Media and social change: an interview with Friedrich Krotz

Friedrich Krotz is Professor of Communication and Media Studies at the Centre for Media, Communication and Information Research (ZeMKI), University of Bremen in Germany. He holds a Diploma in mathematics from the University of Karlsruhe and a Diploma in sociology from the University of Hamburg. He wrote his dissertation in sociology and his habilitation thesis in communication science and journalism. He worked as a mathematician at the University of Saarland, as a sociologist at the University of Hamburg and as a researcher in political science at the Free University of Berlin. Between 1989 and 2001 he was a researcher at the Hans Bredow Institute for Media Research at the University of Hamburg. From 2001 to 2003 he worked as a professor at the University of Munster. From 2003 to 2010 he was a Chair of Communication Science and Social Communication at the University of Erfurt. Finally, since 2010 until today he became a Chair of Communication and Media Studies, Social Communication and Mediatization Research at the University of Bremen. He is the responsible editor of the journal “Communications: The European Journal of Communication Research” and since 2009 coordinator of the priority research program “Mediatized Worlds” funded by the German Science Foundation (DFG). The program includes multiple research projects based at different universities in German speaking countries. Among his publications is a book co-edited with Andreas Hepp titled “Mediatized Worlds: Culture and Society in a Media Age” (Palgrave, 2014), a book co-edited with Nick Couldry and Andreas Hepp titled “Media Events in a Global Age” (Routledge, 2010) a monograph in German language titled “Mediatisierung: Fallstudien zum Wandel von Kommunikation” (VS Verlag, 2007) and numerous other monographs, edited books and articles in German and English. His present work mainly focuses on mediatization theory, communication and socio-cultural change.

1) What were your main interests in media and communication studies? How did that change over the years?

I first studied mathematics, physics and mathematical logic, then I worked as a mathematician but this was dull for me on the long run. So I finished a second Diploma in sociology and then I worked in different jobs. After this second Diploma I worked on a political and then on a historical project, as a book editor and then as a media and computer analyst, later at a university of applied sciences. I did a lot of different things then besides working on my dissertation. Finally, in 1989 I became a media and communication scholar by chance because there was a job opened up in Hamburg where I lived with my family at that moment. I applied for the job and I got it. Having different experiences, it was – at least in those years – helpful to get a job. During the first years of practise, I analysed specific data on political movements and about the media and German reunification, East-West conflicts and so on, in addition I was concerned with research on media and education and media use. That was the point of my entry. But then I realized that media and communication studies were rather traditionally oriented. The rapid and important media change was not taken into consideration – on my mind, this was wrong, as all media are processes and not stable statuses. So I first used the word mediatization in 1995 without knowing that others were using it as well. I used the term because it grasped how the people experienced the ongoing change of media by digitalization: as an ongoing process of change of communication in everyday life, social relations, organizations and institutions, culture and society. Then this became my research schedule: to study the process of mediatisation, which means to study the change of everyday life, culture and society as a consequence of media change, as we all live under such conditions. On my mind, we are at no time able to foresee the end of this process, and therefore we cannot say that we have come to live in an information or network society, or that we already live in such a society, because we are still part of an ongoing process: We are in the midst of the process which is changing fundamental features of human existence such as communication. So this was my starting point and twenty years later I am still working on it.

2) You wrote about mediatisation theory being a long-term meta-process of media and socio-cultural change. Is mediatisation more intense in the late modernity and globalized world?

Yes, mediatisation exists at all times in human history, but today this long term metaprocess is more intense and more rapid than ever. But this is only one perspective. I think that the invention and the upcoming of the printing press or electronic media such as radio and television were also important for social change, democracy, and so on. Thus, the question is not whether we have ten thousand times more media, but how communication and the activities of the people and institutions change over a longer period of time in the context of media development. And this demands a radical view and a lot of more new theories than we have. There are not only the technical devices which are changing, but the social life and work, growing up and democracy and so on – just think at all these new possibilities like 3-D-printing, augmented reality, communication with robots and the internet of things. What makes things even more intense and rapid are other long term developments in the background such as individualization, globalization, and commercialization, which should be taken into account. Taking all these developments together makes it much more complicated. Half of the people of today are saying that it is an upcoming paradise, and the other half has fears about the end of democracy, freedom, etc. However, the point is that we must form the future ourselves. Unfortunately, at the moment commercial interests and technological inventions are driving the change – but we as the civil society must take it over by political discussion and deliberation. For example, Herbert Schiller wrote that we live in a great experiment. Maybe it is good and maybe it is bad, but such great experiments are dangerous, if economy and technology are deciding and not we and the civil society – commercialization and technology do not care about the long term future of the forms of living together.

3) You wrote about the Internet as a hybrid medium. Could you elaborate on that and explain the role of the Internet in the mediatisation process?

The internet is the core of these developments. In my mind, I try not to use the word digital development. The power, which is changing everyday life, culture and society, does not come from the digital but from the way how computers as universal machines simulate, organize, distribute, transport, and transform und use data they collect about us and everything else. Such data can be used in different ways. Using computers is an accumulation process because the programs and software grow and its usefulness increases. Thus, they become better and better – and finally such data can be used to control the people, hegemonically or directly. The internet is the common connection of all computers and all data and it contains all forms of media, and thus a democratic control of the internet is necessary. The internet is hybrid because all forms of communication can take place over it, and it brings all forms and activities of communication together, e.g. visual signs and so on. With mobile phones we have a supplement to the internet. The internet thus includes all signs and symbols, and thus is closely connected with our lives. So the internet is a structure behind all of this and real backbone of communication.

4) Recently, David Deacon and James Stranyer argued that mediatisation theory fails to take into account powerful actors such as advertising and public relations industries who direct the media and socio-cultural change. What are your thoughts on this criticism?

Yes, I know this article. And the answer is yes and no: they emphasize important points, but do not know enough about the theory and research in the frame of the Mediatization approach. It is not true that we do not take into account powerful actors such as advertising and public relations industries. This is all part of what I call the commercialization process, which of course is of high relevance for the mediatisation process. Besides these actors there are also developments in the control of technology and software use which are included in the theory. On my opinion, if we try to understand what is happening today we need three perspectives: historical, to learn what happened before and how this is still relevant for us; current research, to understand what happens today, e.g. with net neutrality, the internet giants like Facebook and Google and all these other things; and critical research. We need critical research to evaluate what research finds out, and because of this it is important that we do research in the perspective of the people, transport our results to them and also draw politically relevant conclusions. If you look at the printing press which was invented in Europe by Gutenberg: after his invention there have been some decades during which it was not used for printing books but mostly for printing pamphlets, leaflets, etc. The invention of Gutenberg thus was highly relevant for the political discussion of those times – farmers tried to rebel against the aristocrats, Martin Luther introduced Reformation, and so on. In the first decades these social movements used the printing press for developing, discussing and presenting their ideas. After that, things became normalized, as Foucault would say. Censorship, inquisition, and other things have been invented and introduced by governments, bureaucracy and church. In order to control the new media in those days. The printing press was normalized. You find the same development concerning the radio. It was first used in Germany during the war. Then it was used by the people and the social movements, and the government tried to control that. For example, there was the idea that trade unions should have their own channels. But all this was forbidden and finally the radio was used by the Government and the Nazis: a process of normalization in the interests of the existing power structures. In other countries the radio was used by commercial companies which were not interested in participating and supporting social movements. So in the history of the radio there was a time when it could be used differently, when it was not regulated – but after another period of time it became a part of power relations within society. The same is taking place with the internet today. A lot of things which were possible ten or twenty years ago are today no longer possible. After the Arab spring there will be no second spring anywhere because social software is being controlled. We have to take this into consideration. This is my argument against Deacon and Stranyer because they have a conservative standpoint and no understanding for the radical change we are living in.

5) You are the coordinator of the DFG Priority Research Program ˝Mediatized Worlds˝. What are some of its recent developments and where is mediatisation theory heading?

We should discuss this in two years when the priority program will be finished. In the last four years, I was continually focused on developing and transporting the basics of mediatization research which means that our research takes place not media-centred but socially and individually centred. Under the conditions of today, it is not important to develop new hypotheses. Instead, we need new theories in order to understand how media, culture and society are changing and what it means for the people. Thus, not the media logic is of main interest, but an understanding that communication is a basic human activity, and that it is important if it is changing. There is still a lot of work to be done. For example, one result of the program is a question which we will soon discuss at a conference in Vienna: are there also de-mediatization processes, and what are such processes? This cannot mean that there are people who do not use the upcoming media. There is no sense in saying that we should abolish the media. Some researchers argue that media are moulding communication, which is very unclear, as they also make new forms of communication possible. We must instead argue that the media are chances and risks. For example, it is helpful to have computers, internet and social software in order to manage and to improve our social relations, but there is also a risk that enterprises like Facebook dominatethe social relations of a whole generation. The same holds for Amazon, Google, etc. There are no causal and one-sided developments and relations of media because it always depends on what we are doing with these media. Maybe we need another mediatisation, controlled by the people and the civil society, but not a de-mediatization. This is my position about this perspective. Others results of our work systematically describe how mediatization works. One result here is the notion of reflexive mediatization which refers to Ulrich Beck, Scott Lash and Anthony Giddens. In this perspective, mediatization in principle produces problems which are not intended and then have to be dealt with. There is also my own concept that we must analyse mediatization by the internet through understanding the historical background where mediatization was previously dependent on book culture. We now need the internet also for reading and as a substitution of books and newspapers, and to use it in a way which makes sense for the users, not only profit for the owners. The upcoming of visual culture today and with the computer media also has roots in the past. So we need to understand changes as an ongoing step-by-step development. It is a long-term process, a metaprocess of single processes, in which society and individuals are developing. There is also a lot of further empirical research although the overall goal of the priority program is more and better theories – these came up from empirical research. For example, how do the households change, how does socialization of children change, how are social relations in families changing when parents do not live in the same location with children. These are some of the important issues. We are still working and trying to broaden our results and distribute them.

6) Media and communication studies are inherently interdisciplinary. In your opinion, what is the role of disciplines such as sociology in this field?

The Mediatization concept is somewhere between sociology and communication. This is also my personal situation. Communication studies and media studies in Germany are rather separated, which is strange, and here we need more cooperation. A lot of communication research comes from psychology, literary studies and sociology. We need relations among these three disciplines. Sociology is of special relevance in my eyes because psychology is sometimes extremely orientated towards quantitative research and experiments – they neglect qualitative research which takes into consideration that the researcher always has social relations to the people he asks and observes, and that people act because it makes sense to them – and both cannot be understood by only quantitative research. Our results and theories often come from sociology which is a good thing because we speak about broad issues such as democracy and so on, and to develop theories about this is one of our main aims.

Interview conducted by Paško Bilić


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