Digitalisation and a Global Dialogue of Civilisations

Berlin, 26 April 2017: Experts within the field of digitalisation from China, Finland, India, Russia, Germany, and South Africa met at the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute to discuss the possibility of a global dialogue of civilisations and its challenges. The round-table discussion was organised and moderated by Prof. Jens Wendland and hosted by the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute (DOC) and demonstrated a high level of scientific relevance.

Jiahong Chen, Research Director at the DOC, welcomed the participants and gave a short introduction to the research agenda of the institute. Chen underlined that the DOC is striving to propose tangible solutions for the challenges that the current “disordered world” is facing. Chen spoke about the future launch of a digitalisation-related research project and invited the participants to join the DOC on the journey towards cutting edge research in the field of digitalisation.

Jens Wendland, Professor at Lomonosov University Moscow’s faculty of journalism, and coordinator and moderator of the round-table, introduced the keynote speakers and gave a short overview of the content of the event’s two panels.

Kaarle Nordenstreng, Professor Emeritus at the Faculty of Communication Sciences, University of Tampere, presented his ideas on the development of social media and its influences on politics and society as a whole.

Nordenstreng stated that social media can be liberating and emancipating, while also limiting and dividing. He expressed his concern that advances in internet technology are contributing to the evolution of social bubbles – communities of likeminded people who do not need to care about the facts and arguments that threaten their world view. These social bubbles become information filters, replacing discussions within a knowledge-based public sphere with in-group filtered content that is out of touch with counter-arguments. Nordenstreng stated that we are moving away from a ‘society where politics is based on debates around a versatile public sphere, towards a society where politics is based on bubbles picked up by populist forces’. He pointed to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as proof that social bubbles are not just part of academic discourse, but have serious implications for the real world as well.

Digitalisation has great potential to promote the dialogue of civilisations but only as a means – not as an end in itself, Nordenstreng continued. In his view, civilisations are a matter of histories, values, and big stories, with an intellectual substance regardless of the technologies with which we view them. However, technologies are naturally part of civilisations themselves, and can be valuable tools in spurring a dialogue of civilisations.

Wolfgang Muehl-Bennighaus, Professor of Film Theory and History, Humboldt University Berlin, works on the issue of inter-enterprise organisational principles, that change – due to the impact of information technology – to more decentralised entities with more autonomous character, replacing hierarchical organisational structures.

With regards to the sale of informational assets and related technology, products and services are increasingly dependent on the usability and value the consumer ascribes to them. Therefore, according to Muehl-Bennighaus, the previous ‘push communication’ is yielding to user-oriented ‘pull communication’. Another point he highlighted is that the innovational capacity of companies is increased by information and communication technologies that create a new type of company, which is global, open, and mobile in its approach. Muehl-Bennighaus argued that companies will also be deeply impacted by changes in lifestyle, particularly for postwar cohorts. Previously, characteristics such as discipline, loyalty, and subordination were highly valued, while self-control, punctuality, and readiness to assimilate where seen as important personal traits. These characteristics are now replaced by values and qualities related to self-expression, such as the quest to enhance one’s skills, to stay active, and to have fun at work. The previous strict segregation between leisure time and work is vanishing, according to Muehl-Bennighaus.

Therefore, company communication has to take into consideration the following four things, said Muehl-Bennighaus: The dissolution of traditional hierarchical organisational structures has to be accounted for; constantly changing cooperation and symbioses have to be mediated; digitalised markets have to be taken into consideration; and virtual communities have to be fostered with regard to internal and external corporate communication.

Elena Vartanova, Professor and Dean of the Faculty of Journalism, Moscow State University, tackled the issue of the digital divide in her speech.

According to Vartanova, ‘The current state of media inequality is related to several factors, such as: income, which influences the access to gadgets; paid content and network use; place of residence, which determines access to network infrastructure; literacy level and its impact on skills, usage, and knowledge; lifestyle as a category of demand; generational identity – digital migrants and digital natives, which sometimes results in the gettoisation of analog generations.’ The solution she proposed is based on: the concepts of the right to universal (technological) access and ‘the right to education as media education and as access to skills and knowledge; and on the roles of states, civil society, academia, and the education community’. However, the issue of inequality in terms of access to media infrastructure is not new, Vartanova continued. She provided the examples of newspapers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which acted as symbols of a subscriber’s income and literacy level, and later the television as a status symbol in the early 1950s.

In her work, Vartanova has observed an increasing digitalisation of cultural practices, lifestyles, and daily routines. Moreover, there is the digitalisation of public communication, which results in new forms of media consumption marked by an abundance of digital content and media convergence. Similar to Nordenstreng, she stated that new “IT-telecoms-media” ecosystems are evolving, characterised by hybridisation, fragmentation, increasing convergence of the private and public, as well as the individualisation of media consumption.

Deqiang Ji, Associate Professor of Communication Studies at the National Centre of Radio and TV Studies, Communication University of China, presented the Chinese digital narrative promoting the “One Belt One Road” (OBOR) initiative.

Ji started by stating that the OBOR initiative is characterised by the following leading principles: Openness and cooperation; harmony and inclusiveness; market-orientation; and mutual benefits and ‘win-win-situations’. Ji explained that the OBOR is reflecting ‘China’s pursuit of its leading role in building a new world political and economic order’. Nevertheless, some structural obstacles still exist, namely ‘uncertainties in the global market, differences between partner countries, and the complexity of geopolitics’. As the OBOR initiative has to be accompanied by media content targeting the populations around the OBOR, Ji said he does see some communicative problems. First of all, he pointed out that studies of the communication and media environment in One Belt One Road countries are lacking. Another issue is the dominance of Western media in international public opinion, which could make it difficult for Chinese media content to reach target groups. Moreover, a general skepticism and a ‘China Threat’ discourse prevail in the media, potentially putting further constraints on the Chinese communication strategy.

In order for the OBOR media campaign to be successful, Ji sees three basic approaches as important: He stated that for the traditional media, a multi-level collaboration will be designed, new digital media platforms will be developed, and people-to-people and cultural exchange within the framework of the OBOR initiative will be encouraged.

With regards to traditional media, Ji said that he is convinced that due to the Soviet past of many of the OBOR countries, intergovernmental relations are to be preferred, e.g., between: central governments; local governments; state-own media; overseas Chinese media; etc.

Concerning new media platforms, Ji argued that dialogue should be preferred over propaganda and emphasis should be put on relationship building and management. In his view, viable media channels are ‘Twitter, Facebook, and Chinese social media going out’. People-to-people communication could be promoted by, e.g., public diplomacy programmes, cross-border educational programmes or branding strategies in the name of OBOR, which target sporting and cultural events.

Ji concluded that a good digital narrative of the OBOR and relationship building are key to a successful OBOR initiative. The narratives should however be adjusted to the particular local cultures and circumstances, as a one-size-fits-all solution would be detrimental.

Daya Thussu, Professor of International Communication and Co-director of India Media Center, University of India Media Centre, emphasised that the infrastructure of the internet was originally American, and that this remains true to a large degree, even today. Nevertheless, only ten percent of current internet users are in the US.

Thussu used the impressive rise of the numbers of internet users in China and India as an example of how he anticipates the future internet to develop into a more multi-polar entity, giving more space to respective cultures and civilisations.

Thussu pointed to China as the only country that was able to develop a digital ecosystem that provides equivalent alternatives to the Western YouTube, Ebay, Facebook, Google, etc. From his point of view, the world is partly neglecting this aspect of Chinese-style digitalisation, while putting too much emphasis on the issue of censorship. In his eyes, India is the biggest ‘open’ internet user in the world (as it is not censored such as in China). In general terms, Thussu proposed that ‘a dynamic and digitised 24/7 globalised multi-media age, the one-way vertical flow of media and communication products – from the West to the rest – has given way to multiple and horizontal flows, in which the BRICS countries play a key role. Despite its many internal differences and complex external affiliations, the BRICS group shares their non-Euro-Atlantic origins as well as their call to redress power imbalances in existing international institutions and structures’.

Thussu concluded his presentation with an intriguing question: ‘What implications will such digital connectivity have for global media and communication flows, soft power discourses and broader civilisational dialogues’?

Herman Wasserman, Professor of Media Studies and Director of the Centre for Film and Media Studies, University of Cape Town, started his presentation by answering the question of why global media ethics are needed. He argued that this is due to the fact that ‘media has a global reach, global audiences, and therefore its responsibilities should also be thought of in global terms’.

Due to the fact that ‘information circulates globally, across borders, at unprecedented speed, without checks, balances, and reflection that used to mark older media practices’, Wasserman sees the challenge of ‘harmful content, hate speech, and incitement to conflict as global problems, that need a global response’ as a rising issue within social media. He stated that he is simultaneously convinced of the potential of digitalisation to ‘harness global civil society to participate in “open ethics”’.

As Wasserman is quite fond of the idea of creating global media ethics, he posed the question: ‘How do we arrive at a global media ethics that does not repeat the imperialising impulse towards universalising knowledge, yet avoids a cultural relativism that contributes to fragmentation’?

As with panellist Kaarle Nordenstreng, Wasserman also underlined that Brexit and the election of Donald Trump caught the media off guard and revealed how out of touch they are. Wasserman stated that he is searching for an ethical stance that avoids this “disconnect and builds community”.

Wasserman referred to key universal principles that should form the basis of global media ethics: Truth, Dignity, Non-malfeasance. These principles should furthermore be embedded in the local community context and adjusted to local particularities, he said. A second important aspect Wasserman mentioned referred to the ethics of listening. According to his view, the media’s ‘desire for mastery into an ethical receptivity’ should be transformed to an ethical listening, which requires ‘difficult listening’ across differences too.[1]

Jens Wendland, Visiting Professor at Lomonosov-University Moscow, presented the research project ‘The Digital Dialogue of Civilizations’ (Digital-dc), which aims to ‘establish an innovative digital research association to promote a dialogue between academics, the economists and the economy more broadly, stakeholders, and involved actors’.

The project’s research will engage in the analysis of societal consequences of digitalisation. Five universities will work together in the project, which will focus on the following aspects: intercultural digital communication; societal consequences of digitisation; the future of communication; dialogue of civilisations; an evolving and new kind of public sphere; and the influence of globalisation on the media system.

According to Wendland, the project aims to provide an open platform for scientific exchange. The project’s website will feature integrated ‘social media’ profiles and the possibility of building working groups and communities. Functions such as chat, commentary, blogs, and article publishing shall be included too. Moreover, the website will also include real-time communication tools such as Skype, which will be used to hold conferences, digital seminars, and to share documents.

To Wendland it is important that this project will be able to bridge analog and digital forms of working concepts and knowledge exchange. The result that Wendland would like to see is ‘a comprehensive regaining of informational sovereignty in contrast to the filtering of search engines towards a more reflexive and discursive dialogue within civil societies worldwide’.

Thomas Fasbender, DOC advisor, depicted the digital age and the era of mass digitalisation as one of decline in quality of form and substance.

The limitless opportunity to ‘go public’ also means the breakdown of rules and authority, and – similar to Nordenstreng’s findings – the substitution of dialogue with noise, largely as a consequence of filter bubble technology. Fasbender is convinced that the dialogue among cultures and civilisations develops analogously, leading to ‘multipolarity by default’ and the definite end of classic Western universalism. At the same time, it legitimises new platforms for rule-based intercultural dialogue such as the DOC, he stated.

Klemens Witte, DOC researcher, addressed the impact of digitalisation and automation in the labour market.

Witte stated that this impact will be profound, but that academia is still divided over the question of whether automation will be a job-creator or a job-destroyer. There is however a consensus about the fact that quite a number of employment opportunities will shift between and within sectors, and that the need for retraining and education that exposes pupils to information and communication technology and provides them with the skills to make good use of this technology is crucial.

Witte also took up the issue of artificial intelligence (AI) and held that it is possible that AI will be making inroads not only into low-skilled jobs, but also into some strictly rule-based and well paid white-collar jobs, e.g., accountants and lawyers.

From Witte’s perspective, it is key to understand that technological change is not something imposed on society, but that it is rather an informed choice that leaders and society have to make. With regards to automation, Witte is convinced that the design of technology can go one of two ways: it might be designed to increasingly replace tasks carried out by humans, or it may be designed to rather complement tasks done by humans.

Witte argued that regardless of the direction automation takes, in order to guarantee sustainable societies, governments and other relevant stakeholders need to consider all viable solutions that have the potential to avoid scenarios where wealth concentration and mass unemployment are a commonplace. Therefore, Witte stated the DOC will – within the framework of the research topic, ‘Economics of Post-Modernity’ – analyse possible solutions to the challenges posed by automation. These include, among things: a universal basic income; an income tax on robot labour; less working hours; employees as shareholders and robot owners (co-ownership); increasing taxes on superstar companies; and government shares in intellectual property rights that result from government-financed research.

Michael Baertl, DOC E-librarian, introduced the DOC Research Institute’s digitalisation strategy, and explained that the key objective of the DOC is to publish leading papers generated in different spheres of scientific and public interest, as set out in the DOC Research Institute research agenda. To achieve this goal, the DOC set up an E-Library to collect, house, and disseminate the past, present, and future publications of the DOC.

These electronic publications are offered in a user-friendly way, i.e., without digital rights management. All historic publications and several current publications are open access. From Baertl’s point of view, electronic media have many advantages. He stated that they can be comfortably accessed regardless of time and location, and that they are easier to transport than printed books. In addition to that, electronic media enable collaborative work.

According to Baertl, electronic media also have some disadvantages: Using electronic media always requires technical resources and the skills needed to operate them, and the software used to run these devices needs to be up-to-date. In addition to that, power, or a charged battery, is needed. Internet access may also be necessary. It is still harder to mark passages or add notes to electronic publications than with print, and studies suggest that human brains process information more poorly if it is obtained from electronic materials rather than printed ones. Other issues that require our attention in this context are digital preservation, information privacy, and quality control.

Finally, Baertl discussed his opinion that Riepl’s law will continue to hold true in the future. Just as VHS tapes, DVDs, Blu-ray discs, streaming services, etc., did not replace cinema, PDF files, e-books or e-book readers will not replace printed books. Therefore, the DOC Research Institute will also publish printed books in addition to electronic publications.


[1] Dreher, T. 2009. Listening across difference: Media and multiculturalism beyond the politics of voice. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 445-458.

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Klemens Witte

Research Associate, DOC Research Institute, DE

Klemens Witte, Research Associate at the DOC, is specifically interested in economic questions, international relations, and policy-making. He holds a Masters in Political Science and Intercultural Communication (Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg), a second Masters in Baltic Sea Studies (Södertörns University College/Stockholm), and a postgraduate LL.M. in International Economic Law (Southwest-University for Political Science and Law/Chongqing and Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg). Klemens Witte has gained international experience in universities in Kazan, Moscow, Kaliningrad, Minsk, and Beijing. He has further work experience within the fields of internationalization and education as a desk officer with Swedish government ministries and as a lecturer from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. He speaks German, English, Swedish, Russian, and Chinese.