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. 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. 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. 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.