Sep 30, 2009

The readings this week had to do with the power of transnational corporations within the larger context of global media and how mergers, integration, and buyouts are putting much of the world's media in the control of a handful of corporations.

This idea is nothing new to me as I have been learning about this trend since my days at De Anza Junior College in Cupertino, CA, but the facts are no less daunting than before.

The question each of the readings aims to address is what the power of these media conglomerates is and whether or the grasp that these corporations have over transnational corporations can be considered cultural imperialism?

There were a few facts in the readings that struck me most:

• The fact that whole of Africa has produced 600 films in the continent's history

• That 1/3 of the world's nations create no film products whatsoever

• That Nickelodeon has such a strong presence in Latin America and Europe, because animation is so easy to dub with minimal continuity breaks for the viewer as a result of that dubbing i.e.: subbing a Texan accent with a Bavarian one for German audiences

• A statement by a Disney executive that "for all children, the Disney characters are local characters and this is very important. They always speak a local language"

And that is the exact point I find most troubling. As someone who spent a great deal of my undergrad studying the role of representation in media I know that simply having a character speak a local language and possibly donning a more 'ethnic' name does not necessarily make it more relatable to those audiences. Because many of the premises and characterizations portrayed in those translated shows still come from a Western gaze.

If these 9 companies are going to control as much of the global media spectrum as they do, regulation may unfortunately be too difficult (thanks in large part to decisions by Western nations and Western backed/created/controlled international organizations), but perhaps creating clauses where these media makers are required to train the local people in media creation and storytelling may result in a more complete representation of the rest of the world that at least to some degree would veer from the Western gaze and characterizations of nations that have previously been the subject of, but rarely the creators of media.

Perhaps many of the films may not veer too far from Western ideals and representations or maybe what results could resemble Brazil's Cinema Novo or the Iranian film industry - which finds hidden metaphors in simple aspects of everyday life - but it would be interesting to see what could result.

Sep 29, 2009

On regulation and artistic choice

I found this week’s readings on the nature of media regulation much more interesting than I originally expected, such that as I sit down to write this blog, about a million thoughts (mostly in the form of questions, rather than conclusions) are going through my head. I’ll try to parse it out into some coherent strands…

Discussions about access to media production resources and broadcasting for developing and undervoiced groups make a compelling argument for regulation. That is, we need regulation to ensure equitable access for anyone who desires to air their views. It is not so much diversity as an inherent good that needs to be propagated as it is making sure that no one single discourse dominates the media landscape to the exclusion of others, so long as other viewpoints exist.

That said, to what extent does regulation, whether by government or market forces, actually limit the diversity that is represented? Can we trust either the government or market forces (generally dictated by the majority) to know not only what we want to see, but what we should see? Should “what we should see” even be a consideration, or should a concerted effort to show a variety of things and leave the choice aspect to the viewer be enough?

Government governance, presumably working in the greater public interest, can ensure a certain amount of education/Culture (with a capital C!) components to media. It can also ensure that no single interest dominates. Governance by the wrong government, however, can have negative effects on freedom of expression, and can also be susceptible to lobbying interests. Historically, government governance of the media has not spoken to "what the people want," as evidenced by the triumph of commercialized television throughout most of the world.

Government governance also has the effect of dictating a moral code to programming. Moral codes vary by individual, but rather than risk offending anyone, regulation skews towards a more conservative approach. Siochru and Girard mention "prohibitive content regulation" as part of their broader treatment of societal regulation, and note that "normative boundaries are not fixed in the same place in all societies". I would also argue that in a country as large and diverse as the United States, normative boundaries are not fixed in the same place in even a single society. To the extent, then, that representations must adhere to a moral code that may or may not be one’s own, does regulation of things like language or nudity or violence constitute a form of censorship of the artist or producer? And how does that affect the “art” of media?

A personal anecdote: while studying abroad in Edinburgh, my American flatmate and I were in awe of what could and couldn't be shown or said on British television as opposed to American TV. Boobs, butt, curse words -- all were readily available on TV (though generally only after a certain time). In my opinion, liberalization from these content restrictions enhanced these programs because the use of certain language or nudity became an artistic CHOICE. When anybody can show some flesh, the viewer is better able to analyze how and to what effect it is or isn’t used in a way that can’t be asked if there is no choice involved.
When I step back and think of media less in terms of journalism (dominant discourses of FOX vs. MSNBC, New York Times vs. The Economist, etc), and more in terms of cultural entertainment, the freedom of expression advocate in me balks at the idea of regulation, whether by government or corporate interests, or even some kind of civil society board presumably acting on my behalf. Siochru and Girard talk about the "public sphere" as an open, transparent forum where people can be "convinced by reason" rather than by propaganda or through "suppression or distortion of information." They discuss the public sphere in relation to democratic ideals, but I think it relates to access to art as well. I balk at the idea of someone else telling me what is art and what isn't, or, to put it less polemically, what is entertainment and what isn't. I'm sure we've all had the experience of having a favorite show cancelled based on either not enough people appreciating it the way we did, or by suits in New York and LA who take issue with some part of it. I want to make my own decisions about entertainment, not to have someone else, not even another consumer, do it for me.

I’m not sure I entirely agree with Siochru and Girard’s assertion that media products require some amount of regulation because “in important respects they also ‘produce’ us”. While they are not strictly cultural imperialists, noting that media has the ability to empower the viewer towards participation and to effect change in society, this comment seems to draw upon the idea of the viewer as passive and without any media interpretation skills of one’s own.

I think it was Judy who pointed out the need for media literacy last week in class, and it is to that that I draw my conclusion from this week's discussion of regulation. Regardless of who controls the media and who produces it, we as a civil society need to understand its processes so as not to get absorbed in the propaganda or the glitz and the glamor. We need to understand in what ways regulation, by government or by market forces, constrain what we see. We need to understand that Fox News (to take the often-cited case) is propelled both by its conservative viewership as well as by Murdoch's own political views. From the small level of understanding the concept of product placement to the larger understanding of the complex conglomerates that currently dominate the media landscape, we need to have a better grasp of the forces behind the escapist entertainment that we consume.

Sep 28, 2009

For the past two weeks, much of the reading has had to do with ownership of the media, government control of that media and how the globalization of Information Technology has played such a large role in creating advancements throughout 'the world.' In reality though, much of these advancements don't make it back to the nations that need it the most.

The Siochu and Girard reading begins with a lot of statements about the role that media plays in society as well as in the development of the people of that society.

In listening to, watching, and reading media we do not just consume, we interact. We interact with other people and through them with society in general

Thus, according to Siochu and Girard, the media plays a large role in the development of a nation or ideal (just ask Quentin Tarantino) meaning the media plays an extremely important role in the world. So given the importance of this role, should media be regulated?

The answer is not quite as simple as one may think. When we let Societal Regulation take too strong of a stance we end up with endless talk, debate, and coverage of a Super Bowl Halftime show and Clear Channel dictating that after 9/11 Somewhere Over the Rainbow could not be played yet Bombs Over Baghdad could. On the other hand, if we do not have proper Industry Regulation then we end up with the likes of NewsCorp, Bertelsmann, Viacom, and the aforementioned Clear Channel owning everything from magazines, TV stations, billboards, film studios, recording companies, newspapers, and service providers.

Perhaps the better idea would be to regulate for Plurality which is meant to encourage as much diversity in media interaction and content presented as possible, so that many different audiences can be reached through the media. Of course, that is not something we see in contemporary mainstream American media. Perhaps some people call the dichotomous choice between Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann versus Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck a plurality, but in actuality it is just promoting the continuation of the ubiquitous two-party system in America. So that we are not only divided into two political parties during elections but also two ideological parties in our daily lives. Of course this means that there is very little room for third party thoughts on mainstream American television - other than as a token thrown in from time to time (more often than not as a caricature or for shock value).

Of course, the other side of the coin are nations like Iran or Afghanistan. In Iran, all methods of communication were quickly shutoff in the immediate aftermath of the tenth presidential election and what they couldn't turn off - newspapers and magazines - the authorities quickly dealt with through violent means.

Afghanistan on the other hand, has a burgeoning Television media system with 5 different television stations - 3 broadcast from Afghanistan itself and two from the diaspora in California. Though Afghanistan claims to be at least somewhat democratic, a commentator on the nationally owned Television station was imprisoned for allegedly speaking negatively about President Hamid Karzai (has the Karzai Administration never seen the stations broadcast from California?)

Sep 27, 2009

Democracy in peril?

As Aldous Huxley very rightly put in his Brave New World: “Words can be like X-rays. If you use them properly, they'll go through anything.” I find this a fair illustration of the significant role that language plays in the transfer of ideas and in shaping the society, the culture, and… the entire world we live in. So, should an unregulated flow of words and media products – ultimately, ideas – be allowed, given all their power and influence over people, who then (attempt to) decide how things function? This question becomes even more significant when put into the modern-world context: we see a “chicken or the egg”-type debate about media content and gradually shifting patterns of demand.

Siochrú and Girard point out that media products are special because they are essentially the tools of “society production.” In order not to get back to the discussion of the media shaping identities, suffice it to say that their statement is in itself a powerful argument for a cautious regulation of the media market, especially as it is increasingly privatized and taken over by commercial interests.

A free media market essentially implies equilibrium. This can work perfectly well… in theory. In reality, many times people forget to ask about how that market demand is created. A second question that needs to be urgently addressed is whether, given the above-mentioned special status of the media products, the mega-corporations should be given the unlimited freedom to create that demand. I see the matter as an ethical issue (especially when it comes to news reporting and journalism), unless, of course, the sole acceptable morality is that of profit-maximization and instant gratification.

The traditional “mainstream” approach in the US seems to have been very critical of the European (as well as other governments’) attempts to regulate or, at least, carefully monitor the media market. Well, perhaps justly so. After all, a true democracy cannot function without freedom of speech and a free flow of information. However, I still find it hard to understand how a system that took such great care to create a meticulous structure of checks and balances can be inclined to completely overlook a fundamental threat to its very existence. With the increasing trend of privatization and liberalization of the media markets, which gave way to the rise of the large transnational media empires, the very democracy that freedom is supposed to facilitate is being jeopardized, as the corporations start to acquire and exert political influence.

Yet, their influence – acquired through large profits channeled into active lobbying and “support” campaigns, in expectation of favorable policies and treatment – is not limited to the political sphere. It is no secret that media ownership affects content and that through carefully directed programming, media companies can potentially cultivate the demand for specific “products”, create and promote ideas and social movements, and even kick-start revolutions. The first example that jumps to the mind is the claim made by the Iranian regime about the June presidential election. However, why go there? Let’s look at the US and Obama’s healthcare plan debacle.

Of course, Al-Jazeera, being the channel that it is, is NOT unbiased, but still it provides a very good alternative insight into the recent 9/12 demonstrations and the role Fox News played in all that. Needless to mention, of course, that Fox is one of the central pillars of Murdoch’s empire, and that there is absolutely no coincidence in the fact that he had recently begun voicing his concerns about Obama’s approach to the economy, calling him “dangerous.”

Freedom of speech and information, whether in the national realm or in the global sphere, was meant to serve as a vehicle to ensure plurality and diversity of opinions, as well as best possible access to the best possible information. Being fundamental to democracy, these were also supposed to improve governance AND effectively check the government’s power. Thus, the media were meant to be the “domain of information” and supposedly assumed the responsibility to act as the fourth estate, in the public’s best interest. And yet, the recent trends of conglomeration, privatization, and deregulation have resulted in a situation of decreased competition and domination by aggressively profit-driven corporations that gradually become the very power that was meant to be contained. And so it happens that by “using the words properly” the transnational media corporations are spinning the idea of freedom to serve their own ends, defeating the very purpose of the much-cherished First Amendment.

Did you know?

An interesting summary of many facts on the Info Revolution: co-produced by XPLANE and the Economist.

Sep 26, 2009

Media Regulation and Global Governance

I was excited to see global governance on the syllabus this week because it’s something I’ve always wondered about in the back of my mind- if cultures across the world are so different, how can we all agree to make laws about issues that affect all of us? Part of our reading assignment for this week was three chapters from Global Governance: a Beginner’s Guide by Seán Ó Siochrú and Bruce Girad with Amy Mahan.

The authors begin the first chapter by asking if media is another kind of “product” in a free market, why should it be regulated? The authors continue, arguing that media is different because it “produces” us. Culture must be learned, and we learn culture by reading the newspaper, watching television, and consuming media. Media are outlets through which culture can be streamed to us. Media is so important to our development that it must be regulated.

The authors also argue that even no regulation is a kind of regulation. With no regulation, the control of media outlets would fall into the hands of a few, similar to having no economic regulation. By allowing media access to only be a privilege a few can afford, a statement is being made.

The chapter makes a distinction between industry regulation versus societal regulation. Industry regulation views media as an active part of the economy and regulates intellectual property rights, breaks up media-based monopolies, and attempts to provide universal access to media outlets. Societal regulation recognizes media’s impact on the production of culture and seeks to regulate the cultural, societal, and political facets of media, advocating for free political debate and differences of opinion.

The second chapter begins by asking the question, what does governance actually mean? The chapter provides a brief historical context of global governance and gives an explanation of how the United Nations system works. The third chapter is another historical context of media communications.

The issue of media regulation reminded me of an interesting discussion we had in other class this week. We were talking about how a reader can determine whether an internet news source is credible or not and how one can filter through all of the bias on the internet. Furthermore, should bias be censored from the internet or would that impede upon our first amendment rights? Since the internet provides complete anonymity for its users, hate, bullying, and bias can run rampant. Should users be have to provide a name so that they will be forced to own up to their comments or is anonymity one of the defining aspects of the internet?

Sep 22, 2009

Globalization and Realism

It is funny how ideas and paradigms get their names and retain them, even after becoming supposedly “out-of-date.” A perfect example would be Realism, which, despite being dismissed as obsolete, still retains its name and its sense as the most “down-to-Earth” and “assumption-less” approach to analyzing affairs. With the emergence of all the complexities of the globalizing world, particularly, Realism might provide a very limited view on the “real” state of things. But when circumstances get down to the “real” things that really matter, no one can deny that self-interests and cost-benefit calculations are the ultimate determinants of decision outcomes. I see this idea as the very essence of the arguments pushed by globalization pessimists, who view globalization as perpetuating the existent inequities, while the “agents of change” as pursuing ulterior motives. In a sense, they are right, as there can be no development or progress unless there are substantial incentives driving those, particularly if they involve large costs. Multinational corporations are trying to maneuver the international space looking for profit maximization, and it is only rational of them to pursue their goals in a Realist manner. The same can be said about states, with a slight change in wording: substitute “profit maximization” with “national objectives.”

That said, it is important to note the OVERALL outcome. Globalization that brings with it the intensification of resource flows and a greater interdependence of nations can ultimately result in an increase in general output: i.e. overall increase in affluence and in the standard of living. What is more, one cannot overlook the fact that the more the states are economically interdependent, the less willing they will be to engage in any conflict, which, in turn, can lead to further stabilization and sustainable economic and political development (even in cases where the interstate, or the state-corporation relationship is regarded as asymmetric). Therefore, potentially, globalization can bring the greatest benefit to most people, and all the readings this week touched upon this matter in one way or another.

Nevertheless, they also pointed out the fact that the benefits are not as equitably distributed as most of us would like to hope, which gives further ground to the pessimists. Even more relevant in this matter is the fact that the nation state seems to be among those to lose out most in the globalization process, as its sovereignty and self-determination are gradually eaten away by the post-modern tendencies. Together, the groups that fall behind in this intense global competition (be it on the international, national, or sub-national level) can present viable evidence to prove the selective advantages of globalization and its deficiencies. And certainly, the Marxist argument of “the rich exploiting the poor” is ever present in any such talk, be it concerning nation-states, or MNCs. Perhaps it may sound rudimentary, but one only needs to look at the current international sphere to see that these arguments might really be making a GOOD point. International structures such as the G8 and G20, despite all their altruistic mission statements, are essentially serving the interests of the select few – those who are IN the club – and even if the attainment of their goals might involve the development of the other parts of the world (well, being interdependent will allow more international stability and better business), they are still motivated by their very same self-interests. Fair enough. But that is where Morgenthau and Realism come creeping back in.

And yet, the end result should not be overlooked. Development and “progress,” especially on a global scale, can take many decades, if not centuries, to achieve and instant gratification is not something one should expect. Even if all the “agents of change” are ultimately driven by their self-interests, they can still play a significant role in dragging the “laggers” along. It is then up to these laggers to make sure they are included in the process, by proving their potential and getting involved – sufficiently and on time – instead of merely complaining and waiting for benevolence. If one looks at world affairs as a game, then there are rules by which it is played, and each player should make the most out of them, apparently, without expectations of altruism from others...

Sep 21, 2009

Media Convergence

The chapter “The Globalization of Communications” in the The Information Revolution and World Politics by Elizabeth C. Hanson provides a brief history of communication technologies including telecommunication, satellites, computers, and the Internet, in a global context. Hanson also discusses vertical versus horizontal integration. Vertical integration is the control of the production and distribution in only one medium whereas horizontal integration is control across several mediums.

The three communication branches discussed in the chapter are telecommunications, audiovisual, and computer-mediated communication. As soon as these three categories were brought up in the reading, I immediately began thinking about the convergence of these media and specific products like the iPhone and Skype (which were both briefly mentioned later in the last section of the reading) that transcend the three branches. I was slightly disappointed that Hanson did not discuss the convergence of media and media branches until the last section of the chapter entitled, “The Revolution Continues.”

Apple’s iPhone3G (and some other devices offering a 3G or third generation network) is probably the best example of the convergence of media branches. The iPhone is a cell phone, mp3 player, video player and recorder, camera, digital compass and GPS, game console, internet device, and messager, not to mention the hundreds of applications available consisting of everything from calorie counters to money managers to mobile piano keyboards.

Skype is another example of a technology transcending boundaries. The chapter discussed Skype in terms of facilitating telecommunications, but Skype is well known for its video conferencing abilities. This medium combines telecommunications with both computer-mediated communications and audiovisual products.

"[This] is not a borderless world"

I stopped short at this phrase in Hanson's book, page 158: "Although cross-border exchanges have reached historic proportions, and the globalizing technologies that facilitate them know no boundaries, it is not a borderless world."

So many globalization papers, seminars, discussions take for granted that mass communications have made borders immaterial or at least soon to be obsolete. The ease by which to cross them has been equated with the negation of the very idea of borders. After all, what caused borders are an artifical concept. They are an organizational tool, an abstraction and the imposition of borders on territories outside of Europe (even internal) have led to turmoil that persists to this day.

Borders were constructed through the Peace of Westphalia, to indicate physically the idea of the national sphere, where the nation is sovereign. (For instance, the idea of 'spheres of influence' in China, where European countries staked out actual territory where their law was applied.) Places such as Southeast Asia and Africa had territories or realms of control, but there existed no man's lands, undefined areas. These areas, in terms of control (absolute vs. local), still exist to an extent.

Therefore, the argument runs, when border-crossing comes so easy, nations falter in their soveriegnty in the face of supranational, multinational and micronational organizations; don't borders become immaterial?

No. Because it's only the physical sense of borders that is being trespassed. As our other readings have discussed, nations, despite the threats/impediment to their sovereignty, they still exist and even more so, continue to exist in people's minds.

It was national leaders that aided this process - globalization did not occur despite it. Therefore, Hanson says on page 158, "There remains a broad area for national legislation to shape the impact of the globalizing economy....Economic globalization is not necessarily diminishing state power," but it is rather transforming its conditions.

As long as the system that uses borders exists and the ideological understanding/acceptance of it continues, borders will still be significant. And disregarding them is nonsense.

Can ICT Save the Developing World? Using Afghanistan and Iran as Examples

Towards the end of Chapter Five of Elizabeth Hanson's book The Information Revolution and World Politics, Hanson begins to explore what role bridging the digital divide can play in aiding the advancement of the world's developing nations.

The reading uses India as an example of a nation that has the most greatly benefited from the proliferation of IT products and services while still being victim to the largest domestic digital divide in the world. The reading presents the point of view of what it calls 'pessimists' of the digital divide who ask what good can increased communication technology be in aiding people who are lacking clean water, food, clothing, shelter, and security? This point of view is contrasted by the 'optimists' who believe that the increased access to knowledge can help the people advance their economy and possible find ways to challenge the rule of despots (which the reading doesn't address).

In the recent election and subsequent 'Green Revolution' of Iran, Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Youtube and Blogs played a large role in circumventing the foreign media blackout the Iranian government imposed shortly after millions of Iranians took to the streets. Of course, these people were still held back by the censorship, control, and spying of Internet activities by the Iranian government. In a nation like Iran with a seventy seven percent overall literacy rate, the bridging of the digital divide is really only useful if the limitations on access and fear of government intrusion on activity is put to an end. Iranians had to work very hard to get the information out there as the days following the highly contested tenth presidential election went by. They had to constantly create proxy servers, find ways to get information to foreign websites to broadcast, and try to discern the spies and fake government accounts from actual news sources.

Therefore, though the majority of the nation is literate and the educated, more well to-do people of the cities have considerably good access to technology, that access is worth nothing without the freedom to find and broadcast what you will.

In contrast, the August 20th election of Afghanistan, which has seen vast accusations of fraud on all sides was almost exclusively broadcast online through foreign sources on the ground. There was very little online activity among the people of Afghanistan itself. Unlike Iran, Afghanistan has a literacy rate of just twenty eight percent, in fact, the literacy rate is so low in Afghanistan that the majority of ballots had to have graphics next to each candidate's printed name so that the largely illiterate people of Afghanistan could vote. Afghanistan, as the fourth poorest nation in the world, is like the slums and villages of India where access to information technology is of little use without clean water, food, shelter, education, and above all security. Unlike Iran, no website in Afghanistan is blocked by the government and twenty five percent of Afghans have cell phone access, and yet the people of the nation are largely illiterate and thus have little use for Internet technology. In the case of Afghanistan, the people are in need of life's necessities before they can be given unrestricted access to the vast knowledge of the world offered online.

What these two nations prove is that there is more to the argument than just the increasing or reduction of the digital divide - the Internet is useless in the hands of a largely literate populace if their access is controlled by a government and on the other hand, unrestricted access to the information of the world is of little use to a people who by and large can neither read nor write.

Again, this vision of the widen or reduction of the digital divide presents a Western slant on an important international issue that affects millions of people around the world. There is far more to consider than whether or not the people of the world have access to the information of the Internet, because that information is rendered powerless in the hands of deprived peoples.

The Flip Sides of Globalization

Sinclair's discussion of global culture as a more complex process that recognizes the agency of individuals to navigate their own identities was a refreshing, though perhaps slightly unsatisfying, read. On the one hand, it was nice to read about globalization from a laudatory, rather than critical, perspective. Often, when reading about issues of cultural imperialism, I find myself saying, “Yes, but there are also benefits to globalization!” I find globalization to be a fascinating process (hence entering this program), and see incredible benefits in the exchange of social processes, language, customs, traditions, food, etc., of various cultures. Is there the danger of losing one’s “authentic” culture to globalized, commodified products? Yes, absolutely. But in the same way that you have to let a child enter the big bad world on his or her own at some point so that they can grow stronger through their own mistakes, you can’t just protect a culture “for its own good” by closing it off to any outside influences.

Weaver posits that it is through exposure to other cultures that we most recognize and define our own cultures. To this end, exposure to foreign media/products and globalization would actually reinforce one’s own sense of culture and national identity. As it relates to foreign media and consumer goods, I think the greater danger towards a diverse and yet unified global culture lies in the obscurity of a product’s true origins. Hidden behind complicated chains of ownership and conglomerates, one hardly knows where any new product was conceived, tested, manufactured, marketed, etc. It is here that media and product literacy – an ability to critically analyze the media, manufacturing process and marketing that goes into these products – is key towards recognizing globalizing forces and how an “authentic” culture might be impacted. The danger is in assuming a local nature for any product, as the strengths and benefits of global culture, in my opinion, can only be realized with a consciousness of the various cultural influences at play.

To this end, the effort by companies to localize their products to national markets represents both a new hope and new dangers in supporting global culture. On the one hand, companies are recognizing that consumers favor that which is local and speaks to their own experiences. Unique cultural tropes and adaptations are then mobilized in order to localize the product for each market. Producers make an effort to understand the local culture and to adapt to it, rather than trampling a local market with a foreign product in the vein of cultural imperialism. A certain respect for culture and differences, though motivated more by the bottom line than by any idealistic notions of world peace, is thus implemented.

The danger, however, is that efforts to localize a product further obscure the variety of influences that make up that product. A cynic might say that the bully has not stopped bullying, it has just found a more subtle way to exert its influence. Here is where the Sinclair reading leaves me somewhat unsatisfied. He seems to take an idealized vision of global culture that doesn’t fully acknowledge or reconcile the real negative impacts. While it was refreshing to have the benefits of global exchange and exposure to a world of influences touted, some critical analysis is needed to gain a full perspective.

Sep 15, 2009

A new era for nationalism?

Diversity is one of the “virtues” of post-modernism, many would claim. We LIKE celebrating diversity, hoping that a clearer understanding of each culture’s idiosyncrasies will help to bring us closer and reduce the probability of conflict (or, at least, intense conflict).

To a degree, it might be true. But my personal experience tells me that the actual “celebration of diversity” can often lead to the very opposite: re-emphasis of the differences. This can be easily observed at International Festivals/Fairs, just to give an example. Although there are many nations and/or cultures presenting their “specialties”, each one of them goes out of its way to make sure theirs are better than the others', particularly if there are “historical enemies” (internal, external, imperial, etc…) among them. The banal objective of the event is to boast about the “harmony” of so many representatives of different backgrounds within that institution (be it a university, an organization, or a country), but inevitably it leads to a break in that harmony – even if only temporary – as each group goes searching for that which separates them from “the others”.

Interestingly enough, I found this phenomenon in line with what Weaver had suggested (last week’s readings): the idea that one understands and learns more about their own culture through interaction with others. I see this usually happening when people leave their country/culture, as they find themselves in an alien environment and try to define their own identity based on the differences from others that they can recognize. Indeed, it is very difficult to understand, know, and appreciate your own culture while you are immersed in it, as you take it for granted (Weaver). Coming back to the international fair example: the event allows one to ponder more on what is that defines the identity of their country/culture, and makes them emphasize that difference, not bringing them closer to the others, but rather taking them further away.

This theme is ever-present in the nationalism-diaspora discussions, as diasporas have become the space where nationalism (and should I say, chauvinism) is pretty much intact, and is even encouraged, while the “homeland” nation-state (if such exists) undergoes the transformations Castells referred to. They LIVE among “the others”, experiencing the differences between cultures on a day-to-day basis, which constantly reminds them of the need to focus on these differences, in case they wish to retain their identity. These communities are much more “imagined” than the territorial nation-state-based communities, as they do not have the degree of formal institutions for “socialization” that are usually available within the nation state. Thus, they keep emphasizing the “mythical” and idealized image of their homeland, which at times results in cultural rigidity and distortion of the real “essence” of the homeland (i.e. of what it has become over the years they were away), at least among the core members of the community.

Over time, this causes a break between the diasphoric community and the homeland, as each one develops separately, and as interests and understanding of “the national objectives” begin to diverge. This is particularly so, when the diasphoric community(ies) have the ability to exert any palpable influence over international affairs, without serious regard as to what is the perspective of the homeland. This is clearly evident in the case of my own “nation”. The Armenian Diaspora has developed a significant political presence in many parts of the world, making the issue of the Armenian Genocide as CENTRAL to “Armenianness” (quite naturally: because it is the central pillar of their identity, and the major reason they ended up in such a big Diaspora in the first place). However, the government of the Armenian state has been trying to improve the relations with the Turkish state over the past couple of years, and is currently facing much more pressing issues, such as economic hardship or the problem of Nagorno Karabakh, which are not given sufficient importance by the mainstream Diasporan discourse. Rather, many in the Diaspora view the Armenian government and the Armenians of the homeland as “traitors”, which, in its turn, fuels their Diasphoric chauvinism further. And just as discussed in all of this week’s readings, the modern communication technologies make this “debate” more heated, and at times, extremist.

This relates to a third point that needs to be made. Although there have been so many arguments pointing out the declining relevance of the territorially-based nation-state, nationalism as an “imagined” phenomenon is still very much alive, as the craving for identity and a sense of community is a natural need for the human being (yes, we are social animals, and we want to live in our communities). Even if the nation state is slowly disintegrating, the ideas that held its community together are not, especially when the changes come too fast. Ideas and values take a long time to transform, and newly introduced ones require years, if not decades or centuries, to be internalized and accepted as their “own”. The modern media and IT have strongly accelerated the process of “modern idea dissemination” (multiculturalism, freedom, human rights, etc…); however, they do not allow the time required for the internalization of these ideas, resulting in an inevitable resistance from the “local” cultures. And when this resistance gathers up momentum and enough support, it starts its way towards a gradual relapse in the opposite direction: re-emphasis of their own “specific” cultural idiosyncrasies and, later, fundamentalism. Therefore, at least in the short-run, the rise of new communication technologies does not help to smooth the process of 'cultural globalization', but rather makes it more tumultuous by galvanizing nationalism in this sense.

Sep 14, 2009

Thread - What beyond nations?

All of the readings this week at least brushed the issue of structures beyond nations. As globalization continues at its breakneck pace, will nations fall to the way-side or be transformed.

Catells seems to take a rather lofty view of a global government or rather an intergovernmental institution. "The increasing inability of nation-states to confront and manage the processes of globalization of the issues that are the object of their governance leads to ad hoc forms of global governance and, ultimately, to a new form of state." (p.42) This new form will require collective decision-making between nations, subject to the mediation and feedback from the global civil society. This society, by the way, has "now has the technological means to exist independently from political institutions and from the mass media." (p.42) (How many would this society encompass then? Because I can think of at least five countries off-hand that can just shut down their nation's Internet on a whim.) He makes an odd statement soon after that therefore public opinion should be "harnessed" through the media, despite having stated basically the opposite pages before - where the public 'harnesses' nations in order to maintain social change. Finally though, he makes this final statement: "Public diplomacy is not propaganda...It is to induce a communication space in which a new, common language could emerge as a precondition for diplomacy, so that when the time for diplomacy comes, it reflects not only interests and power making but also meaning and sharing." (p.45)

Like I said, lofty.

However, Castells fails to extrapolate how to adequately transition from our current system to this grand global scheme. He wants states to stop thier petty emphasis on their own self-interest, taking the next step toward real democracy - a government with the people's human lives interests at heart. I have a hard time imagining that just spontaneously happening. Likewise, this 'new, common language' - who determines it? Does it just somehow magically come into existence? Someone is going to determine those meanings and that means power is going to be a key factor in this development.

Karim and Waisbord take a different approach, examining the idea of new identities taking over rather than some mystical global brotherhood.

Waisbord considers it the most extensively. Nations introduced the idea of larger institutions based on cultural bonds instead of basic economic or political control. Media played a key part in spreading this common culture and constructing an 'imagined community.' It made media make national feelings 'normal' and provided a national context or lens for everyday events. We should not underestimate this influence. Karim points out that the West has succeeded in exporting this idea of nations as 'natural' to every part of the world, reinforcing it through foreign-initiated education, despite the fact it was not until the Peace of Westphalia that national exclusiveness was established.

Now today, in today's globalized world, media has a two-fold effect. On one hand, it stifles local cultural creation in favor of big, rich cultures, perpetuating long-term Western ideas. At the same time, new technologies eliminate old barriers to information and communication beyond communities. Now here Waisbord comments that there are arguments for national media. But is it cultural self-expression or politically sanctioned culture (where the government takes the place of the colonizer), which belongs to the time of 'cultural sovereignty?' (Each writer agrees that that time has passed.)

Waisbord turns from this issue to focus on the self-expression that is occurring, transnational identities and cultures. For one, there are the globalist perspectives of Castells. Waisbord does not believe this will supersede nationalism as it is devoid of common history and cultural bonds that could unite movements under its banner, nor does it demand exclusive loyalty. (Again the issue of motivation.) Global media helps open up the world, but it is still very limited, again lacking the emotional grip of common symbols, history and a possibility of socio-political rewards.

Karim agrees. Nations are becoming more accepting of multiculturalism, uniting the people with a set of civic values, but the majority still dominates. Therefore transnational groups spring up, but "they do not replace nation-states but locate themselves within and across them..." (p.406) Transnational, faceted global identities and cultures add layers to national cultures, but so far have not supplanted them. "Nations have a future as long as human groups require a basis to establish unity and difference from others, and group identity is based on inclusion and exclusion." (p.384)

There will always be inclusion and exclusion in my mind. I have not as rosy glasses as Castells. But will that mean that nations will be the winner? The world faces both unification and disintegration forces - we have the EU and now Kosovo as a country. Will EU become more unified or Kosovo more divided? Or will we remain in this tension for that much longer? I honestly don't know.

Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism

Given my background in both media and ethnic studies (I did my undergraduate degree in Radio-Television-Film with a minor in Asian American studies), this week's Waisbord reading was particularly fascinating to me. His unpacking of the roots of culture and how media shape -- or create -- culture particularly intrigued me. By Waisbord's account, the media are both gatekeepers and creators of culture, selecting and perpetuating the canon by which we identify tropes of our own nationalism. Waisbord makes a compelling argument that media as a social institution reinforces our concepts of nationalism by being the means through which we share experiences larger than ourselves. However, what I found lacking in his discussion of media as selecting the images that define our cultural narratives is the human agency element: the editors, writers, producers, etc. of these narratives. In these contexts, media is not just a social institution, but is driven by individuals with great power. Ultimately their power comes through faceless programming boards, newspaper mastheads, a record label, etc, but behind all that, conscious decisions are made about what images to use, what narratives resonate, what motifs might convey the right feeling. I think a discussion of media as creators of our culture needs to consider these personal elements, and how individuals act as institutions to create institutional memory. (There is also something to be said for how cultural diversity amongst these people with power might also change the narratives and representations we see!).

I also found personal resonance with his discussion of cosmopolitanism posed against nationalism. Several different aspects of my life have contributed to my having a sense of identity informed more by my unique combination of world experiences than the American culture proclaimed by my passport. While my experiences aren't shared by the average American, I still, to some extent, self-identify and find most concordance with my American identity. When I travel abroad as an American, I feel the need to disclaim any impressions one might make of me with these explanations of the various influences on my sense of identity. Yet, at the same time, I defend this multitude of influences as a component of my American identity; no influence has had an effect on me to the exclusion of others. That is, I incorporate my non-American experiences into my American, primary identity, and defend it as American.

Where, then, does my nationalism come into play? By certain people's accounts, the views that I have, and the pride I take in my global experiences are distinctly un-American and tantamount to burning the flag. Yet, doesn't it speak to a certain ultimate homage to American culture that I eschew a nationally untethered cosmopolitanism in favor of uniting my global identities into a singular American identity?

That said, I also wonder if Waisbord's doubts for cosmopolitanism as a viable alternative to nationalism might not be because of a lack of a conscious critical mass. I used to think that my life experiences living and traveling around the world were unique, but I've come to find many other people with similar experiences, and shared world views even without similar experiences. One knows where to go to find Americans, Canadians, etc. But where does one go to find like-minded cosmopolitans?

Analysis Question: Culture and Political Economies

“Do you think the "political-economy" concerns that have driven much of the debate in IC research over the past decades are still relevant? If so, why? Or, do you think that other kinds of questions should be the focus of researchers and policy-makers?”

When I first applied to American University’s Masters program for International Media, I was not really thinking about International Communication in terms of “political-economy.” I have no background in political science, international relations, or economics. My background is in film and media studies, and sociology/anthropology, so when I think of International Media, I think of culture.

Culture is what draws me to international studies, media studies, as well as travel. I like learning about different cultures around the world, what makes us different in addition to what makes us all the same. The readings we have read so far have definitely addressed culture as a crucial aspect of international communication, but maybe not to the extent that they should. I think that when we discuss the differences between different political economies across the globe, what we are really discussing is differences in culture. The way I see it, culture creates the political-economy, and it is therefore that we should be asking questions in terms of culture and cultural differences, not in an ethnocentric way, favoring one culture over another, but as cultural relativists judging cultures by their own standards.

While I personally find culture to be one of the most relevant (and for me the most interesting) concerns in International Communication research, I still think that political economy is relevant and important. A part of the political economy concern that keeps coming up in our readings that really interested me is the notion of “empire.” Many of the international communication scholars that we read about last week like Innis, Carey, and Thussu describe communications as a way of maintaining control over an empire. The word conjures images of antiquated ruins, old statutes of emperors, etc. When I think about the posed analysis question, “are these concerns still relevant?” my first answer is that empires do not really exist anymore. But wait, do they? Are global super-powers like the United States and China considered empires? Is democratization a kind of empire? And if empires are really a thing of the past, what about the effects of post-colonialization?

Sep 12, 2009

Communication or Culture?

My field is cultural studies. So I looked forward to reading Carey's "A Cultural Approach to Communication." Half-way through reading, I thought it seemed very familiar and it finally hit me - "things can become so familiar that we no longer perceive them at all" - he is describing communication the same way we do culture.

He defines culture as: "a symbolic process whereby reality is produced, maintained, repaired, and transformed." Usually, culture is relegated this role. It dictates our mindsets, worldviews, values, beliefs, ways of expression, dressing, manners, eating, - both how we perceive the world and what constructs the world around us. (Thus why it seems invisible until one is thrust into another culture.) Communication could be seen as the or an instrument of culture, but Carey pushes it a step further.

As a postmodern, he easily makes the claim there is no ultimate reality, rather that communication itself constructs and perpetuates reality, that is is through understanding and using of symbols. However, what are these symbols? Here, he seems to have left the idea of communication as an oral or visual construct. Does anything that conveys meaning then fall under this purview? If clothing conveys a message (and surely we in America know that well), does that make it a piece of communication instead or as well as a cultural artifact?

While yet later playing it down as usually a simple set of daily activities, this mundaneness yet highlights the sheer vastness of his claim. Everything can denote meaning or contribute to a perception of reality. As Prof. Hayden said in class, even a TV demonstrates political influence. Does this mean everything is therefore communication?

When I took Intercultural Communication in undergrad, there was a story related in my textbook. A young couple wanted to marry, so their parents had a dinner together. When they left, they knew the woman's parents didn't agree with the marriage. Yet they didn't discuss it at all. The answer: they were served a food combination that didn't match, indicating the parents found the couple a poor fit.

Communication is not always explicit, but it is intentional. This would be my key. As a Christian, we talk about how nature proclaims the glory of God. Yet this is a different form of communication - it is neither human-initiated or controlled. Carey would disagree with me as we (Christians) are the ones giving that meaning, but rocks 'communicate' that they are hard and sharp by breaking skin. The labels or words we use to explain this are communication. The fact of it in and of itself is not. Correspondingly, when and where and why we go to places and look at things and think thoughts, yes this says a lot about us, but I would not call it communication unless we try to turn around and perpetuate it.

Still, Carey had a very valid point about communication - in that it teaches/informs what it is meant to display. This is because knowledge is not neutral - the very act of transmission/perception colors the knowledge. Americans find this idea repugnant, with a very great insistence that objecivity is not only possible, but somehow easily attainable. (I agree with Carey that culture as a concept is weak in America, but rather because of its elusiveness. America has so many diverse markers, it is far easier to make out sub-cultures than the overarching culture, which is more prevalent in values and beliefs that are that much harder to see.)

America sincerely believes in today's world that increased communication, dialogue, is the answer to all problems. But until it realizes just how deep communication penetrates, the lens that shape even the shades of meaning we attach to words, this communication will go from blind eye to untuned ear and be mere babble.

Sep 11, 2009

Afghan Diaspora & the Media

What role do diasporas, a nation-state itself, and the media play in an increasingly globalized world where the idea of a 'nation-state' as defined by the Treaty of Westphalia is finding itself increasingly at odds with international developments? That is the central question that binds all of these weeks readings.

As a member of a diaspora who had a brief stint at a diasporic, global media company and studied diasporic culture in undergrad I will address these questions based on my own experiences all the while trying to create connections between statements in the readings.

As Abdul Jan Mohammed stated, the people of a diaspora subject the "cultures to analytic scrutiny rather than combining them." In this sense, I as an Afghan immigrant living in a democratic nation with strong ties to Afghanistan do not accept a single culture over another. Rather than rejecting either Afghan or American culture, I am able to look at Afghan culture through the lens of democracy and American culture from the point of view of a nation that has suffered greatly as a result of poor American foreign policy decisions.

For instance, when I hear about cries for American withdrawal from Afghanistan I see it from the point of view of someone who knows what an abrupt US departure after the fall of the Soviet Union did to Afghanistan. On the other hand, as an Afghan, I do not see America's presence in the nation as a hostile takeover, imposition, Western propaganda, or a Jewish/Christian takeover of a Muslim nation. I inherently understand the importance of what America can bring to Afghanistan if it stays while still knowing that if America simply pulls out of Afghanistan it could reap dire results for both nations in the future, as it did after the Cold War.

I am not willing to accept either Afghanistan or the United States as religious nations because I have seen what Conservative dominance has done to the United States (steered the people away from focusing on the important political, economic, and social issues in the name of religion) and how the example of Afghanistan's closest cultural, historical, and linguistic neighbor - Iran can serve as a warning call to the amount of power that the Afghan people can lose in a top-down system based on the religious views of a certain group. I would have none of these viewpoints had I not lived my life as an Afghan immigrant growing up in America.

Castells talks about the public sphere as a place where people can come together as citizens to challenge the dominant political institutions of a society. Unfortunately, a public sphere like that has not existed domestically in Afghanistan since before the Soviet invasion (which was ironically orchestrated in part by actors within that public sphere) but with the emergence of satellite television, this public sphere has been created through groups within the diaspora. After all, in an industrialized world, media has become the most dominant manifestation of the public sphere (Castells).

Whereas we in the diaspora can assemble on Fremont Blvd (affectionately referred to in the Bay Area as 'Little Kabul'), the citizens of Kabul itself have very little opportunity to do so without fear of retribution or violence. Of course, with the advent of satellite television such a public sphere has been created in Afghanistan for those who have access to a telephone and a television. On these television stations, people in Afghanistan, Iran, Germany, Pakistan, the United States, Canada, and England can all express their views on the government and the role of the United States and NATO in Afghanistan. Thus, these stations become the 'repository' of cultural and informational ideas (Castells). Of course, in a nation where there are vast crises of efficiency, legitimacy, identity, and equity, and a growing distrust of nongovernmental actors, trying to use these debates for positive outcomes is extremely difficult.

Part of the difficulty comes from the dynamics of the groups interacting with each other through the airwaves. On one hand,you have the immigrants who were the educated, skilled, higher classes who left Afghanistan at the onset of the war to profit in "the new world" (Karim Karim) and on the other you have the poor, uneducated masses who have lived through thirty years of war and see those very people who left Afghanistan and profited in "the new world" returning to Afghanistan as translators, contractors, aid workers to further profit as the ones who suffered through the war have little chance of escaping the poverty and destruction around them.

Another issue facing Afghans in the diaspora and within Afghanistan itself is the idea of nationalism. Like many other states controlled at one time or another by imperial powers, the lines denoting Afghanistan as a nation seem drawn in such a way as to constantly keep various groups in contention with one another (Karim Karim).

The new media of satellite television has tried to create a unity among the various groups through children's programming and a diversity of people on the programming, but by and large the government itself has done little to bring the people together. Thus, you have groups like the Taliban using their interpretation of Islam, rather than a unique Afghan identity (Waisbord) trying to force the people of Afghanistan into supporting their political aims. Like many other criminal groups, the Taliban base themselves in poorer areas and came to prominence by offering a sense of security and order in the lawless Afghanistan of 1996 (Castells).

What all of this amounts to is that the Afghan government and the independent satellite television stations must work to somehow create a sense of national Afghan identity (Waisbord). An identity that is larger than economics, various interpretations of religious ideals, war, and politics.

The Afghans of Afghanistan have lost sense of a civil society in Afghanistan and see it as impositions of Western forces not as going back to something that existed within Afghanistan previously. These media outlets, both governmental and independent must find a way to bridge the gap between the experiences of the diaspora and the up and coming cultural and intellectual thinkers of Afghanistan itself. In this way, the Afghans in Afghanistan can see that engagement within the West does not inherently mean the loss of a religious or cultural identity merely the challenging of it to make said identity more potent and able to keep up with the changing world climate without crumbling under the weight of change.

Sep 10, 2009

How I Imagine Castell's Public Sphere

I really enjoyed the Manuel Castells reading, “The New Public Sphere: Global Civil Society, Communication Networks, and Global Governance” because it gave me some things to visualize. Castells talks a lot about the “public sphere.” He defines it as a place where public opinion is communicated and information and ideas are exchanged, locating it between society and the state. As I read, I thought to myself, what does the public sphere look like? I have no background in political science or international relations, so I visualized a sort of gladiator arena with the government on one side and civil society on the other. In the middle of the arena, a sort of battle was going on. Interest groups and lobbyists were marching around with protest signs. Different civic associations were handing out pamphlets. And of course, the media was there reporting news and opinion in the forms of television, radio, and newspapers.

As I read on, I realized that I was thinking about the public sphere on a national level, specifically the United States. Castells brings to the fore the argument that there is a public sphere on an international level. My visualization of the public sphere expanded to include actors on an international level. The governments and citizens of all nation-states sat around the perimeters of the arena. In the middle, I saw advertisements from multinational businesses, leaders and followers of world religions, world interest groups, and global media.

Castells argues that nations-states form networks of nation-states. An obvious example would be the European Union. The EU is a network of many different countries, each maintaining their own language, traditions, national religion, and other aspects of culture. Castells points out several issues that are truly global concerns including human rights, environmental issues like global warming, terrorism, and the governance of world-wide technologies like the internet. Castells also identifies several problems or “crises” the world faces when attempting to deal with global problems, like not having a global common language, the lack of an impartial global “referee” to judge actions and decisions, cultural differences world-wide, and not having an efficient way to manage all these global issues.

Overall, I felt that Castells did an excellent job of defining the public sphere on both a national and international level, identifying the problems we face on a global level, and articulating the reasons why global governance and cooperation is extremely difficult. The one problem I had with this reading is that Castells identifies all these problems, but does not really give any suggestions of how to fix it or what to do about it.

Sep 7, 2009

Communication as Community and American Culture

Carey presents an interesting view of thought as inherently public and social. That society gives us the symbols and the framework through which we filter our emotions and intuitions, such that it gives us language to think, and in this sense, all of our thoughts are shared and represented by the same symbols and everyone else in the community. It seems to cast Descartes's famous quote in a new light as, "I think -- because society has given me the language with which to think -- therefore I am."

And yet, even as we share these representative symbols of communication (and, according to Carey, build community in the process of such sharing), we talk of breakdowns in communication amongst each other as the root cause of most conflicts. I would have liked to have seen Carey explore this idea further. That while we might share the same symbolic representations of our environment, our interpretations and communication to each other of these representations can vary widely. If, as he asserts, we create our own reality in the process of creating the means by which to communicate about it, and our shared knowledge is what brings us together as a community, how do individual realities play against each other? To bring in another reading from this week, how does the cybernetics systems theory explained by Weaver apply to this concept of communication? Where does the encoding, decoding, and feedback happen if we're all supposed to share the same symbols?

Carey also asserts that Americans lack a unified understanding of an American culture. This seems an interesting position to take, given the neo-colonialism and American cultural imperialism discourses explored by the other readings. To the extent that American culture is often the hegemonic model propagated throughout the world, are we unable to recognize our own culture because we are immersed in it, because it is so rarely challenged, even on a global level?

Of course, I would argue that this isn't the case. While I understand that my background, socio-economic status, education level, etc. put me in a unique position, I can hardly think of anyone that I personally know who really thinks that American culture is the only lens through which to look at the world. I would also argue that most people are savvy enough to take a critical look at the tropes by which American culture is communicated, even to ourselves: American dream ideology, Protestant work ethic, democracy and free markets, materialism, etc.

And yet, while I generally acknowledge that most Americans will probably assume American culture to be the predominant model throughout the world, I have to stop myself. Where is the empirical evidence that this is the case? Does anyone know of any studies where we have empirically studied levels of American self-centeredness? We all reference the ugly American stereotype, especially as it relates to Americans abroad, but on what do we base these assumptions? In my own experiences, I've found it necessary to defend myself from these stereotypes, to point to examples of open-minded, globally savvy Americans who think we have much to learn from other cultures. Perhaps we are doing a disservice in propagating the model of the "ugly American" ourselves.

The Ritualistic Cults of Olbermann, O'Reilly, et al.

Sections from James Carey and Harold Innis readings for this week reminded me of the proliferation of opinion media on mainstream American ‘news’ channels. When speaking of the Ritualistic View of Communication, Carey calls it a “sacred ceremony drawing people together in fellowship and commonality” and when speaking of Time-Based Media, Innis wrote that they often create or re-enforce social hierarchies. In fact, one of the questions Innis poses about the role of media in society is to ask what forms of power said media encourages. In relation to all of these ideas, the Olbermanns and O’Reillys of the world do not really challenge and encourage intelligent thought among their audiences. Instead, the viewers are simply seeing and hearing what they want to hear. They watch these programs as a form of ritual where they see representations of their shared beliefs. When comparing media to religion, Carey, says the Ritualistic View of communication is less like a sermon which challenges thoughts and incites conversation, and more like a prayer, chant, or ceremony. Thus, watching these programs is less learning and more memorization of the facts and ideas you want, creating a mob mentality to rally around a certain ideology. As Innis and Carey both state, these methods of communication are more about maintaining a social order than about intelligent dialogue. Thus, when Innis asks what power structures the form of media encourages the answer in terms of the cable commentators, is that they encourage the status quo. They encourage the notion of a dichotomous America ruled by one party or another. There is little room for the people in the periphery to create change through the challenge ideas represented by a possible new media. In this way, it can be argued that the American system of propaganda is reverting back to the primitive stimulus-response model that Weaver spoke of.

Empires of Space and Time: Innis' "Bias of Communications and Monopolies of Power"

I was really excited to see “Theoretical Perspectives” on the syllabus this week, having done my undergraduate work in sociology. I was even more excited to recognize several names (like Claude Henri de Saint-Simon, Alexis de Tocqueville, Herbert Spenser, and Max Weber) from the Thussu, Weaver, and Carey readings this week from my sociological theory textbooks. One name that I did not recognize, but was fascinated with, was Harold Adams Innis.

In the reading, “Harold Adams Innis: the Bias of Communications and Monopolies of Power”, Innis asserts that there is a bias inherent in all media, not always in the physical medium, but in the way the medium allows the messages distributed (specifically the values and the ideas within the message) to conquer both time (ideas or values with longevity) and space (maintaining control of a geographically large empire).

Innis makes a distinction between time-based media and space-based media. Time-based media, he argues, is durable and long-lasting. The article gave the examples of stone and clay. While reading this article, I thought about media in a broad sense and statues and sculptures came to mind. Sculptures contain a message or story in an artistic, creative way that can be easily read by illiterate populations, especially in early Europe. Sculptures can be used to celebrate a particular war victory or display the likeness of a leader. The Arc de Triomphe monument in the Place de l'Étoile in Paris is, I think, an excellent example of Innis’ time-based media that conveys an imperial message. The monument depicts France’s victories during the Napoleonic Wars and still stands as a famous landmark today.

Sculpture can also convey a religious story, like Michelangelo’s Pietà or Bernini’s The Ecstasy of St. Theresa. In addition to sculpture, stained glass windows in churches could be another example of time-based media. The pictures depicted in stained glass windows showed stories from the Bible, and could be understood by the illiterate masses who could not read the Bible themselves.

Innis’ ideas on “the Biases of Communications and the Monopolies of Power” went along well with the readings we had last week from Daya Thussu and Mattelart. Innis’ argues that communication media don’t just appear out of the blue, they are created out of necessity by an empire to enhance and continue its control. Likewise, the readings about the history of international communication from Thussu and Mattelart last week both took care to discuss how new developments in communication were interrelated and how they built upon each other. The three authors also call attention to how nation-state often held sole control over a medium of communication for long periods of time because of the nation-state controls the raw materials necessary to build the medium and keep it running. One of the sources listed in Innis’ “Monopolies of Knowledge” is “control of raw materials.” Mattelart and Thussu both discuss how Britain’s control the telegraph was largely due to owning copper, the raw material required for building telegraph cable lines. Similarly, Daya Thussu’s chapter “Approaches to Theorizing International Communication” discusses the ways in which different theoretical perspectives for international communication developed from each other as a criticism or refinement to the former, not just appearing out of the blue.

Don’t let your mind fool you. Go with the senses…

I referred to cultural (neo-) imperialism in my first post. This time I would like to take my thoughts in a different direction and look back at the Soviet Union, and what the example can, potentially, show to an observer now.

Being “hegemonic” the USSR did, indeed, try to indoctrinate all the people living in its sphere of influence, and justifiably so: after all, there is no other way control can be effectively retained over a long period of time.

At first, though, control has to be established through aggressive means (be it military or not). Then, there is a pressing need to build a more or less functional economy, accompanied by, just as Gramsci suggested, building of schools, religious bodies, and an effective mass media to relay the message and the “right” culture.

The Soviet regime attempted to do exactly that. First, they had the Red Revolution, sweeping through Eurasia and slowly building up into an empire. Then, of course, the economic plans started to emerge, desperately trying to build some sort of a system that would function “union-wide.” This all was galvanized by the communist propaganda, creation of a Soviet educational system, and of course a religious institution of a kind (religious, yes; not ecclesiastic): religion – Communism; Gods – Marx, Engels; Prophets – Lenin and Stalin; clergy – The Party. And being a very modern religion, Communism made an active use of the modern media – radio and, later, TV – with the sole goal to opiate the very masses it claimed to be saving from the tentacles of religion. And just as the fundamental sociological principle of reality construction states (reinforced by many communication theorists), whatever they presented as symbolically real, eventually became real in its consequence, through psychological and cultural processes, as well as through socialization [i.e. indoctrination] and fear. Although the process was somewhat reversed, the symbols used as a representation for reality eventually became representations of the reality, to speak in Carey’s terms.

Too bad the USSR invested too much in the idea of foreign expansion and the fight of the “Evil Capitalists”, rather than successful internal reform early enough. The Secretaries of the Communist Party apparently had not read Gramsci closely enough; otherwise, they would not have missed the principle of pressing need to continually reproduce the process of communication hegemony, in order to ensure that the “periphery’s” interests are still in line with those of the ruling core in Moscow, and to minimize the probability of challenge. Instead, they were very haphazard in their “reforms”: changes were introduced inconsistently and over-cautiously, and could be withdrawn half-way through and followed by a period of hesitant repression of the very same reform. This process of freeze and thaw widened the cracks in the system, and once in power, Gorbachev made it worse.

Yes, it was not the only reason for the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire, but it was definitely among the major ones. The policies of glasnost and perestroika shattered the society (fundamentally based on coercion and oppression), and although they were supposedly intended as a reform for further extension of power, I could say they played a critical role in bringing down the Soviet system. In other words, the clergy of the religious institution gave up their monopoly of knowledge and their power to define reality, allowing alternative ideas to be considered as “legitimate”: self-determination, freedom of speech and association, openness, systemic reform… The periphery, meanwhile, did not lose the opportunity. Helped by the very same media that used to oppress them – radio and TV – as well as fuelled by the influx of these alternative ideas through Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (or VoA for that matter), the masses that had been alienated for so long stood up to challenge the empire and played into its demise.

Apparently, the Soviet regime failed to oversee a successful transformation of communication from “transmission” view, to that of a “ritual” and gave way as soon as the cracks got sufficiently wide.

This is just one example, which, I think, shows the importance of “ritual communication” in building a reliable foundation for a strong empire. Nowadays, we would like to believe there are no empires per se. Yet, no one can deny that there is a prevalent ideology [yes, take your pick: “Western,” “American,” “European,” “Capitalist,” “Protestant”…] forcefully spread throughout the world. The very ideas promoted by the so-called international organizations, international civil society, and universal human rights do a great job in terms of ritual communication to bring about a “global” culture. But they cannot be regarded as isolated from transmission communication, as eventually they extend control over time and space, just as in the Soviet example.

No matter how attractive the idea of “horizontal global communication” may sound, it inevitably results in a paradox. For some reason, the ideas accepted in this information flow are very culturally biased and do not seem to be showing real cultural sensitivity. And the result? We end up having the same dilemma all over again: “influence over” [i.e. control derived from universality of values] vs. “hostility” [an inevitable result when strong local cultures meet universality]. I’m still to see convincing proof that a truly “flat world” can actually exist…

Sep 1, 2009

The 'Late', The Great, and The Way Inbetween

Elizabeth Hanson's "The Informationa Revolution and World Politics" does focus more on actual technological advancements. But the sheer impact and uneveness of this impact, testify all the more to how inextricably all the neat categories we use in school: Communications, Economics, Politics, Culture and so forth, are linked.
The first thing I noted was the almost sidenote of the affect of the printing press on language in Europe. The very art of writing has always had an impact on writing, requiring more codification and standardization. But there can also be a significant difference: for instance, 'Chinese' exists as a single written language, yet there are different dialects, such as Mandarin or Cantonese, which can be quite unintelligable to one another. (This is a bit of a moot point as Chinese is a pictorial/ideographic language, rather than syllabic as I'm referencing in Europe.)
The printing press contributed to the codification and solidifying of specific languages. Hanson references "hundreds of vernacular languages" (p. 15), but going back to my Chinese example, these were most likely regional differences and the effects of syncristic contact between different language groups. Thus the press, needing a standardization in order to publish consistently, caused regional dialects became more uniform, leading to a greater identity identification among language groups, which helped build a case for nationalism. This is fascinating to me as so many countries around the world struggle with creating national identities similar to those that seem 'native' to Europe, especially those without set borders. This ripple effect from the printing press is an example of how nationalism grew to its more current form organically. (Which poses the interesting question, is common language really a make-or-break factor in nation-building?)
Second, it seems that the unpredicted side-effects of such new technology interferes with the next, at least at first - and proving that technology hasn't exactly just been 'speeding up' invariably in the last century. Telegraphs had to cross national borders (linguistic borders fostered by the printing press) and therefore countries had to set up arrangements for interconnection. This happens within 20 years of the public debut of telegraphy (though Thussu does remark that different forms of telegraphy appeared earlier). An International Union is formed by 1865, rules of usage are agreed on and monitoring is allowed. Telegraphy quickly goes on to inform business, politics and then even the public.
Now, about 30 years after the telegraph, comes the telephone. Barring technological issues, the telephone becomes relegated to the bottom place on the totem-pole. Even when improved, it lags in connecting Europe. The national borders, crossed by telegraphs, prove imperable to telephones. Countries resist interconnection, put to the way side the connections (diplomatically) that telegraphs have formed and maintain rivalry. The telegraph was to get rid of these tensions - it increased them, especially as the British had the monopoly. And this doesn't change until the 1970s!!! It's simply incredible when compared to the sudden capitalization of the cell phone.