This week in our Community Media Discussion, we’ll be having a conversation about the principles of social change that community media is founded on, which have the potential to form a guiding set of rules for media that supports and fosters positive social change. I work with these principles tacitly, so it’s good to write about them in a way that develops my thinking, and I hope they encourage a good discussion.
As the waves of the great disruption are felt throughout the world, including climate crisis, the introduction of disruptive digital technologies, growing financial inequality, cultural homogenisation, global marketisation, the dissolution of established social institutions, and the dismantling of the welfare state, among many other factors, there is a growing need to renew and repurpose our approach to media, including what I call community focussed communication.
The question I’m seeking to answer in the work that I do through Decentered Media, is how can our media be better oriented towards, and able to facilitate, a sense of belonging, identity and inclusive discourse that helps us to better understand, and be able to address, the challenges of the great disruption? Particularly, can our media be set the great task of being part of the solution to the challenges of the great disruption in a way that is sustainable and inclusive, and which draws on the talents of the many in order to find those solutions?
To start, I’ve been wondering if there are a set of useful categories or pointers that might help us to reframe the long-held beliefs and practices of communication. Typically, industrial forms of communication are largely held to be a process-oriented activity, which has the powerful ability to widely share information, persuade people to buy products or vote for political parties, and now, to exchange many personal experiences. However, given the nature of the great disruption, do we need a media model that is better able to anticipate change?
Can we develop with a set of working ideas and concepts that will fit a more socially democratic and civically legitimate set of community and cultural experiences and individual feelings? Can our media be repurposed to help to define and illuminate a pathway through this complex and disorienting period of intense social change? Can our media act as a manifold tool that might ensure that we are confident that we have good modes of public and community engagement, based on our need to communicate about the complex changes we are facing, in a way that remains coherent and matches our needs and capabilities?
In my view, there is no need to resort to an ideological assessment or analysis of this process. What we need to do, instead, is to start and maintain a dialogue about the forms of relatable change that we want to share. These forms will most likely include different forms and principles of understanding that are pragmatic, and maybe even poetically. Change is the one constant force we must all face in our lives. However, while we might wish to bulwark ourselves and our societies against the march of time, and the other forces that bring about the slow decay of our being within the world, we are always faced, however much we resist, with the prospect that stability and continuity will always, ultimately, escape our grasp. We must accept that we will forever live in fear that we are unable to maintain our grip because the future is advancing unflinchingly.
On the one hand, and many people have suggested we might be able to build an eternal society, which has proven to be something of a messianic approach and itself has led to conflict and destruction. One thing of which we can be certain, however, is that the future brings forth things that we have not been able to anticipate, nor plan for. Change will be thrust upon us, regardless of how much we try to resist. There are times when it is appropriate to act like the unbending oak tree, and there are other times when we must act like the reed, and bow to the winds that blow over us.
The building of enduring institutions is hard work, and takes a long time to achieve. If we all had the resources and the state support of the BBC, then we might embrace this process. Instead, for the rest of us, we have to think in a different way. Instead, we might want to consider addressing a different set of factors which are more malleable, though perhaps even more enduring.
I’ve learnt from my experience, and I believe the great disruption is telling us increasingly loudly to think along these lines, that we can only face the future if we build on well attuned and tested values and ethical principles. So, rather than dogmatically holding inherited precepts before us, supposedly certain of their applicability in a changing world because they have worked for us in the past, we may need, instead, to rethink things as we go along, and look at the world pragmatically.
There are too many variables at play for us to rely on the claims of predictive modelling, despite the extravagant promises that are made for artificial intelligence, for example. Whatever reassurance we take from any foreknowledge we can generate is likely to be short-lived and fleeting. The prudent approach is to take a mixed attitude towards future planning that is dependent on no single system or outlook, so we need a mix of technological and mythological, system and design, art and aesthetic practice, spiritual and material.
Our failure to face up to the future, and plan for the needs of future generations is, I believe, increasingly visible here in the UK. This is increasingly to be found in the resistance that is now often shown to decarbonisation of power and energy supplies and use, whereby moving people out of their cars, for example, seems like a monumental and almost unsurmountable task. This is similarly visible in our failure to break in the public’s mind the cycle of wasteful consumption that sees materials and products literally dug into the ground, rather than being repurposed, or better yet not deployed in the first place.
This is all manifested in a general feeling of failure to prepare the general population for the great waves of social change that are being brought about by digital technology. Little has been done for at least two generations in the UK to foster mass public education about the communications challenges of the global age. Instead, education has been marketised and people have been left to value financial and material gain as the outcome of their studies above all other social virtues. People who are invested in care, guardianship, stewardship and mutual aid of our fellow citizens do not receive the same level of status and access to resources. Indeed, the general principles of citizenship have been hollowed out and replaced with a model of human consumption that sees the power of the individual as a series of consumer choices, and the market as the necessary rubric of service allocation and development.
So, while the world feels like a harsh place of interconnected interests, in which we are pitted against one another, there is little articulation within, and by, our media that these values may be different, and which instead might bring about as greater sense of mutual solidarity and cooperation. The general feeling of apathy and resignation suggests that we are playing a zero-sum game, and either we have a slice of pie, or others will take it away from us. Our media and the international corporate business interests that support them, are expert at exploiting this fault-line in society, and then reflecting these anxieties back on to us, which amplifies the uncertainty that are deeply held by many of us and are naturally part of our collective psyche.
The fear of having our way of life taken from us, removing us from the symbols and experiences of cultural certainty, is a powerful driver of mistrust and anxiety. Displacement from settled communities, regardless of how enriching or inclusive these communities are in practice, can provoke a wave of distrust and resistance. As social institutions are destabilised and opened up to the global marketplace, there is a disruption to local patterns of community life.
Only some people are fortunate to be equipped with the social and cultural capital that enables them to resist these changes. They usually do so by being able to control access to property, assets and wealth. While others are subject to the chaos that is brought about by market disruption, who seek to maximise financial gain by playing for a short-term advantage, many more of use are living increasingly precarious lives. Is this reflected or deflected in our media?
There seems to be a lack of confidence that we can plan for the future and come to mutually beneficial agreements that will enable us to think ahead. We’ve lost the ability to establish social stability because the promised future has been structured for us as financially unstable, with many millions now caught in the short-term loops of speculative financial interests. If this is the case, are there any principles that we can agree that may provide a suitable framework for anticipating social change? I’m always thinking about what might our priorities be in responding to and anticipating these changes?
So, this might be a useful way of looking at these issues. The seven Ps, which are, people, place, planet, purpose, practical, participative and self-policed. There may be many additional components that we can include in this model, which may even support the process of sustainable social development more fully, but this is a starting point and not a destination.
People: while it is a truism to assume that media is people-centric, this focus is often derived from a functionalist and behaviourist mindset that views the social interaction of people in a mediated context as the object and product of a series of discernible processes. To generally appreciate media for social change, one has to look at, and appreciate, the inherent capabilities that people have the potential to tell their own stories, discuss their own concerns, and to deliberate and make judgements in accordance with their own values.
If we don’t recognise people as agents and citizens in a collective community, then are we simply reducing and diminishing our individual and collective capacity that we have for contributing to our own self-development? Do we need to figure out a working model of social development that fosters our capacity for self-awareness and self-development? If we don’t do this, how likely are we to undermine any sense of agency we share, hover tacit. If we don’t recognise agency in communications, then we will end up promoting forms of media that do things ‘to’ people, and which does not enable people to do things for themselves. This explicitly needs a sociological and a psychological outlook, which is capable of interrogating both individual and collective needs, identities and behaviours. There is no point in only looking at the supposed function of individuals, we also need a viable understanding and appreciation for the collective interests as well.
Place: our identity is often, though not exclusively, rooted in the place where we are from, or where we live. While this can be a controversial claim, and has been used as the basis for both patriotism and chauvinism, the power of belonging is deeply rooted. However, while some people may aspire to be ‘digital nomads’ or ‘citizens of nowhere’, the vast majority of us are rooted in situ, in the neighbourhoods and places that we reside, go about our business and raise our families. Place is the geographic specificity of our bounded lives, and while modern transport has extended the manifestation of our rootedness, we are never free from our dependence on fixed places of domicile and social interaction.
The question we might reflect on, is to what extent we can appreciate and value these places, as opposed to dreaming about far-off and distant places that we might escape to. It is often the case in modern society that we see meaningful social interaction as possible in other places, rather than appreciating the social interactions that we have nearby. Place, then, is tied closely to our social identity. Do we have, as many would like to see manifested more readily in our media, a history and mythology of place that we can associate with, that goes over and beyond the experience of place as merely a place to live, shop, work, and so on?
To be rooted in the mythology of our places implies a potential for association and pride, which for many communities is lacking, both at the level of financial capital investment, but also in cultural capital investment. To be a thriving place, there also needs to be investment in culture that is mouldable to suit local concerns, institutions and traditions. The risk is that our town and neighbourhoods are increasingly homogenised through the replication of the international business and shopping brands and the forms of generic architecture that go with them. The expression of local identity in place, then, is an intersection point for many other social political, economic and cultural concerns.
Planet: our responsibility to our sense of place goes beyond the local and encompasses the whole planet, including all the other life forms that we share this fragile space with. We are increasingly seeing how fragile global ecosystems are becoming around the world as climate crisis takes hold. And yet, so many people are either unaware or unwilling to make basic changes in their behaviour, their use of resources, or their attitudes to reducing carbon for energy use and production.
If we fail to meet these changes by agreement and willing adaptation, how will people feel if compulsion and increased taxation are brought to bear? Some of our fellow citizens are already resorting to civil disobedience to raise awareness of climate crisis, and challenge the powerful. My concern, however, is that most people are unprepared for the radical changes that are coming about, and so will need reassurance each step of the way.
We need to foster a meaningful sense that change that is both necessary and achievable. To achieve this, we need to invest in forms of community-driven media that bring forward living examples we can identify with, discuss in ways that make sense locally, and are relevant to our community traditions and heritage. It is no good dumping this problem onto the shoulders of future generations, while stubbornly refusing to make prudent changes now. Planetary stewardship has to be a priority for all citizens now, as well as for the future citizens that will come after us.
Purpose: we’ve become accustomed to media that is dominated by the market, to the point where it seems we can’t imagine communications in any other form. The market has provided some astonishing media products, but there is a shadow side to everything that must be accounted for. In this instance, it is the general lack of social purpose, responsibility and accountability that is expected of media groups and organisations. Except for the BBC here in the UK, there are few media organisations that can demonstrate how they contribute to the social good, over and above their economic viability. At the moment, our media is defined passively, seeking to ‘do not harm’, which perhaps absolves many media producers from going our of their way to do explicit acts of social good. While information and entertainment are well established media activities, it is much more difficult to ascribe social good as a primary purpose of all our media, so this aspect is successively downgraded and lost.
We might ask how public education can be wrapped up with a wider sense of social purpose? We can only answer this if we are willing to renew and strengthen the franchise on which our media is licenced through democratic consent. It is pointless trying to improve a sense of purpose from the top down, instead this must come from the bottom up, as part of our democratic and civic mandate that fosters a sustainable and inclusive society. A purposeful media would be one that is based on clear and focused agreement about how we can move forward. Global social and economic interaction is not going to go away. Indeed, globalisation is only going to intensify and increase the demands for mutual understanding and cooperation. So, our purpose, then, must be aligned with the needs of the future, while drawing on the lessons of the past.
Practical: no doubt a log of what is discussed when it comes to purposeful social change is emotionally and theoretically correct and urgent. The main question I would seek to ask, however, can it be practically implemented, thereby enabling change to happen at a realistic and timely pace? There is no point in promising change that can’t be implemented. While our idealism much show us what sort of changes we should seek to bring about, idealism will not tell us everything we need to know. We must remember to look to experience to determine how, and in what way, significant changes can be practically put in place. Pragmatism is not simply the art of the expedient, rather, it is the art of the possible.
If we run against the grain of people’s expectations, then it is unlikely that we can simply pronounce that change should occur. There is no magic solution that we can provide that will bring about change ex machina. Instead, we must do the hard graft of social democratic deliberation for the collective and future good. This means putting aside our individual projections of virtue and purity, or gain and status, and in its place we ought to seek practical and deliberative ways that will inspire change because it is based on people taking individual responsibility for their way of living, their concerns, and thereby exercising their creative capacity to find solutions.
Keeping in mind, however, that to be a problem solver, one has to be a problem finder first. Priority needs also to be given, then, to those who can recognise our present shortcomings, and who are capable of figuring out solutions to them that don’t make things worse, or only serve narrow social and economic interests. Practical solutions must come from the widest possible spread of society.
Participation: crucially, the mode of engagement for bringing about social change through and with our media has to be inclusive and participative. Media for social change needs to be recognised as a distinct social activity that is founded on an understanding that comes from engaged experience. To read about something in a book, or to only watch an online movie, implies a limited capacity for engagement with the process of social development. Rightfully, priority in social development thinking is increasingly being given to lived experiences, and the tacit knowledges and wisdoms that are drawn from practical engagement in community life. Participation, however, does not imply a virtuous process of growth and change of itself because participation can also incur negative consequences as easily as positive consequences. Participation is dependent on the nature of the moral and ethical purpose that it is being manifested in.
Participation therefore has to be relatable, both to the given situation and circumstances that people face, and also to the symbolic and social resources that people have available to them. There is no point in asking people to participate in large-scale, or even small-scale social change, if the barriers to entry and participation are themselves limiting. If we are only capable of assuming a mode of engagement from above, then we will not see the change we are looking for. Therefore, participation in our social change focussed media has to be set up in such as way that those with prior experience of the participative routines and practices don’t dominate, and those with limited experience feel confident to take part, learn and contribute.
Inclusive forms of participation must also draw on a variety of traditions, with both well-established cultural norms, and norms that are emergent and new. If we are looking to the future, and want to understand and incorporate new cultural norms, then we need an inclusive and creative process that fosters participation where we can learn from our experience. This depends, then, on what the agreed purpose and the role that is being worked towards are, what the risks are, and who is accountable if things go wrong.
Self-Policing: finally, how we are held accountable for the communications that we undertake and disseminate is a hot topic presently, particularly regarding the sharing of media across the internet and via digital technologies. Should the rules that were formed in the nineteenth century, which continue to apply to print media, be retained? How do we decide what rules are relevant in the modern, contemporary communications age? Are there inherent technical principles in the way that we communicate that can’t be solved unless we accept a force acting from without, such as communications regulation, or should we seek to build the inherent capacity for self-regulation and responsible communications?
It may be possible, both theoretically and in practice, to draw a clear and distinct line between internal and external regulators, as both are necessary. However, if external regulation is stifling, then we lose the opportunity to practice freedom of speech, and we may become straight-jacketed by a set of rules and norms that limit our capacity for discernible discussion, which is vital for a healthy democracy.
On the other hand, dependence on self-governance can tend to the cutting of corners and the reinforcement of self-regard for one’s own achievements and claims. An effective form of regulation and accountability is founded on dialogue and mutual support for improvement, rather than policing and control. Self-policing, however, depends on the capacity that any social group has to meaningfully represent one’s own practices and experiences in a way that is aligned with the intentions and purposes of the groups we are part of. What is essential is direct and tangible input from those for whom any sort of community engagement services are intended. There can be no accountability without representation and the participation of the people involved, which is the definition of and purposeful self-governance for community media.
To bring all these elements together, then, is to recognise that any form of community focussed communication must be analysed across a range of domains and functions. If we critiqued them collectively, in a way that fits with experience, then we will be able to synthesise these factors into a representative symbol of change that demonstrates, not only how this works and fits together, but why it is essentially that the attempt to do so is made in the first place.