In the melting pot

Wednesday 26 October 2005, by Sashi KUMAR

The information revolution, with the media as its shifting eye of the storm, is constantly redefining and reframing even the objective conditions in which it plays itself out. Coming to terms with this evolving media ecology can at best be tentative and open-ended.

SINCE the early 1990s the spectre of a new revolution has been haunting us. Variously called the Information revolution or the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) revolution, it assumes a paradigmatic shift in production processes and relations, the emergence of a new knowledge-based economy, and a quantum leap from an industrial society into an information society. It is an epochal change anticipated as far back as the 1970s in Alvin Toffler’s metaphor of a Third Wave, in Daniel Bell’s evocation of an emerging white collar workforce replacing blue collar industrial labour, in MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte’s dizzying vision of a digitally determined world. It has sparked a combative post-industrial discourse that came to a head with Francis Fukuyama’s dire predictions of an `end of history’ and a `great disruption’.

In the first flush of this revolution there were tantalising opportunities conjured up for developing economies like India. Here was our historic chance to bridge the North-South divide the Industrial Revolution had left us chafing under. Since the principal and popular instruments of the Information revolution - the electronic media and the computer - came to us close on the heels of their application in the West, we could, suddenly, transcend the technological lag of the industrial epoch and move forward abreast of the developed world. In any case, `endism’ in history and rupture rather than continuity in the political economy (a la Fukuyama) meant that we could all start afresh on a clean slate.

A later variant of the same theme, and in fashion now, is `flatism’: that all the world is a level playing field with easy enough exits and entrances. Thomas Friedman’s history in a hurry `of the globalised world in the 21st century’ seeks to reconfigure the world as flat in this sense. It is a queer mix of anecdotal empiricism and suspended disbelief which seems to make out that the bonding of exclusive IT enclaves in different countries at different stages of development into a global supply chain makes the world one big happy family. It would be a harmless, idiosyncratic proposition if it were not so callously indifferent to the lived lives of the masses of real people outside this virtual flatland.

Stretching the `flatness’ figure of speech to the media of our times takes us into post-modernist territory, especially in terms of the flattening of heights and depths into one surface sweep. Susan Sontag has pointed out that "in the post-Nietzschean tradition there are neither depths nor heights, there are only various kinds of surface, of spectacle". Roland Barthes too, like Nietzsche, rubbishes the idea of `depth’ as a repository of any concealed meaning and Jean Baudrillard’s take on television as a mirror metaphor reinforces the surface-spectacle dimension of the media. Depth has yielded to breadth and we `surf" television channels across a shallow expanse. Seeking our way through the dense clutter of images, we find ourselves stumbling on the prescient aphorisms of Guy-Ernest Debord. In his Society of the Spectacle, written in the late 1960s, Debord observes: "In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Every thing that was directly lived has moved away into a representation."

"The spectacle as the concrete inversion of life," Debord declares in another burst, "is the autonomous movement of the non-living". Or again, "... the specialisation of images of the world is completed in the world of the autonomous image, where the liar has lied to himself". Scholars such as Pierre Bordieu have noted how Debord, whose work has remained relatively obscure, was way ahead of his time and how relevant he is to our understanding of the organic role of contemporary media. Society of the Spectacle has even been called the Capital of the new generation and one Debord enthusiast (A.H.S. Boy) explains the comparison: "In the same manner that Marx wrote Capital to detail the complex and subtle economic machinations of capitalism, Debord set out to describe the intricacies of its modern incarnation, and the means by which it exerts its totalising control over lived reality".

The peculiar manner in which the tension between the represented and the real is abstracted by the represented subsuming or becoming the real is not a new problem. As far back as 1843 we have Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach, in his preface to The Essence of Christianity, pointing out that his era "prefers the image to the thing, the copy to the original, the representation to the reality, appearance to being". In the Indian context, Dushyanta, in Kalidasa’s Abhignanasakuntalam, laments the trick memory plays on him thus:

Like one who doubts the existence / of an elephant who walks in front of him / but feels convinced by seeing footprints, / my mind has taken strange turns.

More recently, Heidegger held that a distinctive attribute of the 20th century was that it saw the world in terms of representation; and post-modern studies are suffused with the idea of a mediated universe that is autonomous and self- fulfilling. Marshall McLuhan was coming to haunt us with a vengeance. The medium was the message; and self-obsessively so.

Post-modernist empathy with the media takes a new turn with the shift from analogue to digital technology. In the new pixellated media environment McLuhan’s soothsaying finds fresh meaning, as when he talks of a dispersed media structure "whose centres are everywhere and margins are nowhere". The constructs and methods of the analogue world are jettisoned as we plunge headlong into this digital realm. In the process, the hierarchisation of text and the logical cause-and-effect sequencing of content give way to a simultaneity and multiplicity of information bytes. In the dominant medium of television this change is manifest in the altered role of the screen as a site where montage and collage combine at the same time. Live and taped talking heads; intervening fast cut visuals and reportages; layers and tiers of discrete information delivered as charts, financial text or animated graphics; insets on the stock or commodities market; news update scrolls; commercial pop-ups and a medley of sound and musical effects ... all vie at once with one another for your attention. That is the look of the new age television screen and it demands fairly developed multitasking and non-linear ingestion capabilities of the viewer.

The digital-driven speed of the media has converted what used to be seen and experienced as a seamless `flow’ across channels into what Todd Gitlin calls a `torrent’. The sheer pace of it is self-defeating because there is less and less time and space even to pay attention to it, let alone assimilate the barrage coming at us without let or pause. Attention spans have dwindled to ridiculous lows and the turnover of media-generated celebrities seems to keep pace with the rapid rate of obsolescence of the technology itself. The future that Andy Warhol spoke of, when everyone will be famous for 15 minutes, may well be here.

Celluloid cinema too seems reconciled to a makeover where the depth, resolution and tone of film negative stock defer to the speed, malleability and, above all, cost saving of digitisation. The distribution and exhibition ends are likely to conflate with the prototyping of digital release, whereby satellite-fed signals of a new film are tapped and simultaneously screened by appointed cinema theatres.

The Information revolution, then, with the media as its shifting eye of the storm, is in the melting pot, constantly redefining and reframing even the objective conditions in which it plays itself out. Coming to terms with this evolving media ecology can at best be tentative and open-ended. As first and second generation beneficiaries (or victims, depending on how you look at it) in the thick of it, we do not have the benefit of distance to assess how it will all turn out. But it does appear that new dynamics are at work in the information sector, which, combined with the impetus to globalisation and the free market, put us on a course whose direction we need to have some sense of.

Two determining features riding tandem in this media situation in a flux are convergence and corporatisation. Convergence, in the MIT’s Media Lab definition of the term, implies a coalescing of what were hitherto three separate segments, namely (a) broadcasting and the movie industry, (b) print and publishing industry and (c) computer industry, into a single electronic delivery screen of the future. As it turned out, this became a model for business consolidation with forward and backward integration. The turn of this century saw a frenetic spate of mergers and takeovers, the first half of 2000 alone recording deals totalling $300 billion. When the dust settled, nine transnational corporations were in control of the global media market - namely, General Electric, AT&T and Liberty Media, Disney, AOL-Time Warner, Sony, Newscorp, Viacom, Vivendi and Bertelsmann. They were, for the most part, also vertically integrated to combine related businesses and convergent technologies. They are a formidable oligopoly with, as media scholar and activist Robert McChesney points out, cross holdings of one another’s shares and interlocking boards of directors and, therefore, not really in competition among themsleves.

In his work with the telling title Rich Media, Poor Democracy, McChesney points to the converse relationship between the prosperity of the media and the prospect of democracy in the United States in a context where the hyper-commercialised content limits the ability of Americans to act as informed citizens. Ben Bagdikian, in his classic study The Media Monopoly, shows how, with the control of the media market by primarily American multinational corporations (MNCs), U.S. sets itself up as a supervening "ministry of information" in the world. International and multilateral institutions such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) which, by law and convention, dealt with the media, have been sidelined and their role appropriated by U.S.-controlled mechanisms such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). While the aggressive role of the WTO in telecommunications and intellectual property rights issues is by now well known, it is instructive to find that the ICANN which assigns names and numbers for Internet and Domain Name Systems (DNS), is registered as a not-for-profit private sector corporation under Californian law, bringing it under the control of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Paradoxically, it was the Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS) technology of the mid-1980s that liberated television from the control of national governments that also abetted the process of the dismantling of communist governments in Europe and paved the way for a unipolar world of American supremacy. The collapse of the Berlin Wall, and much of the erstwhile Eastern bloc, was hastened as much by DBS signals from the sky as by the internal contradictions on the ground. The American teleserial Dallas and its received message in the former German Democratic Republic is a case in point. Beamed across the wall from West Germany, the serial had a wide, if surreptitious, viewership in the East. Unfortunately, with the limiting exposure of a closed society, those who watched the ostentatious lifestyle and lavish consumerism depicted by the soap thought what they saw was what they would get in the West. And even as Marxists saw in the excesses of Dallas a critique of capitalism, for the East German - subsidised or free housing, gas, mass transportation, health care and education notwithstanding - they constituted the good life in the West denied to him in his system. "Dallas is cultural imperialism," French Culture Minister Jack Lang had declared in 1982. The revolution of rising expectations that brought the Berlin Wall down, of course, soured when the bulk of East Germans found themselves refugees in the new, unified Germany.

Successive U.S. administrations in the period since the Second World War have consciously promoted American ascendancy in the information sector as a centre plank of their foreign policy, spending as much as a trillion dollars until the end of 1990 towards this end. As early as 1946, Assistant Secretary of State William Benton made it clear that "the State Department plans to do everything within its power along political or diplomatic lines to break down the artificial barriers to the expansion of private American news agencies, magazines, motion pictures and other media of communications throughout the world... Freedom of the press - and freedom of exchange of information generally - is an integral part of our foreign policy". That this was a specious concern for the free flow of information, an American-centric version of it, became obvious when the Reagan administration quarrelled with UNESCO for its espousal of the New World Information and Communications Order (NWICO) and quit the organisation, followed dutifully by the United Kingdom. The U.S. even elbowed its ally, the U.K., out of the race by setting up the communications satellite undertaking, COMSAT, which effectively neutralised the British command of undersea cable.

Behind the rhetoric of freedom of information was the ambition to preside over an information superstructure which would place the U.S. in a position, as Nye and Owens noted, "better than any other country to multiply the potency of its hard and soft power resources through information" (Joseph S. Nye was former Assistant Secretary for Defence for International Affairs and William A. Owens, former Vice-Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff). By the same token, behind the corporate control of the media in the U.S. is the proactive presence of the U.S. administration. Contrary to the popular perception, the multinational media corporations have not flowered out of the free market, but are products of state-led growth. The nexus between the state and the firm, which in any other market would be decried as protectionism or interventionism, becomes in the U.S. a compact as much of liberty as of profit. The media that result cannot but carry this qualification. Noam Chomsky and Edward Hermann in their incisive work Manufacturing Consent, describe how the mainstream U.S. media constitute a `propaganda model’ defined through a series of five filters: (1) size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth and profit orientation of the dominant mass media firms; (2) advertising as the primary source of income; (3) the dependence of the media on information provided by the government, business and `experts’ funded by these primary sources and agents of power; (4) `flak’ as a means of disciplining the media; and (5) anti-communism as a national religion and control mechanism. Irrepressibly buoyant and bold on all domestic issues, the American media tend to freeze consensually when it comes to U.S. foreign policy or the American way of life, irrespective of whether the rest of the world wants or needs it.

THE Indian media have, happily, acquitted themselves better on this score. Virtually nothing is taboo to the press, a good section of it is not squeamish even on sensitive issues like Jammu and Kashmir, and even excesses by it are excused as a small price to pay in the cause of democracy. The few overt attempts by the state to control the press, most notoriously during the period of the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi, have ended as misadventures and actually made it stronger and more resilient. But over the last few years one cannot help feeling that the market is running away with the media. Apart from the pressures of globalisation and liberalisation, the advent of the independent cable and satellite regime may have played a significant role in driving the media into the arms of the market.

Cable and Satellite (C&S) television, enabled by DBS technology, came to India almost by default. The first Gulf War of 1991, fought as much on camera as for the camera, was offered to the world as DBS signals up there, ripe and ready to be picked. A number of low-budget entrepreneurs set up receiver dishes and conveyed the Cable News Network (CNN) images of the war to subscribing households along cables strung across high-rise buildings in cities and towns. The cable revolution had begun, just like that. Each of these cable operators mushrooming across the country catered typically to not more than a hundred homes. By the time the government began to sit up and take note, it was already a changed scenario.

With the proliferation and rapid spread of cable networks, it was only a question of time before alternative channels, programming initially in Hindi and South Indian languages, made their appearance. Since they could not uplink to their satellites from Indian territory, they used uplink stations abroad, from as far away as Russia, to facilities closer in the region in the Hong Kong, the Philippines and Singapore. From those ad hoc beginnings C&S has today grown into a mammoth industry. The anonymous cablewallahs who first showed the way have, for the most part, been taken over by bigger players. Many of them find themselves handling the last mile operations for the big cable companies. As the competition for eyeballs among the satellite channels began hotting up and as television began to stake a claim for a larger share of the advertisement spend, the print media went into a spin trying to reinvent themselves. In the ensuing race to the bottom between tabloidised print and dumbed-down television, the net loser is the reader and the viewer.

Although between the two, television must appear more irredeemable, it is in fact print that seems to be in a tailspin from which there is no escape in sight. With price wars having reduced cover prices of most newspapers to token amounts, the reliance on advertisement revenues is fostering a dependency syndrome, which may be difficult to shake loose. Also, in a situation where the reader as subscriber is not the main or even a substantial source of revenues, his right to be informed as a citizen vies with his role as a consumer in the market for the paper’s attention. That the advertiser is more interested in the reader as consumer than as empowered citizen does not make things easy.

This fatal attraction of the market and consequent alienation from civil society has serious implications for the future of the media themselves. Although in India the freedom of and for the media is not specifically stipulated in the Constitution (unlike the U.S. where the First Amendment forbids Congress from making any law that abrogates the freedom of the press), it is a derivative right by Article 19 in the Fundamental Rights chapter guaranteeing freedom of expression. Courts have repeatedly reaffirmed this right and civil society has stood shoulder to shoulder with the media whenever they were under threat, whether from the executive, the legislature or the judiciary. Should the media place itself purely at the mercy or bidding of the market, it would forfeit its right to the moral and statutory high ground it has enjoyed all along as a fourth pillar of democracy. It, therefore, devolves upon the media to reconnect with the public as more than consumers, just as it is a challenge for the people to reclaim the media for themselves.

In television, technological renewal makes the essential difference. After two decades of DBS technology we are already into DTH, or Direct to Home, transmission in India and may soon be turning another corner into broadband distribution through the optic fibre grids (of Reliance or BSNL) that crisscross the country, or video streaming on the Internet once the bandwidths open up. Subscription revenues in the DBS regime accrue to the distributor as cable operator rather than to the programmer as the television channel. Subscription management in this system has been a blindman’s buff with rampant under-declaration of customer lists by cable operators and payment irregularities and losses through the network chain. DTH could change all that and establish a more direct relationship between what the viewer pays and what he gets. With both technology and the advertiser sorting the vast amorphous viewership into tiered and profiled purchasing power segments, a fragmentation takes place which may actually work against dumbing down or least common denominator programming, with fare that seeks to meet the different levels of expectation, and sophistication, of different target groups.

In the process, however, television becomes less and less a mass medium or broadcaster and more and more a narrowcaster. It is a model of the medium that runs counter to its normative `national’ role of an integrating social agent. Already we have less and less of each other in our regional language C&S channels. Television is no longer a site for multicultural expression as it was in the heyday of Doordarshan, when, for example, it was possible to get to see films in different Indian languages, subtitled for a cosmopolitan viewership, on the same national channel. On the other hand, the structural devolution has debunked the Delhi-centric paternalistic model and set in motion a regional idiom of the electronic medium, which is an enterprising mix of the local and the global. In this new axis the nation state is no longer the primary framework of reference. The global village has come full circle.

Sashi Kumar is Chairman of the Media Development Foundation, Chennai. For comments or feedback on this piece, email

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