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Politics and the new media

Language matters. Communication is the lifeline of power. And when technologies and communications change, so too do power configurations. That is what the history of the world in the last three thousand years has shown us. John Samuel explains

Modes of technology influence modes of communication. Modes of communication influence modes of perception, thinking and knowledge. Modes of communication, thinking and knowledge influence modes of institutionalisation. Modes of institutionalisation influence modes of economy and power. Modes of economy and power influence modes of political configuration. And the dominant power formation seeks to influence the world through control over technology, language, communication and the knowledge process.

The history of the world is not merely the history of class struggle. It is also a struggle for control through ‘words’-- through language, communication and knowledge. All governments are run by ‘rule’ of ‘law’ and rule of ‘money’. The ‘rational’ -- ideological, social, political -- is always a ‘rational’ of the ordering of words. The ‘grammar’ of power is often maintained through the ‘grammar’ of words, the sword, and trade -- in that order.

Language matters. Communication is the lifeline of power. And when technologies and communications change, so too do power configurations. That is what the history of the world in the last three thousand years has shown us.

We are living in the midst of profound changes in technology, communication, and the knowledge process. Inventions and innovations like the printing press, bible translation, and, later, the development of lexicography and languages have determined the knowledge, political and institutional processes of the last four hundred years. Without printing and the dissemination of knowledge through the printed word and books, the history of communications and knowledge would not have been what it is. The development of ‘grammar’ in many ways is the ordering of power. In that sense, the grammar itself is a sort of ‘standardisation’ technology of language, where language can be interpreted, translated and reproduced in a predictable way. And anyone beyond the ‘standardised’ language becomes an ‘anomaly’, with relatively little power.

It is through language that power structures and empires established their hegemony over thought and knowledge. It is through the ‘purity’ and ‘divinity’ of language that most religions established their power over communications, thinking and interpretations. Hence, Sanskrit, old Hebrew, and Arabic became the languages of ‘divinity’.

Once there is control over language, there is better control over communication, perceptions, interpretations, thinking and actions. The Buddha’s biggest contribution was to challenge and change the ‘purity’ and ‘divinity’ of Sanskrit (a symbol of hegemonic or brahminical culture) into ‘prakrut’. This challenging of the ‘devaa vaani’ of Sanskrit (a culturally superior language with an order, grammar and power) into ‘prakrut’ (the ‘natural’ language that human beings speak) was not only a linguistic revolution but a cultural, religious and political revolution too, because the Buddha sought to influence the mode of communication, thought and actions of human beings as well as of society.

In so many ways, the process of Bible translation unlocked a process of knowledge by making the Bible available in a number of languages and consequently opening the floodgates to interpretations, challenging and changing the institutional monopoly of the Catholic church.

This relative de-monopolisation of knowledge and possibilities of multiple interpretations gave rise to the spread of language, communication and knowledge processes from the 16th century onwards. The printed word provided the incentive for literacy and, consequently, the spread of education. And the spread of education provided the base for the spread of knowledge as well as institutional processes. It is this revolution of and in language, and the consequent possibilities for interpretation that led to a paradigm shift in human thinking, knowledge processes and actions over the last four hundred years. And this had profound consequences.

In many ways, the migration of a significant number of puritan Christians from England to America had its linguistic and knowledge connotations as well.

Everywhere, empires ruled through their control over technology, language, the law, interpretations and institutions. Control over technology and language provided a space to rule by coercion as well as by building consent through a mix of language, knowledge and the institutionalisation of both. The dominance of English is ‘standardised’ through grammar and modes of communication. This dominance of English was established through the institutional network of colonial linguistic, knowledge and political processes.

The age of Internet

We are in a phase in history that is characterised by a paradigm shift in modes of technology, communication and thinking. Like the printing press, the Internet, with its origins in the US defence establishment, has been a profound influence. In the last 15 years, more than one-third of humanity has gained access to the Internet, a figure that is expected to almost double in a few short years. There are over 5.2 billion mobile subscribers and, in the last year alone, people sent more than 3 trillion mobile messages. In just a couple of years, 500 million people joined Facebook.

This shift has influenced not only our communication patterns but our behaviour patterns, sociology and politics of human relationships too. Eventually, culture, institutions and society itself. Just 20 years ago people would write long letters to their dear ones; today, postcards have become ‘archaeological’ artefacts. So too has the typewriter.

Social and cultural consequences of the new communication

New modes of communication provide new spaces for ‘individuation’. Though people are often lonelier in the physical sense, they can communicate beyond the usual time and space constraints. People living in the same house speak less to one another even as they are busy getting in touch with people they don’t really know. Most young people today get their news, views and information off the Internet.

The extent of communication has increased although the quality of intimate human-to-human communication may have decreased. The quantity of information and its consumption has risen while the quality of knowledge process in many ways has dropped. This ‘individuation’ will have a serious influence on family sociology, relationships and political processes in the city.

Politics of new media and social networks

In spite of this ‘individuation’, new forms of ‘imagined communities’ are formed over virtual spaces. For example, a significant number of marriages happen over cyber space. Communities of interests, identity, ideology and language are crested over the Internet. But while the Net has opened up new ways of expression and protest it has also given rise to new forms of conservatism. Anders Beverick (who bombed the government headquarters and killed around 80 people) in Norway is a telling example of this. Various conservative and fundamentalist networks also make use of these spaces in subversive ways. So, while they may open up possibilities for a new politics they are also paradoxically capable of depoliticising a generation.

2011 saw more than 80 protests by young people around the world. Most of these young people, from middle class backgrounds, did not belong to any political party. They all had access to the Internet and were mobilised through social networks. In a way therefore, shifts in communication have changed the way protest happens. Here there is no structured leadership, no cadre organisations. Movements may spontaneously erupt, in a ‘decentred’ yet networked way, often with no single charismatic leader who mobilises supporters. This has challenged and changed modes of modernist organisations as theorised by Marx, Max Weber and others.

The ‘Obama moment’ in the US, in many ways, highlights this paradigm shift. Obama did not come from the ‘structured’ institutional space of the Democratic Party. He is the product of a networked society; his campaign was built in Internet space, and millions of dollars for his campaign were raised through ‘democratised’ fund-raising on the Net. Likewise, during the Haiti earthquake the American Red Cross was able to raise over 8 million dollars within days over Twitter.

Blogs, websites, Facebook and Twitter have changed the media landscape forever. The days of information monopoly by the media are over. In the next 50 years, the printed newspaper may go the way of the typewriter. That monumental font of documented knowledge, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, has stopped printing hard copies. People are able to access thousands of books on their Kindles.

This media and networking revolution will have immense implications for political and social processes. Modes of governance have been impacted. Today ‘e-governance’ is the new mantra, often at the expense of people’s ‘privacy’. Biometric unique identification at airports, in government offices, in banks means every move of the individual is being tracked. The use of credit and debit cards has opened up a whole new dimension where the sociology, politics and behaviour of human beings, as individuals or as groups, may be tracked and interpreted. This may on the one hand lend greater ‘security’ and ‘freedom’ to people, but it also paradoxically turns everyone into an ‘impersonal id’ and robs them of many real human freedoms. And it provides new ways to control people and society, giving rise to new forms of ‘techno-imperialism’ at various levels.

The new modes of technology offer a space for citizens to monitor and challenge government. Wikileaks would have been impossible 20 years ago. Today, in Kenya, citizens monitor schools and hospitals through their mobile phones. The mobile phone has, in fact, become a powerful weapon in the hands of ordinary people by which to expose corruption and monitor governance. We have in effect moved from a representative democracy to a monitory democracy, where citizens have begun to challenge government in countless new ways.

While dominance of the world by a few powers always had a technological corollary, the politics of technology could give rise to a shift in the power configuration of the world. The Mongols seized large territories by innovating ‘horse breeding’ technologies and new forms of warfare. The empires of Portugal and Spain sought control over the world through shipping technologies and harnessing wind energy. The British sought control through the technology of steam and steel; in many ways they were in the business of ‘stealing’ the steel and ‘steam’ (coal) from India and other countries. When steam (or coal-based technology) was overtaken by ‘petro-technology’, it dramatically altered modes of transport, trade, economy, and power. Power shifted to those who controlled the petro-technology (petro-dollar) and networks of trade. The emergence of the US as a superpower, to a large extent, was based on new control over technology in post-Second World War and post-modern times.

It’s conceivable we may have a post-petro-technology, possibly based on solar energy or a mix of tamed electro power. This shift in the source technology of ‘power’ will shift the power of technology as well as the technology of power.

Infochange News & Features, February 2015