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.

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