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?"
History tells cautionary tales. After the first rudimentary telegraph went into operation 207 years ago in Europe, media analyst Armand Mattelart says, "long-distance communication technology was promoted as a guarantee of the revival of democracy." During the next several decades, a powerful concept took hold -- "the ideology of redemption through networks."
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."
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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 much 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?"