Aug 31, 2009

The History of Developments in International Communication: the Intersection of History, Technology and Politics

Our first two readings for International Communication class were overviews of the history of the development of communication networks across the globe. Both readings emphasized the importance of understanding the intersection of technology, politics, and history when discussing new developments in communication.

Daya Thussu’s chapter, “the Historical Context of International Communication” really made me think of new inventions and discoveries in communication throughout history as a series of interrelated developments instead of just independent events throughout time. This approach recounting the history of international communication implies that events do not just occur, they are the result of political, technological, and cultural changes or advances that build upon each other, constantly changing and improving. I feel that this is a useful way of thinking about communications, particularly for International Media MA students like me who are in a dual program through the School of Communication and the School of International Service.

Another less positive thing that stuck out at me about this article was Thussu’s apparent bias to England and against the United States. This bias is exemplified in her ironic praising of BBC’s objectivity over American news. While I agree with her that BBC does usually portray international news in a more balanced light than most American media (I personally prefer BBC for international news), Thussu’s tone made her seem like she was tooting her own horn a bit.

One of the most striking points from Armand Mattelart’s chapter “Emergence of Technical Networks” was the point that while most of Europe’s early telecommunications were state-monopolized, the United States decidedly began international telecommunications with a commercial focus. I think is a reflection of the United States favoring a capitalist approach which is still very apparent today, especially in comparison with the Europe economic structure as well as European culture.

Mattelart concludes the chapter with a discussion on World Exhibitions of new technologies in communication. While these exhibitions helped to instill a sense of national pride for the nation presenting their technological progress, they also served as a symbol of technological power. Nations not only showed off their new inventions to each other, but also used them as a threat to less technologically advanced nations.

Both chapters really made a point of emphasizing whether the communication network being discussed was publicly, privately, or government owned/controlled. This is extremely important to note because it affects who uses the network, who the network reaches, and what material is broadcast.

Communication and Political Strategy

Before coming to AU, I briefly flirted with the idea of becoming a marriage and family therapist. While I ultimately didn't go down that path, I still idealize what clear, effective communication can achieve. In coming to the International Communication program, I hope to study communication as a tool for intercultural understanding on a personal level. The readings this week, particularly the Thussu reading, however, highlighted an aspect of communication that I hadn't given much thought to in the past: communication and communication technology as an industry with significant political and economic ramifications.

I found Britain's history of communication and communication technology particularly interesting. That British control of the raw materials for cable manufacturing contributed to its leadership in the cable market, which in turn brought political and economic advantages that sustained its far-flung empire, is a case study for both vertical ownership and world domination. I also find it admirable that, at least as conveyed in the Thussu reading, the British government throughout history has understood the strategic importance of controlling communications and communication technology. It seems that the British state has grasped the balance of benefiting from state ownership of communication technologies (such as with the telegraph), and yet remaining detached enough to also reap the benefits of a free media (such as with the BBC).

The debate and adoption of the New World Information and Communication Order further highlights the importance of a national media as it relates to the international stage. I was particularly struck by the resolution proposing, "respect for each people's cultural identity and for the rights of each nation to inform the world public about its interests, its aspirations and its social and cultural values." In some sense, one might consider the developing world's inaccess to mass communication technologies as de facto exclusion from the world media stage (though the struggle to get the NWICO framed the matter as de juris exclusion). Yet, just as we value the right of an individual to express oneself in one's own terms, it seems only fair that a nation should be able to articulate its own culture and identity to the rest of the world. Components of critical ethnic studies involve the struggle to get self-produced images of one's group rather than having externally produced representations tell the whole story. The same could be said for those countries whose stories are perpetually represented through an international media lens, without an opportunity to frame it according to more national goals.

I should clarify here that I am not advocating state-control of media across the board, so much as advocating broad access to the means of media production, whether through private companies or government-funded projects. Deeper in the resolution, however, one can extrapolate the conviction that a country's public diplomacy should be produced by that country. This brings up an interesting question: to the extent that a country's public diplomacy is driven by a national agenda, do nationally-controlled attempts to manage a nation's public image tell the more complete story, or does a globalized media present a more critical look? What role does a native understanding of culture play in presenting a nuanced picture?

America's Flawed Communication Strategy in Afghanistan

Much of this week’s reading had to do with the development of international communication methods over time and how they were used by dominant imperialist powers to expand their reach over the developing world. From the printing press to telegraph communication through cables to the expansion of the newspaper industry to radio and eventually television and Internet, the history of global communication can be traced back to its use as a propaganda tool.

In reading about how imperialist powers have used these modes of communications to gain some kind of presence or control in the developing world I began to think of the United States’ role in Afghanistan today. In the reading it stated that where the BBC has been historically seen as more balanced, the US international communication strategies have been seen as much more concerted efforts to transmit a very specific message. In particular, the United States saw the role of the radio in being able to reach the highly illiterate populations of the developing world.

So this makes me wonder why the United States has not invested more thought, effort, and finances into reaching the various Afghan satellite television stations broadcast from both Afghanistan and America? If, “[t]he extent of empire could be used as ‘an indication of the efficiency of empire,’” then the United States’ presence in Afghanistan can neither be considered far reaching nor efficient and well understood by the people of the nation.

Many of the programs on these stations are call-in shows where a talking head commentator pontificates about religious, political and cultural issues. Even the more liberal / moderate figures on these programs often heavily criticize the role of the United States and NATO in Afghanistan, with their callers often following suit.

With so much negativity being targeted at America’s role in Afghanistan from so many sides one has to wonder why the US hasn’t taken a more definitive role in finding ways to express their true goals and intentions in Afghanistan through these media outlets? Yes, there is Voice of America in Farsi (and I believe Pashto) on one of the independent stations broadcast from Kabul but there have to be other ways for the United States to use this form of international communication to better inform the people of Afghanistan on the purpose of the US’ mission in Afghanistan.

After all, like many of the people of the developing world the United States hoped to reach through radio, the majority of the people in Afghanistan are illiterate. It would seem only logical that the United States would use the television medium which has such a wide reach in Afghanistan to try to engage with the Afghan people. Along with being highly illiterate, the majority of the Afghan population is under the age of 35, another fact which would make the use of television so important to the success of the US mission in Afghanistan. If “communication has always been critical to the establishment and maintenance of power over distance,” then why isn’t the United States doing more to reach the people of Afghanistan through various media outlets?

Aug 30, 2009

The Need to Make Things Straight

or How Things Can be Seen in a Different Light

How about the statement: “The US is the empire of our times”? Well, for some (surprisingly) it might be a shocker; for others, it’s already become a cliché. Let me play the devil’s advocate now, and try to look at the above-mentioned observation from the SIS 640 perspective.

Thussu refers to communication as a key tool for control and authority-maintenance. It was true at the time of Darius (5th century BC), Julius Ceasar (1st century BC), the Catholic Church in medieval Europe, the British Empire, the Communists in the USSR and Eastern Europe, and… the list can go on forever, but let’s turn to the United States today.

It is an undeniable fact that the Cold War necessitated the propaganda war, but I believe it is important to look at the core reason for the need of propaganda, in the first place. The entire “ideological rivalry” was nothing more than a strategic battle of two superpowers for global domination, while all the shimmering wording was a mere act of public diplomacy, trying to cloak the reality in a well-packaged and easy-to-internalize demagogy. Of course, the superpower battle was waged at many different levels and was manifested in various forms; and yet, its “public face” did not alter the essence of it.

VOA and RFE/RL immediately jump to mind. References have also been made to a state body – IIC – to implement the “international informational activities in support of the US national security policies and interests,” Project Truth being a part of it. (How much more explicit can it get? I bet Orwell was turning in his grave in 1981.) It all seemed to become obsolete by the early 1990s, as supposedly the other superpower was defeated never to rise again. But, as we can see now with the benefit of hindsight, the “end of history” is not that easy to bring about, and there is always an “enemy” to fight out there, especially when you need to maintain internal coherence and unity (hail Orwell and Leo Strauss!). So, the “information war” never stopped, be it against Saddam, Al Qaeda, Ahmadinejad, or even Putin.

Yes, we are all familiar, especially after this week’s readings, with the fact that the culture of independent and private media is very strong in the US, and that it figures as one of the basic principles the American people hold so dear. But then, unlike the majority of other states, the US government is also a true representative of its people and, particularly, its major businesses and other interest groups. The power dynamic is two-way and should be viewed as a cycle: all parties affecting each other. Military and political actions follow certain interests, even if well-cloaked in demagogy (freedom, democracy, human rights, etc…). And even if not directly owned or controlled by the state, the media cannot really counter these interests. After all, given the commercial nature of these organizations, none of the American media would want to be stigmatized as unpatriotic (the gravest of all sins) or to have to deal with the Pentagon. News media, such as the BBC and – especially – Al Jazeera, are largely despised for not playing into the overall American message, and have become targets of the information war themselves (I highly recommend watching the documentary “Control Room” made by an Egyptian-American director, who explores the Pentagon-Al Jazeera tension in 2003-2004). Of course, it is not just the major foreign networks, but at least the DoD can be sure that the strongest patriotic ethos, as well as the supposed “ethical considerations” are resonating among the local media. This, however, cannot be guaranteed among the foreign media, especially if they are owned, controlled, or strongly influenced by their respective governments. Having them privatized (i.e. commercialized), would give the US the opportunity to indirectly influence their message as well, by playing into their commercial interests, which, in its turn, would help to exert political influence.

Yes, the neo-imperialism claim might be a little over-stretched. But having in mind the current political situation around the world and the need to maintain thorough control of its “spheres of influence,” the US cannot afford allowing uncontrolled freedom to any news media, wherever it be located. At least, that is the attempt.

Aug 25, 2009

Hello and welcome!

Indeed :)

Looking forward to interesting posts, virtual discussions, and debates... and a great class, of course!