Maria Pia Rossignaud, Vice President Osservatorio TuttiMedia and Director Media Duemila Derrick de Kerckhove, Scientific Director Osservatorio TuttiMedia and Media Duemila
Donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu1 Stéphane Mallarmé, Le tombeau d’Egard Poe
In his translation of the work of Edgar Allen Poe, the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé attributes the same purpose to Poe’s work as we do to our work in promoting a new ethical and inclusive future for news media. In this current period of “Sturm und Drang”, of turmoil, stress and harrowing emotionality that we are all experiencing, there is an urgent need to reignite meaning and value in language.
There was a time when social cohesion depended entirely on news media. At that time, despite different newspapers supporting different agendas, everyone agreed to disagree under the same umbrella of news. It was easy to distinguish between pure journalism and other more sensationalist popular papers, sometimes referred to as the ‘yellow’ press. Then social cohesion moved from the press to TV, with the creation of what Richard Nixon called the ‘silent majority’. Dominated by the power of advertising, that is by ‘good news’, TV reflected a time of prosperity and relative cohesion, with the result that the majority remained largely silent.
Public discourse has broken down
Today, there is no majority and no silence. Instead, we now have minorities screaming from their echo chambers, and the reasons are becoming obvious. Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter who stepped down from his position as CEO of the platform in November 2021, explained the issues behind Twitter’s decision to ban Trump from the platform after the attack on the Capitol: “It was the right decision but I’m not proud of it because, ultimately, it was a failure of ours to promote healthy conversation. They divide us, they limit the potential for clarification, redemption, and learning. And sets a precedent I feel is dangerous: the power an individual or corporation has over a part of the global public conversation”.
The digital platforms have provided the opportunity to anybody, whether genuinely informed or not, to take over the creation and especially the distribution of news, with the result that there has been a rapid breakdown of social cohesion.
We aim to re-establish ethical news and social cohesion
The NewsMedia4Good project, created by the Osservatorio TuttiMedia (AllMedia Observatory Association) based in Italy, aims to support media that recognize the problem and want to find solutions. There are already many news media for good, including Ted Talks, Good docs, Wikipedia, Public Good, Adbusters, etc. But we need more. And we need social cohesion among the media themselves. NewsMedia4Good wants to start a movement in that direction.
The goal is not just to ensure peace in a profoundly fragmented world, but also to avoid mainstream media losing their relevance.
We are following a long media tradition
With NewsMedia4Good we are launching a strong and innovative idea, but one that has deep roots in the history of the media. Founder of the Association, Giovanni Giovannini, has been working for many years towards this goal with vision and intelligence. We are creating the conditions for bringing together journalists, professors, researchers, politicians, institutional representatives and students in an interdisciplinary and influential group, a pool of collective and connective intelligence. This group intends to work on a new media ethics, including the use of algorithms.
Origin of algorithms
It is often thought that algorithms are a recent invention uniquely related to digital transformation, but, in fact, the term itself goes back to the 9th-century Persian mathematician Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, and the concept… to Adam and Eve. By standard definition, an algorithm is a sequence of instructions, typically used to solve a class of specific problems or to perform a computation. By extension, it also means information that prompts to action, so words can conceivably qualify ‘loosely’ as algorithms.
“In the beginning was the word, and the word was made flesh.” Words were the first human algorithms. In his seminal work New Science, published in 1725, Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico provides the most reliable and simple explanation of how words were born from utterances, shouts, and grunts that accompanied and extended gestures and movements. But before the appearance and development of words, the senses were the main algorithms that guided humans and all other animals. Words introduced a separation between experience and interpretation (from signifier to signified), but words remained subordinate to the senses until they were written, as Vico also noted. By formalizing and stabilizing the relationships between words and meaning, writing narrowed the range of possible interpretations. And the words thus took on the algorithmic function of the senses.
Digitization is stripping language of deep meaning
Today, however digitization threatens to eliminate interpretation altogether, focusing not on the meaning but only on the shapes of the written words as, for example, is the case for automatic translation. One of the most ironic effects of digitization is that it can translate all the languages of the world without ever understanding one. Therefore, digital transformation and the artificial intelligence that is driving it, are dethroning meaning, making it unnecessary to make things work.
For digital operations, meaning is just an accessory, occasionally useful but generally not indispensable. AI may not be infallible, but overall, it seems to work better than the chaotic world of words online. Fake news and the denial of science are destroying objectivity and common sense. We have gone from disintermediation to the mediation by machines: human communication carried in algorithms no longer needs the meaning associated with words, but only orders. Here cometh the “post-truth” era where reference and verification have lost their bearings, so we are forced to trust machines because they are more efficient than human experts. The epistemological crisis in progress affects all cultures of the world. This is the basis of the crisis that everyone underestimates.
Alphabet and digital are in conflict
Today the problem has changed again. We are in the middle of a computer and information chaos because the alphabet and the digital do not get along. And this, for the good reason that they do two different things: the alphabet is attached to language and produces meaning, while the digital is detached from language to produce order. Hence, by dint of accumulating parameters, algorithms decide better than the best doctors, the best scientists, and the best judges, and therefore the greatest arbiters of our survival, how to treat, find or judge. The digital transformation is taking over our literate past and that generates a widespread informational disorder.
So, it follows logically in this time of transition that the pandemic that has disrupted everybody’s life and made many people angry has led to an infodemic, which doesn’t help anybody and doesn’t make things progress. This is clear in the industrialization of fake news and deep fakes which have been encouraged by the rampant myth of ‘alternative truth’ and post truth. Secondly, which depends in part on the first, is the questioning of the very concept of objectivity supported by scientific evidence, which has led deniers in general to support all kinds of incredible claims: a person with or without authority can assert facts that contradict simple common sense, and it will be believed.
We will get out of this only when we understand everywhere that the real danger, to which we will have to respond with many more sacrifices than for the pandemic, is climate change for which we humans are responsible in spite of all denials.
The problem is compounded by the fact that technology doesn’t concern values. Humanism, on the other hand, is basically a system of values that is told and handed down through information that today more than ever needs responsibility. Ethics and Media are our primary focus. Introducing ethics into the functioning of algorithms is one of the biggest challenges humans need to face, but it will take time and considerable effort, but we cannot wait too long for it to happen.
A call to action
At the 13th meeting of Nostalgia di Futuro2 we launched a call to action addressed to all involved in journalism and information. In recognition of the shift to on-line information, which is weakening journalism and traditional publishing, we need to find a united spirit to remind everyone of the importance of the role of journalists in a democratic society. It is time to reiterate that news media have always been both products and promoters of democracy, of social cohesion and awareness, fostering common knowledge and above all critical thinking. Especially today that we find ourselves in a phase of transformation between the old literate and the new digital world, we need to have the ability to bring aspects of the past with us because by understanding our history we will be able to orient ourselves in the present and future.
Ethics is the milestone to guide change. We do not want to impose bans, but we want to spread good practices that start from the foundations of language, that is the word. The intelligent and careful use of words considers the meaning of every word in every context and not just the ‘sensational effect’ it can produce. We must look beyond the “likes” that seem to guide online communication and find a common denominator capable of engaging vision confronting the grave social issues at hand, not just the pandemic, but looming large behind it, a change of planetary climate that is not only threatening but already destroying survival in many parts of the world. It is time to reappraise public information. What’s more, the digitization of everyday life increasingly transforms processes that until a few years ago we believed were very rock solid. “Digital twins” and “Metaverses” are becoming realities that progressively appropriate virtual spaces in our stead.
Our aim is to bring this message to the G20: We need a new ethics including the algorithmic dimension in which the economic and social sustainability of the entire media system is a priority.
For this reason, we must not limit our research and study activities to a virtual free-for-all where there are no borders or where the law of the strongest is in force, which often coincides with the wealthiest. There must be a line drawn between fact and gossip, between truth and fake news, between disclosure and propaganda. Therefore, we must create real borders between what is information and what is not. In this sense, the greatest commitment lies in the fact that information must be supported by public institutions both at a legislative and an economic level to maintain its independence and have the opportunity to always do the work of reporting and assessing facts in the best possible way.
Constructing the new infosphere
NewsMedia4Good supports information that is not shouted but is preserved in every word. We want to stop the sensationalism that divides, the polarization that imprisons. We want to contribute to the construction of the new infosphere because it is time to rediscover the meaning of news and to restore value to the words that interpret reality. To achieve this goal, we need the help of everyone, with particular focus on the vision of women who, as was demonstrated in the pandemic, are the ones who overwhelmingly take care of others and the world.
We need to find a way to achieve a new social cohesion. NewsMedia4Good has the ambition to promote and support a cultural project, a new reference point for the third millennium infosphere on issues related to the world of communication. The world is underestimating the epistemological crisis in progress; we must act before words lose their meaning. The social goal is to recover social cohesion via the media; create culture on the need for reliable information; and promote interpretation as essential for balance and sustainability. We need to bring back to the center of the global village the narrative that will enable the construction of our best possible future.
1 To give a purer meaning to the words of the tribe.
Maria Pia Rossignaud is Director of Media Duemila, Italy’s first digital culture magazine which was founded in 1983. She is also one of 25 digital media experts chosen by the Italian delegation to the European Commission to advise on digital culture and digital transformation of the media. She is a frequent contributor to The Mobile Century and a long term supporter of the work of the GTWN.
Derrick de Kerckhove is a journalist at Media Duemila. He has spent many years as a professor and cultural researcher in digital media and digital transformation of society in both Canada and Italy. He is a former long-term Director of the McLuhan Program of Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto.