Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 9. Nr. Februar 2001 Editorial

The Problem of Media Intention Within Cultures

Anca Neamtu (Cluj-Napoca)

Actuality is helping the many ones to form their opinion about the future
(Pross, 1987)

What do you call someone who watches a lot of TV? Rich - says CNBC in an ad. This suggests that today, media facilities have replaced classic culture. Not long ago it was 'in' to read books; today, electronic and digital material is dominant. In his well-known book The Gutenberg Galaxy, Marshall McLuhan stated that every communication technique is shaping the way we perceive and think the world: social relationships therefore appear as products of certain forms of communication which are also determined by techniques of communication. In the process of transmitting ideas and information, influence is evident mainly at the basic level on which the information works: the channels by which the words or images reach the receiver are more important than the words and images themselves (the medium is the message). At the same time, the speedy coverage of the new technologies does not permit anchorage in a communitarian frame any more, so that there is no longer room for autarchy. Thanks to satellite telecommunication systems, information and entertainment produced at one end of the world reaches virtually every home quickly and not too expensively. Our daily existence is dominated by the electronic media, and yet we can hardly understand what radio or television mean to the geopolitical structures of modern life. It is common knowledge that imagery affects loyalties, but it is less widely known that the structure and capacity of communications and the fate of governments are closely connected. Throughout the world, the organisation of broadcasting and television programmes is changing, sometimes greatly. The thousands and millions of images that float through the public mind contribute to determining the very nature of national 'patriotisms' and various attitudes towards places, family and the state and government. Everywhere, historically accepted images of collective identities are shifting. As a result, the structuring and regulation of the media is one of the key issues for every government, whatever its form.

The modern world stands thus under the sign of globalisation, "an intensification of world-wide relationships with faraway places" (A. Giddens, 1990:64). In addition, every correct (political, economical, cultural) decision needs rapid, accurate and complete information. 'Globalisation' was - and still is - the concept, the magic word supposed to relieve the world from its sufferings. But the question keeps arising: why are so many people uncomfortable with the idea of globalisation? Why do they constantly try to undermine the meetings of such 'global' organisations as the WTO, the IMF or the World Bank? In itself, the word globalisation can englobe everything from the free economy through the shifting of a company throughout the world to the international organisations that make the rules of the global economy.

But in the end, is globalisation good or bad? The internet and the global economy were supposed to unify the world; they actually had quite the opposite effect. The result is another form of colonialism, this time in the field of cultural production, far from suiting the slogan: "One world, many voices" (1980 report of the UNESCO commission for the mass-media).

The magazine Business Week provides a useful summary of the pros and cons of globalization. Productivity increases if countries produce those goods and services which they do best and where they have a significant advantage. Consequently, living standards may improve. Global concurrence and cheap imports control the prices, so that inflation can hardly undermine economic growth. Finally, a free economy allows access to new ideas from other countries - and export workplaces are often better paid than others. Set against these are the disadvantages. Millions of people from developed countries have lost their jobs when their companies move to cheaper locations - generally third world countries - other countries, or instead rely on imported goods. Many find new places, but their wages are generally lower. In addition, millions of others (especially those who work in companies under high competitive pressure) fear that they too will lose their jobs. There are five factors that halt the step backwards that may result from globalization: uncertainty (loss of jobs); mistrust (towards international fora such as the IMF or the World Bank); politics (the involvement of such international bodies); priorities (the environment should not be threatened by pure greed) and technophobia (especially towards the gene technology employed in food).

The debate over globalisation is not just about economics. It is also about culture, more specifically about particular, local culture. Increasingly, people fear that they will be set aside in favour of an attractiverly-packaged made-in-Hollywood uniformity. The term 'cultural imperialism' was coined many years ago, and has been defined as "a process of change, where the 'home made' cultural creation is pushed away by standardised and cheap series products originated in rich countries" (O'Sullivan, 1994: 36). The world-wide flow of information is composed of several voices, yet they are not equal but syncopated: some have the means to make themselves more clearly heard, while many don't. The terms "cultural imperialism" or "media imperialism", introduced by radical researchers such as Schiller, Mattelart et al point precisely towards the dominant power of the national and international press organisations. Seen in this way, the cultural identity of developing countries and regions is threatened by information and cheap entertainment products of the big conglomerates. "This process leads to a cultural 'homogenisation' or 'synchronisation', a phenomenon that, seen from its positive side, gives these countries access to the information, the values and products of the developed countries, but that, from its negative side, means that a country or region drops its own cultural values and goods and installs a cheap cosmopolitanism and a cultural singleness" (Flichy, 1991: 234). In the words of Michel de Certeau, the culture becomes the region of a 'Neocolonialism'. Today's technocracy builds itself empires in the same way that European nations did in the nineteenth century, occupying for centuries by the force of arms unarmed continents.

W.A. Hatchen (1998: 27-32) gives the following list of consequences of this 'imperialism':
a) imposing at the level of the entire planet of the mass culture;
b) creation of planetary audiences, especially for events with 'global' impact;
c) acceleration of history (because of the quick and broad distribution of information, the rhythm in which things happen grows);
d) exaggerated interest in some areas to the detriment of others;
e) globalisation of advertising and PR

In 1990, the multinational trust Time-Warner stated in its report: "The entire world is our audience". The term 'globalism' arose out of the necessity to refer to the double direction in which the world was moving (culturally, politically, economically and in other ways) - that is, both towards globalisation and towards local patriotism. The term 'Glocalism', coined by Miege, stands for "communicational practices that take place in a communitarian space of proximity, but which uses communication techniques with a planetary broadband and is based preponderantly upon contents produced by transnational trusts" (B. Miege, 1997: 190).

In 1950 there were 58 nations in the UN. Today there are 185. If that rate of proliferation continues, the UN or whoever its successor may be will have nearly 2,000 members, among which it is not wholly surreal to expect Scotland, Québec, Palestine, Kosovo, Tibet, Kashmir, Kurdistan, Timor or even New York City. Countries are being fractured into new nations by the two global forces that were supposed to pull everyone together: the Internet and the global economy. The Internet, quite often seen as the force for universalism, actually leaves nationalism a lot of space. In addition there are economic forces - the pressure of the rule of money: every country with something to sell can break away from its bigger neighbours and support itself. "All this talk of blood and soil seems irrelevant to globe-trotting multinationalists, whose world revolves around conference tables, laptop computers ... and stock options. These globalists speak the cool, rational language of money. But such people are in the minority. Nationalists, like Yugoslavia's Slobodan Milosevic, speak of ancient loyalties and grievances, and theirs is the language that stirs the blood among people whose allegiances are local and tribal" (Business Week, April 27, 2000).

So is the world only just the size of a village? Through their contact with audiovisual media, individuals receive news items more easily, transform them into cultural concepts about the world, share emotions they can see, and thus is built up a whole net of new interdependencies and solidarities on a global scale - what McLuhan calls 'world tribalism' or 'the global village'. The consumption of culture becomes a personal act - the developing of an individualism, with the simultaneous eradication of the affective solidarity of the tribe. The printed book, through the serial editing of a text and its massive dissemination, permits generalisation of points of view and patterns of thought and at the same time imprints a language, culture and a unitarian national conscience: international electronic communication takes the process to even higher levels.

In spite of the great differences between countries, we can (at least for Europe) outline the main elements of the typical media world, more precisely before the actual tendencies really began in the 80s. First, television and radio were subordinated to the public scope, especially in the sphere of culture and information, again regarding the expectations and interests of minorities and depending on local circumstances). Secondly, the media shared national characteristics because they provided an audience and social institutions within the national borders with their product and were therefore supposed to care for the national language, culture and the national interest. This meant that these institutions were also monopolistic or semi-monopolistic in their forms of control, often being in the hands of a single competent public authority. Thirdly, television and radio were given a political slant in many ways; they were more creations , imposed by law, of the political and cultural system than of the economic one. That was why they were urged to react immediately to the political or social climate. And fourthly, generally the media were not commercial, meaning that they had to be predominantly cultural and political and only incidentally fulfil an economic impulse. In 1986, the Euromedia Research Group established that the fate of national and European TV programmes had come between industrial imperatives and the commercial forces and that it had to undergo severe changes from this position. To this shifting of values came other correlative changes, among which probably the most important was the rising value of the international level of media politics and commercial activities compared to those at the national or local level. Also, a deep gap opened between the supra-national process and the local making of politics - and the second almost always had to give way.

It is in nobody's interest to have uniform cultural production all over the world. In this respect, Europe has a very efficient weapon against the homogenous, uniform American software industry: its diversity. The situation at present is still uncertain and fragmented and shows a massive inconsistency of trends - no wonder in a time of experimenting with new technologies or stop-go situations. In a nutshell, nothing is completed, little can be planned in advance and nothing is certain. This goes both for media intentions and general European developments. Unification of the media is probably one of the last steps in the general unification process, because of the big differences in cultures, politics and markets.

© Anca Neamtu (Cluj-Napoca)

TRANSINST        table of contents: No.9


back to the text "One World, Many Voices" Report of the UNESCO Commission on the 1976 Nairobi conference "The New World Order of Information and Communication", [Paris], UNESCO 1980.

back to the text Business Week magazine, European edition, April 27, 2000.

back to the text Flichy, Patrice: Les industries de l'imaginaire:pour une analyse économique des médias, Grenoble, Presses Universitaires de Grenoble 1991.

back to the text Giddens, Anthony: The Consequences of Modernity, Stanford, Stanford University Press 1990.

back to the text Hatchen, William: The Trouble of Journalism - A Critical Look at What's Right and Wrong with the Press, London, Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc. 1998.

back to the text McLuhan, M.: Galaxia Gutenberg, Ed. Politica, Bucuresti 1975.

back to the text Miege, Bernard: La société conquise par la communication, Grenoble, Presses Universitaires de Grenoble 1997.

back to the text O'Sullivan, Tim et al.: Key Concepts in Communication and Cultural Studies, Routledge, London 1994.

Further Reading:

Balle, F.: Médias et société, Montchrestien, (5. ed.) Paris 1990.

McQuail, D; Siune, K.: New Media Politics: Comparative Perspectives in Western Europe, Sage Publications, London 1986.

Pool, I. de S.: Technologies of Freedom, Belknapp Press, Harvard, Mass. 1984.

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