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The Interactive Sublime: Obstacles to Dialogue in Digital Broadcasting

This text was first published in . The topic is , the genre and the year of publication .

Interactivity is the most revered value of new media. It promises to empower domestic users and make the media more democratic, and even to increase the profit of media companies in the bargain. The meaning of “interactivity ” must be defined carefully so that we do not confuse good and bad qualities in communication just because everything is labeled “interactive”.


Broadcasting is in a state of evolving convergence with telephony and the Internet, creating internet radio and television on demand, interactive digital television on cable or satellite, and potentially also broadcasting to and from mobile phones. Old interactive forms have become unstable, and new journalistic genres are in the making. There are television programs based on audience response on SMS and email, where the story line is influenced by popular vote (Big Brother, etc.). There is a new range of phone-in programs on radio, and there are Internet services where the user can create a personalized version of his favorite radio or television station, and chat with other listeners. These are early and crude experiments in interactive broadcasting, where the participatory potential of digital technologies has not yet been made full use of.

What I call the rhetoric of the interactive sublime is the tendency to ascribe the noble traits of interactivity and participation to digital media, and to inspire respectful emotions among consumers as a consequence. As we know, a new device must be conceived of as having desirable qualities if it is to become trendy. This has often been referred to as the sign-value of an object. The rhetoric of the interactive sublime makes digital media seem more capable than they really are, and this impression is propelled by brand advertisements, feature journalism in magazines and other mass media, and in consumers’ everyday discourses. Although such rhetoric may reflect an honest desire for communication to be improved by new media, this doesn’t mean that it is actually improved. It may simply mean that beautiful ideals of interactivity are sprinkled onto practices of communication that stay the same as before. To the extent that this is the case the discourses that surround interaction in new media are deceptive.

I will take issue with the sign-value of interactive broadcasting. First I will contrast the nature of interaction in human-computer communication with its nature in face-to-face communication. This comparison allows for a distinction between instrumental and dialogic interaction. I will argue that the instability of broadcast journalism at present gives room for a radical redirection of the relationship between producers and users, where the goal should be to make interaction more dialogic. But this redirection is counteracted by the rhetoric of the interactive sublime. Although users of digital media are empowered by a host of new interfaces, almost none of them are speech-based, and those who are, are certainly not dialogic. “There is no need to talk in order to be interactive”, is the subtle message at the heart of the rhetoric of the interactive sublime as it pertains to broadcasting.

This chapter is wholly argumentative, meaning that my claims are not supported by empirical evidence, only by normative justifications that every reader is free to dispute. My goal is not to prove a certain state of events, but to provoke reflection and inspire adherence to a set of values for mass communication.

Instrumental and Dialogic Interaction

According to the dictionary the minimum requirement for interaction to occur is that two entities act or are capable of acting on each other, as when a person uses the mouse and keyboard of the computer to affect the graphical displays on the screen. Such interaction presumes an interface between a skilled user and a technological set-up where the apparatus and its programs continuously change the data output according to changes in the input. If the interface is changed the content of the interaction is also changed. In the computer world this typically implies that the user is forced to develop new skills because the functionality of the apparatus has been changed.

This minimum definition of interaction is highly relevant for human-computer interaction (HCI), and for the basic technical handling of digital radio and television apparatuses. Users interact in this way when they change stations, use the menu, read text-TV, and when they make recorded items pop up on the screen or select alternative camera angles. All of this can be conceived of as instrumental interaction. There is a double meaning to this concept. It suggests that the user primarily interacts with a function on the screen, and only secondarily with another person—if at all. It also suggests that there may be a somewhat self-serving intention behind it, like winning a game or a prize, finding just the right kind of information, etc.

Although interaction in broadcasting takes place with apparatuses of many kinds it is not really instrumental—at least that cannot reasonably be the main focus in a discussion of its functionality. Broadcasting is more valuable as an interactive medium when it supports and contrasts personal initiatives than when it facilitates the playing of games or the buying of commodities. The promotion of dialogic interaction is a normative principle that guides my argument throughout, and in the following 1 will clarify the reasons for this.

The starting point for a definition of interaction in broadcasting should be the fundamental one of humans exchanging social meaning, something we have done in face to face interaction since time immemorial. Compared to human-computer interaction this human-human interaction is typically based on interpretation of each other’s actions instead of a mere instrumental reaction. As Herbert Blumer says: “Their ‘response’ is not made directly to the actions of one another but instead is based on the meaning which they attach to such actions. Thus, human interaction is mediated by the use of symbols, by interpretation, or by ascertaining the meaning of one another’s actions. This mediation is equivalent to inserting a process of interpretation between stimulus and response in the case of human behavior”(Blumer, 1969, p. 180).

This sociological theory of interaction can be found for example in Erving Goffman’s Interaction Rituals (1967) and Ian Hutchby’s Conversation and Technology (2001) where it relates to acts as diverse as entering an elevator full of people without embarrassing each other, and taking turns speaking during a conversation on the telephone. In this theory the “entities” that act on each other are equally sensitive, equally responsible for their actions, and equally able to display initiative—in short they are humans.

In this broad notion of social interaction lies the potential for what I call dialogic interaction. To participate in a dialogue, according to Hans Skjervheim, is to give attention to the subject matter of the other’s speech, to evaluate its claim to truthfulness or importance, and to move further along its interpretative trajectory. “This means that I am participating or engaging in his problem”, Skjervheim says in his essay “Participation and Onlooker” (1996, p. 71). Instead of living in separate worlds the persons share the same world—or an aspect of it. And indeed, in broadcasting we can share things. For all practical purposes communication takes place among humans through the apparatus, and it can therefore be considered a technologized form of human-human interaction. This does not automatically make broadcasting dialogic, but it displays its potential for being so. Spoken dialogue obviously takes place in real time exchanges where the minimum technological requirement is a live audio connection between the parties involved. Through history genres such as live talk shows, debates and especially phone-ins have demonstrated this feature. The question is whether the audience members in general will ever be included in such dialogues in broadcasting.

The Asymmetry of Broadcasting

The interfaces of broadcasting are designed to exploit certain cultural skills, or rather, to inspire certain cultural techniques that are very different on the producing and receiving ends. Traditionally, therefore, the nature of interaction in broadcasting has been that it is asymmetric. Journalists and producers work with a whole gamut of devices that channel creativity and initiative, for example microphones, cameras, tape and video recorders, etc. Domestic users relate far more passively to loudspeakers, screens and their respective tuning devices. This amounts to a stark difference in the room for expressing oneself and experiencing the world through the medium, regardless of whether the interaction is considered instrumental or dialogic. The media professionals and the domestic users attend to broadcasting from different ends of a gap that must be bridged for interaction to come about. It can only happen due to the stable cultural techniques that have developed towards broadcasting.

The asymmetry of broadcasting is not in itself a bad thing. The core cultural value of broadcasting is that it shapes us as persons or individuals in a setting that is public and shared with most others in one’s country or region. Both radio and television rely on the personality and initiative that can be expressed in voice, facial gestures, and the like. In Paddy Scannell’s (2000) terms they address anyone as someone, meaning that they facilitate an intimate sense of involvement for every single person, while still transmitting the same address to everyone. Because of their strong appeal to social identification we depend on these media for our way of life, indeed, for our sense of self. In this way it can be seen that broadcasting—whether it is radio or television—is the arena for a cultural technique that have become vital to modern societies. Most of us entrust them with hours of routine attention every day. They have therefore acquired an existential importance as asymmetrical media.

There is at least one potentially bad thing about this cultural technique. One of the skills needed for the technique to function well is the willingness to invest trust in the media professionals in various ways. Although sound media rely on highly complex machinery, this machinery produces easily accessible communication and contact. There is no need to understand how the apparatus works in order to use it. The concealment of the complex processes needed to create the contact in practice implies that the user has no control over the means of communication. Interaction in traditional broadcasting simply has to take place in good faith.

Broadcasting’s interaction is therefore built on several layers of unavoidable trust. Listeners have to trust the reality claims inherent in the presentations; the continuing functionality of the devices used; the generalized importance of the subject matter in question; that the editorial output is representative of society and its public events; and trust that it is relevant to their life world engagements in all those instances where they actually use it for further interaction. If they don’t invest trust in this manner, the human-human interaction will break down. There will be no bridging of the gap. I conceive of this as a disempowering reliance on the editorial and technical platforms on which the mediated events occur. It is an enforced good faith that is part and parcel of all forms of interaction in broadcasting.

Clearly, since the user’s perceptual skills are cultivated in one direction at the expense of other directions, over time its qualities will get apprehended as “natural” or “real”. There is, therefore, good reason to think that the current power-balance in broadcasting will prevail in the future. Its forms of interaction have hardened into social and indeed physical platforms for us to lead our lives on, without thinking too much about it.

This kind of reliance can almost unthinkingly be applied to new technological platforms like digital broadcasting. This is especially likely if the programs on the new platform are relatively similar to that of the old one, and if the push button services and other forms of interactivity are highly complex in structure. Although the technical potential to fundamentally change broadcasting exists, the medium may nevertheless not get changed since its stability is both social and technological. In an article called “Do Artifacts have Politics? ” Langdon Winner (1986) argues that technological equipment is similar to legislative acts in establishing frameworks for public order that will endure over many generations. “Because choices tend to become strongly fixed in material equipment, economic investment, and social habit, the original flexibility vanishes for all practical purposes once the initial commitments are made” (Winner, 1986, p. 29). Harold Innis famously called such material constraints the bias of communication (Innis, 1991). These structures must probably be softened up over a long period of time before they can be demolished, and dialogic interaction can come about in broadcasting.

The Prospect of Dialogue in Broadcasting

A cultural technique such as watching television is a stable mode of interaction only because the forces of communication have been successfully balanced. It is a socio-technological tension kept in harmony for reasons that precede the entry into communication of all who partake of it now.

Somewhat simplified the traditional balance can be said to consist of the actions of two parties. On the one hand there are the media professionals like journalists, musicians, editors, producers, PR-people, advertising companies and corporate executives; who all have an interest in mediation as away of earning one’s living. On the other hand there are the lay users like school children, truck drivers, office workers, farmers and academicians who have a vague interest in mediation as a way of developing oneself and understanding the world that surrounds them. As suggested, the latter have to trust the former if communicative interaction is to take place. The difference in communicative power and participation has been kept in check for decades, by the seeming permanence of the technological platforms, by the force of institutions and by a host of editorial policies that decide what is permissible on air. This stability may not be prevalent to the same extent in the future.

In contrast to broadcasting the telephone is a symmetrical platform for interaction. It is very simple in operation, yet accomplishes great feats of action. It allows administration at a distance, as well as intimacy at a distance, and it does so for any and all users. There are no particular differences in empowerment like that between journalists and listeners in broadcasting. The motives and dialogues, and the times of day that they can occur, are all voluntary for both parties—at least as far as the interface is concerned. Although social hierarchies still exist on the phone, there is little in the phone as an interactive platform that forces someone to trust someone else. This is in a sense the configuration of interaction that broadcasting could strive for, and which might in theory be possible with its present tendency to converge with telephony and the Internet.

It is often only if a relation changes dramatically that you can discover the long-seated mechanisms governing its balance. With the digital media we are presumably experiencing a revolution in broadcasting’s interaction, as both non-profit and commercial interests are working to give it greater symmetry. Media users can now potentially sit at an interactive workstation with their phone, email account and internet browser, and can in principle govern their communicative engagements in full independence. This may make the traditional division between the trusting and the trusted weaker, at least for a while. And with this dialogic empowerment a conflict of interest may emerge where there formerly was harmony. If the balance of power in interaction is shifted in the direction of greater user control one could imagine that there was less and less need to trust professionals.

Let me suggest a scenario that could be cultivated. It presumes that participation can take place through the media because technologies can enable responsible action, and that everybody involved will hold each other accountable for it. The most revealing way to take the initiative is through speech and its attendant facial gestures and bodily motions. Consequently, dialogue will best be conveyed as (live) on-air behavior to the microphone and/or camera, as it always has. In such unfolding situations you can somehow feel whether the persons are really participating or not; whether the interaction is staged or for real. Here the issue of cultural technique is crucial. It is rather difficult to act to the microphone and camera, and for true initiative to come about the citizens of a society would all have to individually embody a microphonic way of speaking, and perhaps a certain attitude towards the camera. The individual must simply master this level of the communicative power play on an equal level with journalists, producers and service providers.

However, freedom always comes at a cost. With greater room for initiative follows greater responsibility for what you do. To the extent that mass media facilitate expressive freedom for users a new role is prescribed for us, namely that of having to stay accountable for our behavior in the public forum of broadcasting. However, this would of course not be a novel experience, it would be a matter of our basic accountability showing up in a new place.

Every new medium has an old medium as its content, Marshall McLuhan argued in Understanding Media (1995) [1964], and recently he has been supported by Bolter and Grusin’s Remediation. Ideally, the new medium of digital broadcasting should then have the old medium of dialogic conversation as its content. Programs should present dialogues with the same dynamic between conflict and agreement that makes face-to-face conversation work so well. Face-to-face conversation is an arena for opinions, arguments and counter arguments. Every normal person is highly skilled in this kind of exchange. We protect our turf, we have a tactical understanding of our own situation, and our strengths and weaknesses. We are able to work our way around obstacles and act on opportunities every day. And since most of us are already competent at expressing our opinions and arguments on the telephone, we may be able to quite easily expand this skill to the broadcasting platform as well. However, people would probably only speak up if they felt incomplete in some way. Dialogue typically bespeaks an unsatisfactory situation on some issue, and to address it is a means of seeking solutions. But this is not a problem; it just shows the importance of topic selection in dialogic programs.

In such a scenario several features of the old interactive forms would have to be thoroughly revolutionized. Topics would be chosen by callers as well as by journalists. Dialogue would involve mutually ratified participation, meaning that not only do journalists ratify the participation by domestic speakers; the domestic speakers ratify the participation of journalists. Also, the domestic speaker would be free to decide exactly how long to speak, and how to formulate his or her views.

In sum, everybody becomes accountable for the communication: Callers by what they say on air, passive listeners by knowing that they would be heard if they dared to speak, and the station for facilitating this public platform in the first place. Most importantly, such a renewal of radio could boost the sense of legitimate, well-defined trust in an era when it is under threat of erosion by the rhetoric of the interactive sublime. But traditional journalistic formats in commercial and public service broadcasting would have great difficulty in catering for these redirections. This is not because it would be impossible to develop new genres in this vein, but because the media professionals’ exclusive cultural technique and position would be threatened. There is an irony in the fact that dialogue in broadcasting would change the industry into something that could perhaps no longer be called “broadcasting”.

The Interactive Sublime

What I have called the instability of digital broadcasting can also be thought of as a silent struggle about functions and interfaces. The big question is how the function of media technologies is determined. Since developments occur on a global scale, it is reasonable to suggest that no single actor can control a technology’s function. It is, however, easier to suggest who determines the shape of the public conception of what a media technology can and should do. The public conception is largely determined by dominant media outlets, PR-business, and advertisers who brand all new appliances with distinct and attractive values.

In the article “The Mythos of the Electronic Revolution” (1989) James Carey and John Quirk argue that there is an idealizing rhetoric embedded in the very fabric of electronic communication. This is, they say, an ethos “that identifies electricity and electrical power, electronics and cybernetics, computers and information with a new birth of community, decentralization, ecological balance, and social harmony” (1989, p. 114). In their view technological life includes a clever ideological and commercial staging of roles for people to believe in, where the various appliances are seen as necessary for succeeding in ones life-involvements. Carey and Quirk refer to this ethos as created by the rhetoric of the electrical sublime, and it goes like this: “Everyman a prophet with his own machine to keep him in control” (1989, p. 117). Carey and Quirk pick out as a central theme the media as technologies for interaction, and suggest that they were not created in good faith. Their face value is not trustworthy. Carey and Quirk for example warn against believing that more efficient machinery will give greater control, and the warning is certainly relevant for the way that individuals relate to communication technologies in our time.

I will point to the many commercial interests that are trying to shape the convergence of radio and telephone, for example Nokia, British Telecom, Microsoft, Apple, and large broadcasting houses like YLE, the NRK or the BBC. They promote the sign-value rather than the use-value of the new devices. George Myerson, in the book Habermas, Heidegger and the Mobile Phone (2001) says that “the problem isn’t to invent a machine, but to get us all to adopt it, to feel that we need it” (2001, p. 7). Their advertising and PR stages an independent, productive citizen that the marketplace and political life has always cherished. The Internet, the mobile phone and their convergence with broadcasting will enable all of us to master our domestic and work-related surroundings more accurately and safely than we would without them. We no longer need to trust other people and society’s various institutions of information and knowledge, because we have become self-sufficient in this field.

Myerson discusses the case of the mobile phone, and criticizes the PR-companies’ rhetoric of “mobilization”. He accurately echoes Carey and Quirk’s thoughts. The mobile vision is about “instant access to exactly the right information to suit your immediate needs. It is all about gaining, acquiring as efficiently as possible” (2001, pp. 55-56). It is communication with the meter running. “At heart, the mobile concept is about being in control—as a separate and distinct individual” (2001, p. 20). Control does not just mean that you are free from trusting the societal institutions and media professionals; it also means that you have the money, equipment and intellectual resources to do whatever you like. This is control without responsibility. Commercial forces will hesitate to appeal to responsibility and accountability because it has a moralist tinge that may put people off. It’s like the L’Oreal advertisement that without any warrant claims “Because you’re worth it!”

The use-value promoted by the rhetoric of the interactive sublime is more or less identical to what researchers and people in general would characterize as dialogic. It resembles what I have described above, and may seem to be the very fulfillment of Berthold Brecht’s 1932 dream of the receiver becoming the transmitter (Brecht, 1932/1992). Nevertheless, this is not nearly the case today. Although impressive enabling qualities are recommended in the industry’s rhetoric, the ideology behind it is dominantly mercantilist. It does not contain an evaluation of whether or not an apparatus and its functionality is desirable in people’s lives, nor does it betray any interest in judging the qualities of the empowerment that takes place. Any device that can be sold is a good device, and any form of communication that thrives on it is good communication. For customers it is often only the buying and experimentation with new appliances that counts. Users may unconsciously exaggerate the benefits of technology, and for example buy new devices that do not really have any gain. Within a few months the true use-value of the device has emerged, and it is discarded without much ado.

What is so bad about this commercial rhetoric is that it may obscure the technology’s technical potential for enabling self-control, and in many cases makes a caricature out of the hope for renewal. The public eye may take up the caricature as a real improvement due to lack of perspective, and lack of normative dedication. Again, talking about the “mobilized” model of communication, Myerson says: “The potential tragedy is that this most rich of technological developments is being packaged in such an impoverishing vision” (2001, p. 53). The rhetoric promotes the notion that any kind of interactivity is better than less interactivity. It is a discourse that conceals the potential verisimilitude the new technologies. Whether it is Big Brother, SMS-television or phone-in radio—it is all better than before, and therefore good enough.

Caricatured Dialogues

I acknowledge, of course, that there is greater room for dialogic interaction in digital broadcasting than in traditional analogue broadcasting. For example SMS-guided programs and push-button services on the digital TV-set are becoming more important. Hosts in the studio monitor and select the audience input on SMS, email, and direct feedback on the TV-set, and they present the selected messages or results on the TV screen, sometimes with studio comments. Here a whole host of opinion polls, pageants and competitions can be staged. But none of this is dialogic interaction for the simple reason that it doesn’t allow or force the audience to take up speaking parts. There are degrees of interaction, and digital broadcasting still does not score very high on dialogue.

The rhetoric surrounding digital interaction could be specified as a rhetoric that praises the instrumental dimension of interaction, while leaving out the verbal. This makes it easier to keep the old asymmetry intact. In Big Brother and other examples of interactive TV the reliance is as strong as ever on media professions, presentational technologies that you do not understand or control and editorial policies that you cannot influence. The lay user has no chance of comprehending the implications of what she is part of, and it would be absurd to let the greater freedom and control be accompanied by greater responsibility and accountability for the audience. The present phase of digital interaction actually seems to facilitate less responsibility for the qualities of communication, and induce greater need for trust in professionals.

My conclusion is dramatic: There is little or nothing in the new interaction that improves human-to-human interaction. Dialogue has to take place in voice, in facial expressions, in whole body activity between those involved. The interactive sublime allows producers, owners and other profiteers to not push interactivity to this extreme. It is simply not in their interest because it would cost a lot of money and empower users indiscriminately and without positive effect for programming purposes.

Phone-in shows on radio display the difficulty of dialogic participation in mass media. Basically, this is still an analogue genre, at least in the sense that it does not rely fundamentally on new digital interfaces—although these would quite clearly have added positively to the genre. Since they are specifically made to air the views of the vox populi in voice one should think they were perfectly able to create dialogic interaction. This is however not the case.

Stations never invite dialogue in the face-to-face sense, where a caller would be free to play out his individual rhetorical strategy. The caller is seldom put in an important role because of some personal quality, or specific knowledge. Rather, there is an implied interaction promoted by the whole production chain in radio, and it stages a caller behavior that is without accountability. The callers are screened and disciplined to conform to the show’s tone before getting on air. The hosts select tabloid subjects, cultivate disagreement, and are typically unable to respect the callers. The callers that get on air seem to admire the host, they change their opinion unnecessarily or stick too hard to their opinion, and typically they give in to shouting instead of to arguments. All this translates into a public conception of verbal interaction in radio as a somewhat humiliating practice for everyone involved.

Phone-in programs fit into a long tradition of creating verbal commodities out of radio’s potential for dialogue. The current ratings regime and its accompanying formats almost inevitably objectify the listener, or more precisely, objectify the dialogue he listens to. Hans Skjervheim (1957) argues that by objectifying dialogue “one attacks the other’s freedom. One makes the other into a fact, a thing in one’s world. In this way one can dominate the other” (1996, p. 75). Typically, the caller’s motive is caricatured, either explicitly or in the format of the program itself. This tendency can be found for example in quiz shows like BBC Radio One’s The Sarah Cox Breakfast Show. Callers are given five questions that must be answered in forty seconds, and the listener must go through several ritual during their less than three minutes on air. If the caller tries to talk about anything except the quiz she will immediately be cut off. On the Norwegian station P4 there is a program called On the Contrary. Every day there is a new current problem to debate. The program host has as his sole purpose to contradict what the caller says—in order to raise the temperature of the debate, one must presume. The host is intentionally schizophrenic, and there is no accumulation of knowledge about the chosen subject. It is difficult to learn anything from the debate, and unlikely for the for the caller to be feeling that her opinion has been changed or at least challenged in a serious way. The program is not accountable at all, even though its subject is national politics and its method is public dialogue.

This kind of verbal interaction is simply not good enough to qualify as a new stage in technological human-human interaction, and no pragmatic explanations from the industry or the domestic users themselves can change this judgment. Only a change of practices can improve the situation. What’s at stake here is nothing less than the quality of communication in the future. I for one have great expectations, and will be wary of rhetorical discourse that misrepresents this undesirable state of affairs as an improvement in communication.


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