Communications as Ideology

Samir Amin

The sphere of communica-tions is one of the most important and favored subjects in contemporary social study. The viewpoints and analytic methods applied to the problems of this particular field also represent some of the most illustrative examples of the contemporary state of mind—its legitimate concerns, its silences, and its excesses.

Communication is certainly no new reality; on the contrary, it has constituted a permanent element of social life since the most distant origins of the human species. Indeed, to speak of the human race is to speak of the relations among human beings, all mediated through the acquisition and transmission (or retention) of knowledge and information by means of the rule-governed invention and use of tools for the storage and transmission of that knowledge and information. Language is the oldest and foremost among them—all forms of knowledge are conveyed in some language, and that makes all languages "vernacular" (to apply that adjective to only some languages is to indulge in ridiculous redundancy). Writing and its supporting media—mainly printing, for the last few centuries—is still the main means for the storage of knowledge and for communication. Nevertheless, it is essential to recognize that modernity, through the prodigious and accelerated development of productive forces characteristic of it, and through the mercantile-capitalist form of its underlying social relations, has so compacted the relationships among actors in economic, social, cultural, and political life that new technological supporting media have had to be invented to meet the requirements of social reproduction. Radio, telephone, photography, cinema, television, fax, computer, and the networking of systems—all are responses to these needs. As is obvious, every progressive step in this field requires resort to ever more weighty organizational and material—and hence financial—resources. Of ever increasing importance are questions relating to the cost of constructing these instruments, to the organization of access to them, and thus to their control. Accordingly, the "production" of information—its collection, selection, —and transmission—has become a major claim on the whole social structure.

In this perspective, it seems that a major quantitative leap marks the cost of the communications media by which the future will be driven. "Information superhighways" are the material communications networks that must be put in place to interconnect and interact with a vast array of information, to be transmitted, stored, and used. In the current state of scientific knowledge and its Technological application such "superhighways" can be built in two fashions: using broadcast satellites or fiber-optic networks. The costs, advantages, and inconveniences of each method have already been fairly well listed and calculated. It also appears that the United States has more or less chosen to give priority to the former of these methods but has been very laggard in its application, the Clinton-Gore plan in this regard having ended in near failure (Congress having refused to fund it). France, on the other hand, profiting from its earlier experiment (the Minitel network) has chosen the second solution and already possesses an extraordinary fiber-optic network of 18,600 miles set up in part by the public sector (France-Telecom, the French National Railways) and in part by the private sector (the Lyons Water Company).

Each of these technological solutions requires enormously costly investments, beyond the reach of all but rich governments and the largest multinational corporations. But much the same was already the case, mutatis mutandis, at the turn of the century when radio and telephone communications networks had to be put in place, and again more recently with networks to provide television coverage.

The batlle to control these instrumentalities unrolls in two dimensions, one largely national, the other global.

At the level of nations (or sometimes groups of closely linked states, as is hoped for the European Union) this is the choice : assuming that the production and storage of information is roughly free (that is to say, uncensored except by their required costs, and notably their capital cost), should its transmission be undertaken by a public service (like the post office), by private. businesses, or by some combination, still to be worked out of the two sectors? Should this transmission be as free as possible, or should it be subject to criteria (of an ethical, political, or other nature) that are still to be worked out? The weight of the current mental outlook, of course, is rather favorable to free market solutions. Information would thus be treated as a commodity and its transmission would be commercial service, governed by the laws of the market. The market, then, would determine who can have access to it based on ability to pay the market price for the commodity and for the service. Choosing consumers by their wallets will determine what items of knowledge and information are worth gathering (those which are salable) and which are not. Public service criteria, on the other hand, might modify the make-up of the mass of consumers, distribute the cost burden differently, and work according to standards that would assure more equality (or less inequality) of access and more democratic (more objective, more pluralist, etc.) conditions of use.

The stakes are so great that great multinational corporations look to them as the major source of their future financial profitability. Already, economic activities classified under the headings of digital technology, telecommunications, and audiovisual media account for eight to ten percent of the world's gross industrial production, more than the automobile industry. This proportion will increase, and quickly, since three out of five wage earners in the world already make use of digital technology. However, until now the field of communication remains broadly (though there are big differences among countries) subject to legal regulation and is administered as a public service. The offensive of private capital, summoning up for this purpose its preferred and well-known themes (like the efficiency of private enterprise) is simply aiming at deregulation, which would allow it to get its hands on the juicy profits in prospect.

On the global scale, the question is whether national boundaries need to be wiped out to permit private, and on occasion public, capitalist firms to extend their operations over the whole world, or whether states are to insist on senior partnership in this domain. The solution advocated by the predominant political and ideological tendencies, globalized deregulation, would surely have devastating consequences for most of the world's countries (indeed, for the whole world beyond the United States, Canada, the European Union, and Japan). For outside those metropolitan countries and the private capitalist groups based in them, there is not a single national state capable of competing on a level playing field with the US, European, and Japanese multinationals. Yet the market on which they focus their concerns comprises scarcely more than that twenty percent of the world's population (a majority in the metropolitan centers, a minority in rapidly growing peripheral countries, a mere handful in the marginalized remainder), accounting for eighty percent of the world's consumer purchases.

But worse is yet to come. Even assuming that, in metropolitan centers and peripheral countries alike, the public service option comes to prevail in the organization of the market (in such case pseudo-market) for information and its transmission that would represent no guarantee of any correction to global imbalances. In peripheral countries, the public services which, there also, would be assigned the task of administering communications media would still be deprived of resources. The private, and even the public service, corporations of the metropolitan centers would act together to batten these fragile peripheral fields and draw juicy profits from them. In this respect, as in others, there is no way to effectively combat the natural tendency of globalized capitalism to produce, replicate, and deepen polarization except by the organization of interdependence under negotiated rules. This would involve systematic and concerted action in all spheres, and in particular the organization of capital transfers, destined to the construction of necessary infrastructure, from metropolitan to peripheral countries.

Technological progress and the invention of new technologies are certainly still desirable in themselves, but the distinction between instruments and the uses to which they are put remains an essential one. The naive beliefs of Marshall McLuhan notwithstanding, history does not unfold in a manner directly governed by technological progress. History, rather, is a matter of struggle for control over the way in which these technologies are to be used, and this, at bottom, is an aspect of struggles.

Through its silence on conflicts of interest—justified by the inane presumption (often explicit in professedly postmodern writings) that a pacified, conflictless, consensus-based social order is just around the corner—communications—Utopian discourse serves to disarm peoples and nations, forcing them to accept deregulation for the benefit of the multinationals. This is often done on the ground that "there is no alternative" (a slogan used to rationalize just about anything, and especially submission to the supposed constraints of the market).

Communications utopianism is not a new ideology. It has been a constant feature of the social thought prevalent for the whole postwar period, even though the rapidly succeeding waves of fashion that mark the contemporary world put it on stage only occasionally. It is not to be forgotten that in the 1940s and 1950s cybernetics nourished the discourse (and the illusions) then prevalent. The American school of cybernetics (Wiener & Co.) thought that it had discovered, in the apparatus of mathematics, a common denominator governing all natural and social laws (yet another case of this mix up). This supposed discovery of laws ordering the relationships among all elements of the cosmos ("communications") would obviously allow the overstepping of conflict-based ideologies, would allow creation of a perfectly adapted new man freed from any need to rebel and with no inner life, manipulable. An old formulation of the contemporary discourse. Forgotten in as brief a time as that during which it was headlined by the dominant media, cybernetics gave way in the 1960s and 1970s to the supposed digital revolution, which, in its turn, was supposed to undergird democracy by simply generalizing the use of computers, thus allowing each citizen-consumer to make all choices (from shopping at the supermarket to voting in elections) as intelligently as possible! Isn't it the case that, in at least one of its aspects, contemporary discourse on information highways is nothing more than a reversion to those simple-minded utterances?

There certainly is nothing unreal about the instruments of digital technology or about the amplification, through interconnected networks, of the intensity with which they are utilized. But once again, these powerful instruments, by themselves, cannot give rise to any specific sort, whether paradisiacal or nightmarish, of social order. They are objects of a struggle that will tell how they will fit into alternative, but equally possible, visions of the future.

[Excerpted from 'Spectres of Capitalism' (A Critique of Current Intellectual Fashions) by Samir Amin. Published by Aakar Books, 28E Pocket IV,  Mayur Vihar Phase II, Delhi 110091, Price Rs 295]

Vol. 49, No.42, April 23 - 29, 2017