A Wake-up Call From The Future Media Landscape
Let’s imagine we’re in 2030. You’re sitting in your favorite chair ready to be updated on the daily news. What will be your preferred device for this? Will you listen to the news, or maybe even feel the news? Will the newsfeed be integrated into your brain, as Elon Musk envisions with his Neuralink? Will you get a hyper-personalised news feed curated by a synthetic digital assistant who helps you to ask critical questions? Who will create your news? Will we have independent editorial staffs? Or will news be created by AI?
If you think these questions are too far out, remember that the first smartphones only came onto the market about 13 years ago. Back then, we only had access to 3G and had never heard of GPT-3, Neuralink or TikTok. A lot can change in ten years. Ten years from now, I hope we can look back and say that we made the right decisions when shaping the media landscape, especially considering how we integrate algorithms. But maybe we won’t be able to say that. It is possible that we are repeating the same mistakes and patterns that we’ve seen over the past 15–20 years in the tech industry.
Since I started studying Media Science at Aarhus University in Denmark more than 20 years ago, I have been following the media evolution with great interest. In my first ‘real’ job in the media industry I was working for Danmarks Radio, the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, where I organised an event called New Media Days — a conference on how the digital media would affect the traditional media. Back then, in 2006, some of the largest news organisations were questioning whether digitalisation would play any role at all in their business models. Later on, that doubt turned into optimism about using the internet to gain likes and interactions that the company could measure and capitalise on — until it turned out that they couldn’t anymore. Fake followers, unreliable, everchanging algorithms and a lack of transparency has now created some extremely powerful platforms. However, they are not controlled by the media organisations, but by Big Tech, which is also controlling the news feed. A power struggle has begun on payment models and content rights. But you know all this already.
This column is a call to action to look at the bigger picture and at what we believe the future media landscape should look like. We simply cannot afford to talk only about the current, urgent initiatives that are happening in the engine rooms of the media; there is an equally urgent need to unite as an industry and start a dialogue about where we are heading. What kind of media landscape are we building?
It is not just a question of the media and journalism, but of our public space and access to information, which has implications for our democracy.
The decisions we take today will have a massive impact on our democracy and on the society of the future. The battle for the democracy of the future is, in short, a battle for the control of data and algorithms, and without public regulation of or influence on the algorithms owned by Big Tech, we will end up without a public digital sphere. Moreover, access to journalistic news is now a jungle of payment walls, and it is difficult to navigate in the rising number of closed ecosystems constructed to support new subscription models to ensure the media’s survival.
Something must be done to keep quality journalism alive; but it is not fair for users to be trapped in a web of outdated systems and structures, and if we do not act soon it is going to fast-track an algorithm radicalisation based on the same structures as the tech industry.
Over the past couple of months, I have spent quite some time asking a number of questions, including:
- What will the democratic conversation and news distribution look like in the future?
- How do we ensure a responsible outreach and create responsible alternatives for the media industry?
- How do we make sure that these new business models are economically sustainable?
- How do we ensure competent citizens and secure media literacy and equal access for all?
- How can we make sure that we understand the severity and urgency of the situation?
It is my belief that our responses to these questions will shape the media landscape of the future. It is not just a question of the media and journalism, but of our public space and access to information, which has implications for our democracy. That is why the battle for the media of the future is important. And yes, there are some good initiatives out there — both in relation to copyright regulations, such as the EU Digital Services Act, and other initiatives designed to create a responsible media infrastructure. But the media industry lacks a unified voice: Hence my wake-up call here.
This article was first published in Scenario Magazine issue 60 (April 2021) by Copenhagen Institute For Futures Studies. Read more here: www.cifs.dk.