Elia Margarita Cornelio-Marí in Assistant Professor in Communication at the Universidad Juárez Autónoma de Tabasco, Mexico. She holds a Master of Arts in Media Studies at the University of Texas in Austin, United States, which she pursued with the support of a Fulbright scholarship. In 2016, she obtained a Ph.D. in Communication, Technologies, and Society at the University of Rome “La Sapienza”, Italy. There, as a member of the Laboratorio Romano di Semiotica, she started doing research on social practices in the urban space. Her current research interests focus on the role that media and ICT play in the everyday lives of the users, especially television audiences.
VG: So Elia, you study communication. How is this connected to technology?
ECM: It is very connected. In fact, the field of communication was born to study the influence of disruptive technologies in social life. During the 20th century, technologies such as radio and later on television were changing the ways in which information was transmitted to people. At the same time, they were raising questions as to how the messages carried by these new media were having an impact on society as a wide. Of course, this called the attention of scholars in different disciplines in the social sciences, which started to study the phenomenon of communication in a more focused way.
VG: How have the recent changes in technology affected your field?
ECM: They are changing our object of study so fast that it is becoming hard for us to catch up with the developments. I will give you an example. I do research on audience studies, so my main interest is how people use television and how they relate to the programs they watch. In later years, it is becoming difficult to know what television is anymore. Of course, we can still watch a soccer game on broadcast television in the living room or the bar, or get a subscription to watch satellite television but a lot of what we are watching now we are accessing through the Internet. We watch a lot of videos on YouTube and films on services like Netflix, and this is changing also our relationship to media because, as any media scholar can tell you, all traditional media are actually converging into the Internet.
To make things even more complex, we now have companies tracking our every move as media users, gathering our data and analyzing it through algorithms. So, it is a huge change we are witnessing.
VG: Does this in your opinion affect also the lifestyles of audiences and users? What does technology allow them to do differently?
ECM: I think some of the technologies, especially the mobile ones like the cell phone, have allowed us to become users, more than audiences. Even further, they have allowed people to become producers of content. It might seem common sense now, but just a few years ago, the production of messages was in hand of media professionals, like journalists and video producers. Now, everyone with a smartphone can create messages and they can broadcast them online to their social networks.
Thinking outside of the media context, the possibility to be a prosumer is bringing changes also to many other aspects of our daily lives. Now, as users of smartphones, we can contribute to making maps and traffic apps more accurate. We can also use mobile technology to experience our cities in different ways, sometimes feeling more in control of the way we move through them and the ways we know what is happening at the moment.
VG: Is that the case in your area? Can you talk to us a little bit about your city?
ECM: I live in a mid-size city in the southern part of Mexico, called Villahermosa. I like to say, half jokingly, that it should be the dumbest city ever because it has so many problems regarding sustainability and transportation. But even in this “dumb city” people is using technology in myriad smart ways. I look around and see young and older people alike engaging into all of the new trends in technology, using the newest apps and the latest gadgets to do things that, I guess, people are also doing in many other places around the world. The best part, at least for me, is that people are using all of these global technologies in a local way, to integrate them into their own ways of life and habits.
This applies also to the ways they live in the city. So, you have people that ride Uber for some destinations but ride on shared taxi cabs or even ramshackle buses for others. Then, you have a smart transport application, not legally recognized yet, coexisting with a very corrupted and inefficient public transportation system that is upheld by the local law but does not respond fully to the needs of the citizens. Therefore, even if local stakeholders are still marching very slowly to solve some urgent urban needs, technology is somehow helping people to cope with the situation.
VG: Do you think this is a general Mexican trend?
ECM: Mexico is a huge country, so very diverse in its regions. I think there are very large differences in the ways technologies are used in different zones, especially if we take into account disparities between megalopolis like Mexico City and provincial small towns. Also, Mexico is one of the most unequal countries regarding income, so there is still a big digital divide that defines access to technology and levels of digital literacy.
VG: How do you think your knowledge on these topics can add value to the work of urban planners for the creation of smarter cities?
ECM: In my opinion, since communication scholars are social scientists, we have the theoretical lenses to look at the use of technology in the city in ways that are complementary to those of urban planners and architects. As a result, we can provide insights into new social practices connected to the city space. For example, how could you make sense of a phenomenon such as the Augmented Reality (AR) game Pokémon Go, which had players chasing little monsters all around parks and streets, if you don’t take into consideration the ways fan communities build around transmedia narratives?
I think interdisciplinary work that binds together the study of space and social practices can be of great relevance to understanding how technologies are changing the way we experience the city. I could also be useful to envision smarter cities, of course.
VG: Can you give me an example of how these two disciplines could work together?
ECM: Well, it is happening all around already. Just look at the ways cities are using augmented and Virtual Reality (VR) to tell stories about their past. A fantastic example of this is the AR project in the Forum of Augustus in Rome, or the ways museums are offering VR tours that enhance the visitor’s experience. All these projects come from the collaboration between experts in different fields: restoration, architecture, archeology, and also communication.
Scholars in my field can also provide with insights as to how the city space communicates, making visible again what has become invisible. I mean, we as city dwellers become so used to our urban surroundings that we stop noticing that space is charged with meaning. A semiotic analysis of specific urban areas, for instance, can help us understand better what those areas are communicating to the people that live there, and how these people make sense of such meaning and integrate it into their social practices.
VG: How do see our disciplines could work together in the future?
ECM: In my opinion, technology is giving us a great opportunity to work in interdisciplinary ways. It is pulling us together and we are meeting to explore exciting new topics, such as e-learning, Big Data, AR, VR, the Internet of Things, and Smart Cities, just to name a few. All of these topics have repercussion across a wide variety of fields, so we all could bring our expertise to collaborate.
Valina Geropanta and Elia Margarita Cornelio-Marí—