The upcoming NordMedia23 Conference offers an interactive exhibition called “Future Fest”. Here, you can interact with a dozen prototypes that explore solutions for “good communication” in emerging media technologies. Do you think we, as media scholars, will succeed in making an impact in the future?
Do media scholars suffer from future shock? Alvin Toffler (1970) coined the phrase to describe the social uncertainty and paralysis that can be induced by rapid technological change. In recent times, ChatGPT, the Metaverse, and other technological developments give us good reason to ask if media scholars are being paralysed by too much change in too short a period of time. It is not clear that our discipline will be able to act adequately in relation to the incessant change in media technology.
A grand challenge
We believe that media scholars in Nordic countries should contribute more to local technology development. Researchers should design new media solutions that convey good communicative values to the right audience in their preferred media forms with engaging storytelling (Fagerjord, 2012; Nyre, 2014). We should shape technologies so that they fit with the varying cultural and political conditions in our Nordic countries.
This is a grand societal challenge if there ever was one. How should such a constructive project be conducted? The participants at the NordMedia Conference are invited to test more than a dozen media prototypes that leverage augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) to encourage history learning, news comprehension, and artful expression, among other things. We invite an open discussion of the value of such approaches to media scholarship. Do you think these technical proposals have real potential to do good? Are you sceptical or optimistic? Rate your conviction!
The Bergen School
For several decades, a heterogeneous school of media designers has been active at the universities of Bergen, Oslo, and other higher education institutions in Norway. When Media City Bergen was established in 2017, it finally got a home. Here, scholars from media studies, information science, and interaction design collaborate in several forms. We explore design and innovation projects that might succeed in creating responsible new media technology in our societies in the future.
The Department of media studies and information science offers cross-disciplinary bachelor’s and master’s programmes in journalism, TV production, and interaction design. MediaFutures is a centre for research on responsible media technology and innovation, partly funded by the Norwegian Research Council. TekLab is a centre for innovation pedagogy in media education, funded by the Directorate for Higher Education. All these activities take place in the physical location Media City Bergen, which has a thriving international milieu of media and tech businesses.
Whether our activities deserve to be called “the Bergen School” is open to debate, but there is no doubt that the milieu presents an original approach to media scholarship. We design prototypes that are supposed to make an impact in the future by improving communication in our democratic societies. Nothing less! And whether the approach should be called “media development”, “media interaction design”, or “media design” is also open to debate. What is certain is that you can make up your own mind about some of these prototypes at Future Fest during the NordMedia conference in August.
Reclaiming the metaverse
In May 2023, Apple launched their high-end headset Vision Pro, which many now consider the future of immersive media and the metaverse.
The metaverse is a name for the emerging use of mixed reality technologies in all our lives, ranging from simple AR filters on your phone to advanced VR simulations. The concept of the metaverse is not very popular among the public at present. There is criticism, scepticism, and ridicule of Silicon Valley’s high-flying, and so far, seemingly failed, ambitions. However, the term and its potential should not be flushed out with the bathwater. The metaverse should be reclaimed for research and development in academic institutions to gain a more valuable function in society. There are many ongoing explorations of VR and AR at universities, and these can be interpreted as contributions to the long-term construction of a public metaverse.
Test our proposed solutions
At the Future Fest in Media City Bergen, we will show some of the results of a long-term exploration of immersive possibilities (e.g., Liestøl, 2019; Nyre & Vindenes, 2020). Media designers have worked to create prototypes with meaningful and balanced content that is grounded in the users’ lifeworld and environment. Such initiatives complement the commercial initiatives from Meta and other global media tech companies.
We will show you a selection of prototypes that explore novel ways to present editorial content in the future. Our focus will be on virtual reality and augmented reality, and their powers to augment your location and your senses. You will wear a headset or handle a mobile app to experience a narrative or other information that researchers and students have carefully designed. If they work properly, they will engage you in stories about local history, climate change, cultural heritage, sports, and much more.
The designers will be present and will explain what the intended functionality is and what they were thinking when trying to shape technology into something valuable. You can discuss among yourselves as you walk through the exhibition, and you can rate your conviction using tools that we will provide at the event.
We are particularly interested in your consideration of the protoypes’ value propositions, media forms, and storytelling techniques. How well do these aspects work? How could they be improved? Will there ever be a time when the given prototype could become “normal” in society?
When Alvin Toffler (1970) coined the phrase “future shock”, he set out to describe the social uncertainty and paralysis that can be induced by rapid technological change. Strong forces are at play in this process, and the economist Joseph Schumpeter famously described it in the early twentieth century. He said that capitalism requires established technologies and structures to be incessantly destroyed, so that new ones can be incessantly created and launched in the marketplace. He called this a process of creative destruction (Schumpeter, 1942).
New technologies typically emerge in Silicon Valley and create waves of creative destruction all across the globe. The new technologies are often developed in order to have a disruptive function in society (Christensen, 1997), and the disruption is largely created by American designers, entrepreneurs, and corporations. Political and cultural values are built into the technologies, for example, in social media that cultivate individualism and celebrity cultures among youngsters in societies where this was previously not common.
It is difficult for national institutions, for example, in Norway, to control these developments. Norway imports the ever-new technologies in much the same way that we imported the radio in the 1920s and bananas after World War II. The technical ground rules are set by global forces that cannot be controlled by individuals, groups, or institutions in any country. The technological forces are too great to be challenged. For example, we cannot choose to refrain from introducing artificial intelligence, immersive media, or social media, we can only try to adapt such functions to our cultural needs and hope that they will create the type of political and cultural value that is in our interest.
Here lies the grand challenge that media design in Media City Bergen tries to address. It is not only Silicon Valley that can be innovative. However, the culture for design and technology development is weak in such regional and local settings, compared with the enormous force of Silicon Valley and its innovation culture. National media, local newspapers, and other small media enterprises increasingly lose their economic independence and regional and local dynamism. It is almost impossible to keep up with because established editorial practices are incessantly being challenged by new solutions, and media producers as well as audiences are regularly forced to change their habits. While there are technical possibilities for addressing this grand challenge, there is also a risk that new designs will be outdated before they are launched because things change so quickly.
What should media scholars do?
Milieus such as Media City Bergen can contribute to technological innovation by cultivating what is called the triple helix innovation structure (Etzkowitz & Zhou, 2018). It consists of a fluid collaboration between private businesses, state funded initiatives, and academic research and teaching, and Silicon Valley is not surprisingly one of the most successful examples of triple helix innovation. Norwegian universities are in the process of reorganising their activities to strengthen their role as regional hubs of innovation, with varying levels of enthusiasm from academics.
Universities are particularly well positioned to cultivate students’ potential as critical and constructive contributors to media development. In the TekLab initiative, we do this with an approach called innovation pedagogy (Darsø, 2019). Innovation pedagogy is a didactic model for teaching innovation and entrepreneurship, and it assumes that students are active participants in their own education. Students are given responsibility for developing technology prototypes for various sectors and target groups, and thus they also gain ownership of their activities and their results. The core of the method is to challenge the students to take responsibility for technological innovation projects with great uncertainty and risk of not being mastered or completed (Darsø, 2019; Kettunen et al., 2013). This “stress testing” has been shown to give the students valuable innovation skills and work training (Barnes & Scheepers, 2017). Lecturers should further develop the technology skills the students already have in social media, computer games, and online behaviour (Jenkins, 2007). It is a method for avoiding future shock. Students design prototypes with the use of emerging technologies that have the potential to become normal sometime in the future. Prototypes are ways of thinking about solutions (Lim et al., 2008), and they allow the designers to speculate about possible future states, for example, with culturally specific use cases for generic technologies like mobile AR. The potential of the technology can be shaped towards what is likely to be useful and valuable functions, for example, for citizens in Bergen, Norway. Innovation pedagogy and other student active learning methods belong to a new paradigm of research and innovation that is increasingly supplementing what can be called normal research.
The NordMedia Conference is dominated by analytical and critical approaches to the media, and this can be considered the “normal” approach in our discipline. It is expressed in all the divisions and working groups at the conference.
The term “postnormal science” was coined by the science theorists Funtowicz and Ravez (1993), who used it to describe a state where researchers focus on grand societal challenges that cannot be solved by established methods. The painstaking precision work carried out by normal science does not lend itself to big societal problems such as climate change and technological future shock.
The research conducted in Media City Bergen is post-normal in the sense that the method is designed to find solutions that should function in the real life of concrete user groups sometime in the foreseeable future. Uncertainty about the future is handled with open eyes in post-normal approaches. Values are not something that is passed over in silence, but something that is explicitly talked about.
Post-normal science is characterised by great uncertainty regarding what knowledge is needed to find solutions, according to Funtowicz and Ravez (1993). There are probably disputes about the basic knowledge in the area, and there can be divided opinions about which aims should be achieved. Researchers do not have full control over their area of knowledge, and there are a number of legitimate perspectives that conflict with each other. The situation that researchers have to address is messy, and confusion is the order of the day.
Most media studies are based on approaches from the humanities and social sciences and are fundamentally analytic. Analysis consists of taking apart what has already been put together, to look critically at its components. It is a past-oriented research practice, where the researcher uses methods that can help gather information about cultural and social practices to analyse their qualities. Analysis is critical. It assesses weaknesses, contradictions, and bad effects on people’s lives. This makes the humanities and social sciences weak at orienting to the future.
Media design requires synthetic media studies. Synthesis consists of putting together components into a new whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Synthesis is constructive by trying to solve the problems that are currently being pointed out by analysis. Media scholars are typically not inclined to engage in synthetic approaches.
Professor Gunnar Liestøl at the University of Oslo has worked with synthetic approaches for decades. He proposes what he calls the “synthetic-analytic approach” (Liestøl, 2000). The analytical attitude searches what exists to find insights that can improve the invention process (p. 40) and the synthetic attitude describes or builds technical proposals for new solutions. A synthesis can be a conceptual sketch or a technical prototype, it can herald a revolutionary breakthrough or a small adjustment in practices. The synthetic-analytic approach is a method for predicting and even dictating the future, says Liestøl (2000: 25). “The best way to predict the future is to invent it”, he says, with a quote from the early Internet guru Stewart Brand (p. 27).
Responable research and innovation (RRI)
In Europe, a value system has emerged for technology development that is linked to the EU’s schemes for financial support for research and development, and this value system is called Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI).
René von Schomberg (2013) helped to establish the RRI value system. The EU invests huge sums in research and development, and what they get in return is a range of vaguely defined and unpredictable macro-economic benefits, he said. It was considered a self-evident truth that innovation cannot be controlled, but that it nevertheless always benefits society by creating jobs, prosperity, and new products required by the marketplace (p. 12). Von Schomberg wanted to formulate more positive outcomes of research and innovation and wanted to seek agreement about managing innovation in the direction of these outcomes (p. 8). Von Schomberg believed that research and innovation should be steered in a direction that makes it realistic to respond to grand challenges. Responsible research and innovation must be a transparent, interactive process where social actors and innovators are able to relate to each other and collaborate towards a common goal. The aim is to strengthen the ethical durability, sustainability, and social desirability of the innovation process and its sellable products. In this way, European society will best be able to secure its scientific and technological progress (p. 19).
Many authors have explored the RRI paradigm in relation to new technology. Stilgoe, Owen, and Macnaghten (2013) argued that emerging technologies are likely to continue to create unintended consequences that may be harmful, or at least problematic. They see signs of organised irresponsibility in the technocratic system for research and development (pp. 1568-1569). They therefore agree with von Schomberg that greater control is needed, and that there must be a positively formulated responsibility for technological development. Innovators must be particularly responsible for doing something good for society, and they define it as follows: Responsible innovation means to take care of the future through joint stewardship of science and innovation in the present (Stilgoe et al., 2013: 1570). Like von Schomberg, they stress that innovators must be in dialogue with civil society about what is the best development. Actors must be able to change the shape and direction of the project in light of other people’s interests and must also be responsive to changes in public values and conditions.
This is exactly what the international milieu of media design and innovation in Media City Bergen attempts to do. It is what the researchers at Media Futures explore and what the TekLab initiative tries out with students in pedagogical settings. Researchers and students try to establish a local culture for media design and innovation, and will present a series of preliminary results at Future Fest in Bergen in August.
The main photo shows Margareth Hagen, rector at the University of Bergen, exploring one of the immersive media prototypes that have been designed in Media City Bergen. Photo: Ronald Toppe, Scary Weather.
The article was co-produced with the TekLab network in Media City Bergen, which is a sponsor of the NordMedia23 Conference.