On the peculiar nature of media
Interview with Sebastiaan Crul
February 20, 2023

Media permeates all aspects of our lives, whether we are aware of it or not. Therefore, it would be interesting to take a closer look into the subtle and unsubtle ways in which our behaviors and attitudes are molded through our interactions with technology. In this conversation with team members Victória Ferreira and Joep Schot, Sebastiaan Crul explores the intricacies and particularities of the media landscape today and what the future might bring. 

Victória: When we asked you what you wanted to talk about in your interview, you immediately answered “new media”. What interests you about it?

Sebastiaan: I like having media as a starting point for reflection and conversation because it mediates, literally, all of our experiences. If we look at the etymology of the word media we get to the Latin medium, meaning intermediary. Therefore, media shapes how we see the world. I am a philosopher of technology and I believe that that means being a philosopher of media as well. I am vastly inspired by the work of Marshall McLuhan, who argues that the medium is the message. This theme continues to be relevant as philosophers working in contemporary postphenomenology have built upon McLuhan's seminal work on the peculiarities of mediation.

To make this discussion more concrete, let’s look at the medium WhatsApp and think about how it shapes communication and relationships. One could argue that as WhatApp replaces, to some extent, face-to-face communication, it hinders our spoken communication capabilities, and substitutes it with an alternative form of chatting. That may be true, but it's not the only consequence of its widespread use; you always lose some and gain some. In this case, we gained emojis, gifs, and stickers as new forms of communication! It's funny but true: these animations and moving visuals can say things we could not express previously. An emoji can say more than a thousand words…

Focusing on a specific medium is always a good method to kickstart an ethical contemplation on technology. However, if we isolate the medium and jump to a conclusion too quickly—as I did just now ("you lose some and gain some"), we can miss the broader picture of how media and technology permeate our entire life, and consequently, our societies. That is also the weakness of postphenomenology, as their methodology and metaphysical assumptions make it hard to analyze technology as a system. 

Technology infiltrates our lives and media mediates our interactions with the world. Not only today or through this particular medium, but always and everywhere. The effect of this ‘technological event’ is not the same as the sum of all mediation. In the latter case, you will often end up saying that some tech innovations and media will always do more harm than good (e.g. addictive algorithms), but most are beneficiary to us if society develops a healthy relationship with them. This cultural adaptation takes time. 

Joep: From a broader perspective, how do you think media and technology are currently influencing us?

Sebastiaan: At the moment, I think many digital technologies, and digital society in general, stand in the way of cultivating virtues, meaningful relationships and building habits that can contribute to our well-being and sense of belonging, such as mastering an instrument, practicing sports, writing a book, becoming a great cook, etcetera. In this example, the difficult point is that there are many causes but we often only focus on one. If we focus on human design and commercial purposes (techno-economic), we create a blindspot to the inherent dynamics of technology as a technological system. If we focus more on this last aspect, we create a blindspot for the deeper cultural drivers. Bringing these together remains difficult, but philosophers such as Bernard Stiegler and Yuk Hui are great examples that are capable of doing this in their work on technology. 

For example, think about the consequences of short-form video content on platforms like TikTok. I personally believe that good things come slowly and last long. Like many others, I also think there's something to be said about our increasingly diminished attention span and social media numbness. However, for me, this does not solely have to do with addictive algorithms that hijack our vulnerable brains, but at least as much with a lack of alternative activities that motivate and inspire us, which makes it a question of nihilism too. Boredom and addictive algorithms are two sides of the same coin, constantly reinforcing each other. The question is: how do we break through this vicious cycle? This is not so easy, because reinforcing cycles and positive feedback loops between digital systems and their users is one of the core characteristics of digital systems. Thus, the answer cannot lie exclusively in developing algorithms and social media from an ethical design perspective; deeper cultural roots and a digital ontology have to be taken into account as well. 

Victória: Could you reflect on the development of digital media in the last few decades? Where do you think we're heading?

Sebastiaan: When I talk about new media and, in particular, the buzz around the metaverse last year, and generative AI this year, I am referring to a new iteration of the spatiotemporal dimension of our digital systems. To understand what I mean, let’s consider the development of the internet so far. In the 80s and early 90s, we understood the internet to be somewhat like an archive, a virtual library. We used Microsoft Explorer to explore these archives with its folders and maps. Decentralized information sharing and storage were key. Then, the 00s spawned a multiplicity of websites with commercial purposes. As inhabitants of the global village, we visited these ‘sites on the web’, virtualizing shops and restaurants. Instead of exploring, we learned to use Google Search. Next, in the late 2000s / early 2010s, following the advent of smartphones, we saw the quick rise of social spaces on the mobile web and algorithmic feeds. We virtualized parts of our public and social life: Twitter became the new agora, a meeting place for discussion, apps like Twitch expanded playrooms and video arcades, and dating apps like Tinder replaced the need to drag wingmen to a cocktail bar. Instead of googling and interpreting the results of the algorithm, the algorithms now fully guide and curate us in this world. Listen to this, watch that, and so on and so forth.

Visual designed by local_doctor. © Shutterstock

The question is, what’s next? Currently, there is a strong backlash to this last phase of virtualization, especially in the social media landscape. At the same time, we seem to be both excited and worried about the long-term consequences of generative AI and new immersive technologies. I absolutely do not believe in Mark Zuckerberg’s highly ambitious predictions concerning the metaverse and the inevitability of immersive social virtual reality worlds. Likewise, I do not think we will forget how to think and write. However, people who make fun of Mark often forget that our current screen time is already extremely high and that Big Tech is everywhere. In the Netherlands, we already consume an average of 8–10 hours of media each day. Moreover, when Big Tech succeeds in integrating generative AI into its commercial stack, the consequences will be immense. 

Nevertheless, I do not expect a sudden increase in virtual escapism and digital illiteracy in advanced economies. Just as the popularity of dating apps does not imply the end of IRL meet-ups, the virtualization of daily life does not mean a full migration to the metaverse. Instead, what will happen is a transfiguration of daily endeavors in ways that are hard to grasp because the distinctions between the physical and virtual have, to a great extent, already faded.

I think our connection to the digital world will become more seamless in the sense that we will jump in-between physical and virtual realities often and with ease. For instance, younger generations, while being in each other’s physical presence, communicate both verbally and virtually with each other. Chatting, watching movies, taking selfies, showing messages, playing games, and listening to tunes alone or together have all become one seamless blur of being togetherness. They don’t consciously switch between these modes of communication, instead, they flow in a semi-physical, semi-virtual manner. 

On an individual level, an example of how this is already taking place is the prominence of wireless Bluetooth earbuds and smartwatches. They make us connect to the physical and virtual worlds simultaneously, in ways that are intimately connected to our bodies. Another example are virtual voice-powered assistants such as Alexa and Siri, which make us feel more closely connected to technology. They also make it harder and harder to detach ourselves from technology and critically reflect on this intimacy, as we are embedded in it. 

One step further, think about how generative AI ChatGPT is changing the way we think and write. Instead of completely outsourcing the logos/mind, I think we will develop unforeseen and unpredictable hybrids between human and artificial minds. Simply using pen and paper is already an externalization of my memory and Microsoft Word constantly helps us and checks our grammar, but with generative AI, we have flipped this process and are helping, checking, and guiding AI through ‘our’ thinking process in an iterative way. Even in an optimistic scenario, integrating generative AI into our society will be a hard and painful process.   

"I think our connection to the digital world will become more seamless in the sense that we will jump in-between physical and virtual realities often and with ease."

All in all, for a philosopher of technology, I think it is extremely important to constantly try to disentangle these complex interactions and search for dangers of new technologies others might not easily spot. There is plenty of tech criticism these days, with most of the attention being directed toward a handful of popular topics such as privacy issues, algorithm biases, and depression related to social media use. Although these are serious problems, I believe my role is to look out for different dangers that have not yet been studied thoroughly.

Joep: Can you give an example of a danger of new technology that has been mostly overlooked? 

Sebastiaan: Perhaps that the internet never forgets, making people apprehensive as there's a feeling that no mistakes are allowed, especially in the age of cancel culture. Moreover, algorithms nudge and curate based on past data, repeating patterns even if they seemingly present something ‘new’. In this regard, we could try to program technology to account for tendencies of digital systems like these. Designing technology to mindfully forget is not only important in terms of privacy, as is always the focus in contemporary discussions about ‘the right to be forgotten’: it might also help us build a more forgiving society. One of the beauties of being human is being able to forget, and digital systems are complicating this characteristic. If we were to remember everything, most of us would end up crazy. Moreover, forgetting things is a prerequisite to truly changing and recognizing each other as the changed versions of ourselves. Although I’m a fan of our current mobile phones’ libraries being able to store, on average, thousands of photos and videos, I’m also worried about the long-term effects the constant access to these images and memories may have on us.

"Designing technology to mindfully forget is not only important in terms of privacy, as is always the focus in contemporary discussions about ‘the right to be forgotten': it might also help us build a more forgiving society."

Victória: Where do you think conversations get stuck when discussing new media?

Sebastiaan: I believe that fruitful conversation and thinking should be stern yet modest, and involve avoiding extreme positions. When we start a discussion with statements like "the metaverse is ridiculous" or "the metaverse is inevitable", we are limiting the scope of our thought and exchange. Listening is more difficult than talking; I think we often get stuck in monologues and mimetic dialogues that have the tendency to lead to extremisms. There are multiple dimensions to making our world less extreme, and all must be addressed in parallel for a solution to actually be reached. Most importantly, the issue should not be restricted to technology and technological solutions: we must also address the social and economic preferences that skew our worldview towards extremes.

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