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Ethik in mediatisierten Welten

Tobias Eberwein · Matthias Karmasin

Friedrich Krotz · Matthias Rath Eds.

and Resistance
Ethics in Mediatized Worlds
Ethik in mediatisierten Welten

Series Editors
Tobias Eberwein, Institute for Comparative Media and Communication Studies,
Austrian Academy of Sciences, Vienna, Austria
Matthias Karmasin, Institut für Medien- und Kommunikationswissenschaft,
Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt, Klagenfurt, Austria
Friedrich Krotz, Zentrum für Medien-, Kommunikations- und
­Informationsforschung, Universität Bremen, Bremen, Germany
Matthias Rath, Research Center Youth – Media – Education, Pädagogische
­Hochschule Ludwigsburg, Ludwigsburg, Germany
Larissa Krainer, Institut für Medien- und Kommunikationswissenschaft,
­Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt, Klagenfurt, Austria
Michael Litschka, Department of Media and Economics, Fachhochschule St.
Pölten, St. Pölten, Austria
In modernen, zunehmend mediatisierten und in verschiedene Kommunikations-
bereiche fragmentierten Gesellschaften treten immer öfter normative Frage­
stellungen zur medialen oder mediengestützten Produktion, Distribution und
Rezeption auf, die weder ausschließlich politisch und/oder juristisch noch allein
binnenstaatlich diskutiert oder gar gelöst werden können. Die Reihe des Inter­
disziplinären Zentrums für Medienethik (IMEC) thematisiert Potenziale (gren-
zenlose Vernetzung, günstige Kommunikation, mehr Partizipation), aber auch
Risiken (erhöhter Geschwindigkeitsdruck, Datenschutz, Hass-Postings, Künstli-
che Intelligenz etc.) der digitalen Kommunikation. Dabei werden verschiedene
Disziplinen, wie etwa Medien- und Kommunikationswissenschaft, Philosophie,
Soziologie, Politikwissenschaft, Ökonomie oder Rechtswissenschaft, mit einer
philosophisch fundierten Medienethik in Verbindung gebracht.

More information about this series at

Tobias Eberwein · Matthias Karmasin ·
Friedrich Krotz · Matthias Rath

Responsibility and
Ethics in Mediatized Worlds
Tobias Eberwein Matthias Karmasin
Austrian Academy of Sciences Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt
Vienna, Austria Klagenfurt, Austria

Friedrich Krotz Matthias Rath

Universität Bremen Pädagogische Hochschule Ludwigsburg
Bremen, Germany Ludwigsburg, Germany

ISSN 2523-384X ISSN 2523-3858  (electronic)

Ethik in mediatisierten Welten
ISBN 978-3-658-26211-2 ISBN 978-3-658-26212-9  (eBook)

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Responsibility and Resistance: Conceptual

Preliminaries. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
Friedrich Krotz, Matthias Karmasin, Matthias Rath and
Tobias Eberwein

Part I  Theoretical and Historical Foundations

Ethics of Mediatized Worlds: A Framing Introduction. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13
Friedrich Krotz
100 Years of Claims for Responsible Public
Communication: The Mediation of Responsibility
(as a Form of Resistance) in Mediatized Societies—a
Historical Perspective. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 31
Stefanie Averbeck-Lietz and Erik Koenen
Ethics of the Mediatized World. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 53
Matthias Rath

Part II  Analyses and Cases

Ethics and Mediatization: Subjectivity, Judgment
(phronēsis) and Meta-theoretical Coherence?. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 71
Charles M. Ess
Permanent Connectivity: From Modes of
Restrictions to Strategies of Resistance. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 91
Thomas Steinmaurer and Helena Atteneder

vi Contents

Managing Mediatization: How Media Users

Negotiate a Successful Integration of (New)
Media in Everyday Life . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 111
Kathrin Friederike Müller
Agony at a Distance: Investigating Digital
Witnessing on YouTube. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 131
Johanna Sumiala
Doing Good ‘With Just One Click’: Normative
Aspects of Solidarity 2.0 as an Act of Resistance
in Today’s Mediatized Worlds. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 147
Nina Köberer
Corporate Responsibility in a Mediatized World:
Institutional Ethics and the Question of Consumer
Sovereignty . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 161
Michael Litschka
Ethics as Practice: The Challenge of Ethics
Management in Mediatized Working
Environments—Journalism in Change. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 175
Anke Trommershausen
Meta-discourses Between Responsibility and
Resistance: Reaching the Aim of Multimodal
Learning by Ways of Mediatization Processes. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 199
Gudrun Marci-Boehncke
Sex Machines as Mediatized Sexualities: Ethical
and Social Implications. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 221
Nicole Duller and Joan Ramon Rodriguez-Amat
Editors and Contributors

About the Editors

Dr. Tobias Eberwein,  senior scientist and research group leader at the Institute
for Comparative Media and Communication Studies (CMC), Austrian Academy
of Sciences/University of Klagenfurt.

Prof. DDr. Matthias Karmasin, professor at the Department of Media and

Communications Science, University of Klagenfurt, director of the Institute for
Comparative Media and Communication Studies (CMC), Austrian Academy of
Sciences/University of Klagenfurt.

Prof. em. Dr. Friedrich Krotz,  professor of communication and media studies
with a focus on social communication and mediatization research at the ZeMKI,
Center for Communication, Media and Information Research, University of

Prof. Dr. Dr. Matthias Rath,  professor for philosophy and ethics at the Univer-
sity of Education in Ludwigsburg, head of the Research Center Youth – Media –
Education and the Research Group Media Ethics.


Helena Atteneder,  PhD candidate at the Department of Communication Science,

Center for ICT&S, University of Salzburg.

viii Editors and Contributors

Prof. Dr. Stefanie Averbeck-Lietz,  professor of communication and media studies

with an emphasis on media change at the ZeMKI, Center for Communication, Media
and Information Research, University of Bremen.
Nicole Duller,  research and teaching associate at the Department of Media and
Communications Science, University of Klagenfurt.
Prof. Dr. Charles M. Ess, professor in media studies at the Department of
Media and Communication, University of Oslo.
Dr. Nina Köberer, Niedersächsisches Landesinstitut für schulische Qualitätsent­
wicklung NLQ (Lower Saxony State Institute for School Quality Development).
Dr. Erik Koenen,  research associate at the ZeMKI, Center for Communication,
Media and Information Research, University of Bremen.
Prof. Dr. Michael Litschka,  professor at the Department of Media & Economics,
University of Applied Sciences St. Pölten.
Prof. Dr. Gudrun Marci-Boehncke, professor of modern German literature,
with a special interest in the acquisition of reading skills and media competence,
at the Technical University of Dortmund.
Dr. Kathrin Friederike Müller,  Postdoc at the Department of Communication,
University of Münster.
Dr. Joan Ramon Rodriguez-Amat, senior lecturer in media, communications
and PR at Sheffield Hallam University.
Prof. Dr. Thomas Steinmaurer, professor at the Department of Communi-
cation Science and director of the Center for ICT&S, University of Salzburg.
Prof. Dr. Johanna Sumiala, associate professor at the Faculty of Social
Sciences/Media and Communication Studies, University of Helsinki.
Prof. Dr. Anke Trommershausen, professor for media management at the
University of Applied Sciences Magdeburg-Stendal. anke.trommershausen@
Responsibility and Resistance:
Conceptual Preliminaries

Friedrich Krotz, Matthias Karmasin, Matthias Rath

and Tobias Eberwein

1 Introduction

This volume deals with the normative challenges and the ethical questions
imposed by, and through, the developments and changes in everyday life, culture
and society in the context of media change. We are thus concerned with the ques-
tions of whether and how the central concept of (enlightened) ethics must evolve
under these premises—or in other words: what form do ethics take in media-
tized societies? In order to address this question and to stimulate and initiate a
debate, we have focused on two concepts: responsibility and resistance. The peer-
reviewed volume Responsibility and Resistance: Ethics in Mediatized Worlds
tries to shed light not only on the empirical evidence of change in mediatized

F. Krotz (*) 
Zentrum für Medien-, Kommunikations- und Informationsforschung, Universität
Bremen, Bremen, Deutschland
M. Karmasin 
Institut für Medien- und Kommunikationswissenschaft, Alpen-Adria-Universität
Klagenfurt, Klagenfurt, Österreich
M. Rath 
Pädagogische Hochschule Ludwigsburg, Ludwigsburg, Deutschland
T. Eberwein 
Institute for Comparative Media and Communication Studies,
Austrian Academy of Sciences, Vienna, Austria

© Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden GmbH, part of Springer Nature 2019 1

T. Eberwein et al. (eds.), Responsibility and Resistance, Ethik in mediatisierten
2 F. Krotz et al.

societies, but also on the normative challenges and ethical possibilities of these
In this introductory chapter, we will start with a short explanation for our
referring to the broadly acknowledged concept of mediatization. We under-
stand this to be a concept which may not only serve to grasp the digital changes
of today, as a consequence of the advent of the computer as a programmable
machine, but which also includes the social, economic, political and other conse-
quences for human life. Next, we will briefly outline and explain the two central
concepts of responsibility and resistance. Finally, we will give an overview of the
contributions to be read in the following chapters.

2 Key Concepts, Key Questions

Today, we live in the midst of rapid cultural and social change, which is caused
by the development of the media as well as by their usage for communication and
increasingly for symbolic operations by people, organizations, institutions and
companies. Furthermore, the diversity of traditional media is transforming as new
ones emerge. Human communication is changing and, as a result, we live in an
infrastructure of symbolic operations based on computers and digital networks,
which are relevant for leisure time and work, shopping and education, for infor-
mation and entertainment etc.
In recent years, this change was mostly referred to as digital change or digiti-
zation, and often this label is used with the intention to describe the consequences
of this development. Digitization, however, in its original sense, is a purely
technical concept and only expresses that the data basis on which media oper-
ate has shifted from analogue to digital data. Most people know this aspect of
communication. But as long as they find alphabets in their e-books, which they
can read, and listen to spoken words (as opposed to encrypted binary codes) on
smartphones, and receive messages, music, movies and information in analogue
form and can understand them, nobody really cares. Thus, the label ‘digital’ is not
really relevant.
In a technical context, the interesting aspect is why this shift of data became
necessary. It followed the advent of the symbolic machine computer, which is the
driving force behind all those previously mentioned changes and makes all these
new forms of communication and symbolic operations possible. The essence of
the driving force and the actual developments could be better labelled as comput-
erization instead of digitization, because it is not digital data that changes human
communicative practices, but computers as programmable machines. These can
Responsibility and Resistance: Conceptual Preliminaries 3

process digital data and—at least today—process nothing else other than digital
data. However, despite the term computerization referring to the technical base
of the changes, it is also a purely technical concept, which says little about the
significant associated changes in everyday life, society and culture. In addition,
it would also be a deterministic aberration if we were to regard these social and
cultural changes as direct consequences of a technical innovation.
Thus, it makes sense to refer to the theory of mediatization that is develop-
ing worldwide—and to bring social and cultural changes, which the approach
includes, to the fore. Simply by referring to the concept of media, we shift the
focus away from the purely technical area. Although media are based on tech-
nology, those for communication only become media if they are institutionalized
by the use of the people in society and culture. This is achieved by establishing
norms, practices, expectations, organizations, companies and other social ele-
ments, which accompany the technology and make it a part of society.
In the frame of communication studies, mediatization is one of the most fre-
quently used and discussed concepts. It enables researchers to understand, empir-
ically study and theoretically reconstruct the social and cultural changes of today,
in as far as they happen in the context of the developments in media and com-
munication—not a causal relationship, but a related transformation. Terminologi-
cally, mediatization describes a process in which

by means of the coming into existence and the establishment of new media used
by the people for specific purposes and the simultaneous transformations of the old
media and the ways how they became used, human communication and therefore
also the communicatively constructed realities, in other words culture and society,
identity and everyday life, are changing. (Krotz 2007, p. 43)

However, this process does not simply serve to describe the emergence of a spe-
cific historical ‘media society’. Instead, mediatization is constructed as a ‘meta-
process’, i.e. a development that is broad in scope, covers a long time span of
human development and is relevant in one way or another for most cultures and
societies. From this perspective, mediatization serves as an integrating concept
like globalization or individualization. Mediatization, as a meta-process, thus
allows us to reconstruct the transformation of communication forms and media
practices as “longue durée” (Braudel), which comprises

a variety of comprehensive developments, sometimes already lasting for centuries,

that commenced even before the invention of writing and that is still not completed
yet with the invention of the present-day media. (Krotz 2007, p. 12)
4 F. Krotz et al.

Thus, mediatization research also has an orientation function for empirical

research and theory-building. This is the case in this book, since it helps to create
relationships between the growing number of empirical studies which analyze the
emergence and use of media in concrete social and cultural contexts (“moyenne
durée”) and to put them in order. A grasp of the theory is beneficial and may moti-
vate further empirical studies. In this way, after its initial systematic description in
2001 followed by various case studies, mediatization theory has become the basic
concept of manifold socio-scientific analyses on the micro and meso as well as
the macro level. For example, the theory was used by the Deutsche Forschungsge-
meinschaft (DFG) Priority Program “Mediatized Worlds” (2011–2016), and can
now be considered as empirically helpful and theoretically fruitful.
Besides their descriptive function, “longue durée” reconstructions or meta-
processes also imply the potential of a normative and value-driven analysis of
media change, which is not media-centric, but asks for specific changes in the
lives of citizens and their social relations, institutions and organizations, as well
as economy, education and other relevant areas of human life—e.g., with respect
to democracy, justice and self-realization of the people. Therefore, mediatization
is not only a functional social process, but also a concept on a superordinate level

• describes the appropriation of media by human beings, and at the same time
• understands this process of appropriation as a process of shaping human com-

Thus, the analysis of mediatization also raises questions of practical orientation

for action (micro-social aspect), of institutionally designed options and limita-
tions for action (meso-social aspect) and of social as well as supranational context
factors (macro-social aspect) of media and communication practice.
In relation to this point of view, mediatization theory also moves into the focus
of a normative approach to media and communication research, which is typical
for contemporary media ethics (see Karmasin et al. 2013). Moreover, the conse-
quentialist perspective of media ethics as applied ethics points towards a prospec-
tive impact assessment of technical developments in media for the future of
communicative action, in particular to develop civil societies.
Among the many normative topics, two aspects seem to be particularly rele-
vant, as many of those developments for the people are initialized within the eco-
nomic field—and questions emerge as to how the economy operates responsibly
and whether people accept or resist developments in appropriating new media in
their own way:
Responsibility and Resistance: Conceptual Preliminaries 5

1. the term responsibility, which is constitutive for modern ethics. It needs to

be understood as a normative multi-relational claim to the individual for its
actions and the resulting consequences as well as the active assumption of
responsibility by the moral subject in the face of a globalized media world,
in which supranational bodies and legislators cannot secure this assignment
2. the term resistance, which is constitutive for modern social philosophy and
critical social science. It can be understood as an act of refusal or active oppo-
sition towards individual, institutional or structural phenomena of suppression
and manipulation. In this sense, resistance is reasoned with reference to an
understanding of individual sovereignty.

Both aspects relate to the context of concrete life worlds that are the result—not
only today, but generally—of a specific historical mediatization of human com-
The anthology Responsibility and Resistance: Ethics in Mediatized Worlds
brings together researchers that systematically illuminate mediatization in the
above-mentioned sense from a normative perspective. Therefore, the key ques-
tions of this volume are:

• What are the most problematic forms of mediatized communicative actions,

communication technologies and communication structures from a moral
point of view?
• How can we discuss responsibility for and resistance to these forms of media-
• Which normative principles can be made plausible?

The following chapters will answer these and other closely related questions in
the research perspectives of various disciplines and across a broad spectrum of
theoretical and empirical approaches.

3 Concept and Structure of the Book

The volume consists of twelve original contributions arranged in two sections:

the first intends to describe the theoretical and historical foundations of the book;
the second collects various analyses and case studies that approach the aspects of
responsibility and resistance from different perspectives.
6 F. Krotz et al.

Part I (Theoretical and historical foundations) opens with Friedrich Krotz,

who describes the mediatization approach in more detail, thus developing the
conceptual basis for the whole volume. His contribution outlines some key char-
acteristics of the current processes of media change by reference to both theo-
retical and empirical studies in the frame of mediatization research. As these
processes are relevant for the self-realization of the people as well as for peace
and democracy in general, Krotz concludes that now is the time to develop an
ethic for the emerging mediatized forms of everyday life, culture and society. In
his view, more critical research would not only stimulate a broader public discus-
sion about the ethical dilemmas of mediatized worlds, but could also offer a basis
for intervening political decisions.
The chapter by Stefanie Averbeck-Lietz and Erik Koenen offers a historical
perspective on responsibility in mediatized words. The authors refer to the works
of Karl Bücher, Erich Everth and Ernest Manheim to explore the development
of mediation (Vermittlung) as a theoretical concept to understand public commu-
nication in the press-dominated—and in this sense: mediatized—society of the
early 20th century. As Averbeck-Lietz and Koenen show, all three philosophers
explicitly referred to mechanisms of mediation that integrate normative perspec-
tives sustaining public resistance. On the basis of the historical analysis, it also
becomes possible to develop a systematical understanding of responsible commu-
nication in the present.
Matthias Rath closes the book’s first section by introducing an anthropological
view on the theory of mediatization. From his philosophical perspective, media-
tization is not only a descriptive template for distinct and historically differen-
tiated media transformations, but rather an expression of a growing awareness
that imputes a logic of change to observable media and communication practices.
Rath uses his approach to mediatization as an awareness concept to discuss its
relevance for today’s concept of ethics in general. According to his analysis, “pre-
sent-day normative ethics is the ethics of the mediatized world or it is none at all.”
Part II (Analyses and cases) begins with a chapter by Charles M. Ess, who
highlights the tensions between foundational accounts of the human being in pos-
itivist social science and the insistence on human freedom, agency and affiliated
capacities of responsibility, resistance and disobedience that may be regarded
as typical for the mediatization approach. In order to explain these tensions, he
draws on Kant’s virtue ethics to develop a robust idea of the human subject as
ethical agent. He then takes up understandings of complementarity and epistemo-
logical pluralism as first developed in Quantum Mechanics and then in the work
of Karen Barad and Judith Simon as frameworks that can coherently conjoin con-
temporary social science with strong accounts of human freedom. Ess concludes
Responsibility and Resistance: Conceptual Preliminaries 7

that the resulting coherency—or entanglement—between ethics and science

implies new ethical responsibilities for social scientists as ‘virtuous agents’.
By contrast, Thomas Steinmaurer and Helena Atteneder conceptualize the per-
manent connectivities of the mediatized present as a new dispositif of communi-
cation that is defined by a hitherto unknown status of individual integration into
the technological infrastructures of digital networks. Steinmaurer and Atteneder
suggest adopting Hall’s model of encoding/decoding of communication within
the context of digital network structures, in order to differentiate between various
modes of ‘network behavior’. The ensuing analysis demonstrates that the ethical
implications of current developments are considerable—and require concepts of
digital ethics and resilience to be further developed in digital network environ-
Kathrin Friederike Müller discusses how the integration and use of new (digi-
tal) media can be conceptualized as a process of appropriation, which is shaped
by accepting or rejecting media and mediatization. It is understood as a user-
driven process during which the users of new media decide whether they under-
stand the innovative and novel platforms and if their usage is adequate or not. The
chapter aims to contribute theoretically to this topic by defining the users’ role in
the mediatization of everyday life more precisely. Müller presents empirical find-
ings that display how users negotiate mediatization and the functions of media in
Johanna Sumiala analyzes the phenomenon of digital witnessing on YouTube,
by referring to a Finnish case that received broad public attention in 2008. On the
grounds of an elaboration of the theoretical work on media witnessing by scholars
such as John Durham Peters, John Ellis, Paul Frosh, Amit Pinchevski and Lilie
Chouliaraki, Sumiala discusses the ideas of responsibility as agony and the sense
of proper distance as necessary conditions for communicative action in ethically
challenging situations.
The chapter by Nina Köberer turns the spotlight onto participatory forms of
communication in the online world, where everyone can share media contents
and, as the author states, “show solidarity ‘with just one click’ as an act of resist-
ance”. The analysis demonstrates that there is an urgent need to reflect on these
practices from a normative point of view and to accentuate which ethical chal-
lenges arise with new forms of participation. Köberer uses the mediatization
approach as a heuristic to identify and classify emergent forms of social interac-
tion and participation.
Michael Litschka focuses on the field of institutional ethics and discusses
the relevance of corporate responsibility in a mediatized world. His contribu-
tion questions the relevance of the concept of ‘consumer sovereignty’ on the
8 F. Krotz et al.

t­heoretical basis of Amartya Sen’s capability approach. According to this view,

the ability to choose and make use of media offerings is dependent on the encom-
passing concept of ‘media capabilities’, and not on any rational choice actions
by individuals. Following these arguments, the author shows that responsibility
in a world of mediatized institutions must also be borne by institutions like media
companies—and this example is examined in detail.
The case of journalism in change is also taken on by Anke Trommershausen,
but her chapter employs a contrasting analytical approach. The author introduces
the theoretical concepts of postmodern business ethics and the ethics as prac-
tice approach, in order to guide her study. As Trommershausen demonstrates,
these two theoretical grounds give insight in how organizations and their ethics
management can appreciate the new arising ethical practices of journalists in
mediatized working environments. The contribution closes with an outlook of a
possible empirical research agenda.
The chapter by Gudrun Marci-Boehncke deals with the challenges of mediati-
zation in the university training of future teachers. As the author indicates, there
is an increasing need for an extensive change of the mindset of trainee teachers to
cope with the demands of modern media education in a creative way. Against this
background, she established a teaching and research project that concentrates on
the question of how far mediatization is a topic in current, award-winning litera-
ture for children and adolescents. In this context, Marci-Boehncke discusses the
aspects of responsibility and resistance, in order to help teachers reflect on media-
tization and thus to develop their own attitude towards it.
The book concludes with a chapter by Nicole Duller and Joan Ramon Rod-
riguez-Amat, who consider sexual interactions with technological devices as
mediatized sexualities. The authors combine the mediatization approach with the
perspective of Actor-Network Theory to enable a cross-disciplinary discussion
about such “sex machines”. The article presents a typology of sex machines that
builds on the criteria of similarity, extension, substitution, sublimation, sensual-
ity and creativity to provide a discussion on ethical issues. These include, among
other things, the role of robots, surveillance, psychological, sociological and body-
related concerns, which are also relevant for media and communication studies.
In summary, the texts gathered here are from various disciplines, which are
based on a range of theoretical references and empirical approaches. They create
a broad picture of what could be called the ethics of mediatized societies, but not
by any means a conclusive one because we discuss emerging changes, and the
transformations and developments are still ongoing. Further research and further
discussions, especially involving a broad public, are necessary—and we will try
Responsibility and Resistance: Conceptual Preliminaries 9

to be part of it, not only by publishing a series of books, but also by organizing
conferences with a focus on the issues at stake.
The idea for this volume originated at an international conference that took
place in December 2015 at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna. It was
organized by Matthias Karmasin (Austrian Academy of Sciences/University of
Klagenfurt), Friedrich Krotz (DFG Priority Program “Mediatized Worlds”/Uni-
versity of Bremen), Matthias Rath (Research Group Media Ethics/University of
Education Ludwigsburg) and Tobias Eberwein (Austrian Academy of Sciences/
University of Klagenfurt). In the context of this conference, the Interdisciplinary
Media Ethics Center (IMEC) was created—a network of researchers that are ded-
icated to ethical debates in the frame of a critical understanding of human enlight-
enment. Within this framework, the discussion begun here is to be continued. We
invite our readers to join us.


Karmasin, M., Rath, M., & Thomaß, B. (Eds.). (2013). Normativität in der Kommunika-
tionswissenschaft. Wiesbaden: Springer VS.
Krotz, F. (2007). Mediatisierung. Fallstudien zum Wandel von Kommunikation.
­Wiesbaden: VS.
Part I
Theoretical and Historical Foundations
Ethics of Mediatized Worlds:
A Framing Introduction

Friedrich Krotz

In recent decades, the system of mostly mass media has radically changed.
Today, we live under conditions of a computer-controlled digital infrastruc-
ture, which is relevant for all symbolic actions and interactions—and this has
fundamental consequences for all areas of human life. This is what mediatiza-
tion research tries to grasp empirically and theoretically. As a consequence,
we must develop an ethic for the emerging mediatized forms of everyday life,
culture and society. This must also include an ethic for the ongoing develop-
ment of media. In the second decade of the 21st century, media development
is controlled by huge enterprises and the ideas of engineers. However, these
developments are relevant for freedom and self-realization of the people and
for peace and democracy. We thus need a broad ethical discussion about what
is going on and where we want to go. This chapter describes the mediatization
approach and discusses some questions of ethical relevance from empirical
and theoretical work in the frame of mediatization research.

Mediatization · Media change · Change of communication · 
Transformation of culture · Media ethics · Symbolic animal

F. Krotz (*) 
Zentrum für Medien-, Kommunikations- und Informationsforschung,
Universität Bremen, Bremen, Deutschland

© Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden GmbH, part of Springer Nature 2019 13

T. Eberwein et al. (eds.), Responsibility and Resistance, Ethik in mediatisierten
14 F. Krotz

1 Introduction

Since some decades, we are living in a rapidly changing world of media, com-
munication and, more precisely, of symbolic operations. These changes are of
high importance for more or less all areas of people’s social life and thus for the
human being, understood to be a “symbolic animal” living in a symbolic world
(Cassirer 2007; Krotz 2017a, b).
A serious academic approach must describe these developments as an inter-
related pair of transformations:
On the one hand, there is a technical and organizational transformation—the
growing importance of the nets of computers and digital devices, the rapid devel-
opment of both hardware and software, and of specifically organized forms for
their use by the people. Today, this transformation takes place under the influ-
ence of huge global enterprises, which, in a monopolistic way, try to manage
human activity throughout the world. They, for example, intend to manage all
of the social relations of all people like Facebook, they try to become universal
warehouses like Amazon, they want to control all human knowledge like Google,
and they are even interested to build an index of usefulness for all inhabitants of
China like the Chinese government, just to mention some examples. Doing so,
they use software, which collects all user-related data, which can be found in the
nets, and even try to provoke the production of such data, in order to make money
with that. In a similar way, all other human operations, in as far as they refer to
symbols, are becoming organized with reference to computer nets and the related
organizations, and thus all human communication becomes dependent of techni-
cal media and the organizing enterprises.
This technical and organizational transformation is usually called digitization,
but must be understood as a transformation of the formerly existing media sys-
tems and the media-related human communication into a digital infrastructure for
symbolic operations, controlled by computers, with specific organizing forms, in
order to use them. More or less, this growing infrastructure includes, or is at least
relevant for, all of the symbolic operations of humankind. It is driven by techno-
logical inventions, today mostly under control of the developing organizational
interests of enterprises and bureaucratic institutions.
On the other hand, there is a related second social and cultural transforma-
tion, as the first technical and organizational transformation is becoming increas-
ingly relevant for all areas of human life and communication and for all that is
related to that: family life, friendship and education, work, knowledge, consumer
activities and so on. This second transformation takes place at all levels of culture
Ethics of Mediatized Worlds: A Framing Introduction 15

and society—at the micro level of the single persons and their activities, at the
mezzo level of enterprises, organizations, institutions and political parties, and at
the macro level, as the transformations are also relevant for economy and democ-
racy, cultural capital and health, all forms of mobility and so on. We already live
quite different than we did in relatively recent times.
Obviously, both transformations follow their own rules, as both are highly
complex. In addition, each one depends on the other, but also on many other con-
ditions—all types of cultural, economic and social conditions, people’s habits and
education etc. Thus, both transformations cannot be understood as one being an
intervening variable for the other or that there are only, or even mainly, causal
relationships between them. However, they are nevertheless closely interrelated:
both transformations exist in and on the basis of a dialectical relationship, and
each one is a context of the other one.
One of the problems with that is that the long-term consequences of these two
transformations are totally unclear and open. Nevertheless, we know that rele-
vant human needs and interests are influenced by these transformations and that
they have far-reaching consequences for the human forms of life like democracy
and human self-realization. However, there is no broad public discourse about
what is taking place and there are no framing political decisions, which give
development a direction and a sense. Instead, there are a lot of technical and prac-
tical constraints, powerful enterprises and bureaucratic institutions, which follow
their profit and other interests, and by that decide what happens today and in the
future—without really taking responsibility for what they are doing.
In addition, there are threatening signs that the developments go in a dangerous
direction. For example, since the courageous activities of Edward Snowden, we
know that the governments and the bureaucracy of most nations use this infra-
structure to observe and control other nations and their citizens, and similar activi-
ties are undertaken by huge global enterprises. At the same time, public discourse,
the development of political frames, critical (not dystopian) research and a broad
ethical discussion are not taking place. Thus, it seems that we all accept without
question the interests of the governments, bureaucracy and global enterprises.
Habermas (1990) considers that democracy came into existence in Europe as
a result of the cooperation of the economy and civil society against the feudalistic
government and bureaucracy. In contrast to that, today, the economy, bureaucracy
and government cooperate against the civil society, which they want to control
and to manage. In this sense, it is a good first step that ethical and political dis-
cussions about the consequences of the two transformations are beginning and
becoming more visible. This chapter will contribute to that aim.
16 F. Krotz

What then is meant by ethics, here? Simply, we understand ethics as the

reflection in order to evaluate conditions, activities and developments with refer-
ence to their depending moral value—this also includes bearing in mind in which
contexts something is taking place. In the understanding of this article, ethics is
and must be based on the values of enlightenment1: human rights, democracy,
justice, equal life chances, the rights and obligations of civil society, and self-real-
ization of the people. From such a perspective, ethics as a part of philosophy, is
an academic sub-discipline with a practical goal and thus must be a theoretically
founded and empirically supported result of societal and individual reflections
and discourses, justified not by exegetic interpretations, but by rigorous argu-
ments (Rath 2014; Karmasin 2016).
Of course, such ethical discussions and their applications as political frames
and rules must include all citizens and all people—we need publicly discussed
and democratically based ethics in this sense. This then obviously demands a
common basis and framework to describe the current developments, so that ethi-
cal discussions can start from common ground about how to analyze and evaluate
concrete technological, organizational as well as social and cultural develop-
ments. It should then be possible to develop a comprehensive set of norms, values
and principles to decide open questions and to pilot and control further develop-
ments, on the basis of democratic structures and public discourses. Clearly, such a
common ground must take four aspects into consideration:

• We are living in an open process and do not know where the journey will take
us—thus we must learn to think in processes and not in given stable states, for
example, in order to influence future activities.
• The current developments must be understood to be part of an historical long-
term development, as emerging media and ethical discussions on that accom-
pany human development.
• We should not start to analyze mainly technology or organizational forms.
Instead, we must take a social perspective—we must start with the perspective
of how people experience new media and the changing conditions of life and
whether the developments are helpful for democracy, human rights and self-

1… and not on a specific religion. Religious ethics seem to me to be mainly exegetical, but
we need a democratically based ethics of our world.
Ethics of Mediatized Worlds: A Framing Introduction 17

• We must take into consideration that media development and the emergence of
a computer-controlled infrastructure for human life and society are only one
long-term development, as there are also others like globalization, economiza-
tion and individualization.

These four points are exactly the basic points of the so-called mediatization
approach, which tries to reconstruct the developments by describing and analyz-
ing empirically and grasping theoretically the two transformations introduced
above, which constitute mediatization as a long-term process. On the basis of
this, one can draw practical and political conclusions. Thus, in the following
section of this chapter, we give a very short introduction into the mediatization
approach. In Section 3, we draw some conclusions, and in Section 4 discuss some
more complex consequences from empirical research and theoretical work in the
framework of the mediatization approach, which may be helpful for the necessary
ethical discussions of today.

2 A Short Introduction to the Mediatization


‘Mediatization’ is a descriptive term with a long tradition in communication and

media studies (Averbeck-Lietz 2014), but it has never been systematically devel-
oped. The approach is inspired by ideas of the so-called medium theory follow-
ing Harold Innis (1951, 2007) and Marshall McLuhan (1964), but it tries to avoid
the one-sided technological orientation and other problems of the medium the-
ory (Krotz 2001, 2007; Krotz and Hepp 2011). However, the main reason why
mediatization is an adequate concept to develop a theory of media change (Krotz
2014c, 2015) is because people experience the current changes in the old media
and the emergence of the new media by speaking about the mediatization of their
social relations, of work and leisure, of politics and economy, which is why it
makes sense to adopt this name.

2This short introduction includes some common wording with a similar introduction,
which is part of an article about the so-called ‘media logic’ approach (Krotz 2018), but
also includes additional ideas. Broader explanations of and introductions into mediatization
research can be found in Krotz (2017a, b, c).
18 F. Krotz

Today, mediatization research is the only conceptual approach, which tries to

describe empirically and grasp theoretically the media change of today and its
consequences for everyday life, culture and society (Hepp 2013). It has been
continuously refined since the 1990s (Krotz 1995; Mazzoleni and Schulz 1999;
Lundby 2014). Such development has been achieved by broad academic work in
different countries and by integrating the changes and transformations of today
into a current, a historical and a critical perspective. Thus, the mediatization
approach does not start with an explicit assumption or theory, but follows Stu-
art Hall’s well-known argument: “I am not interested in theory, I’m interested in
going on theorizing” (Hall, quoted from Ang 1989, p. 110). As a consequence,
mediatization research aims at empirically and theoretically reconstructing the
transformation of media and their organization and the resulting transformation
of human forms of living, by setting these transformations in relation to human
history, on the one hand, and other relevant long-term developments of today,
like globalization, individualization and commercialization, on the other hand
(Krotz 2009, 2014b, c; Lundby 2014). In general, the main question of mediati-
zation research is the following: how do the two transformations, the technical
and organizational one and the social and cultural one, change the everyday life
of the people, culture and society? The empirical and theoretical questions and
resulting insights can be linked to the common concepts of communication and
media studies of the pre-digital era, but also may serve as a framework for empir-
ical research including other disciplines, which are concerned with the growing
relevance of the media (see, for example, Krotz et al. 2014, 2017; Lundby 2009,
Far from being able to report all theoretical ideas or the whole academic dis-
cussion about mediatization (for more details, see Lundby 2009, 2014; Krotz and
Hepp 2012; Hepp and Krotz 2014), here we will sketch some special features of
mediatization studies.
First, mediatization research is not media-centered, but demands a social and
cultural perspective on what is happening. The starting points are not the chang-
ing media and their organization, but changing everyday life, culture and society,
which are understood to take place in the context of media development. Thus,
we are interested in how people, social actors and society as a whole contextu-
ally define emerging new or changing old media by using them for specific goals
and interests, and in addition, which societal meaning frames the concrete forms
of use by the people. Thus, we must study the various areas of social life (called
“social worlds”, Krotz 2014a), in which people live and act, mainly by describ-
ing and reconstructing the culturally specific paths of the current mediatization
Ethics of Mediatized Worlds: A Framing Introduction 19

process (Krotz 2017c). Of course, besides these local processes, one must take
into consideration further conditions and constraints for media and media institu-
tions—for example, whether, and if so, how net neutrality and data privacy are
possible for the users.
Second, the mediatization approach demands process-oriented research and
theory, as it is necessary to describe media developments and social transforma-
tions and to understand them theoretically. The reason for this is that we are part
of long-term processes of media and social change, and that these changes and
transformations will go on. As a consequence, we cannot assume that everyday
life, society or culture are stable entities.
Third, we understand mediatization as a long-term process in history, happening
in different forms all over the world. This is why it should be seen as a so-called
meta-process, similar to globalization, individualization or commercialization, which
are studied, for example, in sociology and political science: they are all nonlinear,
cannot be reduced to simple causal dependencies, may happen intermittently and
are culturally specific, but nevertheless share certain tendencies across the world. Of
course, there may be resistance, perseverance and reductions of the developments,
but generally speaking, these are characteristics of the mediatization process, which
also takes place by negotiation (Grenz and Pfadenhauer 2017; Krotz 2017c).
Obviously, media developments are not new. Examples from the past include
written language and books, the printing press, the invention of photography,
film, the radio and so on. Together with all of these technical developments, new
institutions and new aesthetics in culture and society, new knowledge and new
experiences came into existence for people. In parallel with these developments,
communication and the relevant conditions of life have been changing. By recon-
structing the past, we can try to learn from history, in order to better understand
the current developments. Consideration of prior experiences about media devel-
opments might help to avoid mistakes today.
Fourth, in former times, the media system consisted of interrelated, but indi-
vidual media, each one embedded in society and having their own technology and
distribution lines. However, today, the media system has been transformed into
a digital computer-controlled infrastructure for symbolic operations, swallowing
(and simulating) traditional media by transforming them into hardware-software
services and generating more and more additional media, mostly for interper-
sonal, interactive and so-called social communication. Thus, this digital infra-
structure for all symbolic operations is becoming fundamental for the everyday
life of the people and for the symbolic operations of most kinds of enterprises,
groups, organizations and institutions (Krotz et al. 2017).
20 F. Krotz

Fifth, the core of the mediatization approach must be understood to be criti-

cal: learning from history and from empirical work also means that we can find
out what may happen with democracy if media in the long run are controlled by
governments, secret services or are economically dominated by huge corporate
giants such as Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon, without any control and
influence by civil society. The Frankfurt School considers that critical research
consists in confronting the actual developments with the possible ones—not in an
abstract way, but basically founded in empirical research and theoretical analysis
(Adorno 1978). For example, in a mediatization approach, we can compare the
role of the Internet under the conditions of net neutrality with an Internet with a
lot of privileges for the commercial transport of data—this is not only a question
of what works better, but also touches on questions of power and hegemony3 (see
Krotz 2017c).
Of course, this all has relevant consequences for people, culture and soci-
ety—and, in particular, many questions about ethics arise: for example, informa-
tion services which do not care about journalistic rules, interactive entertainment
which may damage the dignity of human beings, shit storms, mobbing and fur-
ther misuse of mediated interpersonal or social communication, the use of the net
for manipulation and control, cyber-crime and cyber-war. Further, the technologi-
cal transformation today mainly follows hegemonically defined traces, with the
risk of destroying democracy, culture and the civil society: here new media ethics
discourses become necessary. In the next two sections, we will discuss some of
the emerging ethical problems—at first the more obvious, then some more com-
plex ones.

3 Some Obvious Conclusions

We here draw some obvious conclusions about ethical problems in the form of
some hypotheses. We start with a hypothesis against an often heard and read
misunderstanding: Hypothesis 1: It is not true that technological and related
organizational developments are neutral. Instead, they promote specific groups
and interests and exclude others. This is relevant today because the technologi-
cal and organizational developments of media and the emerging infrastructure for
symbolic operations are increasingly controlled by enterprises and their interests,

3For results, compare Lundby (2014)—or see for further

Ethics of Mediatized Worlds: A Framing Introduction 21

together with the secret services and other parts of the bureaucracy of govern-
ments. In addition, in a transnational perspective, they are mainly controlled and
directed by the cultural and economic conditions of the powerful countries like
the USA, Europe, Russia and China.
In this context, we can refer to van der Loo and van Reijen (1992), Degele
(2002) and Rammert (2007) for the relevant arguments. They discuss the rela-
tionships between technological developments and social change. With reference
to the computer and the nets of computers and their influence today, computer-
based technologies cannot only be seen as helpers of humankind, as was the case
with former inventions, like the wheel or the coffee machine, which have been
independent of their organizational embedding. Instead, for example, we are con-
fronted with the presence of machine-made beings that, in a lot of dimensions
and abilities, seem to be like human beings. Because of this, it seems highly
relevant to differentiate quite clearly between human and non-human abilities
and activities like creativity, reflection, communication and other specific fea-
tures, which are characteristic of human beings. Of course, one often hears that
machines are communicating or developing new insights, and, especially with
reference to artificial intelligence, the developments are considerable. However,
machines do this quite differently compared to human beings: not on the broad
base of a qualitative understanding of the world, not on the base of an active per-
son being in the world. A machine’s communication is nothing more than the
exchange of data, which is quite different, for example, from Habermas’ (1987)
and Mead’s (1969, 1973) concepts of communication or that of Cultural Studies
(see also Krotz 2001). The same can be said for other symbolic operations, if one
compares humans and machines. Thus, we should not understand the transfer of
data and the simulation of human talk to be communication and we should not
use human concepts for the activities of machines. It is necessary to take such
differences into consideration as ethical questions cannot be answered only by
the analysis of behavior, but must include internal human processes like crea-
tive thinking, feelings of solidarity or ethical responsibility. A more detailed dis-
cussion about this may be found in Rath et al. (2019). Thus, we need discussion
about the ongoing technological developments and their meaning for social and
cultural change.
Hypothesis 2 is closely related to hypothesis 1 and follows from mediatiza-
tion research (Krotz 2017c): mediatization is a human-made, negotiated pro-
cess—negotiated on all levels: between societies, in a society, in all social fields
and social worlds, and on the level of each person and their practices. On each
level, different paths are possible. The basic conditions for such paths are obvi-
ously cultural conditions, technological decisions, economic and other interests,
22 F. Krotz

g­ overnmental rules, laws and practices, personal knowledge, access and deci-
sions. The relevant question in each case is whether, and if, how conditions of
power, structural violence in the sense of Galtung (1975) or democratic processes
and forms of participation have become relevant for the concrete result, and in
which framework and to what degree.
A consequence of this hypothesis is, for example, that it is necessary to inte-
grate in the negotiating processes and into the ethical discussions not only the
social, but also the media-related minorities like hackers, trolls, lurkers, computer
gamers and communication guerrilla—they are often attributed as criminals, or at
least as highly deviant people, but they mostly are nothing else than social minor-
ities with specific forms of media use and thus must be part of ethical discourses
(see, e.g., Imhorst 2004; Schölzel 2013).
Hypothesis 3 about the importance of media and, thus, of its technical and
organizational form is developed in the frame of mediatization research: people
today live in part in the nets, and in part there is an ongoing process of incorpo-
rating the nets into their personal area and even their body. This makes clear that
the whole life of the emerging generations could be affected by the mediatization
transformations in a basic way. With reference to the relevance of such processes,
obviously public ethical discussions, commonly accepted values, norms, laws and
practical rules must be developed in a democratic way, and also government and
all social institutions must acknowledge that. It includes in particular that each
intervention (and each necessary, but by other interests prevented intervention)
may be relevant for the human rights of the concerned people and minorities.
Thus, compared with the regulation of the traditional mass media, simple forms
of regulation are not possible. Also, misuse or profit-guided influences on basic
forms of use of the electronic nets and the symbolic infrastructure of a society, in
as far as, for example, human needs and habits like social relations, socialization
and forms of growing up, of learning and of self-realization are concerned, must
disappear in the long run. Here, the conclusion is that the whole human ethics
discussion must take the whole media development into consideration, today and
in the future.
Finally, hypothesis 4, which also follows methodologically from the recon-
struction approach of mediatization research: ethical problems which are emerg-
ing with the mentioned two transformations (technical and organizational as well
as social and cultural), which together constitute the long-term process of media-
tization, may be identified systematically by starting with traditional media ethics
and by analyzing and reconstructing the development processes in both transfor-
mations and questioning their ethical relevance. Of course, traditional media eth-
ics can only serve as a starting point.
Ethics of Mediatized Worlds: A Framing Introduction 23

First, we must argue for the necessary enlargement of traditional media ethics.
Traditional media ethics (following Schicha and Brosda 2010) was mainly con-
cerned with the ethics of content production and representation: with journalism,
public relations, advertising, with pictures and other forms, e.g., entertainment
forms of describing the world, and also gender issues. Thus, the work of journal-
ists, the influence of owners, the freedom of the press, quality of presentation,
related laws and norms, forms of influence and manipulation, the role of govern-
ment and bureaucracy, forms of independence and similar questions have been
discussed before the emergence of computers and computer nets with reference to
ethical and political norms.
Of course, all of the assumptions under which these ethical topics have been
discussed with respect to traditional media ethics must be discussed again as they
may no longer hold under the new conditions of symbolic operations. For exam-
ple, traditional journalistic ethics rules must be modified under the current condi-
tions of press and information, especially because there is an increasing number
of software portals, enterprises and other actors in the net which distribute manip-
ulating information and data without any control. Further, the so-called personali-
zation of answers to questions and of information from Google and Facebook and
other software portals, based on data analysis and resulting in the categorization
of people, is simply a form of manipulation. The algorithms decide what a per-
son wants—this includes an opaque transformation of what may be information,
which is not personalized, but refers primarily to the concrete fact of the question.
Such manipulations can probably influence elections and other fundamental pro-
cesses in democracy, but may also serve simply as effective advertisements; such
manipulations must be forbidden. However, it seems to be very difficult to force
huge enterprises to care for norms and laws and ethically based rules in the differ-
ent cultures and nations where they are active—Uber or Airbnb are examples of
enterprises that do not care for such rules and laws or political and ethical deci-
sions. In the long run, there must be serious discussion about whether some or a
lot of these enterprises must be socialized, as they operate on the basis of profit
interest with basic needs and interests of the people and try to monopolize their
power and their influence. Here, of course “socialized” does not mean “controlled
by the government”. Instead, new forms must be found to transform these enter-
prises into cooperatives which are controlled by their users, as they are highly rel-
evant for democracy and the self-realization of the people. Further, we also need a
broad ethical discussion about consumer ethics and related questions.
In cases like this, as already mentioned with reference to hypothesis 2, society
and government must operate very carefully, as people may be affected with their
forms of life in the nets and thus with their human rights. As a consequence, we
24 F. Krotz

must conclude that any ethics of a mediatized society and culture must include all
ethical questions, as media are present in all mediatized entities. Media-related
ethics is no longer a sub-ethic, it is the ethic in general. Matthias Rath has already
formulated this in a general form (in this book, for example).
As a second step with reference to hypothesis 4, we now can make some
remarks about the new fields of ethical discussion, which are coming up or
must come up. For example, the non-professional production and distribution of
content by users, the wide-reaching influence of enterprises like Facebook and
Google, which determine, for example, the knowledge of the people or forms in
which people experience their social relations—all this must generate new eth-
ics discourses. The same is true for new entertainment forms, for example, with
reference to the virtual realities constructed in computer games. Also, new real-
ity areas of people must be mentioned here, in as far as these are controlled by
enterprises and in which all communicational forms are intertwined with adver-
tisements. Further, we observe economically organized forms of democratic par-
ticipation, as in the case of Facebook, new forms of political participation, as,
for example, in the case of Avaaz, emerging forms of augmented reality, which
may be influential with reference to perceiving and evaluating reality, and finally,
differentiated forms of media influence in the case of the Internet of Things, by
robots, by big data and by the ongoing control of all users by the net, by the econ-
omy and by bureaucracy and by government. Of course, these are only some of
the ethical topics, which need to be discussed and for which ethically based val-
ues and norms must be developed. This, finally, leads to a fifth hypothesis.
Hypothesis 5: As a fundamental basic rule for all of these emerging problems,
extensive and comprehensive transparency is necessary as a first step. What is
happening in the nets must be known: what is happening with individuals’ data
and how algorithms and enterprises are working. As said above, such ethical dis-
cussions then need rapid political reactions. For example, if net neutrality or data
privacy are not guaranteed, then the government must take over and transfer the
respective relevant economic Internet actors into cooperative organizations.

4 Some More Complex Conclusions

We now consider some more complex arguments about necessary ethical discus-
sions. For example, as referred to above, the emergence of robots and artificial intel-
ligence raise many ethical questions, today especially with reference to self-driving
cars. Discussions about the ethics of machines can be found in Rath et al. (2019).
Ethics of Mediatized Worlds: A Framing Introduction 25

Here, I only present some topics that have come up in research projects about the
mediatization process.
An important example for necessary ethical discussions in this area is the
phenomenon and the discourse about big data. The best-known book for social
researchers here seems to be that of Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier (2013). They
present the core idea that the collection of a large amount of data may be relevant
for the studied problem. These data must then be fed into appropriate software,
which tests millions of hypotheses, finds those that can become confirmed by the
given data, and then a solution can be decided upon. Then the problem is told to
be solved.
Such ideas, which are not really based on scientific thinking, but on techno-
cratic and economic interests, may have consequences. The first announcement
after the creation of the big data concept was that we now have the technical
instruments and the data to solve every problem and that we do not need any
more scientific or other theories, as all problems now can be solved by machines
without human control. From such a perspective, the world consists of problems,
and with big data we can solve these problems, even without understanding them.
On such a basis, we even can expect that in the future the protagonists of big data
will explain to us that we no longer need a democracy or political discussions, we
do not need a government, or academic or theoretically based research, as we can
define the problems, collect the data and find the solutions. Following such naïve
and dangerous ideas, to begin with, we only need a government of big data spe-
cialists—later computers will replace the specialists.
An article by the Swedish sociologist Zetterberg (1973) comes to mind. His
idea of an application of sociological research was that there is a book contain-
ing all sociological hypotheses, and if there is any problem in society, one can
look into the book and find a hypothesis to construct a solution. However, human
life and society are not so simple or stable. At least, Zetterberg’s solution of all
social problems was based on a theoretical understanding of what positivistic
science based on empirical research may make possible. In the case of big data,
arguments based on academic discourse did not even exist. Instead, problems
are solved by way of radical simplistic solutions and an inhuman understanding
of the world and its symbolic representation, together with the strong belief that
computers do not make mistakes. This is especially the case as no human can
test a million hypotheses based on huge datasets—such arguments make comput-
ers and algorithms all-powerful. However, there is always a probability attached
to such mathematical solutions, they can hold only for specific problems which
can be expressed by mathematical variables and thus can be solved by a reduced
26 F. Krotz

mathematical logic. Such solutions are not sustainable, but instead revitalize the
old dream of a world of only technological problems, a dream which has failed
and has broken down again and again in human history, with high costs for many
people, and great problems for democracy as a human form of living together.
A second observation in the frame of mediatization research is that human
reflection, as human thinking and communicating about the own experiences
of a person, in order to understand them and to integrate them into the previ-
ous experiences, is changing today in a fundamental way. Reflection, a central
human ability and necessity, and thus the base of human development and emerg-
ing culture, took place in former times with friends, in inner dialogs or as a result
of new happenings. In contrast, today, it takes place in the frame of postings on
Facebook. It may be the case that this makes reflective forms of understanding
experiences closer to the mainstream, as a lot of people may comment on what
has happened and what they think about it at that moment. However, it opens the
person up to more accidental influences from outside and thus personal develop-
ment becomes superficial. It evidently makes a fundamental difference for social
subjects whether their experiences are presented to many people to think about
the answers or whether they become part of the inner dialog of a person and a
topic discussed with close friends. We can assume that, in the long run, this may
have consequences for the way in which people are part of communities and how
they act within those communities.
In addition, the language of human beings is changing by changing social
tasks. In former times, people used the human language to keep and store knowl-
edge of all kinds, and everybody could get access to all human knowledge and
all traditions by speaking with others, personally or by reading books printed in a
human language or by watching videos with explanatory text. However, the stor-
age of knowledge has increasingly become a computer task. As a consequence,
if we need information, we must ask the computer nets, which will translate dig-
ital data by simulating human language. What consequences does this have for
human beings if language as their core instrument of thinking, inner dialog and
external communication with other humans is changing, and human knowledge is
increasingly controlled by huge global enterprises and is provided only in person-
alized forms?
Further, everyday life and experiences take place today under increasingly
commercial influences, as an increasing number of media organizations depend
on commercial financing. Together with this changing reflection and further
developments, we can guess that, as a consequence, the social character of the
social subjects will change—perhaps more narcissism, branded personalities, less
empathy and less abilities to argue, for example. This is what we must study in
Ethics of Mediatized Worlds: A Framing Introduction 27

the coming years, as, in the future, human subjects will also be the center of the
existing and developing world—without them, the world is senseless and mean-
A last point to be mentioned here is that, as the digital computer-controlled
infrastructure becomes increasingly complex, the rate of errors, misuses and tech-
nical problems will grow—with unknown consequences for the society that is
built on it (Grenz and Pfadenhauer 2017). Thus, our world is in danger, and this is
a further problem that must be discussed ethically.

5 Final Comments

In the last two sections of this paper, we discussed ethical topics, which also
demand political consequences. It is clear that we need much more critical
research, public ethical discussions and intervening political decisions, based
on diligent research and ethical values and norms. We live in times of changing
media and changing conditions of communication, society and culture, which
are transformations and processes with chances and risks. We should not let the
economy, enterprises and technicians decide our future direction, nor government
or the bureaucracy. Instead, this is a job for civil society, based on ethical norms
and values, in the sense of Habermas (1987, 1990). The people make reality, in a
post-constructivistic sense, and this must include broad ethical discussions and
considerations of the political consequences.


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100 Years of Claims for Responsible
Public Communication: The Mediation
of Responsibility (as a Form of 
Resistance) in Mediatized Societies—a
Historical Perspective

Stefanie Averbeck-Lietz and Erik Koenen

The perspectives of this chapter are historical and systematical. We use the
newspaper studies’ perspective of three early 20th-century philosophers to
explore the development of mediation (Vermittlung) as a theoretical concept
to understand public communication in a press-dominated—and in this sense:
mediatized—society. First is the idealistic perspective of Karl Bücher (who
argued against the propaganda in World War I); second is the functional per-
spective of the ‘mediator’ role of journalism between diverse publics, which
Erich Everth developed during the Weimar Republic and its ongoing clashes
of ideologies; third is the analytical, meta-moral perspective of Ernest Man-
heim. All three philosophers explicitly referred to mechanisms of mediation
which integrate normative perspectives sustaining public resistance (i.e. to
accept oppositional meanings and plurality). Only some years later, the Nazis
used media as instruments of propaganda to strengthen the idea of a holistic
Volksgemeinschaft with a uniform public will. In the last part of this chap-
ter, we transfer the historical perspective to a systematical understanding of
responsible mediation and communication in the 2010s.

S. Averbeck-Lietz (*) · E. Koenen 
Zentrum für Medien-, Kommunikations- und Informationsforschung,
Universität Bremen, Bremen, Deutschland
E. Koenen

© Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden GmbH, part of Springer Nature 2019 31

T. Eberwein et al. (eds.), Responsibility and Resistance, Ethik in mediatisierten
32 S. Averbeck-Lietz and E. Koenen

German Newspaper Studies · Public sphere theory · 
Socio-technical mediation · Mediatization · Communication ethics

1 Introduction

‘Responsibility’ in mediatized societies is not a new topic, as it has accompanied

the history of communication studies and sociology for a long time. We endeavor
to show and discuss this aspect of public communication both retrospectively and
prospectively: what can we learn from the past on how social theory sketched
public responsibility and deliberation? Our perspectives are historical and sys-
tematical. We explore the history of the concept of responsibility the field of
communication research through the perspectives of three philosophers con-
cerning communication sociology and newspaper studies in the early decades
of the 20th century. Each of the three philosophers—Karl Bücher (1847–1930),
Erich Everth (1878–1934) and Ernest Manheim (1900–2002)—represent differ-
ent generational experiences from World War I till the break with democracy by
the Nazi Regime in 1933. Their perspectives, which we outline, are: Bücher’s
idealistic perspective because he argued against the propaganda in World War
I; Everth’s functionalist perspective of the mediator role of journalism between
diverse publics, which he developed during the ongoing clashes of political ide-
ologies in the Weimar Republic; and Manheim’s meta-moral perspective. Man-
heim distinguished three ‘ideal types’ (Idealtypen in the sense of Max Weber) of
a public sphere: (i) transcendental (the ‘pure’ Kantian type of transparency and
understanding), (ii) pluralist-democratic (including polemics and persuasion) and
(iii) autocratic-totalitarian, which emerged with the Nazi movement during the
early 1930s.
Two related concepts form the foundation of our argumentation: we examine
both mediation (Vermittlung) and mediatization. The dominant concept of the
early 20th century was mediation, not mediatization, which has been described
more or less implicitly beyond a clear conceptual notion of a so-called “meta-pro-
cess” in the sense of Friedrich Krotz (2012). One exception is Ernest Manheim
who—as the first German philosopher to do so in 1932—explicitly used the term
mediatization (“Mediatisierung”) in the sense of the structural change of inter-
personal communication processes via the printing technology, the modern mass
press and its impact on the formation of public opinion (see in detail Averbeck-
Lietz 2014).
100 Years of Claims for Responsible Public Communication … 33

We emphasize that all three philosophers refer to concepts of mediation

(Vermittlung) which integrate normative perspectives not least regarding the
legitimacy of a plurality of meanings—oppositional meanings included—in a
democratic society. The degree of analytical abstraction of the notion of media-
tion as a conceptual term increased from Bücher to Manheim. None of them
understood media as neutral ‘channels’, but as mediators of meaning in the com-
mercialized media environment of the mass press1 and its actors ranging from
politicians to journalists and their publics. Only some years later, the Nazis
defined media as instruments of propaganda to strengthen the idea of a holistic
Volksgemeinschaft and its topic of a uniform and uniformized public will beyond
pluralistic forms of mediation (Averbeck 1999, pp. 102–142).
One systematical background of our argumentation is mediatization theory.
We understand the notion of mediatization as describing an ongoing long-time
process (in the sense of Krotz 2012 or Verón 2014) with an initial culmination
in the early 20th century in the area of the mass press (see Wilke 2004, 2011;
Gentzel and Koenen 2012; Averbeck-Lietz 2015, pp. 231–245). As a contempo-
rary witness of accelerated mediatization processes introduced by the mass press,
Ernest Manheim understood mediatization as a process which is deeply chang-
ing the public sphere. Public discussion, Manheim (1979 [1933]) argues, in an
early 20th-century setting has to be understood as a newspaper-mediated public
discussion. To conduct politics without taking into account the newspaper publics
was no longer possible. However, the societal change was even deeper. Manheim
(1998 [1972], p. 24) uses the term “mediatization of human inter-relationships”
(Mediatisierung menschlicher Unmittelbarbeziehungen) to refer to the change
of public communication in press-saturated European societies with their high
potential for conflict and radicalization. Manheim made his point with particu-
lar regard to the emerging NSDAP—and its press and public communication via
demonstrations and street violence.
To examine the relationships between society and press was neither com-
pletely new nor original in the period when newspaper studies evolved and the

1The economization of the “capitalist enterprise” press and its dysfunctional conse-
quences for political discourse were a central research focus of Karl Bücher (Hardt 2001,
pp. 85–106; Koenen 2015, pp. 385–387). Bücher argued for a “press reform” and proposed
to separate the information/journalism and the advertising/economic part of newspapers
and to establish a community-controlled advertising press to be circulated free of charge
for readers. This idea was grasped (at least without practical consequences) by Ferdinand
Lassalle in 1863 (Hardt 2001, pp. 97–98).
34 S. Averbeck-Lietz and E. Koenen

first German Institute for Newspaper Studies was established by Karl Bücher
at the University of Leipzig in 1916. Bücher had been inspired by journalism
courses at the Universities of Zurich and Chicago (Kutsch 2016, p. 91). Ernest
Manheim’s tutor, the sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies (1855–1936), while person-
ally unconvinced of the need for an autonomous discipline of newspaper studies
beyond sociology, was in favor of the analysis of the public and the press. Indeed,
in 1922, Tönnies published his tome on “Public Opinion” (Kritik der öffentlichen
Meinung). Following Tönnies’ argument, the tensions in public opinions, in the
industrial era, is dependent on print technology (Hardt 2001, pp. 107–127; Aver-
beck-Lietz 2015, pp. 51–101). The sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920) formu-
lated his extraordinary but never operationalized plan for press research as early
as 1910 (Meyen and Löblich 2006, pp. 145–160; Weischenberg 2012).

2 Voices from the Past: Bücher, Everth

and Manheim—The Idea of Transparent
and Trustful Communication as a Basis
for a Just Society

In this section, we will look mainly at three thinkers who are quite good wit-
nesses from three different generations: the professor for economics Karl Bücher,
who institutionalized Zeitungskunde (newspaper studies) at the University of
Leipzig; his successor as the director of the Institute for Newspaper Studies in
Leipzig, Erich Everth (1878–1934); and the young Ernest Manheim, a former stu-
dent of Ferdinand Tönnies at Kiel, working at the Institute for Sociology in Leip-
zig during the early 1930s and writing on his habilitation thesis concerned with
press sociology and public opinion.2 Erich Everth as well as Ernest Manheim
have been dropped out of the University of Leipzig by the Nazis in 1933: Everth
for political reasons, Manheim due to his Jewish origins. Everth died in 1934,
Manheim went to England to join his famous cousin Karl Mannheim at the Lon-
don School of Economics. After that he went to the US where he became a soci-
ologist—first in Chicago and during the late 1940s in Kansas City in the function
of a full professor.

2Concerning Bücher’s work and scientific biography, see in more detail: Koenen (2015,
358–390), Kutsch (2016), Wiedemann and Meyen (2016); concerning Everth:
Averbeck (2001), Koenen (2015); concerning Manheim: Averbeck (1999, pp. 414–443),
Welzig (1997).
100 Years of Claims for Responsible Public Communication … 35

What we will outline in the following is an intergenerational and maybe

universal(istic) idea which all three shared under different political circum-
stances: the idea of transparent and trustful communication as a basis for a
just—and in this sense: resistant—society. This is an ideal which emerged with
the Enlightenment, not at least with Kant 1795 in his little book on “Perpetual
Peace” (Zum ewigen Frieden). Kant argued that justice is based on transparency
and publication, not on arcanic politics. He formulated a so-called “transcen-
dental formula of public right” (transzendentale Formel des öffentlichen Rechts)
with ethical implications and consequences for a concept of the public sphere:
“All actions related to the rights and integrity of other persons have to be com-
patible to potential publication—or they are unjust” (Alle auf das Recht anderer
Menschen bezogene Handlungen, deren Maxime sich nicht mit der Publizität ver-
trägt, sind unrecht). Exactly this quote from Kant was taken by Ernest Manheim
as a challenge (Kant cited in Manheim 1979 [1933], p. 50). Erich Everth (1928,
pp. 25–28) also referred to Kantian ethics with regard to the duty of each indi-
vidual to act morally and responsibly. Nowadays, Kantian thinking in communi-
cation sociology is represented by Jürgen Habermas (1988 [1981]) and his theory
of communicative action.
All three—Bücher, Everth and Manheim—standing on the shoulders of a giant
like Kant, shared a democratic-liberal attitude, more or less leftist in the cases of
Bücher and Manheim, more or less conservative in the case of Everth. All three
worked in the fruitful cultural-historical university milieu of Leipzig (Üner 2005),
and all three dealt with the interrelations between the press and public opinion
during their work life as academics—Bücher and Everth also as professional
journalists (Wiedemann and Meyen 2016; Koenen 2015, 2016a, b), Manheim in
Kansas City as a commentator in the local press and via the organization of pub-
lic events in and for civil society (Averbeck 1997). Their scientific view on public
opinion was analytical, but inspired by political and idealistic views.

2.1 Karl Bücher: The Critical Idealist

Let us come to the eldest of the three first: the famous father of modern econom-
ics, Karl Bücher, who at the age of about 70 institutionalized newspaper studies at
the University of Leipzig as an academic specialty, not at least due to the ambi-
tion to professionalize journalism (Koenen 2015, pp. 363–390; Kutsch 2016).
Bücher’s understanding of a newspaper science was clearly normative and politi-
cally oriented.
36 S. Averbeck-Lietz and E. Koenen

The following remarks are based on a short monograph from 1915, “Our
Aims and the Daily Press” (Unsere Sache und die Tagespresse, Bücher 1915a),
dealing with propaganda during the Great War, and with Bücher’s famous com-
pilation “Collected Essays on Newspaper Studies” (Gesammelte Aufsätze zur
Zeitungskunde) from 1926.3 In the secondary literature, we find a lot of hints on
norms and values as the basic grounds of Karl Bücher’s “critical” approach in
press studies (Koenen 2015, pp. 379–381) or—in his own words—his “ideals”
(Bücher 1926 [1917], p. 388). His contemporaries described Bücher as insisting
on his convictions and moral standpoints, while often neglecting analytical clear-
ance and rigidity, not at least for future newspaper research in a changing media
environment (Schöne 1928, pp. 10, 229; Everth 1931a).
Which norms were stressed by Bücher—and do they relate to problems of
responsibility for and in public communication? They indeed do—and in a very
modern way, regarding the role of the press in times of propaganda and war (here
World War I). Bücher developed some principles of responsibility and resistance,
which meet with a kind of thinking that we all know today: ideas of responsibility
in terms of verity, veracity and respect (Bücher 1915a, p. 3, 1926 [1917], p. 388).
We may even recognize Habermas before Habermas in this. But this would be an
over-interpretation. In Bücher’s case, his vehement moral appeals and his analyti-
cal perspectives are intermingled and not—as in the case of Habermas—reflected
from a meta-ethical standpoint. Bücher did not think communication ethics as a
formal procedure to rationalize morality in the sense of Habermas.4 Bücher was
clearly “unimpressed” of Max Weber’s dictum of Werturteilsfreiheit (Koenen
2015, p. 379) and refused “to compromise his (own) position in newspaper eth-
ics” (Hardt 2001, p. 86).
In 1915, Karl Bücher published a small book reflecting the role of the press
during World War I entitled “Our Aims and the Daily Press” (Unsere Sache und
die Tagespresse, Bücher 1915a). It provoked harsh negative public reactions in
different circles of German editors and journalists: Bücher was accused to betray
and sell out German interests by several publisher and author organizations, not
at least the Union of the Rhine-Westphalian Press (Verband der Rheinisch-West-
fälischen Presse) and the Union of Journalists and Writers Hamburg (Journalis-

3Many articles in that reader date back before that.

4Concerning the differences of morals and ethics as a reflection on morals, see Rath (2014,
p. 152); concerning the basic traits of Habermas’ communication ethics, see Brosda (2010),
Averbeck-Lietz (2015, pp. 149–194).
100 Years of Claims for Responsible Public Communication … 37

ten- und Schriftsteller-Verband Hamburg) (Bücher 1926 [1917], p. 328; Pöttker

2001, pp. 218–219). Reading the incriminated passages today, this is only partly
the case: Bücher (1926 [1917]) clearly mentioned German national interests. He
even accused the British and the French press to be much more corrupt than the
German one, namely partisan, war-driven and propagandistic. Yet, Bücher’s voice
obviously was evaluated as too soft with regard to German interests by his con-
temporaries. When we look closer at Bücher’s texts, we see that in general he
strengthened a normative position to understand the press as a tool for dialogue
and moderate debate. Beyond official censorship of war coverage (Bücher 1915a,
p. 5), he denounced the (world’s) leading press—the German one included—of:

• “hatred” and “calumny” instead of “truth” and “veracity” (Bücher 1926 [1915b],
p. 273, 1926 [1917], p. 388),
• covert “advertising” for war bonds (Bücher 1926 [1917], p. 354),
• corruption (Bücher 1926 [1915b], p. 303) and
• being a war party (Bücher 1926 [1917], p. 386).

Following Bücher, anonymous, non-signed journalism is still reinforcing such

deprivations and clashing with journalistic integrity, accuracy and responsibility
(Bücher 1926 [1917], pp. 109–172; Hardt 2001, p. 99).
Against these points, Bücher held his “ideal” of press as an incorruptible “law-
yer”, monitoring interests and not acting as a “partisan” of restricted political
interests (Bücher 1926 [1915b], p. 306). He stressed the journalistic control of the
government and “temperance” (Mäßigung) in times of war as an expression of
“public welfare” (Gemeinwohl, Bücher 1926 [1917], pp. 340, 386; see also Pött-
ker 2001; Hardt 2001, pp. 95–96).
Bücher highlighted (and Everth followed him in that) the necessity of a read-
er’s orientation in journalism as well as in newspaper studies (see Bücher 1926
[1917], p. 317). Hardt (2001, p. 87) resumes this position: “He (Bücher) sees
journalists as moderators and participants who serve leading functions in soci-
ety in the process of social communication”. Nevertheless, Bücher did not reach
the same theoretical level as Everth who described differentiated and diverse
publics in one society (Averbeck 2001; Koenen 2015). At least, Bücher’s think-
ing remained deeply anchored in conceptions of an amorphous and influence­
able “mass” of readers (Hardt 2001, p. 93; Koenen 2015, p. 389). One reason for
this conception might be Bücher’s painful observations on press and propaganda
­during the Great War.
38 S. Averbeck-Lietz and E. Koenen

Furthermore, in Bücher’s writings on press and war, we have to notice the

ambivalence of his own largely non-reflected moral partisanship when denun-
ciating the “war of lies” (Lügenfeldzug) of the British and French press, of
the news agencies Reuters and Havas. He even spoke of the “degenerated”
(entartete) English press (Bücher 1926 [1915b], p. 303, 1917, p. 386). Reading
Karl Bücher, we have to take note of contemporary typical nationalistic stereo-
types which were not only disrespectful, but highly discriminating. For example,
the Russian soldiers were denounced by Bücher as “brutal hords” (rohe Horden)
(Bücher 1915a, p. 12).

2.2 Erich Everth: The Analysis of the Mediation

of Publics

Besides the works on Erich Everth of Hans Bohrmann and Arnulf Kutsch (1979)
and of Ivan Lacasa (2012), we refer to our own research (see Averbeck 2001;
Koenen 2015) on Everth, which we resume and put in a context of the concepts of
mediation and mediatization. Until now, Everth is a more or less ignored author
of the history of the discipline of communication and media studies. An unde-
served fate: Everth was the only professor of newspaper science at the end of
the Weimar Republic who offended the Nazi press politics prominently in pub-
lic. Everth, Bücher’s successor as the head of the Institute for Newspaper Stud-
ies in Leipzig, conceptualized ethics and responsibility in journalism in a way
that they (should) stabilize pluralist democracy. For the former journalist5, who
during his professional life changed from a conservative to a liberal, it was not
only an analytical aim to understand “press communication as a process of public
mediation” (Koenen 2015, p. 434) in the context of socially diversified modern
societies. In Everth’s thinking, the professional role of the journalist is character-
ized by the objective mediation of public interests, whereas the role of the readers
and publics is to seek journalistic information and to reflect public opinion and
political will in the light of public debate (Koenen 2015, p. 554). We know such
standpoints from after-World War II political theory and sociology and reflections
of the mediator role of the media between the political system and the publics
(Gerhards and Neidhardt 1992). It might be not only a footnote of German politi-
cal and journalistic history that Everth in his time—as well as Ernest Manheim,

5Inextenso concerning his journalistic writings, see the dissertation on Everth by Koenen
(2015) and the case study on his work for the Vossische Zeitung (Koenen 2016b).
100 Years of Claims for Responsible Public Communication … 39

another early protagonist of liberal democracy and communication ethics (see

below)—did not gain much attention for his ideas on public mediation neither by
his contemporaries nor in the field of journalism nor the field of science.
Anchored in a rationalist worldview of democracy as the political will of a
debating society and not of an authoritarian state, Everth’s analytical aims had
clear normative dimensions with consequences for his journalism theory: he high-
lighted the norm of veracity for professional journalistic mediation (Everth 1928,
p. 27) as well as the moral rightness of the given information. Consequently, in
his journalistic columns, he warned the German population of the Nazi move-
ment and its propagandistic communication as early as in 1923 (Everth 1923).
Ten years later, he joined the famous Congress for Free Speech at the Kroll Opera
in Berlin in February 1933, which was stopped by the police. The manuscript of
his speech on press freedom held at that congress is lost. The rare contemporary
press coverage resumed Everth’s speech as an argument against “juridical insecu-
rity” by the acute danger for the press to survive under the new political circum-
stances, and not only the “radical” (communist) one. Everth stated that hindering
free speech and free press “from above will destroy any public consent” (N.N.
1933a, b).
Everth shared his experiences at the last Congress on Free Speech in Ger-
many, sitting in the Kroll Opera at one table with Ferdinand Tönnies, Wolfgang
Heine, the former social democratic Minister for Justice and Inner State Affairs in
Prussia, with the writer, art curator and diplomat Harry Graf Kessler, the former
police chief Hans Lange and the journalist and lawyer Rudolf Olden. Olden later
became the head of the German Pen Club in Exile. There had been around 1000
other personalities with them to denounce the abolishment of press freedom, free
speech and—with Tönnies’ speech—free university teaching. After this event at
the Berlin Kroll Opera, Everth lost his university position, the professor emeritus
Tönnies his pension. The speech manuscript of Tönnies is known today, the one
of Everth justifying the freedom of the press is lost. Famous supporters of the
congress had been Albert Einstein, Heinrich and Thomas Mann and the commu-
nist editor Willy Münzenberg. In their manifesto of the initiative committee of the
congress, they denounced the abolishment of the “age-old (!) basics of democ-
racy” like “press freedom, freedom of assembly, freedom of university teaching
and of speech” by the Nazis (Briegleb and Uka 1983, p. 219). 200 journalists
from several countries had been accredited for the conference (in detail concern-
ing Everth’s and also Tönnies’ roles at the congress, see Averbeck 2001, p. 31;
Carstens 2005; Koenen 2015, pp. 515–520; Averbeck-Lietz 2015, pp. 84–86).
Following Everth’s interpretation, a “public sphere” means a sphere which is
not definable without regarding the people as publics which share an “open” space
40 S. Averbeck-Lietz and E. Koenen

beyond the hidden and the arcanic, not at least to discuss and negotiate public
interests in a transparent manner (Averbeck 2001; Koenen 2015, pp. 462–463). A
free press should control the public sphere by publication based on the autonomous
decisions of journalists what and how to publish (see Everth 1928). This claim for
autonomy is crucial in journalism and its historical development and differentia-
tion (Duve and Haller 2004). The “main function” of the journalist is “mediation”,
namely between “subjective” and “objective” interests which may overlap or clash
(Everth 1927, pp. 18–22). Everth refused regulation by censorship (Everth 1928,
pp. 25–27) and highlighted regulation by the public will, by the readers and their
power to read or to read not, to buy or to buy not. The public itself, not the state is
and should be the legitimation for press publication (Everth 1928, p. 28).
The subjective interests of publics are those which “subjects” actively claim.
They may gain relevance as social, national or religious “motives” (Everth 1927,
p. 21), relying themselves upon affective and cognitive needs (Everth 1927,
pp. 11–12). Then reading the newspaper as well as coming to an opinion is a
“social act” (Everth 1927, p. 22). The press is a “social form” and its “process”
is “mediation” between the institutions of society on the one hand and the pub-
lics of the press on the other (Everth 1927). This ‘process-thinking’ of Everth has
been largely inspired by Georg Simmel and his notion of interaction—or in Ger-
man: Wechselwirkung (Averbeck 2001, pp. 19–20; Koenen 2015, pp. 426–429,
437–438, 447–448).
It was not only the factor of openness (“publicity”) which Everth described as
necessary for public spheres, but also the one of comprehensibility (“popularity”)
or closeness to the publics’ everyday life. Everth recognized the democratic ele-
ment in popular culture with the example of a media star of the silent film area
and the public event made of his sudden death: Rudolfo Valentino’s (1985–1926)
funeral was joined by 100,000 fans in New York City in August 1926—this was
of huge interest by German readers, too (Everth 1928, p. 4). Beyond the storytell-
ing of Valentino’s death via the world’s press, Everth (1927, pp. 18–20) observed
another phenomenon which is also highlighted by nowadays mediatization theory
(see, for example, Verón 2014): the acceleration of the tempo of the social life by
the fast publication rhythm of the mass press, which reached their readers not only
in a daily frequency, but especially in urban areas also as morning or evening press.

2.3 Ernest Manheim: Typology of the Public Sphere

Born in 1900, Ernest Manheim reached the age of 102. He died in 2002 after a
rich life, not at least as a sociologist at the University of Kansas City, his home
university for nearly 40 years after the troubles of emigration and new begin-
100 Years of Claims for Responsible Public Communication … 41

nings. He came to the US after a second PhD at the London School of Econom-
ics (with Bronislaw Malinowski as his supervisor) and reached the University
of Chicago in 1937, where he worked with Ernest W. Burgess, before he got a
Rockefeller Research Bourse, then an associated professorship and in 1948
a full professorship in sociology and anthropology at the University of Kansas
City, Missouri (Welzig 1997, pp. 274–275). In German communication stud-
ies and sociology, Manheim has been largely neglected. In the US, Frank Baron,
David Norman Smith and Charles Reitz brought together a lot of interdisciplinary
expertise on Manheim’s work from US, Austrian, Hungarian and German schol-
ars in honor of his 100th birthday in 2000. On this occasion, Manheim got the
honorary doctoral degree by his old Alma Mater, the University of Leipzig.
Manheim’s profound monograph on public opinion and the press from 1933
has never been published in English, the language in which he wrote and taught
for half a century. This book shared the fate of the one on public sphere and for-
eign politics by Everth (1931b), namely to be a nearly forgotten book, even if
Manheim’s book was re-published by Norbert Schindler in 1979.
The general aim of this book entitled “The Carriers of Public Opinion. Studies
on the Sociology of the Public” (Die Träger der öffentlichen Meinung. Studien
zur Soziologie der Öffentlichkeit) is to understand the change from charismatic
and/or traditional leadership to rationalization and political legitimization beyond
feudalism—a typical Weberian topic. Manheim focused on the construction prin-
ciples of public opinion in different types of societies, from feudalistic ones to
democratic ones (Averbeck 2005; Averbeck-Lietz 2015, pp. 125–148). Manheim
shared a skeptical view on the uprising liberal democracy as a fragile type of
legitimation with the elder Everth and Bücher. Contrary to them, his argumenta-
tion was on a more abstract level, including general communication ethics beyond
morals in journalism. In this sense, he is the predecessor of Jürgen Habermas
(1962)—who cited him several times in his book on the structural change of the
bourgeois public sphere, not at least with Manheim’s contribution to the history
of Enlightenment magazines in the upraising bourgeois public of the 18th century
(moralische Wochenschriften).
The writings of Tönnies and Weber have not been Manheim’s only inspira-
tion: against his cousin Karl Mannheim he argued that Karl Mannheim’s concept
of the “social roots of thinking” (Standortgebundenheiten des Denkens) at the
heart of his sociology of knowledge, of worldviews and of ideology has a blind
spot by neglecting the dynamics and the flexibility of social communication:
people can switch their political opinions and against former socializations—
from the political right to the left and vice versa. And: opinion shifts have to be
understood as relying on media communication and as well on interpersonal one
(Manheim 1998 [1972]).
42 S. Averbeck-Lietz and E. Koenen

Manheim typified several potential structures of public communication,

ideal types which empirically overlap (Manheim 1979 [1933]; Averbeck 2005;
Averbeck-Lietz 2015, pp. 125–131; Beetz 2005, p. 156):

1. a democratic type (conflict and partisanship, but respect for counter-argu-

2. a persuasive type (consensus by affirmation or in its illegitimate form pseudo-
consensus by propaganda and terror),
3. a discursive or “transcendental” type (balanced consensus regulated on a basis
of mutual understanding and respect).

This means: in a press or media-saturated world, we may find different options to

mediate meaning and not at least: to mediate transparency. Manheim’s qualita-
tive type is more or less non-transparent and top-down structured, in worst case
dictatorial. The pluralistic type is interest-oriented and not transparent in each
case. The transcendental type, which is coming close to Habermas’ ideal type of
“comprehensive communication” (verständigungsorientierte Kommunikation)
is the most transparent. Manheim took the term “transcendental” from Kant’s
ideas on justice by publicity. Claims for transparency, under certain social cir-
cumstances, are able to destabilize the closed-shop argumentations of the qualita-
tive type (Averbeck-Lietz 2015, pp. 133–142). Manheim’s types are not mutually
exclusive: pluralistic societies with their comment and meaning-oriented, often
polemic public communication need transcendental elements like the respect for
counter-arguments (Manheim 1979 [1933], p. 53) or today: knowledge and dis-
cussion about technical and social standards of web and computer-based media-
tions of public communication.
So far as we see, Ernest Manheim has been the first who, in German language,
established a generalizable concept of the public sphere relying on ethical as well
as on empirical groundings (see also Schindler 1979).

3 Mediation in Digitized, Mediatized Societies:

What to Learn from the Past?

3.1 Socio-technical Mediation

The term ‘mediation’ is embedded into a normative horizon as it is related to the

question how to mediate what to whom and why in which socio-cultural and his-
torical setting and in which media environment (Barbero 2001; Silverstone 2007;
100 Years of Claims for Responsible Public Communication … 43

Couldry and Hepp 2016, p. 35). There is an interesting quote by Knut Lundby
(2009, p. 13) highlighting the fact that the English notion of mediation “comes
close to the German term ‘Vermittlung’” between a sender and an addressee and
that such mediations affect and are affected by the relationship between the two.
The mutual expectations of senders and recipients take part in this relationship.
This is what our predecessors Bücher, Everth and Manheim told us. Mediation is
not neutral, but related to interests, partisanship or bound to an ethics of commu-
nication which claims for a just mediation, namely the negotiation of meanings
and interests in a free public sphere. Bücher with his plea against war propa-
ganda, Everth with his speech on press freedom and against Nazism, Manheim
with his conceptualization of a pluralistic public sphere based on the general
acceptance of mutual recognition of diverging meanings stand for such a type of
just mediation. Then mediation is a central normative concept in the sense that
mediation needs responsibility of involved actors and institutions—which then
represent a certain resistance against authoritarianism or totalitarianism. At the
same time, responsibility is a social norm mediated not at least by (public) com-
munication. Responsibility then is no top-down ‘mechanism’, but an interactive
process between socially communicating actors. Unfortunately, all three think-
ers, Bücher, Everth and Manheim, do not tell us a lot about their concrete ideas
about press regulation and rules needed for and in public mediation processes.
Even though, they sketch the problem of responsibility for and in mediation by
different, often disagreeing public actors—from journalists (mediators) to readers
(recipients) and politicians (strategic communicators).
Bücher, Everth or Manheim could surely not pre-imagine a world of social
media and laypersons who themselves publish to larger publics not at least guided
by their own personal or political interests. Nevertheless, till today, the task to
mediate responsibility remains. Even in times of ‘fake news’, people are still
having this task on their mind. In a recent qualitative content analysis on finan-
cial blogging during the Lehman Bank crisis, we showed that claims for verity,
veracity and ‘better’ communication (so to say public resistance) were strongly
involved in the public debate and largely discussed not only by professional jour-
nalists or communication scholars, but also by bloggers and their readers. Not at
least against their often frustrating own daily experiences, they favored a public
communication based on mutual respect, participation, authenticity and transpar-
ency. The claim for transparency includes transparency of information, of sources
and communicators, of mediation processes of content production (Averbeck-
Lietz et al. 2015; Venema and Averbeck-Lietz 2017). This not at least highlights
that the validity claims (Geltungsansprüche) as theorized by Jürgen Habermas
44 S. Averbeck-Lietz and E. Koenen

(verity as intersubjective truth, veracity in the sense of authenticity, rightness in

the sense of the respect to social norms, Habermas 1988 [1981]) are—from an
analytical perspective—ideal types. Nevertheless, as mundane value orientations
they do have an impact on how people see and evaluate the mediation of sense by
public communicators.
Nowadays, claims for ‘good communication’ meet the ones that our predeces-
sors Bücher, Everth and Manheim named—and they did not forget the dark side
of communication from denouncing and lying to strategically planned, system-
atic propaganda. For us, the three thinkers are witnesses of our heritage of the
Enlightenment: freedom of speech as a normative basis for responsible public
reasoning, namely the virtue and practice of veracity and transparency as maxims
of rationality in the tradition of Kant.
The development of newspaper studies 100 years ago has been a step in this
direction, too: to have a study field which observes the processes and the quality
of public communication—and, at the same time, educates students in this direc-
tion (Debatin 2017a). Media and communication studies in this sense are part of
the dynamics—for good and for bad: communication and media scholars them-
selves are and have been no ‘neutral’ observers, they act in power structures as
well as dominated by their own ambitions, at its worst when we think of newspa-
per studies after Everth when the young academic discipline got involved with the
Nazi state and his murderous race politics (Kutsch 1984; Jedraszcyk 2016).
Today, the task is changing: what are the characteristics of the mediation of
publics in times of the mediation by codes and algorithms, which stay “black
boxes” (Boullier 2016, p. 25) for the most people in the world? It is no longer
possible to look predominantly on the contents and acts of mediation like Bücher,
Everth and Manheim did, but to rethink norms of mediation and resistance
when the infrastructures of mediation are becoming more and more non-trans-
parent, not at least for ‘ordinary’ people and their private/public communication.
Researchers observe mediation by machines (algorithms, social bots), “echo
chambers” of homogenous social networks accelerating “digital misinforma-
tion” (Del Vicario et al. 2015) and fundamental changes of the daily routines
and regimes of reading, viewing, thinking, producing in digital media environ-
ments (Boullier 2016). New ‘qualitative’ (Manheim), anti-pluralistic commit-
ments via populist and moralizing communication, including hate speech emerge
­(Schweiger 2017).
Consequently, we have to rethink the transparency of mediation and involved
communication processes in a much broader sense than we would have only
ten or five years ago. Research on the the mediatedness of meaning in public
100 Years of Claims for Responsible Public Communication … 45

communication and their rules and regimes in digitized media environments is

needed.6 Here communication studies are only at the beginnings.7 But we can
argue with regard to Bücher, Everth and Manheim that responsible and resistant
public communication has to be aware of its underlying mediation processes—
not at least to understand what is going on and to evaluate why and how one
should or could be resistant to what: to which communication practices or to
which media and/or channel offers. Beyond the respective media competencies
of content producers and users or their mixed types (“prosumers”, Bruns 2005),
mediation as a normative, not only as a functional goal is related to the transpar-
ency of content sources as well as to the transparency of socio-technical infra-
structures8 of the content production in mediatized societies. Only to name one
obstacle: to understand the change from client-server to peer-to-peer architec-
tures (Boullier 2016, p. 9).
The notion of transparency meets with classical public sphere theory and its
fundamental characteristics as described from Manheim to Habermas: transpar-
ency, discursivity, plurality (Sarcinelli 2013). Transparency is related to knowl-
edge about as well as to transparency of the sources of this knowledge. This
opens the space for inter-crossings between transparency and arcanum: which
content is transparent for whom, which norms and rules of publication are the
accepted ones or the common ones in a given society? Which content is de-legit-
imized or illegitimate to be published? Who controls the rules of publishing? In
which relation do transparency and anonymity stand? Discursivity is related to
standards and rules of public debate like inclusion of minorities or counter-argu-
ments. Plurality may be differentiated into the plurality of contents, the plurality
of communicators and/or the plurality of meanings and may be also the plurality
of mediations.
At this point, we have to look on the differences between “communication”
and “mediation”, which are not so easy to grasp. Communication and media-

6The “changing ‘mediatedness’ of social worlds in digitized societies” is also conceptual-

ized by Couldry and Hepp (2016, p. 28) with reference to Alfred Schütz’ notion of Vermit-
teltheit. Concerning some aspects of the mediatedness of communication in the writings of
Schütz und Luckmann, see also Tomin and Averbeck-Lietz (2015, pp. 220–222).
7One step surely is this book on “Responsibility and Resistance”.

8See also the research presented at the international conference “Infrastructures of Pub-

lics—Publics of Infrastructures” at the University of Siegen, organized by the SFB “Media

of Cooperation”, headed by Erhard Schüttpelz (
46 S. Averbeck-Lietz and E. Koenen

tion relate to each other, but are no identical processes. Communication is a

type of human interaction whereas mediation is processed by humans and their
technical artifacts (Barbero 2001; Verón 2014). In fact, in mediatized societies
from press-saturated to digitized ones, communication cannot be thought with-
out technical-cultural mediation. If we understand communication as a process
of inter-human acting on the basis of symbols (Burkart 2002, pp. 13–61), the
mediation aspect is referring to the mediatedness of communication by media
or “dispositifs” (Lepa et al. 2014) like the press or social media, with each of
them being involved into specific “technological-contextual frames” and their
rules, relevances and social-cultural practices and experiences in certain histori-
cal settings (Lepa et al. 2014, p. 134).9 To talk to someone face-to-face is not the
same as to talk through the dispositive of Skype for example: there is no direct
eye-contact, but a channel reduction which has to be compensated by mimics,
gesture and/or by speech. To get (fake) news on Hillary Clinton via a seemingly
trustful friendship-network on Facebook is not the same as to read about her in
a quality newspaper—even if the content may be the same (a lot of fake news
during the US presidential campaign 2016 had been transported by mainstream
media—not at least by repeating the fake while denouncing or deconstructing it,
Debatin 2017b).
The notions of transparency, discursivity and plurality have their historical
roots—as we have shown. But the historical path has to be filled with systematic
knowledge about the situation today. Obviously, nowadays communication schol-
ars have their problems to define as well as to analyze new and changing prac-
tices of mediation. Web platforms as the “information intermediaries” (Schulz
and Dankert 2016) bundle and select information with regard to personalized con-
sumer data and the underlying algorithms. At the same time, intense journalism-
audience relations emerge, as Reimer et al. (2015) show. Then, the hypothesis of

9Lepa et al. (2014) are not the only scholars who refer to Foucault’s and Baudry’s thinking

about the so-called “dispositive” in digitized media environments; Boullier (2016, p. 11)
asks which (possible) enunciation is going ahead with which technologically based mate-
rial dimension or with which “dispositif numérique” (Boullier 2016, p. 36). The dramatic
changes in today’s media (il)literacy are comparable with the printing and reading revolu-
tion as described by Elisabeth Eisenstein in 1983, says Boullier. At the same time, the
rules and meanings of mediation (Vermittlung) themselves change. Boullier (2016, p. 12)
stresses the example of a synchronization of knowledge production and reception on
the web which changes the mediation of scientific knowledge and its appropriation pro-
foundly. A question of the “tempo”, as Everth would argue (see above).
100 Years of Claims for Responsible Public Communication … 47

“diffusion instead of mediation” (Weiterleitung statt Vermittlung), which Jarren

(2016, p. 374) stresses, seems to characterize only one aspect of mediation pro-
cesses on the web and to neglect new forms of content mediation online.

3.2 Outlook

Our normative challenge is to rethink the responsibility for transparency in

mediatized societies, facing the potential decline of traditional intermediaries
(like journalists) and the (partial) loss of credibility of traditional (media) institu-
tions (like public service broadcasting), the convergence of media, new publica-
tion regimes and the rise of technical and algorithm-based online intermediaries.
The analytical challenge is to reflect “the double mediation of the social and the
technical” (Jouët 1993, p. 497). Today, the notion of mediation stands for the
interlinkage of meanings via socio-technical actor constellations in mediatized
societies (Couldry and Hepp 2016). Recently, Schulz and Dankert (2016) pro-
posed controlled and reliable transparency rules for intermediaries like social
media platforms not at least with regard to their filter and algorithm options. The
related norm they propose is: plurality of sources, contents and meanings.
To analyze the “network of the communications of contents and meanings”
(Habermas 1998, p. 436), so to say, our public sphere, we have to include a
detailed concept and empirical research of the technico-social mediation aspects
(regarding Twitter as a sphere for political communication, see Theocharis et al.
2016). Looking backwards to the past of communication history and sociology
nowadays, communication and media ethics with an interest in resistant commu-
nication then should focus:

1. responsibility for transparency: who under which conditions is/should be

responsible for transparent communication and mediation and how?
2. transparency of mediation and mediators: who/which organization/actor is the
social/technical mediator?
3. mediatedness of transparency: which technical/social rules and regulation does
this organization/actor follow or apply?
4. mediation of transparency and the related knowledge: who/which organiza-
tion/actor is or can be able and responsible to mediate public knowledge on
digital media and media competences concerning the rules and regulations of
48 S. Averbeck-Lietz and E. Koenen

One point is to mention which cannot be elaborated on here: it is the medi-

ated text, not the mediated image, icon, photography, picture, we talk about in
this article. Visual communication has not been at the cradle of newspaper stud-
ies.10 Today, this focus is surely too narrow. From storytelling to so-called fake
news, we need to deal with pictures on our screens and in our heads (Jost 2016,
pp. 11–14).

Acknowledgment  This article is based on contributions by Stefanie Averbeck-Lietz

to two conferences: “Responsibility and Resistance” held at the Austrian Academy of
Sciences in December 2015 and “Infrastructures of Publics—Publics of Infrastructures”
held at the University of Siegen in December 2016.


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Ethics of the Mediatized World

Matthias Rath

Rather than being merely a descriptive template for distinct and historically
differentiated processes of media practices, mediatization is an expression of
a growing awareness that imputes a logic of change to observable media and
communications practices. It can be conceived of as one, or perhaps even the,
definitive category of the contemporary epoch’s reflexive self-understanding.
To clarify this, the theory of mediatization is first taken up from an anthropo-
logical perspective and defined as an epochal awareness concept. The media-
tized world is thus not merely the description of contemporary everyday life,
culture and society, but also the description of the pertinent contemporary
self-understanding of everyday life, culture and society. This has relevance for
today’s concept of ethics in general: present-day normative ethics is the ethics
of the mediatized world or it is none at all.

Animal symbolicum · Hegel · Media ethics · Mediatization · Mediatized world

M. Rath (*) 
Pädagogische Hochschule Ludwigsburg, Ludwigsburg, Deutschland

© Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden GmbH, part of Springer Nature 2019 53

T. Eberwein et al. (eds.), Responsibility and Resistance, Ethik in mediatisierten
54 M. Rath

1 Introduction

This chapter is about the significance of mediatization theory for philosophical

ethics. To begin with, it will be necessary to briefly discuss ethics as a discipline.
Next, I will clarify that the deprofessionalization of media production, rightly
noted by Axel Bruns (2006, 2007), also fundamentally alters the classic systemat-
ics of media ethics. Thirdly, I will shift from this specific media ethics perspective
to address the general philosophical-ethical significance of mediatization theory,
with my point of departure being Ernst Cassirer’s definition of the human being
as “animal symbolicum” (Cassirer 1944, p. 44). Then, drawing a distinction with
this anthropological definition of the human being’s fundamental mediality, I will
identify mediatization as the concept of an epochal awareness. Invoking Edmund
Husserl’s “lifeworld” concept (“Lebenswelt”, see Husserl 1992, pp. 48–54,
1948, pp. 38–45), I will then explain why my paper’s title refers to a “mediatized
world” in the singular rather than the plural. Lastly, in conclusion, I will attempt
to draw all of the strands together and focus on the problem of responsibility and

2 Ethics as a Discipline

My first point is to make clear that ethics is understood here as a philosophical

discipline. This has three important ramifications:

(a) As an academic discipline, ethics is not identical to morality. The latter is the
collection of normative beliefs and values that are deemed real by a society, a
community or a group. Being relative societally and historically, these are sub-
ject to change and most commonly grow out of the particular group’s tradition.
They also encompass notions of the professional values and norms that serve
to regulate the actions of professionals in a particular sphere of activity, such
as the professional norms of journalists. By way of example, the international
study “Media Accountability and Transparency in Europe” (Eberwein et al.
2011; Fengler et al. 2015) surveyed the regulation of actions of professional
journalists in 14 European and Arab countries. The authors demonstrated the
strength of professional normative beliefs. They were also able to show where
the limits of such professional normative beliefs lie and that they are subordi-
nated to other factors, such as economic and political pressures. Still, despite
the often imprecise nomenclature, these normative beliefs do not amount to
Ethics of the Mediatized World 55

ethics. They are socially distinct morals. Ethics as a discipline makes such
moral standards its object.
(b) However, it is not the goal of ethics as a philosophical discipline to describe
morals and explain them in their sociohistorical context. Instead, philosophical
ethics is much more concerned with the problem of the normative legitimi-
zation of the principles underlying such a morality. “Underlying” means that
we invoke specific principles when faced with the question of why a certain
action should or should not be carried out. Examples of this are divine will,
empathy between group members or the shared traits of members of the same
species. All such principles are passed on socially and are de facto accepted
by the members of a group. By contrast, philosophical ethics delves into the
argumentative rationales that go beyond de facto acceptance. It concerns itself
with the universalization of the normative principles. The goal of ethics is to
establish ethical standards that are to be regarded as self-evident and that apply
to all people, regardless of historical, cultural, political, social or economic
contexts. Hence, ethicists try to show that certain principles are plausible and
desirable for all rational people, even if they apply these principles to their
own actions. I cannot delve into the various discussions about philosophical
ethics here, but do want to point out a third aspect.
(c) Empirical proof of a principle’s acceptance is not enough to universalize it.
There is no getting from “is” to “ought”. Every attempt to employ empirical
validity as evidence of normative legitimacy is labeled as a “naturalistic fal-
lacy” (Moore 1903, p. 10). Still, ethics has to pay attention to empirical real-
ity; it requires empirical findings (see Karmasin 2000; Rath 2003). For ethics,
it is always a question of people’s concrete actions. It needs to know under
which conditions the principles whose universal validity it discusses are
implemented. Hence, it is important for ethics to be aware of the empirical
findings, but also the scientific concepts that support empirical research into
human actions. It is against this background that a concept like the theory of
mediatization is ethically relevant.

To recap, morality is a socially mediated set of accepted action rules. Ethics looks
into the principles that underlie these rules and what rationales can be invoked
independent of their real acceptance to make the universalization of these princi-
ples plausible.
Next, I want to pursue the philosophical relevance of mediatization for an
ethic that deals with the action rules for mankind’s media practices. To that end,
I will now turn to the consequences that ripple out from changes in these media
56 M. Rath

practices, which Friedrich Krotz described with his concept of “mediatization”

(Krotz 2001, 2007, 2009). We have to look at whether the classical systematical
structure of ethics is appropriate for the increase of non-professional production
of media content and of a more and more digital computer-controlled communi-

3 Consequences of Media Deprofessionalization

for the Systematics of Media Ethics

The increasing process of deprofessionalization in media praxis can be summed

up with the keywords “convergence” and “produsage”.
In 2006, Henry Jenkins framed a concept of convergence broadly like this:

By convergence, I mean the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the
cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behavior of media
audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment
experiences they want. Convergence is a word that manages to describe technologi-
cal, industrial, cultural, and social changes depending on who is speaking and what
they think they are talking about. (Jenkins 2006, pp. 2–3)

Jenkins puts special emphasis on a convergent usage and design: the recep-
tive and creative use of various media forms, genres and formats for creating,
exchanging and communicating media and non-media themes. This active expan-
sion of forms of user action was captured by Axel Bruns (2007) in the terms pro-
dusage to mean the process of the user producing media contents and produser to
refer to these non-professional, producing users.

Produsers do not engage in a traditional form of content production but are instead
involved in produsage – the collaborative and continuous building and extending of
existing content in pursuit of further improvement. Participants in such activities are
not producers in a conventional, industrial sense, as that term implies a distinction
between producers and consumers which no longer exists. (Bruns 2007)

The distinction between the role of producer, distributor and recipient breaks
down and they blend into that of the non-professional produser. This has con-
sequences for media ethics. Before the digital world’s various media converged
and individual practical media competencies expanded, there existed within
media ethics an ethic of public communication, of mass media and of mass media
production, as opposed to an individual ethic of private communication, media
Ethics of the Mediatized World 57

dilettantism and private use (see Rath 2010). However, today, the ethic of public
communication is media ethics per se. Any form of media communication and
production in principle is public—be it in the “one to many” mass media or in the
“many to many” social networks. This means that any media ethics today has to
conceive of public communication as beyond simply being an ethics of mass media.
It therefore becomes immediately apparent to me that media ethics must
understand actual media acquisition, individual media use and general media
offerings as resulting from the media change that Friedrich Krotz (e.g., 2001,
2007, 2009) calls “Mediatisierung” or “mediatization”. So, by mediatization I
also mean the description of a meta-process that Andreas Hepp comprehensively
defined as “a concept used to analyse the (longterm) interrelation between media-
communicative and socio-cultural change in a critical manner” (Hepp 2013, p. 6).

4 The General Philosophical-Ethical Significance

of Mediatization Theory

From a philosophical perspective, a sweeping meta-process like mediatization,

one that Friedrich Krotz (2001, 2007) actually applies to more than just the cur-
rent media transformation, does not automatically become plausible. Like all pro-
cesses that are by nature supra-historical, this one should also be capable of being
grounded in man himself. This is the fundamental assumption behind all philo-
sophical anthropology. The human being has to fulfil the conditions that can be
detected as underlying change.
Hence, we need to inquire into the anthropological basis of mediatization.
In other words, what image of the human being implicitly underlies a theory of
mediatization? The hypothesis that I will try to defend in this regard is that an
assumed basic human trait called mediality supports a fundamental process of
mediatization. In what follows, we will sort out what this mediality is.

4.1 Anthropological Basis: Mediality

Every epoch has its own image of the world and humanity. Philosophy has always
taken the Kantian question “what is man?” to mean what it is that differentiates
and makes humans stand out from other things in the world and it has tried to
capture this in definitions. Such definitions describe mankind ambivalently, due to
similarity with other things in the world, and simultaneously, through the detailed
58 M. Rath

determination of dissimilarity. What distinguishes the human as a living being,

zoon in Greek, animal in Latin, from other creatures? Is it sociability as zoon
politikon, language ability as zoon logon echon or reason as animal rationale? Do
these distinctions describe an ability or also a neediness?
In the 20th century, man was described with “excentric positionality” in 1928
by Helmuth Plessner (1975, p. 288), meaning a creature that could distance itself
from itself, as “act-center” in 1916 or “act-substance” in 1923 by Max Scheler
(1916, p. 544, 2017, p. 258), as being at the core of what constitutes an action.
Alternatively, he was defined as a being distinguished by an obvious shortcom-
ing, which, however, turns to an advantage in the long run: the human being has
biological deficits, it suffers from a lack of instincts (see Gehlen 1940, p. 16) that
compels it to organize the world aided by reason and through social change—
and so to rule it. Whatever we may think of these definitions, mankind is forever
­trying to interpret itself. We understand ourselves only through our own signifi-
cant image of ourselves. This is what caused Manfred Frank in 1988 to speak of a
hermeneutics of self-understanding.
Anthropologically, this identifies a fundamental constant: the human being’s
ability to interpret its world and itself. The world, and man with it, is not con-
veyed directly, but only by being interpreted. Ernst Cassirer can take credit for
formulating this anthropological constant.
In his book An essay on man, published in 1944, Cassirer takes up his Philoso-
phy of symbolic forms (Cassirer 1953, 1954, 1964, 1996) that appeared between
1923 and 1929 and applies it to humanity. With his Philosophy of symbolic forms
he recalls Kant. We do not apprehend the world directly, rather we always men-
tally preform the world. The concepts, categories and theories of man about
himself and the world are not objective, but instead are “self-created intellectual
symbols” (Cassirer 1953, p. 5). However, in a departure from Kant, these symbols
underlie a transformation that in its totality makes up the culture of an era and a
society. Cassirer calls this culturally and historically differentiated preconception
“symbolic forms”.
In An essay on man, Cassirer designates the symbolization of the world as the
intrinsically human characteristic. He does this by seizing on the theoretical biol-
ogy of his time. The biologist Jakob Johann Uexküll traced animal behaviors to a
functional circle (“Funktionskreis”) consisting of a receptor system (“Merknetz”)
and an effecter system (“Wirknetz”) (Uexküll 1921, pp. 44–45). This regulatory
circle differs in every species. He concludes from this that the environment in
which the individual moves is not an objective given, but also corresponds to the
particular functional circle of receptor and effecter system. This is where Cassirer
picks up the thread. He writes:
Ethics of the Mediatized World 59

Reality is not a unique and homogeneous thing; it is immensely diversified, hav-

ing as many different schemes and patterns as there are different organisms. Every
organism is, so to speak, a monadic being. It has a world of its own because it has an
experience of its own. (Cassirer 1944, p. 41)

From this arise consequences for an understanding of human orientation in its

world. Cassirer concludes that people, as opposed to animals, react to stimuli
only after a delay because a symbolic system (“Symbolnetz”) interposes itself
between the “Merknetz” and the “Wirknetz.” He posited this delay as resulting
from the symbolic and conceptual mediation of a “human world”. In his own

As compared with the other animals, man lives not merely in a broader reality; he
lives, so to speak, in a new dimension of reality. (…) No longer in a merely physi-
cal universe, man lives in a symbolic universe. Language, myth, art, and religion are
parts of this universe. They are the varied threads which weave the symbolic net, the
tangled web of human experience. All human progress in thought and experience
refines and strengthens this net. No longer can man confront reality immediately; he
cannot see it, as it were, face to face. Physical reality seems to recede in proportion
as man’s symbolic activity advances. Instead of dealing with the things themselves
man is, in a sense, constantly conversing with himself. (Cassirer 1944, p. 43)

Thus, for Cassirer, the human is the being whose world only and exclusively
appears to it in symbols. It is the “animal symbolicum” (Cassirer 1944, p. 44).
Man does not have an “intrinsic” “instant” grasp of the world; his orientation is
always foremost an indirect one, a mediated one. The anthropological “mediality”
of the human apprehension of the world is likewise specific to a certain culture in
which human beings live. The symbol and the mediality of the world may change
in each culture, but they are indeed foundational.
With that we come to the second of the determinants of the particular, cultur-
ally conditioned self-interpretation of the human being, which is the realization
of mediality according to the human being’s specific cultural self-understanding.

4.2 Epochal Realization of Mediality: Mediatization

Until now, mediatization has meant a historical process in which human com-
munication changed as a function of its media resources. This communicative
transformation produces both social and cultural shifts, since humans organize
themselves socially and culturally only in and by communicating. I attempted to
60 M. Rath

trace this mediatization back to an anthropological constant that I defined initially

as mediality. Then, following Ernst Cassirer, I seized on the definition of man as
animal symbolicum. For the remainder of this paper, I propose to understand the
processuality characterized as mediatization in a dual sense.
To begin with, this processuality means the transformation of the social and
cultural world due to the changed media practices of people. Friedrich Krotz in
2014 briefly summarized it like this:

(W)e understand the mediatization process as a long-term process in history, as the

development of media already took place in the past with the upcoming of written
language and books, the printing press, the invention of the camera, the movie, the
radio, and so on. Together with all these developments, new institutions and new
aesthetics in culture and society, new knowledge and new experiences of the people
came into existence, as in relation to these inventions communication and communi-
catively constructed entities have been changing too. (Krotz 2014, p. 72)

Krotz goes on to write:

We can conclude that different areas of everyday life in the perspective of an indi-
vidual today demand different access to and different experiences with media, as
different rules apply and people operate with different expectations (…) media-
tization is a complicated, long-term process that takes place in different areas in
different ways. (Krotz 2014, p. 74)

Krotz calls these different areas of everyday life “social worlds”—a plural con-
struction that I will come back to.
In understanding mediatization this way, media ethics takes a historical per-
spective: particular possible media actions produce historically differentiated
media practices, which, in turn, raise historically differentiated moral problems.
By addressing the question of which action rules prevail in a given social con-
text and whether they can be universalized, we reconstruct the concrete normative
principles of media practice.
Beyond this, however, the analysis of human social worlds as a historical reali-
zation of the anthropologically grounded mediality is itself a symbolically medi-
ated building process. It is an interpretation of our understanding of the world and
thus a reflexive form of awareness. To put it another way, I am suggesting that
we understand mediatization not just as the meta-process of realizing our medial-
ity, but as a cognized meta-process. In this case, mediatization means the recon-
structable awareness of the media construction of the world. We can therefore
also speak of an epochal determination of media ethics.
Ethics of the Mediatized World 61

This interpretation of mediatization as epochal awareness fulfils one of the

tasks assigned to philosophy by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in the intro-
duction to his 1820 work Elements of the philosophy of right: “As for the
individual, every one is a son of his time; so philosophy also is its time appre-
hended in thoughts.” (Hegel 1896, p. xxviii) Hegel defines philosophy as a dia-
lectical movement of thought that first understands “its” present in a reflexive
Hegel considers that the time that philosophy has to apprehend in thoughts
here is not to be understood as quantitative-temporary, but as qualitative-epochal.
Philosophy is called upon to capture the basic attributes of an epoch and to take
them into awareness. For philosophy does not transcend time, as Hegel also
writes in Elements of the philosophy of right, rather it depends on the epoch in
which it is conceived. The understanding of its time is the becoming aware of its
own dependency.
Now, Gerhard Vowe (2010) has pointed out that many of the epochal descrip-
tions of society all the way up to the modern era were post hoc definitions. Ret-
rospectively, a specific factor was singled out as the key aspect of the particular
bygone epoch. On the other hand, to me it seems symptomatic that in our time
we relate such definitions back to ourselves—in contemporary times, we take
account of ourselves and capture ourselves in the terse catchword of a self-
description. It seems to me that the framework of our self-regard, that is, the con-
text in which we can plausibly describe ourselves today is media discourse. What
does that mean for us today?
As for contemporary discourses on politics, business, education, sports, lei-
sure as well as social, cultural and religious conflicts, it is clear that the media
influence everything we do. However, let it be emphasized again, this function
of the media as value mediators and worldview generators molding and inform-
ing our image of the world and mankind is no uniquely contemporary phenom-
enon. This, after all, is exactly what Friedrich Krotz has shown with his theory of
What I am most interested in at this point, however, is the reflection level
related to it—the contemporary awareness of this underlying phenomenon. Krotz
raises the question about mediality to a new level—from the level of media reality
to the level of the world as reconstructed by media:

• On the level of reality, the possibilities of mediality have multiplied expo-

nentially in the process of mediatization. The classic, long-time constitutive
separation between sender and receiver, between producer and consumer, also
62 M. Rath

melts away. However, the fact of mediality is not the quintessence of a media
age as such: it has always existed. All forms of human apprehension of the
world have from time immemorial been processed through the media.
• On the level of a reconstruction of the world by the media, however, mediality
is not a factor of realization, but a category of reflection. In other words, it is
key for our epoch to be aware of the basic mediality of people—and to con-
struct ourselves with the media.

Thus, mediality is ever-present; every epoch, every age was medial in that sense.
From a philosophical perspective, nevertheless, our present day becomes the
medial age only by deliberately tuning into this condition. Mediatization is the
category in which we apprehend “our time in thoughts”. Mediality surrounds us
to such a degree that no longer can any communication be thought of as non-
medial. Our age is “medial” in so far as it reconstructs itself as a mediatized
world. In this sense, any reflection on the way of dealing with the world must
be aware of this fundamental mediality. I also call this awareness mediatization.
This approach goes beyond a phenomenological interpretation of mediatization
as a contemporary increase of media dependency in social life (see Lundsten
2017). It is a meta-perspective to such a phenomenological and social ontological
This has ramifications for media ethics. What matters to it as a philosophical
discipline is the reflexive capture of the determinants of human action and reflec-
tion on the plausibility and universalization of normative claims on this action.
However, if our action is conditioned by mediality as a matter of course, then we,
too, need to bear in mind that what we do in actively producing and passively
receiving also is always moving in a media context.
Hence, the novelty of the media age is not the dependence on the media, not
even the so-called new or interactive media. This dependence has always existed,
even if at times it has been subject to other conditions in the process of being real-
ized. What is new in the media age is the awareness of being dependent on the
media, of the mediation of our world to us and among us by semiotic systems that
invariably have to be coded and decoded. Everything that determines our action is
produced by the media and symbolically conveyed. This is absolutely what moves
media ethics from the periphery of applied ethics into the center of the philosophi-
cal ethics of our age. To put it another way: all reflection on the principles of an
action orientation must understand mediality as the nominal moment of forming
normative principles. Therefore, ethics, provided it is contemporary ethics, is media
Ethics of the Mediatized World 63

5 “Mediatized World” Instead of “Mediatized


Now let us come to the previously mentioned conundrum of “mediatized world”

versus “mediatized worlds”—why a philosophy perspective demands that the
noun in “mediatized world” be singular. “Social worlds”, which to date have been
so widely and differentially researched in mediatization studies (see Krotz and
Hepp 2012; Hepp 2013; Hepp and Krotz 2014; Krotz et al. 2014), keep track of
man’s diverse social lifeworlds. It could not be otherwise on the above-mentioned
reality level of empirical research.
However, if we go back to Edmund Husserl’s “lifeworld” concept, which
became influential in social science and philosophical research, lifeworld is by
no means only conceivable in the plural sense. A prerequisite for a plural compre-
hension is the individual realization of a personal lifeworld. Husserl, on the other
hand, also has a fundamental, reflexive lifeworld conception. By the expression
“lifeworld”, tersely formulated in his posthumously edited 1938 work Experience
and judgment, Husserl means “the world in which we are always already living
and which furnishes the ground for all cognitive performance and all scientific
determination” (Husserl 1973, p. 41). This lifeworld realizes itself in individual
day-to-day living—in the concrete manner in which people communicate, play,
work and fight. Thus, lifeworld stands for plural social worlds.
In Experience and judgment, Husserl formulates another thought worth
reflecting on. He observes that the individual lifeworld is no self-contained island
of bliss. Rather, it describes nothing more or less than the evaluation rubric of
our shared social world in which we have lived with others all along. From this
he concludes that the maneuvering room in which we realize our individual life-
world has “the historicity already deposited in it” (Husserl 1973, p. 45). In other
words, the epochal awareness that Hegel wants philosophy to register comes
already integrated with every lifeworld. On the reflection level of determining our
epochal self-awareness, the differentiation in social worlds thus becomes a phe-
nomenon of individual diversity and individual socialization (see Hoffmann et al.
2017)—not of the epochal base structure.
Therefore, we need to cease confining ethical contexts to specific media fields
that, supposedly, are juxtaposed with non-media spheres of activity. In prin-
ciple, media ethics reflection makes all areas of individual and social existence
its object. This is because all areas of human existence are integrated in value
judgments and normative claims brokered by the media. As a meta-process,
mediatization is multifaceted. However, as awareness, mediatization is universal.
64 M. Rath

My actions as an individual are shaped by non-direct experiences, communica-

tively tinged messages processed and framed by the media. We have all along
operated in a mediatized fashion. The principles of our “oughts”, of our action
orientation and of our value judgments emerge from media-communicative and
media-narrative processes.
This has consequences for the question about an epochal form of ethics in
general and the significance of media ethics as an applied ethic: in my view, nor-
mative contemporary ethics is the ethics of a mediatized world or it is no ethics at

6 Conclusion: Responsibility and Resistance

Finally, I will briefly summarize and then offer a perspective on the problem of
responsibility and resistance, which I have not yet touched on here. My remarks
up to this point should have made clear that the theory of mediatization is doubly
relevant for ethics beyond its importance as a discipline:

(a) It provides a research paradigm that allows reflecting in a more differentiated

manner on individual media practice and the parameters (technical, economic,
political) of this practice. As part of the empiricism demand of media ethics,
knowing these parameters is key to doing a normative assessment of man-
kind’s media practices.
(b) Beyond that, mediatization is also an epochal concept. It describes a contem-
porary awareness that permits seeing the ethical principles in a new light.

Against this background, we can take another look at responsibility and resist-
ance. Responsibility is the key ethical concept of modernity. Ever since Hans
Jonas published Das Prinzip Verantwortung in 1979 (English: The impera-
tive of responsibility, 1984), this has become clear for the entire normative
debate—even apart from ethics. Responsibility refers to the triangular relation-
ship between a moral subject with responsibility, a moral object for which moral
responsibility exists and a moral authority before which responsibility must be
fulfilled. The theory of mediatization reveals that the strict separation between
subject and object is blurring. Above all, the professionalism claim for media eth-
ics is becoming shaky. The consumer, who is simultaneously the shaper of media
reality, increasingly edges into the foreground. The producer and the media actor
of mass media are only two versions of this fundamental media practice.
Ethics of the Mediatized World 65

As I have pointed out in other connections (see Rath 2014), this has conse-
quences for the supposedly classic principles of media ethics such as media
quality and communicative authenticity. From the perspective of an ethics of the
mediatized world, both are transformed from features of the product or of the
media producer into constructions by the media user. Among mediatization’s cur-
rent changes in the produser direction that I mentioned above, there no longer
exists an objective criterion of media quality that an actor would be held to. How-
ever, that does not mean that user acceptance alone defines quality. There is an
additional aspect that I cannot develop here, but that is worth mentioning: under
the rubric of mediatization we must place special emphasis on the media literacy
of each individual user. Not everything that is received is of high quality, rather,
high quality attaches to what can be competently adapted and used. The same
applies to authenticity. It, too, is not a communicator’s trait, but is the consumer’s
constructed imputation instead. Authenticity becomes the communication part-
ner’s intent.
So, media ethics responsibility is increasingly becoming a general norma-
tive demand for media users—no longer just for professional media makers who
assume paternalistic responsibility for a target group. It is much more the case of
every media practice first being responsible to itself. Moral concern for users or
consumers is not justifiable.
This impacts on resistance. Until now, resistance has been a reaction. We
develop resistance in reaction to a responsibility not met—for example, by the
media maker and the media vendor. However, as a media practice, resistance is
something more. It has to be understood as an originary quality, not just as an
instrumental value in defense of another value. Resistance, instead, is the practice
of a media actor interpreting responsibility for themselves. Responsibility as con-
ditioned by the awareness of mediatization is lived up to by offering fundamental
resistance against the media presence of others in one’s own lifeworld. Trans-
formed by the media, classical appetitive ethics that has traditionally asked what
is good for me now comes into its own again: resistance is governed by the abil-
ity of a media actor to gauge the limits of accountability for my media practice.
For every communication conveyed by the media, every media practice always
involves other media actors. This is so either because individuals created the
media offerings and via the media made them publicly accessible to other users—
or because individuals use media content, offerings and functions that were made
publicly accessible by other media actors.
By definition, media practice is a “social action” in Max Weber’s meaning: “a
type of action which is marked by the fact that the agents are tightly connected
66 M. Rath

by a sense of belonging together” (Schmid 2009, p. 217). As animalia symbolica

we are linked to each other in the mediatized world. Every action is intentionally
directed at others—and not necessarily with benign intent. Hence, responsibility
and resistance are two sides of the same coin called media literacy. Only by being
knowledgeable can an individual be responsible for their media activity and resist
the media actions of others. That makes resistance a normative principle and not
simply one that grows out of the experience of a deficiency or imposition, as it
does with Hans Jonas and his concept of the “heuristics of fear” (Jonas 1984, p. 26;
see Rath 1988). Resistance is not the reaction to a responsibility defaulted on.
The ethics of the mediatized world demands self-responsibility and resistance
against the media practices of others that an individual has been actively involved
with all along. Both can only be achieved if, starting from the fundamental medi-
ality and the epochal awareness of mediatization, we demand the right to media
literacy for all—not as a possible course content among others, but as a basic
competence for life in the mediatized world.


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Part II
Analyses and Cases
Ethics and Mediatization: Subjectivity,
Judgment (phronēsis) and 
Meta-theoretical Coherence?

Charles M. Ess

In Stig Hjarvard’s characterization, mediatization studies move beyond
the positivist origins of the social sciences, as they must in order to avoid
the fundamental contradiction between original commitments to classical
determinism vis-à-vis human agency as acknowledged within mediatization
studies. In order to sustain and enhance Hjarvard’s vision of the coherence
between human agency and mediatization studies as a species of social
science, I first sharpen these theoretical tensions by developing a robust
account of human freedom as informed by Kant and virtue ethics. I then adopt
precise understandings of complementarity and epistemological pluralism as
initially developed in Quantum Mechanics and subsequently by Karen Barad
and Judith Simon as frameworks that can coherently conjoin contemporary
social (and natural) science with strong accounts of human freedom. The
resulting coherency—or entanglement—between ethics and science implies
new ethical responsibilities for social scientists as ‘virtuous agents’.

Virtue ethics · Phronēsis · Autonomy · Complementarity ·
Epistemological pluralism

C. M. Ess (*) 
Department of Media and Communication, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway

© Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden GmbH, part of Springer Nature 2019 71

T. Eberwein et al. (eds.), Responsibility and Resistance, Ethik in mediatisierten
72 C. M. Ess

By combining an experiential agency dimension with a structural/institutional

dimension it may be possible to construct a media policy for civil society that con-
nects the individual moral level with the political and structural level, understanding
politics as influenced by moral sentiments but also understanding morals as politi-
cally and socially informed stances. (Hjarvard 2013)

1 Introduction: Ethics and the Subject Vis-à-vis

Mediatization Theory

Other contributions in this volume helpfully specify what responsibility and

resistance can mean within the perspectives of mediatization studies. At the same
time, however, both responsibility and resistance point squarely at the ethical
subject, the human self as an ethical agent, one who is capable of interaction
with—as well as standing against—a larger set of socials norms and practices. In
classical philosophical terms, such agency and its capacity for resistance requires
a subject possessed of radical freedom or autonomy. One of the most significant
philosophical foundations for this view of freedom is Kant’s understanding of
human freedom as an autonomy—an auto-nomos, an agency not simply capable
of exercise free choice per se, but, still more fundamentally, an agency capable of
legislating for itself (auto) its own law (nomos) (Christman 2011).
Such radical conceptions of freedom are not only necessary conditions to
our thematic interests in responsibility and resistance in their various forms:
still more radically, such conceptions of freedom ground the modern liberal-
democratic state and our core understandings of a human subject or self that
requires respect, equality and legal protections of basic democratic rights such
as freedom of expression, rights to privacy and most certainly rights to dissent,
among others (Ess 2010). Most foundationally, such conceptions of freedom root
what I take to be the highest and most important Western philosophical—and
directly ethical and political—ideals of the human subject. These ideals begin
with the individual as centrally possessed of freedom of conscience: this freedom
further requires us to disobey prevailing norms, practices and beliefs when these
threaten individual and collective freedom and their correlative norms of equality
and respect. These ideals are marked out through a long tradition that begins with
nothing less than the second Genesis creation story. Contrary to the prevailing
interpretation in Western Christian traditions as shaped by St. Augustine, both
earlier Jewish and Christian readings understand the woman’s disobedience
as capacity required for human maturation. Specifically, such disobedience is a
Ethics and Mediatization … 73

virtue—a practice—that is prerequisite for the acquisition of ‘the knowledge of

good and evil’, i.e. our primordial sense of ethical knowledge and responsibility
for our own choices (Ess 1995). In ancient Greek traditions, Antigone and
Socrates are exemplars of individuals who choose to disobey the orders of those
superior in power when these conflict with still higher religious and ethical
demands. The duties and rights of the free individual form a core theme within
the Protestant Reformation and the 18th century Enlightenment movements
and democratic theories, as well as the 19th and 20th century movements
demanding greater equality and emancipation—for the enslaved, for women, for
the colonized. Society’s insistence on the existence of these duties and rights of
the individual and then collective conscientious objection play an essential role
in such responsibility and resistance (King 1964 [1963]). These traditions of
conscientious objection are dramatically exemplified in the contemporary world
by whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden and the courage of women of color
such as Tess Asplund who stood up alone against Neo-Nazis (BBC News 2016)
or Ieshia Evans who confronted heavily armed police (Berlinger 2016). In the
terms of virtue ethics, conscientious objection is essential not only for the sake of
individual freedom of conscience as this underpins a good life of flourishing, of
unfolding one’s best possibilities both individually and collectively: conscientious
objection is also a central and perhaps indispensable engine of democratic norms
and processes and the ongoing struggles for emancipation and justice.
These backgrounds and traditions set a very high bar for our understanding
and practice of freedom and agency: not everyone will feel compelled to disobey
in such dramatic and radical ways. Nonetheless, I highlight these strongest
definitions and exemplars of human freedom to sharpen a central point—namely,
the tension, if not contradiction, between our affirming responsibility, resistance
and thereby human freedom on the one hand, and, on the other hand, our doing
so in conjunction with mediatization studies as a species of social science. That
is, the social sciences of the 19th and early 20th centuries drew primarily from
a positivist model of science. This model was centrally inspired by classical
atomism in Hobbesian theory and then Newtonian mechanistic understandings of
physical determinism as defining Comte’s frameworks in turn. Bourdieu (2015)
succinctly defines positivism as rooted in physical materialism and the aim of
providing explanation by way of uncovering underlying but deterministic causal
relationships. Such goals, finally, were the means in turn for the larger aims of
modern science and technology—in Descartes’ phrase, a mastery and possession
of nature that, through the explanative and predictive powers of a deterministic
science, would thereby give human beings god-like control over nature (Ess
2017b). Where this nature included human beings as the equivalent of physical
74 C. M. Ess

atoms, social science likewise aimed towards not only explanation but thereby
control. Beyond Comte’s visions of social control—perhaps B. F. Skinner’s
behaviorism in the 20th century serves as the best example of such positivist-
inspired visions of animal and thereby human behavior as ultimately a matter
of straightforward cause-effect relations and hence as objects of a scientific
explanation and material control (Carey 2009, p. 76; Hjarvard 2017, pp. 1–2).
Clearly, there is a stark contrast between these foundational accounts of
the human being in positivism and positivist social science, on the one hand,
and on the other hand, our insistence on human freedom, agency and affiliated
capacities of responsibility, resistance and disobedience. At its logical extreme,
our affirmation and pursuit of social science in its positivist directions simply
eliminate human subjectivity and human agency—reducing these to mere
epiphenomena, illusions that can be explained away in materialist and causal
terms (see Carey 2009, p. 76).
To address this tension, I first provide a strong account of the human subject
as ethical agent. I then review contemporary mediatization studies, represented
and articulated by Stig Hjarvard, in order to show how these move beyond
positivist understandings towards a post-positivist understanding of social­
science—one that acknowledges the role of human subjectivity and agency. But
I further argue that a more developed account of both mediatization studies and
human agency is needed in order to avoid, at a minimum, a residual theoretical
incoherence between mediatization studies as social science, on the one hand, and
the shared insistence in this volume, on the other hand, on human capacities for
responsibility and resistance. Maximally, I propose this account as one approach
to Hjarvard’s suggestion noted at the outset of “combining an experiential
agency dimension with a structural/institutional dimension” (2013) for the sake
of media policy. I develop this account primarily in terms of complementarity
and a correlative epistemological pluralism, as initially defined within Quantum
Mechanics and then extended into the humanities, including ethics and
­philosophy, through the works of Karen Barad (2007, 2011) and Judith Simon

2 What is an Ethical Subject?

In order to more fully understand the tensions, if not contradictions, in play here,
we must first have a better grasp on what it means to be an ethical subject.
Most broadly, the ethical subject in modernity is understood to be a free agent,
one who can act—specifically, one capable of making genuinely free choices.
Ethics and Mediatization … 75

These choices include choices between alternative courses of action. From a

Kantian perspective, moreover, at their most ambitious, these choices include
nothing less than those laws that guide more specific choices. In Kant’s terms, the
ethical subject is a rational autonomy—an auto-nomos, an agent capable of giving
itself its own law. For Kant, this agency includes determining our own ends (our
goals or aims) and what thereby contributes as a means to those ends, i.e. ways of
achieving or fulfilling them (Johnson and Cureton 2017, p. 26).
Kant further develops the notion that for many of us becomes a critical aspect
of exercising such foundational freedom—an account of reflective judgment.
Briefly, determinative judgment functions as a ‘top-down’ judgment that starts
from general principles or norms and then deductively works towards specific
claims or conclusions. By contrast, reflective judgment begins within the fine-
grained components of specific empirical experience, and then seeks to move
towards making more general norms, rules or laws. As May Thorseth (2008)
points out, reflective judgment for Kant works within the aesthetic domain, but
subsequent figures such as Hannah Arendt and Seyla Benhabib argue that this
reflective judgment can be legitimately extended to the domains of ethics and
politics as well—a claim that Thorseth supports and expands upon (Thorseth
2008, pp. 222–225).
I have further characterized phronēsis as a form of reflective judgment as
well. Broadly, phronēsis is a core component of virtue ethics in the Western
tradition since Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. It is usually translated as ‘practical
wisdom’ or ‘prudential judgment’: as Shannon Vallor points out, phronēsis
is an overarching virtue that is the “exemplary virtue of the morally cultivated
person” (2016, p. 105). I have argued that phronēsis is a form of reflective
judgment first of all, as it does not proceed determinatively—i.e. deductively or
algorithmically. Rather, we find ourselves needing to apply phronēsis precisely
in the face of multiple possible choices—and on two levels. First, we encounter
choices between possible but specific courses of action. At the second level, these
specific choices further implicate any number of possible general laws, principles
or norms. A primary task of phronēsis is to seek to discern which of these general
laws, principles or norms indeed apply—and, especially in the case of conflicts
between them, which of these must hold the greater weight in a given, specific
case. For example, as illustrated in Carol Gilligan’s interviews with women
facing the possibility of abortion (1982), their decisions—better, in my terms,
their phronetic judgments—depended primarily upon the very specific details
of their distinctive situations and contexts, including the “web of relationships”
of all who were thought and felt to be affected by or implicated within such a
judgment. To be sure, broad and general norms—most obviously, the value of
76 C. M. Ess

human life—came into play. But what makes the abortion decision so difficult—
like other equally complex and fraught decisions—is precisely that the value of
human life distributes across all of those involved within the web of relationships,
beginning with the mother. For example, in some (fortunately rare) cases, the life
of the mother may be directly threatened by the demands required for sustaining
the life of the fetus. Phronēsis is hence called upon to judge or decide: which life
is more important? And the responses to this question will depend in turn on still
further, case-specific details, beginning with the relative health and life-prospects
of the mother vis-à-vis those of the fetus. As we take on board further dimensions
of the web of relationships, including qualitative assessments of ‘quality of life’
issues, possible qualitative and quantitative impacts of whether an abortion is
chosen or not on close family, friends etc.—the complexities and the difficulties
of the decision thus increase exponentially.
In the phrase ‘judgment call’, we recognize that such judgments are thereby
highly variable: that is, more than one judgment or decision can be legitimately
made—first of all, between different individuals in different contexts, such as a
14-year-old rape victim with little to no familial or other forms of support, vis-
à-vis a more mature woman with solid life prospects and sufficient financial and
emotional resources to support her taking on the role of motherhood. Moreover,
we know from our own experiences of making such judgment calls that we are
likely to make different judgments vis-à-vis similar choices over time as our own
contexts and situations change.
First of all, this variability in judgments differentiates phronēsis from more
determinative forms of judgment. In this direction, I and others have argued
that phronēsis is thereby not computationally tractable, i.e. reducible to a set of
programmable instructions or algorithms (Gerdes 2014; Ess 2016). Moreover, I
have argued that phronēsis is thereby affiliated precisely with human freedom—
including the freedom to choose or judge which specific norms, principles
etc. may apply in a given context or case (Ess 2014, pp. 211–212; Ess 2016).
Lastly, I would argue that such autonomy and phronetic judgment are n­ ecessary
constituents of conscientious objection, such as Antigone’s paradigmatic
decision to disobey the superior—but, in light of her understanding of still
higher ethical norms—ultimately unethical order of Creon to leave her brother
Polynices unburied. As the figure of Socrates also made clear, such objection and
disobedience, even if at the cost of one’s own death, is central to the examined
life—where the unexamined life is famously not worth living (see Plato, The
Apology, 1914, 38A/133). Most broadly, it seems clear that phronēsis and
autonomy are likewise necessary for especially modern movements towards
Ethics and Mediatization … 77

e­mancipation, democratic practices and norms such as equality, respect and

­justice (see King 1964; Ess 2017a, pp. 37–38).
To be sure, this account of the ethical subject is contested on a number of
important grounds, beginning with philosophical ones (see Johnson and Cureton
2017, pp. 29–37, for a more careful discussion). At the same time, this account
admittedly sets a very high bar for what counts as and is demanded of such a
subject. But I present this account, first of all, as central to what I take to be some
of the most important ethical, social and political developments in both historical
and contemporary contexts. At the same time, this robust and demanding account
stands in the sharpest contrast with the more positivist approaches to the social
sciences in general and mediatization theory in particular.

3 The Ethical Subject Vis-à-vis Mediatization


What is the role of the human subject in general—much less of such an ethical
subject—in mediatization studies?
On the one hand, mediatization studies differ in important ways from more
traditional media effects studies—ways that specifically acknowledge the role
of human agency. Stig Hjarvard (2017) points out that earlier media effects
traditions—along with other social sciences such as behavioral psychology in its
use of a stimulus-response model—directly rest upon cause-effect relationships
as taken up in the natural sciences (Hjarvard 2017, pp. 1–2). Hjarvard goes on
to trace out how this causal model remains at the core of various effect models
used in media effect research, despite enhancements and nuances that move well
beyond “ideas of direct and linear effects” (Hjarvard 2017, p. 2). Of particular
importance here is the stress on causality as a metaphor, no longer as a literal
truth (Hjarvard 2017). There is the recognition that the social sciences differ from
the natural sciences insofar as literal causality is not presumed to apply to people
in exactly the way it may apply to billiard balls—perhaps with the exception
of the rigidly deterministic model from behaviorism. This moves mediatization
studies precisely in the post-positivist direction that I develop in the next section.
Here, however, Hjarvard notes that even if properly understood as a metaphor,
“the choice of underlying metaphor (of causality) comes to structure the ways
we think about the nature and possible influences in the first place” (Hjarvard
2017). Media effects studies, first of all, thereby accords agency (in my terms)
exclusively to the media texts: “Texts are causal agents that produce effects
through their exposure to audiences” (Hjarvard 2017, p. 2).
78 C. M. Ess

At the same time, however, mediatization studies represents a significant

shift towards a more pluralistic approach, in the sense that these studies “are not
influenced by any one particular metaphorical construction but (rather) rely on
several metaphors to construct its object of enquiry” (Hjarvard 2017, p. 3). This is
in part because mediatization studies take up a range of theoretical perspectives,
“including institutional, cultural, and material approaches to understanding the
interdependency between media, culture, and society” (Hjarvard 2017, referring
to Lundby 2014). For his part, Hjarvard (2017, pp. 3, 5 f.) draws on Joshua
Meyrowitz (1993), a medium theorist, who takes up three metaphors for media—
conduits, languages and environments.
This diversity of metaphors at least points towards a second critical break
with positivism—namely, an epistemological pluralism that moves beyond the
epistemological monism underlying positivism. Hjarvard is skeptical towards
such a pluralism (1997). Nevertheless, the shift towards a plurality of metaphors
is part and parcel of a key feature of mediatization studies—namely, their
capacity to recognize and, up to a point at least, take on board human agency.
In particular, Hjarvard goes on to argue that as mediatization studies further take
up Anthony Giddens’ structuration theory (1984), they are able to recognize and
explore how “structure and agency are interdependent and constitutive of one
another, so that the very process of bringing about structural change involves the
agency of individuals and organizations” (Hjarvard 2017, p. 5).
This recognition of the mutual interaction and interdependency between
human agency and larger social structures thus starkly contrasts with more
traditional media effects studies, which reduce the human subject to the passive
target of media texts: such a subject simply registers the effects caused by media
texts. As structuration theory and mediatization approaches more broadly instead
make room for the human subject and human agency, they thus leave open
the critical spaces and roles of human freedom as illuminated from different
perspectives, beginning with philosophy, phenomenology and ethics: these in turn
make room for responsibility, resistance and conscientious objection. In the next
section, I argue for further bolstering and amplifying this implicit complementary
between mediatization studies and a robust understanding of human freedom
and agency. This is precisely for the sake of foregrounding such understandings,
specifically as these are taken up in the virtue ethics approaches that emphasize
phronēsis and correlative requirements that we practice freedom and ethical
judgment—not simply observe their interactions with larger social processes as
examined by the social sciences.
Ethics and Mediatization … 79

4 Complementarity

There is nothing novel in suggesting a relationship of complementarity between

science (Naturwissenschaften) and claims to knowledge grounded in humanistic
approaches (Geisteswissenschaften), beginning with philosophy. Where
complementarity means simply that two different modes of knowledge may not
necessarily contradict one another, but rather fill out and complete one another,
such an understanding is at least as old as Aristotle who in introducing his
Nichomachean Ethics observes that

it is the mark of an educated mind to expect that amount of exactness in each kind
(of knowledge) which the nature of the particular subject admits. It is equally
unreasonable to accept merely probable conclusions from a mathematician and to
demand strict demonstration from an orator. (1095b24-25, 1926, p. 9)

In modernity, Kant elaborates on Aristotle to develop a critical account of the

proper domains and limits of diverse faculties of knowing—theoretical reason
(science), practical reason (morality) and judgment (aesthetics, as well as
ethics)—precisely in order to articulate a series of complementary relationships
between these correlative modes of knowledge.1
The Kantian approach, however, was overshadowed in the 19th century
by the rise of positivism—as both a philosophy of science and as a political
program (Bourdieu 2015). As a philosophy of science, positivism asserts
that all knowledge must follow the model of the quantitative sciences, with
physics as the prime exemplar. In particular, this epistemological model rests
on the vision of Pierre-Simon de Laplace. Laplace assumes a fully Newtonian

1More precisely, the resulting epistemological and ontological structures are held together
in relationships of connection alongside irreducible difference as articulated through
analogical predication. Kant thereby invokes and refines a philosophical tradition for
‘knowing the unknowable’ (for him, the noumena) that extends back through St. Thomas
Aquinas (God), Aristotle (underlying substance) and, ultimately, Pythagorean techniques
for manipulating irrational numbers by way of proportional relationships with rational
numbers (Ess 1983). These structures thereby closely approximate the understanding of
complementarity that we pursue below. Indeed, a Kantian epistemology exercises a direct
influence on the emergence of complementarity and epistemological pluralism especially
in Quantum Mechanics (see footnote 2). In addition, then, to a Kantian-inspired account of
phronēsis as a form of reflective judgment, these Kantian epistemological backgrounds are
essential to our understanding the larger developments of complementarity and pluralism
that I trace out here.
80 C. M. Ess

universe, one made up of material particles whose movements are fully

determined by rigid causality. Were the universe so constructed, a godlike being
possessed of complete knowledge of all “the positions of all things of which
the world consists”, coupled with the ability to calculate every cause-effect
relationship in play—whether backward or forward in time—would thereby
have complete and certain knowledge of the universe in its entirety (Laplace
1951, p. 4, in Greenstein and Zjonc, p. 55). As incorporated in Auguste Comte’s
positivism, such a universe—in which human beings and their interactions are
by definition fully accountable in terms of such cause-effect determinism—
grounds a specific political philosophy as well, one that promises both godlike
knowledge and thereby godlike control. James Carey characterizes this vision
as one of “scientific (and) technical elites who elucidate the laws of behavior
and the functions of society so that people might be more effectively, albeit
unconsciously, governed” (2009, pp. 76–77). Carey goes on to point out that
in the American context, positivism of this sort is immediately recognized and
attacked by John Dewey as “the greatest indictment of democracy yet written”,
in Carey’s words (Carey 2009, p. 77). Manifestly, a fully deterministic universe
excludes the possibility of genuine—not epiphenomenal—human freedom,
where such freedom grounds primordial democratic notions and norms. But
as we have seen, such a universe is the inevitable correlate of positivism’s
monolithic and thereby reductionist epistemology that insists all claims to
knowledge must fit within the model of (Newtonian) physics.
To be sure, modern philosophers from Descartes through Kant wrestled
precisely with the central difficulty of how to reconcile human freedom with a
Newtonian determinism. But if we accept the premises of positivism, no such
freedom exists; and at the same time, we are thereby justified in eliminating
all such philosophical discourse as epistemological and ontological nonsense.
Happily, the further progress of the natural sciences themselves force the
reintroduction of epistemological pluralism and thereby the possibilities of
complementarity. To begin with, Einstein’s special and general theories of
relativity contribute to the erosion of positivist pretensions towards a single,
godlike perspective of the universe: our experiences and measurements are
always observer-dependent, and the physics of the universe allow for multiple
observation points that will result in different experiences and measurements of
nothing less fundamental than space and time. Still more importantly, the rise
of Quantum Mechanics (QM)—specifically, the Copenhagen Interpretation
Ethics and Mediatization … 81

as represented by Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, among others—stops

positivism dead in its epistemological tracks.2
This begins as Bohr develops a precise account of complementarity as an
epistemological principle within QM—one forced by the experiments and findings
themselves. Complementary holds between two sets of information about “one
and the same object” (Bohr 1957 [1938], p. 38; cited in Blok and Pedersen 2014,
p. 1). But as multiple experiments in QM demonstrate, approaching an object at
the subatomic level with different experimental apparatus will generate different
results—most famously, the particle/wave duality of a photon. That is, whether
experimental results show light to behave as a wave or as particle depends
precisely on the set-up of the apparatus. In a strong ontological sense, the photon
is neither a particle nor a wave: whether we observe it to behave like a particle
or a wave depends simply on which experimental set-up we chose (for a careful
discussion, see Greenstein and Zajonc 2006, chapter 1; Peat 1991).
To be sure, the dependency of our measurements on the instruments we
use to measure is well understood in classical physics. But in classical physics,
it is usually possible to limit the influence of our measuring instruments to a
negligible minimum, and/or to control and predict their influence: adjusting
for the influence—eliminating, in effect, the role and influence of the observing
subject and their instruments—thereby should give us (something like) objective
knowledge, i.e. knowledge of the object independent of the measuring instrument.
In the quantum world, however, this is not possible: all efforts to observe and
measure inevitably disturb the observed. Most importantly, as Heisenberg argued,
this disturbance is both “uncontrollable and unpredictable”, such that we cannot
somehow correct for the disturbance (Greenstein and Zajonc 2006, p. 47). The
upshot is Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Broadly speaking, the uncertainty
principle “prevents us from giving a complete description of the behavior of the
world” (Greenstein and Zajonc 2006, p. 55). In particular, as Heisenberg himself
puts it, “through quantum mechanics the invalidity of the law of causation is
definitively established” (1927, cited in Greenstein and Zajonc 2006, p. 55).
As Greenstein and Zajonc explain, such a view directly undermines
Laplace’s perfectly deterministic vision of a universe completely accounted for

2It is important to note that both Einstein and the primary figures of the Copenhagen

Interpretation, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, were fully aware of the Kantian
project and its epistemological implications—i.e. there are direct influences and explicit
discussions of the relationship between Kantian philosophy and their own emerging
physics (see Ryckman 2005; Heisenberg 1958 for discussion).
82 C. M. Ess

in terms of causality. But this thereby eradicates the positivist assumptions—

not only that causality is the deterministic engine running the universe, but,
still more fundamentally, that complete knowledge of the universe is possible.
And: contra a hybristic goal of god-like knowledge and power resting on a
monolithic ontology and epistemology—given this account of the possibilities of
knowledge within physics, QM thus enjoins a severe epistemological humility.
At best, even our most rigorous scientific knowledge is instrumental, in contrast
with realist or literal claims: “theories are merely instruments for predicting
observable phenomena or systematizing observation reports” (Chakravartty
2016, pp. 24–25). On this view, a scientific account can be considered as
something like a map: the truth of a map is not established by its one-to-one
correspondence to an external reality—the object of our investigation, somehow
purged of all subjective influence, the interference of our instruments etc. Rather,
a map represents a partial account of a specific set of features, simplified and
coded precisely for the ease of use in navigation and prediction. Think of how
a highway map codes certain roads as red, yellow or blue—while the colors of
the roads themselves, of course, do not correspond to these colors. Such a map is
hence not perfectly realistic or correspondentially true. But if the map succeeds in
helping us to precisely predict and navigate—e.g., how to arrive at a designated
city by driving on a designated road in a specific direction for given distance—
it is instrumentally true. Moreover, each single map, as partial and incomplete,
thereby begs for complementarity by way of other maps that represent—in
likewise partial and incomplete ways—other aspects of interest. In this way, QM
grounds an epistemological pluralism. In stark contrast with the epistemological
monism presumed in positivism (one and only one form of knowledge and
account is legitimate), epistemological pluralism recognizes that a diversity of
accounts—e.g., of the photon as wave and particle—are not only allowable but
necessary (Pratt 2008).

5 Contemporary Complementarity

As is familiar to many of us, subsequent developments in science (most notably,

the Aspect experiments, as these further undermine classical notions of causality
as well as “local reality”: Peat 1991) and in philosophy of science in the 20th
and 21st centuries foster a number of post-positivist understandings of both
the natural and social sciences that thereby facilitate new possibilities of more
complementary epistemologies. A representative review of developments in
these directions would include historicism, social constructivism and feminist
Ethics and Mediatization … 83

epistemologies (see Chakravartty 2016). Broadly, post-positivist epistemologies

emphasize the human knower and thereby human knowledge as situated. As for
both Einstein and QM, our view of the world around us is inextricably tied to
and inflected by our ‘subjective’3 point of departure, including our instruments
of measurement and observation: as especially social constructivism and feminist
critiques make clear, human knowledge as intersubjective thereby inevitably
brings into play our specific subjectivities, including our value commitments
and other forms of individual and collective preference and bias. This means
that the positivist hope for a value-neutral or value-free form of ‘objective’ (but
monolithic) knowledge is at best a heuristic or methodological guideline. That
is, following the model of classical physics, we can attempt to minimize the
‘interference’ of the more subjective elements of knowing by being clear and
articulate about them: but following the model of the uncertainty principle, these
are ineliminable conditions of our knowledge and it is only the residual influence
of positivism that inclines us to regard subjectivity always and only with
epistemological suspicion. By contrast, complementarity and epistemological
pluralism endorse the projects of making the conditions and contents of our
diverse ways of knowing clear and explicit—and, where possible, of discerning
and articulating the coherencies and complementarities between these, rather than
presuming the hegemony of one over the other (see Ess 2017a; Mackenzie 2008;
Anderson 2017, esp. pp. 52 f., 62 f.).
Such approaches have been broached in recent years in a number of
­disciplines—inspired, for example, by the extensive work of Karen Barad (2007).
One example is especially relevant here: Blok and Pedersen (2014) take up
Bohr’s definition of complementarity as elaborated by Barad: “Complementarity
entails two important features: mutual exclusivity and mutual necessity. For two
variables to be complementary they have to be both simultaneously necessary
and mutually exclusive. Otherwise, what is the paradox?” (Barad 2011, p. 444,
cited in Blok and Pedersen 2014, p. 3) Using their Copenhagen Social Networks

3It is important to note that the meaning of the terms ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ are
transformed as we shift from positivist to post-positive epistemologies. Roughly, in their
positivist usage, it is possible to radically separate the two, affiliating the personal, the
arbitrary and the irrational with the former, while characterizing the latter in terms of
universal, necessary and rational. Intersubjectivity, by contrast, means that subjectivity
and objectivity are inextricably intermingled. A first example is Kant’s frameworks of time
and space as both ‘subjective’, i.e. as grounded in human subjectivity, rather than in an
external reality per se, and ‘objective’, i.e. as universally shared among human observers as
necessary conditions for our human experience of an external world.
84 C. M. Ess

Study as a test case and example, they argue for a highly interdisciplinary but
explicitly complementary coherence of both quantitative (big data) and qualitative
(embodied, small data) approaches.
Still more helpfully for our purposes, Judith Simon (2015) relies on Barad
(among others, including Lucy Suchman) to develop what to my knowledge
is the most philosophically sophisticated account of a complementarity that
conjoins precisely the scientific with the ethical. A critical step in applying
Bohr’s account of complementarity is provided in Barad’s term intra-action. As
Simon points out, the term refers to “processes taking place within the object-
observer-compound, the entanglement of object and observer in the process of
observation”. The point here is precisely “to discursively challenge the prevalent
dualisms of subject-object, nature-culture, human-technology, and aims at
opening up alternative, non-dichotomous understandings of technoscientific
practices” (Simon 2015, p. 152). A primary upshot of this epistemology
and ontology of entanglement is a heightened increase in our ethical
responsibilities—first of all, as knowers whose knowledge practices thereby
shape and inflect the knowledges we produce. As Simon goes on to point out,
“knowledge always implies responsibility”, meaning first of all that the “issues
of ethics and politics of such knowledge- and reality-creating processes (are)
indispensable” (Simon 2015, p. 153).

6 Complementarity, Mediatization and (Virtue)


Simon thus constructs a notion of epistemic responsibility that, she argues, is

especially appropriate to and required for our contemporary multiple roles as
knowers in “sociotechnical, hyperconnected and entangled systems”, whether “as
individual epistemic agents processing information in research (and/or) just as
much as in our every-day lives” (Simon 2015, p. 154). I take this last phrase as my
point of departure: my aim is to extend these understandings of complementarity
and a correlative epistemological pluralism beyond their application solely
within the social and natural sciences (as per Blok and Pedersen 2014). In
addition to these sorts of applications, I suggest that we take up complementarity,
entanglement and intra-action to conjoin mediatization studies (along with the
social and natural sciences more broadly) with robust accounts of human freedom
and the ethics of responsibility, resistance and objection.
To begin with, we can extend Hjarvard’s observation that “causality” in
mediatization studies is a metaphorical rather than literal concept (2017,
Ethics and Mediatization … 85

pp. 1–2). This meshes directly with the Kantian and post-positivist positions—
namely, that causality is a human category of understanding that human
knowers impose upon our fields of experience: QM radically supports this
observation by demonstrating first that causality simply does not operate at
the foundational levels of reality. The upshot is not the end, but rather the
transformation of causality: at the human scale of knowledge and experience,
we still use causal relationships in the natural and social sciences—but only in
a metaphorical fashion. More extensively, we can say that the resulting accounts
are instrumentally true, but not correspondentially true. Following the metaphor
of such accounts as maps, we move from a positivist epistemological hegemony
and thus reductionism that eliminate all forms of humanistic claims to knowledge
to an epistemological pluralism that allows for multiple accounts as maps whose
differences resolve in complementarity rather than contradiction.
While Hjarvard is skeptical regarding epistemological pluralism (1997), we
have seen such a pluralism and complementarity put forward within the social
sciences by Blok and Pedersen (2014). I argue here that we can extend these
frameworks of complementarity and pluralism still further to encompass both
mediatization studies (and the social and natural sciences more generally) and
ethics—specifically (but not exclusively) a virtue ethics that insists on human
freedom and individual and shared projects of unfolding our best capacities—
including phronēsis—in lives of flourishing.
As a reminder: a framework of complementarity conjoins both mutual
exclusivity and mutual necessity (Barad 2011, p.  444). While post-positivism­
transforms and thus softens our understanding of causality—causality is by no
means eliminated: on the contrary, causality (now understood in an instrumental or
metaphorical sense) remains central to our scientific exploration of all phenomena
at the human scale of experience (i.e. bigger than subatomic phenomena, smaller
than stars and galaxies, and objects that do not move appreciably close to the
speed of light). To assert the reality of radical human freedom alongside causally-­
oriented sciences thus proposes two mutually exclusive realities. At the same time,
(instrumental) causality and human freedom are mutually necessary: first of all, it
is precisely the human (free) agent as knower entangled in epistemic intra-actions
who thereby assumes both epistemic and ethical responsibility.
Moreover, the focus in virtue ethics on phronēsis as a specific form of
reflective judgment thereby foregrounds a specific expression and practice of
human freedom: as we have seen, phronēsis implicates precisely the freedom to
choose or judge which specific norms, principles, relationships etc. are relevant
and in what priority in a given context (Ess 2014, pp. 211–212; Ess 2016). Such
judgments are hence marked by uncertainty and variability: more than one
86 C. M. Ess

legitimate judgment call can be made. Such uncertainty and openness to revision
would seem a necessary correlate of freedom: we are always free to change
our minds—and our judgments. Such uncertain and variable judgment calls are
the exact opposite of scientific ideals (even if only heuristic in post-positivism)
of certain, unambiguous, and necessary universal knowledge. But again, such
freedom and freedom of judgment are equally necessary for us in our roles as
epistemic knowers as well—i.e. precisely the ones who make judgments and
choose, e.g., our objects of knowledge, our methodologies, the meaning of
ambiguous measurements and findings etc.

7 Concluding Remarks

My aim here has been to problematize and then resolve the apparent tensions
between mediatization studies, as a species of social science, and our thematic
insistence on responsibility, resistance and disobedience. To do so, I have put for-
ward a robust account of human freedom as an autonomy capable of phronēsis, and
then sought to show how we can hold such a freedom together with mediatization
studies, including post-positivist ideals of (quasi-)universal and necessary knowledge,
in a framework of complementarity and epistemological pluralism.
Such a framework should be helpful as a way of articulating and clarifying
how the multiple explorations of resistance and rebellion taken up in this volume
in conjunction with mediatization studies can do so in conceptually clear and
non-contradictory ways. More broadly, I propose this framework as one way of
supporting Hjarvard’s larger vision (2013) of “combining an experiential agency
dimension”—specifically, a robust account of human freedom and phronēsis—
“with a structural/institutional dimension”, i.e. as revealed through mediatization
studies: and this for the sake of constructing “a media policy for civil society
that connects the individual moral level with the political and structural level,
understanding politics as influenced by moral sentiments but also understanding
morals as politically and socially informed stances” (Hjarvard 2013).
At the same time, however, this framework not only preserves human freedom
and phronēsis in ways theoretically coherent with endorsing and pursuing
social and natural science; it further highlights how freedom and phronēsis, as
conditions of ethical responsibility, are thereby entangled with the practice of
social science (along with science more broadly). That is, as virtue ethics reminds
us, such freedom and its correlates are not somehow given, but are practices.
This entanglement between science and the epistemic-ethical subject thus reflects
back upon the social scientist—not simply as a ‘knower’ in some more narrow
Ethics and Mediatization … 87

disciplinary or professional sense; in addition, and precisely as such an epistemic-

ethical subject, the social scientist is responsible for his or her epistemic practices
in new ways—ways that are further inextricable from his or her practices and
responsibilities as a human being more broadly.
Such a suggestion, however, may not be so radical as it first appears. Rather,
the implication that social scientists—along with everyone else—may want to be
clearer and more explicit about our epistemic-ethical responsibilities resonates
with similar contemporary recognitions in other professions—e.g., in the design
and deployment of networked computer systems. A recent analysis by Bendert
Zevenbergen and his colleagues concluded with the striking argument that
“virtue ethics should be applied to Internet research and engineering—where
the technical persons must fulfil the character traits of the ‘virtuous agent’”
(Zevenbergen et al. 2015, p. 31).
As we have seen, such an argument and injunction would be literal nonsense
within classical positivism. By contrast, I hope that the framework developed here
will help us make better theoretical sense of taking up mediatization and social
science approaches more broadly in conjunction with explicitly normative claims,
i.e. as complementary in a fairly precise sense. Even more importantly: I hope
that this framework helps us better defend resistance and disobedience, precisely
in the all-too-common instances where these are needed to preserve and enhance
human freedom, equality and flourishing.

Acknowledgment  I am very grateful indeed to Knut Lundby who organized a workshop

on “Mediatized conditions” at UC Berkeley, California, 5–6 December 2013. This
workshop opened up the conversation and debate with Stig Hjarvard, Lundby and others
that catalyzed much of the work on mediatization in play here. I am further grateful to both
Knut Lundby and Stig Hjarvard for their subsequent encouragement and assistance.

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Permanent Connectivity: From
Modes of Restrictions to Strategies
of Resistance

Thomas Steinmaurer and Helena Atteneder

The current level of permanent connectivity can be conceptualized as a new
dispositif of communication defined by a new status of individual integration
into the technological infrastructures of digital networks. On the one hand,
new potentials and options for everyday life are offered at the level of digi-
tal connectivities. At the same time, numerous risks and disruptions are aris-
ing out of the techno-economic impact forces of the Internet. This leads to
various imbalances, like new power structures of surveillance or erosions of
privacy, impelling us to develop different ways of integrating digital technolo-
gies into everyday life. Against this background we suggest adopting Hall’s
model of encoding/decoding of communication within the context of digital
network structures, in order to differentiate between various modes of network
‘behavior’—reaching from unreflected and full adoption of power structures to
modes of rejection of and resistance to network structures in different ways. In
most of the cases, we observed that it is challenging for users to develop new
‘technologies of the self’ to strengthen their skills and literacies to meet the
dominant impact forces in network structures. In addition, the ethical implica-
tions of current developments are considerable and require concepts of digital
ethics and resilience to be further developed in digital network environments.

T. Steinmaurer (*) · H. Atteneder 
Department of Communication Science, Center for ICT&S, Universität Salzburg,
Salzburg, Austria
H. Atteneder

© Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden GmbH, part of Springer Nature 2019 91

T. Eberwein et al. (eds.), Responsibility and Resistance, Ethik in mediatisierten
92 T. Steinmaurer and H. Atteneder

Permanent connectivity · Dispositif · Digital network behavior · 
Encoding/decoding · Technologies of the self · Surveillance · 
Privacy · Techno-economic power structures

1 Permanent Connectivity as a Dispositif

of Communication

The ongoing transformations of technological and social change can be qualified

as a fundamental shift into a new era of communication. Processes of mediatiza-
tion are intensified by digital technologies, as they are deeply modifying struc-
tures of communication in society. At the level of digital networks, we are facing
new structures of convergence and advanced levels of connectivity via “perpetual
contact” (Katz and Aakhus 2002) to the Internet. For individuals, the status of
permanent connectivity via the mobile Internet has become a widely-adopted
standard of being integrated into networks of communication. As this sets new
preconditions, routines and norms for social interaction and communication on
a broad scale, we can refer to a new dominant dispositif of communication that
one can call “mediatized connectivity” (Steinmaurer 2014). The concept of the
dispositif allows us to contextualize network structures in a critical way and focus
especially on ambivalent aspects in modes of digital connectivity, as it concen-
trates on hegemonies and power structures within these structures and processes.
Further, the theoretical model of the dispositif allows us to analyze power struc-
tures in terms of their historical development and opens up a conceptual frame-
work focusing on the relationship between structural changes at the micro level
and the macro level (Steinmaurer 2014). Today, we particularly observe strong
power relations based on dependencies at the level of technological and economic
dynamics affecting practices of communication in everyday life, as well as struc-
tural changes at the level of digital networks. The usefulness of this theoretical
approach also allows us to address the specific relation of certain impact forces
connected to each other (like technology, aspects of commercialization, indi-
vidualization, processes of usage) and critically analyze questions of power. In
addition, the model links processes at the micro level with structures at the macro
level, as well as taking into account historical developments of mediatization.
The theoretical approach to analyze media (technologies) as a dispositif of com-
munication has already been addressed by various scholars: Jean-Louis Baudry
Permanent Connectivity … 93

(1993) conceptualized the model in the context of film theory and Knut Hickethier
(1992) adopted it for the field of television studies. Oana Stefana Mitrea (2006,
p. 17) worked on this theoretical basis in the field of mobile communication:
“Understood as a dispositif, wireless telephony has structuring effects on the sub-
ject’s perception and representation of reality; control and exploitation of the sur-
rounding space, time management; and communicative practices”. At the present
stage of highly individualized and mobile access to digital networks, we are again
facing new hegemonies arising primarily out of techno-economic rationalities.
In multiple modes of daily network communication, it is primarily the economic
rationalities of different providers and big players with their algorithms that widely
determine our spectrum of mediatization and interaction. Clemens Apprich (2015)
refers to digital networks as a dominant dispositif in multiple ways and demands,
along with Geert Lovink (2012, 2016) and Alexander Galloway (2013), a new criti-
cal theory of the Internet. Meanwhile, the number of scholars critically observing
network structures has grown. They argue that users get more and more involved
in the processes of commercialized connectivities and power structures (Fuchs
2014; Mosco 2018). New strategies of surveillance are established at the level of
a digital panopticon. Simultaneously, versions of “dataveillance” (Clarke 1988)
are supporting processes of “mass-self-surveillance” (Fuchs 2011). Besides these
phenomena, we are easily able to continue the list of risks from new modes of dis-
crimination and fragmentation up to problems with privacy protection (Atteneder
and ­Collini-Nocker 2018) or different kinds of disruptions when it comes to online
identities and modes of subjectification via social media. Particularly social media
and business-oriented platforms increasingly force individuals to follow strategies
of self-improvement and the optimization of their online identities.
In the conception of the dispositif of permanent connectivities—or “media-
tized connectivity” (Steinmaurer 2014)—the theoretical approach focuses on how
techno-economic rationalities of network structures are incorporated into eve-
ryday routines of communication. By focusing on this we aimed to establish a
deeper understanding of how structures at the macro level are connected to pro-
cesses at the micro level of the individual. In this respect, the theory of structura-
tion by Giddens (1984) offers a very useful framework for looking more precisely
at the interdependencies between the micro level of human action and structures
of society at the macro level. Referring to the duality between agency and struc-
ture, certain sets of rules restrict human action within a spectrum of resources
facilitating them. Although agency can be understood as a “fundamental element
to create any sort of change” (Lamsal 2012, p. 115), we also have to be aware
that action always interacts with power, determined by specific dominant struc-
tures determining the conditions of digital interaction and communication. These
94 T. Steinmaurer and H. Atteneder

dispositive structures limit the variety of possible forms of communication, and

they lead to a commodification of nearly all forms of mediated communication
(Atteneder 2018). The level of our deep embeddedness into technological infra-
structures of hyperconnectivity changes the ontological status of our ‘being in
the world’ and sets new preconditions for social life as a whole. This happens at
the micro level of the individual as well as at the societal level. Giddens’ model
of structuration offers the possibility of analyzing the power structures by con-
textualizing them as interdependent fields between social structures and human
agency. In a next step, we propose taking into account the different ways in which
individuals act in digital environments affected by dispositive structures. In addi-
tion to this approach it seems to make sense to bring in Hall’s model of encoding/
decoding to adopt his concept for questions of different modes of coping with
digital technologies. In the following section, we discuss the integration of Hall’s
model for the context of everyday usage cultures in digital network environments.

2 From Forms of Decoding to Modes of Action

When we take a look at the many different forms of usage cultures on the net, the
spectrum of possible ways of coping with technologies, or operating and acting
within platforms, can be localized from modes of full adoption to strategies of
resistance. Stuart Hall’s classification of encoding/decoding texts of popular cul-
ture (Hall 1980) can be adopted as a concept to differentiate between various forms
of exposure to network structures. To transfer this way of thinking about modes of
reception to the context of how we act in network environments might help us to
understand and categorize certain modes of coping with digital technostructures—
from dominant modes and negotiated ones, on to oppositional modes. Even though
knowing about the limitations of such a transfer (and principally concentrating on
the decoding side of the process), the model might help us not only to categorize
certain modes of coping with technologies, but also to address aspects of power
and consequences at the level of the individual. With Selwyn (2003) we can under-
stand technology as a text—“a notion which intimates that the nature and capac-
ity of technology is, in principle, interpretively flexible throughout all stages of
development and use”. Specifying this argument one can “see (…) that individu-
als ‘read’ ICTs from a variety of perspectives bounded by a number of structural
factors” (Selwyn 2003, p. 111). Following the arguments to adopt Hall’s modes
of “reading” for the context of using communication technologies, we are able to
reflect on the different modes of use we can observe in network cultures today.
Permanent Connectivity … 95

2.1 Dominant Modes in Digital Networks

To begin with the level of dominant modes: this refers to all forms of network
activities that follow the mainstream digital usage culture, including the accept-
ance of all configurations and default settings that the dominant providers and
platforms want us to use. It is characterized by the full acceptance of norms and
rules set by big network players and platforms. Examples of this can be found in
the many ways that most users easily agree to the terms and conditions of domi-
nant platforms and include the acceptance of privacy settings that guarantee full
transparency with geo-sensitive data. As this mode always promises full conveni-
ence with all possible applications, users are easily tempted to follow these norms
and pre-configurations that enable platform players to collect as much personal
profile data as possible. In order to counter this, one might explore alternative
modes by regulating new norms of privacy protection and determine new rules
for providers to implement their usage configurations with a high level of privacy
protection for the users. This would minimize surveillance options as well as pro-
tecting network users from giving away their personal data involuntarily.
Of course, we have to concede that within modes of dominant structures there
are also potentials and new possibilities for social connectivity. Michael Chan
(2013, p. 96), who worked on the relationships between mobile phone usage,
social capital and well-being, shows that “both voice and online communication
with the mobile phone are positively related to various indicators of subjective
well-being and bonding and bridging capital”. Along with scholars like Rainie
and Wellman (2012), he highlights the “potentials of mobile phones to mobi-
lize weak ties to instigate political and social change” (Chan 2013, p. 106). As
these aspects highlight the potential and options for the users on a structural level,
we also have to be critically aware of how our deep, and very often unreflected,
involvement in the techno-economic rationalities of network dispositifs comprise
the acceptance of dominant impact forces. As potential power is arising from
certain configurations and platforms with different impact forces on our every-
day usage habits, we have to be aware of the hidden processes within network
structures that easily persuade us to adopt the dominant modes that the network
providers want us to follow.
Continuing to accept the dominant network structures means to more or
less tolerate the ongoing commercialization of our everyday social networking.
It means that different modes of surveillance will be incorporated and also that
somewhat covert changes in everyday network ‘behavior’ will be adopted. There
would then be new modes of self-management and strategies of subjectifica-
96 T. Steinmaurer and H. Atteneder

tion arising out of the rationalities of permanent connectivity. Furthermore, new

habitualizations at the level of attention management can be observed as new phe-
nomena of digital nervousness, arising out of our constant interaction with mobile
devices. The mobile gadgets can be seen as highly embodied technologies and
even be understood in a McLuhan sense as part of our bodily concept. As men-
tioned above, the theoretical approach of thinking about structural dominances
incorporated in dispositifs of digital connectivities might focus our research inter-
ests on these critical aspects of mediatization.

2.2 Negotiated Network Behavior

Hall’s second category of the negotiated mode can be adopted for the context of
usage cultures that are characterized by a mixture between accepting and reject-
ing certain features of technology or forms of usage. In terms of this approach,
we can identify ambivalent as well as conflicting modes when we observe phe-
nomena like the “privacy paradox” (Barnes 2006). This phenomenon of incon-
sistency makes users, on the one hand, concede that they are aware of privacy
problems, but at the same time neglect all those aspects in daily routines of net-
work behavior. The same may be true for the practice of self-disclosure on social
network sites when “disclosure decisions and strategies reflect a balance of con-
flicting needs aimed at maximizing strategic rewards and minimizing personal
risks” (Bazarova and Choi 2014, p. 2). In many cases, users might be aware of
the risks, but do not consider their full consequences. For example, Spiekermann
and Grossklags (2005) show that privacy is a matter of increasing concern and
that there is a general desire for privacy among Internet users. At the same time,
this attitude is rarely implemented in everyday use of digital technologies. Utz and
Krämer (2009) investigate the privacy paradox on social network sites in the con-
text of individual characteristics and group norms: “Whereas stronger privacy con-
cerns resulted in more restrictive profiles, impression management motives (…)
and narcissism (…) resulted in less restrictive privacy settings” (Utz and Krämer
2009). The authors argue that there is a trade-off between provided user data and
convenience (whatever that means with regard to individual characteristics).
Hall states that “decoding within the negotiated version contains a mix-
ture of adaptive and oppositional elements: it acknowledges the legitimacy of
the hegemonic definitions to make the grand significations (abstract), while,
at a more restricted, situational level, it makes its own ground rules—it oper-
ates with exceptions to the rule” (Hall 1980, p. 137). For the context of digital
connectivities, we also observe ambivalences when applications for leisure and
Permanent Connectivity … 97

e­ntertainment are connected with location-based services linked to economic

rationalities of geo-tracing and surveillance. The latest hype with “Pokémon
Go” is a typical example in this field. Roitsch (2017) explores different patterns
of “communicative demarcation” and points out the significance of the factor
“reflexivity” for processes of media appropriation. The reflexive examination of
certain media technologies and practices through trial and error, daily observa-
tions and conversations serves as a basis for changeable and different modes of
media usage. Practices of rejection, of time-budgeting and differentiation are, to a
certain extent, always context-driven and negotiable (Roitsch 2017, p. 214).

2.3 Modes of Resistance

Finally, at the level of an oppositional mode, we find a broad spectrum of usage

strategies—from active resistance, alternative usage to modes of ‘slow media’
or, what Charles Ess calls, forms of “monotasking” (Ess 2009). Woodstock
(2014) argues that for new media research the phenomenon of non-use was often
assumed to be a problem and that if barriers were reduced, non-users would have
quickly become users. Voluntary non-use or intentional limited use was often cap-
tured under the term ‘digital divide’. Woodstock (2014) identifies the main rea-
sons for media resistance as follows: “to assert boundaries between public and
private life, to respond to the ways in which new communication technologies
undermine human connection, and to focus on immediate experiences and culti-
vate presence” (Woodstock 2014, p. 1990).
As the spectrum of negotiated forms of usage and oppositional forms has to
be seen as continuous and fluid, all these modes also include aspects of experi-
ence and negotiation, or reflect on a specific understanding of resistance or oppo-
sition.1 Within the range of oppositional approaches, we have to take into account
the modes of non-use of ICTs or “non-participation” (Kaun and Schwarzenegger
2014) regarding the occasional absence of media usage or specific “disconnect-
ing-practices” within social network sites (Light 2014). These range from clan-
destine or parochial to different tactics of resistance. Selwyn (2003) stresses the
fact that we have to understand “economic, material and individual psychologi-
cal factors behind non-use of ICTs” and that we should be aware of the “impor-
tance of the social” (Selwyn 2003, p. 112). Critical approaches based on social

1Prisching (2017) argues in terms of different strategies of resistance and de-mediatization,

referring to Max Weber’s different typologies of action.
98 T. Steinmaurer and H. Atteneder

b­ ackgrounds insist on strategies of disconnectivity, as Urs Stäheli argued in his

pamphlet “Entnetzt Euch!” (“Disconnect yourselves!”) (Stäheli 2013).
Meanwhile, the concept of ‘slow media’, adopting the ideas from the ‘slow
food movement’ developed in 2009, has become a well-recognized sub-cultural
movement. Jennifer Rauch (2011) identifies the origins of the project as “the
practice of routinely withdrawing from media” and a “substantial achievement”
in media use. By referring to these ambitions, she also claims the necessity for
more research “to understand why some people (…) diverge from the techno-
utopianism and techno-determinism of mainstream culture and how they manage
to resist digital media’s incursions into their life-worlds”. Concentrating on dis-
positif structures of permanent connectivity, we can argue—as Rosa (2016) also
states—that new strategies are needed to cope with time resources, to find new
balances between our on- and off-line status or strategies of deceleration and per-
sistency (see also Meckel 2008).
Regarding a technical aspect of resistance, Kirschner (2017) describes
blocking-apps as a “mild solution” to impede commercial interests by blocking
third-party advertising. At the same time, these apps are intimately connected
to neoliberal self-optimizing tendencies with benefits of increased performance,
communicated by slogans like “more focus at work”, “stop procrastination” or
“be more productive” (Kirschner 2017, p. 230). Apps like “OFFTIME” offer such
disconnection tools, while at the same time using our data and profiles for their
digital business models. Tools like this are part of a bigger market of applications,
services and strategies for de-mediatization within the dominant structures of eve-
ryday connectivities (Prisching 2017; Pfadenhauer and Grenz 2017).
An active resistance approach is proposed by Mejias (2013) who mentions
strategies of “refusing to participate in the latest social media craze” or demands
“public spaces without surveillance cameras”. He also identifies modes of resist-
ance in strategies of actively blurring our data traces in digital networks by using
specific applications—by using these, our profiles become unprofitable for third
parties in the net. He refers to a “theory of the outside of networks (that) should
give us more sophisticated ways to talk not only about nonuse as a mode of dis­
identification but also about nonparticipation as a mode of resistance” (Mejias
2013, p. 156). He also refers to an “ethical resistance” and a “philosophical pro-
ject” in so far as disrupting the network is about challenging the determinism of
network logic (Mejias 2013, p. 157). Mejias’ approach of the “paranodal” could
be understood as part of a “movement to disrupt networks (that) will be (…) what
the slow food movement is to fast food: an opportunity to stop and question the
meaning of progress”. He sums up by stating that we “will see the question of
networked inclusion and exclusion, participation and nonparticipation, framed in
ethical terms” (Mejias 2013, p. 169).
Permanent Connectivity … 99

For Louise Woodstock (2014), strategies of media resistance are “individual-

ized, idiosyncratic practices (…) and in fact, social responses to living in a media-
saturated world, through their opposition, to force consideration of normative
media practice” (Woodstock 2014, p. 1997). Meanwhile, we find several studies
on the topic of media refusal in terms of resistance to participating on Facebook.
Portwood-Stacer (2012) frames refusal as a “tactic of critique” and as a form of
“consumer activism” (Portwood-Stacer 2012, pp. 1042–1043). The concept of
“conspicuous non consumption“ shows that the rejection of Facebook” is eas-
ily interpreted as a wish to demonstrate one’s superiority to the abstract ‘main-
stream’, or even one’s superiority to the friends one leaves behind in the social
network” (Portwood-Stacer 2012, p. 1043). People who decide to refuse to take
part in this platform understand their approach as a “cultural distinction, which
may easily be read to others as elitism”. As “legitimate tactics of resistance” also
have their limits, Portwood-Stacer argues that forms of active refusal might only
be available as a tactic to people who already possess a great deal of social capital
and have the “power to switch off”, so that they can afford the “cost of opting
out” (Portwood-Stacer 2012, p. 1054).
Innovative strategies of resistance or offline practices can be found in art pro-
jects. Foot (2014, p. 1314) mentions a Jewish artists’ group called “reboot”
which launched a website called the “Sabbath Manifesto”, addressing ten princi-
ples for “carving out a weekly day of rest”. In March 2010, reboot “inaugurated
an annual 24-h technology abstinence day”—the “National Day of Unplugging”
(Foot 2014, p. 1328). The same year, a similar group launched a project called the
“BigTurnOff” with a tagline of “Twenty-four hours offline” (Foot 2014, p. 1329).
There are other initiatives like “Rescue Time”, “My Privacy”, “Do not Track” and
“Adbusters’ Digital Detox Week”, which help users to establish reflected knowl-
edge about alternative forms of coping with technologies of connectivity. In
her study, Kirsten Foot came to the conclusion that “resistance to the culturally
hegemonic idealization of ubiquity and constancy in SM (social media) was articu-
lated in terms of desires for partial or total, periodic, or long-term unplugging”2
(Foot 2014, p. 1335). Syvertsen (2017) draws the historical line from resistance
to early mass media and television up to opposition to social and online media.
She argues that arguments against media use continue to be value-based, whereas

2Two other art projects are presented by Tero Karppi (2011) who explains the techniques of
disconnection by addressing the projects “” and “web 2.0 suicidemachine”
that are meant to invite people to change their strategies and everyday routines of connec-
tivity by “reclaiming one’s self life through self-destructive actions in the digital world”.
100 T. Steinmaurer and H. Atteneder

specific concerns and actions differ, and that long-term radical abstention may
not persist, but certain (temporal) strategies of resistance should be part of every-
one’s toolbox. “In contrast to religious fasting, which is meant to bring the subjects
closer to God, media fasting, even when advocated by religious groups, appears to
be more about becoming a more authentic person” (Syvertsen 2017, p. 96). Today,
actively resisting digital online media seems to be kind of a “first world issue”
with the aim of personal development. It might be most suitable for those who
would not be affected by the impact of the digital divide if they were disconnected.
However, motives of media resistance might also be motivated by a—more or
less—critical understanding of dominant structures in digital environments. To a
large extent, practices in terms of an oppositional mode try to escape or resist dis-
positif structures based on a high level of reflection and critical understanding or
an explicit active approach of resistance. Also, we must be aware that intellectu-
ally inspiring modes of resistance, like those realized in different art projects, are
only practiced or put in place by a small minority of users in society.
When discussing different modes of coping with communication technolo-
gies, questions arise about how users are able to conceptualize their individual-
ized approach to communication technologies, and how to deal with problems
of privacy, surveillance and identity management and many other challenges
and disruptions. So, dealing with different strategies is always connected to spe-
cific levels of—more or less critical—self-reflection and can, therefore, be con-
textualized with the idea of technologies of the self. Above that, the influence of
infrastructures and requirements of communication on the modes of mediatized
communication also implies ethical consequences.

3 Technologies of the Self and Ethical Implications

By observing the current transformations in an ever more networked environment

of permanent connectivities, we are—as already mentioned above—facing new
forms of automated surveillance by technological coverage and storage of visual
and digital traces in digital networks. This leads to the possibility of the commer-

Considering a form of “digital suicide” as a form of “creative destruction”, Karppi argues

that the goal of these two art projects is to “break the representational scheme between the
online identity and the offline individual”. Both projects can be understood—from his posi-
tion—as a kind of “doping for disconnection” and active initiatives of disruption and digital
Permanent Connectivity … 101

cialization of these data, which can also be used for political reasons or for police
investigations (Adams and Jansson 2012, p. 305). At the same time, digital traces
result in new forms of self-surveillance and interveillance—and raise questions of
privacy (Christensen and Jansson 2015). Meanwhile, we are living in an “emerg-
ing culture of interveillance where non-hierarchical and non-systematic monitor-
ing practices are part of everyday life” (Jansson 2015, p. 81), in so far as strong
relationships between mediatized connectivities are linked to eroding structures
of privacy and new variations of surveillance increasingly dominate the structures
of digital networks.
For users, coping with technological applications at the micro level, these
transformations gradually bring extensions of the spectrum to deal with new var-
iations of the self. Butler (2007, p. 95) points out that at the level of advanced
mediatization the variety has grown for the individual to improve or to manage
the self. However, on the current level of converged technologies, we observe new
variations of self-management that are highly dominated by techno-­economic
rationalities that might lead to processes of de-subjectification instead of an
empowerment of the self. A question related to this is addressed in the field of
the so-called ‘quantified self movement’—this leads not only to a new kind of
self-exploitation and self-surveillance, but also to forms of competition by shar-
ing personal data via social networks. Reichert (2007, p. 218) understands prac-
tices of self-management in current society as a form of self-commutation. The
changing status of the individuum, as such, has already been described by Gergen
(2009) as a “relational being”. Discussing new modes of subjectification in digital
networks, we have to understand the individual in permanent connectivities as a
relational self—or to put it in Gergen’s words: “I am linked, therefore I am” (Ger-
gen 2003, p. 111).
Referring to the idea of how the self is going to be constructed within net-
works of connectivities can—contrary to what Maffesoli (1988) called the “fan-
tasy of the unicity of the self” (Maffesoli 1988, p. 1997)—be understood as an
ever more highly relational, a “liquid” (Bauman 2007) or a “plural self” (Rowan
and Cooper 1999). Along with these processes of mediatization, modes of indi-
vidualization are becoming more and more intense and demanding, users have
to deal with ever more options of interaction. New modes of self-invention and
modes of subjectification in what Beck (2010) called the “do-it-yourself biog-
raphies” are influencing strategies of identity management. All these challenges
raise questions of digital ethics, as new forms of subjectification are bound to a
certain normative framework as well as to impact forces that shape the condi-
tions and requirements for different modes of communication on the net.
102 T. Steinmaurer and H. Atteneder

The focus on the modes and strategies of self-assertion and self-assurance

leads to Foucault’s concept of the ‘technology of the self’, particularly at the level
of individual network behavior and its ethical implications (Foucault 1988). In
his work, technologies or practices of the self are at first traced as traditions of
dialogue and techniques of writing in early Greco-Roman philosophy (Foucault
1988, p. 19). He describes methods and techniques through which we constitute
ourselves by “regulating our bodies, thoughts and conduct to search for truth
from within oneself” (O’Regan 2009, pp. 175–176). It can be understood as an
“exercise of self upon self by which one tries to work out, to transform one’s
self and to attain a certain mode of being” (Foucault 1988, p. 2) and “to attain
a certain state of happiness, purity, perfection, or immortality” (Foucault 1988,
p. 18). For the context of modernity, “technologies of the self (…) are specific
techniques constituted in real practice that shape people’s lives, through which
individuals assist themselves in becoming self-transformed, self-directed, self-
managed in the face of others who bear witness to such self-transformation”3
(O’Regan 2009, p. 176). He highlights the fact that “each historical time frame is
marked by its own technologies of the self (early radical guidebooks, letters, dia-
ries, blogs, Web 2.0)” and as “each instrument (is) helping the individual fashion
a self in connection to an outside world” (O’Regan 2009, p. 176) the concept is
transferred by many scholars to the requirements and conditions of the present.
Alongside others, Maria Bakardjieva and Georgia Gaden have proposed this
concept as a “heuristic device in order to situate Web 2.0 use, first, in a long his-
tory of culturally evolved forms of self-constitution and, second, in a complex
matrix of relationships with other types of technologies, namely, those of pro-
duction, sign systems and power” (Bakardjieva and Gaden 2012, p. 399). A “late
modern medium such as the Internet offers a different base, a resource for the
active and reflexive shaping of the self. (…) It allows the elective mobilization
of distant symbolic resources into everyday consciousness and opens a space for
dealing with diversity, contradiction and negotiation” (Bakardjieva and Gaden
2012, p. 404). Conceptualized as a double-sided or ambivalent technique between
the interplay of domination and liberation (Bakardjieva and Gaden 2012, p. 411)
or control and creativity (Mitcheson 2012, p. 73), the mediated self can, there-

3Foucault mentioned in his later work that maybe he insisted too much in his scientific
work “on the technology of domination and power” and that he would be “more and more
interested in the interaction between oneself and others and in the technologies of individ-
ual domination, the history of how the individual acts upon himself, in the technology of
the self” (Foucault 1988, p. 19).
Permanent Connectivity … 103

fore, be understood as an active producer of his or her own reading or constructor

of reality similar to Hall’s approach of the “reader”.
Ignacio Siles (2012)—who discusses web technologies of the self in the aris-
ing blogger identities—also refers to Hall as he understands identities as “points
of temporary attachments to the subject positions which discoursive practices
construct for us” (quoted in Siles 2012, p. 409). Katrina Mitcheson (2012, p. 59)
comes to the assumption that “there exists the possibility for self-creation within
a network of power relations”, although “power strategies are (always) implicit in
self-formation” (Mitcheson 2012, p. 65). Within the spectrum of different modes,
it is—as she addresses this matter from a positive angle—possible for users “to
use technologies of the self creatively because they are capable of critical reflec-
tion which reveals to them their own contingent and constructed nature. This
frees the space for the emergence of new forms of subjectivity, but these sub-
jectivities still take form in strategic interaction with others. Self-formation as a
form of resistance, therefore, operates between control and creativity” (Mitcheson
2012, p. 73). Finally, Ian Burkitt (2002, p. 236) points to the fact that the use of
technology in this context has an “ambiguous and dual nature: (…) It can serve
both to dominate us and to free us”. Ian Burkitt (2002, p. 224) regards technology
as a “form of practical action (…) giv(ing) people their reflexive power to reason
about their virtues or skills, providing them with the capacity to refine, modify or
change them”.
An important aspect in this context can be found in the duality of media, both
as texts and materialities. As Foucault’s concept about subjectivity “help(s) (us)
to understand how users produce(d) and enact(ed) the identities of the online dia-
rists”, he also reconsiders “the role of materiality in processes of self-formation,
a dimension of analyses often neglected by scholars” (Siles 2012, p. 417). He
reveals “the mutual shaping of technology as practical reason and technology as
materiality”, and how “materiality and practice are bound together in processes of
coconstruction”4 (Siles 2012, p. 417). On the one hand, we can understand tech-
nologies of the self being co-constituted by material instances (de Vries 2009,

4Siles (2012) states that the “role of early blogging as a technology of the self can be dis-
cussed in relation to the aspects of the process of subjectivation articulated by Foucault:
(a) the adoption of linking and annotating content online as techniques for discovering and
revealing the self; (b) the modes of subjection through which users were motivated to rec-
ognize the possibilities of blogging for self-transformation; (c) the ethical substance of part
of the self involved in blogging” (Siles 2012, p. 410).
104 T. Steinmaurer and H. Atteneder

p. 21)—and, on the other hand, we can conceptualize new forms of self-monitor-

ing or self-tracking as digital technologies of the self. As Foucault was convinced
“that the technologies of the self he discusses were derived from the social con-
text in which their performances live” (Mitcheson 2012, p. 66), the self being per-
manently connected to digital networks is very much embedded in routines and
habitualizations (exemplified by the permanent checking habits in mobile connec-
Being aware of all these transformative impacts at the different levels, the
question of ethical implications for the digital world becomes a crucial and highly
relevant point of discussion. Referring to the different levels of this field, Grimm
(2013) draws a holistic picture on digital ethics and refers to the definition of
Capurro (2010) of digital or information ethics: “Digital ethics or information
ethics in a broader sense deals with the impact of digital Information and Com-
munication Technologies (ICT) on our societies and the environment at large. In
a narrower sense information ethics (or digital media ethics) addresses ethical
questions dealing with the Internet and internetworked information and commu-
nication media such as mobile phones and navigation services” (Capurro 2010,
p. 203). Capurro (2000) indicates, for the beginning of the 21st century, a neces-
sity for new approaches to media ethics when it comes to the establishment of
new information and communication technologies. He suggests starting a wide
ethical discourse and a reflection beyond an implementation of social norms and
the legitimation of these (Capurro 2000, p. 124). Although there is quite a long
tradition concerning earlier forms of communication and information media,
Ess (2009) points out that certain characteristics of digital media require new
ethical approaches. On the one hand, this is related to the convergence of digi-
tal media, meaning that “once distinct forms of information and communication
are now conjoined in digital form, so that they can be transmitted entirely in the
form of 1’s and 0’s via the Internet” (Ess 2009, p. 10). On the other hand, digital
media as “greased information”—meaning the easy and global copying and dis-
tribution of digital content—are constantly giving rise to questions of privacy and
copyright. In addition, digital media work as communication media on a global
scale, and with a permanent interactivity, blurring the boundaries between pro-
ducer and consumer, making us “cosmopolitans (citizens of the world)” with the
implications of a need for the ethics of cross-cultural communication (Ess 2009,
pp. 14 ff.). From this perspective, digital media make it necessary to build a
broader framework for media ethics going beyond media content. Couldry (2010)
states that “media are a matter of central concern for all citizens, whether media
producers, consumers or hybrid producer-consumers, and therefore we must build
within an inclusive framework of media ethics that can address the ethical con-
Permanent Connectivity … 105

cerns and ambitions of anyone involved in, or affected by, the media process”
(Couldry 2010, p. 59). Focusing on the meta-process of mediatization, Rath
(2014) understands the ethics of digital media as part of the “ethics of the media-
tized world” (Rath 2014, p. VI). Especially the impact of ICTs on every aspect of
our lives makes it necessary to actively protect and manage privacy, as the ethics
of private communication under the conditions of Web 2.0 become increasingly
lost (Rath 2014, p. 55). Further important aspects of the “ethics of the mediatized
world” are addressing the authenticity for producers as well as consumers, the
quality of media (content) and media competences (Rath 2014).
When we observe the ongoing process of a blurring of the classical consumer
and producer roles, we have to assume the responsibility to focus on education
and to strengthen the necessity for new media literacies (Livingstone 2009) and
the capabilities (Sen 1999) to be active citizens in the “Global Metropolis” (Ess
2009, p. 104). At the micro level, Funiok addresses the users of media by ques-
tioning ‘appropriate and good’ practices under the term of ‘responsibility’ as a
key concept (Funiok 2000, p. 90). In his view, responsible media use is part of
‘media competence’ and can be seen as a key qualification in our information
society. This leads us back to the concept of the technologies of the self and pos-
sible new strategies for users to strengthen their concept of self-management and
capabilities of identity-building to meet the challenges and risks, but also poten-
tials of digital technologies. In this context, the concept of digital resilience and
social responsibility (Atteneder et al. 2017) may be an important step to address
questions of how to protect users confronted with the current disruptions and
risks in digital networks, and also to encourage them to actively participate in
societal (digital) change. Genner points out that “individual resilience to social
pressure and temptations decreases feelings of distraction and overload caused by
hyper-connectivity” (Genner 2017, p. 190). Atteneder et al. (2017) consider that
the concept of digital resilience can be argued to exceed the notion of an individ-
ual, user-centered approach and to embrace a normative perspective at the level of
societal structures and social responsibility. For this purpose, the focus on social
responsibility is strengthened, considering the mutual shaping of individual action
and societal structures.

4 Conclusions

To sum up the arguments discussed in this chapter, we first of all wanted to draw
the attention to the current status of permanent connectivity to digital networks as
a new dispositif of communication. It sets new preconditions and requirements
106 T. Steinmaurer and H. Atteneder

for communication and network activities within a dynamic framework that is

characterized by new potentials, but also by risks and dominant impact forces
arising out of techno-economic power structures. We should keep in mind that
our deep integration in dispositifs of digital connectivities leaves us with more
limited space for autonomous action—in the “interplay of domination and lib-
eration” (Bakardjieva and Gaden 2012). Together with ongoing disruptions of
digital network structures at the macro level, we observe new dangers at the sur-
veillance level, problems with eroding structures of privacy and the increasing
commercialization of our everyday network activities. Against this background,
we suggested adopting Hall’s concept of different forms of reading media texts
for the context of digital networks and we differentiated between three possible
modes of network behavior. Within the spectrum of different modes of reaction
from the dominant, the negotiated or the oppositional mode, we experience a
­prevalence of dominant modes of network behavior. Being confronted with differ-
ent approaches to coping with risks and power structures, we observed a growing
need for individuals to adjust technologies of the self and identity management
and strengthen their skills and literacies to meet the challenges of current net-
work disruptions. These developments have considerable ethical implications and
require concepts of digital ethics and digital resilience to be further developed
and refined for the digital environments of interaction and communication.


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Managing Mediatization: How
Media Users Negotiate a Successful
Integration of (New) Media
in Everyday Life

Kathrin Friederike Müller

This chapter discusses how the integration and use of new (digital) media can
be conceptualized as a process of appropriation, which is shaped by accepting
or rejecting media and mediatization. It is understood as a user-driven process
during which the media users decide whether they understand new media and
their usage as adequate or not. The chapter aims to contribute theoretically to
this topic by defining the users’ role in the mediatization of everyday life more
precisely. Empirical findings are presented that display how the users negoti-
ate mediatization and the functions of media in society. The theoretical back-
ground relates mediatization to the understanding of media appropriation in
Cultural Media Studies and reflects on the question of whether the integration
of the Cultural Studies understanding of appropriation allows ethical questions
that are linked to mediatization to be answered. Empirically, the chapter pre-
sents findings on the negotiation of mediatization and appropriate media use in
everyday life based on qualitative interviews.

Cultural Studies · Media ethics · Audience and reception studies · 
Mediatization · Qualitative interviews · Appropriation

K. F. Müller (*) 
Institut für Kommunikationswissenschaft, Universität Münster, Münster, Deutschland

© Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden GmbH, part of Springer Nature 2019 111

T. Eberwein et al. (eds.), Responsibility and Resistance, Ethik in mediatisierten
112 K. F. Müller

1 Introduction: Shaping the Conduct

of Mediatization via Appropriation

This chapter discusses how the integration and usage of new (digital) media can
be conceptualized as a process of appropriation, which is shaped by accepting or
rejecting media and mediatization. It is understood as a user-driven process dur-
ing which the media users decide whether they understand new media and their
usage as adequate or not (see Müller 2016, pp. 261–262). The chapter aims to
contribute theoretically to this topic by defining the users’ role in the mediatiza-
tion of everyday life more precisely. Furthermore, it presents empirical findings
that display how the users negotiate mediatization and the functions of media in
The chapter refers to the quintessence of mediatization, which assumes that the
way media are used (and therefore how society changes because of media use) is
not determined by technology or by the producers of media content, but the way
that media users integrate media into their routines and media repertoires (Krotz
2007, p. 33). During this process, media users ascribe meaning to media accord-
ing to their needs and purposes. The mediatization of a social sphere is based on
the users’ definition of practical media use and therefore is carried out in every-
day life. These processes are defined as appropriation. The chapter argues that the
concept of appropriation has to be clarified by more emphasis on negotiation and
rejection. It is assumed that the process of integrating new media in everyday life
also means defining how media should not be used and therefore how mediatiza-
tion should not take place. Thus, appropriation always includes negotiating under
which conditions changes that result from mediatization are regarded as accept-
able or not (see Müller 2016, pp. 260–262). To clarify appropriation, the contri-
bution suggests integrating Cultural Studies and their idea of a productive media
user. This way, the concept of a responsible media user becomes part of media-
tization. The media users’ choices are regarded as practical ethical decisions for
finding ways to manage the presence of media in different spheres of social life.
As a starting point, mediatization and its understanding of the media users’
role is introduced. Furthermore, mediatization is related to the Cultural Stud-
ies’ understanding of media appropriation. It is also reflected in the question of
whether its integration allows ethical questions that are linked to mediatization
to be answered. After explaining the methodology, findings on the negotiation of
mediatization and the appropriate way of using media in everyday life based on
qualitative interviews are presented. Media users were asked to elaborate on the
role of media in their life as well as in society. They talked about the question of
how media have initiated social change and what the mediatized future might be
Managing Mediatization: How Media Users Negotiate … 113

like. They were also asked to name problems and the limitations of mediatiza-
tion and changes that result from it. Finally, there is a discussion of whether the
findings reflect a responsible management of mediatization, how communication
studies might help the media users to develop strategies of integrating media into
everyday life and how to support the users’ struggle to use media in a good way.

2 Theory: Productive Users in Changing

Media Environments

2.1 Mediatization—A User-Driven Process

Mediatization is a theoretical core concept that explains social change based on

transformations in media and media technologies (Krotz 2007, p. 113). It focuses
on the process of implementing new media in everyday life. This process is his-
torical and is never terminated (Krotz 2007, p. 38). The theoretical framework of
mediatization is based on the assumption that a growing number of social spheres
are becoming more and more saturated with media. It assumes that social change
is initiated by changes in the character of communication, which are caused by
the growing presence of media in almost every area of daily life (Krotz 2007,
pp. 30–41).1 Briefly, changes in media and communication that come along
with mediatization cause massive changes in culture and society. Mediatization
focuses on humans as the motors of social change and argues explicitly against
technological determinism. The theory regards “developments in media and their
consequences” not just as a “technical, but social event” (Krotz 2007, p. 40).
Therefore, society is not changed by the presence of new media and media tech-
nologies, but by their appropriation and usage in everyday life.
Media users appropriate and use media according to their own processes of
sense-making (see Krotz 2007, p. 40). Thus, during the process of appropriation,
users negotiate how a (digital) medium is integrated in activities in everyday life
and how usage is molded according to the contexts it is situated in (see ­Müller
2018). The implementation of new (digital) media in everyday life opens up
plural ways of media use, as media have no fixed purposes. First and foremost,
users have to decide whether to use media or not. Furthermore, they have to find

1One of the major theories that mediatization refers to is symbolic interactionism (see
Krotz 2007, pp. 60–78).
114 K. F. Müller

modes of media use for the new technology or content if they want to integrate
it in their routines.2 During these processes, meaning is ascribed to media. Even
though mediatization assumes that the users are the crucial point of meaning
production, the theory does not specify the backgrounds the users refer to dur-
ing appropriation in order to negotiate the meaning of media. Fields that could
be more elaborated on are the significance of individual as well as socially shared
understandings of media, mediatization and social change. It would be instructive
to analyze what the users regard as an adequate way of media use and to integrate
questions of power that have been neglected so far (see Roth and Röser 2019).
It would also be helpful to analyze how, for example, social norms of media use
influence appropriation (see Müller and Zillich 2018; Zillich and Müller 2019).3
Thus, it is necessary to take a closer look at the meaning that is ascribed to media
and mediatization by the subjects.

2.2 Cultural Studies: Opposition and Resistance

in Appropriation

In order to define meaning production, negotiation and to better integrate rejec-

tion and opposition in mediatization, it is fruitful to refer to the Cultural Studies’
theory of a productive audience. This helps to grasp the possibilities of the users
in shaping mediatization more comprehensively as it concentrates on the abilities
of the media users in negotiating media content and technologies.
Cultural Studies are complementary to mediatization (see Krotz 2007,
pp. 78–81).4 They allow the micro level of media appropriation to be linked to the

2This conclusion applies to classic as well as online-capable media. The latter offer more
varieties of usage as their purpose is not as fixed as the purposes of classic media. The
same online-capable media technology offers several ways of usage. Therefore, digital
media are often used for more than one reason, because they expand the boundaries of utili-
zation (see Krotz 2007, p. 95).
3Even though mediatization understands the observation of social change as a task in point-

ing out inequity, e.g., to reveal the circumstances that lead to different access to media (see
Krotz 2007, pp. 292–299) or ethical questions concerning the use of robots (Krotz 2007,
pp. 143–145), it is not normative (see Winter 2013, p. 308). Winter (2013, p. 308) consid-
ers that normative perspectives are postulated when, e.g., discussing the entanglement of
mediatization with economy and commerce, but that they are not empirically proven.
4One difference is that Cultural Studies concentrate more on the perspective of the sub-

ject on media use than on its social embeddedness and situational context, which is more
important in symbolic interactionism (see Krotz 2007, pp. 81–82).
Managing Mediatization: How Media Users Negotiate … 115

macro level of society, as they understand it to be the context where meaning is

negotiated. They focus on the question of how power is reinforced or challenged
by ordinary people via negotiation—for example, during media use (see Krotz
2007, p. 80; Winter 2013, p. 309). The analysis of “power, social injustice, sup-
pression, resistance and the ability of action” are major subjects in this field of
research (Winter 2001, p. 345). Cultural Studies want to uncover how the power
block—that means, the hegemonic group—aims to discipline the people who
seem to have no extensive impact in the molding of the social conditions they live
in (see Fiske 1989, p. 23). Nevertheless, these suppressed people are understood
as influential by using tactics against the strategies of the power block (see de
Certeau 1988, p. 87) to oppose their suppression.
Analyses in Cultural Studies examine how people negotiate meaning while
using media and how this leads to the formation of resistance. Like mediatization,
appropriation is seen as the crucial point for understanding sense-making during
media use. However, Cultural Studies go one step further as they include resist-
ance. Therefore, Cultural Studies understand appropriation not just as a neutral
practice, but also as a critical one. Cultural Studies regard media users as creative
and, therefore, as actionable (see Göttlich 2006).
The capacity to act and to resist is mostly conceptualized as opposing against
texts. This perspective is the most common concept of a critical or oppositional
behavior in media use, but it is not transferable to mediatization because of its
text-relatedness. Power is seen to be located in texts and resistance is linked to
their decoding, during which the people are able to articulate their own under-
standing of the text’s meaning (see Hall 1999, p. 97).5 A second theoretical per-
spective on opposition in media use is more helpful to sharpen the concept of
appropriation in mediatization. Ethnographic studies have shown that the appro-
priation of media technologies is related to a meaning-giving process as well
(Morley 2006, pp. 28–20). Their integration in everyday life comes along with
the negotiation of their placement at home. The time and purpose of their usage
is negotiated as well as the characteristics that are ascribed to them in the process

5Women’s magazines, for example, are understood as representations of women’s every-

day culture by their readers and are read to feel part of specific feminine communities (see
Müller 2010, p. 279). Nevertheless, readers contradict women’s magazines as they criticize,
for example, that beauty is represented in stereotypes, by comparing their own professional
knowledge to information that they find in the magazines and by a skeptical reading of
practical or psychological advices (Müller 2010, pp. 358–366).
116 K. F. Müller

of domestication (see Hartmann 2013; Röser 2007, pp. 20–22).6 Depending on

the context, the meanings that are produced while appropriating a new technol-
ogy might lead to the integration of new media as well as to their rejection. As
mediatization is based on the saturation of different social spheres with media,
meaning production during the appropriation of technologies set the course how
media are integrated and used in everyday life. Thus, if and how media should be
used is negotiated when a new medium is brought to the sphere where the users
aim to utilize it in the future. Thus, appropriation as the background of mediatiza-
tion means to analyze the area of conflict that arises if media users weigh their
interests in appropriating new media against the demands of power.

2.3 Appropriation and Resistance as Ethical Practices

The implication of a productive media user also allows reflecting on the users’
role in negotiating an ethical way of media use. Media ethics argue that an ethi-
cal media use is based on socially shared agreements as values and norms are
regarded as its foundation (see Grimm 2013, pp. 386–389). Values and norms are
manmade as they are negotiated and brought to life by the actions of the media
users and therefore are socially constructed (Funiok 2011, p. 48). They are shared
by many members of society and mold the understanding of a successful way of
media use (Grimm 2013, p. 389). Consequently, they originate from the same
processes of negotiation that Cultural Studies refer to when discussing culture as
the meaning-giving sphere where the social is constructed.7
Transferred to the appropriation of new media and the usage of media in eve-
ryday life, norms and values can be understood as socially shared guidelines that
help the media users to orient in order to integrate and to use media in a way that
is accepted by a wide range of people. Thus, by grasping the users’ expectations
about media and by reconstructing their ideas of a successful usage and integra-

6For example, studies show that television is understood as a medium of community and
leisure that allows the members of a household to meet, to spend time together and to com-
municate (see Müller and Röser 2017, p. 147). The findings show that television is not just
regarded as a medium which contributes audio-visual content, but which has special mean-
ings that are related to the social sphere in the household.
7In the first instance, if they are not postulated by institutions but by the users themselves,

norms and values do not necessarily support the power block, but can also reflect needs and
interests of the average media users (see Müller and Zillich 2018, pp. 429–431).
Managing Mediatization: How Media Users Negotiate … 117

tion into everyday life, as well as their critique and doubts, we can describe the
understanding of practical ethical behavior from the media user’s perspective as
well as define the process of appropriation more precisely.
Following on from Cultural Studies, ethical media use can be regarded as
resisting against power and reinforcing the emancipation of suppressed groups
(Dörner 2010, p. 124). Following this assumption, the user plays a major role
concerning sharpening mediatization ethically in everyday life. Cultural Stud-
ies (i) regard culture as conflict, (ii) focus on analyzing power relations and (iii)
understand themselves as a political project (Dörner 2010, p. 128). Therefore, the
appropriation of media technologies and media content is conceptualized as the
origin of the definition of culture, power and society. Negotiations of adequate
media use and how society should develop against the background of mediatiza-
tion can be seen as parts of it. Integrating the users as the driving force, as they
are conceptualized in mediatization, and as “fractious” (Winter 2001, p. 16), as
they are understood in Cultural Studies, might widen the perspective of media
ethics and enrich recent debates, which is massively challenged because of medi-
atization (see Rath 2016a, pp. 301–302; Rath 2016b, p. 22).
Because of the increase of online-capable media and changes in the media
user’s role in the process of communication, new necessities in ethical media use
are discussed (see Grimm 2013). Nevertheless, media ethics have faced the fact
that their conventional perspective on media use no longer fits the media envi-
ronment (see Rath 2016a, pp. 302–303). Traditionally, they have been dominated
by a paternalistic understanding of the media user’s role in realizing an appropri-
ate way of media consumption (see Rath 2016a, p. 300). Media ethics have not
observed media use, but have focused on the consequences of the people’s actions
as media producers or media users (Rath 2013, p. 295). Thus, for a long time,
media ethics have neglected examining the media user’s role in defining a suc-
cessful way of media use (see Müller 2016) or even have stated that media eth-
ics cannot be conceptualized as an ethic of users (Bolken 2003, p. 39). Instead
of discussing resistance and the audience’s capacity for action, media ethics
have focused on questions of responsibility as they are characteristic for ethical
debates (see Grimm 2013, p. 373). Furthermore, like many parts of audience and
reception studies, media ethics have concentrated on the impact of media use on
individuals. Therefore, it has frequently been asked whether media use results in
users becoming good citizens (Funiok 2010, pp. 235–238), satisfied individuals
(Funiok 2010, pp. 238–240) or “good human beings” (Bonfadelli 2013, p. 102).
These traditional standpoints are regarded as insufficient with the background
of mediatization and the implementation of the Web 2.0. As media users are no
longer just consumers, but also producers (see Rath 2016a, p. 302; Rath 2016b,
118 K. F. Müller

p. 22), the merging of production and media use calls for a different understand-
ing of the media user’s role in ethical decision-making (see Rath 2016a, p. 302;
Rath 2016b, p. 22). In a similar way to the Cultural Studies’ understanding of a
productive media user, the concept of an active media user has been introduced
into media ethics (see Rath 2016a, p. 302). Thus, media users are morally and
ethically responsible for the way they use or produce media content. Therefore,
people should develop media competencies, in order to make adequate decisions
as media users as well as media producers (Rath 2016b, pp. 28–29). Media com-
petencies, therefore, are regarded as a key concept for ethical media use, appro-
priation and production in everyday life.
This user-centered perspective in media ethics can benefit from the consid-
eration of processes of appropriation and, therefore, of meaning production and
resistance, as they are understood by Cultural Studies, as these concepts display
how practical ethics and shared understandings of media use become meaningful
in everyday life. Considering the user’s negotiation how to appropriate media in
mediatization could stimulate new ways of understanding the users’ role concern-
ing the definition of an adequate way of media use and therefore help to define
how media competence is practiced.

3 State of Research: Managing Mediatization

in Everyday Life

On an abstract level, studies on the negotiation of mediatization are still a desid-

eratum, but several examinations have shown that the media users make thought-
ful decisions to manage the impact of mediatization in everyday life. Research
on the abstinence of watching TV, the rejection of digital media (for a literature
review see Roitsch 2017, p. 208) and the implementation of rules (see Höflich
2016, pp. 32–33) for media use give the first hints that underline that the users
are able to manage mediatization. Empirical findings show that media users try
to minimize its unintended side effects, in order to get along with their conse-
quences (see Möll and Hitzler 2017; Grenz and Pfadenhauer 2017). Some of
these processes even result in de-mediatization (Pfadenhauer and Grenz 2017),
which means that people try to stop the growing importance of media in everyday
life or try to change the consequences that result from this process.
The configuration of mediatization by the media users becomes obvious in
two different fields. The first one is studies on the creation of networks and
Managing Mediatization: How Media Users Negotiate … 119

communities. They have shown that people have developed practices of demar-
cation that the media users utilize to manage the handling of media technolo-
gies as well as content. Roitsch (2017) shows that one can differentiate between
three kinds of practices of demarcation: (i) the practice of refusing to use a spe-
cific media technology or content (Roitsch 2017, pp. 210–215), (ii) the prac-
tice of drawing a temporal budget on media use (Roitsch 2017, pp. 215–218)
and (iii) the practice of differentiating media for varying purposes or groups
­(Roitsch 2017, pp. 218–220). Another contribution, which is based on data
from the same study, also mentions the practice of drawing a financial budget
on media use (Hepp et al. 2014, pp. 183–186) and the practice of holding back
information concerning oneself in social media (Hepp et al. 2014, pp. 185–192;
see also Zillich and Müller 2019, pp. 2644–2645). The results show that demar-
cation is a way to define media use practically. They underline that people regu-
late media use, in order to apply the media that are most fruitful to their own
life and in terms of communication. The second field, which shows that appro-
priation is negotiated, is studies on the integration of professional work via
online-capable media in the home. This field of research makes clear that media
users mold how social life is mediatized. Examinations show that “home-
workers play an active role in shaping and constructing, domesticating and
organizing the computer to contain and organize work” (Ward 2006, p. 149).
Home-workers have established rules and arrangements to separate work and
private life. Two very common ways of doing so are the creation of tempo-
ral or spatial structures in the home. Most of the home-workers have a study
(see Bakardjieva 2005, pp. 147–149; Müller 2018; von Streit 2011, pp. 46–47;
Ward 2006, pp. 155–157) where they do professional work, in order to sepa-
rate work and private life. They also define working hours and hours of leisure
to prevent an extension of work (see Bakardjieva 2005, p. 162; Müller 2018;
von Streit 2011, pp. 246–247; Ward 2006, pp. 157–159). Both fields are exam-
ples of how people manage mediatization. They underline that mediatization is
not ‘happening’; the way it takes place in social life, e.g., in communities or in
the household, is shaped by the people who act in the mediatized social sphere.
They make decisions and arrangements, in order to control mediatization and
to integrate media technologies and media use into their life in a way that suits
the context in which they are used. These practices of handling mediatization
are expected to be accompanied by negotiations that define how people under-
stand an appropriate way of media use and how they think that mediatization
should take place in everyday life. These questions are analyzed in the follow-
ing ­sections.
120 K. F. Müller

4 Research Questions and Method: Analyzing

Media Use via Ethnographic Household Studies

The theoretical considerations and the state of research make it clear that the pro-
cess of negotiation concerning the appropriation of digital media, and therefore of
mediatization, has to be analyzed in order to understand the meaning production
that is related to them. This analysis has to integrate the acceptance of new media as
well as opposition to them and against the social change caused by mediatization.

4.1 Research Questions

To get to know more about how mediatization is negotiated as a process of social

change and as a meta-process in everyday life, the functions and meanings that
media users ascribe to media is analyzed. Therefore, the following research ques-
tions are formulated:

1. How do media users describe the meaning and the functions of media in
recent times?

Furthermore, the attitude of the users against mediatization is investigated:

2. How do media users understand the recent role of media in society? Which
aspects of media use and media-driven change do they appreciate? Do they
criticize media or social changes?

To get to know more about the norms that are linked with media use, the follow-
ing questions were analyzed:

3. How do the users expect media to develop in the future? Do they see any prob-
lems concerning the development of mediatization?

4.2 Methodology

The data collection is based on ethnographic interviews. They are part of the pro-
ject “The Mediatized Home”8. The research interest of the main project was to

8This research project was part of the DFG Priority Program “Mediatized Worlds” and was
led by Jutta Röser (for further details see Röser et al. 2019).
Managing Mediatization: How Media Users Negotiate … 121

analyze domestic media use and changes in the media repertoire against the back-
ground of mediatization.
The overall aim was to learn more about the users’ perspective. Therefore,
a study of 15 interviews with couples has been conducted. The respondents
were between 22 and 71 years old. They have a wide range of education back-
grounds—for example, one respondent has the basic education in Germany,
called Volksschule, combined with an apprenticeship, and another respondent
holds a PhD (see also Müller 2019, pp. 236–240).
As we wanted to get vivid insights into domestic media use and to observe
the couples’ communication culture, we interviewed both partners together.
This allowed them to correct and complement their partner. Furthermore, it was
extremely useful in reconstructing the processes of negotiation—for example,
concerning the use of media and the evaluation of mediatization in the homes as
well as in society, as the partners discussed during the interviews. In this way,
they negotiated their opinion on the effects and consequences of mediatization
in front of us. We asked the couples to describe their perspective on the meaning
of media in recent society. They also explained how they expect mediatization to
develop over the next five years and in their personal life, in order to find out how
they plan to position themselves in the process of mediatization. They were also
asked to elaborate on problems and criticism they have on media and mediatiza-
tion. In addition, home site inspections were made to observe where media are
placed in the households—and this included taking pictures of the media devices
mentioned for documentation purposes (see Röser et al. 2019, pp. 37–58).
We chose the couples according to the principle of theoretical sampling. Pri-
marily, we searched for couples that have integrated the Internet intensively in
their homes and have replaced classic media, like linear television, radio pro-
grams or printed newspapers by online media. Thus, they were chosen according
to the criterion that they live in extensively mediatized households. Concerning
the answers to the research questions posed above, the sample might be expected
to be optimistic about mediatization as they use online-capable media intensively.
Their perspectives offer instructive insights into the negotiation of mediatization
as they have a wide spectrum of domestic media use and own plenty of media
technologies (see Röser et al. 2019, pp. 57–58).
The evaluation is based on ethnographic household portraits (Röser et al. 2018).
These portraits present a written text that comprises a structured analysis of inter-
view transcripts based on guiding research questions—for example, those ques-
tions aimed at the meaning of media in society. Portraits also include insights from
memos and other empirical material, such as questionnaires and photographs. The
households were grouped and typified in the second part of the analysis, in order to
name generalizable perspectives on digital media and mediatization.
122 K. F. Müller

5 Findings: Users’ Perspectives on Media

Use and Mediatization

The findings presented in this chapter make clear that the respondents reflect
intensively on their media use personally as well as on the social role of media.
Even though some of them found it hard to talk about media at an abstract level,
they have a clear idea how they expect media to function in society as well as
in everyday life. In general, the couples are often skeptical about the potential
effects of media use and the growing importance of media.

5.1 Perspectives on Analogue and Digital Media

The findings show that analogue media play a minor role in most of the house-
holds, because the couples often disapprove them. Only a small number house-
holds stress positive aspects of analogue media and describe them as practical,
secure, relaxing and relevant for society.9 Most couples criticized media that are
not primarily distributed online, especially television programs. They stated that
classic media offer homogenous content with low quality and cause an extensive
media use. They regarded classic media as not very practical, as they have to be
used at defined times or they produce used paper. The couples refer to socially
shared concepts of describing television programs to be of poor quality, in order
to distance themselves from content and taste that they understand as profane: for
example, Mrs. Epstein, a 39-year-old author10, said that TV is “trash” and that
“the classic way of shutting down ones brain (…) is not my preferred way of
media use. That’s why we do not use television.”
Because of their skepticism towards classic media, the respondents stressed
the advantages of digital media. Five couples described them as a positive part
of everyday life. Six underlined that they are highly relevant, useful or helpful
in organizing everyday life; two even said that it was exciting to use them. The
most common description of digital media was to underline that they offer sev-
eral possibilities to choose between different content and therefore to combine the
best the couples can find in the media. Eight couples stressed that they appreciate

9Five households explicitly praise newspapers for their feel of the surface. They describe it
as cozier than digital media.
10All names are changed into pseudonyms to anonymize the respondents.
Managing Mediatization: How Media Users Negotiate … 123

the possibility of choosing content that they really like and that is worth spend-
ing time on. Furthermore, they like that the content is always up to date. For
almost the same reason, the same number stressed that digital media are practi-
cal as they offer content on demand. Five couples underlined that it is an advan-
tage that content can be used flexibly and without any temporal limits. Thus, they
regard digital media as important and prefer them to analogue media. Neverthe-
less, some couples explicitly criticized social network sites. They considered that
they reduce personal contact and are not reliable concerning data security. Mrs.
Kaiser, a 36-year-old educational manager, said that Facebook is “stupid” because
of “data-robbery”. The participants underline that they dislike the way data is col-
lected and sold. Consequently, some of the users have deleted their accounts and
some respondents have never created one (see Hepp et al. 2014; Roitsch 2017).
Altogether, the respondents’ perspectives on analogue and digital media make
clear that the reason they have replaced analogue media with digital media is
related to their understanding of a good way of media use and media qualities. As
they are skeptical about content from mainstream media, especially mainstream
television, they have searched for ways to use media content that they regard as
valuable. Therefore, they have begun to pick selected content from the Internet.
They have used possibilities which arose with digital mediatization to optimize
media use, in order to improve the content they expose themselves to (see Müller
2019, pp. 256–258).

5.2 Understanding and Critique of the Role of Media

in Society

During the interviews, the respondents were asked to elaborate on how they define
the role of media and whether they think that media cause problems in society.
The majority of the couples stressed that nowadays, media are an integral part
of society as well as of everyday life. Mrs. Baltz, a 70-year-old pensioner, said
that media are “precious. (…) You learn from them. And we ought to do so.” The
respondents said that media have important democratic functions and that the
Internet is helpful for deliberation. Mr. Homburg, a 39-year-old engineer, under-
lined that society has become more liberal because of the Internet as people “get
influential” via Facebook or Twitter. The interviewed couples stressed that media
are a good to become informed. You just have to know “how to find something
via Google” (Mr. Herrmann, a 30-year-old engineer). Media are seen as guide-
books that explain trivial as well as complex relations. Thus, on a more abstract
level, one can conclude that media users expect media to provide useful infor-
mation that helps them to orient themselves in a world of growing complexity.
124 K. F. Müller

Media are defined as the basis for being an active part of society and also for
managing social life. Based on this perspective, media users are regarded as being
responsible for becoming informed, in order to participate.
A second description of the meaning of media in society concentrated on
their role in communication and in linking people and organizations. This under-
standing is clearly related to online-capable media and refers to the new com-
municative possibilities that they offer. Mr. Homburg, the 39-year-old engineer,
stated that “communication via the Internet is the way of communication which
is accepted most comprehensively.” The participants underlined that media are
essential for them to stay in contact with their friends and family. Those respond-
ents who use social media actively also said that media are important for an
exchange with other users. Media are seen as tools to manage social life and to
shape relationships with other people. Thus, the negotiation of their role in soci-
ety implies the idea of connection and exchange.
Even though the respondents stressed the importance of media in society,
media were also massively criticized because the couples were worried about their
impact and they were skeptical about mediatization. Five topics that were referred
to in the interviews can be identified. First, the respondents said that media poten-
tially influence social life, as they may lead to less direct communication with
other people and that they change family life, which becomes “neglected because
of an extensive use of mobile phones” (Mrs. Baltz, a 70-year-old pensioner). Sec-
ond, on an individual level, people fear the potential loss of their private sphere.
Mrs. Menke, a 29-year-old fashion designer, underlined that she is “extremely cau-
tious with the publication of private data online” and considered that younger users
should be careful not to expose too much information about themselves (see also
Zillich and Müller, pp. 2643–2644). Data security is another aspect that was seen
as critical (see also Zillich and Müller 2019, p. 2644). A third field referred to indi-
vidual problems with media use, like the feeling of excessive demands caused by
communication, individual and social dependence on media and that smartphone
use might lead to less attention in everyday life and thus may result in accidents.
A fourth major criticism was about the function of media as providers of informa-
tion. The interviewed couples talked about the danger that incorrect information is
spread via the Internet, that social networks are used for political agitation and that
the users of social networks might become part of a “filter bubble” (Mr. Epstein,
40 years old, marketing consultant) and therefore not fully informed any more.
The fifth worry concerned the protection and instruction of young people and chil-
dren, for example, against “porn” (Mrs. Rau, 42 years old, manager) and other dis-
turbing content, as they still have to learn how to use media in an appropriate way.
The respondents reflected on media and the problems that they might
cause. These findings show that media users are aware that media use needs to
Managing Mediatization: How Media Users Negotiate … 125

be practiced consciously and that they need to think about how to use media
appropriately. Mediatization is not just practiced, but people try to manage its
consequences in a way that is suitable for themselves as well as for their social
environment. This can be understood as media competencies and, therefore, as an
ethical practice of media use (see Rath 2016a, b).

5.3 Expectations Concerning Media and Society

in the Future

Talking about their expectations on the future development of media and society,
the couples stressed that mediatization will continue and increase. Social change
is regarded as connected to changes in media and the growing implementation of
media in everyday life. Mr. Münster, a 36-year-old clerk, thinks that the world
is too mediatized to stop mediatization. He regards mediatization as “an impor-
tant stage of development. A stage of evolution.” In general, the couples said that
society is changing at a very high speed because of media, that the Internet will
become more important and that the number of devices, especially mobile ones,
will increase. Despite some more or less futuristic ideas about smartphones and
robots at home, the respondents expressed two main ideas when describing the
future. The majority was sure “that the development will lead to more networks”
(Mrs. Dierking, 35 years old, invalidity pensioner/blogger). Furthermore, the cou-
ples thought that classic analogue media would be replaced by the digital equiva-
lents: “Television will be completely converted to ways of digital distribution and
HD-devices” (Mr. Leonhard, 28 years, digital media designer). They assume that
the shift to digital media will intensify. Most of them were positive about this
change, as they thought it would offer better possibilities for a more individual-
ized and self-directed way of media use.
Furthermore, the couples considered the extended possibilities of getting
access to information easily as a positive effect of mediatization, to continue
one’s education via the Internet and to learn via social media, as children already
do if they “discover a vlog that shows how to paint artistically” (Mr. Möglich,
29 years, software developer). Some respondents also appreciated that people
become better connected, for example, via social media, in order to exchange
information. Four couples also mentioned that they look forward to the possi-
bilities that smart homes may offer in the future: “I don’t have a problem with
scanning goods with my fridge to know what I have run out of and to make a
shopping list which is transferred to my smartphone. No problem! I would appre-
ciate that.” (Mrs. Dierking, 35 years old, invalidity pensioner/blogger) Others
126 K. F. Müller

were excited about spectacles that can be used to experience augmented reality
or robots: “Robots will do everything. Cleaning windows, do the hoovering. We
won’t have to spend any time on that.” (Mrs. Epstein, 39 years old, author)
The couples were quite optimistic about mediatization and the development
of society, as they believed that society would become more informed and con-
nected. Surprisingly, negative aspects were linked to recent developments, but not
explicitly to the future. Thus, a fundamental criticism on mediatization was not
found in the interviews.

6 Conclusion: Media and Mediatization

between Acceptance and Criticism

The findings show that users ascribe meaning to the media as well as to media-
tization. In both cases, the negotiation is controversial. On the one hand, media
were commended for their functions in connecting people and providing informa-
tion. On the other hand, media users were critical about the effects mediatization
has on their social life and individual freedom. People are well aware that the
growing implementation of media in everyday life causes massive social change.
According to the theoretical assumption of a productive media user who is able
to articulate their own understanding of the meaning of media, the interviews
showed the respondents as critical users who are able to differentiate between
developments in mediatization that are fruitful to their life and society and those
which are problematic. On the level of the individual subject or couple, the find-
ings show that the media users did not take mediatization as an externally con-
trolled process, but as a development they can explain to themselves and that they
participate in by negotiating it, in order to fit it to their understanding of a good
way to use media.
The analysis also depicted shared perspectives on the evaluation of media and
mediatization. Thus, the negotiation of mediatization is not an individual pro-
cess, but it is based on socially shared understandings about how media should be
used. The media users share established ideas of good ways of media use when
they negotiate how to handle the growing integration of media in everyday life
and how they are embedded in society (see also Müller and Zillich 2018, p. 443).
One can conclude that the media users share a set of values that they refer to
when judging the effects of mediatization. These values refer to a shared perspec-
tive on the meaning of media in society. As long as traditional values, like com-
munity with others, the possibility of becoming an informed citizen or the option
to use leisure time as fruitfully as possible, are supported by mediatization, the
consequences and effects of mediatization are embraced as people think that they
Managing Mediatization: How Media Users Negotiate … 127

lead to an improvement of communication and society. Contrary to this, if val-

ues, like the integrity of the domestic community, equal access to information and
the possibilities for personal development or privacy, are regarded as endangered
by mediatization, the respondents were critical about the social development that
may accompany mediatization. The meaning and effects of mediatization are
negotiated against the background of the people’s understanding of how media
should support society. Changes, which work against these principles, are criti-
cized. Furthermore, people also hope that mediatization might intensify the useful
and democratic functions of media. Thus, the idea the media users share about
how to use media appropriately is close to the normative concepts communication
studies share concerning the role of media in society. By justifying how to define
appropriate ways of media use, communication studies could encourage media
users concerning their negotiation of media use and the handling of mediatization
in the field of practical ethics.
Surprisingly, the only clear resistance that was articulated in the interviews was
against the use of classic media, because their program did not fit what the inter-
viewed couples considered to be high quality. They rejected using them and have
switched to online media instead (see also Müller 2019, pp. 256–258). Even though
this finding is partly caused by the sampling, which concentrated on people who
prefer online media to classic media, it makes clear that people choose carefully
which media and content they use in everyday life. This insight is underlined by the
preference of some couples to printed paper rather than digital news. It shows that
not only is the way of distribution crucial for the choice of a medium, but the sum of
its characteristics is crucial, too.
Altogether, mediatization is displayed as a process that also comprises resist-
ance, criticism and the refusal of media or media content. These processes are
partly based on ethical decisions that result from the understanding of the media’s
role in society that are shared by the media users. The integration of the idea
of resistance, as theorists in Cultural Media Studies have conceptualized it, has
proven its worth for sharpening the concept of negotiation of media use. Further
studies should explore in more depth how people refuse the integration of new
technologies or content in practice.


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Agony at a Distance: Investigating
Digital Witnessing on YouTube

Johanna Sumiala

In this chapter, I analyze the media ethics of digital witnessing by e­ laborating
the theoretical work on media witnessing carried out by media scholars such
as John Durham Peters, John Ellis, Paul Frosh, Amit Pinchevski and Lilie
Chouliaraki. I focus on digital witnessing on YouTube and analyze in detail
one particular YouTube video clip. This video clip entitled “For our son” was
made by the father of a Finnish school shooter and was posted on YouTube
in 2008. The empirical analysis of digital witnessing is based on the the-
matic close reading of the media material and is structured around the three
key elements in media witnessing: (i) ordinary people as witnessing agents
on YouTube, (ii) YouTube videos as a representation of witnessing and (iii)
viewers as bearing witness. In conclusion, I discuss the ideas of responsibil-
ity as agony and the sense of proper distance as necessary conditions for the
­communicative action of bearing digital witness.

Digital witnessing · YouTube · School shootings · Intimacy · 
Distant suffering · Agony

J. Sumiala (*) 
Media and Communication Studies, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland

© Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden GmbH, part of Springer Nature 2019 131

T. Eberwein et al. (eds.), Responsibility and Resistance, Ethik in mediatisierten
132 J. Sumiala

1 Introduction

Since 9/11 in 2001, the interplay between media events and witnessing in the
media has become of great interest in the scholarship of media ethics (e.g., Ellis
2009; Frosh and Pinchevski 2009; Katz and Liebes 2007; Liebes and Blond-
heim 2005; Peters 2009a; Rothenbuhler 2010; Scannell 2001). What is at stake
is the issue of the changing conditions of media witnessing and the ubiquity of
digital witnessing. The concept of ubiquity refers here to the circumstance of the
media-saturation of witnessing embedded in the expansion of digital media tech-
nologies, the global circulation of media events and practices of amateur and ver-
nacular participation (see, e.g., Jenkins 2006). As Frosh and Pinchevski (2009,
pp. 2, 8) point out, contemporary developments in media technologies and audi-
ence participation—mobile phones, tweets on Twitter, cell-phone-based cameras,
Facebook and YouTube—make media witnessing an extremely complex issue.
We live in a world in which any act of posting, uploading and disseminating testi-
monies implies an unlimited potential for circulation, remediation and sharing of
media witnessing (Sumiala and Tikka 2011).
Consequently, complex relationships emerge between different agents act-
ing as digital witnesses. Professional media institutions, such as television, have
traditionally held a dominant position in orchestrating witnessing in media. The
audio-visual mass media in particular have typically broadcast multiple forms of
media witnessing in a variety of genres, ranging from journalistic forms of report-
ing, eyewitness news, the recollections of historical events, public hearings and
talk shows. As a result, audiences in modern societies watch crimes, crises and
catastrophes impact upon individuals with whom the viewers have no physical
contact or who they do not know personally (Thomas 2009, p. 89).
However, what has changed after the emergence of the Internet is the rise of
ordinary people as active agents of digital witnessing. With this new dynamic,
categories of production, representation and reception of media witnessing are
changing. Neologisms like ‘prosumer’ and ‘produsage’ (producer + consumer,
user or usage) refer to the conditions under which ordinary people take more
visible roles as both the addressees and producers of digital witnessing (Sumi-
ala and Tikka 2011). In this emergent renegotiation of categories of witnessing
(who, what and to whom)—carried out and perceived in, by and through the com-
plex web of different mediated structures—the practices and conventions of digi-
tal witnessing are becoming culturally significant on a new scale that demands
further research in media and communication scholarship (Frosh and Pinchevski
2009, p. 12).
Agony at a Distance: Investigating Digital Witnessing … 133

In this chapter, I work from the premise that digital witnessing in the present
age is to be approached as a constant struggle between different media-related
structures, practices and conventions that seem to be contingent upon the specific
event witnessed (Ashuri and Pinchevski 2009, p. 133). By examining YouTube as
an audio-visual digital technology, I want to discuss a new modality of perception
in digital witnessing (see Ellis 2009). I complement my theoretical analysis on
witnessing in social networks with an empirical case study from YouTube: wit-
nessing the Jokela school shootings in Finland, which took place in 2007 (see,
e.g., Sumiala and Tikka 2010, 2011).
I focus on one particular video clip, entitled “For our son”, which is a video
made by the father of the Jokela school shooter. The video was uploaded onto
YouTube in 2008, about a year after Pekka-Eric Auvinen (the son) had massacred
nine people (including the principal, the school nurse and six students, some of
them his classmates, and himself) at the Jokela School Centre in Tuusula, in the
south of Finland. My analysis of digital witnessing in this particular video clip is
structured around the three key elements: (i) ordinary people as witnessing agents
on YouTube, i.e. the father who bears witness to the death of his son; (ii) YouTube
videos as a representation of witnessing; and (iii) the viewer, who bears witness
by watching the video “For our son”. I will start with some theoretical reflections
on media witnessing and social networks, namely YouTube, and then move to my
case study of “For our son”. Finally, I will draw some preliminary conclusions
on digital witnessing on YouTube and discuss the ideas of responsibility as agony
and the sense of proper distance as necessary conditions for digital witnessing
(Chouliaraki 2010, 2011).

2 Media Witnessing

Put simply, media witnessing is the witnessing performed in, by and through the
media. It requires an agent who witnesses, a witnessing representation and an
audience that either or both receives and accepts the witness. Moreover, media
witnessing changes the condition of witnessing by reformulating the category
of ‘being there’. Media witnessing is typically acted out in a systematic and on-
going reporting of the experiences and realities of distant others to mass audi-
ences or masses of different types of audiences (Frosh and Pinchevski 2009, p. 1).
For Peters (2009a, p. 23) and many others, media witnessing is characteristically
a mode and practice of communication. In other words, it entails putting an expe-
rience into language (or image, for that matter) for the benefit of those who were
134 J. Sumiala

not there. Media witnessing is about seeing and saying and it is deeply embed-
ded in questions regarding truth and experience, presence and absence, death
and pain, and the trustworthiness of perception. Furthermore, media witnessing
also includes an element of responsibility. To witness someone’s suffering in the
media has a moral implication to it. It puts a spectator under a moral obligation
towards the one who is suffering (see Ong 2014).
Ashuri and Pinchevski (2009, pp. 133–135) distinguish two key approaches to
theorizing media witnessing: (i) the implicated witness and (ii) the vicarious wit-
ness. The notion of an implicated witness emphasizes the distinction between wit-
nessing agents and mere spectators, between those who were there and the ones
who ‘only’ watched the event through the media. In this approach, one qualifies
as a witnessing agent predominantly by virtue of being present. This is in line
with Peters’ approach, as for him media witnessing always “remains tied in some
fragile way to the mortal limits of the human sensorum” and at its core is “a hint
of the real” (Peters 2009b, pp. 45, 48).
Vicarious witnessing, on the other hand, acknowledges a crucial connec-
tion between the media, namely visual media that provide visual evidence and
the audience whose role is either or both to receive and accept that evidence.
Media representations, in this view, have the potential to create witness posi-
tions between people engaged in the broadcast and the imagined lives of strangers
represented in, for example, a film. In this view, the broadcast or the film may
become the witnessed “event” at which the audience is co-present in time and co-
extensive in space (Frosh 2009, p. 52). Thus, bearing vicarious witness is an act
performed not so much by a witness, but by a witnessing text: “It is the witness-
ing text, which creates presence at the event, which produces experience out of
discourse” (Frosh 2009, p. 60).

3 Witnessing on  YouTube

One of the central figures arguing for the cultural relevance of vicarious witness-
ing and the role of audiovisual media (namely television) is John Ellis. In his
book Seeing things, Ellis (2000, p. 1) maintains:

Photography, cinema and television have confronted us with much more about the
wider world that previous generations had encountered. They have done so through
a particular form of representation that brings with it a sense of powerless knowl-
edge and complicit with what we see. The essence of this sense of witness is that
Agony at a Distance: Investigating Digital Witnessing … 135

“we cannot say that we do not know”. Television has brought this sense into the
home, and intensified it with its pervasive sense of liveness and intimacy.

What follows is that people who watch global news, whether as a news bulletin
or an Internet stream, are entwined with the witnessing of the events of their time.
To listen and watch, to hear and see, the account of an individual “directly” or
“live” on a TV set or laptop implies a powerful interpersonal relationship (Ellis
2009, pp. 73, 75). This assumes the adoption of the sense of responsibility—a
topic I wish to return to at the end of the chapter.
Today, with the spread of the Internet and social networking sites, such as
YouTube, new modalities of digital witnessing have emerged. As an audio-
visual medium, YouTube can best be described as a worldwide video service.
Established in 2005, it is built on moving images, sounds, texts and remixes of
these elements. In more technical terms, YouTube has four basic traits. First, it
is a technology providing numerous channels of digital information production
and sharing. Second, it is regulated and moderated privately as well as commer-
cially (YouTube is owned by Google) and is operated by a heterogeneous group
of professionals, semi-professionals and amateurs. Third, YouTube charges users
to “broadcast yourself”, which can include any kind of information. Fourth, it
is characterized by global audiences dispersed in different Internet access loca-
tions (see Katz 2009, p. 9). Moreover, Tolson (2010, p. 285) considers that the
differences between “conventional television”, as he calls it, and YouTube, also
described as post-television, can be distinguished in a table (Table 1).
The most distinct feature of YouTube witnessing is digital visuality, espe-
cially the moving image. In this sense, YouTube shares many similarities with

Table 1   Differences between conventional television and YouTube

Conventional television YouTube
Centered (in a studio) Decentered (in a network)
Hierarchy of discourse System of linkages
Institutional voice Individual voices
Transmitted programs Accessed postings
Distinctive class of “media people” Ordinary people as celebrities and experts
Construction of otherness “Broadcast yourself”
Delegated gazing User navigation
Tolson (2010, p. 285)
136 J. Sumiala

“conventional television”. However, unlike conventional television, YouTube

invites authors and viewers to participate in the digital process of witnessing on
a new scale, thus establishing novel connections between the witnessing agents,
testimonials and audiences receiving and accepting these testimonies. You-
Tube encourages audiences, or rather, users, to comment on the evidence and
testimonial materials and to share those materials via its channels. Besides the
opportunity to publish and comment on witnessing videos, YouTube also offers
a diverse and constantly growing selection of ways in which YouTube account
owners, whether professional or amateur, can participate in disseminating witness
materials: videos as witnessing representations can be shared through different
social media platforms, such as Facebook or Twitter, and users can respond to
them. These digital witnessing pieces can also be embedded into other websites,
declared offensive, suggested to other viewers of similar videos, or subscribed to
through one’s own channel, thus creating new networks of mediated digital wit-
nessing. All in all, YouTube’s participatory culture—to use Burgess and Green’s
(2009) terms—is closely linked to the cycling and recycling of testimonials
and participants, remediation, or rather premediation, as Richard Grusin (2009,
pp. 63–64) characterizes YouTube. The idea of sharing witnesses is found in the
typical “share it!” slogan of YouTube, which thus links participants to the chain
of circulation of digital witnessing by “the intensification and multiplication of
technical and social media networks” (Grusin 2009, p. 63).
To summarize, YouTube offers the viewer a myriad of witness paths to follow.
Instead of one dominant public sphere for media witnessing, YouTube is filled
with numerous digital “little public spheres” from which anyone can choose their
own (see Marcinkowski 2008). To follow Grusin’s (2009, p. 66) line of argument:

Unlike the network television of the 1950s through the 1970s (whether private or
government sponsored), which aimed at producing a convergence of a mass audi-
ence of sufficient scale at a particular place and a particular time, YouTube pro-
duces a divergence of audience and message, temporally and territorially fostering
multiple points of view rather than the small number of viewpoints represented by
broadcast television. YouTube not only functions as a 24/7, global archive of mainly
user-created video content, but it also serves as an archive of affective moments of
formations, much as television has done for decades.

The ephemeral and vernacular character of YouTube, which dissolves media wit-
nessing into numerous encounters between different digital witnessing agents,
witnessing texts and witnessing audiences, compels us to rethink the notion of
vicarious media witnessing introduced by Ashuri and Pinchevski (2009) on a new
scale. Issues such as ‘authenticity’, ‘authority’, ‘truth’ and ‘intimacy’ as well as
Agony at a Distance: Investigating Digital Witnessing … 137

‘responsibility’ and ‘resistance’, characteristically associated with media witness-

ing, call for further elaboration when discussed in the context of this emerging
culture of digital witnessing.

4 Witnessing in, by and through 

the Video “For our son”

The video “For our son” was uploaded onto YouTube on 8 October 2008. It is
three minutes and 22 seconds long and it is a composition of still and moving
pictures accompanied by music. The description attached to the video says “My
son”. When I first watched the video (16 September 2011), the video had received
746 clicks that indicated “liking” the video and 143 “disliking” it. The total num-
ber of views was 125,752. At the time of writing this piece, in March 2017, the
total number of views had increased to 287,925. The last comments on the video
had been written a month previously. This indicates that the video has received
rather modest, but steady public interest on YouTube since its publication. (For
the sake of comparison, the most popular videos on YouTube gain billions of
viewers. Psy’s “Gangnam style” music video first launched in 2012 and it holds
one of the most popular video titles on YouTube’s history with over 2.7 billions
views in 2017.)
In its three minutes, the video tells the life story (18 years) of the school
shooter Pekka-Eric Auvinen. As a witness representation, “For our son” consists
of several elements: still and moving images and music. Most of the images in
the video are still pictures, most likely portraits from the Auvinen family album.
The photographs show Pekka-Eric as a little boy growing up, having a meal in the
kitchen, sitting on the porch, and playing with his war toys at the sand box. Mov-
ing from infancy to toddlerhood, boyhood and finally the teenage years, the video
starts to include pieces of clips taken and uploaded by Pekka-Eric himself. In one
piece, Pekka-Eric is nodding at the camera wearing a t-shirt that states, “human-
ity is overrated”. This visual material, massively disseminated in the Finnish
mainstream media and social networking sites after the Jokela shootings, made
the killer well known to a large Finnish audience. The video turns back to show a
road, possibly the road that leads from the Auvinen home to the crime scene. The
video clip “For our son” ends with a picture of Pekka-Eric’s tombstone. The still
image shows an engraving of two reindeer in the forest, Pekka-Eric’s name and
the years of his birth and death.
To begin with, the issue of who constitutes a witnessing agent, that is, the
question of agency in digital YouTube witnessing, is complicated. On YouTube
138 J. Sumiala

videos in general, the question of either or both authorship and agency, who has
made the video and who has a voice in the video, is anything but simple and
straightforward. In case of so-called ordinary users, authors typically hide behind
usernames and one author may have several usernames on different channels, or
they may change those names over the course of time. The username attached
to this particular video, “For our son”, is “finnbluus”. This username also has a
channel on YouTube. The channel, started on 8 October 2008, had 186 subscrib-
ers and 321,657 views in 2017. The channel has a link on a website created by a
username “bigpapaauvinen”.1 The site portrays a picture that greatly resembles
Pekka-Eric Auvinen’s father. Interestingly enough, it is the other media that pro-
vide the evidence that allows this connection to be made. The national TV and
newspapers interviewed the father and mother of the shooter after the attack,
which made them momentary public figures. Based on the evidence described
above, there is reason to postulate that the person behind the username “finn-
bluus” is almost certainly the father of the Jokela school shooter. The reasoning
here is further supported by the written testimony attached to the video, which

I don’t accept school shootings. I don’t promote violence. I have right to do my grief
process in peace. This video, “For our son”, is my way to process my grief.

This written testimony offers one important context for the video as a piece of
witness. It explicitly states that the person behind this testimony (the father) does
not approve of the school shootings, but defends his right to grieve the loss of his
son publicly. The video does not openly tell the viewer why the father chose You-
Tube as a medium for his witness or why he wants to give his testimony publicly
in this particular arena.
However, if we look at the shootings as a media event, we may gain new
insight. It is significant to acknowledge that the Jokela school shootings became
a massive media event in Finland. Immediately after the rampage shootings,
the mainstream news media fired their engines and went into disaster marathon
mode, to use Liebes and Blondheim’s (2005) term. In fact, the event was also
premediated—it had media created about it before it actually happened (see
Grusin 2009). Pekka-Eric, the shooter, had been actively producing material for
the event to come. Pekka-Eric had his own YouTube channel in which he pro-

1 (1.3.2019).
Agony at a Distance: Investigating Digital Witnessing … 139

claimed his philosophy of misanthropy. Before committing his crime, Pekka-Eric

had uploaded a media package onto YouTube in which he announced the actions
he would undertake in the coming hours. After the massacre, the mainstream
audiovisual news media, in line with many active users of social media, started
to circulate Pekka-Eric’s material before the authorities removed it. As is typi-
cal on YouTube, despite this removal, enough users had already downloaded this
material to their own computers, so that it was later uploaded again in different
contexts. It is, therefore, no exaggeration to say that YouTube, like other media,
was transformed into a mediated crime scene for the Jokela school shootings long
before the shooter’s father made his video. From this perspective, it should not
surprise us that YouTube, as a platform and scene, was where the father particu-
larly wanted his voice heard and his testimony to be received and accepted. In the
world of mediated reality of school shootings, we may also infer that YouTube is
given particular status as an arena of authenticity followed by amateur authority,
which is not controllable by the professional mainstream media and their produc-
tion machinery (see Sumiala and Tikka 2011).
It is not the father alone who bears witness to the loss of his son. We may
claim that, by making and sharing this video in public, on YouTube, the father
converts the video itself into a witness-bearing piece. Consequently, the video
itself begins to bear witness as well. This is the issue of witnessing representation.
To follow Frosh (2009, p. 60), “(i)t is the witnessing text which creates presence
at the event, which produces experience out of discourse”. The video “transports
us there” (Frosh 2009, p. 60); it takes us back to the event on 7 November 2007
through the witnessing agency of the father. It is the father’s experience in the
video that suggests a personal transportation of the viewer into the world of the
event (Frosh 2009, p. 65).
One of the crucial elements in the video as a witnessing representation is
the music played in the background. The song is “It is a long road”, which is
the theme song for Rambo I, also called “First blood”. The fact that the father
chooses to associate the life and death of his son with the fate of Rambo, played
by Sylvester Stallone, one of the classic masculine fighter-figures created by Hol-
lywood since the 1980s, generates a disturbing association and makes one ask
new questions about the nature of the mediated testimony in “For our son”. What
is the video bearing witness about? Is it offering a testimony of a desperate hero
or a cornered animal fighting for his life? The lyrics of the song tell about loneli-
ness, battle and desperation. “It is a long road, when you are on your own and it
hurts when they tear your dreams apart”—these are the first words of the song,
which was written by Dan Hill.
140 J. Sumiala

On YouTube, it is easy to find videos on Rambo I. In some of them, the com-

position of the video is very reminiscent of that of “For our son”. Still images of
Rambo change one after another, just like in the visual biography of the Jokela
killer. It is difficult to avoid the association, such that the video, as a witness-
bearing piece seen through the eyes of the father, is a testimony of a lonely and
desperate fighter, disappointed, cornered and hurt by the world, which eventually
leads to his self-destruction. What the video does not explicitly address is the son
as the murderer of innocent people. The documentation is weak and allusive in
this sense. The visual association between the shooter and the killings is made
mainly through the visual portrayal of the video clips made by the shooter him-
self. However, to recognize this material is a matter of contextual knowledge. The
audience must already be familiar with the media event to make this connection
in the video. As viewers, we are not only transported to Jokela, the site of the
crime scene, but to the world of mediated reality in which the mediatization of
the shootings material makes us part of the event, as if we had really been there at
the school.
Finally, there is also the issue of a witnessing audience. An important issue to
address in this context is the question of the constitution of ‘us’ as an audience.
Who are ‘we’ in this context of watching the video?
In addition, we need to consider the responsibilities embedded in the practice
of watching the video as a witness-bearing piece. On the one hand, the viewer
witnesses the pain of the father. The father was there. He raised his son, saw him
eat, sleep and play, and eventually witnessed his death. To watch the video is to
participate in the suffering of the father. Boltanski (1999) calls this act distant
suffering, i.e. to take part in someone’s suffering via media, at a distance. How-
ever, for mediated compassion to evolve through an ethical relationship between
the witnessing agent and the onlooker, the suffering needs to be recognized by
the viewer. This is about the ethics of recognition and the sense of responsibil-
ity growing out of this moment of recognition, which we need to discuss here
(Chouliaraki 2011; see also Sumiala-Seppänen 2008, pp. 49–50).
The sense of responsibility refers to the demand imposed by the father to be
seen as an agent with the status of a suffering person (a victim), a status to be
acknowledged by others watching the video. However, who counts as a victim is
a complex issue in this context. A moral stand that perceives the father rather as
a victimizer is also available for the audience to take. The spectacular publicity
offered by the media for the killer, though post-mortem, could well support this
type of moral claim.
Witnessing, Peters (2009b, p. 50) claims, suggests a morally justified individ-
ual who speaks out against an unjust power: to witness means to be on the right
Agony at a Distance: Investigating Digital Witnessing … 141

side. From this perspective, the digital witness given by the father is a contested
matter. We may also argue that the father’s claim for the right to give his testi-
mony in making the video is to resist those given media categorizations that label
witnesses and witnessing acts as morally legitimate or illegitimate positions. As
the father claims on his YouTube account: “I have right to do my grief process in
peace. This video, ‘For our son’, is my way to process my grief.”
The role of YouTube as a mediator becomes even more significant in this con-
text, as it promises to offer a digital platform for all willing to give their testi-
mony without the moral prejudgment or gatekeeping of the mainstream media.
Moreover, on YouTube, we may not only watch, but we may also participate in
the suffering of the father by utilizing the features offered by YouTube and other
social networking sites. We may share the video “For our son” with our friends
on Facebook or elsewhere, or we may comment on it, send our condolences by
writing a post, thereby recognizing the identity of the father. By the same token,
we may also exercise our right to deny his identity as a suffering person, a victim,
by ignoring him or refusing to give him that role. In this sense, the reception of
the witness may be highly ambivalent—accepted and rejected at the same time,
depending on the position taken by the viewer.
At the time of writing this chapter, the latest comment on this video was
posted only a month ago. As a witness-bearing piece, the video sent out into the
world of YouTube has the ability to establish new types of relationships between
the father—as a person who has been ‘there’—and those of us who watch him,
but also among those people participating in this distant suffering by watching the
By watching the video, we are all invited to bear digital witness to the event
itself and to its mediatization (see also Sumiala 2013). Nonetheless, it should be
acknowledged that on YouTube no universal position for the viewer is available.
Instead, our positions as viewers, as Peters (2009a, b) reminds us, are greatly
dependent upon matters related to time and space. Were we ‘there’ in the town,
at that school, when the shootings took place? Do we know any of the people
involved in or attached to the crime? For those of us who were following the
shootings as they emerged as a live media event on our TV screens, online news
and the Internet, we may recognize certain elements in the father’s witness, while
others may not. Those of us who recognize the shooter as we watch the video and
make the connection after having watched the killer’s videos after the crimes, we
have been there, in a sense: we have met the killer through his videos, though for
most of us this encounter was only post-mortem. What we are witnessing, then, is
not so much what happened at the school, but rather what happened in the media.
Thus, here, the line between the reality ‘out there’ and the reality mediated to us
142 J. Sumiala

through our technical devices becomes vague. The association created between
the Jokela killer and Rambo only fosters the hyperrealist effect, to use Baudril-
lard’s (1988) term, in this mediatized digital witness.

5 Agony at a Distance?

Scannel (2004) considers that the moral point of the witnessing texts is, first and
foremost, to make us as viewers care about the lives of others (see Frosh 2009,
p. 66). This is a profound moral claim and calls for a need to take responsibil-
ity for one’s witnessing actions. To follow the point made by Ellis (2000), those
of us who watched the media event during and after the shootings from our TV
screens and laptops cannot say we did not know. We know about the suffering of
the father and the rest of the family, the survivors, the victims and their families.
Yet the question remains: what does it mean to us?
Boltanski (1999, p. 62) reminds us that the process of identification—tak-
ing part in distant suffering, recognizing the identity of the father as a suffering
individual, a victim of the crime committed by his son—is affected by the length
of the mediated chain that is established between the spectator and the one who
is suffering. In Boltanski’s view, the situation becomes more and more delicate
as the distance between the spectator and the suffering person becomes greater
(Boltanski 1999, p. 62). This may be particularly true in the era of television and
mass communication. In the present era of digital networking sites like YouTube,
our positions as bystanders or “children of mass society”, as Ellis (2000) puts it,
become contested in new ways. This is because of the interactivity embedded in
YouTube. When we watch the video made by the father, we are no longer one of
the masses, no longer mundane witnesses, to use another term coined by Ellis
(2009, p. 73), but rather active participants in this digital witnessing event. We
may take several positions. The truth may be an issue; we may be skeptical about
the truth-value of the father’s testimony, or we may deny the right of the father to
bear witness—but passivity is a difficult position to maintain. Therefore, to bear
witness by watching the video is not an inattentive action.
This is not intimacy at a distance (see Frosh 2009, p. 66). To watch the video,
we have to take a position. We become involved and, hence, responsible over the
type of relationship we establish with the act of witnessing. We choose the video
by clicking on it and by doing so we become morally engaged in what we see.
We lose a haven of passivity. Every time we watch the video, our action is made
visible by a counter near the video. We are invited to share the testimony, to com-
ment on it, even to share and circulate it. Thus, I argue, in this highly mediatized
Agony at a Distance: Investigating Digital Witnessing … 143

event of digital witnessing (see Sumiala 2013), new kinds of digital intimacies are
established between the father, the video and us as witnessing agents. On You-
Tube, there is no escape from this.
Following Lilie Chouliaraki’s (2011, p. 364) work, we may think about the
question of moral responsibility in this type of digital witnessing and look at it
in the framework of “agony” and “proper distance”. These are the two concepts
Chouliaraki borrows from Arendt (agony) (1990 [1958]) and Silverstone (proper
distance) (2004). The critical element in the moral responsibility thought of as
agony is the recognition of the very asymmetry of power between the onlooker
(the witnessing agent) and the suffering individual (the object of witnessing)—the
distant spectator and the father in this case. To think about this relationship as
agony is to acknowledge that the sense of pain and torment affects both parties:
the viewer and the suffering other, but in different ways. The agony of the viewer
arises from the awareness of the irreversible imbalance between their position and
the position of the suffering other. The agony of the suffering other grows out
of the loss (in this case of the son) and a need to cry this out to the world. How-
ever, pain and anguish is not the only attribute in digital witnessing, a “proper
distance” between the two witnessing agents is also required. The viewer of the
suffering other cannot overcome the very asymmetry of power, and any attempt
to try to deny or diminish it is destined to fail. In addition, to widen the distance
too much may also cause failure in the act of digital witnessing. We may end up
falling into a trap of voyeuristic commodification by gazing at the suffering of
the other in the digital media. This scenario threatens to reduce digital witness-
ing to an empty spectacle (see Chouliaraki 2011). Hence, agony at a distance is a
position we should be invited to take as we re-think our ethical relationships with
those witnessing their suffering on today’s digital screens.


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Doing Good ‘With Just One Click’:
Normative Aspects of Solidarity 2.0
as an Act of Resistance in Today’s
Mediatized Worlds

Nina Köberer

Within democratic societies, the mass-mediated public sphere, which profes-
sional journalists created, guarantees different forms of community-building
communication, social interaction and political participation. However, under
conditions of digitization, new areas of communication and social networking
emerged and consequently new structures of power and new forms of demo-
cratic participation also appeared. In the digital era, everyone can genuinely
share in participatory (net-)communication and show solidarity ‘with just
one click’ as an act of resistance in today’s mediatized worlds. There is an
urgent need to reflect on the field of democratic participation under the chang-
ing conditions of digitization from a normative point of view and to analyze
what challenges arise with these new forms of participation. Mediatization as
a meta-process helps to reflect and to classify emergent forms of social inter-
action and political participation, which professional journalists as well as
amateur civic journalists have developed under the conditions of participatory

Media ethics · Political participation · Solidarity · 
Online petitions · NGOs · Avaaz

N. Köberer (*) 
Niedersächsisches Landesinstitut für schulische Qualitätsentwicklung,
Hildesheim, Deutschland

© Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden GmbH, part of Springer Nature 2019 147

T. Eberwein et al. (eds.), Responsibility and Resistance, Ethik in mediatisierten
148 N. Köberer

1 Introduction

“Proletarians of all countries, unite!”—the renowned slogan of the Communist

Manifesto was formulated by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels as a guideline
for liberation and a call for solidarity (Marx and Engels 1999 [1848]). Protest-
ers as a rule base their activities on solidarity. They need solidarity: from others;
with the populations concerned; and where possible with either or both the world
population or with international institutions (see Schönherr-Mann 2013, p. 102).
Solidarity can be seen as an aspect of political participation and as an act of
resistance, if resistance is understood as a comprehensive concept. Resistance and
solidarity both symbolize a liberating perspective; they not only belong together,
but also refer to different concepts of a subject (see Billmann and Held 2013,
p. 21). Resistant behavior focuses on withstanding apparently universal norms
and laws, which both individuals as well as groups can perform—for example,
think of individuals who offered resistance to fascism. However, subjects can
pursue their own objectives and interests and have potential to offer resistance
for moral or ethical reasons. Resistant action is often ignited spontaneously as a
result of injustice and humiliation.
In this article, a conceptual starting point and a first look at the phenomenon
of digital solidarity as an aspect of political participation and an act of resistance
is presented from a media-ethical perspective. Mediatization as a meta-process
helps to reflect and classify such new forms of social interaction and political par-
ticipation on the Internet. The Internet’s network architecture enables and influ-
ences the conditions of participatory (net-)communication and serves as a crucial
point of reference for individual and collective behavior, solidarity and resistance.
While forms of acting and showing solidarity have changed considerably, norma-
tive issues referring to the concept of solidarity persist. In order to integrate the
concept of solidarity as a leading idea in media ethics, initially it is necessary to
focus on ethical concepts of solidarity and on the assumption of responsibility.
Following the understanding of mediatization studies as critical research, online
petitions are then used to illuminate the challenges of digital participation and
solidary action from a normative point of view.

2 Mediatization: Digital Forms of Showing


Social reality is being shaped and constructed on the basis of both mediated and
media-related communication. Today, the creation of solidarity cannot be dis-
cussed without considering the impact of new digital media in modern societies.
Doing Good ‘With Just One Click’ … 149

“The mass-mediated public sphere” (Benkler 2006, p. 10) that professional jour-
nalists developed guarantees, in democratic societies, a variety of community-
building communication, social interaction and political participation activities
(see Habermas 1990 [1962]). With digitization, however, new modes of commu-
nication and social networking developed and consequently structures of power
and forms of democratic participation emerged. In the digital era, everyone can
genuinely share in participatory (net-)communication. Due to the possibility
of participating actively on the Internet, the process of information providing is
changing. Besides issues such as agenda setting, by professionals such as journal-
ists, subjective ideas of a moral good become increasingly important in the pub-
lic sphere through online petitions. Moreover, focusing on political happenings in
society as a whole, political participation and political communication are broadly
determined by the role of the media—“it is not only a social world of mediated
and media related communication, it is a mediatized social world” (Krotz 2014,
p. 72). So, this ‘networked public sphere’ does not only offer the possibilities “to
emerge alongside the commercial, mass-media markets“ (Benkler 2006, p. 10),
but also to resist and to show solidarity ‘with just one click’.
Through new forms of participatory (net-)communication, users have the pos-
sibility to show solidarity and sympathy (or antipathy) by using Facebook or
Twitter. Recently, this phenomenon could be identified, for example, with the
changing of profile pictures on Facebook: after the terrorist attacks in Paris, on 13
November 2015, a great many were colored like the Tricolore (the red, blue and
white) of the French flag. Another symbol of solidarity with Paris’ victims of ter-
rorism was a peace sign that was painted by the French cartoonist and artist Jean
Jullien and shared across the globe. Furthermore, Jullien’s peace sign has become
a shining example for showing solidarity. For example, British musician Kristian
Labak, wanting to show solidarity with the victims of the (terror) attacks in Beirut
in November 2015 (an event which has all but disappeared from western media
coverage), replaced Jullien’s Eiffel Tower with a cedar tree that the Lebanese flag
displays (see Fig. 1).
These examples show that solidarity always relates to bias. Solidarity can
show support for a particular case or campaign, just as it can show a lack of
­support for another. For example, Muslims all over the world during and after the
terror attacks in Paris posted pictures of themselves wearing a sign with the words
“Not in my name” (a reworking of the Twitter hashtag #NotInMyName) to dis-
tance themselves clearly from the so-called Islamic State.
Beside these examples, the phenomenon of showing solidarity ‘with just one
click’ can also be found concerning organizations like Avaaz (44 million mem-
bers) and (182 million members), which are two of the largest global
web movements. Both organizations use new forms of information brokerage
150 N. Köberer

Fig. 1.   Kristian Labak’s peace sign on Twitter, 14 November 2015. Source https://twitter.
com/klabcreative/status/665449683486187520 (1.3.2019)

on the Internet to enable users to start their own online petitions and to organize
campaigns for initiating public debates and social change. In this sense, digital
organized solidary action can be understood as an act of resistance in its media-
tized appearance—reasoned with reference to an understanding of individual sov-
The few examples reveal that the phenomenon of showing digital (political)
solidarity is fairly complex and raises many questions—for example: can these
new forms of showing digital solidarity be understood as ‘real acts of solidarity’?
Who decides which topics are worth of support? With which campaign or petition
should we show our solidarity (and with whom)? Let’s try to clarify these ques-
tions by taking a closer look at some ethical concepts of solidarity.

3 Solidarity as a Media-Ethical Leading Idea

Thinking about integrating the concept of solidarity as a leading idea in media

ethics, it is necessary to focus on ethical concepts of solidarity. The idea or cat-
egory solidarity is seen—besides freedom, equality and justice—as a socially
and politically fundamental value in democratic societies. Whereas, for example,
justice and injustice were already the focus of controversies in the first literate
Doing Good ‘With Just One Click’ … 151

civilizations, the concept of solidarity is an astonishingly recent one. Although

the term can be traced back to the Roman law of debts (solidum), the term (soli-
darité) first emerged in the mid-18th century in France and rapidly acquired a
political meaning, before it was incorporated into moral philosophy in the 20th
One of the most original uses of the term solidarity following the French Rev-
olution is fraternity (see Taylor 1993). This type of solidarity is characterized by
an emotional bond and the identification with a particular group of people. Soli-
darity as fraternity can refer to a community which is founded on mutual respect,
friendship, altruistic help as well as on underlying ethnical, cultural and political
common ground. According to Charles Taylor (1993), a strengthened version of
this type of solidarity at national level is the republican solidarity or patriotism.
Above all, it is the citizens of a state who—when referring to a common history, a
common language and a common culture—create this type of solidarity.
In 1992, Axel Honneth offered an anthropologically derived model of social-
ization referring to Hegel’s model The struggle for recognition as well as to
George Herbert Mead’s theory of intersubjective role-taking. Honneth’s theory
for normative and social change maps out three spheres of (reciprocal) recogni-
tion: love, rights and solidarity. The third principle of recognition identifies that
human subjects always need a form of social esteem (or solidarity) that allows
them to relate positively to their personal traits and abilities. Thus, solidarity is
characterized as how people esteem each other’s contributions to a shared goal.
The shared horizon of values makes it possible to experience each other’s unique-
ness as meaningful to collectively shared values and practice. Honneth (1992)
argues these values are historically variable and culturally determined, but theo-
rizes that the aspect of intersubjective justification of normative assumptions
allows an intersubjective understanding of the underlying good.
Jürgen Habermas’ (1991) theory of communicative action shares with Hon-
neth’s theory the Hegelian assumption that the ideal form of recognition is a
reciprocal one. Habermas (1991) argues that solidarity is not synonymous with
justice, but is the other face of justice. Both terms, solidarity and justice, have
different functions: justice requires the embedding of the individual in institu-
tionalized relations of reciprocal recognition. However, solidarity ensures the
ethical cohesion of such a way of living. As Habermas suggests, solidarity can be
described as standing in for one another, because the principle “is rooted in the
experience of one having to stand in for another, because everyone, as a group,
must be interested in maintaining the integrity of their shared life (Lebenszusam-
menhang) in the same way” (Habermas 1991, p. 232). This conceptual delimita-
tion and clarification allows a different analytical access to social reality. In this
152 N. Köberer

sense, while solidarity exercises partiality and recognizes the individual case, the
moral and legal norms are called ‘just’ when they regulate practices that are of
equal interest to all those affected. ‘Just’ norms secure equal freedoms and equal
respect for everyone. In contrast to the partiality of solidarity, justice is impor-
tantly linked to reason, which can differ from the particular and the specific.
In summary: solidarity has been the subject of some debate. Although there
are a lot of definitions and classifications, there is still very little academic writ-
ing that has focused on a theory of (political) solidarity in conceptual terms from
a normative perspective (similarly: Scholz 2008). In the context of the ethical
approaches illustrated above, first we can state that solidarity—as a voluntary
commitment—can be characterized by certain forms of helpfulness, support and
responsibility between human beings and, in particular, in personal relationships.
Following the theories of Honneth and Mead, a feeling of a reciprocal attachment
between group members plays a decisive role. Furthermore, solidarity refers to
measures designed to foster social cohesion with relatives in a group or com-
munity. Tönnies (1991 [1887]) argues that communities are small, family-like
groups of people, whereas societies are a characteristic type of social organization
that emerged with the process of modernization. Therefore, solidarity refers to a
feeling of bonding and responsibility for, and with, each other for certain goals
and ideas. In a way, this is a more descriptive understanding of solidarity than a
normative one. Secondly, in order to understand this descriptive perspective of a
normative understanding of solidarity, the concept needs to be seen as a political-
reflexive category. Consequently, the next aspect is an important one. One of the
key problems that every theory of solidarity has to tackle is “the formulation of
criteria to define acceptable and inacceptable partiality” (Bayertz 1998, p. 50).
From a normative point of view, solidarity is always based on the idea of a moral
‘good’ or on the concept of a just society that should come true. But in the media-
tized worlds of today, not every conceivable concept of good and justice can be
taken as generally accepted from a normative perspective. So, solidarity can be
characterized as promoting particular or ideological interests—for instance, soli-
darity with, or against, the organization Islamic State. Thus, we have to assess the
underlying ‘good’ to characterize solidary action as acceptable from a normative
A starting point to think about criteria from an ethical point of view is the
recourse on theories of justice. Therefore, common goals and interests need to
be classified as acceptable from the point of view of justice. Following Haber-
mas’ ideas, moral and legal norms are called just when they regulate practices that
are in the equal interest of all those affected. Therefore, we focus on a political-
reflexive approach of justice and solidarity: while solidarity, as access based on
Doing Good ‘With Just One Click’ … 153

emotional involvement, refers to a specific other that we have a personal relation

with, the reflexive component—as a cognitive access—goes beyond the specific
other. Neither sympathy nor empathy felt by individuals provide a primary tool to
characterize the underlying good. By contrast, a (public) discourse that passes the
level of emotion by using a reflexive and critical way of arguing does so.
Solidarity is found implicitly in the concepts of communication and media
studies—as, for example, in the field of journalism. Advocacy journalism shows
solidarity by taking up certain issues or standpoints and mostly subjective per-
spectives (see Pöttker 1998; Saxer 1994). Often the issues involve concerns that
have not been addressed (see Haas and Pürer 1991, p. 74). The selection of topic
and content qualifies advocacy journalism as solidary. The orientation towards
professional values and norms, thorough research and clear, proven facts is
obvious, although a mostly subjective perspective is applied to the issues. Even
though it is not the role of the media to develop solidarity, the orientation towards
the common good suggests attempting to realize this opportunity repeatedly.
From a media-ethical perspective, it is necessary to formulate and justify rules for
responsible action in production, distribution and reception of media (see Wunden
1999). It is a matter of shared responsibility of the media to create and preserve
solidarity (see Funiok 2002, p. 4). The attribution of responsibility always refers
to acting subjects. Within applied ethics, one can distinguish between the individ-
ual responsibility of subjects and the corporate responsibility on an institutional
level. This differentiation between individual and corporate responsibility enables
research to define individual actors like media professionals, producers and recip-
ients or produsers, as well as businesses, institutions and organizations as active
moral subjects (see Rath 2014). What does this mean for the field of political par-
ticipation and the phenomenon of showing solidarity as an act of resistance in a
digital world?

4 Online Petitions as an Example of Showing


In this section, I use online petitions to illuminate from a normative perspective

those challenges arising from the new forms of digital participation and solidary
action as acts of resistance. Online petitions “prove to be a tool that allows activ-
ists to use network effects to marshal fast support for their campaigns and with
high supporter numbers get their issue heard before the parliament” (Jungherr and
Jürgens 2010, p. 24). Thus, non-profit organizations like Avaaz and
seem to be very useful for many societal and political initiatives, because they
154 N. Köberer

offer a platform for bringing issues to attention of the public, to empower move-
ments globally and to establish a transnational civil society and public (see Dahl-
gren and Alvares 2013; Baringhorst 2014). These organizations use new forms of
information brokerage on the Internet to enable users to sign online petitions or to
start their own petitions.
The current state of research into the topic of online petitions is mostly limited
to case studies or particular questions like, for instance, the relationship between
participation platforms and civic NGOs (see Baringhorst 2014). Another aspect
being under examination focuses on the use of traditional lobby tools combined
with new forms of mobilization (see Voss 2014). Additionally, a main object of
investigation is the question whether or not online petitions are expanding the
public discourse of political topics and lead to increasing political participation
(see Jungherr and Jürgens 2010). Indeed, scant research has been done so far in
this field and none of those that do exist are either empirical studies or theoretical
work from a normative perspective.
While petitioning institutions like the European Citizens’ Initiative or the
online portal of the German government are federal institutions, petition pro-
viders like and Avaaz and topic specific NGOs belong to the civic
society and want to encourage political participation and to mobilize social move-
ments. Organizations like Avaaz are hybrid organizations. On the one hand, they
are activist networks, citizen movements and social enterprises, and on the other
hand, they are part of an economic system in a globalized world that follows mar-
ket logic (see Richter and Bürger 2014).
Avaaz, according to its website, means ‘voice’ in several European, Mid-
dle Eastern and Asian languages. Avaaz started in 2007 with a simple demo-
cratic mission of organizing “citizens of all nations to close the gap between
the world we have and the world most people everywhere want”.1 Avaaz now
has over 44 million members and supports activists all over the world with their
campaigns. Besides providing civil society with the possibility to sign petitions
or to initiate a petition, Avaaz tries to mobilize activists to participate in events.
Campaigns that may result in further public attention and participation promise
success in the long term. Avaaz uses social networks to widely spread campaign
contents and information to reach a broad mass of people.
Combining corporate self-description and guiding principles enables Avaaz to
operate in a bottom-up manner and to achieve goals beyond the reach of other
NGOs. For example, weekly all-member polls, of random population samples

1 (1.3.2019).
Doing Good ‘With Just One Click’ … 155

of 10,000, enable Avaaz to select and prioritize campaigns. The members set
the agenda; by contrast, the staff help, give advice and where necessary promote
campaigns. The membership wholly funds the organization, so that it need not
accept funding from governments or corporations with their own agendas. The
core values underpinning all Avaaz campaigns are that firstly members and staff
are all humans, and secondly it is a privilege to have a shared responsibility for
one another, future generations and the welfare of the planet.
Avaaz’ work is orientated on the ethic of servant leadership2—the priorities
and power come from members and this member-funded model keeps the organi-
zation independent and accountable.
E-mail enables Avaaz not only to disseminate their messages rapidly on
a global scale, but also to create a powerful impact that attracts attention. New
forms of Internet-based information brokerage enable members to start their
own online petitions, to organize campaigns to initiate public debates and social
change. The importance of writing effective e-mail alerts to the Avaaz community
must not be underestimated: “We have just a moment to convey the vital informa-
tion the reader needs in order to decide whether to get involved, and the campaign
hinges on that decision”.3 Avaaz, therefore, works with expert partners to develop
effective, member-driven campaign strategies and summarize them through clear
and compelling alerts. Avaaz creates and publishes hundreds of campaigns every
year and sends out thousands of e-mails, press releases and statements about
these campaigns. Also, like news media, Avaaz often has extremely short time-
scales for responding to urgent events. For this reason, Avaaz has a commitment
to accuracy. But because mistakes do happen, the organization not only publishes
corrections on its website, but also allows people who have decided to support a
campaign on possibly false data to withdraw their support.4
Avaaz claims to have organized the biggest climate march in history. Dur-
ing the last weekend of November 2015, over 785,000 activists marched at 2300
events in 175 countries in an expression of solidarity in desiring a clean energy
future. Unusually, the traditional print media covered this issue intensively and
emphasized that public opinion had been influenced by a strong campaign that
was started by Avaaz and its members (see Fig. 2).

2Although the concept of ‘servant leadership’ was first expounded by Lao-Tzu in the
5th/6th century BCE in China, Robert K. Greenleaf was the first western academic to
explore the idea. Greenleaf initially revealed his theory in an essay in 1970 titled “The
servant as leader”.
3 (1.3.2019).

4 (1.3.2019).
156 N. Köberer

Fig. 2.   Newspapers from around the world covering the “largest climate mobilisa-
tion in history”. Source
loc/?pv=208&rc=fb (1.3.2019)

As exemplified above, new forms of social interaction and digital (political) par-
ticipation emerged under conditions of a participatory (net-)communication, which
enables the viewpoint that the work of NGOs like Avaaz can be described as being
one of solidarity. But what does this mean from a media-ethical point of view?

5 Media-Ethical Reflections on Acting Solidary

in Mediatized Worlds

In the context of how political participation is (re-)organized in the digital era, we

need to ask whether or not showing digital solidarity is as simple as it seems at
first glance in mediatized worlds. In contrast to more traditional forms of solidary,
Doing Good ‘With Just One Click’ … 157

showing solidarity with online petitions in participatory (net-)communication is

mostly punctual and freely chosen (see Bayertz 1998, p. 31). The digital era has
given individuals greater access to, and a broader choice of, issues—national,
regional and global—than ever before, as well as to give or withdraw their sup-
port in real-time.
But do media ethics view these emergent types of solidary as being solidarity
activities? Can these digital forms of showing solidarity be understood as ‘real
acts of solidarity’ or are they forms of clicktivism or slacktivism? The premise
behind clicktivism is that social media allows for quick and easy ways to support
an organization or cause (see Halupka 2014). Clicktivism is not exclusively the
support or promotion of a cause online. It is the use of digital media for facilitat-
ing social change and activism. More often, clicktivism supports and promotes
a cause on social media, but it can include a whole range of other activities such
as signature sheets, distributing leaflets, agitation on the streets, actions on the
streets, demonstrations or meetings. However, slacktivism refers to political activ-
ities that have no impact on real-life political outcomes and only serve to increase
the wellbeing and the feel-good factor of the participants (see Christensen 2011).
Solidarity can be characterized as a voluntary commitment of certain forms of
helpfulness, support and responsibility between human beings (see Bayertz
1998), which, adapted to Honneth’s (1992) theory, correlates to the aspect of
reciprocal attachment between group members. This argument suggests that using
these new forms of political participation can be categorized not only as solidar-
ity, but also as clicktivsm and maybe slacktivism too—the latter pair of concepts
being related to the intention and motivation of people to use these tools.
At this point, it is clear that further research is needed, not only to think about
theoretical approaches of solidarity in conceptual terms, but also to do some
empirical research to reflect this phenomenon, particularly as neither empirical
studies nor theoretical research from a normative perspective exist in this field
(see Scholz 2008).
Another point to consider refers to the question for the underlying ‘good’,
to characterize forms of solidary action as well as expressions of solidarity as
acceptable from a media-ethical perspective. Non-governmental organizations
like Avaaz offer civil society platforms for bringing issues to attention of the pub-
lic agenda, to empower movements globally and to establish a transnational civil
society and public. But who defines the moral ‘good’ and the issues with which to
get involved? Who decides which topics are worthy of support or to which indi-
viduals should show solidarity? Solidarity is always based on the idea of a moral
‘good’ or on the concept of a just society that should come true. But not every
conceivable conception of ‘good’ and ‘justice’ can be taken as generally accepted.
Following Habermas’ (1991) theory, this article focuses on a political-reflexive
158 N. Köberer

approach to justice and solidarity, which holds that neither sympathy nor empathy
felt by individuals provides a primary tool to characterize the underlying good of
humanity. By contrast, however, a (public) discourse that bypasses emotion by
way of using a reflexive and critical way of arguing does provide that primary
Finally, we have to clarify who is responsible in solidarity 2.0 communica-
tions, related to solidary action in participatory (net-)communication. In par-
ticular, this issue refers to the role of companies, political and social institutions
and technical systems as actors and moral subjects as well as (prod)users (see
Bruns 2009) in a ‘networked public sphere’ of participation. In the context of the
assumption of responsibility and the phenomenon of digital political participa-
tion, there are some points to consider:

(a) The media’s struggle for attention: The professional handling of campaigns by
protest organizations such as Avaaz and leads to increasing civil
participation, but also to decline in the political attention by civil society.
(b) Data protection and privacy with regard to members’ demographics and soli-
darity preferences: Online petition organizations ethically manage this corpus
of data and analyze it to identify which issues could become successful cam-
paigns., for example, abuses its responsibility by passing personal
data to third persons. A secondary issue related to data protection concerns the
information flow and the steering of public opinion.
(c) The assumption of responsibility: Truthfulness and transparency are basic
requirements for democratic opinion-making and public participation. Respon-
sibility primarily takes into account the transparency of interests of media
companies, producers and recipients (see Rath 2011), whereas the level of
(prod)users refers to the capacity of our societies to join informed political
participation. Therefore, civic education and media literacy need to be bet-
ter implemented in educational context. This process could raise the aware-
ness for ethical problems in participatory (net-)communication and the field of
political participation.

Currently, it is unclear how the processes of political participation will be shaped

and where they lead to. The concept of mediatization can be used to carry out a
critical analysis of the interrelations between the change of media and communi-
cation as well as the change of culture and society—in this case: the social world
of political participation. Further research needs to address these questions from a
normative perspective.
Doing Good ‘With Just One Click’ … 159

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Corporate Responsibility in a
Mediatized World: Institutional
Ethics and the Question of Consumer

Michael Litschka

This chapter questions the relevance of the concept of ‘consumer sovereignty’
in mediatized worlds on the theoretical basis of Amartya Sen’s Capability
Approach. The ability to choose and make use of media offerings is dependent
on the encompassing concept of ‘media capabilities’—and not on any rational
choice actions by individuals. Following these arguments, responsibility in a
world of mediatized institutions must (beneath being attributed to individual
actors) also be borne by institutions like media companies. This ‘corporate’
responsibility has three components, all of them with communicative impli-
cations. Lastly, the role of media and media organizations in enabling better-
informed participation in democratic processes by assisting in ‘interpersonal’
comparisons of utility is briefly examined.

Consumer sovereignty · Mediatized organizations · Media capabilities · 
Corporate responsibility · Interpersonal comparison of utility · Rational choice

M. Litschka (*) 
Department Medien und Wirtschaft, Fachhochschule St. Pölten,
St. Pölten, Österreich

© Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden GmbH, part of Springer Nature 2019 161

T. Eberwein et al. (eds.), Responsibility and Resistance, Ethik in mediatisierten
162 M. Litschka

1 Mediatization, Organizations and Consumer


Mediatization is about the role of the media system as a whole, for the organiza-
tion and reproduction of our social relations (Adolf 2011, p. 154). It is a research
perspective that aims at an empirical analysis of the changing patterns of both
media and communication, as well as of culture and society (Hepp 2016, p. 227).
The theory of mediatization has developed towards different explanatory and ana-
lytical levels, using a differing and growing body of literature. Most theoretical
streams agree that a thorough analysis of mediatization is needed because two
contrasting phenomena impact on it: exogenous causes, pointing towards tech-
nological innovations which make most organizations ‘media organizations’ of
some kind and which trigger economic and communicative changes; and endog-
enous causes, referring to theoretical innovations that deepen our analytical tools
for grasping the topic.
An example of the first phenomenon is the application of social media in dif-
ferent modes of communication between organizations and their stakeholders. A
serious stakeholder approach, which redefines the purpose of a firm away from
maximizing shareholder wealth towards coordinating stakeholder interests (Free-
man and Evan 1993, p. 262) and creating organizational wealth as the sum total
of creating benefits for all stakeholders (Post et al. 2002, p. 45), will be based on
such communicative actions. Stakeholder commitment and motivation to par-
ticipate actively in organizational decisions can only be achieved by stakeholder
discourses, and social media communication is one way for ‘mediatized’ organi-
zations to handle this issue with responsibility (Litschka and Karmasin 2012,
p. 234). Of course, organizations like enterprises have always been mediatized
in some way or another, as mediatization is an ahistorical process. What makes
analysis of exogenous causes especially important is that digitization and globali-
zation drive mediatization of enterprises in a way previously unknown. We will
return to this and the ensuing importance of corporate responsibility later on.
An example of the second phenomenon is the idea of “anticipation” (Adolf
2011): media acquire a central position in our society and we all adapt to their
logic (rhythm, frequency, aesthetic, but also language and presentation). Insofar
as institutions are seen as the driving force of mediatization, such ‘media logic’
can influence political processes and explain the mediatization of politics (Hepp
2016, p. 228). Krotz and Hepp (2011) indicate that the ‘economy’ (beneath
changing social relations, identity constructions, a more complex media envi-
ronment, democracy and leisure) is also developing. While economic develop-
ments may be discerned on many different layers—such as network economics,
Corporate Responsibility in a Mediatized World … 163

disruption through digitization, mass customization and information as a produc-

tion factor—the analytical focus should arguably be on organizations as meso-
arrangements between markets and individuals (e.g., Karmasin 2016, pp. 99 ff.).
In a mediatized political and economic world, organizations collect the necessary
knowledge, infrastructure and power to allocate resources and determine market
outcomes, particularly in industries with high market concentration. Section 3
will depict some implications of this proposition regarding the responsibility of
mediatized organizations. Essentially the attribution of responsibility to a kind of
metaphysics of ‘markets’ or to individual decision abilities is not viable, particu-
larly in the context of mediatized economies.
Another example of a situation in which one should not expect individual lev-
els of responsibility to solve ethical issues is that most organizations are commer-
cialized one way or another. As ‘commercialization’ is the basic process to other
‘meta-processes’, like individualization, globalization and mediatization (Hepp
et al. 2015), it seems fit to analyze the implications of this process with economic
ethical terms. One important instance, where this is possible, is the concept of
‘consumer sovereignty’, which in economics means that businesses produce what
individual consumers want to have to satisfy their needs. What they want to have
is a question of their preferences, ordered by ordinal utility. Varian (2010, p. 55)
describes the way in which modern economics tends to think of utility: “Origi-
nally, preferences were defined in terms of utility: to say a bundle (x1, x2) was
preferred to a bundle (y1, y2) meant that the x-bundle had a higher utility than the
y-bundle. Now we tend to think of things the other way around. The preferences
of the consumer are the fundamental description useful for analyzing choice, and
utility is simply a way of describing preferences.”
In a media context, people would rationally choose media offerings accord-
ing to the expected utility they provide, in the form of a ranking of preferences.
The ‘Uses and Gratifications Approach’ (see Katz et al. 1974; Katz and Foulkes
1962) is an example of such thinking. Besides believing in the power of rational
choice decisions as just described, this approach has certain basic assumptions
about media recipients:

• the recipient as a person has an active role in deciding about communication

• the recipient can, when asked, make their goals, preferences and utility trans-
parent to the analyst;
• the recipient fully understands their media consumption and is able to define
their personal motives.
164 M. Litschka

This kind of consumer sovereignty is doubted by critics who do not see a free and
self-responsible role for media recipients, but believe that they draw ‘functional’
utility from consuming media (see, e.g., Sander and Vollbrecht 1987). Physical
well-being, adaption to the environment and certain social goals are examples of
such functions. The Capability Approach goes beyond this traditional critique and
helps us develop a concept of media capabilities, which can handle the problems
connected with lacking consumer sovereignty in mediatized economies.

2 Media Capabilities and Choice

Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach (see, e.g., Sen 1987, 1992, 1999, 2003,
2010) is widely considered as an alternative way of thinking about rational-
ity, choice and justice. His main critique on mainstream economic analysis is
that neoclassical approaches use too little information when considering acts of
choice. Choice is not rational in the sense of consumers being able to consistently
order their preferences and make these preferences known by showing a specific
willingness to pay for goods or services. Welfare considerations are only based on
such limited information about people’s real well-being, and a concept of utility
relying on the ability to ‘rationally choose’ between goods and services misses
two aspects. Firstly, not all information about welfare can be expressed by choice.
Secondly, choice may show a variety of considerations, among which personal
welfare is just one (Sen 1977).
Utilitarian thinking overemphasizes the so-called ‘well-being’ aspects of peo-
ple, denoting the personal utility resulting from an action or decision, and falls
short of possible “agency” aspects of the same person, denoting its ability to form
goals and values without directly drawing utility from it (Sen 1987, p. 41). In
addition, Utilitarianism does not consider social inequalities; e.g., it seems obvi-
ous that taking something away from a rich person does not equate to the same
amount being taken away from a poor person, something that the law of dimin-
ishing marginal returns would clearly suggest. Unfortunately, to apply this law,
Utilitarianism would need to allow for interpersonal comparisons of utility and
not assume all people are equal by adding up utilities (a problem that Rawls iden-
tified as one of the bigger weaknesses in Utilitarian ethics). Instead, economists
use Pareto efficiency as a criterion and the informational base of Utilitarianism is
not equipped to handle such comparisons (Sen 2003, p. 73). Lastly, the Capabil-
ity Approach demands the analysis of processes of choice as well as results. If
we act out of commitment to a certain group of people or to specific rules, this
Corporate Responsibility in a Mediatized World … 165

touches upon a “process” of decision-making and goes beyond pure “sympathy”,

where we act in favor of others because it influences our utility level positively
(Sen 1977).
In Anglo-American media ethics, Utilitarian analyses have had a long tradition
(see, e.g., Christians 2007). The respective media systems, codices and textbooks
focus on individual freedoms, the ‘one voice-one vote’ principle, the principle of
‘biggest happiness for the biggest number’, a consequentialist view of rules and
actions, and the theme of maximizing individual preferences (see also above).
Christians (2007, pp. 120 ff.) argues for the need to include deontological and
discursive theories in Utilitarian analyses. This is because many problems in
today’s media economy, like the consequences of blogging, distributional equal-
ity, power and violence, obligations, individuals being webbed into a responsive
media society and that mass media are social institutions as well, are hard to fit
into the analytical scheme of Utilitarian approaches. Individual decisions simply
may not be enough to change anything (if indeed we want to change anything
at all and go beyond the level of the positive towards sensible normative discus-
sions). The Capability Approach is one possibility to do so, as it combines conse-
quential and deontological as well as discursive thinking.
The Capability Approach also focuses on the substantial freedoms people
should have and how they may be enabled (hence “capabilities”) to convert these
freedoms to actual results (“functionings”) they want to reach. Capabilities, there-
fore, are the freedoms to choose between alternative functionings and the abil-
ity to really move towards those alternatives. Those freedoms help us to reach
goals, but they also have an intrinsic value, which amounts to being the “process
aspect” of freedom (Sen 1999, pp. 198 ff.). Alternatives are valuable even when
not choosing them (e.g., fasting is valuable because we need not do so, but starv-
ing is not valuable because we cannot choose an alternative). The main difference
to Rawls here is Sen’s view on the above-named “conversion ability” of people.
While Rawls (1971) believes that an equal distribution of basic goods will lead to
equal chances for these individuals to reach their goals, Sen makes us think of the
difference between people to convert resources into goals—e.g., due to age, gen-
der, illness etc. (Sen 2003, p. 96). Seen in this manner, freedom is connected with
means and goals, and equality of neither will ensure equal freedoms for all (Sen
1992, pp. 85 ff.).
In our context, the Capability Approach would strongly doubt the ability of
individuals to choose rationally between media bundles, as they may choose
media goods without them promoting the utility of people. The outcomes of
choosing do not reflect all the motives for choice, because people may be unable
166 M. Litschka

to choose according to their preferences, or media offerings may be encoded so

that choice is not possible. Following these reflections, I suggest ‘media capabili-
ties’ as an encompassing concept to not only analyze media choices descriptively,
but to also give a normative basis for media politics and economics on several
levels (Litschka 2015).
On the individual level ‘capability’ can be defined as ‘media competency’ in
the sense of being able to choose and consume media offerings which satisfy
our preferences. This enhances our ‘well-being’, because we could reach certain
‘utility’ goals like the status of an educated or well-informed person, a better job
etc. As long as the necessary consumption capital (Kiefer and Steininger 2014,
p. 250) is available, we are able to include such goals in our utility function.
On the process level, the ‘agency aspect’ of people becomes important,
because the possibilities to choose between media alternatives, i.e. the freedom
to choose, is of intrinsic value. We, for example, as well informed voters may be
interested in participating in democratic processes without drawing direct utility
from that possibility. Such possibilities can make us more complete as a person
and can be highly sensible, without being rational in an economic sense. Further-
more, such behavior can be grasped by concepts like ‘commitment’, in the sense
of pursuing the utility of a group by actively contributing democratic values. The
normative aspect inherent in that view may be called ‘media capability’. This
aspect involves three media related sub-aspects and their provision capabilities.
Media politics provides media diversity; media pedagogy provides consumption
capital and critical abilities in media analysis; and basic and higher education
provides curricula including such issues in communication courses to enhance
these capabilities. Media capabilities are, therefore, chances of realization in the
mediatized economy, as basic rights, goods and freedoms must be converted into
functionings before they become of real value for individuals. Media capabilities
become an ethical demand for social efforts towards capabilities that make such
media competencies possible in the first place.
This also goes far beyond much of what media pedagogy deals with when
competencies are concerned; as such, competencies take place only on the indi-
vidual level—e.g., to consume media in a technologically sound way. Media
pedagogy (see Moser 2010, p. 77) concerns the intermediation of media compe-
tencies. Young adults must learn to understand media codes, to analyze intentions
behind the construction process of media and be able to explain historical devel-
opments of media structures. While this certainly goes beyond individual level
analysis, it still does not give us any hint as to how reason (i.e. process and result-
oriented, not economic rationality) may work in media reception and how impor-
tant factual freedoms to choose may become in the media economy.
Corporate Responsibility in a Mediatized World … 167

3 Corporate Responsibility of Mediatized


The aforementioned arguments place importance on several levels of respon-

sibility. Individual responsibility is part of the process-orientated view of media
capabilities and is the basis for being furthered by institutional arrangements.
However, following those arguments, individuals can only be partly made respon-
sible for their media reception (to give one example) and consumer sovereignty is
maybe not a positive (in the sense of empirically perceivable) term. The market,
representing the other side of the spectrum, cannot be made responsible for cer-
tain ethical achievements. In our mediatized economy, a number of issues restrict
market mechanisms, so that markets seem to work well only under very specific
conditions and presuppositions. Those restricting issues include concentration
tendencies, the problem of public and merit goods, the zero marginal cost pro-
duction and distribution and the sharing economy. As Karmasin (2016) argues,
responsibility in these environments and with this rapid development of digitized
economies should be an institutionalized question.
Consumer sovereignty and the ‘rational choice’ of media goods are question-
able and the understanding of responsibility goes beyond the individual level.
If these two notions are valid, the concept (in addition to individual and social
aspects of the term) may be located within the realm of the dominating institu-
tions of mediatization, so long as commercialization of media organizations is
the driving factor. These develop into social contractual and interactive organiza-
tions (Litschka and Karmasin 2012), whose boundaries and functions are not only
determined by the allocation of resources, but also by communicative processes.
Formerly media-related technologies, such as Internet-based services, mobile
communications, (big) data base systems and interactive solutions, invaded the
traditional value chains of businesses (e.g., Doyle 2002; Picard 2002). Now, many
non-media firms use those technologies to optimize their business processes (e.g.,
e-procurement, supply chain management, e-commerce and services, e-learning,
social media applications). “The mediatized organization is a ‘publicly exposed’
or ‘quasi-public’ organization, determined by the relationship of a recursive con-
stitution of organization and society” (Litschka and Karmasin 2012, p. 223). Seen
in this manner, media organizations become moral instances with the possibility
of being attributed with ethical responsibility (Noll 2002; Göbel 2006; Karmasin
and Litschka 2008).
Ulrich (2001, p. 443) summarizes his thoughts on moral obligations by organi-
zations, stakeholder thinking and value added in media societies in the following
168 M. Litschka

way. Mediatized organizations have the ‘republican’ duty to legitimize their busi-
ness processes openly in front of an unlimited public (a concept Habermas calls
an important part of ‘publicity’). This public discourse is the systematic place of
organizational morality; to achieve this morality, quasi-public organizations need
to take over a stakeholder view of the firm (see above) and integrate corporate
responsibility into the core of their decision-making processes.
Returning to the aforementioned ‘media capabilities’ argument and the indi-
vidual, organizational and social forms of responsibility that follow from this
understanding, we might say there is a connection between media capabilities
and resistance. If we expect individuals to resist irrational forces influencing them
in mediatized worlds (such as ‘fake news’, ‘filter bubbles’ and economization of
life), we must also make them ‘fit’ by giving them the respective media capa-
bilities. This is a major part of organizational responsibility and seen like this,
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is also a concept of empowerment and
The concept of ‘Corporate Responsibility’ was originally developed to deal
with parts of this issue, though unfortunately, there is no unified understanding in
literature of what the term implies from an economic ethical point of view—see
the discussion in Karmasin and Litschka (2008). Also, the question of capability
and resistance is not resolved in current discussions of the concept. However, we
would suggest that three components make up the parts relevant to the concept,
the difference being whether, and where, they belong to the value chain (Karma-
sin and Litschka 2017). First, corporate governance as a system of control and
division of power within companies deals with the relationship of an organization
to its shareholders and the necessary power distribution within an organization.
Ethical misbehaviors like corruption or misguided bonus payments for managers
belong to this realm. Secondly, Corporate Social Responsibility is placed within
and along the value chain and tries to define economic, ecological and social
responsibilities between stakeholders providing value added or being influenced
by organizational decisions. Thirdly, corporate citizenship is the embodiment
of the ‘republican’ duties of organizations outside the value added chain—e.g.,
regarding political participation and legitimization of strategies or, if media com-
panies are concerned, the ‘publicity’ necessary to further a democratic discourse.
Figure 1 shows the respective connections.
All three parts must be understood communicatively (Karmasin and Litschka
2017). As argued above, organizations and enterprises are ‘publicly exposed’ or
‘quasi-public’ institutions, because even if they are privately owned, they oper-
ate in the public sphere and should legitimize their actions and decisions before
a potentially unlimited public. ‘Publicity’, in this sense, is the necessity and
Corporate Responsibility in a Mediatized World … 169

Corporate Responsibility

Corporate Corporate Social Corporate

Governance Responsibility Citizenship

Economic Ecological Social

Responsibility Responsibility Responsibility

CG codex, bonus Inv. relations, Energy, climate Training, health, Education, politics,
payments, corruption risk management protection, waste security culture

Interface to shareholders Value added chain, suppliers Outside the value

and creditors added chain

Communicative Responsibility

Fig. 1   Corporate responsibility. Source Adapted from Tokarski (2008, p. 152)

possibility to publicly exchange and legitimize views of the world and moral
claims. Social claims return to organizations, and organizations determine social
claims—a kind of recursive constitution of organization and society that Giddens
would define as duality and recursivity of structure. If we understand organiza-
tions as communicative constructs, as Ortmann (2002) does, which influence our
possibilities, it seems only logical that they are attributed ethical responsibility in
the form of corporate responsibility (Karmasin and Litschka 2017, p. 46). Those
possibilities include the ability to purchase with pure communicative power, mak-
ing a career, having a fruitful profession, use of time and through communication
the development of structure networks and production of real and social capital.
This notion also touches upon the way organizations communicate their
responsibility in a transparent and credible way. Installing an ethics officer or
producing an ethics code will improve accountability, transparency and reporting
within the organization—all of them crucial factors when institutionalizing eth-
ics. One example for the last point would be triple-bottom line reporting (using
indicators for economic, social and ecological performance). Within an organi-
zation, this responsibility is reproduced and incentivized by communication.
Outside of an organization, communication ‘glues’ organizational goals to social
170 M. Litschka

welfare. Weder and Karmasin (2011) locate this understanding of communicative

responsibility under the term ‘corporate communicative responsibility’, showing
the way towards how responsibility is communicated and how communication is
done responsibly.

4 Democratic Responsibility of Mediatized


In the last section of this contribution, I want to argue that mediatized organi-
zations, especially mass media concerns, have a more general responsibility
going beyond corporate responsibility. Using the Capability Approach again, I
call this concept ‘democratic responsibility’, because it refers to the ‘function-
ing’ of political discourse and the necessary information base that is needed to
further this discourse. We could say that corporate responsibility (see above) is
being analyzed along the value chain and also describes the interconnectedness of
organizations and society, while democratic responsibility comprises not only an
economic or social, but also a political understanding of the concept, where jus-
tice deliberations also play an important role.
As Sen (2003, p. 302) argues, normative questions of social choice cannot
be decided by only analyzing and summing up individual preferences as Utili-
tarianism tries to do. Only communicative reasoning and the public defense of
arguments can give us a complete picture of justice. This picture arises out of the
possibility of interpersonal comparisons of well-being and agency (and utility,
for that matter), something mainstream economics is not very fond of doing. Sen
(2010) denotes this way of thinking about justice as ‘comparative justice’, as we
are not seeking ideal conditions of a just society, but compare actual social imple-
mentations and institutions and their effect on society. Sen (2010, p. 37) believes
it is better to correct unjust situations step by step instead of trying to reach per-
fectly just situations. Also, in the Capability Approach, the process of doing so in
a communicatively ethical way is as important as the outcome. Thus, Sen wants
to stress the relevance of the so-called ‘comprehensive outcome’, which com-
prises means and goals when analyzing social states.
A mediatized world, driven by commercialization, digitization, globaliza-
tion and media organizations, emphasizes the role of an efficient system of mass
media. Comprehensive utility comprises aspects of agency, for which interper-
sonal comparisons of utility will be needed. Normative social choice and jus-
tice evaluations are indispensable for this difficult task. Such evaluations need
transparent and intersubjectively shared information, including international and
Corporate Responsibility in a Mediatized World … 171

intercultural publicity for value discourses. We may need as much information

as possible to decide on interpersonal comparisons of utility. The ‘publicity’ that
mass media may produce is the only sensible normative base of public reason-
ing and defense of arguments, because ‘publicity’ points the ways out of regional
bigotry—and also the filter bubble. We need to enlarge the boundaries of justice
(Sen 2010, p. 201) by relying on global mass media to make interpersonal com-
parisons of well-being and agency possible. As I have argued elsewhere (Litschka
2015, pp. 198 ff.), only by letting these considerations enter our understanding of
rationality, can we overcome the limits of economic rationality in dealing with
justice. Rationality demands a defense of arguments with ourselves. Reason
demands our arguments defended before all others.
This is, according to Sen (2010, pp. 361 ff.), the normative raison d’être for
mass media and well-defined corporate responsibility within a system of media-
tized organizations. As democracy and justice share discursive elements (and ele-
ments of publicity), mass media organizations must contribute to press freedom,
which will enhance our well-being by helping us understand our “Lebenswelt”
(Habermas). They give us the necessary information to check on the arguments
given by other people; they support the disadvantaged by criticizing the respec-
tive situations; they help building values through open discourse (recognizing that
these values will always be diverse, because our preference orderings are diverse);
they support justice by discussion (the only valid form of justice according to Sen
2010). We only begin to understand the relevance of these questions when other
mediatized organizations like platform enterprises (Google, Facebook etc.) are
concerned, as their contribution to publicity (and social justice) is rather unclear.
So while corporate responsibility has an important and communicative role in
defining the realm of organizations in a mediatized economy, democratic respon-
sibility is a demand on mediatized organizations and mass media when informa-
tional bases, interpersonal comparisons of utility and justice by public discourse
are concerned. If it is not rationality, but reason that leads organizational thinking
and the concepts that come with it (corporate responsibility, stakeholder manage-
ment etc.), then it seems fit to apply the Capability Approach directly to organiza-
tions and their role in mediatized societies.

5 Conclusion

This contribution tried to criticize the traditional media economic concept of

consumer sovereignty in mediatized economies and argued for a placement
of responsibility on an organizational level. Using Amartya Sen’s Capability
172 M. Litschka

Approach, the chapter argued that too much burden is laid upon the shoulders of
individuals who are given insufficient informational bases and capabilities to act
responsibly and with resistance in mediatized environments.
In viewing ‘media capabilities’ favorably over rational choice, it follows
that organizations need to adopt a (communicative) understanding of corporate
responsibility. In addition, considering the limitations of economic rationality in
interpersonal comparisons of well-being and agency aspects, the chapter argued
for a democratic responsibility of mediatized organizations, especially mass
media enterprises, in order to make normative discourses on justice possible and
contribute to publicity.


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Ethics as Practice: The Challenge
of Ethics Management in Mediatized
Working Environments—Journalism
in Change

Anke Trommershausen

How can journalism, in this time of mediatization, succeed to be the normative
approach of independent quality journalism? First, ethics management needs
to be understood in new ways, due to new journalistic and organizational chal-
lenges: mediatization, ongoing processes of change, uncertainty and new jour-
nalistic practices in ethical decision-making. That is why, secondly, resistance
can be seen in how journalists really act when confronted with ethical dilem-
mas. What they do is not necessarily solely guided by the ethical rules and
codes in place. Instead, they find new ways to handle such dilemmas. In this
chapter, two theoretical approaches will be introduced: postmodern business
ethics and the ethics as practice approach. These two theoretical grounds will
give insight in how organizations and their ethics management can appreciate
the new arising ethical practices of journalists in mediatized working environ-
ments. Finally, an outlook summary of a possible empirical research agenda
will be presented.

Ethics management · Journalistic practice · Postmodern ethics · Mediatization · 
Ethics as practice

A. Trommershausen (*) 
Fachbereich Soziale Arbeit, Gesundheit und Medien, Hochschule Magdeburg-Stendal,
Magdeburg, Deutschland

© Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden GmbH, part of Springer Nature 2019 175

T. Eberwein et al. (eds.), Responsibility and Resistance, Ethik in mediatisierten
176 A. Trommershausen

1 Introduction

This chapter asks how journalism, in this time of mediatization and digital change
in media organizations, can succeed to be the normative approach of independ-
ent quality journalism? What kind of ethics does journalism need, or rather, how
must journalism understand ethics, when organizational structures erode and
journalistic working environments are mediatized? These questions are based
on the strategic belief that journalism and quality media will only be competi-
tive in a convergent media market if they maintain their core competence: quality
journalism (Trommershausen 2017). This belief involves a normative approach
to journalistic ethics and, as many contributions in this book explain, the need
to develop a civil society fit for the digital age. This chapter is a normative and
value-driven analysis as well as an innovative approach to ethics management,
taking new journalistic working environments into account.
There are many examples showing that media organizations are experiencing a
major change involving new digital and organizational realities, which challenge
and question ethical responsibility and ethical working practices. The core com-
petence of content producers and traditional media organizations was and will be
content of high journalistic quality when being challenged with new competitors
like Facebook and Twitter. This is why this chapter asks how journalistic quality
can be achieved by a management approach that takes organizational change and
new working environments seriously into account.
Mediatization changes media organizations, especially journalistic work. First,
I will look at how media organizations change and how these life worlds of jour-
nalists start making new sense to their actors when deciding on ethical questions
often beyond the merely institutional rules of media accountability.
In an organizational environment, that is characterized by uncertainty and
structures in flux, the question has to be asked whether traditional and mostly
deontological approaches1 to ethics still work in such environments. With regard

1In deontology (duty ethics), the moral good is seen in following the morally right

rules. This is based on personal duty, which derives from rules being based on the moral
ethos (Göbel 2006, p. 27). When using the word ‘deontology’ (or rule-based ethics) in
this chapter, teleology is always complementary to the basic moral ethos in deontology
(Göbel 2006, p. 27). This is congruent with an understanding of business ethics that have
a deontological basis, but are open to discursive actualizations with regard to the antipo-
des of ethics and business (Karmasin 1996, p. 33). The ethics as practice approach that
will be introduced in this chapter follows this route, aiming at stretching this comple-
mentary relationship a little further towards the specific practices enacted by individuals
Ethics as Practice: The Challenge of Ethics Management … 177

to resistance, this chapter asks what single journalists are actually doing when
they find themselves in situations of ethical dilemma. These situations should not
be seen as subjects to be solved by the rules and codes in place, rather in rela-
tion to the codes and rules in place, as well as in relation to ever changing work-
ing environments (mobile, flexible, up-to-datedness, being faster than competitors
etc.). It will be argued that concepts and approaches in media ethics, media
accountability and ethics management are not always adequate to understand and
manage these new situations.
This is why the focus will shift to a postmodern understanding of business
ethics by introducing the concept of ethics as practice. From this perspective,
ethics are an outcome of new emerging practices, rather than the result of given
structures or the individual predispositions of the actors. The benefit of such an
approach for a new concept of ethics management within media organizations
(the editorial work of journalists) will be outlined. By suggesting a learning-
focused approach in the empirical research agenda, this paper will outline an
innovation of ethics management that gives credit to these new premises.

2 Mediatization: Organizational and Journalistic


Mediatization is an omnipresent phenomenon. Journalism and the management

of ethics in media organizations are also challenged by mediatization. It is not
only the quantity, but also the quality of the media that makes mediatization so
pervasive. “Thus, mediatization is not only a process of upcoming new media and
the coming into existence of an increasingly complex individual media environ-
ment. It is not only a process of ‘more and more’ media used in communicative
action, but also and especially it is a metaprocess that consists of a changing every-
day life, of changing identity constructions and social relations, of a changing
economy, democracy and leisure, of a changing culture and society as a whole”
(Krotz and Hepp 2011, p. 139; emphasis added by author). This also relates to the
everyday life of journalists and their “mediatized worlds (which) is no more than
a metaphor for the fact that various contexts of present everyday life are marked

(journalists). The ethics as practice approach wants to juxtapose practices to a mere rule-
abiding approach deriving from an understanding of deontology that is often too simple.
178 A. Trommershausen

by media communication” (Hepp and Krotz 2014, p. 6). For journalists, their
mediatized world is the media organization and the structures and management
practices influencing them. This chapter and its research question are located in
a mediatized world that can be described as “structured fragments of social life
worlds with a certain binding intersubjective knowledge inventory, with specific
social practices and cultural thickenings” (Hepp and Krotz 2014, p. 8; emphasis
added by author). In any newsroom, there is an intersubjective knowledge inven-
tory that is also being challenged by mediatization. Journalists, for example, need
to think multi-channel; they sit at a multimedia newsdesk with colleagues that
they had probably never worked with before (e.g., the print journalist with either
or both of the video and online journalist). Certain social practices in the every-
day working routines and in ethical decision-making are in place. These social
practices are often guided by structures (hierarchy, working procedures, bureau-
cratic or legal affordances etc.) and rules (press codex, codes of conduct etc.).2
In the following section the question will be asked what changes are caused by
mediatization and how these changes put ethics and their (often) deontological-
based management into question?

2.1 Changing Media Organizations

Obviously, media organizations are changing. This can be seen in the self-
description of many media, but can also be proved by current developments at
the whole industry level (BDZV 2016). The BBC, for example, puts it like this:
“The BBC will remain a broadcaster but be more than that, too. (…) We would be
commissioning differently too, no longer treating TV, radio and online as separate
sets of services, for instance, but looking across everything that we do to make
the content that meets audience needs properly. (…) We want to become internet-
fit to be ready for an internet-only world” (BBC 2015, p. 15). The same is true,
for example, for the newspaper The Guardian: “Every newspaper is on a jour-
ney into some kind of digital future. That doesn’t mean getting out of print, but it

2This chapter addresses the compatibility of instruments of media accountability (Fengler

et al. 2015) in an era of digital change in journalism on three levels: the organizational
level (newsroom); the level of professional standards (media routines level); the level of the
individual journalist, who went through professional training (social practice). For further
details, see section 3 of this chapter.
Ethics as Practice: The Challenge of Ethics Management … 179

does require a greater focus of attention, imagination and resource on the various
forms that digital future is likely to take” (Alan Rusbridger, cited in Dobbs 2014).
Multi-channel or tri-media thinking seems to be at the heart of many media. This
means a lot of challenges in the organizational structures and the everyday work
of journalists.
On an organizational level, two major trends—at least for the German
media—can be identified (BDZV 2016). First is the development of new busi-
ness models and the growing diversification of these. This means that many
media organizations are moving from their core business of sales and distribu-
tion, advertisements, printing and logistics towards travel events, fairs and exhi-
bitions, search engine optimization (SEO) and bonus programs. Two thirds of
German publishers estimate diversification as highly relevant to their business
and are working intensively on the adjustment of their organizational structures to
succeed in these areas (BDZV 2016). Second, digitization in German publishing
companies is driven by three dimensions: new digital newspaper products, which
means, content is multimedia and broadcasted on multiple channels; new digital
products (such as apps) and merger and acquisitions in the digital business. Over-
all this is accompanied by a tremendous change in the structures and processes of
media organizations—most prominently, cuts in human resource and strategies of
“consolidation” (Ingram 2016; Smith 2016). These processes can be understood
as the (professional) life worlds of many journalists. In order to be capable of
producing a digital newspaper, for example, we see the creation of multimedia
newsdesks, digital first strategies and the growing integration of user-generated
content, which changes the everyday working routines of journalists. Chung
(2007) considers that “(a)ll in all, the evidence suggests that journalists are under-
going an uncomfortable transition with the active migration of news online”.
Because the Internet fundamentally challenges the existing paradigm of central-
ized news production, journalism management is understandably apprehensive
about the interactive nature of news. The specific perspective on organizational
change through the lens of mediatization points to new questions about how well
the ethical practices of journalists can be supported and secured in quality jour-
nalism in the future. That is why it can also be observed that there are new ethical
challenges in journalistic work.
Journalists often work in new organizational structures, deriving from
­mediatization. This means new contexts and a broader picture of journalistic work
within the corporate strategy (macro). At the same time, these new Internet strate-
gies, accompanied by several shifts and changes within the organization, affect
180 A. Trommershausen

j­ournalistic working routines (micro). These new challenges arising from the
interplay of new organizational structures and journalistic routines can be clearly
seen when looking at a well-known weekly German newspaper.

2.2 What are the Implications for Changing


To exemplify what new working environments and the challenges in ethical deci-
sion-making caused by mediatization means, the following example of a German
newspaper is a case in point. In order to guarantee journalistic freedom, journal-
ists who work for the print edition are obliged to inform their superior editor
whenever they have a conflict of interest, for example, they are a member of a
party, union or other organization that might influence their views and writings
on a particular topic. This is what the ethical codex of the print edition asks for
and is required by editors in chief and their subordinates (Klöckner and Schreyer
The interesting part is that while this is an ethical rule in the print edition, this
does not apply for the online edition. One specific article shows that there was an
ex-post correction needed in the print edition, to inform readers that the author
of an article was actually politically involved and that some kind of conflict of
interest existed. This same article was published online—without any comment
or correction—since (and here organizational processes and structures come into
play) it was a standardized technical process by the function of the archive that
this article was actually published online, but did not pass any ethical control of
the online editors.
So, while in the print edition there were ethical rules that prohibited such
practice where conflict of interest was involved, the ethical codes for the online
edition did not prohibit such practice. This is very confusing for journalists
working for such a newspaper. What would a journalist do in such a situation,
knowing well and being obliged to adhere to the general rules of good journalis-
tic work?
This example shows that an understanding of ethics as practice might be
helpful, since the rules and codes in place do not always make sense in media-
tized working environments. The following section outlines that an under-
standing of ethics as practice can be helpful, because of the new realities of
what organizations are and because of the changing working environments of
Ethics as Practice: The Challenge of Ethics Management … 181

2.3 How Do We Work Now? Changing Realities and New

Practices in the Journalistic Organization

With Krotz (2005), “constructed realities do change through digital media”

(p. 18). This refers to the new realities media organizations find themselves in
and how they need to be conceptualized (as certain constructed realities and life
worlds). These new realities are more complex, have blurry boundaries (e.g.,
between online and print departments) and include multiple and ever new prac-
tices in the everyday work. “When we enter an office, superstore, or a hospital
it is increasingly difficult to think of it as the outcome of the application of a
detailed blueprint and plan, or a single system with definite boundaries as in the
traditional structural-mechanistic and functional system views of an organization”
(Nicolini 2013, p. 3).
That is, because organizations are characterized by three new qualities:

• organization as process (Hernes and Maitlis 2010; Weick 1979);

• uncertainty and non-knowledge (Roberts 2013; Böhle 2012);
• organizations as experiments (Trommershausen 2014) and the emergence of
new structures (Trommershausen and Richter 2016).

Media organizations affected by mediatization could be understood as ongoing

processes of organizing (Hernes and Maitlis 2010). This is the understanding of
Process Organization Studies (PROS), which point to an epistemological view of
the organization that understands it as a temporary stabilized entity. This means
it is constantly in the process of change. In the tradition of post-structuralism, the
approach of PROS focuses on questions of fluid and constantly changing organi-
zations. In this view, the organization, its environment and its actors are under-
stood as ongoing processes and in a constant state of becoming. The environment
is no longer characterized by stability, but by contingency, emergence and con-
stant change. The same applies to the organization and its actors, which are no
longer seen as static social entities, but as fluid and only temporary stable phe-
nomena. These emergent structures are created by new practices. Such an under-
standing of the constant emergence of new structures of the organization is based
on the fundamental idea of organizing (Weick 1979) and the assumption of enti-
ties as being fluid and temporal products of ongoing processes (Hernes and Mait-
lis 2010).
182 A. Trommershausen

Simply put, organizing is the process of reducing differences among interacting

actors. Organization is an emergent outcome of the process of sensemaking through
which equivocality is progressively removed. (Langley and Tsoukas 2010, p. 4)

What is advocated in a postmodern OT3, therefore, is the radical abandonment of

“the organization” as a legitimate object of knowledge and its substitution by organ-
ization as a generic process of “world-making.” (Chia 2003, p. 135)

With PROS, organizations are a conglomerate of complex activities and transac-

tions. They are not understood as stable entities with determining structures. For
journalists, this is very relevant. When the once determining structures in place
become blurry, it is a hard task to install a rule-abiding and rationalistic ethics
management that relies on these clear structures and rules.
Further, uncertainty in the practice of ethical decision-making is not the excep-
tion to the rule anymore: neither for managers, nor for journalists. How can these
uncertainties be managed effectively (Thompson 1967)? Can uncertainty be
managed at all? Böhle (2012) promotes an approach in which uncertainty can-
not really be controlled. Instead, every uncertain situation offers new chances and
might even be a productive factor. A good example for handling rising uncertainty
in the media are the new monthly meetings of journalists at the BBC, where
they can discuss and share situations of ethical dilemma they experienced (BBC
2016). Thus, uncertainty in ethical decision-making enhanced this new practice
at the BBC. Chia and Holt (2009) are claiming a way of “embracing the uncer-
tain, the ambiguous and the unknown as a pervasive human condition without
persistently hankering for clarity and certainty” (Chia and Holt 2009, p. 210). If
managers and journalists alike would succeed in acknowledging such new condi-
tions and a new understanding of the organization and its management, ethical
decision-making would not be failing, when not abiding by the rules, but would
find new practices to solve conflict and dilemma.
Trommershausen (2014) as well as Trommershausen and Richter (2016) have
empirically shown that organizations are constantly becoming entities because
of such emerging new practices. Organizations can be understood as ongoing
experiments of organizing, since secure rules and orienting structures are getting
uncertain. This is reinforced by technology in the newsroom (Trommershausen
2014) and the growing mediatization of the journalistic life world. Journalists are
­conducting new practices to find a way out of ethical dilemma and uncertainty

3OT = Organization Theory.

Ethics as Practice: The Challenge of Ethics Management … 183

and new structures often emerge through the implementation of new practices
(Trommershausen and Richter 2016). This kind of understanding could bring
great progress in journalistic ethics—ethics as (arising) practices that, in the end,
do create the organization (for example, monthly meetings as a new temporary
and helpful structure). This would broaden the perspective on journalistic eth-
ics and its management, going beyond the traditional deontological approach of
media accountability.
This means for the single journalist that their “constructed realities do change
through digital media” (Krotz 2005, p. 18). With regard to technology and the
growing mediatization of the journalistic life world, the appropriation of these
technologies changes structures and stabilizes new structures (content manage-
ment systems, instant messaging etc.) (Trommershausen 2014). In the conglom-
erate of ever new working contexts, the single actor or journalist has to perform
individual practices that are neither determined by structure (institutions of ethics,
technology, departments etc.) nor solely determined by individual predispositions
(cognitive, intuitive). These practices emerge and are enacted as sensemak-
ing elements in working environments that are in flux in between structure and
agency (Weick 1979; Tsoukas and Chia 2002). “Practice theories do more than
just describe what people do. Practices are, in fact, meaning-making, identity-
forming, and order-producing activities” (Nicolini 2013, p. 7; emphasis added by

3 Resistance: Ethics Beyond Deontology

In such a complex organizational context as outlined above, a mere deontologi-

cal approach to ethics is becoming problematic for individual journalists, find-
ing themselves in uncertain and complex realities in their everyday work (Basu
and Palazzo 2008). Resistance means a refusal or an active opposition to struc-
tures or the rules that are in place, because they no longer seem workable. What
stays as a solid stake is that of a high-quality journalism which attains its com-
petitive advantage through a thorough journalistic practice (Trommershausen
2017). This is necessary to actually retain and reinforce the core competence of
media organizations. The resistance of individual actors to the rules and codes
in place is nonetheless driven by the idea of a thorough and good journalistic
184 A. Trommershausen

In order to maintain thorough and good journalistic practice, the rules and
codes, as well as the structures that are in place, are a mandatory premise to cre-
ate a different approach to ethics management in journalistic work. On this basis,
an ethics as practice approach will be introduced. There are two major research
paradigms that are important when discussing ethical decision-making and its
management in the media.
As shown in Fig. 1, the first research paradigm is that of media ethics research.
Media ethics are based on the institutionalization of normative requirements that
are supposed to help journalists in their everyday work and decisions (e.g., ethical
training, codes of ethics, ombudsmen etc.). In the broader field, this is embed-
ded in measures of media accountability. Fengler et al. (2015) promote a blue-
print of three levels of media accountability which are relevant for journalists: the
organizational level (newsroom), for example, issuing ethical codes, appointing
ombudsmen etc.; the level of professional standards (media routines level), for
example, supporting good ethical choices by press councils; and the level of the
individual journalist, who went through professional training and most often now
discusses ethical issues in blogs (Fengler et al. 2015, p. 3).
One could speak of resistance in the sense that journalists do not or only
in limited ways refer explicitly to the ethical institutions in place, such as ethi-
cal codes of conduct or journalistic guidelines, in their everyday routines (e.g.,
the German press codex or the guidelines of the Austrian Presserat). The named
institutions of media accountability are questioned because they may no longer
reliably support the everyday practices of journalists in digital working contexts.
It is not the intention of this chapter to deny the relevance of such rules and insti-
tutions. Nonetheless, there are many decisions in the everyday working routine

Fig. 1   Research paradigms for the discussion of journalistic ethics. Source The author
Ethics as Practice: The Challenge of Ethics Management … 185

that are not explicitly based on these professional guidelines.4 The professional
guidelines are rather the basis for discussion, interpretation and individual moral
decisions. There are also clues in the literature that institutionalized ethical codes
and structures give limited support to single journalists when confronted with eth-
ical dilemmas in mediatized working environments. Obviously, reality seems to
require a new understanding of how ethics could work in the everyday working
routines. Eberwein et al. (2015) show that for journalists the rules in place are not
always helpful when confronted with an ethical dilemma and thus have less prac-
tical relevance than expected.
Heinonen (2010) examines the extent to which journalists’ ethical codes are
reflecting the dilemmas posed by the new, Internet-based working routines and
presents interesting findings. “On the one hand, ethics as inscribed in the codes
of conduct give a guiding framework for journalists when they carry out their
professional tasks. On the other hand, professional practice moulds professional
ideals including the idea of proper conduct encapsulated in ethical codes. As the
circumstances in which professional practice is carried out change, so also do
the ideas of what is good journalistic practice—at least in theory” (Heinonen
2010, p. 18). Reality teaches us—with regard to organizational change as well
as the change of working contexts of single journalists—that the actual ethical
decisions are sometimes made in some other way (Heinonen 2010, p. 18). “The
new setting for journalism thus clearly invites us to transform the traditional
practices of journalism and develop corresponding definitions for good jour-
nalistic work” (Heinonen 2010, p. 19). Singer et al. (2011, pp. xvi–xvii) point
out “that journalistic ethics are a product of time and place although journalists
do tend to see ethical codes as absolute” (emphasis added by author). Further
there is evidence in the comparative study “Media Accountability and Transpar-
ency in Europe” (MediaAcT) that “(o)ther traditional instruments that have long
been present in most countries, such as professional codes of ethics (…) and
press councils (…), are viewed to have a medium impact. This would suggest

4A preliminary study of qualitative interviews at a public German broadcaster, conducted

by the author, gives proof of this argument. Besides the institutionalized instruments of
media accountability that work well, the interviewed journalists were also asked how they
handle new ethical challenges in their decision-making in their everyday routines. One
answer, for example, was that “in the end, it is your own ‘good feeling’, when you publish
something”, another answer was that “in the end, the question whether we are supposed to
show certain pictures or not is always in a scope of interpretation”.
186 A. Trommershausen

u­ ncertainty in the profession about the effectiveness of these instruments, which

have no direct consequences for the professionals who breach them” (Fen-
gler et al. 2015, p. 8; emphasis added by author). Overall, this gives evidence
that a mere deontological approach to media ethics in the framework of media
accountability might no longer be sufficient to face the new challenges journal-
ists are confronted with in their new mediatized working environments.
The second relevant research paradigm with regard to the research question
asked in this chapter is that of ethics management research. Most of the manage-
ment approaches to ethics also take the structure-actor paradigm as primary and
as a basis for mostly rationalistic and functionalistic approaches to the manage-
ment of ethics. Ethics management can be located in the field of business ethics
and its management. This includes the research on Corporate Social Responsibil-
ity (CSR) as well as the research on stakeholder management (Carroll and Buch-
holtz 2011).
One example is the approach to manage CSR in media organizations
towards competitive advantages by innovating stakeholder management
­(Trommershausen 2011, 2013). This approach is based on Karmasin’s funda-
mental work on stakeholder management in media organizations (1996, 1998,
2000 and 2006)5, as well as on our joint work on CSR in media organizations
(­Trommershausen and Karmasin 2015)6. Here, individuals do comply with rules
and follow institutional structures. In this research field, there is a similar focus
on the actors themselves by classifying the moral ability of individuals to antici-
pate processes of ethical decision-making (Kohlberg 1976). By doing so, these
processes can be controlled and managed.7 To manage ethics, psychological
approaches are important, too. Here, the management of ethics is based on the
gap between the rules in place and the ethical bias of individuals. These blind
spots can be identified and attempted to put under the control of management
(Bazerman and Tenbrunsel 2011).
In qualitative interviews with two editors in chief of the news magazine of
a major German public broadcaster, the editors completely agreed that they
had had major discussions on ethical issues when introducing their multime-
dia newsdesk. This was because new questions arose, which were not always

5See also Freeman (1984).

6Similar concepts are proposed by Jonker and de Witte (2010) or Kaptein (1998).
7See also, e.g., Robbins and Coulter (1999, pp. 160–164); similar: Trevino (1986).
Ethics as Practice: The Challenge of Ethics Management … 187

c­ overed by the institutionalized rules or structures that used to give individuals

ethical orientation.8
The following questions need to be answered when proposing a new under-
standing of ethics as practice: what happens when there are not yet any rules
because of new mediatized working environments that bring up totally new situa-
tions? What happens when the rules that are in place do not work anymore or are
in conflict with what individual journalists actually do? This is why, in the follow-
ing section, the postmodern business ethics approach as well as an understanding
of ethics as practice will be introduced.

3.1 Postmodern Ethics

As outlined above, the challenge is that in new mediatized working environments

ethical structures only support journalists in a limited way. In addition, solely
individual moral decisions (relativism) do not necessarily fulfil what is demanded
by media ethics. A possible solution could be to look at what journalists are actu-
ally playing out in their everyday practices when being confronted with ethical
questions, in relation to or in conflict with the ethical structures in place (con-
sented norms). The goal is to appreciate and learn from practices being conducted
and enacted in such situations by single journalists.
When regarding ethics in relation to or in conflict with the rules, one can turn
to the postmodern discussion of ethics. This postmodern tradition is rooted in the
moral condition, as diagnosed by Zygmunt Bauman (2009). Bauman forces the
artificially constructed codes of ethics to be freed from their stiff suit of armor,
and doing so re-personalizes them (Bauman 2009, p. 57). The moral condition in
a postmodern perspective is that a solely rule-based and deontological approach
to ethics is no longer adequate for the new complexities in which ethical deci-
sions have to be made today.
While modernity presumes a non-ambiguous morality, Bauman argues that
this has never existed. Instead it has only pretended to be real in modern morality
(Bauman 2009, p. 23). In his perspective, moral phenomena are inherently non-
rational, there is no functional morality. Further, the moral condition states that
morality is aporetic; no moral decision is ever distinct, it is always ambiguous.

8The interviewed editors also admitted that there were no guidelines yet for social media or
user-generated content.
188 A. Trommershausen

This is why morality can never be universal for Bauman (2009, p. 24). Conse-
quently, morality is irrational, because subjective decisions (in certain contexts)
go beyond a social totality that refuses the autonomy of the individual (Bauman
2009, p. 26). Postmodern ethics argue that rules release the individual from being
a moral actor and that they allow a certain distance between the moral actor and
the ethical objective (e.g., the organization). This suits a rationalistic approach to
management, in which individuals are turned into human resources who are sup-
posed to follow rules (Bauman 1993). The criticism is that the press codex, as
well as editorial codes of conduct, often seem very far from the everyday rou-
tines of journalists, especially in mediatized working environments. The man-
agement, which is supposed to coordinate and control the compliance with these
rules, often works as an instrument of neutralization. Emotions and the intuition
of individuals (journalists) are often disregarded. This is also true for the ethical
dilemmas that are emerging in their everyday working practices. These situations
and practices seem to be disregarded by the incorrectly understood deontology
which has been practiced for decades (Pullen and Rhodes 2015).
Deriving from Bauman’s postmodern approach, postmodern business ethics
ask how ethics need to be understood and practiced when working environments
are becoming more complex.9 This is why in postmodern business ethics rules
and codes are understood as a resource and orientation for ethical decision-mak-
ing (Bos 1997; Kjonstad and Willmott 1995). In such an understanding, the single
journalist would make their decision by embracing the rules and codes in place,
rather than following a rule-abiding understanding (Kjonstad and Willmott 1995,
p. 447).
The ethics as practice approach is congruent with postmodern business eth-
ics: when observing new practices in ethical decision-making, it is possible to
learn from these new practices and to support them through management. In the
next section, it will be made clear that with an ethics as practice approach it is
possible for journalists to learn while in the midst of ethical decision-making
and that they can be empowered as moral actors. The research focuses on how
ethics are lived out in practice and how ethics are searched for or disregarded
in the everyday routines of journalists (Krainer and Heintel 2010; Clegg et al.
2007, p. 107).

9Even though this chapter refers to postmodern ethics, the author wants to stress that the
understanding of ethics in journalism and the management of ethics is not relativist.
Ethics as Practice: The Challenge of Ethics Management … 189

3.2 Ethics as Practice

What is meant when speaking of practice? Admittedly, the sociological literature

on the practice term is manifold (Schatzki 1996; Reckwitz 2003; Bourdieu 1990;
Giddens 1984). In the context of organization studies, Nicolini (2013, p. 11)
identifies three core directions of the analytical impact of the practice term: “the
study of learning and knowing phenomena as situated practices” (e.g., Wenger
1998), “the study of technology as practice” (e.g., Orlikowski 2000) and finally
“the study of strategy as practice” (e.g., Johnson 2007; Whittington 2006; Jar-
zabkowski 2003; and in the context of media organizations: Järventie-Thesleff
et al. 2014). When researching ethics as practice in the postmodern perspective,
the practice approach for journalists will be based on a symbiosis of learning
and knowing phenomena (as stressed by Oliver 2013 for the media) and the
strategy as practice approach. This is why the theoretical foundation of ethics
as practice will follow Jarzabkowski’s (2004) conception of “strategy as prac-
tice”. By choosing this route, the dynamic interaction between actors (practices)
as well as the structures in place (media ethics and media accountability) can be
considered in the analysis. “The term ‘practice’ implies repetitive performance
in order to become practiced; that is, to attain recurrent, habitual, or routinized
accomplishments of particular actions” (Sztompka 1991 in Jarzabkowski 2004,
p. 531). Practice explains how agency and structure are linked with each other:
“interaction between agents and socially produced structures occurs through
recursively situated practices that form part of daily routines” (Sztompka 1991 in
Jarzabkowski 2004, p. 531).
Practice then is the mediating element between different contexts of ethical
decision-making and can be localized between different levels of analysis (Jar-
zabkowski 2004, p. 531): between the macro-context of the whole organization
(competitive and institutional forces), between diverse micro-contexts within the
organization itself, as well as in between actors (journalists, editors etc.) and the
named micro-contexts (Jarzabkowski 2004, p. 539). The character of these con-
texts and actor cognitions influence whether one is facing communities of prac-
tice with recursive (self-enforcing) or adaptive (new) practices. This is why the
objects of analysis are the ethical practices-in-use (Jarzabkowski 2004, pp. 544–
546). These practices-in-use are understood as the doings, tactics and strategies,
which actually become meaningful when they are practiced. With Sztompka
(1991), practices are interactions between macro- and micro-contexts, as well
as social processes in a constant stage of becoming. The micro-contexts can be
understood as “Communities of Practice” (Wenger 1998) in which practices
190 A. Trommershausen

are socially constituted. These practices often emerge beyond structural predis-
positions such as ethical rules, and either or both institutions and frameworks
(macro-context) (Orr 1996). Communities of practice can either be homogenous
communities or heterogeneous communities of practice and because of this they
might be strongly hierarchically organized or highly flexibly organized in the way
that they work together. Either way, depending on how different they are and how
much the practices function as a mediating factor, these practices are either recur-
sive or adaptive. The more adaptive they are, the more likely they are to bring up
new forms of practices. Different communities of practice could be, for example,
the editorial departments of the online and print issues, the multimedia newsdesk,
consisting of different journalists from different editorial departments who are
working temporarily together etc. Practices then would be adapted with regard
to the new context-specific requirements of journalistic work and decision-mak-
ing. Specific practices, including the macro- and micro-context perspective, can
be analyzed on the basis of sound and good ethical choices. This brings to light
what the actors are actually doing, but also the structures (e.g., in the micro- and
macro-contexts) which are in place (measures of media accountability frame-

4 An Empirical Research Agenda

After outlining the ethics as practice approach through the perspective of post-
modern business ethics, this chapter will summarize how to research ethics as
practice in the newsroom of media organizations.
Decisions, and the consequent efforts to manage ethics, are often based on an
analysis of stakeholder perceptions of past and current incidences of ethical prob-
lems and unethical behavior in the organization or industry, in order to avoid the
risks associated with a recurrence of such problems. Nonetheless, a problem-cen-
tered approach, such as that used in action research (Cooperrider and Srivastva
1987; Sorensen et al. 2005) may be too simple to capture the specific practices-
Van Vuuren and Crous (2005) identify two major problems that come with a
problem-centered (action research) approach to the management of ethics. First,
adopting a problem-solving (or risk management) approach means that organi-
zations only anticipate and mitigate the negative consequences ethical risks may
sustain. Such a reactive approach is negative in that organizations then focus on
managing threats. This results in compliance and thus rule-based ethics. Sec-
ond, managing ethics to prevent problems is usually characterized by unilateral
Ethics as Practice: The Challenge of Ethics Management … 191

approaches to defining and imposing ethical standards. Although such non-par-

ticipatory approaches may ensure an almost blind adherence to ethical standards,
they may also undermine the trust of employees10 (Van Vuuren and Crous 2005,
p. 402).
The idea of not looking for problems, but rather appreciating the practices
that are played out in certain contexts is a different approach to research ethics as
practice in media organizations. The Appreciative Inquiry (AI) can be chosen for
scrutiny as an alternative to the problem-centered approach to managing ethics.
The AI is both a philosophy (a way of thinking) and a process, method, interven-
tion or practice (a way of doing). The focus of AI is on what “could be”, rather
than on “what was”. As a way of thinking it is visionary, inspiring and aspira-
tional. As a way of doing it is a collaborative and participatory process. The AI
suggests that human organization and change, at its best, is a relational process of
inquiry grounded in affirmation and appreciation (Whitney et al. 2010).
This is why for the research agenda of ethics as practice an appreciating
approach should be preferred.
With AI, process-based research can be employed, which allows the enhance-
ment of work practices by journalists and researchers collaborating. This partici-
pative research approach allows journalists in the editorial context to be included
in the research and to initiate learning processes (Nicolini 2013, p. 11) that can
be utilized in management. By employing multiple methods in AI, the aim is to
initiate collaborative reflection on the practices that are played out and to generate
new knowledge. By doing this, specific new practices can be identified and made
useful for the organization as well as for developing the theory (von Unger 2014,
p. 46). The highly practical relevance of such a research agenda can be seen in the
inclusion of journalists, as they are being challenged with their specific practices
and problem-solving strategies in ethical decision-making. Appreciative Inquiry
is the basis for the empirical research agenda and, at the same time, it brings
social changes to specific organizational contexts.
Watkins and Mohr (2001) structure the process of AI as follows (Fig. 2):
In the Initiate stage, the participating stakeholders are introduced to the AI
process. The philosophy and the aim of the research is explained and questions
answered concerning doubts and privacy issues, when divulging personal ethi-
cal practices. This could be achieved through a one-day workshop, which gives

10This refers also to Bauman’s postmodern condition (2009).

192 A. Trommershausen


Introduce key stakeholders to


Engage org. members in

conversations, enable Conduct
exploration + commitment to IMAGINE generic interviews
Collate and share interview
data and pull out themes
(provocative propositions)

Fig. 2   The process of appreciative inquiry. Source Watkins and Mohr (2001)

enough time and space to introduce everybody to the methodology and to identify
the major themes and problems being pointed out by the stakeholders and jour-
nalists involved. Based on this first step, the Inquire stage follows. Based on early
research results derived before the Initiate stage generic interviews will be con-
ducted and the observations of participating journalists collected.
Instead of asking what kind of problems might occur within the rules and
codes of media accountability, questions and observations in this research would
focus and how journalists experience their everyday work with regard to ethical
decision-making, what they feel and what they actually do.
Early research results should be used to identify the macro- and micro-­
contexts. This procedure can help to improve the classification and evaluation of
the results of the interviews and observations.
The Inquire stage helps to identify individual and collective practices in ethi-
cal decision-making and ethical dilemmas in certain situations and contexts. In
the Imagine stage, the researchers extract the practices that work well for the
journalists (they may be congruent with the institution of media accountability
or they may be totally new). In the Innovate stage, the practices that work well
are collected and presented to the journalists. In this stage, the identified practices
are discussed with the participating journalists to clarify whether they are work-
able for everybody and whether management should support these practices in the
future. In this Innovate stage, concrete measures will be defined for a practice-
based and appreciating management of ethical decision-making in journalists’
mediatized working environments.
Ethics as Practice: The Challenge of Ethics Management … 193

5 Conclusions

This chapter asked how journalism, in this time of mediatization and digi-
tal change in media organizations, could succeed in becoming the norma-
tive approach of independent quality journalism. It explained, in the context of
mediatization and organizational change, that media ethics research, as well as
ethics management research, might not provide adequate measures and tools to
meet the new needs of journalists in mediatized working environments. Two new
approaches were introduced to answer the questions of what kind of ethics might
be needed, or rather, how ethics should be understood when organizational struc-
tures erode and journalistic working environments are mediatized: postmodern
business ethics, deriving from the postmodern ethics (condition) as outlined by
Bauman (2009), and the ethics as practice approach, putting the ethical practices
of journalists to the center of attention. On these theoretical grounds, it has been
pointed out that a practice-based view of ethical decision-making in the news-
room, accompanied by the goal of making these practices valuable for manage-
ment, requires a new research agenda. This is why an appreciating approach to
the new practices that are enacted by journalists (beyond or in between differ-
ent contexts, rules and codes that are in place) should be considered. The Appre-
ciative Inquiry offers the kind of research in which journalists can actively
participate. In this way, learning and knowing phenomena can be unleashed and
appreciated in future management. In addition, these practices can be under-
stood in the tradition of the strategy as practice approach (Jarzabkowski 2004).
This perspective enables the dynamic interaction between actors (journalists and
their practices) and the structures in place (media ethics and media accountabil-
ity) to be analyzed. The Appreciative Inquiry with its four stages of participating
research and its other advantages does realize such a goal. This kind of research
could enhance ethics management, helping the understanding of what ethical
practices are workable and how management can support these practices. A nor-
mative and value driven approach can be conceptualized, using the measures and
institutions of media accountability as an important resource and starting point.


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Meta-discourses Between
Responsibility and Resistance: Reaching
the Aim of Multimodal Learning
by Ways of Mediatization Processes

Gudrun Marci-Boehncke

There is an increasing need for an extensive change of the mindset of trainee
teachers to cope with the demands of modern media education in a creative
way. Currently, university training, especially in Germany, cannot guarantee
that certified teachers have sufficient competences in the fields of technol-
ogy, arts and creativity, interpretation, communication theory and economics.
Against this background, a teaching and research project has been established,
which deals with the question of how far mediatization is a topic in current,
award-winning literature for children and adolescents. Responsibility and
resistance, as attitudes in dealing with media held by literary protagonists as
well as producers and distributors, teachers and all their target groups, are
elaborated upon to help future teachers reflect upon mediatization and thus to
develop their own attitude towards it.

Children’s and youth literature · Media education · 
Teacher education · Multimodal learning · Mediatization

G. Marci-Boehncke (*) 
Fakultät Kulturwissenschaften, Forschungsstelle Jugend-Medien-Bildung,
Technische Universität Dortmund, Dortmund, Deutschland

© Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden GmbH, part of Springer Nature 2019 199

T. Eberwein et al. (eds.), Responsibility and Resistance, Ethik in mediatisierten
200 G. Marci-Boehncke

1 Introduction

This essay applies the theory of mediatization to the educational sector in a com-
plex way. There is an increasing need for an extensive change of the mindset of
trainee teachers to be able to cope with the demands of modern media educa-
tion in a creative way. The reason for this is that assessments of media consump-
tion by children and adolescents, especially in Germany, are still conducted in a
highly critical way, but also that the media equipment in German schools is far
from what would be desirable. Currently, university training cannot guarantee
that certified teachers have sufficient competences in the fields of technology, arts
and creativity, interpretation, communication theory and economics.
Against this background, a teaching and research project has been established
to connect three fields of study, which deal with the question of how far mediati-
zation is a topic in current, sanctioned literature for children and adolescents:

(a) on a micro level: mediatization as a focus of analysis within fictionalized

worlds in the symbol system of literature for children and adolescents;
(b) on a mezzo level: assessing mediatization within the construct or system of
acting in literature for children and adolescents;
(c) on a macro level: reflecting upon mediatization discourses within the conflict
area of literary culture and daily life of contemporary adolescents, who consti-
tute both the target audience for said literature and for education.

Responsibility and resistance as attitudes in dealing with media for literary

protagonists, as well as producers and distributors, teachers, and all their tar-
get groups are elaborated on to help future teachers reflect upon mediatization
and thus to gain their own attitude towards it. Ethics within mediatized worlds
is thereby covered several times: (i) as an ethical perspective on the responsibil-
ity of nowadays authors of children’s and youth literature that have a socializing
attitude and are sanctioned by politically sponsored authorities. Texts and their
fictionalized worlds are the focus here, as well as decision-makers and politics;
(ii) as an ethical perspective of trainee teachers on the mediatized world of today
and their educational mission to evaluate and provide materials that are suitable
for an orientation within present society. This article follows a five-step process.
First, it explores the educational aspects of policy and framework conditions and
argues that contemporary teaching needs to include awareness for mediatization.
It is not an option, but a factual basis. Secondly, the article introduces the teach-
ing and research project, which is part of a university course in German literature
Meta-discourses Between Responsibility and Resistance … 201

education with a focus on children’s and youth literature for trainee teachers of all
levels. The project comprises various layers which present a text-immanent view,
a view of the panel as a sanctioning and distributive level as well as a view on the
students’ ability to evaluate texts—who are distributors of books for their pupils
at their schools. Thirdly, there occurs an approximate overview and analysis of
the project’s literary texts. Fourth, the article sums up some results of the content
analysis as well as of the students’ views on the texts, and fifth, there are com-
ments on aspects of responsibility and resistance, in the context of the outcome of
the project.

2 The Reasons it is Necessary to Know About

Mediatization as a Teacher

Learning without using media is not possible, since speaking as well as think-
ing itself are human abilities based on coding procedures. The human being as
an “animal symbolicum”, as the German philosopher Ernst Cassirer (1944, p. 44)
defines, always needs to use symbols as links to ideas. These might not only be
words from letters, but also pictures as well as notes on a sheet of music or those
produced for hearing. De-coding, re-coding and encoding are the key procedures
of human life, to communicate with each other. They are based on media. They
are not new. We know about the paintings in the Lascaux Caves and about hiero-
glyphs and about signs as well as more complex stories (like religious texts) that
transport cultural knowledge and news (as in street ballad telling), which reflect
self-determining processes. Even the more ordinary narratives like folksongs,
nursery rhymes, street ballads and newspapers are meanwhile parts of cultural
knowledge. Historical media products, as well as their contents, belong to cul-
tural goods (Hepp 2013). They are used to teach children from early childhood
up to adulthood—and accompany each of us during the process of individua-
tion, socialization and acculturalization (Wurzbacher 1968). Teachers have to
be able to use those documents, imparting a knowledge that is linked to the out-
ward media appearance as well as to the always historically determined content.
Reading literacy, as one of the most important competencies developed during
the educational biography, therefore, means the ability of “understanding, using,
and reflecting on written texts, to achieve one’s goals, to develop one’s knowl-
edge and potential, and to participate in society” (OECD 1999, p. 20). Literacy is
required to get along in modern society and to live a happy and self-determined
life. Since society and thereby the coding systems undergo permanent changes,
202 G. Marci-Boehncke

with the media techniques especially becoming more complex, it is necessary for
individuals to keep up with those developments. One of the most important devel-
opments during the last decade has been digitization, which not only changes
industries, but also the individual’s way of action, production and perception
(Krotz 2007b, pp. 100–109). Digitization has had the effect of a disruptive culture
(Christensen 1997), since it changes the way people organize the handling dur-
ing the de-coding and re-coding procedure. German teachers—as several inter-
national studies have shown (see, for example, ICILS 2013; PISA 2012)—belong
to the rather critical and restorative media users. For their classroom-preparation,
German teachers still stay with traditional printed matter like books, work sheets
of paper or simple analog overheads (Bitkom 2011). Their confidence in digital
media is—compared to colleagues of other nations—rather low. Just around 15 %
work with digital media each day. In Canada, around 75 % of the teachers are
daily using computers for teaching. But the low confidence of German teachers
that lies in the stagnation of media technique, due to old computers, low Internet
speed and memory space, is just the one side of the problem. The other is the low
recognition and appreciation of modern media formats as well as contents. Thus,
it is not only relevant how teachers use technical media in the classroom, but also
how they value digitization and its possibilities for participation and individual
The younger generation communicates in a variety of symbolic systems of
meaning or codes—written, visual and musical, and combining the symbols in a
montage signifies another level of meaning, which is quite like language syntax.
Just as literacy cannot exist as an art form without the technical foundations of
writing technique, papyrus and paper-making, printing and bookbinding—today’s
new, comprehensive reading competency goes hand in hand with the technical
revolution of digitization. It allows the wide distribution and reception of semi-
otic systems. Children and youth communicate via audiovisual digital media,
which simultaneously permit nearly unlimited storage and transmission—and
which, via digital access to the medial texts, also clear the way for permanent,
creative reworking and reformulation of these texts (see Pew Research Center
2011). Traditional reading, as the deciphering of alphabetic codes, has not lost
its significance. But practice and routines are prerequisites to become a compe-
tent actor within the digitized world (see, e. g., OECD 2015). The appreciation
of the media, pertinent to each era, is a mandatory requirement for educational
processes preparing children for life within their current as well as future soci-
ety. A simple restorative perspective backward ignores the challenges as well
as the opportunities for future generations that are subject to educational pro-
cesses, especially in schools. A teacher’s attitude towards as well as confidence
Meta-discourses Between Responsibility and Resistance … 203

in own abilities for successful handling of media determines the media habitus
(Blackwell et al. 2014). A prominent objective for a teacher’s education in univer-
sities must be to enable generations of trainee teachers in a technical as well as
didactical media competence that is in keeping with the times. Experiencing self-
efficacy and undergoing a realistic as well as critical reflection based on theoreti-
cal principles and evidence-based data—thus, the presupposition of this teaching
project—might encourage a more realistic and less conservative attitude towards
the chances and fun that digital media provide.

3 Mediatization in Award-winning Children’s

Books: The Project’s Description

The presented teaching and research project consists of six perspectives:

1. Fictional literary world: within each of the chosen texts, a literary world is
developed. This world consists of a mediatized surrounding. People act within
a society, within a variety of cultures and institutions as well as on an indi-
vidual basis. The reader is confronted with a fictionalized world, which is
somehow close or distant to the circumstances of the real world. Most of the
times the texts of our sample research-corpus are a time elapsed (past) of soci-
eties depending on the cultural localization. The plots are, for example, set in
Argentina of the 1930s (Der Träumer1) or in East-Germany of the 1970s (Such
dir was aus, aber beeil dich!). Sometimes the stories belong to a dystopian
fantasy world (Hunger games and Erebos).
2. Axiological world: the constructed literary world is—as well as the real
world—not objective. An author who constructs a narrator or presents a point
of view that values the literary figures’ actions and their feelings develops it
as part of their artistic production process. To understand a narrative text, the
reader constructs a complete narrative world. This construction is based on the
explicit statements of the narrator as well as the acting figures—and even goes
further (see Martínez and Scheffel 2016, p. 133). This axiological perspective
is closely related to the literary world, but it points out to a real world: the
author wants their text to be related to the world in mind of the reader. This
can be the world that is historically close to the setting of the literary world

1See Table 1 for more details on the works in the corpus.

204 G. Marci-Boehncke

(e.g., the real East-German past of the 1970s). On the other hand, the texts
can also be read as a kind of literarily alienated comment on the present of the
author—with an allusion to the world of the readers. So, the constructed world
can be either realistic or fantasy. Creating the ‘literary world’ is both a bottom-
up (related to the text signals of the narrator) and a top-down process (con-
structed with the knowledge and long-term memory of the reader) (Martínez
and Scheffel 2016, p. 134). In case the reader does not receive any signals for
the relevance of media within the narrated world—such as complaints about
the absence of media (Abzählen)—and even if the author adds media as part
of their top-down process, there is not a narrated link. The impression is of
being in a world where media are not relevant—which cannot be credible. A
world without (technical) media is not trustworthy and is most certainly not an
authentic world for young readers—even if the media might be assumed to act
as an “athematic background” (Martínez and Scheffel 2016, p. 144).
3. Reference world: every author wrote their literary text based on the folio of
their intended ‘reference world’—which can be either a historical world,
the world of the author’s own lifetime or a world of the reader, on which the
author comments.
4. Reader’s world: different from the world of the story and the intentions of the
author, every reader has their own mediatized world and their own estima-
tion of that world as a perception context for the reading. This world consists
of ‘objectives’ as well as of ‘subjectiveness’. Although we live in a digitally
mediatized world, there are people who evaluate this world and others who are
rather critical towards the development. The pupils in school and the univer-
sity students of our research project might have other experiences and attitudes
than the teachers in either school or university. It is a generation gap as well as
a complex cultural gap and—if we accept even a moderate constructivism—it
cannot be generalized.
5. Institutional world of the selection committee: depending on the individual
attitudes of the members of the panel of judges towards mediatization and
other literary or individual criteria, they chose various titles as a basis for the
selection of the literature award. Their choices combine, although based on
individual preferences, to represent an institutional perspective.
6. Anticipated world: the act of a student writing a paper involves strategy. They
want their paper to be accepted. They have learned that institutions expect cer-
tain attitudes. School and university are the institutions. The topic is the work
perspective of a trainee teacher for the subject German Language and Litera-
ture. This topic seems to define a position towards mediatization, which might
Meta-discourses Between Responsibility and Resistance … 205

not be congruent with the student’s private attitude and behavior, but does
represent a professional outline. Digital media are controversial and the sub-
ject of much discussion. As our own research in other projects shows (Marci-
Boehncke and Wulf 2016, pp. 81–82), changing the professional image and
attitude of student generations is difficult.

These six perspectives seemed to us to be sufficiently interesting to warrant anal-

ysis. So, we confronted the students with a theoretical background as well as with
their ‘own practice’.
In the first stage, students examined canonized children’s literature—winners
of the German Children’s and Youth Literature Award. They read and examined
the stories with an analytic focus on mediatization.
Their research questions were: how far is mediatization constructed within the
fictionalized worlds of children’s and youth literature? How far do those fictional-
ized worlds relate to the real world according to concrete narrative clues in the
text? Or is the constructed mediatized culture within a text a clue to a special time
and culture? Content as well as literary forms were the focus of analysis. As an
empirical foundation, students had to identify ‘media language’, differentiate the
narrated media according to the technical media system of Harry Pross (1972)
as well as to the more complex one of Heinz Bonfadelli (2002). In so doing, the
students should become aware of the constructed mediatized world: including pri-
mary, secondary, tertiary (like Pross 1972) and quaternary (that is: digital-inter-
active, see Marci-Boehncke and Rath 2007) media words, as well as technical,
institutional, economic and semiotic media expressions.
In a second stage, they were asked to comment on:

1. the results of their findings as analysis of the literary as well as the axiological
estimated world (how is the world valued and how does the author want it to
be valued?);
2. the relationship of the fictional world to a (historically/culturally determined)
‘reference world’ as well as to the present world of the readers;
3. the decision of the selection panels as a responsible unit of value for reading
education in schools;
4. their own position towards the book and its potential for a responsible read-
ing education that seeks to teach both media competence and media critique
(to enable media users to resist encroachments of media corporate groups or
personal attacks of other users) and in a timely manner, referring to their own
habits, desires and practices.
206 G. Marci-Boehncke

The objects of the research here were, primarily, the narrative texts. Each student
worked with one text. Then they had to analyze a variety of social backgrounds of
the reference world, of the author(s) and of the reader.
On the other hand, the students’ work became an object of research. By giving
them the chance to choose their object of literary research out of the corpus of
award-winning books of the last six years (see Table 1) as part of their examina-
tion paper, we gained an impression about the allure of books for young trainee
teachers. Over a period from fall 2014 until spring 2017, 77 students finalized
their examination using a book out of that corpus and analyzing it with the focus
on the presented mediatized world. As part of their course guidance service, they
each received guidance towards a six-phase structure for their paper:

• First, the theoretical background summed up the theory of mediatization by

Friedrich Krotz and Andreas Hepp (Krotz 2001, 2007a, b, 2009; Hepp 2013;
Krotz and Hepp 2012).
• Secondly, the students were expected to analyze the selected book using the
theory of ‘adaptation’ by Carsten Gansel (2016, p. 23). Gansel’s theory takes
the perspective of the presented text and its author and asks which character-
istics the texts show that relate to the cognitive and emotional abilities and
requirements of the target group. Gansel encourages analysts to use six cat-
egories—literary material (like a story about friendship or adventure), special
subject matter (e.g., a search for identity), narrative structure (e.g., point of
view), style, media design (e.g., book-cover, font styles and size) and axiol-
ogy (e.g., the attitude that the book’s author shows towards the main aspect
of the story). Is it rather conservative and educational or subversive, using the
target audience’s morals and yearnings? This analytical process can be called
a key procedure in children and youth literature interpretation to discuss con-
tent, style and arrangement of the text and its suitability for the target group.
Indeed, it leads to the close analysis of the special topic of mediatization,
which is part of German students’ education within that course.
• Third, they had to evaluate the ‘media words’ (referring to Pross’ 1972 cat-
egories of premier, secondary, tertiary as well as quaternary media) and other
terms that fit Bonfadelli’s (2002) system of technical, semiotic and institu-
tional media, by which process they interpreted their chosen text. An example:
the book by Milena Baisch, Anton taucht ab, deals with a young boy’s exces-
sive Internet use, which he realizes is an addiction while spending his summer
holidays camping with his grandparents. His fear about swimming in a lake
makes him aware that although he feels like a hero in the virtual world, he is a
coward in real life. The German word abtauchen (to dive), therefore, has two
Meta-discourses Between Responsibility and Resistance … 207

Table 1   The book corpus (N = 77) of the teaching research project

Section Year of Author Title (in German) Frequency of
publication selectiona
PB 2010 Stian Hole Garmans Sommer 1
PB 2011 Martin Baltscheit Die Geschichte vom 4
Fuchs, der seinen
Verstand verlor
PB 2012 Pija Lindenbaum Mia schläft woanders 3
PB 2013 Jon Klassen Wo ist mein Hut? 3
PB 2014 Claude K. Dubois Akim rennt 1
PB 2015 David Wiesner Herr Schnuffels 0
Under 10s 2010 Jean Regnaud Meine Mutter ist in 5
Amerika und hat Buf-
falo Bill getroffen
Under 10s 2011 Milena Baisch Anton taucht ab 4
Under 10s 2012 Finn-Ole Heinrich Frerk, du Zwerg! 3
Under 10s 2013 Frank Cottrell Boyce Der unvergessene 6
Under 10s 2014 Martina Wildner Königin des Sprung- 6
Under 10s 2015 Pam Muñoz Der Träumer 1
YL 2010 Nadia Budde Such dir was aus, 1
aber beeil dich!
YL 2014 Wolfgang Herrndorf Tschick 8
YL 2013 Nils Mohl Es war einmal Indi- 2
YL 2013 Tamta Melaschwili Abzählen 3
YL 2014 Inés Garland Wie ein unsichtbares 3
YL 2014 Susan Kreller Schneeriese 2
YRP 2009 Suzanne Collins Die Tribute von 2
Panem – Tödliche
YRP 2014 Ursula Poznanski Erebos 3
YRP 2013 Patrick Ness Sieben Minuten nach 1
208 G. Marci-Boehncke

Table 1   (continued)
Section Year of Author Title (in German) Frequency of
publication selectiona
YRP 2012 John Green Das Schicksal ist 7
ein mieser Verräter
(original: The fault in
our stars)
YRP 2014 Raquel J. Palacio Wunder 4
YRP 2015 David Levithan Letztendlich sind wir 4
dem Universum egal
PB picture book, Under 10s books for children under the age of 10 years, YL youth litera-
ture, YRP books selected by the Young Readers’ Panel
aFrequency of selection by students participating in the research project

interpretations: first, submerging in water, and, secondly, disappearing from

family life into a virtual world. The latter can be interpreted as a media word,
the former cannot. The students had to argue using the idea of Wittgenstein
that the meaning of a word is related to the use of it in the respective context.
This step starts the empirically based interpretation on the level of “medialisa-
tion” (Schneider 1998), as it makes clear which of Pross’ (1972) categories
of media occur in the text. But the quantitative perspective combined with an
exact localization (marking the chapter) within the text made a lot of the stu-
dents aware that they might have expected something else. They had never,
previously, read books focusing on that aspect.
• Fourth, the students had to ask which cultures were developed within the story
and to what extent the three levels (micro, mezzo and macro) that Krotz (2012,
p. 37) relates to his theory of mediatization are mapped within the narrative.
The answers should provide categorical support to systematize their interpreta-
tion of the fictional world.
• Fifth, they had to comment on (i) how the identified media impacted on the
culture they identified in the book and at which of the three levels of media-
tization and (ii) to what extent those media reflect the representation of those
media in the ‘reference world’. (iii) What kind of communicative situations
are presented within the text (person-person/person-media/media-media)?
Following this half phase, the students had to comment on the axiological
world—which means that they had to find out whether the text’s author val-
ues the use of media, as a kind of narrative evaluation institution, not always
related to the narrative perspective of the text.
Meta-discourses Between Responsibility and Resistance … 209

• Last, they should estimate the impact of that text according to their own per-
spective as a trainee teacher: is it worthwhile to use that text in school and
what kind of ‘message’ do they think the text offers for school pupils? What
does a teacher need to do to contextualize the reading of that text and to con-
vey a responsible as well as modern and realistic, but also critical media com-
petence? Which historical backgrounds need to be clarified?

Aggregating and analyzing all the students’ work, we can draw conclusions from
the data related to the quality of the analyzed books in the contexts of the repre-
sented mediatized world as well as to the ability of students to critically reflect
those representations.
Students using this research approach had to leave their traditional way of
working and contextualizing children’s books during their studies of German
Language and Literature. Based on a multimodal theoretical framework from
media and communication research as well as from not only specific children
and youth, but also non-specific literature research, they had to combine qualita-
tive as well as empirical methods, even though the latter were rather basic. Our
research not only uses a multi-methodological approach, but is also a transdis-
ciplinary research process. The concept of transdisciplinary research is based on
the idea of a complex world, which makes it necessary to use different domains to
explain social reality (Choi and Pak 2006). Therefore, transdisciplinary research
“deals with problem fields (…) in such a way that it can: (a) grasp the complexity
(…) of problems, (b) take into account the diversity (…) of life-world (…) and
scientific perceptions of problems, (c) link abstract and case-specific knowledge,
and d) develop knowledge and practices that promote what is perceived to be the
common good” (Pohl and Hirsch Hadorn 2008, pp. 431–432).
Since the attitude towards media of trainee teachers is related to their confi-
dence and knowledge about media and media use, it seems worthwhile trying to
influence that knowledge by own research experiences. Understanding the con-
cept of mediatization might help to be aware of the media discourses in a differ-
ent way. Trainee teachers are responsible for education that is based on the habits
and values of the present. Media education is a topic of ‘resistance’. Students
studying German Language and Literature seem to be rather conservative regard-
ing their own image of media users. Although they belong to the generation of
the early adopters of information and communication technologies and are well
equipped with technical items, they proclaim a rather conservative, not to say a
preserving attitude towards children’s use of digital media in the classroom. Deal-
ing with actual data about media use during childhood and comparing this one
210 G. Marci-Boehncke

to the depicted media habits of fictional heroes might influence the way students
value children’s literature. That was the pedagogical and didactical impact of the
project. But now let us focus on the data itself.

4 Mediatization within the Award-winning Books:

An Analysis of the Texts

Starting in winter term 2014/15, 77 students finished writing their research papers
for participation in that project. Most of them did so in their bachelors’ program,
being informed in advance that they would participate in a research project about
mediatization in children’s books and that the project would use their analyses of
qualitative as well as quantitative data. They knew that a couple of students were
working on the same texts and that we would compare their results and interpreta-
The award-winning books from the German Children’s and Youth Literature
Award comprise five categories: picture books (PB); books for young children
up to 10 years (Under 10s); youth literature (YL); non-fiction books (N-F); and,
lastly, books selected by a young readers‘ panel (YRP). The initial quartet of cat-
egories was evaluated by a panel of adult experts belonging to the Working group
for Children and Youth Literature (Arbeitskreis für Kinder- und Jugendliteratur—
AKJ). The AKJ is a quasi-professional association for those who are related to
children and youth literature—such as booksellers, librarians, teachers and uni-
versity professors of German Language and Literature. The titles of the fifth cat-
egory are sometimes the same as those chosen by the AKJ, but mostly the young
readers’ panel suggests different titles as recommendations for their age group.
Initially, the students could choose from among all four categories of the fictional
texts. However, we omitted the non-fiction category.
The books in the corpus for the project were all published between 2010 and
2015 (see Table 1).
Over all, children’s books were the most popular (n = 25), while picture books
were the least popular (n = 12). The most popular book was the German 2011
title tschick by Wolfgang Herrndorf in the section ‘youth literature’ (n = 8), which
appeared as a film in 2016 (directed by Fatih Akin).
Located in eastern Germany, tschick deals with the friendship between two
boys, one from a middle-class family, the other being a recent repatriate from
Russia. Together they leave their families, using a stolen Russian Lada to visit
the Walachei, a historical and geographical region of today’s Romania, which
acts as a synonym for a forgotten, deserted and inhospitable area. The story can
Meta-discourses Between Responsibility and Resistance … 211

be ­characterized as an adolescent road movie. But although this story clearly

addresses young people and their search for identity in contemporary society, the
book is extremely conservative in the context of its portrayed mediatized world.
The second most widely used is American John Green’s 2012 novel Das
Schicksal ist ein mieser Verräter (original: The fault in our stars), currently avail-
able in Germany in its 20th edition, put on screen 2014 by Josh Boone and sug-
gested by the panel of young readers. It is a cancer-story of Hazel and Augustus
(Gus), dealing with the desires when facing death—which means for Hazel: get-
ting into contact with a Dutch author. Although again located in contemporary
America, it is the traditional medium of letter writing that is at the core of the
Some youth-oriented books gain bestseller status, like Erebos (250,000 sales
and translated into 30 languages) and The hunger games (28 million sales and
translated into 51 languages) and dominate the young adults (YA) market. Both
portray dystopian mediatized worlds, but neither of these two books was popular
among the project’s students. One reason for that might be simply volume: they
may have deemed counting media words is easier in briefer texts.
If we focus more closely on the suggested titles, we can see significant differ-
ences in their involvement of media. To compare the contrasting views of young
readers and adult panels, we will initially focus on the books in the former panel’s
selection of books and the youth literature books chosen by the latter panel.

4.1 Young Readers’ Panel’s Selection of Books

Such dir was aus, aber beeil dich! describes childhood in the former communist
part of Germany (GDR) before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Mediatization plays
an important role in the narrative, since the extent to which the political regime
uses media and media control to rule the country and to control its citizens
becomes obvious. Within a family-oriented perspective (micro level), the reader
learns about the impact of private face-to-face communication as well as audio
and audio-visual broadcasts, particularly programs from the West (movie hits
like Star Trek, Star Wars, Batman, Starsky and Hutch and the Muppet Show). The
book also refers to the German TV broadcasting of the 1965 German-Yugoslavian
co-production Winnetou as a coming-of-age story. At the macro level, it becomes
clear that the regime tries to control media habits, TV is brought into political line
and privacy for telephone calls is not respected. Government, through the medium
of posters, tries to establish an identification with the political system. The com-
munity acts to undermine the strategy, watching the prohibited “­West-German
212 G. Marci-Boehncke

television”. In this manner, the book—as a comic or graphic novel—addresses

mediatization and does so using text as well as pictures. Although ‘childhood’
might be the priority topic of the book, it is a mediatized childhood, and the
specific profile of childhood in the GDR is shown by the patterns of behavior
towards and experience with mediatization. The book addresses the more youth-
ful experiences of the older generations in both sides of the divided Germany.
Former GDR residents could compare the fictional childhood to their own expe-
riences, whereas former West-Germany residents could compare their childhood
experiences to the childhood of their former German neighbors. The historical
gap works twice in that text: it is both a generation gap and a political gap. Both
influence the reader’s knowledge and possible identification with the narrator.
Furthermore, the gap is one of experience, facing a specific mediatized time and
surrounding. Mediatization is part of the narrative: at the micro level in private
communication and a politically subversive media biography; at a mezzo level in
enforced conformity of the TV channels; and at a macro level in state-control of
In tschick, both juvenile protagonists live in a contemporaneous mediatized
world. Real-life stars like Beyoncé link the story to the real world as well as
Grand Theft Auto (GTA), laptops and mobile phones. The two boys make their
road-movie trip to find their own identity—necessarily without digital media to
avoid being localized. One might interpret this poetically—as a trip to the own
self—or literally as a critical view on the constant accessibility to communica-
tion caused by digitization. In their interpretations, the research students feel the
absence of digital media was a moral value of the book. It is still unclear whether
this perspective is authentic or whether it represents an anticipation of expectation.
The book Es war einmal Indianerland tells the story of a nameless protago-
nist about coming of age in a poor region in Hamburg. The 17-year-old youth is
mostly influenced by movies, which he views on DVDs on his laptop. Money is
important to participate in the contemporary media society, but he has little of
it, which makes a major goal of his need to buy a mobile phone to communi-
cate with his upper-class girlfriend. Social differences are profiled as differences
in media habits. The text portrays the beginning of the digital communication
area—since the gap in mobile phone ownership was a social gap for only a brief
period. Seven years before the iPhone came onto the market, 50 % of all teen-
agers (aged 11–19 years) were owners of a mobile phone; one year later it was
almost 75 % and in 2005 more than 90 % (MPFS 2005, p. 10). Children from
the German type of secondary education known as Hauptschule, which is often
associated with children of lower income families, spent more money on mobile
telephony than their peers in other types of school. So, although they place a high
Meta-discourses Between Responsibility and Resistance … 213

social value on mobile phones, ownership does not reflect any social difference.
In the book’s plot, it is Edda who writes post-cards and works in a video store,
who becomes the protagonist’s final number one girl. Her ‘old-fashioned’ media
habit of sending post-cards plays a key role in the girl’s race to win the prince.
Although the research students did communicate this traditional but out of favor
media habit as the reason for selecting the book, it is the overall conservative
media portrait which shapes her character as ‘the better one’.
Tamara Melaschwili’s story Abzählen tells about two girls in the Georgian War
in 2008, in which not only their childhoods were destroyed, but so were commu-
nication media. This means that contacts and information, which are highly rel-
evant especially in conflict situations, were inaccessible and did not work on the
micro, the mezzo or the macro level. Even though primary media alone function,
this is not a media-critical book. Still, the story shows how important media are
both for society as well as for childhood.
Wie ein unsichtbares Band by Inés Garland is located during the time of the
Argentinian military dictatorship in the 1970s. The female narrator-figure is a
30-year-old adult remembering her childhood in a wealthy family. Her memo-
ries involve first love, friendships and adolescent problems, particularly political
repression. Domestic analog media—radio, TV, telephone—have a high-profile
role in her home. By contrast, her classmates from lower income families who
do not have any access to analog media just collect post-cards and read books.
Books (like Demian by Hermann Hesse) seem to be the most important ‘good’
media and are juxtaposed with the American culture of that time. The injustices
of that era become obvious by the coexistence of modern (analog) and traditional
(written and printed) media, with usage depending on the societal level of the
individual. Modern media are associated with the shallow characters of the win-
ners of the period, i.e. the wealthy and the military, whereas the deeper characters
of the lower income groups, who are the victims of the military dictatorship, are
associated with traditional media.
Schneeriese is a love story—narrated by a male protagonist. The story
includes a lot of primary and secondary media. Although the story occurs in the
world of 2010, media do not have a significant role in the plot.

4.2 Adult Panel’s Selection of Books

Media are omnipresent in the modern dystopia of The hunger games trilogy and
have enabled the creation of a 1984 like surveillance state. Although portrayed
in a most negative way, digital media are a topic—as well as integral to public
214 G. Marci-Boehncke

r­ elations and advertising. These tools are part of the narrated world and are highly
attractive to the (positive) protagonists who use them at the end of the trilogy to
depose the (negative) dictator. The book does not portray a juxtaposition of old
‘good’ and new ‘bad’ media. The negative excesses are criticized—but the media
per se are objects of an accepted fictional world.
In the dystopian fantasy world of Erebos, the links to real world media are
clear with digital platforms like Google, Facebook and Twitter being mentioned
explicitly. Erebos does not demonize computer games per se, but shows at least
how successfully young adults are able to reflect on what they are doing and
remain resistant to immoral missions. They act in a digitally responsible and suc-
cessful manner within a modern digital media society.
In Sieben Minuten nach Mitternacht, a grandmother who uses digital media to
send birthday-greetings and order pizzas, tries to prevent her grandson, who suf-
fers from his mother’s terminal illness, from his excessive use of computer games.
Although her attitude seems to be positive, she does not comment on the gratifica-
tions of the games, but only on the risks. Avoiding reality by immersing oneself
in media stories could be viewed positively as the ‘flow’, by which teenage girls
get into the plot. In the context of computer games and contemporary society, this
personal strategy of escaping reality is always problematized in social discourses.
Hazel, the female protagonist of Das Schicksal ist ein mieser Verräter, loves
books and poems, she writes e-mails and uses a laptop, her music comes from an
MP3 player, and there are even more modern digital media mentioned in the text.
Hazel’s idol, a Dutch author, Peter von Houten, is a media conservative. Hazel
is, near the end, most critical of his negative attitude towards digital media as it
almost prevents Hazel from meeting him. The media of the present are portrayed
realistically and there is a coexistence of old (analog) and new (digital) media.
Darth Vader is the strong and psychologically important hero of Wunder’s pro-
tagonist, August (Augie). E-mails, computers, iMacs, Xboxes, PlayStations—vir-
tually all digital media are present, and using them represents a normal everyday
practice of contemporary children. Although August’s habit of wearing the mask
of Darth Vader will gradually diminish and finally cease, this is not an inher-
ently explicit media critique, but the coming of age of the protagonist August. He
finally gains the inner strength of self-confidence to avoid hiding his face behind
the mask of a fantasy hero. Nevertheless, this hero has been a worthwhile assis-
tant in Augie’s development.
Letztlich sind wir dem Universum egal tells the story of the nameless pro-
tagonist “A” who awakens daily with the identity of someone else living in the
world. He adopts the life of that person for 24 hours. By chance, he finds himself
in a relationship with a girl who holds a one-sided love for the boy he is that
Meta-discourses Between Responsibility and Resistance … 215

day. In contrast to the real boyfriend, “A” falls in love with the girl and tries to
contact her during his future identities. The mediatized world of the text seems
to be close to the 21st century digital world of the USA. Computers, e-mails, cell-
phones are present and relevant as well as libraries and bookstores. The discourse
on the issue of a “physiological mediality” draws philosophical lines from the
enlightenment to the existentialism of, for example Albert Camus and the neo-
existentialism of Nobel-prized Jacques Monod. The latter combines philosophy
and biology in Chance and necessity (1971), which can be read fruitfully in pre-
sent contexts of artificial intelligence and a developing mediatization.

5 Discussion: Responsibility and Resistance in Texts

About Texts About Mediatization

The students who took part in the project all summed up their participation as
fruitful, inspiring and enriching. The theoretical backgrounds were not easy for
them to acquire. Pross and Bonfadelli seemed to be more easy to understand
than the theory of mediatization, which was—although roughly summed up cor-
rectly—not really understood and simply equated to medialisation (see Ampuja
et al. 2014), the simple presence of media without taking into account any social
context, without referring to the different impact on the individual, institution and
society, without recognizing interpersonal communication, the communication of
man and media and the one of media and man (see Krotz 2007a). The students
barely understood that mediatization means a reflective view on the presence and
the use of media at a certain time. The idea that the view on mediatization corre-
sponds to Hegel who argues for philosophy as “its time apprehended in thoughts”
(Hegel 1896, p. xxviii; see Rath 2014 and his chapter in this book) did not exist in
the students’ analyses. The greatest problems for the students occurred in under-
standing mediatization within the context of social epochs that are determined by
media technique, presence and individual as well as institutional and governmen-
tal practice. The position of the students towards the narrated literary worlds was
highly valued out of their own present world as well as their anticipated world as
becoming teachers. Responsibility for them mostly meant “teaching children not
to spend too much time with digital media”.
Therefore, resistance for most of them became the impact of responsibility. A
responsible media education tries to make children resistant to the influence of
digital media. The process of comparing and relating perspectives and eras and
attitudes—individual as well as institutional or cultural—towards each other
seems to be very ambitious, not to say an excessive demand. Nevertheless, the
216 G. Marci-Boehncke

project did benefit students in five ways. First, they gained a first understanding of
the theories underpinning communication research. Secondly, they gained practi-
cal experience of empirical methods of analysis. Thirdly, they should reflect on
social science data to reach a representative view of social presence and media
practices of a particular era. This point of view seems to be very hard and only
a few students could comment on that question. Fourthly, they were encouraged
to reflect on their attitude towards mediatization and its importance in relation to
their responsibility as both novice and qualified teachers. Although most of them
didn’t quite understand the whole impact of the theory of mediatization, even the
research focus on the simple presence of technical media within a story changed
their awareness for the impact of an ‘adequacy’ of the narrated world in rela-
tion to the young readers’ expectations. Thereby, fifth, they gained a new level
of self-awareness in their professional role as teachers. Unfortunately, a media
moralistic view (“Medienmoralisierung”, Kerlen 2005, p. 42) dominates most
of the students’ analyses. Individually, they focus their interpretation, regardless
of their book choice, on the ‘printed book’ as the only acceptable and worth-
while medium besides personal interaction. They could not ignore the impact of
mediatization within their analyzed story and had to comment on the relation-
ship between the mediatized world of that texts to the readers’ contemporary
21st century society. “Stirring up methodological habits and (anticipated) profes-
sional attitudes” was the aim of my own responsibility as an educator of trainee
teachers. The didactical concept of the research was a request to stay flexible and
informed within contemporary media society.
Resistance, therefore, means both becoming strong and resisting the impact of
influence and control of media industries as well as enabling students to resist
traditional job descriptions and images as well as attitudes. Changing those atti-
tudes, as Blackwell et al. (2014, pp. 82–90) argue, could be motivated by expe-
riences from a new practice. The gaining of a new perspective of mediatization
theory and using methods from social science might not seem important—but is a
worthy goal.


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Sex Machines as Mediatized Sexualities:
Ethical and Social Implications

Nicole Duller and Joan Ramon Rodriguez-Amat

Sex machines are also communication practices. This chapter considers ­sexual
interactions with technological devices as mediatized sexualities. Media are inte-
grated in the definition of most of the contexts of human life—and the combina-
tion of the mediatization perspective with an Actor-Network Theory enables an
organic cross-disciplinary discussion about technologies across specific socio-
cultural fields. Sex machines, hybrids of fundamental humanness and either or
both artificiality and artifactuality, push the boundaries and raise social and ethical
discussions about the limits of the integrated circuit involving society, individu-
als, culture, values, interactivity and intercourse. Therefore, a consideration of sex
machines enriches media discussions on technologies, communicative, social and
cultural practices and ethical debates. This chapter starts with a discussion on how
sex machines belong to the world of mediatized sexualities. After an introductory
section on mediatization, ethics and sex machines, the argument builds on a typol-
ogy of sex machines (similarity, extension, substitution, sublimation, sensuality
and creativity) to provide a discussion on ethical issues. The debates consider,
amongst others, robots, surveillance, psychological, sociological and body-related
concerns, which are also relevant for media and communication studies.

N. Duller (*) 
Institut für Medien- und Kommunikationswissenschaft, Alpen-Adria-Universität
Klagenfurt, Klagenfurt, Österreich
J. R. Rodriguez-Amat 
Department of Media Arts and Communication, Sheffield Hallam University,
Sheffield, UK

© Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden GmbH, part of Springer Nature 2019 221

T. Eberwein et al. (eds.), Responsibility and Resistance, Ethik in mediatisierten
222 N. Duller and J. R. Rodriguez-Amat

Mediatization · Media ethics · Sex machines · Mediatized sexualities · 
Sex robots · Media technologies · Surveillance · Artificial
intelligence · Technology governance

1 Introduction: Mediatization, Ethics and Sex


The second annual conference on Love and sex with robots would have taken
place in Malaysia in October 2015, but was cancelled. Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar,
the Malaysian Inspector-General of Police, said in a press conference: “I am
warning the organizers: do not try to be funny to hold such an abnormal event in
this country. We will take stern actions against them. This nation does not con-
done free sex. It is an offence here to have anal sex, what more with robots? This
is ridiculous. These people are trying to bring an unnatural culture to this coun-
try and this is forbidden (…) I am giving warning to hold such an event here in
Malaysia” (Khalid Abu Bakar 2015). Instead, the conference was held in London
in December 2016.
As this example shows, media and ‘moral judgement’ already articulate dis-
courses on sex machines involving the de-humanization of sex or the social and
normative impacts of machinized sexuality. Reporters Without Bordersʼ annual
ranking of countries on press freedom places Malaysia 146th; the United States,
where the annual Arse Elektronika takes place, ranks 41st, Austria 11th, Germany
16th and Great Britain 38th (Reporter ohne Grenzen 2016). Discussions about
freedom of expression and sex machines do not cover all of the issues in this area.
Cultural and technological transformations lead to new intersubjectively consti-
tuted moral norms; and new values are in a delicate balance with the changes in
the regulatory frameworks. Ethical concerns are in a constant basic tension with
legal-political concerns—in the case of sex machines, for instance, the conflict
between personal desires and moral responsibility: legal discourses do not replace
ethical ones and vice versa (Wiegerling 2015). Research and understandings
involving governance of sex machines require the consideration and combination
of the competing views and values around them.
Furthermore, “in times of deep mediatization (…) media (…) are (…) more
connected with each other, omnipresent, and driven by a rapid pace of innova-
tion and datafication” (Hepp and “Communicative Figurations” research net-
work 2017, p. 6). Sexuality feels it too: the first Playboy cover after its no-nudity
rebranding was a Snapchat-like shot, published on Twitter (Addady 2016).
Sex Machines as Mediatized Sexualities … 223

­ ornhub’s 2016 yearly review confirmed that at 99 GB per second, 3110 Peta-
bytes of video had been streamed worldwide, totaling 4599 million hours of
porn on Pornhub alone (this is half a million years!) (Pornhub 2017). Within
this framework, debates on ethics applied to communication processes cannot
be reduced to media ethics: “Social media are promising spaces of enhancing
democracy and human rights and spaces of control at the same time” (Sarikakis
and Rodriguez-Amat 2012, p. 556); but sex machines are sexual devices, lan-
guages, consumption, production and cultural references that epitomize the exten-
sion of mediatized sexualities, machine-mediated sex cultures, politics of the
body, nano-integration of body-machine circuitry, networked societies and cyber
ethics. Surveillance and control are the threats raised by the new data-connected
environments, while the creative hybridity of pleasure and desires stimulates
intriguing business models striving for commercial profit. Sex machines give rise
to a number of ethical and legal questions and spread concerns about both com-
munication through machines and intercourse with machines. It is necessary to
discuss their ethical environment before they get (in)famous for some damage
caused: it is worth preparing for further regulation.
Sex machines are technological devices to intimately interact with. The
term ‘machine’ is used in its broad sense: hybrid actors in the form of net-
works of artifacts, things, humans, signs, norms, organizations, texts and many
more (Bellinger and Krieger 2006). Machines are a means of transformation.
Their performance constitutes them as sex machines, incorporating their social
value beyond their technical composition. Instead of closing a definition of sex
machines, reducing them to their materiality, we open here their definition to their
performance by considering the constellation of pieces of metal and flesh, con-
necting components of technologies with body parts with information flows, with
data infrastructures, with narrations of desires within histories of sexuality. The
widespread use of smartphones and apps, the fast developments in robotics, Vir-
tual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR), the computer-generated enhance-
ment of one’s senses (Kipper and Rampolla 2012) and the Internet open new
opportunities to Make- and Do-It-Yourself (DIY) cultures and stimulates busi-
ness models like crowdfunding and crowdsourcing. The connection of devices
and objects, the Internet of Things, takes media convergence to a new level. Mas-
turbational devices and sex toys can go online, enabling remote control sensor
motions from mobile devices. Customizable human-like robots are designed for
sexual intercourse (Petrakovitz 2017), virtual sex worlds emerge, and the motors
of kitchen aid tools are transformed into home-made fucking machines (Archibald
2005). Biometrics in the bedroom (Machulis 2009), merging neuroscience and
biology, promise brain-to-brain sex interfaces (Owsianik et al. n. d.). Technology-
224 N. Duller and J. R. Rodriguez-Amat

assisted self-love is changing the physical action of masturbation (Tallon-Hicks

2017) and sex machines amplify, extend and transform sexual intercourse. In
this broad sense, then, wired and connected sex machines are a means of media-
tion and of production of meaning, of communication and of transformation. Sex
machines emerge at the edge of humanity. Enhancers of what is most intimately
human, mediators of what the Victorian legacy banned to the secret corners of
banal everyday life, sex machines materialize a double secret, the one that trivi-
alizes sex by explicitly enhancing it, and the one that mechanizes sexuality and
pleasure trespassing in a thought-to-be strictly human realm. Sex machines are
embodiments of mediatized sexualities.
Our aim here is to extend research on sex machines involving the field of
media and communication studies by moving beyond the media representations
of sex machines and exploring them as symptomatic of a deeply mediatized soci-
ety and from an Actor-Network Theory approach.
The meta-process of mediatization sees “everyday life and identity, culture
and society changing in relation to media development” (Krotz 2014, p. 79) and
leaves no place in society not related to “technologically based media of com-
munication, which are all becoming digital” (Hepp and “Communicative Figura-
tions” research network 2017, p. 14). The rise and extension of media reaching
all the corners of the life world and the associated development of the Internet
of Things, increase both ethical concerns and critical issues for social science
research (Albury et al. 2017). Discussions on ethics have emerged in parallel
with scholarly and philosophical concerns on the social presence of media, and
with historically competing theories of communication. The extended tradition of
mediatization is a useful starting point from which to follow the process of devel-
opment and produsage of new media (Rath 2014), including love and sex with
and by machines.
Also, by considering sex machines as a network of communication practices—
devices, bodies, social understandings, cultural meanings, technopolitics, politi-
cal economies—on mediatized sexualities, we can formulate ethical questions
involving responsibility, particularly because sex machines, far from being neutral
devices, are technologies, and as sexuality is, they are dispositifs of power (Fou-
cault 1983). Hence, sex machines inform a field of political tensions, including
rules of imposed normality and patterns of hegemony, dissonance, negotiation,
discrepancy and resistance. Indeed, the merging of human bodies and machines
fails when substantial traditional categories are taken for granted. The shortcut
that assumes a prior untouched entity—body or machine—tends to exclude what
is actually meaningful. Therefore, a creative, daring and interdisciplinary analysis
Sex Machines as Mediatized Sexualities … 225

is key. In the field of sex machines, Kant’s categorical imperative and Aristote-
lian ethics meet with Asimov’s three laws of robotics: a robot should not injure
humans, must obey them and must protect its own existence (Asimov 2007).
Also, biotechnologies and communications technologies “become the crucial
tools recrafting our body” (Haraway 2004). Haraway’s cyborg, Foucault’s gov-
ernmentality enabled by Callon’s and Latour’s Actor-Network Theory (Latour
2010) help in dealing with sex machines as meshed networks of body, machine,
values and pleasure, regulation and practices, power and empowerment. The
resulting circuitry of flowing processes of interaction and intercourse explains a
technosexual life world, articulated by the convergence of bodies, technologies
and machines, and enables discussion on questions concerning individual and
social impacts posed by sex with machines.
The discussion about sex machines within the field of the mediatization of sex-
uality opens a critical front according to which sex machines are embodiments of
a discourse of sexuality that involves power and understandings. In this sense, a
proper analysis of sex machines as mediatization should help, taking them as “dis-
cursive facts”. This is analyzing “the way in which sex is put into discourse” (Fou-
cault 1978, p. 11). The mediatization approach allows dealing with sex machines
as significant systems of inter-device mediations, of cultural meanings and their
mutual transformation—and the inclusion of the Internet of Things to a certain
extent. Furthermore, tracing the circuit of integration of society, individuals, cul-
ture, technology, values, interactivity and mediating sex machines as a network
of actors in the machine-mediated area of sexuality should shed light on the ethi-
cal implications of the process, introducing questions about responsibility sharing
between robots, emotions, sensuality and humanity; or about the hybridity of fun-
damental humanity in their artifactuality, or the artificiality of their humanity.
By considering sex machines from this double perspective, this chapter defines
and maps lines of ethical open discussions. Debates emerge in the double con-
text: from one side, the prejudices and cultural displacements of the field of sex
machines, and from the other, the extensive integration of media devices within
the social fabric. This situation is taken here as an opportunity. After a short dis-
cussion on mediatization and machines, sex machines are brought to the center by
introducing the field of research and linking sex machines to media research. The
final section of this chapter outlines the fundamental ethical debates that emerge
against a six-section typology of sex machines: each one of the six types of sex
machines constructs a constellation of actors and relations—and also sets particu-
lar ethical questions that should be considered while anticipating the development
of this exponentially growing field.
226 N. Duller and J. R. Rodriguez-Amat

2 Sex Machines

Sex machines have long been present in science fiction and popular culture. Even
early referents, such as when Ovid’s Pygmalion fell in love with his own carved
statue, were updates from previous Greek and Phoenician myths. From Pinocchio
to Gothic and Romantic literature such as Frankenstein or the cinematographic
Maria from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), the animated TV series Futurama or
the current TV series Real humans, the possibility of love and sex with robots
has not been unusual. Sex machines also appear in pornography and in art: clas-
sically, Archibald’s (2005) insight into the subculture of self-made machines.
Even more, in 2013 Spike Jonze directed Her (2013), a man in love with a voice-
activated operating system, anticipating a very current trend: “26 % of regular
voice tech users say they have had a sexual fantasy about their voice assistant”
(Pounder and Cherian 2017). Of course, Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Windows’
Cortana and Google are computer-managed voice-assisted devices that fit the
label of sex machines. Also, the publicist and film critic Seeßlen wrote a trilogy
about sexuality within the high-tech world (Seeßlen 2011a, b, 2012) in which he
analyzed a range of examples around technology and sex.
However, though the possibility of love and sex with robots stimulates many
discussions, this research area lacks empirical studies and conceptual sources
(Royakkers and van Est 2015; Bendel 2015). Governance and regulation on
robots, even if reductive, are a start. They are a “widespread public and political
debate and efforts (…) to regulate all kinds of social and ethical issues” (Roy-
akkers and van Est 2015, p. 566), and the European Union is working on Civil
Law Rules on Robotics (Delvaux 2017). The development and implementation of
this Civil Law addresses and governs general, legal and ethical principles regard-
ing the growth, research and use of robotics and Artificial Intelligence including
“human safety, privacy, integrity, dignity and autonomy (…) standardization,
intellectual property rights, data ownership, employment and liability” (Delvaux
2017, p. 27). In the category of home robots, robots have been treated as enter-
tainment or amusement that invite physical and social interaction. However, some
ethical and regulatory issues have already been raised: emotional development,
de-socialization, sex with robots with regard to issues of adultery, illicit sexual
practices, sex slavery and sex trafficking, prostitution and sex with child-robots
(Royakkers and van Est 2015). Other discourses on sex robots focus on attach-
ment (Turkle 2011); the cost and availability of humanoid robots for health care
(Levy 2012; Sharkey and Sharkey 2010); or around sexual interaction as assis-
tance for sex of disabled or older adults, as a way to “enrich life and contribute
Sex Machines as Mediatized Sexualities … 227

to good health” (Bendel 2015, p. 29). Some studies refer to the role of sexbots as
prostitutes (Yeoman and Mars 2012), while others consider other opportunities
for sexual interactions: for example, physically disabled people who sometimes
struggle with realizing their own sexuality (Withnall 2017) or of enhancing rela-
tionships, by solving mobility-derived issues between geographically separated
human partners (Archibald 2005). Research on Human-Robot Interaction (Levy
2007) and Human Computer Interaction (HCI) has highlighted that if HCI is in
charge of designing technologies for supporting, enhancing and improving human
life, “to relegate sexuality to the margins is to shirk that responsibility” (Kannabi-
ran et al. 2011, p. 702).
Broadening the scope from just robots, research on sex machines has had mul-
tiple strands and perspectives—for instance, the archaeology in American sex
machines (Levins 1996) about devices and inventions from 1840 until the mid-
1990s, or the history of psychotherapy, with Maines (2001) overviewing the his-
tory of hysteria and its treatment with mechanical devices, like the vibrator. Isaac
Leung (2009) explores the cultural representations of sex machines and suggests
an early classification, and there is some more work in Porn Studies (Cruz 2016).
Queer and Gender Studies (Lutschinger and Binx 2008) provide material on the
gender-subversive potential of the narration of the female robot that is an ambiva-
lent and challenging alternative to traditional gender dualisms, hence showing the
“possibilities of empowerment and liberation in technology” (Kang 2005, p. 18).
The published anthologies of Arse Elektronika events (Grenzfurthner et al. 2008,
2009, 2011, 2013) are still the most elaborate discussions on the topic of sex
machines, to date.
Of course, there are also critical voices around sex machines. Rheingold
(1991) pointed out, more than 20 years ago, questions regarding the ethics, secu-
rity and privacy of teledildonics. Cybersex is highly technologized masturba-
tion with a new means (Eerikäinen 2003) and therefore the concept of ‘post-sex’
becomes the ultimate link in a long tradition of disciplination of the body and the
senses. Opposite to the thesis of the liberation of sexuality from physical limi-
tations, Eerikäinen considers that the technological fragmentation of the organic
body results in the desire for organs without a body (Eerikäinen 2003). Chunks of
technology materialize the desires of the body and mind.
Sex machines are technology that mediates, enhances, connects and commu-
nicates humans with and between themselves—with the inner intimate parts of
themselves. As far as they mediate, sex machines are media. Generally speak-
ing, media are objects or circumstances that enable communication, and it is
their functional or relational and transformational aspect that defines media
228 N. Duller and J. R. Rodriguez-Amat

(Mock 2006). As communication forms the basis of emotional and social rela-
tions, any change in the conditions for these relations might transform emo-
tional and social links and the ways in which we live and make sense of the
world (Krotz 2014). Advanced technologies, like artificial companions and social
robots, will transform culture and they will be integral to social and communica-
tive actions (Pfadenhauer and Dukat 2014).

3 Six Types of Sex Machines and Six Ethics Debates

Considering their mediating function, six different types of sex machines were
identified (Duller and Rodriguez-Amat 2012). The classification includes sex
machines of similarity, of extension, of substitution, of sublimation, of sensuality
and sex machines of creativity. As Fig. 1 shows, the six types of machines, defined
by their function, approach the six dimensions differently: sex machines of simi-
larity—those that try to be similar to humans—score high on the dimension
of human subject, on that of pleasure and wish, and not much on the machine-
extended body or on the cyborg dimension. The diagram helps to explore the
fundamental differences of ‘intention’ related to each type of machine: whether
they intend to become humans or are rather extensions for a human body; if they
grow in the fantasy of the sublime or are environments of sensual arousal. These
six types of sex machines raise different debates about power and they also offer
grounds for ethical debates. Each type will be shortly described and related to the
ethical discussions that it triggers.
Sex machines of similarity imitate humans. Their fundamental characteris-
tic is the effort put on making them human-like. Humanoid robots, or sexbots,
might include face mimics and skin texture interfaces. Sex dolls like HarmonyAI
make a timely example as this was the first sex robot with Artificial Intelligence
(Petrakovitz 2017), a mouldable personality, and a learning capacity from what
is said to her. Science fiction and the collective imaginary to the god-playing
creation of humanity has made similarity machines thinkable, and if the busi-
ness grows in line with Moore’s law on the speed of computing development,
soon robots will be as ubiquitous as computers are today (Lin 2012). The abun-
dant normality of robots is in tension with their difference as machines: “Once a
robot like Harmony is on the market, she will know a lot more about her owner
than a vibrator ever could” (Kleeman 2017). As in The uncanny valley, the more
robots resemble real human beings, the more they make us feel uncomfortable
(Mori 2012).
Sex Machines as Mediatized Sexualities … 229

Fig. 1   Six types of sex machines and the mediation functions they prioritize. Source
Duller and Rodriguez-Amat (2012)

The ethics debates triggered by sex machines of similarity involve whatever

implications their appearance of humanity might suggest, opening ethical debates
in two directions: first, the rights of robots as beings, owners of rights themselves,
acquired from living within humans; and second, the alleged threat to human
rights such as the freedom from degrading treatment (and the right to preserve
one’s reputation). The former type of debate has generated a great amount of lit-
erature for a long time (McNally and Inayatullah 1988; Levy 2012; Redan 2014).
The latter, instead, generates more debate in specific cases: for instance, McMul-
len, owner of Realbotix and creator of Harmony, refuses to make animals or chil-
dren and considers that he will need permission from celebrities to produce dolls
inspired by them (Gurley 2015).
230 N. Duller and J. R. Rodriguez-Amat

Sex machines of extension are not humanoids. They are interactive devices
that extend the human body towards what Auhagen calls interpersonal globali-
zation (2002). Teledildonics or interactive cyber-devices exemplify this type of
sex machine: Fleshlight is a flashlight shaped masturbational device for men,
made of moulded silicone resembling a human orifice. The device includes the
option of synchronization with VR content or online to other users (Fleshlight
2017). Similarly, Kiiroo Onyx (for him) connects with Kiiroo Pearl (for her) via
Bluetooth and wirelessly to the Internet, enabling intercourse with other Kiiroo
users through an online video-chat interface and possibilities to socially network
­(Kiiroo 2017).
These devices do not pretend to approach humanity, because they are no
more human than a mobile phone. Instead, they raise issues related to their
(online) connectivity. Access online and Internet navigation require identifica-
tion and connection, and this means that the use of those devices involves giv-
ing up anonymity and privacy. Actually, the devices inevitably produce data and
metadata that will be stored in computing clouds—that is, on somebody else’s
computer. The discussion is not only about the generation of data. The technical-
ities of connected devices demand device identification and only with adequate
policies could that identification be encrypted or made inaccessible. However,
data will still be generated and it is most likely that brands, producers and who-
ever profits of the products will be interested in collecting that information. The
ethics debate emerges then, when one asks about ownership, access and the util-
ity of that information—and about the threats posed by this information. The
Data Ethics Decision Aid (DEDA) at Utrecht University (DEDA 2017) or the
recent research by Andrejevic (2016) on drone theory as the automated gener-
ation of data are referential starting points on critical data discussions—as are
the ethics-oriented works by Zwitter (2014) on big data and Catellani (2016) on
Not intimidated by the need to resemble the human body, sex machines of
substitution look like machines. They have the appearance of an assemblage of
parts—motors, metal, silicon, lubricated for play and pleasure. They are often
customized or handmade and emerge surrounded by an industrial aura. The
fantasy they appeal to involves both, the pleasant action of the machine and the
nudity of its machinery. Machines free of bodily conventions stimulate fantasies
and integrate what Bataille identified as “the two primary motions (…) rotation
and sexual movement, (as) expressed by the locomotive’s wheels and pistons”
(2008, p. 6). The best-known example of machines of substitution is Fuckzilla, a
sex robot also presented at Arse Elektronika in 2007 (Hartwell 2007).
Sex Machines as Mediatized Sexualities … 231

Sex machines of substitution trigger debates related to health and safety.

Obviously, the discussion about device-produced sensations lead to the dan-
gers intrinsic to the notion of machine, but for sex machines of substitution the
claim is particularly relevant: the intentionally designed nakedness makes them
particularly dangerous, because hiding bolts and wheels, pistons and engines is
not aesthetic, but safer, too. In a review of the Arlan Robotics Service Droid 1.0,
the journalist wrote: “even if it doesn’t injure your genitals, (…) it will injure
your notion of self-worth” (Maiberg 2017). The health and safety ethical debate
would confront the materials (the hygienic condition, the possibility of having
them cleaned and the solidity of components) and the machinery (the prevention
of risks, the safety buttons, the supervision and maintenance). All these aspects
might turn into regulatory matters with the commercialization of the devices,
particularly considering their production origins. However, before that point, the
issue starts as ethical concerns about safety from producers, conditions of con-
sumption or commercialization.
Sex machines of sublimation are the transmedia products of fantasy and fic-
tion in their most wondrous and creative kind. Pornographic monsters as cultural
bodies: attachable tentacle shaped sci-fi dildos, 3D objects originated in monster
porn sites or the fantasy-themed sex toys of Bad Dragon (Bad Dragon 2017),
each delivered with an erotic story about a fictional character created around the
device. The fictional narrative of the monstrous penetrates factual flesh in unu-
sual, stimulating and seducing, terrific and horrible ways. Sex machines of the
sublime then come into being as hybrid figures and fragments, expressions of the
cultural and social phenomena. The transgressive monstrous “embodies sexual
practices that must not be committed, or that may be committed only through the
body of the monster” (Cohen 1996, p. 14).
The dangers that inspire ethical debates in machines of sublimation start with
the loss of reference of the fictional world and the suspension of disbelief: sto-
rytelling requires the joy of disbelieving and the narrative contract can be eas-
ily confused amidst the body pleasures. The danger is that the extension of both
worlds in contact could lead to the loss of the limits between the game and the
real world: psychology and psychiatry have described this loss of reference of
reality and have helped to set the criteria for its diagnosis. However, when the
principle of wish meets the principle of desire, when the fantasy touches the skin,
the limits must be considered. It is a thin line that mediates between fairplay,
foreplay, the arousal condition and the actual body in its limitations. Classically,
­Valverde (1989) and Warner (2000) have dealt with those debates.
232 N. Duller and J. R. Rodriguez-Amat

The fifth type is sex machines of sensuality. Destined to enhance the human
senses, they provide environments of pleasure. The body is “where paths and
spaces come to meet” (Foucault 2006, p. 233)—a cold breeze on warm skin, the
smell of fully pink raspberries on a hot summer day, sharp rocks in the sea pen-
etrated by the moon’s gravitation tide. Erotic landscapes, spaces and rooms inten-
tionally crafted to stimulate pleasure are also sex machines. Haptic responses
from mobile devices, sensors detecting and transmitting data and motions, 3D
holograms, VR and AR, all of these play a role and transform the ordinary into
sexual spaces. Woody Allen’s classic fictional device the orgasmatron (Sleeper
1973) fits as an example of this kind of machine. The abovementioned voice
assistants could be considered as machines of sensuality. Pushing it a little fur-
ther, brain-to-brain sex interfaces, pleasure implants and the sexnet of things
(Owsianik et al. n. d.) could be forthcoming inventions for the near future.
ELIZA could be a case close to voice assistants. Weizenbaum’s precedent to
Artificial Intelligence, invented between 1964 and 1966, led its engineer to state
that had he known what he was initiating, he would not have done it (Schanze and
Malek-Mahdav 2010). ELIZA simulates communication, and this raises ethical
and cultural issues (Krotz 2014). In this sense, if the dangers of the machines of
sublimation were of a psychological and perceptive nature, the discussion here
falls in the social dimension and the ‘effect’ of the social being substituted by a
computing device. The dangers of addiction and of social disconnection emerge
as a possibility and as ethical concerns.
Finally, sex machines of creativity are self-made and improvised or emerge by
chance—a bicycle jerking over rough slopes, a vibrating washing machine, an
oscillating instrument. Allen Stein, inventor of the thrillhammer, “one of the first
commercial Internet controlled sex machines” (Stein 2009, p. 151), remembers
when reaching the low tunes while playing trombone in his high school band: “I
filled the bottom with my deeper rumble and was very amused that my genitals
would tingle on some lower notes. Wow! I was playing a giant musical vibrator!”
(Stein 2009, p. 152). These are the sex machines built by oneself (do-it-your-
self style) and they raise another strand of ethical debates: the one that shadows
creativity, intellectual property—the right to invent, ethics of originality and the
subsequent issues derived from potential market, profit-making and struggles of
To exemplify this, in 1998, a patent was issued for the Method and device for
interactive virtual control of sexual aids using digital computer networks (Pat. US
6368268 B1 2002). That patent now rules the field of teledildonics, “blocking the
development in the interactive sex arena” (Owsianik 2015a). TZU ­Technologies
Sex Machines as Mediatized Sexualities … 233

owns the patent that expired only in 2018 and has filed lawsuits against any
efforts trying to bring innovation to the field (Owsianik 2015b). This intellectual
property debate aligns with the last ethical debate: the regulation of creation—via
intellectual property—marketizes an area of improvised invention and of innova-
tive possibilities.
The field of sex machines is growing amidst the struggles of commercial
interests, moral and legal discussions, the threat of psychological and social con-
cerns, within a symbolic and cultural context of values (sometimes against sex
machines). Furthermore, the link of sex machines with the spheres of the inti-
mate and of privacy—sometimes related to health—makes the discussion about
surveillance and data very relevant. All of them are quite persuasive reasons to
theoretically build the field of sex machines and explore it further, empirically,
normatively and critically.

4 Discussion
We must not think that by saying yes to sex, one says no to power. (Foucault
1978, p. 157)

The discussion on the ethics around sex machines has barely started. This chapter
mapped out the field and outlined potential areas of reflection that go beyond the
reductive, religiously induced, Victorian prejudice of hetero dominant marriage-
centered moralizing debates around sexuality. There is a serious and urgent need
to build a framework for the growing field of research on sex machines with a
properly mapped set of debates on ethics, because sex machines are multiply-
ing and naturally sneaking within our daily lives as vibrating phone calls, robot-
ized care and as sensual voice assistants. Indeed, they embody the fascination
of a promise, so close to the uneasy discussion of the untouched intimacy and
secretive spaces to which masturbation and intercourse are cornered. And sex
machines also appear, in their double marginalization, as a space of power strug-
gles and as a space of ferocious industrial competition concealed by the shadows
of the unspoken privacy and by the condition of their mechanistic non-humanity.
Research on sex machines calls for interdisciplinary and open and daring and
straightforward approaches. The perspective of mediatized sexualities, combined
with a definition that focuses on the networks of actors in the interaction, helps in
dealing with the devices and their mediation function. This is how the six-section
classification emerged and how it sets the ground for mapping the ethical debates
derived from each one of the types identified.
234 N. Duller and J. R. Rodriguez-Amat

The six types of sex machines are similarity, extension, substitution, sublima-
tion, sensuality and creativity. Instead of critically discussing them, this chap-
ter has opened the areas of ethical discussion that each one of those types of
machines would have to deal with. The initial operation of distinction between
types of sex machines makes it easier to identify the fields, the dangers and the
threats that sex machines, in general, could pose in ethical terms. Of course, this
first stage of discussion does not mean that each type particularly poses one sin-
gle form of threat; it is rather that all sex machines could pose multiple issues.
However, identifying the strands of ethical debate comes easier with an aprioristic
exhaustive classification that distinguishes types of sex machines. Forthcoming
research, and probably more applied work, will require crossing these typologi-
cal boundaries and facing issues happening in public spaces and on the regulatory
For the time being, the map shows that ethical debates on sex machines
involve the protection of robot rights as well as the rights of involving the users
own image and reputation—particularly considering that some humanoids could
harm someone’s dignity including discrimination and abuse for reasons of gen-
der, sexuality or age. Robots could also end up reproducing rape culture and child
abuse. The chapter has also identified three areas of possible harm to the user
that need to be considered as part of the ethics of sex machines: body-physical
harm, psychological harm and social harm. The first, involves health and safety
regulations and attention to the dangers of operating with machines: materials,
protection and hygiene. The second type is the psychological harm particularly
visible in sex machines of sublimation: the loss of reference and pathologizing
confusion of fantasy and reality. The third emerged with sex machines of sensu-
ality, referred to sociality and to the social skills of users: interaction with intel-
ligent compliant machines impacting on the social interactions and on the social
expectation-disappointment of users. The discussions on privacy and surveillance
also raise concerns: connectivity of new devices—as identified in sex machines of
extension—implies generation of identification cues and all sorts of information,
personal data, ownership and uses which will have to be considered carefully
as much as the intimate practices need to remain private. Last, the question that
should lead to new discussions on the political economy of sex machines is the
issue of creativity and intellectual property. Eager markets have enabled a very
general patent to block competition and commercialization—and, at the same
time, subcultures of DIY sex machines seem to have grown. In this tension, the
ethics debate would turn around originality and profit-making and the limits of
the paradox in terms of property, profit and governance.
Sex Machines as Mediatized Sexualities … 235

These areas of ethical debates highlight the need for regulation and, exten-
sively, of a fair governance of sex machines. This understanding of sex machines
as a “regulatory field is a space of power struggle and debate, tension, and inten-
tion” (Sarikakis and Rodriguez-Amat 2013, p. 338). The complex competing and
meeting interests show that sex machines do not exist in a void of machine neu-
trality or of spontaneous use. Instead, they appear within a world of values, righ­
teousness, of struggles and of conflicting interests crossing, at least, the political
territories of health care, body and gender, economy and entrepreneurship, culture
and creative media and privacy and surveillance. This means that it will be neces-
sary to pull together a discussion that checks to what extent the current frames
of regulation and of political action can incorporate the new sex devices. Indeed,
“sex technology is about to take a giant leap forward. The market is ready“ (Stein
2009, p. 155). Are we?


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