Independent journalism about VU Amsterdam | Since 1953
18 April 2024

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Connected World Life of a Scientist

It’s the Media, Stupid!

VU academics blog monthly about improving societal connectedness at

After our final school exams in 1989, my friends and I went on a vacation. Not to a Greek island to enjoy  house and beach life, but instead to the remotest place our Interrail tickets would take us: Alta, Norway – 400 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle. Once there, we sat and watched a bleak sun that never set, clunky fisher boats, and kids on skateboards. Especially the latter caught our attention: skateboarding had been something of a hype in Amsterdam a few years before, but had faded just like neon colours and electric boogie dancing. Yet, here the kids were skateboarding like there was no tomorrow. It must be the remoteness of the place, we thought. It probably takes fads and trends years to travel here, and when they finally arrive, the world is already immersed in other things. These Alta kids, we philosophized, were like tiny humans gazing at distant stars, catching only images of times long gone. But what we hadn’t seen were the satellite dishes on their parents’ houses, the fancy decoders in their living rooms, and the long winter days that the Alta kids had spent watching the latest American TV shows.

A summer later, skateboarding also re-arrived in Amsterdam. What makes people practice what they practice, discuss what they discuss, ponder what they ponder? (Look at the title for a clue.) The media’s influence is sometimes exaggerated, but much more often it is grossly underestimated. Policymakers, for example, often believe that citizens discuss complex political issues ‘at the coffee machine’, or ‘on the street’. Well, usually they don’t. They get their information from TV shows, news and social media. Media determine their preoccupations, which in turn shape their attitudes. Of course, people may respond to information in different ways, and attitude formation is a very complex process. But anyone exposed to media is influenced by it just the same. Considering the rising ubiquity of digital technology, the advances in AI, and the exponential growth of computing power; considering our knowledge of human psychology, scalability, and network effects: will the influence of media decrease or increase? I think we all know the answer.

But what does that answer imply? First, we need smart, tech savvy individuals who understand the effects of new media technologies on people and on society, to help steer technological advancements in the right directions (so tell your smart niece or nephew to sign up for a communication science program!). Second, we should be very wary when someone – be it a mogul or a government – tries to exert control over media platforms or infrastructure. Almost without exception, basic civil rights are at stake: privacy, freedom of expression, democratic participation (vote with your feet!). Third, we might start to revalue the old-fashioned media institutions that we thought were going obsolete: newspapers, public broadcasting, the like. In a world of Google, social media, and AI, we sometimes forget that we need dedicated professionals to curate information flows. But we do. Journalists are the doctors of truth, professionally trained to care (support them, get a subscription!).

The skaters in Alta were highly connected individuals in a still sparsely connected world. After watching them for a while, we grabbed our backpacks and commenced our seven-day hike through Finnmark. The emptiness was all-encompassing. In the end, people are not made for such worlds. We need connections, and media are great tools for that. And they will only get better, if we make them.

‘Almost without exception, basic civil rights are at stake’


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