Sunday, September 11, 2011

Technology and Patterns

History is a circular novel. An old teacher of mine used to work that phrase into all of her lessons. Most of us are probably familiar with the similar saying, “History repeats itself.” This idea is evident in the evolution of international communication. Elizabeth Hanson, Daya Thussu, and Armand Mattelart describe the major technological advances in communication since the invention of the printing press. Their writing reveals a major theme, which was also brought up in Thursday’s class, about human reaction to technology.

Each discovery appears a revolution. It inspires feelings of new and endless possibilities that will forever change the nature of communication. At times these feelings excite the public and worry the state or current power. The printing press gave people access to information that wasn’t through the Catholic Church. Fears of international conspiracy affected French postal directors under Louis XIII. The result was a breach of postal secrecy, manifested in a bureau called the Black Cabinet.[1] Regulation has become an important point of discussion. The first international organization was formed to regulate the telegraph with the International Telegraph Union. But communication would only become faster and more convenient after the telegraph.  

With time, while technologies didn’t always replace each other (video did not actually kill the radio star), their roles changed. Prof. Craig Hayden made the point that technology stands in for other things based on our expectations of its capabilities. What can this new tool do? The radio became a strategic tool of public diplomacy.[2] Broadcasts could carry the American perspective to other parts of the world. Thussu included a fascinating case study of the Indian government’s attempt to educate rural communities through satellite television.[3] Programming included lessons on health and agriculture. The initiative was largely unsuccessful. Viewers absorbed beneficial information but lacked methods of implementation. Here government saw technology as an opportunity to disseminate information.  

The readings also question that instinct. They ask who should control the flow of information. With television, Britain and the United States took opposite approaches. The BBC model reflects the belief that government should contribute to culture and education. Therefore programming should be government-sanctioned. The U.S., however, saw broadcasting as a form of entertainment to be controlled largely by the private sector. 

Society faces some of the same questions, with a few new additions, when looking at the Internet. The issue of expectation is an ever-present factor. Users expect the Internet to be certain things including free and anonymous. This may have made sense when its functions were only basic file sharing and email. Now the myriad of possibilities make Internet regulation a much more sensible proposition. The Internet is incredibly different than the first printing press. But the attempts to harness and control its capabilities are just the most recent development in the technological pattern.

[1] Mattelart, Armand. “The Emergence of Technical Networks.”
[2] Hanson, Elizabeth. “The Origins of the Information Revolution. “
[3] Thussu, Daya. “The Historical Context of International Communication.”


  1. Greetings Gabby,

    I'm so glad you brought up the example from Daya Thussu regarding the Indian government and their efforts to disseminate information via satellite television. You mention broadcasting the American perspective throughout the world, which is a central point of my own blog entry. Do you think organizations such as the VOA and Al Hurra that promote Western-slanted news worldwide should be quieted, promoted at the same level as other news outlets or propagated even more? I'm interested to know!

  2. Hey Corey,

    Thanks for commenting! I definitely don't think organizations that present Western-slanted news should be quieted. If anything they should have the same amount of accessibility as other organizations. I look at it like the "right to respond in journalism." A reporter quoting a politician who accuses his opponent of flip-flopping needs to give equal space in the story for the opponent to respond.

    Perspectives from foreign media are essential to fostering global understanding. VOA might have an interesting take on a certain story. Every consumer of information has the right to choose what to believe. I think quieting news outlets that may have a bias is a form of censorship. The United States should be able to broadcast its views wherever it wants, and other countries should have the right to do so here.