a device, the network is configured as a technological matrix capable of increasing the physical space-time, amplifying space and shortening time.

Thus, there is no symbolic response from the user to the centralized, electronic network, where the monopoly has culturally shifted, or rather, where it has transferred itself from the differentiated means of communication to the network. It is true that the network, besides its technical-financial aspect, includes a symbolic dimension which may be associated with a ‘technology of the spirit’, that is, a normative technology of attitudes and behaviours. ‘Symbolic’ response refers to an autonomous behaviour by the user in relation to the data it seeks to access on the network. However, the messages circulating among individualized users on social networks have not indicated any break with the unidirectional nature of broadcasting, or rather, they do not react dialogically (with the exception of the short-circuit aggressiveness of the messages), which gives primacy to the merely quantitative circulation within the electronic system. In other words, the networks do not constitute a public sphere of dialogue (where thesis, antithesis and synthesis exist dialectically), but rather a mere circulating space for messages.

At the same time, from the economic and organizational point of view, the technology for processing and storing data - the name of the product which sustains the brave, new industry of this century - strides in the direction of private oligopolies, so-called Big Tech, expressed in corporate logos such as Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and IBM, administrators of big data, that is, of the great masses of data which manipulate complex algorithms of artificial intelligence.

If, in traditional media, manipulation consisted of the unilateral repetition of messages - which was always the basic resource of ideological, political and religious propaganda - now it consists of the combination of digital patterns which feeds artificial intelligence. The adequate model of the phenomenon is no longer that which is oriented toward the individual target of a process of persuasion, but towards institutions and organizations in which the bases of social functioning are situated. This is no simple monopoly of speech, but rather a true oligopoly, both economic and cultural, of the variables which compose the existence of a subject in their everyday life.

The liberal ideas of free trade thus give way to the power of competitive capitalism supported by the free market, in which the state has presented itself as the guardian of the new rules without relinquishing the old, structural advantages, such as its symbolic power and military force. In front of the executive backdrop, hollow formulas are repeated which hybridize state policy, demagoguery and advertising. Thus, in the face of the growing dominion of social life by economy (finance) and technology, it is pertinent to investigate whether politics in the broad sense, that is, as the event essential to human plurality in communities, together with journalism, is still demonstrably an institutional path open to civil society.

Journalistic liberalism has always been a partner along this path, in that it mimicked, as an ideological guideline, the balance of power instituted by a democratic system of government. Hence the pertinence of speculating, together with politics, on the possibility of an independent journalistic practice - understood as: independence as a reasonable balance between the economic corporation and the position of social class - capable of intervening with a mediating function relevant to the public agenda and with socio-political effects. This function is institutional, a point midway between the central aspects of civil society and the organizational aspects of corporate media.

Mediation performs the symbolic transit, or the ‘communication’ of property from one element to another, by means of a third party, which is a means of articulating two diverse elements. Thus, there exists an implicit dualism in the idea of mediation, reinforced by the notion which results from ‘intermediation’, or rather, from the approximation, by means of a mediator, between speaker and listener. In the public space, this intermediary may consist of‘small groups’ (opinion leaders) and gatekeepers (informational filters).The traditional press, a hybrid entity of productive organization and an institution that cherishes civil freedom of expression, has been sociologically characterized as a ‘gatekeeper’ - in practice, an intermediary between the citizen and the public sphere.

It is possible, however, that this intermediation has been affected by the decomposition of democratic politics occurring simultaneously with the emergence of new social forms and institutional embryos. In fact, the prestige of the written press stems from a mediation politically compromised by eighteenth-century liberalism, oriented toward the question of the limits of the state. The press was proposed to uncover and combat the secrets of state power. On the other hand, it is the cultural heritage of the Enlightenment, which contributed much to the renovation of the standards of living through the defence of rational discourse and scientific investigation.

Since the beginnings of European republicanism, it has fallen to the press to ensure the representation in citizens’ words of their personal thoughts, thus guaranteeing a good, namely the civil liberty of publicly expressing or manifesting oneself. In the second half of the nineteenth century, journalism was fundamental to perfecting the liberal conditions of discussion and persuasion, opening the way to a democracy of opinions in a public space consistent with the Industrial Revolution and political and economic liberalism. Journalism was a republican entity.

Within this scope, it would be possible to conceive of journalism as a greater political project than the ‘journal’ in itself: journalism should go beyond the mere objective reporting of events (the model in which the press ‘reports’ and the reader consumes) to become a means of education and public debate. Favouring direct dialogue between citizens and journalists, journalistic activity, more than ‘reporting’, would have at its core the promotion of a public ‘conversation’. For example, in covering a political or economic crisis, journalism could go beyond detailed newscasts - supposedly capable of presenting a general radiograph of the occurrence - and become a civil dialogue which envisions, in the interpretation of the fact in its totality, the virtual outcome of the crisis. This is a virtuality in which the dogmas of the ‘sovereignty of the people’, which underlie the modern idea of the nation, increase.

This function, which is the intrinsic virtue of the press, ethically underpins the implicit pact of communication in the relationship between the means of information and its receiving community Whether in written or electronic journalismjournalists’ duty to their reader-public (therefore, their ethical commitment) would be to tell the truth, recognized as such by common sense provided that the statement is consistent with fact.

The virtue in this public regime of the expression of truth stems from the precept of civil liberties instituted by the Declaration of the Rights of the Man and of the Citizen, but also results from the definition of and commitment to the liberals of the Enlightenment, to whom the only liberty that could not be suspended was that of the press, as it is an effective precondition for all others. It was thus that the free press could be recognized as a work of the modern, objective spirit and, in this way, could constitute an ethical-political backdrop which would make the phenomenon of sensationalist journalism scandalous to the liberal conscience in any part of the world, or would make the distortion or covering up of truth reprehensible to the moral conscience of a journalist.

The dissemination of the dogmas of the ‘sovereignty of the people’ demanded the free passage of ideas, which generated the concept of public space. Strengthened in Europe throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a place for the manifestation of the ‘general will’ and not of ‘private desires’, public space, supposedly the natural place to express public opinion, was, therefore, always simultaneously political and cultural, a combination of politics and the arts (in the broadest sense, not only of literature and words). The connection between parliament and arts was quite familiar to eighteenth-century intellectuals.

To the political institution, what was very important, if not essential, as John Dewey stated, was the improvement of the methods and conditions of debate, discussion and persuasion. That for him was ‘the problem of the public’ (Dewey, 1927). Or rather, without a particular rhetoric, conditioned to a specific culture and, thus, capable of expressing the language of the masses in a public space, pure reason would simply be another instrument of domination. Behind this rhetoric is found the education system. But the ‘rhetoric in itself’ - or rather, pure discursive technique, detached from cultural and political creativity, therefore, from civic activism - was already the embryo of the industries of cultural diffusion, the cultural industry, together with the public at large.

The cultural industry creates another reality for informational diffusion and allows for the hypothesis that liberal discussion on the civil right to freedom of expression may not entirely coincide with the functioning of the press, which is classically linked to the liberal principle of parliamentarianism as a ‘government for publicity and discussion’, but which is today inseparable from the informational system as a whole, governed by the same logic of the circulatory speed of the markets, to that which is called ‘real time’.

Within this system, the very concept of‘occurrence’ may depend more on an algorithmic model than on symbolic negotiations between social actors who traditionally compete in the game of language or the ‘agenda’ of the newsworthy. It is possible to formulate a hypothesis of an essential differential between ‘publication’ (the mere technical registration of occurrences, whether in print or digitally) and ‘publicization’, understood as the communication of the fact of a ‘real public’, therefore, a group which is live and interactively active in that which is related to questions pertinent to the commons of citizenship.

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