Use it or lose it – saving public opinion with reading and writing

We owe the distinction between cold societies (those geared toward adapting the culture to their environment) and hot ones (those geared toward adapting the environment to their culture) to the French cultural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. The development path embodied in this distinction is one we can translate to other contexts, particularly with an eye to how we are currently experiencing the status of public discourse. When philosophers such as Jürgen Habermas and sociologists like Andreas Reckwitz look to the digitalization of media and likewise point to a crisis in general public life, it is not much of a stretch to imagine that we are currently in a transition to an overheated society, in which we are experiencing the alignment of (at the least) the centuries-old traditions of our culture of communication toward new technological possibilities, such as digital interfaces, algorithm-based formats, and AI-supported content.

The stakes are high. Wolfgang Schweiger, a scholar of communications at the University of Hohenheim, touched a nerve when commenting on the changes that Twitter has wrought in public communications: “Reality is a construct on which people and societies agree through dialogue and shared narratives – or, indeed, disagree.” In this context, Schweiger points out that digital platforms like Twitter offer no place for “journalism as a professional and independent referee,” which is not conducive to the formation of a “consistent version of societal reality.” It should be added that this is also one reason for the rising tide of euphemisms, superlatives, and alarmist language in the digital realm.

On closer inspection, however, the challenge that digital conditions of reception and production bring for all those who work in what is traditionally known as public relations (a term that is still appropriate here) is even more extensive. Acquisition and use of complex language, along with the circuitry of the human brain needed for this task, is still viewed as a key distinguishing feature of Homo sapiens – including the unique ability “to talk about things that don’t even exist,” as the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Hariri says. I stress “still” here, because nowadays, in the digital era, language skills are not always in good shape. And there are reasons for that.

Maryanne Wolf, a literacy expert who teaches at UCLA, has been pointing out the influence of digital media on the crucial process of ongoing maintenance of individual language skills for years. If the prevailing medium – and by that we mean computers, in all their stationary and mobile forms – favors rapid, multitasking-oriented working styles for handling large volumes of information, reading will also be accelerated, leaving less time for deep reading, including analysis, empathy, and drawing conclusions. Skimming is the new reading, she says, in which the eyes traverse texts in an “F” or “Z” pattern, looking for key statements, but the brain does not even have time to grasp complex trains of thought.

But it’s not just about reading. Some of our fellow professionals firmly believe that AI-written texts will be a part of everyday life in PR in the long term, even though we are seeing now that not a single provider has yet been able to generate texts of a quality that would meet the standards of professional communication work. The idea is that the machine at least does not experience the dreaded writer’s block in that it formulates AI-supported text passages on defined topics that a human then refines. As understandable as the desire to streamline laborious processes of formulation may be, and as appropriate as doing so may be for specific categories of texts aimed purely at utility value, we should view these efforts with commensurate concern for the possibility of a kind of communicative singularity, in which, taken to the logical conclusion, we will at some point arrive at a situation in which AI-based texts are being produced continuously for algorithm-optimized platforms.

Sociologist Heinz Bude sums up the consequences this may have in terms of sentiment across society with the term “imperative toward acceleration”: “If you need a new headline every three hours to keep traffic flowing to your site, then you definitely have to publish things that are up to date and have emotional and visual impact.” But in that case, it should come as no surprise if, eventually, we are left with only machines communicating with machines, and humans – freed of the burden of writing and no longer capable of any reading other than the superficial digital kind – experience public life more as a kind of implacable destiny than a discourse they can play a part in shaping.

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