Mike S. Schäfer, Hartmut Wessler
Öffentliche Kommunikation in Zeiten künstlicher Intelligenz. Warum und wie die Kommunikationswissenschaft Licht in die Black Box soziotechnischer Innovationen bringen sollte

Publizistik, 2020: 65, issue 3, pp. 307-331
ISSN: 0033-4006 (print), 1862-2569 (online)

Die Kommunikationswissenschaft tendiert dazu, aktuelle soziotechnische Innovationen, etwa im Bereich der künstlichen Intelligenz, als Black Box zu behandeln und sich in nachlaufender Aufräumarbeit vornehmlich mit deren zeitversetzten manifesten Folgen zu beschäftigen. Da diese Innovationen die Gegenstände unseres Faches aber zunehmend prägen und erheblichen Einfluß auf den Öffentlichkeits- und Medienwandel haben, führt dies zu beträchtlichen Erklärungsdefiziten der Kommunikationswissenschaft. Wir schlagen daher eine Reorientierung der kommunikationswissenschaftlichen Forschung vor, die die Entstehung potenziell folgenreicher Innovationen in neuen emergenten Handlungsfeldern sowie deren Auswirkungen auf die strukturellen Bedingungen und kulturellen Prägungen von Öffentlichkeiten in den Mittelpunkt stellt. Für diese Reorientierung lassen sich Ansätze aus der Journalismusforschung (Redaktionsforschung; Pioneer Communities), der sozialkonstruktivistischen Wissenschafts- und Technikforschung (Social Construction of Technology; reflexive Technikfolgenabschätzung) sowie der kritisch-interventionistischen Innovationsforschung (Values in Design; Critical Data Studies) nutzen.Wir plädieren für einen gegenstandsangemessenen, theoriegenerierenden und kooperativen Forschungsprozess, der die Erklärungskraft und Zukunftstauglichkeit der Kommunikationswissenschaft stärken soll.

Public communication is changing—a change manifested in a crisis of legacy media’s business models, the proliferation of new channels of communication and increasingly individualized media repertoires, among other things. Often, these changes are associated with sociotechnical innovations, i.e. with novel ideas, methods and applications emerging from the interaction of technical infrastructures and technologies with human action. It was suggested, for example, that users’ ability to configure their own information sources and content in mobile and social media led to the creation of echo chambers, that algorithmic curation on search engines and social networks resulted in filter bubbles, or that social bots led to an over-representation of certain public positions and a higher prevalence of mis- and disinformation in public debates. In this essay, we criticize the reaction of communication science to these developments and its role in the corresponding scientific and public discussions: Communication science too often imports problem diagnoses from the outside, limits itself to the post hoc description and measurement of these phenomena, and excludes relevant contexts of their origin. In addition, too little knowledge from our discipline makes its way into public debate, and only few communication scientists dare to make regulatory proposals, or are even perceived as relevant providers of such proposals. This is problematic in two respects: Firstly, it hampers communication science’s standing in the concert of academic disciplines. Its current mode of analysis means that the discipline is often late in defining social problems, and consequently leaves agenda setting to other disciplines or actors. On the one hand, this opens the door to questions about the relevance and analytical value of communication science as a discipline. On the other hand, it leads to simplified views or misinterpretations of social phenomena which could be avoided if expertise from communication science had been included earlier, but is difficult to remedy after the fact. Secondly, it is also problematic for the cognitive core and epistemological perspective of communication science. If we analyze sociotechnical innovation and its effects detached from its origins, the values and institutional logics inscribed into these innovations are “blackboxed”: they move into the blind spot of our discipline. We argue that communication science should pay more attention to sociotechnical innovations that are (potentially) relevant to public communication. This demand could have been made for early innovations like the printing press or the telegraph already, but is more urgent for digital innovations, which proliferate more quickly, permeate almost all areas of life, and influence human interaction directly and deeply. To do so, it is necessary to incorporate sociotechnical innovations into the conceptual foundations of public communication that has, so far, mostly taken structural and cultural conditions into account. It is necessary to broaden this conceptualization, and to assess the socio-techno-cultural foundations of public communication. This includes the actor constellations around sociotechnical innovations, e.g. financiers, potential customers, programmers, researchers, but also regulators, and users. It also encompasses innovation practices, such as decisions on the development, testing and implementation of innovations, involving a variety of “systems of thought, finance, politics, legal codes and regulations, materialities and infrastructures, institutions [and] inter-personal relations” (Kitchin). And it includes technical artefacts, e.g. hardware and software affordances which enable and limit pathways of action. The endeavor we propose can stand on the shoulders of several seasoned and recent approaches from within and outside communication science: Within communication science, it should make use of recent approaches in ethnographic journalism research which analyzes the organizational makeup and procedural workings of newsrooms. This strand of research produces “thick descriptions” of a social context that is decisive for public communication, using multi-methodical, primarily qualitative approaches and a quasi-ethnographic perspective. Similarly, the “Pioneer Communities” approach may be instructive. Its focus on “communities” that are relevant for public communication extends the view beyond journalism and facilitates a prospective, future-oriented perspective. Beyond our discipline, social constructivist approaches from science and technology studies, namely “Social Construction of Technology” (SCOT) approaches and “reflective technology assessment” are promising. Both emphasize the social embedding and construction of technologies, with a historical and a forward-looking perspective, even though they do not focus strongly on public communication. Finally, a re-orientation of communication science can benefit from interventionist innovation research. “Values in Design” approaches combine ideas from science and technology studies with influences from computer science and philosophy, arguing that technology and innovation design can already have moral consequences and trying, accordingly, to inscribe desirable values in technologies. “Critical Data Studies” examine the social processes underlying the generation, analysis and use of data. Like “Values in Design”, it aims to reconstruct how social contexts shape technology or data, and to improve the respective practices. A re-oriented communication science can learn from all of these approaches. Overall, we plead for a contextualized, theory-generating and cooperative research process, which would strengthen the explanatory power and future viability of communication scholarship.