The Digital Promise Of A Global Village


Norman Solomon


Many Americans
have seen the digital dream of global communications vividly expressed on TV
commercials for Cisco Systems. Eager to promote its theme of “empowering the
Internet generation,” the giant high-tech firm paid for a lot of lovely ads
with adorable children from different countries asking: “Are you ready?”

By now, we
understand that our response is supposed to be—must be—affirmative. But our
best answer may be a question: “Ready for what?”

In his book
Networking the World, 1794-2000
, Mattelart points to assumptions that have
spanned continents and centuries. “Each technological generation provided a
new opportunity to propagate the grand narratives of general concord and
social reconciliation under the aegis of Western civilization.” Whether the
instruments of unprecedented change were railroads, undersea cables or
electric patents, promoters spoke of wondrous horizons. But the gaps were huge
between “promises for a better world due to technology” and “the reality of
struggles for control of communication devices.” Elites routinely won those
struggles.

In our own
time, technology has often appeared to offer the means for global solutions.
“At the end of the 1970s, the nation-state was being attacked on two fronts:
it was accused of being too large to solve small problems of human existence
and too small to solve big ones…. As a way out of this dual impasse,
information and communication networks had become the panacea.”

But hucksterism
kept tightening its grip: “Advertising, which initially seemed little more
than a modernized sales technique, gradually became the vector of the
commercialization of the entire mode of communication and, as such, a key
feature of the public sphere,” Mattelart writes. These days, it’s a facile
corporate feat to conflate democratic decision-making with global shopping.
“The advertising industry strives to construct vast transnational communities
of consumers who all share the same ‘socio-styles,’ forms of consumption, and
cultural practices.”

Today, we hear
the latest versions of what Mattelart calls “messianic discourses about the
democratic virtues of technology.” Serving as smoke screens for inordinate
privilege and consolidated power, such rhetorical exercises commonly tout
“globalization”— corporate globalization—as an obvious common-sense way of
stimulating prosperity and encouraging democracy. “The idea has taken root in
free trade rhetoric that the spread of products of the entertainment industry
automatically leads to civil and political freedom, as if the status of the
consumer were equivalent to that of the citizen.”

Mattelart notes
“the rapidity with which Asian and Latin American countries have adapted to
digital technology and the advantage they have taken of it.” But there’s a
grim flip side. “We cannot deny, however, that these new sources of modernity
coexist—as the second side of the coin—with a galloping process of
impoverishment and exclusion of large sections of the population.”

Translated from
French and published in the United States last year, Mattelart’s book
challenges the prevalent, cloying hype about Internet globalism. The Paris-
based scholar is on target: “Only a mediacentric view of society can delude
people into believing that a planetary perspective can be reduced to being
exposed to foreign brands and trans-boundary information, programs and
servers. Connection with the world is also, and above all, a matter of
experience.”

But authentic
experience is far from the synthetic variety supplied by most global media,
flowing through certain ruts that we’re encouraged to mistake for life itself.
“Systems for structuring meaning through digitization of knowledge underlie a
specific geocultural model,” Mattelart observes. “The risk is that it may
impose as a criterion of universality a particular mode of thinking and
feeling…” At the same time, in effect, new mediaspeak often equates the
universal with the marketable.

Yet
communication from the grassroots, connecting people internationally as they
strive for free expression and social justice, remains a sought-after goal.
Some excellent work is moving in that direction. For instance, an innovative
website that recently marked its first anniversary—www. MediaChannel.org—is a
steady fount of news, reports, resources and opinion, “featuring content from
over 600 media-issues groups worldwide.” Founded a few months earlier, the
globally oriented Independent Media Center (www.indymedia.org) is a
wide-ranging entryway to progressive media activism on several continents.

Such creative
endeavors are in stark contrast to the products of multimedia conglomerates.
It’s shrewd to spew out humanistic platitudes while pursuing rapacious quests
for global market share. “Soon, all our ideas will be free of borders,” a
Cisco Systems commercial declares. “Are you ready?”
                             Z


 


Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is
The
Habits of Highly Deceptive Media.