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Exhibitionism - Made Easy

by Norbert Bolz Saturday, Aug. 12, 2006 at 8:59 AM

We have these wondrous possibilities but we don't know what we want to communicate (Brecht)..The expertocracy is losing ground and legitimacy..This peculiar network knowledge replaces authority.


The communication scientist Norbert Bolz on the everyday self-exposure in the Internet, vanishing sense of shame and the end of expertocracy

[This interview is translated from the German in DER SPIEGEL 29/2006. Bolz, 53, is an educated philosopher, professor of media science at the Technical University of Berlin and author of “World Communication.”]

Spiegel: Professor, millions of people write their journals as blogs in the Internet and show private photos or videos online to complete strangers. Why do they do this?

Bolz: Very simply so they can inform the whole world about their existence. Earlier formation of identity – above all for youth – was mostly limited to fashion. One sought attention with outfits, piercings or blue hair. On the train, one sees all kinds of self-projections in five minutes. We have all been dulled for a long while. The new media offer a new forum: exhibitionism – made easy. People can pursue image cultivation and build very different persona beyond physical limitations.

Spiegel: The private is public as never before. Is communication the new imperative now?

Bolz: At least the sense of shame of self-projection is now falling away. The rise of e-mail communication is already impressive. Persons who never opened their mouths in my seminars diligently send e-mails. The tone is sharper. Protected by the media distance, a person becomes more self-confident. Image cultivation enables people who previously were intimidated to appear in public.

Spiegel: Do consumers become producers?

Bolz: They are journalists and write articles. I am a university professor and can at least force my students to listen. The need for attention and publicity is very strong in all persons. However most have no genuine access. For them, the new media are a great attraction.

Spiegel: and liberation?

Bolz: Absolutely. The follow-up costs for the media, society and the future of citizens is another theme. But socio-psychologically it is a great liberation.

Spiegel: In the school, we learned a simple communication model. There are senders, messages and receivers.

Bolz: You can forget that! Everything runs differently on the Internet. While masses participate as never before, it is not a mass medium. The world exists in your computer but you have only one side of millions upon millions on your screen. You make a choice in the infinite abundance of possibilities. Nothing is forced on you.

Spiegel: Do you have a term for this phenomenon?

Bolz: That is a very difficult question. In my seminar on media history, three stages are distinguished: the transition from oral to written communication, mass media and the Internet. But no structural description occurs to me for the web. It is a “many-to-many-communication.” We see the self-organization of large communities. We need a new communication theory but only grope for it since these structures are so new.

Spiegel: Are we experiencing a democratization of mass communication?

Bolz: That reminds me of Bertolt Brecht’s radio theory from 1927. We now have this fantastic medium, he wrote, where every receiver can also be a sender. The underlying technical insight is that the structure, “one sender, many receivers,” is produced artificially with the radio. Thus Brecht said, we have these wondrous possibilities but we don’t know what we want to communicate.

Spiegel: Do you think there is only great noise and little relevance on the Internet?

Bolz: The medium is still searching for the best application possibilities. That is very normal. One invents technical media and then reflects what can be done with it. That was true for television and for radio. Perhaps one imagined concerts could be transmitted by telephone. In any case, there can be no talk of little relevance when you consider new communities like the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. A worldwide lay knowledge arises that competes with expert knowledge. For me, the keyword is doxa, not democratization.

Spiegel: You must explain that!

Bolz: The Greeks in antiquity set the framework. They said, in the past there was doxa – pure opinion knowledge. From now on, we bring only genuine scientifically founded knowledge, the so-called episteme. Now, 2500 years later, the doxa suddenly returns in the Internet as opinion knowledge of all possible persons who are not experts. However in their concentration, they obviously bring to light more interesting findings than highly specialized scientists. That is what is fascinating about Wikipedia. Wikipedia is the first systematic attempt to make this diffuse opinion knowledge scattered worldwide in processes of self-organization into an alternative equal to academic work.

Spiegel: Is the wisdom of the masses superior to expert knowledge?

Bolz: Yes in many dimensions: in actuality, range of application, depth of penetration and abundance of references. On the other hand, you obviously get wondrously abstract articles as in the Historical Dictionary of Philosophy. Its articles are sometimes 25 years old but are consistent and well rounded. Wikipedia is doxa for the people. As Profs, we must communicate with Profs.

Spiegel: There are also underlying economic developments. A project like Wikipedia threatens middle class-educational temples like Brockhaus or the Encyclopedia Britannica. Are you overcome sometimes by a kind of doomsday atmosphere?

Bolz: Not a doomsday atmosphere. But something is shifting in public relevance. The expertocracy is losing ground and legitimacy. It is realistic to speak about empowerment of the masses. More and more people become idiotae, as was said in the Middle Ages, stubborn, knowing ones. For Nicolas von Kues, the stubborn allowed nothing to be said by the scholars. That was an enormous challenge for scholasticism in the late Middle Ages and the beginning Renaissance.

Spiegel: Do you stamp billions of surfers as idiots?

Bolz: I do not mean that maliciously. The new idiotae cannot be dissuaded of their knowledge, interests and passions. They organize into a wondrous counter-power.

Spiegel: How can our habitual way of thinking change through surfing and clicking on the computer? Can western reason with its thesis-antithesis-synthesis construction still function in our flighty “link” culture?

Bolz: With Kant, this limitation of reason by time did not exist. While we had endless discussion time with Habermas, this is now increasingly unrealistic. Today we can comb through a vast amount of material in a very short time. Classical reason was independent of time. Today composure for sequential information processing is lacking to us. Being able to know important things in a few seconds is more important than deductions.

Spiegel: What does all this mean for the community and for social and political discourse?

Bolz: The simple orientation in classical authorities breaks down. One no longer credits politicians with better knowledge. With lawyers and physicians, the erosion of their authority is very far advanced. This is a catastrophe for doctors. Their patients question and demand and are well informed. Everyone who deals with knowledge is exposed to this erosion process. This peculiar, widely scattered, self-controlled network knowledge replaces authority.

Spiegel: How does a communication professor prepare his children for this life world?

Bolz: Do you mean, how do I wash their brains? Again and again I try to drum it into them to read books. Everything else I let ride. I always say, read books. Otherwise you will be one of the losers. That is the only education mission I give – with modest success. On the other hand, some of my students hardly appreciate books. I give up on them. Certain things can only be elaborated with books. With my children, I try to exert a little pressure.

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