Stay (un-)cool: Bernhard Pörksen on the sense and nonsense of excitement
Professor Pörksen, for those who don’t know you: Who are you?
I’m a media scholar at the University of Tübingen. My main research focus is on the dynamics of outrage in the media.
What exactly does that entail?
My motivation is to develop a conceptual toolkit that reveals the personal responsibility we all have when engaging in public communication. The cozy era of gatekeeper journalism, in which influential journalists sort out what could be relevant and interesting at the gateway to the public world, is over. These days, we are experiencing a paradoxical situation: On the one hand, we have an unprecedented concentration of power in the public space, with only a few institutions, social media superpowers like Twitter, Facebook, Google or YouTube. On the other hand, we are faced with an enormous opening-up of the communicative space.
»Suddenly, everyone has a voice.«
Since regulating these powerful central institutions is proving difficult, however, my approach is to find concepts and a terminology that defines our personal responsibility in the public discourse. I argue that we need to move from the digital society we live in today to an “editorial society” of the future. In this society, everyone is their own gatekeeper, and the principles of good journalism have become an element of general education. Just like the knowledge that there is a lot of bad journalism out there.
And what are the principles of good journalism?
Verify your sources before you publish, listen to the other side, don’t make something out to be bigger than it is, let yourself be guided by relevance and proportionality, be skeptical. These are all principles that could and should become an ethic for us today, a set of values for the general public.
Could you say that it’s about giving people some sort of guidance?
Yes, but not in a paternalistic sense of: There’s this professor in his ivory university tower who knows it best. Rather, guidance in the sense of a practical set of rules that make it possible to navigate the terrain. The interesting thing is that these principles contain rules of self-guidance. Nobody should say what people should or should not publish. But the call for a certain method makes sense to me.
"It’s about meta-rules of self-guidance and the necessity to check your sources, be skeptical and deal with people who have a different opinion than yours. It makes your own thinking better and sharper."
So self-guidance combined with a cool, calm and collected approach?
Yes. We need to be cool, calm and collected in the face of senseless hype, firebrand journalism and the emotional rhetoric of escalation and outrage, in the face of superficial phenomena and the froth of excitement. This issue of your magazine is about coolness, and that’s where my approach shoots a bit off-center. There are certain situations and developments that you just shouldn’t be cool about, things that you should get upset about. But it’s about metering out your outrage as reflected as possible, and not becoming intoxicated by the public frenzy of indignation.
Keeping an overview with a clear perspective . . .
Yes, that’s the general idea. Good journalism sorts, has an eagle eye, approaches things with a long-term outlook. From my point of view, things that happen quickly are usually not that important, while things that happen more slowly are usually of the highest relevance. Looking at anthropogenic climate change or the pandemic, things that people have been warning about for decades, you can see that we need a sort of journalism that grasps the long term as newsworthy and sets itself apart from the cult of the short term. The latter is fueled by click-generating journalism and a desire to go viral. The journalism I’m proposing would not necessarily be cool, but it would be completely detached and perhaps a bit repulsed by hype.
"Good journalism sorts, has an eagle eye, approaches things with a long-term outlook."
Would it be a type of journalism informed by a particular kind of “cool” attitude?
More like a reflected detachment from the frenzy of the superficial. But outrage at the political failures in addressing the pandemic or the lack of an effective climate policy – we need that. I think that’s called for and necessary. What I’m talking about is a cool or detached attitude with regard to the superficial, while being open to things that are truly scandalous.
We’ve been talking about the media, but don’t they just cater to our needs? Doesn’t the problem actually lie with us? Where could we start to self-critically reflect?
This brings us to the difficult question of what is really important. Beyond the news of the day, what really matters? Jenny Odell, a wonderful American writer and artist, calls the design of media an “arms race of urgency” that produces a tremendous pull. We know that most people take only seconds to assess an article, and we also know about people’s news fatigue. Which brings us back to the question of distinguishing between current events and existential relevance.
In my opinion, you need to escape the news-driven media business if you want to think the second thought. The first thought comes immediately, but the second one takes in the overall development and makes it possible to turn back to the world in a wiser way. It’s not escapism, nor is it a digital detox retreat for the monied set, which is all about body and mind care. The idea that organizing information is a personal wellness problem is suspect to me.
"The first thought comes immediately, but the second one takes in the overall development and makes it possible to turn back to the world in a wiser way."
What do you have against escapism?
It’s an illusion. Though I’m sure it can be great to book a seminar in Silicon Valley every now and then, jump into an ice-cold creek, hand over your smartphones and hug a giant redwood tree.
Have you ever done something like that?
[laughs] No, not that, but it is its own market. Still, escapist offerings will become more important as the pressures from crises mount.
So real coolness wouldn’t be escaping from the world, but a more conscious, mature way of dealing?
Perhaps we could speak of a partial coolness as a transitional stage on the way to conscious engagement.
How do you manage to keep your composure in the middle of our media-driven world?
I often fail, but I try to be mindful of my own attentiveness, to consume media in a reflected way, not to react too quickly, and to refrain from immediately commenting. That means not immediately jumping on a topic and reacting with emotional, instantaneous interpretations. I try to practice techniques of cooling down. That can include skeptical questioning as well as meditation.
Bernhard Pörksen was born in 1969 in Freiburg im Breisgau. He studied German, journalism and biology in Hamburg and worked as a freelance journalist during and after his studies. Since 2008 he has held the chair in media studies at the University of Tübingen. In the same year, he was named Professor of the Year by Unicum Beruf magazine. Pörksen has published more than two hundred essays and commentaries as well as reports in various media, plus several books, most recently Die große Gereiztheit. Wege aus der kollektiven Erregung (The Great Irritation. Ways of Coping with Collective Outrage).
Instagram, Facebook and YouTube prompt you to “like” something right away . . .
Yes, that is certainly a major difficulty in dealing with digital media and media culture: their penchant for anchoring us in the total present. But a fair and nuanced view emerges only when you take a longer look at contexts and analyze connections. To do this, it is necessary to take a second look and to be skeptical of your own judgments and prejudices. These are, of course, as I must immediately concede, very idealistic points of view in a world where even young people are constantly told to display their talents, make themselves visible and tell their story – only to be accused of being self-absorbed. This is a dilemma for young people: the invitation to permanently invest in techniques of self-presentation – and, at the same time, the constant condemnation of their narcissism as part of an egocentric generation.
And what advice would you give to parents whose children are glued to their smartphones?
I believe that media education in the old sense is doomed to failure under the current communication conditions. Steve Jobs was still able to impose the rule at the dinner table that there should be no smartphones and that people should talk about books. But I see the smartphone as a prime example of an indiscreet medium that permanently connects worlds of consciousness and experience. And in this situation, you can try to exemplify a way of living that inspires another. Moralizing does not work. Living out the beauty of a particular way of living seems to me more effective than any fixed rule.
"I believe that media education in the old sense is doomed to failure under the current communication conditions."
Getting back to coolness, the media present being cool as a desirable state. Why is that?
Well, I’m not sure if it’s the media or if cool isn’t some marketing ploy. Perhaps people also have a personal need for distance from the noise, the Twitter flurry, the shitstorm battles, the constant attacks, and the sudden surges of aggression. Coolness and nonchalance suggest a certain unassailability. Some people will find that attractive. But I see the greater chance of interaction in approachability and authentic vulnerability, despite the risks and exaggerations.
So you wouldn’t really be excited if your students called you cool?
For me, being approachable or open would be more of a compliment. But I don’t think that University of Tübingen professors can be cool. [laughs] To put it bluntly, we don’t stand a chance in this business anyway.