Whether out of desire or necessity, billions of people have immersed themselves in electronic media and algorithmically optimized communication networks. This trend has inspired a scholarly interest in the effects on people where their interface with their friends, family, community, commerce, religion, culture, race, nation, and the world is predominantly through mediated systems and devices.
Recent scholarly research has studied the influence of modern communication systems upon the human construction of social worlds, the perception of reality, and personal sense-making strategies.
Students, as agents of Communications in the American social fabric, need to examine this phenomenon and interrogate the potentially destabilizing effect of synthetically generated media and text driven by artificial intelligence (AI). The goal of this course is to develop advocates of caution in a society where advancements in technology far outpace our ability to comprehend their effects and where regulation and corporate accountability of any kind is typically lagging.
Your goal in this course is to envision the challenges of these issues as a problem (or set of problems) that can be addressed according to it being a certain kind of problem, which would be prerequisite to actually apprehending it as such.
Ultimately, the educational outcome of COM 743 is that you will be able to speak intelligently about the topics we cover in this course under any situation: professional, academic, or personal.
Area of Interest and Thesis of the Course
All societies change over time.
However, it is fair to say that the speed and intensity of technological advancement in the past 25 years has surpassed any other 25 year period of advancement in human history. A thorough account of this journey is offered in Azeem Azhar’s book, The Exponential Age (2021).
The thesis of this course is a call to study the effects of modern communication according to a recently developed communication theory that seeks to redefine our social landscape as mediatized construction.
The tenets of this theory begin with a simple proposition: The human construction of reality in contemporary society is influenced by increased engagement with mediated communication systems. In practice, this means less direct interaction with real people and proportionately more interaction with information through mobile devices, the Internet, and the software applications that operate between people.
The degree to which this transformation has occurred is evident in the ways in which we have accommodated our lives to meet their affordances:
- There is no need to memorize something that you can just look up on Google.
- There is no need to learn one’s directional orientation while driving because a GPS-enabled smartphone application will tell us where to go.
- ChatGPT and other Large Language Models (LLM) eliminate the necessity to create, interpret, organize, and summarize information through human intelligence alone.
- Many forms of learning no longer require an in-person instructor.
- Parents can track their children’s whereabouts using tracking systems on mobile phones.
- We can select the form of entertainment we want, access it anytime we want, wherever we want.
- We can select as many channels of news information we want according to our particular interests and access that information at any time.
- There are no significant barriers to participation in a global network of information sharing and community building on any topic or interest.
- Creating media and sharing it to a global audience no longer requires specialized skills, equipment, or a cost to broadcast.
- The value of in-person expertise is diminished because expertise can be found through various online channels.
- All human events across the globe can be experienced in realtime, with pictures, sound, and video.
- Individuals can construct multiple separate identities within multiple virtual communities.
- Individuals can form emotionally connected relationships with virtual companions that do not exist in the real world.
These empowerments have become so commonplace as to feel like electronic extensions of our physical being. A metaphor for this is to imagine a pair of eyeglasses and how, at a certain point, you are no longer aware that you are wearing them. The eyeglass technology achieves a state of “transparency” where you are looking through them, not at them. A mediatized society, therefore, is one that is habituated to seeing itself and the rest of the world through technologies.
The next question then becomes, “What are we looking at and how did that content get there?”
The thesis of this course suggests that the communication systems in our society are not just benign tools or utilities, like a hammer or bicycle. Social media systems, virtual assistant/companion apps, LLMs, and commercial search engines are inherently designed according to business models intended to provide value to shareholders. They earn a profit through the extraction of user data for commercial purposes. The more personalized and subjectively optimized they make the user’s experience, the more the user will remain engaged with them and continue to generate data. The decisions made by “Big Tech” are not driven by a concern for the social good; they are driven by market share, revenue, and growth. (And there is nothing inherently wrong with that).
So why are we studying this phenomenon?
If the systems we study in this course were relatively minor aspects of our lives and society, perhaps the collateral effects of it might not pose much of a risk. However, given that the entire world has become utterly immersed in these systems, it is fair to say that they serve as the de facto public sphere of communication and engagement – our window to the rest of the world and the channels through which we assert our presence. Essentially, we have handed over the public sphere of discourse to private companies, which, in turn, have provided us with a large portion of the ingredients for our construction of reality.
We are studying this phenomenon because its collateral effects, on a large scale, pose potential risks: tribalism that influences people more towards extremist beliefs, the erosion of trust in institutions, the influence of external enemies to stir up conflict, and even risks to democracy itself when it is impossible to know whether anything you see or hear is credible.
Your goal in this course is not to solve this problem. Rather, your goal is to describe what kind of problem it is. Once you are able to describe this situation as a particular kind of problem, you can become more objective to it and better able to step back from it as an observer. And there are many ways to frame a given problem.
For example, during the emergence of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, it could have been approached as a crime and punishment issue, a medical technology issue, a psychological issue, or, as it actually turned out, it was addressed as a public health issue. Each approach had implications for the way the problem was solved: What resources would be employed? Who was responsible for producing positive results? What kind of data would be collected? And so on.
This course asks you to do the same thing: Encapsulate the systemic problem presented here according to a framework that matters to you. If you are a Communications major, how would you frame the problem from a Communications perspective? If you are a Management student, how would you frame the problem from a Business or Management perspective? If you are a Nursing student, how would you frame the problem as a public health issue?
What is meant by “Reality” in this course?
Last, we must clarify what is meant in this course by the word “reality.”
There is no singular “correct” reality in this course that you need to agree with. Rather, you are asked to view reality as a concept; a benchmark of personal perception that is reinforced collectively in the social context. It is a general, intellectual sense of what is and what should be as shaped by our sensory perception of our surroundings, social constructs, and the continuing flow of information we encounter.
Which brings us full-circle back to the study of mediated communication as the dominant source of information from which we construct our reality. What is mediated communication? What is synthetic media? How does it work, and how has our engagement with it been exploited for social, political, and commercial purposes?
Topical narrative of the course
We begin with an introduction to a theoretical structure of mediated communication in the modern age:
- What is mediated communication and how does it differ from direct communication?
- What does it mean to “construct a social world” through mediated communication?
- How do humans accommodate themselves to the structure and “computed sociality” of mediated communications?
Once this groundwork has been established, we explore how algorithmically optimized systems present users with a subjective stream of information and content that is customized according to the user’s interests, behaviors, and navigational history.
With an understanding of the dynamic between users and the systems with which they engage, we explore the theoretical underpinnings of epistemology – the study of how you know what you know:
- By what process do humans claim to know what they know and believe what they believe?
- What is the difference between evidence-based thinking and faith-based thinking?
Finally, we examine synthetic media – a relatively recent and easily accessible invention capable of generating visual, audio, and text media that traverses the “uncanny valley” of human perception to becoming indistinguishable from human generated media.
We interrogate the consequences of a global media environment where synthetic media has the potential to scramble any remaining sense of certainty in what is real. Special focus is given to clandestine efforts by foreign and domestic groups employing these tactics to subvert democracy and tranquility.