By Daniel Margrain
During the height of the anti-capitalist movement in 2002, I wrote a paper as part of my MA in which I said:
“The growth of new (physical) technologies allied with the development of the (virtual) media, is resulting in the revival and reworking of the classical ideal of an actively engaged and responsible citizenship. It is my contention that established media and virtual media will increasingly contest for spheres of influence in ‘cyberspace’. The extent to which one or the other establishes spatial dominance is likely to shape the nature of politics in the new century and therefore determine a new set of socio-political relationships.”
The development of new media corresponded to what Marxist geographer, David Harvey, referred to as “time-space compression” brought about by the growth in global communication networks which has its genesis as part of a concept of what became known as the “global village” – a term first coined by Marshall McLuhan in 1962. Having since become a cliche of global communications, it describes, in the loose sense, how citizens of the world who have communication tools at their command, can communicate and share interests across the world, just as they might across a village street.
More importantly, however, McLuhan claimed that the dominant mode of communication in the earlier part of the century had been written and printed. Even modes like the telegraph message and air letter were communication in print. This was formal communication typical of the hierarchical and procedurally bound societies of the time.
Conversely, in the global village, television, telephone and other electronic communication restored a formal oral culture in which informality and impermanence were the characteristics. This cut across the formal structures of existing political organisations.
The significance of McLuhan was that he anticipated the phenomena of virtuality and interactivity, the dissolving of traditional structures and patterns and the compression of time and space. One of the main technological manifestations that facilitate the latter is the growth of telecommunications infrastructure.
It is the integration of global communication networks – telecommunications, computing and media technologies – that forms the basis of the internet and ISDN traffic. From its small military beginnings in the 1970s and 1980s, the former has opened up the possibility of a genuine new form of community. Over twenty years ago, John Allen and Chris Hamnett even went as far as to argue that the internet would bring about the “death of geography.”
But what McLuhan and Allen and Hamnett overestimated was the extent to which the global village would remove old hierarchies and social gradients. Correspondingly, they underestimated the ability of the new technology to reinforce existing socioeconomic patterns of inequality and structures of power.
Not only has the the new technology installed a new form of communicative apartheid as evidenced by the uneven global spread of internet hosts and web users, but the nature of this trend also gives the illusion of empowerment. In their 1997 book, The Global Media, Edward Herman and Robert McChesney are rightly critical of the notion that the growth in internet use results in the ability of humanity to leapfrog over existing forms of corporate communication, citing the internet’s rapid commercialization which functions in sharp contrast to it.
While in theory, the development of the internet is the potential catalyst for an active, responsible and informed citizenship to grow, the reconciling of technology with a democratic utopianism presupposes that those who control communications technology are politically and ideologically impartial in a way that the British state broadcaster, for example, is not.
The notion that BBC news journalists are impartial and that their role is to bring power to account, is based on a collective delusion. In Inventing Reality: The Politics of the Mass Media, political scientist, Michael Parenti argues that these kinds of journalists:
“Rarely doubt their own objectivity even as they faithfully echo the established political vocabularies and the prevailing politico-economic orthodoxy. Since they do not cross any forbidden lines, they are not reined in. So they are likely to have no awareness they are on an ideological leash” (1986, p.25).
But surely establishment journalists are free to say what they want in a democracy?
In 1996, Noam Chomsky challenged the assertion made by the BBCs Andrew Marr that his views were not the product of a form of self-censorship. Chomsky said:
“I’m sure you believe everything you are saying. But what I’m saying is, if you believed something different, you [Marr] wouldn’t be sitting where you are sitting.”
In other words, as Michael Parenti commenting on how media bias manifests, said of establishment journalists like Marr: “[Journalists] say what [they] like because they [their proprietors] like what [they] say.”
If the internet is to successfully leapfrog over what John Pilger describes as “the best, most sophisticated propaganda service in the world”, it must free itself from the forms of control indicative of its traditional counterparts.
Launched in February, 2004, the on-line social media site, Facebook, looked like it offered a genuine avenue for alternative forms of information to flourish freely. But recent evidence uncovered by the website Vox Political points to attempts by the corporation to suppress this free flow of information (see graphic below):
According to another popular left-wing site, Skawkbox, statistics for its blog “show a ratio of around four or five visitors via Facebook for every one via Twitter. Over the last few days that has dropped to around one and a half Facebook referrals to every Twitter visitor.”
This is in line with additional analysis which suggests that new Google algorithm’s are restricting access to other left-wing progressive web sites.
The question of whether the cultural globalization of virtual space will result in the homogenization and neutralization of public and political discourse in similar ways that have befallen the traditional media, is likely to depend on the extent to which it is subject to the same distorted relations of economic power. For a liberal democracy like the UK that boasts about its plurality, the signs do not appear to be encouraging:
“Frank Beacham who enthused about the internet as a public sphere outside of corporate or government control in early 1995, lamented one year later that the internet was shifting ‘from being a participatory medium that serves the interests of the public to being a broadcast media where corporations deliver consumer-orientated information. Interactivity would be reduced to little more than sales transactions and e mail.” (Herman, E. & McChesney, R. (1997) ‘The Global Media’, p.135).
The implication is that the nature of the new, as with old, media content is implicitly and explicitly determined or influenced by advertising and commercial values. A key issue relates to whether information that is not influenced by the above factors is freely accessible in other forms. The main problem with liberal democracies is not necessarily that information is unavailable to the public, or that voting procedures, for example, are too cumbersome, rather it is the public’s lack of scepticism and desire to root out the facts (See for example, Hirschkop, K. in Capitalism and the Information Age, 2000).
The spread of the internet in such a situation, therefore, increases the access to far more information that would otherwise be the case with traditional forms of media. But access by itself is not the principal problem. Knowledge is not the base of its authority but its instrument. It is within this context that new media is unlikely to prove qualitatively different from the old. However, it is by its nature, likely to alter our perceptions of political space, relations to power and historical forms of rule.
In terms of production networks, global media output and global multinational capital both need technology in order to expand, just as much as technology needs multinationals and governments to globalize spaces of capital and new media through economic liberalization. Thus, globalization, technology, new media and the dominant relations of economic power are inter-connected. Moreover, as Robert McChesney asserts, these factors are reinforced by an uneven balance of power for the benefit of corporate-media political culture:
“A market dominated political economy tends to produce exactly such a political culture, to some extent because commercial penetration tends to undermine the autonomous social organisations that can bring meaning to public life…A capitalist society works most efficiently when the bulk of the population is demoralized and effectively depoliticised…As the Financial Times put it, ‘capitalist democracy can best succeed to the extent that it is about ‘the process of depoliticising the economy.’ The global commercial media are integral to this depoliticization process” (1997, pp.16-17).
Whether virtual space can bring about a new democratic polity based upon notions of social, economic and political justice, will depend on whether networked technologies are able to break free from the grip of the distortions that reflect the overriding interests associated with traditional forms of media proprietorship.
Ultimately, new media is shaped by the ideology of power, not democracy. In the context in which a Guardian editorial recently argued that “censoring the internet is necessary”, and a mainstream media which historian Mark Curtis contends, “keeps the public in the dark about virtually every important current and historical policy”, the stakes could hardly be higher.
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