Colonial powers used electronic media and communication technologies to assert and extend control over spaces as well as attempt to influence the “hearts and minds” of colonized people, colonial settlers, and Europeans in the metropole. Colonized people adapted and repurposed these technologies, often toward anticolonial ends. In the early mid-19th century, the telegraph effectively became the “nervous system of empire,” collapsing distances and enabling colonizers to surveil and dominate colonized people and institutions from the metropole (with varying degrees of success). In the early 20th century, new media forms like wireless radio were used to “educate” and “civilize” colonial subjects, entertain and relieve the anxiety of settlers, and spread propaganda in the colonies and the metropole about the benefits of imperialism. These technologies helped to build both deliberate and accidental, colonial and anticolonial, transnational networks. Some of those networks assisted in anticolonial political mobilizations, particularly in India, where the telegraph was accessible to the public and facilitated nationalist organizing, and Algeria, where radio helped to galvanize support for the revolutionary FLN. Postcolonial media landscapes hold the histories of colonial power asymmetries; we see present-day continuities in the concentration of ownership of media and communication technologies among racial and economic elites, and in the Eurocentrism of dominant regimes of representation.
Globalization as a phenomenon was seen by scholars as a compression of the world, where the world comes together as a global village in thought and in action. Arjun Appadurai, in his theorization of globalization, challenges this view. He argues that globalization is primarily disjunctive, scalar, and contextual. He defines five basic landscapes that are about people and their migration (ethnoscapes), technology (technoscapes), media (mediascapes), ideology (ideoscapes) and finance (finanscapes). Globalization, according to Appadurai, occurs at the points of rupture and disjuncture between these different landscapes. In this context he defines “imagination as a social practice” and situates the work of imagination at the center of all globalization processes. Media flows decidedly play a large role in shaping the imagination, therefore mediascapes are critical to the understanding of globalization in any given context. Similarly, the flows of capital, of people, of ideologies and technology help create new imagined worlds that are fluid and capable of producing a “globally variable synesthesia.” That is, one type of imagined world can trigger similar imaginaries in other parts of the world, yet they possess different shapes and forms. Appadurai’s theorization was later criticized for presenting too optimistic a view of globalization, for ignoring its dark side. So, in his later work Appadurai explores the “dark” side of globalization. In Fear of Small Numbers, he addresses the widespread global violence against minorities and uses Freud’s “anxiety of incompleteness” to explicate the majority group’s predatory behavior. Globalization has deepened this behavior and thought because it intensifies the possibility and related fear of the majority morphing into the minority and vice versa. Collective group identities, therefore, are forever under threat as “volatile morphing” becomes a reality brought about by rapid global migrations across national boundaries. Appadurai’s later work also points in the direction of hope by presenting the idea of grassroots globalization which is happening alongside the pervasive violence. Grassroots globalization is the idea of globalization from below that is done by non-governmental organizations and transnational advocacy networks that work toward redressing lack of access, injustice and inequity. Appadurai also offers scholars a new framework for how to do globalization research which is not fixated on its “internationalization” but is focused on questions and is inclusive of other worldviews and approaches from around the world.
Media technologies are at the heart of media studies in communication and critical cultural studies. They have been studied in too many ways to count and from a wide variety of perspectives. Yet fundamental questions about media technologies—their nature, their scope, their power, and their place within larger social, historical, and cultural processes—are often approached by communication and critical cultural scholars only indirectly. A survey of 20th- and 21st-century approaches to media technologies shows communication and critical cultural scholars working from, for, or against “deterministic” accounts of the relationship between media technologies and social life through “social constructivist” understandings to “networked” accounts where media technologies are seen embedding and embedded within socio-material structures, practices, and processes. Recent work on algorithms, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and platforms, together with their manifestations in the products and services of monopolistic corporations like Facebook and Google, has led to new concerns about the totalizing power of digital media over culture and society.
Sarah J. Jackson
Because of the field’s foundational concerns with both social power and media, communication scholars have long been at the center of scholarly thought at the intersection of social change and technology. Early critical scholarship in communication named media technologies as central in the creation and maintenance of dominant political ideologies and as a balm against dissent among the masses. This work detailed the marginalization of groups who faced restricted access to mass media creation and exclusion from representational discourse and images, alongside the connections of mass media institutions to political and cultural elites. Yet scholars also highlighted the ways collectives use media technologies for resistance inside their communities and as interventions in the public sphere. Following the advent of the World Wide Web in the late 1980s, and the granting of public access to the Internet in 1991, communication scholars faced a medium that seemed to buck the one-way and gatekeeping norms of others. There was much optimism about the democratic potentials of this new technology. With the integration of Internet technology into everyday life, and its central role in shaping politics and culture in the 21st century, scholars face new questions about its role in dissent and collective efforts for social change. The Internet requires us to reconsider definitions of the public sphere and civil society, document the potentials and limitations of access to and creation of resistant and revolutionary media, and observe and predict the rapidly changing infrastructures and corresponding uses of technology—including the temporality of online messaging alongside the increasingly transnational reach of social movement organizing. Optimism remains, but it has been tempered by the realities of the Internet’s limitations as an activist tool and warnings of the Internet-enabled evolution of state suppression and surveillance of social movements. Across the body of critical work on these topics particular characteristics of the Internet, including its rapidly evolving infrastructures and individualized nature, have led scholars to explore new conceptualizations of collective action and power in a digital media landscape.
Political economy approaches examine the power relations that comprise the production, distribution, and exchange of resources. They are distinguished from economics by a deeper concern for history, the social totality, moral philosophy, and praxis. Numerous schools of thought mark the political economy approach including early conservative, communitarian, and Marxian perspectives. Today, neoconservative, institutional, neo-Marxian, feminist, environmental, and social movement based approaches offer a wide variety of political economies. Communication scholars have drawn on political economy approaches to carry out research on media technologies, including broadcasting, telecommunications, and computer communication. In doing so they have developed distinctive geographic perspectives covering North America, Europe, and the less developed world. Political economy approaches are built on specific philosophical assumptions including a range of epistemologies that, on one end of a continuum, accept the reality of both concepts and observations and, at the other, claim that all explanations can be reduced to one essential cause, such as the economy or culture. Political economy approaches also range from perspectives that emphasize social change, social processes, and social relations to those that focus on social structures and institutions. Political economy approaches tend to concentrate on three processes that make up the main starting points for political economy research on media technologies. Commodification is the process of transforming things valued for their use into marketable products that are valued for what they can bring in exchange. This can be seen, for example, in the process of turning a story that friends tell one another into a film or a book to be sold in the marketplace. Spatialization is the process of overcoming the constraints of geographical space with media and technologies. For example, social media surmounts distance by bringing images of world events to every part of the globe and companies use media technologies, now often comprised of cloud computing, big data analytics, the Internet of Things, and telecommunications networks, to build global supply chains. Finally, structuration is the process of creating social relations, mainly those organized around social class, gender, and race. With respect to social class, political economy approaches describe how access to the mass media and new communication technologies is influenced by inequalities in income and wealth, which enable some to afford access and others to be left out. Political economy approaches are evolving in response to challenges from cultural studies approaches. Political economies of media technologies are now placing greater emphasis on international communication, on communication history, on standpoints of resistance, on new media technologies, and on new media activism.