The Long and Winding Road: From Road and Rail to Information Superhighway

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What can we draw as common issues from Armand Mattelart’s Networking the World:1794-2000 and John Thompson’s “The Media and Modernity” and “The Globalization of Communication”? At first glance, they seem to deal with the history of globalized communication networks in the modern age. While Thompson’s two essays are pieces of overview mostly on global-scale communication networks, enumerating the characteristics and patterns of global communication today, Mattelart’s book concentrates not only on the historical descriptions of modern communication technology—from the 18th and the 19th century imperial Europe and the U.S. to the contemporary “electronically networked global civil society”—but also on the political implications of globalized communication networks deeply embedded in the history of globalization and communication technology. Although there are several passages overlap in Thompson’s essays and Mattelart’s book, especially when they describe technological developments of the European imperial powers, Thompson’s descriptive analysis seems to be perfected by Mattelart’s critical stance concerning the domination of integrated world capitalism through globalized networks and neo-liberalism as its ideology, dealing with concrete and contemporary issues.

Describing “mass communication” as “the institutionalized production and generalized diffusion of symbolic goods via the fixation and transmission of information or symbolic content” (“The Media and Modernity” 15), Thompson tries to differentiate the term with others (such as “mediated communication” or “the media”) and to articulate its characteristics. Among five key characteristics of “mass communication” which might be closely related with each other, he seems to elaborate on the “reordering of space and time” as the most significant phenomenon. Telecommunication technology[1] culminated in the contemporary media industries has dramatically changed the spatial and temporal aspects of the world through “the uncoupling of space and time” (19). By reducing the temporal delay in information transportation, new communication technology enabled virtually simultaneous experience of the communication events, even between different places.

In his other essay, Thompson asserts that this phenomenon (“the reordering of space and time”; “the uncoupling of space and time”) is “part of a broader set of processes which have transformed (and are still transforming) the modern world,” so to speak, “globalization” (“The Globalization of Communication” 246). In other words, the process of globalization parallels the development of communication technology. It is because he regards development of the media industries as the main cause, or the equivalence, of the globalization of communication and the large-scale commercialization. However, globalization itself is not the globalized communication networks, as it is not the development of communication technology. Although the emergence of the global communication networks is coincide with globalization process, the means of globalization cannot be identified with the process itself. Maybe Thompson is talking about the globalization of communication. But, I suspect that this kind of identification might come from the technological determinism. Furthermore, there is no critical analysis on how global inequality of communication technology has been contributed to the unevenness of global economy, and it might be due to the perspective that technology is neutral to everyone and in everywhere.

On the contrary, Mattelart seems to opposed to the “recycled myth of the neutrality of technology”(120). He could declare, thus, that “the time has come … to distinguish between globalist mythology and concrete reality” (97). He continuously warns us of the mask and illusion of globalization with which world communication and world economy seems to present us frictionless society. The promise of globalization supported by the hope of progress with the technological development masks the political, economic, and cultural reality of planetary commodification and prevalence of disparities between counties and regions and between social groups, resulted from indiscriminate freedom of capitalist market.

As he admits that “fragmentation and globalization [i.e. homogenization] are conceived as a couple in tension, in which the decomposition / recomposition of social and cultural identities are played out,” (105) the process of globalization is ambivalent. From a certain of point of view, the momentum of indigenous politics seems to be originated from the (neo-)liberal and cosmopolitan project of Enlightenment. As the neo-Zapatista guerilla’s strategic use of the Internet and international media shows, what the globalization brings to the Third world as a gift can be turned into the tools for the revolt or the weapons to resist against globalization. In the same vein, “although it is certainly too much to expect technology to save the world,” asserts Mattelart, “it is no less true that it constitutes a crucial element in the redefinition of the social contract and of local and national, as well as international, institutions”(118).

All technology is communicational technology, and of course, technology is the means of the globalization, or rather the road for the globalization. While the construction of road and rail in the 18th and the 19th century enabled the unequal exchange of material goods, natural resources and labor forces, the construction of the submarine cables in the 19th century and contemporary information superhighway enabled the unfair exchange of immaterial goods, data and information.[2] Can we say that this is the mark of progress? Progress of technology? Progress of economy? Maybe it is evolution of capitalism. As Thompson properly underscored, “the idea of progress is a way of colonizing the future, a way of subsuming the future to our present plans and expectations”(“The Media” 23). What the globalization promises to us is hope of the future which will be prosperous and free, taking our present and reality as a hostage.

[1] Modern communication technology might be basically telecommunication technology, since not only it presumed the relatively long distance between the sender and the receiver of message, but also its direction of technological development was heading toward extension of the distance.

[2] Information, especially digital information, contains information technology in itself, since exchange of information requires protocol between the sender and the receiver. Thus, exchange of information implies exchange of information technology and its protocol, the rule of exchange. As globalization brings and transplants ideological (democratic) institutions as well as material (economic) systems, it also brings the rule of unequal exchange, the rule of control. 


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