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#Next10 Conference—Power Struggle and Choosing the Right Channel: Stefana Broadbent

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On Stefana Broadband’s presentation “Power Struggle and Choosing the Right Channel” at the Next10 Conference in Berlin, May 11–12, 2010.

Die deutsche Version dieses Eintrags gibt es drüben beim Werbeblogger [RIP].

Post production is taking its time this year, and the videos from the Next10 Conference trickled in more slowly than expected. As of this writing, a mere nine presentations or panels have been put online.

Given the choice, I’d rather start writing about the speakers, panels, and presentations in roughly chronological order, with the opening presentations by Peter Lovatt and Jay Rogers first. Not because the presentations and panels would build on each other, though. To the best of my knowledge, Andrew Keen once again was the only speaker who actually jotted down notes and took on other speakers’ arguments in his presentation. (Social—Mobile—Real Time, anyone?) No, it’s rather because a conference is also an event that is experienced, and the way the speakers are arranged sequentially in time has a profound impact on that experience.

But this doesn’t seem to be an option. Unless, of course, I’m willing to wait another two weeks or more, which I’m not. So I’ll start with the first speaker from the second day’s “Social Media” track, Stefana Broadbent. To briefly quote from her Next10 profile: “All of her projects had in common an ethnographic approach to capture evolving social practices and a design intent to inform and support the conception of new tools and services.”

Here’s her presentation:

Now what’s interesting here is that during the last two decades or so we’ve been hammered with new communication channels which, if you believe the hype, are in the process of fundamentally altering how we communicate with each other. But what does “alter” actually mean in this context? Of course, both professionally and privately, my international landline flatrate became obsolete the moment it was affordable. Skype and Twitter, to name just two, are so much more convenient channels. These purely practical changes are indeed important: they impact economically and they impact how we plan, manage, and experience our working day. It is also to be expected that these developments will have a far more dramatic systemic impact in the long run; if you’re interested in how media change can completely unravel a formerly stable economic system (“stable” in the broader systemic sense), I recommend reading Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change.

No, that’s not the “hype” I’m referring to; there’s enough evidence to back up a wide range of speculations for future developments along these lines. What I’m referring to, instead, is the hype how all these new & shiny communication channels would alter “ourselves” and how we socially behave, define ourself within our social networks, even think—and that’s exactly where the woo steps in.

Let’s start with the “Does the Internet Make You Smarter?” vs. “Does the Internet Make You Dumber?” debate, two mutually exclusive arguments, or so it seems. But it is a lopsided debate, which is at times not easily deciphered.

The “smarter” argument, most of the time, consists of the view that all these new & shiny channels make us “smarter.” As long as that means “enriching our culture,” there’s indeed a lot of evidence for that, except if you’re still stuck with Adorno. But making people smarter, that’s a whole other claim.

The “dumber” argument, in contrast, usually plays out on a completely different level. It fails to take into account the important, but nevertheless mundane, problem of “filter failure” and argues instead from an “information overload” perspective: all these new & shiny channels indeed make us “dumber” on a personal, individual level. Why? Because they constantly distract us. Among the most visible proponents are Nicholas Carr and Frank Schirrmacher. Their argument is based on a small core set of solid, irrefutable evidence that 1) a constant state of distraction arrests development and that 2) the new channels tend to constantly distract us. But when the argument proceeds, this evidence is buried beneath an apparatus of flimsy footnotes, and the whole theory mutates into a convoluted, vastly overreaching incarnation of the Argumentum ad populum. And popular it is! Everybody can easily point at certain statements and go, “Woah, that’s me exactly! Isn’t that amazing!,” entrapped and misled by the same patterns of “common sense” bogosity as employed by the Astrology or Men from Mars/Women from Venus departments.

Is there good evidence for either the “smarter” or the “dumber” claim?

As Stefana Broadbent’s research makes clear, the evidence points into neither of these directions. Again, it’s rather mundane, perhaps even boring. But it’s actually very interesting. If we look at how people use all these channels, with whom they communicate and under which circumstances, the most important parameters don’t seem to have changed at all: with how many people we communicate in general, and how we decide to use which channel in particular.

The numbers Broadbent cites should give us pause. Especially since these numbers are stable across cultures, e.g., that 80% of all private phone calls go to 4–5 people who belong to the innermost concentric circle from her graph, or that our use of channels becomes more “mono-channel” the more toward the outermost concentric circle, the “weak ties,” we get. Which people we contact on which channels, in contrast, differs between cultures. But if you take power structures and hierarchies into consideration, and how the other person’s status relates to your own, it again becomes a cross-culture phenomenon. Does the channel demand an immediate answer and full attention, like the telephone? Or does the channel provide the option to answer at one’s leisure at a more opportune time, like a text message? Or does the channel even come without any obligation to answer at all, like a tweet or a facebook update? We make these decisions easily, guided by our “intuitive” yet sophisticated sense of status, hierarchies, and power structures. And they’re terrifyingly stable, across cultures and over time.

So will these new channels, as a factor among many other factors of course, fundamentally change our culture, aesthetically and economically? Absolutely. Will they fundamentally change the way we think and behave on an individual level, especially if our social systems will be subject to tremendous shifts, medium or long term? Unlikely. It really hurts me to say this, but the way it looks right now, our communication behavior points into this direction: Singularity Can Wait.

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