WYSIWYG? Communication management: navigating between the map and the territory

“And yet it moves” is a phrase defiantly uttered by Galileo Galilei after being pressured by the Inquisition to retract his findings on heliocentrism, the theory that the planets revolve around the sun. Much, and sometimes even everything, depends on the realistic portrayal and assessment of all that is the case. That rings all the more true in a time in which our access to reality, as Niklas Luhmann noted back in the mid-1990s, is largely media-based. In all aspects of societal life, we are guided by the picture of the world painted daily by the media. Moreover, in the age of digital and, most notably, social media, we ourselves have become shapers of a liquid cartography of reality. Communication management is driven by the aspiration to seismographically measure media landscapes and then (help) shape them – with an eye to opportunities and risks. Like Michel Houellebecq’s alter ego Jed Martin in his novel The Map and the Territory, we too operate as navigators and interpreters of maps and territories, which in the book evolve into a unique art form by overlaying Michelin maps onto satellite images.

It lies in the nature of the mass-media-driven, increasingly digital production of reality that reality itself is growing neither more reliable nor less ambiguous. Instead, we are seeing a reproduction and amplification of snippets of reality and their interpretation, or design and configuration, through communicative players from various spheres of society, such as government, culture, academia, business, and, naturally, users of social media ranging from ordinary citizens to influencers. As a result we are increasingly navigating our way into a communicative paradox, where media-level transparency brings forth mistrust in society.

Assigning causality to social media, with its technological possibilities to exert influence through digital image processing and define reality by way of group pressure, fails to offer a path forward. We can lament it or not, yet the best way to chart a course to the digital future is not with a map, but with a navigation system. There is no good reason not to, provided you keep mumbling the decisive mantra: “What I see there on that tiny screen is not reality!” Not even the good old rule of What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) from the early days of word processing necessarily applies, as anyone who has been guided by a navigation device onto a temporary ski slope or out-of-service bridge can tell you.

Communication management needs to paint a picture of the situation and define fields of action. Without abstraction, none of that is possible. Realism is born neither of faith in digital analysis nor of trusting one’s gut instinct. Striking a balance between openness and skepticism – toward the accuracy of numerical reports, toward the aesthetic appeal of new media, toward virtue signaling in language – is the very key to success. Our craft itself has become the message, and we find ourselves operating in a complex interrelationship between sending and receiving. Marshal McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” is yesterday’s news. Today, form, language, and even context, as the Swiss artist Urs Fischer argues, are messages in themselves.

To survive this challenge, it takes a clear compass and endurance. One does not have to become part of a “show economy,” as Manager Magazin recently titled an article about the LinkedIn pages of DAX CEOs, to achieve effective communication. Those looking for a clear view of the reality that encompasses both the map and the territory need to have at least one early bird in their team. In an interview with Peter Oberauer, Peter Turi recently named 5 a.m. as the ideal time of day.

Last but not least, one ought not lose touch with real life. In a scene from the 1980s in a recently released documentary, Wau Holland, the legendary founder of the Chaos Computer Club, says, “Experiencing the world hands-on is more important, and some people need to forget all about this whole virtual crap.” During his outro for a piece on the aforementioned documentary, Claus Kleber, the anchor of the German television news program Heute, put it fittingly into perspective: “Looks like we won’t be forgetting anything. Virtual crap is the future – indeed.”

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