© Max Dauven Module #1
In the digital world, everybody seems to be connected to everybody simultaneously. The result: a heightened sense of the events occurring all around the globe. In this interview with 42 Magazine, Prof. Bolz discusses how the suffering of the world we witness daily changes our morality and where we search for stability.
Professor Bolz – does the current surplus of information pose a problem?
“Information overload”, the accessibility of too much information, is an old topic but it is more of a pseudo problem because there is an infinite amount of naturally occurring filters working against the overload. Ignorance and oblivion are our most important abilities. Only those who are ignorant can act intelligently as they are able to focus on specific pieces of information and process them properly. Oblivion is an essential element of staying agile. “Information overload” is purely a technical term without any anthropological foundation, because our natural filters only allow a certain amount of information to be processed. Of course, it is still possible to feel overworked or overwhelmed, but since we have found new, media-effective terms like “burnout” or “information overload” for these instances, they are somewhat justified, even excused.
Are there any other examples in the history of mass media that portray a similarly far-reaching change or is digital transformation a novelty in this case?
Digital transformation is obviously a course-setting development, but it is not unparalleled in the history of mass media. Two comparable events were the invention of the phonetic alphabet by the ancient Greeks and, of course, the invention of mechanical movable type printing by Gutenberg. These developments brought about a similar revolution of global culture, however today, script and printing are taken for granted. This evolution occurred naturally in both cases – 2500 and 500 years ago respectively – which has caused us to view these events as trivial while we are currently living through digital transformation. This makes it feel more spectacular and more revolutionary, but ultimately, there have been three big, quite comparable turning points in the history of mass media.
That means we are currently transitioning from the world of the printing press – characterised by the book as its defining medium – to the digital age. What will characterise this new era?
We are moving into a time of secondary orality as media science scholars Walter Ong and Marshall McLuhan predicted. This is most noticeable in the expanding oral characteristics of the medium of script, which of course is still prescriptive. Due to the technological possibilities, we are assimilating our use of writing progressively with our speaking behaviour. There is more nonchalance, also carelessness if you will, and we are interacting more spontaneously. The forms of politeness are also blurring. All this is due to the loss of distance, which the medium of writing originally offered. When you sit down to write a letter, you are not expecting an immediate reaction. You are expecting there to be a certain temporal distance between what you wrote and the response.
As a result, the time to process, to contemplate disappears. The time of reflection, which used to be a given due to the postal system, no longer exists. We live in a world of simultaneity and our communicative behaviour is accelerating accordingly. This is most tangible in the context of instant messaging services like WhatsApp, iMessage or Facebook. Here, the expectation of an immediate response is implicit in every message. Furthermore, voice messages can be sent easily, which bypass the medium of script altogether. All these developments are forms of a secondary orality.
In his thesis “The Medium is the Message”, McLuhan relativizes the meaning of media content and emphasises the societal influence of the specific characteristics of the medium utilised.
I believe McLuhan’s thesis to be the most extensive work, because it focuses on the character of the medium itself, not the content. As McLuhan said himself: People are baited with content to distract them from what is really having an impact on them, namely the formatting done by the media. Here, formatting describes the manipulation of our behaviour concerning media consumption. McLuhan breaks with this nearly amateurish fixation on content. The cultural pessimists have essentially got this right. It is not as important what we read in the newspapers, but the fact that we use their form of medium as a source of information and no longer a book.
“The more modern the world becomes, the more technology dependence increases”
McLuhan also interprets media as a kind of extension of the body. What does he mean by that?
That is an almost simplistic transfer from sociology, much like the hammer as the extension of the human fist, or the telescope as the extension of the human eye. It is essentially what we have experienced in our daily lives for centuries: Humans equip their five senses with technology, even the computer, which McLuhan already defined as an extension of the central nervous system. Therefore, media, as a technological expansion of our perceptive faculty, changes our view of the world. This might be a little exaggerated figuratively, but the limits of man are undeniably no longer the limits of his five senses, but rather the limits of his technologies.
Due to these technological prostheses, alluding to Sigmund Freud’s term of the “prosthetic god”, we now have different points of intersection with the world and consequently we also have new worldviews. Here, the “divine” is a self-attribution of man, who, fantasising himself to be omniscient and omnipotent, puts himself at the centre of creation. But man is in fact a being radically dependent on technology. The more modern the world becomes, the more technology dependence increases. However, this doesn’t necessarily culminate in the Cyborg-fantasies of transhumanism. That is more marketing.
Does the technological progress lead to a kind of global communication?
Yes. Global communication already exists on certain levels. Not so much on the level of spoken language even though there have been numerous efforts. It rather exists in communicative relations, which have already been long established worldwide: think of economic or scientific communication which both cross national borders and are universal. Science has standards and mechanisms of falsification.
In the field of economics, there is the medium of money, which offers a more or less global understanding without actors having to communicate. Particularly, the universalising and homogenising forces of technology, science and economics are influences that prompted the sociologist Niklas Luhmann – and rightly so in my opinion – to speak of a global society. Obviously, there are numerous systems and many inequalities, but if we examine the central parts of our lives, we witness something like global communication, which does not have to occur linguistically.
Does that mean, global communication is not bound to a uniform use of language, but rather the common usage of social institutions?
Correct, institutionalisation is always a prerequisite for successful communication. The capitalist market-based system is a successful example. The world has developed in a common direction and as a result, we can say today: Evidently, there is only one successful economic system, namely capitalism. We have not yet witnessed a comparable success story in politics.
Generally, it seems difficult to speak of a success story when we are able to directly stream the suffering of the world on our laptops.
Yes, that is true. More than ever, we now live in a culture of guilt. We feel as if we are at least partly responsible for everything. This culture of guilt is defined by our attempts to construct our identity through our own or our collective guilt. Practical politics also use this approach. The philosopher Hermann Lübbe examines this political practice in his book “Ich entschuldige mich” [I apologise]. He detects narratives of atonement all over the world: the apologies to former colonies, the apologies to Native Americans in the United States or in Australia towards the Aborigines.
Hundreds of apology-rituals exist by now. Identity is no longer defined by pride, as it still is the case in many Islamic countries and, in Europe, maybe only in France – the Grand Nation. The question of “Who are we?” has been diverted to the question of “What crimes have we committed and how can we be forgiven for them?”. This topic has become the subject of scientific research and studies have shown that hypersensitivity and hyper-morality are effects of this new world of mass media.
What is your opinion on the remark that the omnipresence of suffering and misery causes an emotional deadening, numbness?
This process of deadening and increasing numbness can actually be observed and is summarised by the term “compassion fatigue” – the fatigue caused by one’s compassion. However, it has not been determined how this form of compassion fatigue and the culture of atonement rituals interact, whether or not a kind of pendulum movement occurs. The common denominator would ultimately be hypocrisy. But I do not wish to take a position on this matter, because it would be very expansive to dismiss movements of compassion – as for example the migration crisis – as hypocrisy. But on the other hand, the modern mass media put us in a global simultaneity, which continuously offers us the impulse of: “Man, we should do something about that. We cannot let this happen.”
“No matter what happens in the world – every individual feels affected by it”
How does increasingly emotionalised media content relate to the process of deadening?
There is interdependency between them. Due to deadening, media content has to be increasingly emotionally charged in order to reach an audience. This heightened emotional clamour and the collective moral overload trigger a kind of self-defence reflex to push everything away. It remains to be seen how this relation will develop. I would not dare to attempt a predication of the future of global society, which concerns and plagues everybody. In this context, Walter Ong illustrated the image of the “social skin”, which encompassed the entire globe. No matter what happens in the world – every individual feels affected by it. There is a kind of world simultaneity and omnipresence of everything occurring. It used to take weeks before a revolution became common knowledge. Today, we can be practically be there the same night. Due to Internet communication, where we live has become essentially unimportant as everything that happens around the world seems to occur simultaneously.
We increasingly search for guidance in this hyper-morality world. You have called mass media a substitute for religion. What do you mean by that?
I have mainly thought of communication as a substitute for religion. It is basically a kind of extended Protestantism. Step by step, Protestants have given up their dogmas – or at least cast them aside. Today, hardly any Protestant minister speaks of the Christian Central Dogmas. They have been dissolved by the “willingness to communicate”. The infamous “talking-to-one-another” or “let’s-talk-about-it” has become universal and created the conviction that all problems of the world can be solved through communication. This is the salvific panacea of our time and has made its way into politics.
Many politicians no longer associate politics with power and authority, but rather with communication or diplomacy. As I see it, this has become a civil religion. There is only the global ecumenism, which has to recognise itself and once that has happened, all problems can be solved through discourse. The function of religion is thus perfectly fulfilled in my opinion. Whether you can also call it a religion is a separate question. This is something that never interested Niklas Luhmann, because he was only concerned with the function of religion and not with religion’s promise of purpose or meaning.
“Civil religions functionally supersede Christian Churches”
Are you referring to Luhmann’s remark, only religion could replace religion?
Yes, Luhmann was not interested in religion in the sense of the church, but the sociological examination of the nature of religion. For example, the most powerful movement in Germany after the Second World War has been the environmental movement. We can observe all religious elements: Instead of God, the Father in heaven, there is mother Earth. There are rituals to bring oneself closer to this goddess and of course there is the religious intolerance towards those not believing in this righteous faith. Even though they are not registered as a religious community in any way, I would take the liberty of saying that the Greens are a religion. Therefore, civil religions are functionally superseding, for example, Christian Churches.
How does that fit together with the thesis of communication as a substitute for religion?
It depends on the level on which we approach the phenomenon religion. I want to emphasise that the role of dogma is lessened as ritualistic and cultic performances gain in importance. Most of all, I am interested in the enormous longing many people feel for this. I assume that religious longing is growing, but the appeal of big, organised religions is decreasing. Increasingly fewer people attend church, but the longing for a religion in itself continues to rise. Hence, people search for alternatives. A similar substitutive religious setting is consumption. If we – in contrast to Luhmann – connect religion with the question of purpose, we can observe the emergence of such substitute settings.
How do you recognise such a substitute setting?
The willingness to believe is still great nowadays, but if we can no longer believe in salvation or the Last Judgment, then we can at least believe in the catastrophe, in absolute doom. This is nothing else than an absolute certainty of faith, which we can hold onto and be guided by. This way, we become immune against arguments or critique. Maybe we can determine religion or belief systems by them being dogmatic, meaning they are completely immune to enlightenment. The dogmatism is no accusation for the believer, but quite the contrary: praise. The dogma is the true doctrine.
Where does the increased longing for religion come from?
On the abstract level, it is the loss of traditional bonds and the loss of institutional certainties, such as family or marriage, due to their dwindling role in society. There are a number of reasons why we have to carry the question of the meaning of life on our own shoulders. Obviously, that is completely overwhelming for the individual and we are grateful for every offer of relief in the form of a substitute religion.
Does communication as a substitute setting not only provide guidance, but also feed into the overload?
Yes, absolutely. That is why communication is only temporarily able to satisfy our desire for absolute certainty. However, it appears to be significantly easier to replace one substitute religion with another one rather than to remove oneself from the fundamental illustrations and ideas. In that sense, I believe that the substitute religions we see today are not the final form of their kind. They will also be substituted by something new as time moves forward, because the longing for absolute certainty continuously increases.
Why is it that substitute religions are easier to replace than their predecessors?
Probably because they can be chosen individually and always bear the risk of becoming outdated. The individualism gaining prominence, particularly in Western societies, causes the individually chosen substitute settings to no longer be a collective and leaves us lacking a broad collective community as the church initially was. This leads them to supersede each other more quickly. Therefore, I assume that subsequent forms of substitute religions will also have this boutique-like character: individually created and free of a properly formulated dogma. Instead we are dogmatic sans dogma.
Interview: Leo Rasch, Kurt Bille
Translation: Hannah Bliersbach
Norbert Bolz is one of the most renowned media science scholars in Germany and regularly offers his opinion on current social discourse in mass media. He mainly concerns himself with topics related to social justice, family policy and consumption.