This blog post explores the dimensions of “communication power” highlighted in International Communication: A Reader, edited by Daya Kishan Thussu (2010) from Routledge.
In Communication Power Manuel Castells writes, “Power relies on the control of communication, as counterpower depends on breaking through such control” (Castells, 2009, p. 3). The history of international communication as an academic discipline is integrally linked to post-colonial and Cold War power struggles between nation-states. For example, the development of satellite television was one “soft power” tool to win the “hearts and minds” of the world’s population during the height of the Cold War (Schwoch, 2009).
Now—as we are debatably entering an era marked by the decline of the nation-state and the rise of the “network society” and the “network state”—questions of power become more pressingly tied to access to the definitional power that comes with control of information communication technologies (Castells, 2009; 2010, pp. 42-43; Schiller, 2010).
The book International Communication: A Reader, edited by Daya Kishan Thussu, Professor of International Communication at the University of Westminster and noted author in the field, is a well-curated collection of seminal texts tracing the development of international communication as a sub-field of mass communication research. The volume also includes key policy documents, such as the 1980 MacBride Report recommendations, the GATS “Annex on Telecommunications,” and UNESCO’s “Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity.” Interestingly the policy document section also includes Google’s “Software Principles,” infamous for its simply put mission “Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” and domination of online information-communication space.
Questions of “power” constitute a key theme running through the collection. Chapters trace the theoretical development of the field through modernization/development, dependency/cultural (media) imperialism and the New World Information Communication Order (NWICO), mediations and cultural hyridity. In chapter 14, Herbert Schiller notes, “Media-cultural imperialism is a subset of the general system of imperialism. It is not freestanding” (p. 248). He argues that what was in his original formation the domination of the United States is now “transnational corporate cultural domination” (p. 249). The power to define matters (p. 255).
Reading International Communication: A Reader I found myself wondering what Schiller would say about today’s social media capacity—Facebook, Twitter, Google+—and the global diffusion of mobile phones? Would he consider it to be a viable challenge to cultural imperialism?
I believe Schiller would draw attention to the continuing patterns in corporate ownership of information-communication infrastructure. In addition, a handful of actors hold the power to determine the technological standards and governing international regulations by which global communications flow. Thussu points out that the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) started pushing privatization in post-Cold War period of the 1990s (p. 8).
Today Google+ and Facebook are jockeying to be the preferred social media platform and the Department of Information Technology (Doit) on campus has reportedly sold out to Google. Is it problematic that I do not go a day without Google, ever? My email, web browsing, music preferences, increasingly social media usage, shared documents, book and news searches, Madison Metro bus arrival and departure schedules are (in their majority) trafficked through Google. A friend of mine recently put it, “I want to live in the cloud” insisting that he would love to use Google for online dating, saying that they know everything about him. But, who decides what’s “evil”? And, at what price might Google sellout their sanitized sounding mission in the pursuit of profit? I believe we should continue to be concerned about issues that Schiller raised in the 1960s.
So yes, global information flows and technological possibilities are diversifying. However, access is only part of the problem. The normative question remains as to whether dominance in ownership is “problem” and if so why? As neo-Marxists would argue, power is rooted in control of both content generation (the image of oneself and others) and the means to produce, transfer and facilitate access to said content (infrastructure development). For example, Google garnered negative press when, back in 2006, it launched google.cn agreeing to China’s censorship in order to enter the market. The company recently changed its policy to one of redirectly traffic from mainland China to its Hong Kong search engine though results are still “filtered” by the Chinese government (BBC, 2010).
Infrastructure challenges to this version of “media power” are numerous and diverse, from the open source movement to anarchist email provider Riseup.net that advocates a rejection of capitalism to mainstays such as community radio. The circumstances under which they might enter into the mainstream public sphere, or facilitate alternative ones, are fruitful areas of inquiry.
But in all likelihood they will not “break” into the mainstream. More likely is the development of potentially subversive tactics to move around the edges of corporate defined information-communication space, or what later scholarship has referred to as “active audience” or “cultural hyridity.” In chapter 17, John Downing names this “dynamic mental co-habitation.” The development of “oppositional consciousness” is as much a social process as psychological one. Technology cannot “create” this but it can be a channel to facilitate the communicative processes that underlie alternative formations of group identity (p. 304).
For example, the Twitter infrastructure of hashtags allows for global indexing of simultaneously developed, independent content in way that facilitates the potential for emerging global public spheres. Tweeting with the hashtags #troydavis, #RIPtroydavis and #toomuchdoubt did not intervene in the political space of the nation-state last week but these new spaces for global dialogue may spark disparate individuals to feel enough outrage to take their action offline into the political spheres in which they reside. Or maybe not. This is also an important area of research.
Seeing alternative forms of “communicative power” rest in defining the frame of reference and entry point into inquiry. Much has changed since Schiller first introduced the concept of “media imperialism” in the 1960s but not as much as Castells would have us believe. In rushing to the utopian vision of the “network society” let us not forget definitional power and in whose hands the vast majority of it still rests.
I, for one, do not think I could go a day without Google and that matters. How much is both an empirical and normative question.
BBC (March 23, 2010). China condemns decision by Google to lift censorship. Retrieved September 25, 2010, from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8582233.stm
Castells, M. (2009). Communication power. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Schwoch, J. (2009). Global TV: New Media and the Cold War, 1946-69. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Thussu, D. K. (2010). International Communication: A Reader. London; New York: Routledge.