Note: this was a final exam essay that I took in university. To give some context, today, this course is called “The Political Economy of Communication.” Communication affects a lot more than we think. Hopefully this essay below will show that in part.
A number of readings suggested that our media and communication systems must be rethought for the purposes of public participation, ecological sustainability and dignity of workers in these and related industries. Outline how the underlying problems prompting these discussions might be understood from the standpoint of the communication industries’ organization. Explain some of the alternative communication systems proposed, indicating your position on the potential for such changes to be effective.
Since capitalism has taken a stronghold on the world, America taking the lead, our once separated societies have become more unified and have come to accept a common ideology. The common ideology is the belief that the power of the market–and with that the production and consumption of goods–is what will satisfy an eternity of human wants and needs. Our communication systems contribute immensely to the propagation of this belief, which in turn allows it to survive. However, we must question not only the efficiency of this system but also its impacts. For this reason, this essay will argue that thus far, environmental health, working conditions and citizen participation in media to advance their democratic freedoms have only been threatened and/or hindered since capitalism has risen and virtually allotted power to a few like-minded individuals whose concern is that the masses remain hypnotized by the above-mentioned ideology. This essay will also argue that with a reorganization of current communication systems, the masses will be able to break through the enchanting spell of capitalist power-holders and claim true liberty for themselves.
It is often undisclosed that communication can affect the environment, either positively or negatively. In drawing on this conclusion, Robert Babe uses Harold Innis and his theory of time and space biases. Babe’s argument is that space bias “is much less conducive to ecological balance and sustainability than is time bias” (Babe, 2004). In short, time bias includes modes of communication that last longer than space biased media. For example, writing on cave walls indicated a permanency of dwelling and also a heritage of wisdom and decentralized community organization to be passed on from generation to generation. Space biased media, like paper, indicated the ability to spread ideas, and thus monopoly power, over large areas, but not necessarily over time. In fact, space biased media can be seen in Western society’s “one-day world” (Wyndam Lewis qtd. in Babe, 2004). The most obvious example of this are the thousands of trees that are cut down daily to produce an issue of a newspaper that lasts only one day, and sometimes not even an entire 24 hours (Babe, 2004).
But time and space biased media have more implications than just the power systems that come along with it. We need to realize the impacts of these media on the environment. To the communication industries and the politicians and corporations that influence them, land is something that comes with a price tag. Since what we extract from the earth is necessary for production, sacrificing the market–with its profit-driven motive–for the sake of protecting the environment, is something that cannot be conceived by most influential leaders of our time (Babe, 2004). Babe strongly proves this by pointing out U.S. President George Bush’s response to the Kyoto treaty, calling it, plain and simple, “economically irresponsible” (George Bush qtd. in Babe, 2004).
On top of this, there is what Babe calls, “delusion”–the idea that we’re doing okay when we really are not (Babe, 2004). This deception is made possible by the very space biased media that threaten the earth’s longevity because those media stand between mankind and nature, making illusions of well-being seem real, when they are likely a thing of the past. An example that Babe points out is the ability to digitally recreate things in our informational world that no longer exist; “[digital media] help foster a mindset that information is immaterial, and that information matters more than matter” (Babe, 2004). Thus, digital media only help the scourging of earth’s resources (Babe, 2004). It is clear from these arguments that Babe proposes we begin to turn our attention away from space-biased media toward time-biased media if we are to survive on this planet.
Following this argument, we turn our attention to the people who work for the industries that create the pollution mentioned above. Not only does mankind face external threats, but exploitation in the workplace is causing internal bodily threats to the health of minority, mainly Third World populations. Capitalists claimed that sending their production overseas (from their home base in the U.S. or some other powerful, First World nation) would solve all of humanity’s ills. It would clear the world of poverty by employing the poor and would spearhead Third World countries into the fantasyland of the First World by sending not only those much-desired jobs, but also much-needed technological information. So far, to speak at least for working class peoples (that constitute the majority worldwide) these have been promises of vapour (Pellow, 2002). Sure, to a degree they have benefited a handful percentage, but in the larger–and more real–context, this has evolved into what Pellow describes as “First World imperialism” (2002).
Because of the interconnectedness that globalization has created, mega corporations that exploit workers by having them deal with poisonous materials in one country also do it in others, even the First World. Problems among workers are common worldwide, but not many are aware that when their bosses tell them workers in other factories are satisfied with what they themselves are discontented with, they are hearing lies. Discontents include low job security; severe sickness from exposure to chemicals that can cause cancer and miscarriages, among other troubles, including the expense of health treatment; “torture, rape, ethnic/racial conflict…severe stress, and hopelessness” (Pellow, 2002). Here, the owners of global corporations have a hold on information by also restricting access to knowledge about the effects of the pollution on workers. The excuse is that the information is pertinent for competitive success and that, in cases where victims have been affected and subsequently examined, leaking documentation would be giving away private, personal information on behalf of employees–a serious irresponsibility (Pellow, 2002). On top of all of this, whenever workers try to voice their concerns to management by aligning to create unions or file complaints about working conditions, owners simply hush them up by threats to dismiss or move the factory elsewhere. Thus, workers are quieted and are led to believe that the conditions are normal, only a stepping stone away to the promised good land that a global economy will bring them (Pellow, 2002). This is an utter form of hegemony.
Pellow’s solution is that activists align themselves globally to counter a global problem. According to Pellow, “progressive changes in high tech have been realized only when social movements, workers, and communities are organized and demand them” (2002). Since worker’s concerns cross borders, the efforts to control corporations and regulate industry must also cross borders, so that what applies in one nation will also apply for another. In Pellow’s opinion, an ill-free, safe and protected workforce will do better for the economy than what is currently being realized. But it takes action to see the dream happen (Pellow, 2002).
Fully in agreement with Pellow is Frédéric Dubois, who brings us to our third obstacle: overcoming the lack of public participation in media. Dubois writes of the need for networking among independent media, yet his argument applies much to Pellow’s need for global action against power abusers and also offers a practical suggestion to the solution. According to Dubois, without a network, independent media (and this can be applied to discontent individuals or groups) will never be strong enough to stand against the seemingly ever-powerful global corporations. “Small fish need solidarity to fool the sharks,” claims Dubois, and some have already begun learning this lesson (Dubois, 2005). Pointing to networks such as the Independent Media Centre (IMC, a.k.a. Indymedia) and The Québec Alternative Media Network (RMA), Dubois brings to life the realization that coordinated efforts do in fact cause change. In 1999, Indymedia created worldwide disruption when it united protesters from all types of specialties and locations. It managed to be so effective by providing technological tools, mainly an Internet site and sophisticated e-mail system, to the public. So for this cause, Dubois emphasizes the importance of technology and the ability of members to be skilled enough to use it (Dubois, 2005).
Networks, opposing the mainstream ideologies of space biased media and the veiled inequality and destruction it brings with it, must be democratic in the truest sense of the term. Everyone should have the opportunity to voice their opinion and describe what colour(s) they see the world in. This mutual conveyance of ideas is what will inspire, support and allow action. Eventually, through networks networking, it can create a “counter-power” to mainstream media that are inline with the corporations that prefer to perform massive cover-up jobs on their faults at the expense of lesser-privileged classes. “The fact that alternative media producers had something in common, helped them get to know one another, learn about their respective difficulties, and to overcome them through cooperation” (Dubois, 2005).
To conclude, we have seen that though dominant power structures seem to be in an immovable position, we cannot underestimate the power of a stack of paper against a single sheet. While realizing that time biased media are a healthier alternative to the planet, and that workers must struggle to overcome workplace hazards and inhumane treatment, alternative media, in connection with other like-minded and similar-goaled organizations, can provide the practical means necessary for carrying out the ideals. Media, though currently being used negatively to promote the capitalist, market-driven ideology, can also be used by the concerned for a better purpose, reaching their own ‘mass markets’ and ‘selling’ their own ideas of how the world should run. While Third World citizens may not have the technological resources to start the game, those in the First World, facing the same realities, should take the lead to get connected, and form a united front against the global corporate monster.
Babe, R. (2004). Innis, Environment, and New Media. In Seeking Convergence in Policy and Practice (pp. 383-412). Ottawa, Ontario: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
Dubois, F. (2005). Networkers Unite! In Autonomous Media (pp. 135-149). Montréal, Québec: Cumulus Press.
Pellow, D. (2002). The Silicon Valley of Dreams (pp. 169-192). New York, NY: New York University Pres