Monday, August 31, 2009

Behind the Press

After reading these three articles, which all touched upon the significance and origins of communication mediums, I noticed several interesting points. First, I was unaware of the extent to which communication was used, by both the United States and foreign nations, as a tool to manipulate the opinions and actions of developing nations. Radio became a medium less of mediation, and rather of provocation, as witnessed through Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, and Radio Free Asia. I found that the United States exploited this form of communication in order to spread Westernization and democracy. Whether this was an unfair or an ingenious tactic, it remains an imposition on other cultures.

Even today, we continue to witness communication as a tool through which government officials market their opinions, often leading to the suppression of opposing views. In Italy, for example, the popular television stations RAI I, II, and III are controlled by the Italian government, and specifically by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Since these broadcasting stations are controlled by the government, the information broadcasted generally casts a favorable light on the government and Italy, while disregarding facts that may hinder the Italian reputation. For example, RAI almost completely neglected broadcasting the Berlusconi sex scandal, as it would have harmed the Italian government.

Secondly, after reading these articles I reflected on the importance of the printing press. It continues to be a driving facilitator of news in the 21st century, and repeatedly encourages increased literacy rates. When I was living in Kenya, magazines were the most widespread sources of news among my peers. As televisions are often more costly than newspapers, Kenyans were encouraged to read and practice both Kiswahili and English, while obtaining news. However, I would argue that the ability to communicate through television is a powerful tool, which influences both economic and political power. Thus, the lack of infrastructure to support more advanced mediums of communication in developing countries becomes a disservice to these countries, as they cannot express their cultural traditions through this vehicle. The absence of communication in Kenya may reflect older, feudal systems in which the majority of the African population was kept uninformed and ignorant. An uninformed population often reduced peasant uprising, and made the population easier to control. Thus, the lack of communication networks in many developing countries could have subtle undertones of intentional suppression.

Lastly, after contemplating the legitimacy of communication systems, I wonder how much of the truth I am actually receiving from communication networks?

It's All in Context

Reading about US and global history in the context of communications technology innovation was very insightful and interesting for me. Having previously learned the who, what and where for many of these great historic events, I found that connecting them with developments in the field of communications technology provided explanations into the how and the why these occurrences took place when they did.

For example in the Hanson text, the invention of the movable type printing press is linked with the development of a single language across large areas, which contributed greatly to the idea of a national identity. Prior to these readings, I had of course learned about these topics separately:
1) I knew that the movable type printing press was developed by Johann Gutenberg in Germany. 2) I also knew that what we, the students of German as a foreign language, learn today as being German is a specific type of German called "hoch Deutsch" and that there are many different Germanic dialects spoken throughout German-speaking areas. 3) Through my studies, I knew that these linguistic as well as cultural differences hindered German unification until 1871.

By framing these three separate historical facts in the context of communications technology development, I now can connect the dots on the evolutionary timeline for the formation of a German state.

In addition to the historical context, I found the sections on the development of the telephone systems in the US versus Europe quite interesting since I had experienced these differences first hand. In addition, the differences between these two regions in telephony advancement can be attributed to government policies and other political obstacles, which illustrates the point that just because the communications technology is available does not mean that the people are going to easily gain access to it.

I have a real-world example that relates to the differences in European vs. US telephone systems and illustrates why knowing the differences in communications technology rules and capabilities is important when traveling internationally. This past spring, I was in London meeting two high school friends for a week. They had both spent previous time abroad but not in the UK. They were sharing a room in the hotel in which we were staying and spent a good portion of their evenings calling family and boyfriends back home to update them on our trip. The girls had both brought calling cards along with them and had used those from their room phone. At the end of the week, we were all checking out. The girls stepped up to the desk expecting to hand in their keys and head to the airport when they were informed by the hotel employee that they had 75 pounds in local call charges! Of course, the girls, being American, did not even consider that there would be any charge for making a local call to the UK operator of their calling cards. I think for young adults who have grown up in the US during a time when low-cost communications technology has advanced way beyond the plain, old land-line telephone, paying high prices for something so antiquated comes as a big surprise!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Metaphors of Progress

This week's readings on the Historical Background of International Communications was an overview on how countries incorporated new communications technologies and the corresponding impact it had on domestic and international relations. However, before these technologies were in place and a network for communicating internationally established, how did countries learn about new technological advancements?

Armand Mattelart brought up an interesting answer to this in Mapping World Communication: the role of World Expositions (aka World Fairs) as a major platform for sharing ideas and information. At these events, new inventions such as the telephone, wireless telegraph and television were put on display for other countries to learn about.

Yet, the Expositions were not meant solely for the altruistic purpose of sharing knowledge with other countries. Mattelart aptly named the section on World Expositions "Metaphors of Progress". In essence, the Expositions were an outlet for a country to show its national superiority and tout how advanced its technology was - a notion tied to the idea of progress. This was another way of clarifying the divide between developed and developing countries who lacked these cutting edge technologies.

World Expositions are still held around the globe although not as frequently as in the late 19th/early 20th century. They are no longer needed as a vehicle for communications since the technologies they once boasted have now replaced them. However, the technological advancement as progress metaphor has not changed.

Countries still strive to create machines that are faster, smaller and more robust than their predecessors and see their creation as a strength of their country. While much of the technological superiority is in Western countries, the scale is tilting to include more innovations from developing countries such as China and India. The ease that information flows across the planet now means that new technologies can quickly be disseminated to remote corners of the world, closing the digital divide.

As developing countries level the playing fields by acquiring and producing new technologies, will technological advancement still be seen as a judge of progress? Obviously, wealth and access to resources continue to weigh the scales but perhaps technological advancement will begin to play a less noticeable role in the difference between developed and developing countries.