The only certain future prediction

Author: Göran Bolin, Södertörn University
July 2018

One of the more memorable academic one-liners I have heard over the years was from a seminar at the Institute for Future Studies in Stockholm in the mid 1990s when I, as a PhD student, listened to a talk by the then head of the Institute, Thomas Fürth. Asked to predict something that I cannot remember about the future (this should be what an institute of future studies should be good at, isn’t it?), he said that ‘The only certain thing you could say about the future is that it will not turn out as you expected’. In its simplicity, this quote captures something ontologically wise, and empirically it is of course easy to find examples of failed predictions and expectations.

The fact that the future is uncertain, and that predictions and expectations are difficult to establish with accuracy, should of course not prevent researchers from thinking about the future, since creating possible scenarios will make possible future action, and thus have real impact on the future. So, which are the areas in which we may direct our attention, and make such scenarios? One of those areas concern the implications of digitisation and datafication. I can see at least four dimensions of that area where we, as media, communication and cultural scholars need to engage. They all deal with certain logics that admittedly precede digitisation, but that can be predicted to be thoroughly restructured due to this process: the business logics of the media and culture industries, the logics of technology (and especially cultural technologies); the social logics of everyday life; and the logics of knowledge itself. These are logics in the sense of being the inner principles by which something works, or the order by which something develops. In the following I shall account for them and the questions they pose for research in more details.

In the wake of digitization, and datafication as a specific process within digitisation, many of the business models of the media and culture industries have become radically altered, and have been building more and more on intelligence on media user behaviour. There is an increased need to understand the social and cultural impact of the media, and to understand capitalism as a driver of developments in the media and culture business. At the root of these transformations lies the specific business logics of capitalism, and these logics need to be studied from the perspective political economy, and the legal frameworks that make this specific economy possible. This might seem fairly simple, but capitalism has always contained ambivalences and contradictions, and it is important to study these inner tensions of the capitalist logic – some of which are due to the other logics that I will describe – in order to understand why capitalism historically develops in the way it does.

What has made the new business models possible is ultimately developments in digital technology. Digitisation has made some of the previously uncharted territories of capitalism possible to exploit, especially some of the areas of the life-worlds of everyday media users. The technological means by which everyday media users gets drawn into production processes by way of handing over data about their lives provokes a number of questions related to user engagement, privacy, surveillance and participation. Now, technology has its own logic, and many of the business models developed are really side-products, resulting from technological advancement aimed for other purposes (although, there are of course also those techniques that are deliberately developed in order to maximise profits). This means that they also come with functionalities that produce unintended and unforeseen consequences, and to understand the ways in which technological systems work is important in order to theorise their impact on culture and society.

Both the business models and the techno-organisational forms of the media and culture corporations, as well as the technological logics behind them, ultimately affects the social – the very human bonds which we all are involved in in various ways. The data that is the basis for the business models, and that are produced through technological solutions that are seemingly unobtrusive, given the value ‘free’ access to social networking sites and social communication apps has for their users, can only be produced by human media users. The belief structure among the people in the media and culture business that is ultimately driving the advertising markets, which are one of the important components in this equation, is founded on the fact that the algorithms produce credible user patterns for those who want to reach to them relevant consumers. Correspondingly, the belief structure among media users need to be understood, in order to see how patterns of misrecognition makes users give up data and intelligence about themselves in exchange for access to communication and media networks, and hence become exploited (in the economic sense) by the industry.

Lastly, there are the epistemological logics of science as such behind these developments. There is much to be gained from historicising the ways in which knowledge and intellectual activity has fuelled technological development and markets towards the state in which we are in. This concerns, for example, the epistemological debates within mathematics and statistics during the past 150 or so years, where increasingly more complex mathematical models have been developed in order to explain (but sometimes also to understand) human behaviour. But it also involves analysing funding models for universities, and the priorities made by governments and supra-governmental bodies such as the EU and their schemes of science funding.

Now, these logics and processes are becoming increasingly complex, and a political economy perspective and a focus on business models, while necessary, will be insufficient for our understanding of datafication, since the very process also involves technological logics, which need to be understood through an immanent techno-cultural critique, as well as social logics – that can only be understood using social theory. Relatedly, we need to reflect critically on our own academic projects and theoretical endeavours, to truly form a critical theory in the spirit of the Frankfurt School of dialectical thought, since it is only by envisioning the catastrophe that we can also see utopia.

Admittedly, the logics I have accounted for above can each be studied in isolation, but they ultimately need to be understood from a more holistic vantage point, as it is in the combination of them that the media and cultural landscape is formed, and in which we as individual subjects act. And although we can be absolutely certain that the details of our future predictions will be wrong, it might also be because our predictions prevented them from happening. This is how critique is supposed to work, and we can all contribute in that task within the framework of the Brestolon network.

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