Robert W. McChesney, Ellen Meiksin Wood and John Bellamy Foster (Eds.) Capitalism and the Information Age: The Political Economy of the Global Communication Revolution (Kharagpur, Cornerstone Publications and New York, Monthly Review Press: 2001) Rs 150 (pb) and Rs 250 (hb).
As the Introductory Essay in this book points out, ‘Globalisation’ is a process whereby capital, constituted on a transnational basis, extends its reach beyond the manufacture of goods and services, to the flow of (very mobile) capital and in the trade in currencies and financial instruments. The dominant decision makers in this process are a few hundred of the world’s largest private corporations. With the support of their ‘home’ nation states, these corporations exert their influence through the creation of organisations such as the WTO, to create a new structure within the neo-imperialist system in which all the other countries in the world are forced to follow policies in the interests of these corporations. There continue to be, of course, clear and growing rivalries between the dominant nation states and regional political groupings which, apart from anything else, provide clear evidence that a harmonious integrated world market (attractively packaged as the end result of the process of globalisation) is nowhere in sight.
In the public imagination however, globalisation signifies also the increasing commercially driven incursions of the TNC media industries into the space traditionally occupied by the state or privately owned national media. This book is principally geared to examining the forces that have shaped the communication ‘revolution,’ and its impact in the spheres of advertising, television journalism and the internet. Developments in information technology have been, in fact, the facilitators of the novel methods required to manage financial flows across national economies that, as mentioned above, form the essence of globalisation.
Information technology has, as its base, the convergence between the computer, itself dramatically changed by the microchip and the microprocessor, and telecommunications. This convergence was made possible by digitalising (that is, converting into an on-off or 0-1 binary sequence of signals) what were earlier transmitted as analogue or wave forms of information transmission. High-speed computers and sophisticated software now allow information to be converted from ‘hard forms,’ to be subject to data processing and to be transmitted through the telecommunication system. From this point of view, the most revealing of the articles in this book is by Jill Hills, in which she traces the development of the telecommunications industry in the post second world war period. Entitled ‘US Rules. OK? Telecommunications since the 1940s,’ the essay provides an exemplary account of the way in which telecommunications has been transformed in this period. From a national security related state-owned monopoly of both the supply of equipment, and of the operation of the network, it has become a partially privately owned, company based service industry. Changes in technology, in the structure and in the very nature of the regulation of markets and, above all, in the corporate strategies of the telecommunication equipment manufacturers have altered the focus of the telecommunication services providers. From individual households, their attention has moved to large customers, usually other transnational corporations. From the early 1990s, through the institutionalisation of the interests of TNCs in the form of the WTO, these developments have been imposed on the neo colonies of the erstwhile third world.
The other major characteristic of the transformation that the combination of telecommunication, digitalisation of information and computing has brought about is in convergence in the means of mass communication. However, here too, the major manifestation of this convergence lies in the further concentration of capital in the media TNCs, through mergers and acquisitions. These mergers have involved major newspapers, film production companies, book publishers and television networks and channels. The issue is a live one in India as the recurring controversy over TNC based capital entering the media has shown. Articles in the book show how public broadcasting channels, such as they were, have been progressively sidelined through these developments.
One article standing rather alone in the book is by Ellen Meiksin Wood, in which she considers whether there is actually a material basis for what has been termed as the ‘Condition of Post Modernity.’ Underlying the use of this term is the thesis that the expressions of post modernism in the social sciences and the humanities is a new phase of capitalism, exemplified by ‘post Fordist’ systems of the organisation of manufacture. In Meiksin Wood’s view, based on a distinction she very plausibly makes between modernity and capitalism, this treatment of post modernism grants it altogether too much historical permanency.
There are thus serious issues discussed in the essays in this book. Its republication in India at a price that is affordable is to be welcomed. There are a couple of essays that deal with the commonly held assumptions that tools provided by information technology can themselves become a means of democratising the state. These essays, dealing with issues through illustrative instances and events in an easy-to-read journalistic way can be useful introductions to the complex political problems involved in the task of moving towards democracy.
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