Exclusive interview with University of Southern California Faculty Member Prof. Dr. Henry Jenkins

The global epidemic, which has influenced the whole world, has changed many practices in our daily lives. Digitalization has become an integral part of our education, business, and social life. Social media, which has been criticized as taking us away from the society, has become the most important communication and interaction tool during the pandemic period.

How do digitalization and new media environments affect individuals and societies? University of Southern California Faculty Member Prof. Dr. Henry Jenkins gave an interview to İstanbul University Department of Corporate Communication.

As a media scholar, how do you spend your quarantine days? What do you feel about witnessing the historical pandemic days? How do these quarantine days contributed to your academic works?

​So far, finding ways to spend the time has not been the question. The University of Southern California was one of the first American university to initiate Zoom-teaching, and by now, we are doing all of the university activities through Zoom, which means a lot of my day is “screen time.” My students are writing up a storm, proded by the quarantine to write those chapters and revise those papers, and it’s all landing on my desk. I spent part of the time watching entries for the Peabody Awards, where I serve as a jury member, and now that this process has been completed, I can start to shift my attention to my own media consumption. There’s a wall of dvds and another one with comics that are awaiting me, and beyond that, an impossible amount of streaming content. I also plan to spend the summer writing on my current book project -- a history of American children’s media and culture of the baby boom generation. And we are sustaining my blog, Confessions of an Aca-Fan, and podcast, How Do You Like It So Far? So, no rest for me.

While COVID-19 secludes us from the physical interaction with the society, do you think that the process of digital socialization (remote education and work at home, etc.) will be permanent in post-pandemic days?

I should acknowledge from the start that I am responding to these questions from an American perspective. I am describing what I see out my window, while walking the dog on the streets, via Zoom and on television. I am not assuming these are universal truths; some of what I say may be occuring in Turkey but as I will discuss later, we have to assume that cultural differences reshape how we experience the virus even if Covid 19 itself is a force of nature.

Not so long ago, digital media was being characterized as socially isolating, cutting us off from direct contact with our friends and neighbors. Now, it is the lifeline -- our connection to these social groups -- because larger factors have led to our isolation. I would argue that the social isolation was always a product of larger social, economic, political factors and the technology itself has both connective and isolating effects depending on the circumstances under which we are using it. I do think it has tipped the scale a bit in terms of leaving conservative institutions, such as schools, universities, and workplaces, to explore options that they seemed closed to as recently as 2019. The old excuses have broken down and I can imagine it is going to be hard to reverse course on some of these core decisions. 

One of my students, Joan Miller, makes the point that the university is willing to make “accommodations” that disabled students have been calling for, whether it is extended time tables or digital classes and conferences, and were told were unreasonable to expect or impossible to achieve. Now, they are out of excuses. 

I also think there are real benefits for hybrid use of these technologies -- for example, opening up conferences via Zoom to world-wide participants or bringing guest speakers into your classes from other locations, even connecting classrooms together around the planet for joint research projects, etc. Right now, we are doing this catch as catch can, mid-semester, without systematic planning: people are playing with these affordances because they must but once we understand them more fully, what a world they open up. But there is a huge body of education research literature which outlines how expanding the classroom into a hybrid media environment opens up a range of rich pedagogical possibilities, and I hope that if we extend into the fall with new classes, we will explore more fully what this might mean. I’ve, for example, written about the open-laptop exam, which in order for networking to be a feature (collective intelligence) rather than a bug (cheating) calls for us to build group collaboration into the testing process. The collaborative exam, then, leads to fostering learning teams across the semester and for me at least, fundamentally shifted how I thought about one of my core undergraduate courses.

What do you think about the cultural change awaiting for the residents of the post-pandemic world?

I am seeing enormous creativity coming out of the crisis as people tap whatever resources they have at hand to make something and share it via the internet. It creates a somewhat more level playing field as the professionals are often performing from home, also making use of whatever they can grab, even if we must assume they have more home resources (and more training) than the average family. I love the range of video responses not just to the virus itself, but for example, families re-enacting their favorite rides at Disneyland because their vacations there were canceled. Alongside this, we are seeing media celebrities read children’s books, artists making selfies imitating famous paintings using their cellphones, and news programs recording guest amidst interruptions by children and pets. Boredom, not necessity, is the mother of creativity. 

That said, some of the cultural changes are going to be less delightful. I find myself progressively more scared of strangers on the street, who are now perceived as a threat even when they would not under other circumstances. How will this shape the horror films of the future? But more seriously, how will this impact the ways we treat each other. Will we come through this with a greater desire for comradery and celebration with friends or will we come through this seeing each other as bags of germs waiting to infect and kill us and everyone else we care about? 

One of the things that has astounded and worried me is the fact that living in downtown Los Angeles, I am surrounded by homeless people, sleeping on the sidewalk outside my building -- many more than we saw before -- and yet, while all reports say they are desperate for food and medical attention, few of them approach me to touch me up for money. I would have said none, but I did get asked for spare change by one poor soul last night. A USC Colleague Francois Barr is helping provide sanitation stations on Skid Row to help slow the spread of the virus. 

A third area I think about is the ways that the shift towards public schooling on-line has raised important new questions about the digital divide and the participation gap. For years, American educators have celebrated the fact that they wired the classroom and library so that children without means can get digital access. But when these wired classrooms and libraries are closed to the public, the problem resurfaces, since we have not found ways to insure 24-7 access through mobile technologies for all students. Many students are forced to drop out of school and others are using low-grade connections which are immediately apparent to their classmates. The gap between digital haves and have nots has never been as visible as it is right now, and the question is what are we going to do about it. If we address it, this can be a breakthrough, If we ignore it and go back to “the way things were,” we will have swept a major problem under the rug and committed a great social injustice.

What is your opinion about the concept “the new normal”? Do you think that daily lives of us will be different in post-pandemic world? 

I find the phrase, “the new normal,” absurd because what we are experiencing is by definition a disruption and until we ride it out, we have no idea what the “new normal” is going to be. There certainly is medical and scientific evidence which suggests that climate change and the associated relocation of human bodies through immigration will increase the likelihood of future pandemics, not to mention other disruptions of our lives. 

Unlike many other countries around the world, America went for the better part of a century without facing this kind of generalized medical crisis. I read a news story the other day about a man who was 100 years old whose twin brother had died of influenza in the early 20th century, who spent his life dreading the return of a pandemic, and sure enough, died of Covid during the first outbreak. I doubt my son will have that same sense of security about medical crisis. We can call this another blow to the myth of “American exceptionalism.” 
We have seen both an increased appreciation of the role of government services, especially health care, during this crisis and a call for more competent, informed leadership, which is apt to have at least some short-term consequence on American political life as we move into a Presidential campaign season. 

We are also seeing the acceptance of unprecedented government restrictions on freedom of movement, association, and commerce, which are essential in response to this crisis and yet are also fundamentally at odds with some core ideological currents in American thought. We are already witnessing the American right play on those tensions to create political divides and try to seed a social movement. Add to this the economic downturn, the mass unemployment, which is going to have huge consequences on everyday life at whatever level we want to look. So however this plays out, we are not “going back to normal” but I don’t think we have any real clue yet what a “new normal” looks like.

What is your opinion about the role of the digitalization in social transformation?

I am not a technological determinist. I am a strong believer in both individual and collective agency and in particular, the social and cultural negotiations which occur when a new medium enters our lives. Marshall McLuhan said media were put out before they were thought out, and I agree -- we can never fully anticipate the consequences of introducing a new medium in our lives. Yet, I also think he is wrong to say that we are “numb” to the new medium, since it creates a spark of consciousness about the media environment as a whole. We are prone to think, to speculate, about how the medium is changing our world, and that can open up space for us to see the world differently, to think about other possibilities and alternative practices. 

We may start by playing around with the medium, Let’s take Zoom. At first, the technology feels alien -- in some ways, its capacity to bring so many people together from different locations with little to no latency feels futuristic. This may be the moment that our culture accepts the long promised ‘picturephone” as an integral part of our everyday life, but first, we need to learn how to make the damned thing work. 

Our practices have shifted as we bring the school and workplace into our homes. Women are making less of “an effort” in terms of hair and makeup. Everyone is dressing more casually. Our children and pets casually enter the picture. People are seeing what our personal space looks like. And we are speaking to each other through a camera which shrinks normal social distances, especially in these contexts. So we become more intimate, casual, informal, in our interactions with each other. In some cases, hierarchical structures hold but in others, they flatten and it is interesting to see how people respond to those shifts. 

And then, people start responding to the strangeness of allowing people into their homes, especially when we are paying less attention to housework also, and they begin to create fake backgrounds, performing in front of backdrops from their favorite paintings or media properties, representing fantastic environments from our collective imagination or just places we would like to be. 

Is this media changing us or are we changing the ways we live in relation to a medium? It’s a bit of both.

How do you evaluate the pandemic reactions of both Eastern and Western societies? 

I am not a scholar of Eastern societies and prefer not to directly comment. I think we can see that the pandemic has brought to the surface tensions that are normally hidden, perhaps not well, from view. So, we see pretty clearly Donald Trump’s contempt for science and medicine (Let them eat bleach!), his desire to block immigration (thus various schemes to close the border), and his lack of empathy for everyday suffering (no public expression of grief for the many lost to Covid). We are seeing American states declare that abortions are not essential services, whereas the governor of another state insists that nail salons and bowling alleys are essential to people’s survival. Some American states outlaw church services as public gatherings apt to spread the disease, while others find this unthinkable, classifying them as essential to the public well-being. Some -- many -- governments have used the pandemic to centralize authority, where-as Trump has sought to disperse the problem to the states, resulting in governors competing with each other for protective materials, testing kits, and respirators. Moving to more transnational comparisons, some governments (Portugal, for example) has expanded the notion of citizenship, temporarily, to refuges and immigrants, to insure that their core survival needs are met through government services. I think people will be studying the cultural differences in these policies for decades to come.

What do you think about the role of the social media in COVID-19 pandemic regarding disinformation and fake news? 

We don’t need to worry about social media. We have a U.S. president and various other government officials spewing dangerous, life-threatening, misinformation through mass media. In this case, a range of agents used social media -- memes, videos, and the like -- to call out the misinformation and try to counter its effects. 

Yes, lots of misinformation circulates online and we need to do more to strengthen our collective “bullshit detectors” (as Howard Rheigold suggests). But this may be as much a byproduct or exploitation of a society which over the past few decades has lost its faith in science, expertise, truth, education, the news media -- perhaps we should simply say that we have lost faith, period. . Talking to some of my family members, there is no trusted source of information which could provide a shared set of facts upon which to ground and resolve our disagreements. Social media -- and in particular, filter bubbles -- has dramatically increased this problem, but absent social media, we would still be dealing with a larger epistemlogical crisis. The New York Times responded to Trump’s suggestion that people ingest disinfectants but suggesting that “some authorities” believe that this would be dangerous to human health. 

Recently, you have studies on civic imagination. You define the functions of civic imagination as a better world, a process of change, the self as civic agent, a community with a shared agenda, and the experience and perspective of others. Would you please state your thoughts about the effect of COVID-19 process on civic imagination?

Every night at 8, here in Los Angeles and in many other American cities, people go to their windows or balconies, bang on pots, blow and rattle noisemakers, flick their lights on and off, and shout. I can’t see these individuals from their darkened windows but it lets us know they are out there, we are not alone, and the ritual is intended as a tribute to the heroic health care workers, who are battling the Pandemic and saving lives. I find this a remarkable social ritual which helps us to imagine our connection to each other and to the government services that help us survive day by day. This is a performance of the civic imagination, and at this moment, what unites us as humans is more important than what separates us, a rare expression of civic unity in a country otherwise afire with sharp cultural and ideological divides. 

To me, the civic is the sense of connection and obligation we feel towards each other, as opposed to politics which is often where our divided interests get battled over. We need a solid civic infrastructure to heal and come back together after such fierce political struggles and right now, America, like many other countries around the planet, needs to strengthen those civic ties. We discuss all of this in our recent book, Popular Culture and the Civic Imagination: Case Studies of Creative Social Change. Yet, already, political leaders are playing on divides and wedge issue to reshape American sentiments towards the political debates to come, uncomfortable living in a moment when we are all united in our common struggle to survive. 

My research group has launched two new initiatives in collective expression designed to encourage reflections on the civic imagination. In one, we are asking people around the world to share their reflections about the current moment (as seen “looking backwards” from 2060), to talk about the stories that inspire them and to create new ways of seeing the current moment. This is a project designed to tap our newly constructed Atlas of the Civic Imagination, All contributions are welcome and we’d love for you, your colleagues and students, to help put Turkey on our map. You can read more details at the Civic Imagination Project’s website. The second project is designed for Instagram and other social media channels. We are asking participants to take a photograph of what they see outside their window, the memories it generates, the feelings it provokes. Share them with @civicimaginationproject and #ThroughMyWIndow. We are framing both in global rather than national terms, inviting us to make connections across borders and boundaries.

What do you think about the governments’ actions worldwide on using software in order to follow up the citizens for pandemic? Do you think that the technology and pandemic may have a possibility for changing in understanding of democracy in global scale?

It may be necessary, God help us, but it really worries me, because it represents a further extension of government surveillance and a loss of privacy, which can not help but impact the ways we feel about ourselves and our capacities for civic action. Personal freedom is often the “first casualty” of a war and insofar as many governments are confronting Covid with a wartime mentality, we should not be surprised at the desire to fight the enemy with every tool we have at our disposal, where the individual needs to sacrifice for the common good. I get that but I also worry when governments seize power and authority whether they are likely to give it back to us.

What do you think about the understanding of globalization will take a shape in post-epidemic world?

Again, I am worried that in closing borders (and seeing travelers, international students, not to mention refugees as carrying disease) we are going to be intensifying a reactionary nationalist impulse which is currently shaping governments around the world. In the United States, we are seeing both of the presidential candidates accusing the other of being “too close” to China. I am hearing stories of microaggressions and open harassment of Asian-Americans across the country. We are hearing of some Chinese restaurants closing because people suspect them of spreading Covid. A U.S. Senator was just on national television suggesting we should dramatically cut back on the flow of international students to American universities (overlooking the fact that many schools depend on revenue from these international students to stay open and keep tutions low.) And as Trump closes our borders, they are going to be hard to open again. 

I am sitting here recalling one memorable day when my wife and I found ourselves with a 9 hour layover in Istanbul, and we spent the night roaming around the streets, eating amazing food and sweets, listening to music and drinking wine, observing the feral cats and visiting the mosques at dawn. We were warmly welcomed everywhere we went. I wonder if we will be able to enjoy this kind of travel experience in the future -- I still have many parts of the world yet to visit and I very much want to get back to your country.

How do you see the future of interstate structures such as the EU, NATO and WHO in the face of the political developments in the pandemic process?

I have no expertise in this area and would rather not make a darned fool of myself.

Are you surprised with the digital, social, and cultural results of COVID-19 pandemic? Did you foresee that kind of a risk? Would you please state your thoughts and feelings?

My podcast, How Do You Like It So Far?, has done several episodes now talking about how science fiction writers and media-makers have constructed dystopian stories about global destruction through environmental change, nuclear war, or epidemics. This is the genre which I think has best prepared us for what we are experiencing now. I think about a book like Clifford Simak’s City, published in 1952: Simak imagines that humans become so accustomed to telecommunications that they develop agoraphobia, afraid to leave their homes and interact with each other. He also imagines rodents, dogs, ants, and other animals reclaiming the spaces taken over by humans, gradually developing their own intelligences, and becoming the inheritors of the planet. As I look out on deserted streets in downtown LA, with a small number of people venturing out, all wearing medical masks, it feels like we are a few steps into the world he is describing. And on YouTube, you can find plenty of video evidence that around the world that nature is rapidly taking over our cities. This is simply one glimpse of how SF has foreshadowed what we are seeing right now. 
Did I, as a science fiction fan, imagine it would actually happen? Certainly not in my lifetime, and if this gut-punch does not wake us up and get us to change many core aspects of our relationship to our planet and to each other, we are beyond hope.

Last of all, what are your recommendations both for the students and academics of Istanbul University regarding the quarantine days?

The first and most important obligation of any scholar is to learn and to communicate what we learn to other communities which are grappling with the same issues. Take advantage of whatever downtime the quarantine is creating to explore some corner of the world or some body of knowledge you always want to consider but have not “had the time” to do so in the past. You now have more time, you are forced to slow down, so take advantage of it. 

Beyond that, use digital technology to reach out to far-flung family members, old friends, fellow scholars, and ideally, people in other parts of the world. Our governments are turning inward, closing us off in so many ways from each other, and so we have an obligation to engage in transnational conversations, like this one, comparing what these new realities mean in different cultural and governmental contexts. In writing this response, i have limited knowledge and much curiosity about what it means in the context of contemporary Turkish culture and politics. Broadcast media cuts us off from each other. We need to learn to use digital media to forge new connections. Thanks for reaching out, and please tell your students and colleagues to feel free to write me in response to this at hjenkins@usc.edu.

Interview: Lect. Dr. Elif KAHRAMAN
                   Res. Asst. Oğuzhan ŞENEL
                   Lect. İbrahim YILDIZ
İU Department of Corporate Communication

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