Remembering Ulrich Beck

[German version]


Somehow, we had lost sight of each other.

For 12 years, the theories and ideas of Ulrich Beck had become a kind of significant other for me. Ulrich had even been the reason, I abandoned my chemistry studies in 1997 and changed to sociology (oddly enough, from one Professor Beck to the other). His lecture on “Social Structure of the Federal Republic of Germany” in the Great Hall of the University of Munich was my first encounter with sociology. And what a furious encounter it had been!

While other professors opened their lectures with explaining the simplest basic concepts and statistics that you could also learn from reading a newspaper, Ulrich’s lecture started with an elaborate argument on why the basic concepts of “first modernity” – nation-state, social structure, social change – were already obsolete and able to survive only as a kind of “zombie concepts”. Many freshmen left the lecture with their heads spinning, but for me this was exactly what I needed. And a maximum contrast to chemistry.

My diploma thesis then focused on his concept of “internal globalization”. At the core was the idea that our world was much more globalized and hybrid on the inside as it appeared at first glance. To prove Ulrich Beck’s hypothesis that corporations had undergone an intensive process of inner globalization, I typed line by line from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development statistical yearbooks and statistically analyzed the resulting dataset. The result then even became a nearly full-page footnote citation in his book “Macht und Gegenmacht im Globalen Zeitalter”.

The theory of “inner globalization” then slowly metamorphosed into a theory of Cosmopolitanism during the DFG Research Centre 536 on “Reflexive Modernization”. Once again, Ulrich demonstrated how quickly he and his ideas could evolve – while many of his peers only gradually understood and accepted globalization theory and Reflexive Modernization, he was already one step ahead and had again discovered a new dimension of social theory. Doing research together with Ulrich always meant: sociological theory in the fast lane. But when you were getting into it, it could quickly become the most exciting and rewarding experience.

After the end of the SFB in 2009, I left academia and joined a private research company. But this was never meant to be a final good-bye. Still, I was tracking the development of Munich sociology only marginally for the following five years. Until September 2014 when Ulrich Beck invited all his former assistants and staff for a reunion meeting by email.

The group met – somewhat decimated due to the German rail strike – in the Faculty Room of the University Munich. I told Ulrich that although not working in science anymore, there still were a lot of connections to his theory, in particular the theory of Cosmopolitization in my practical work. My impression was that he was quite delighted that his cosmopolitan project increasingly came to life outside the academic world. In addition, we discovered that we had a common theme again: the question of the immense contribution of the Internet and Social Media to the Cosmopolitization the world.

Suddenly, we were back again in a lively and productive exchange with many phone calls, emails and discussions about Big Data, Twitter analysis and memetic communication in his new office in the Schellingstrasse. In December we met in Paris at the workshop of his new EU research project at the Fondation Maison des sciences de l’homme. The participants came from Brazil, England, France, China, South Korea, Canada and Denmark. It was very inspiring to see how Ulrich’s ideas had evolved into a global research project – and he really seemed at home in the middle of this truly cosmopolitan research community.

I said goodbye to Ulrich with the good feeling that this would be the beginning of an exciting new phase of cooperation. In early January we wanted to meet again to continue working on “cosmopolitan data”. Unfortunately I was wrong. Suddenly learning that this should not be the beginning of a new phase, but just a final flare, still hurts a lot. But at the same time I’m grateful beyond words for the last two and a half months.


Public relations after the memetic turn

I don’t like the term PR 2.0. It suggests an improved version of something that has been around a long time. Some bugs have been removed, some new features have been added. But all in all, it’s still public relations as we know it. I think this is not the case.

Why? Because we went through something that can be called the “memetic turn” or “memetic revolution”. The concept of course refers to Richard Dawkins memetic theory in his “Selfish Gene”. Basically, memes are bits of information (images, metaphors, jokes), that are spreading through a network. Originally, Dawkinsian memes are encoded in genetic material, but here I will not refer to the evolution of behavior or species, but to the evolution of media. In a nutshell: Memetic communication is destroying society – mass society to be precise. This is because the meaning of memes seldom can be decoded by everyone, but is only available to members of one distinctive community. Think of a picture of a LOLcat “I iz eating your GTD folder”) in comparison to a headline such as “USA declares war on Germany”. The first is memetic, the second isn’t.

Usually we think media evolution interdependent with social evolution. Mass society created mass media and so on. But it is exactly the other way around. When we look at the origin of the nation state, media such as national newspapers, national traditions, national novelists came first. With Benedict Anderson, we can argue that national newspapers created the first nations.

At the beginning of the 21. century, we can clearly see the demise of the national newspaper, national Television or national politics (e.g. the Volksparteien in Germany). At the same time, there is a distinctly non-national medium on the rise: the Internet. In the beginning, we framed this medium in terms of the ascent of the global age and the first iconic representations of the Web always has been the globe.

But the more we look at the Web, the more we discover that it is no global medium, but a tribal one. Ideas travel through the various social graphs not the way global mass media would do, but their path resembles the way information was distributed in the various accounts of classic ethnologists. A large part of online communication is memetic – using strong icons for communications, that can only be deciphered by relatively small tribes, and no longer considered newsworthy for the general public.

And finally, I come to the role of public relations. The bad news is that one of the first casualities of the memetic revolution has been the general public. This is a quirky situation for an industry that has been mostly about telling stories to the general public or to journalists (that in turn translated the stories for the general public).

The good news for public relations is, that after understanding the implications of the memetic turn, there are not fewer but more opportunities to tell your stories. A lot more. But the skills are changing. Public relations is no longer about writing press releases that are attractive to the general public or some vague sociodemographic audiences (e.g. “Entscheider”).

The work of a PR professional resembles more and more traveling shamans wandering from tribe to tribe and delivering their highly special and individualized services to different communities.

The skills include:

– getting to know the relevant tribal audiences and identifying the locations and communal boundaries of the tribes with the help of tools such as social media monitoring

– learning their dialects, rituals, social structure by participant observation at community gatherings online as well as offline (netnography)

– translating the story to be told for the lifeworld of the community

At the moment, the first memetic PR shamans are already mingling with their relevant communities. They are mostly self-taught practitioners, but I am very optimistic, that the skills will be sooner or later be part of the regular curriculum for public relations professionals.

As matter of fact, the memetic turn can also be understood as an appeal to practitioners to return to the forgotten task and original promise of public relations: Go and create relations! Today, one should add: And let them be sustainable relations.

Fostering Slowness

The real innovation blogging brought to our media landscape has never been real-time. No, the most important difference between “regular” websites or portals and blogs is their archive and the beautiful possibilities for fostering slowness (philosopher Odo Marquard coined the phrase “Langsamkeitspflege” for a very similar concept).

When German blogger and journalist Don Dahlmann wrote three years ago, “one really should create an overview of the German blog scene because very much will be lost very fast”, I started the Blog History Project. This project aims at preserving the early history of blogging in Germany.

The projects extends from the first beginnings of blogging 14 years ago – among the pioneers were Robert Braun, Cybertagebuch and Moving Target – through the first Wave of Blogging in 2001 that even got noticed in some newspapers, up to the great blogging euphoria in the mid-2000s. Now, it already has been three years since I started the project, but the most exciting observation is: almost all blogs and their archives are still available. So, maybe we do not lose as much as we may have thought.

Everytime I ventured into the field of oral history, I learned, that key elements of urban infrastructure such as post offices, where almost every citizen went many times a year, month or week to withdraw money, send letters or look up phone numbers, are kept in collective memory for about 10 years after they had been torn down.

Sometimes there is not even a single photograph showing the buildings – in spite of (or maybe: because of) their banality. Paradoxically some of them are documented only on Twitter, a medium very frequently criticized for its banality and fleetingness. I suppose there are more pictures of the beautiful 1950s Aschaffenburg station on Twitter than in the building authority’s archives.

We will probably stilll read our blogs in 20 years and browse their huge historical archives, while political real-time characters such as Ursula von der Leyen (called “Zensursula” by her web-savvy opponents) and former president Horst Köhler slumber in dusty, cobwebby corners of the Wikipedia. And that’s certainly not the worst development.

I can only recommend the highly informative book by Florian Aicher and Uwe Drepper about architect Robert Vorhoelzer, the most important figure of the Bavarian postal architectural office in the 1920s, who planned many of the postal buildings pictured in this article.

Slow Media and borrowed time

When more than thirty years are told,
As good as dead one is indeed

Goethe, Faust II

“Why Slow Media?” This is certainly one of the questions we get asked most frequently on events and in many conversations. “Why do you ask for more slowness in media?” For me, Hippocrates’ famous aphorism Ὁ μὲν βίος βραχύς ἡ δὲ τέχνη μακρά that has been put even more concisely by Seneca, vita brevis, ars longa, is the foundation of Slow Media – if not for all different streams of the Slow Movement.

Life simply is too short to surround oneself with bad things,  to eat bad food or to read bad magazines, websites and books. Especially when approaching the middle years of one’s life and the last deadline (what an apt term!) is moving closer and closer. One of the most intense visualizations of this fact is the “Death of Altötting”, a figure that mows the remaining seconds of remaining time with a scythe.

The key question that has provoked many different answers in intellectual history, is: How to deal with this mismatch of limited life-time and unlimited culture and arts? How to deal with the awareness, that one can enjoy at best a tiny fraction of all books, films, magazines or people? Roughly sketched, there is a quantitative and a qualitative way to handle this dilemma.

The quantitative or Protestant way tries to realize as much as possible from this potential with the help of a strict plan or timetable. Benjamin Franklin’s slogan “time is money” is the clearest expression of this philosophy. It demands to productively exploit every single second of the day and to waste nothing of this precious resource by being lazy or self-indulgent. Thrift is the ideal, towards which the short remaining life should be oriented.

How different does the other way look! It focuses on quality of the borrowed time. Here, the aim is not to squeeze as much activity as possible into limited time – young adults in the U.S., for example, achieve to stuff 10:45 hours media time into just 7:38 hours life-time by parallel use of different media (Franklin surely would applaud this efficiency), but to spend the hours as well as possible. Our Slow Media Manifesto could be summed up in one sentence: Time is too short for bad media.

Collège de France philologist Harald Weinrich recounts all possible facets of this phenomenon in his highly readable book “On Borrowed Time”. One of his key points is the dualism between aged Chronos (Χρόνος), who is approaching death with a high tempo and always youthful Kairos (καιρός) who stands for the wise use of time and opportunity, which can be clearly seen in his most famous depiction:

One of his most peculiar features is his almost completely shaven head. Only on his forehead remains one head of hair. If a terrestrial being wants to catch and hold this agile god, he will have to face him and try to catch his hair. If he misses, than his hand will find no hold on the smooth skull and the right moment has been missed and slipped. [Own translation]

Even for media, there is a right time. Not every slow or fast medium is for everyone, everywhere and always the right one. But in many cases the slow, inspiring and sustainable option is the more convenient choice. And it also gives you the feeling that you have spend your brief time the best possible way.

Paradoxically, this will often be the cheaper option. Just as the flea market purchase of a high quality unused porcelain tea-set from 1957 is much cheaper than buying a nameless industrial product in a Swedish furniture store or faux-antique goods in nostalgia supermarkets, the joy of reading a very well-made book with a patina will be less expensive than the collection of cheap novel editions of newspaper publishers.

Slow Media should not to be misunderstood as a plea for something one could describe with reference to period furniture as period media. Slow Media advocates authentic media, regardless of whether bought at the newsstand (Wired, Intelligent Life, Make, Brand eins) or passed down for generations. Anything else is time wasted.

See original post in German