The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, October 7, 2001

Lurking dangers of information superway
Review by G.V. Gupta

Capitalism and the Information Age — The Political Economy of the Global Communication Revolution
Edited by Robert W. McChesney and others. Cornerstone Publications, India. Pages 250. Rs 150.

THIS is a collection of 14 articles examining the advances made in information technology during the past 20 years or so from the classic Marxist angle of class relations in a capitalist society. It is argued that in the field of communication studies, examination of its political economy is the most neglected area. Stunning developments in technology have globalised the communication systems facilitating the movements of capital, goods and services.

The global reach of ideas and advertising has made the monopoly control of media vital, and national governments have to play a decisive role in facilitating the monopoly or, conversely, in defending their economies against this onslaught. This requires the evaluation of the changing nature of both communication and capitalism and the nature of their relationship.

Specifically the questions are: how, exactly do global commercial media and the communication system work? What is the calibre of journalism and entertainment?


What are its relationship to capitalism and its implications for social class and national relations? What is the capacity for the emerging communication systems to provide the basis for democratic polity? What can and should be done to promote a more democratic media and communication system, and a more just society?

The global communication system has become an arena of oligopolistic tendencies because of the huge investments required. It is getting further accentuated with the spread of Internet information highway and the shift from analog to digital technology. Technology requires equipment supply capacity, expert manpower availability, advantageous presence in the market and a decisive say in the international money market. All this has put the USA in the driver’s seat.

The USA has also been able to bring trade in equipment, intellectual property in technology of information hardware and software, access to market and related issues within the purview of the WTO, thereby severely limiting the capacity of national governments to influence the course of events.This has given these corporations power to determine the content of information to be channeled.

Instances are already available where information about the success of genuine people’s movements has been denied to the larger public. This significantly limits the public domain. Information control to propagate particular films, newspapers, journals and magazines can colour research and can create a more acceptable breed of researchers, authors, journalists and artists. It is already playing a decisive role in the creation of a particular global consumerist society. The role of dissent and variety is in danger.

The information system is being so designed that to access information one has necessarily to go through advertisements. A particular service provider approached the schools in poor areas with the offer of free installation of equipment and supply of teaching material on Internet as also in the form of packaged programmes provided every student was forced to watch it. Every ten-minute educational capsule was preceded by two minutes of advertisement and the schools, now short of funds because of market orientation of education, were left with no choice.

Essayists recognise the counter, post-modernist, argument of the possibility of the use of Internet for creating a large number of independent sites and their no-cost circulation but rate the possibility of their widespread use as limited, particularly by poorer societies because of very limited access to high-cost equipment. Fast obsolescene is making the access to equipment more costly. The essayists, therefore, emphasise the need for the creation of class-action plans, national resistance to global monopolies and the creation of new international institutions to ensure equal ability to access global information. It is recognised that a monopoly of or even strong intervention by a bureaucratic state will worsen the situation and alternatives have to be searched for.

One can observe that the nationalist bourgeois state is already itching to intervene and control information in the name of culture and national security. One can see this happening in India where security forces are strongly opposed to the spread of wireless telephony in the North-East. Bandwidth is sought to be restricted with facilities to jam. Thought police is already out in the name of culture.

Intervention is also sought in the name of curbing cyber crimes. The first step is therefore to restrict access. Access is also sought to be restricted by insisting on high revenue from service providers resulting in high costs to consumers. But within this are the possibilities of people’s movements to sabotage the control systems. However, equipment access has to be ensured. One way out is to create independent public trusts to safeguard the right to information and to facilitate the provision of infrastructure at an affordable cost.

The readers of The Tribune are quite familiar with this model, its great advantages and its limitations. There is, however, no unique and single way out and people’s power has to find multiple ways to defend democratic rights. An interesting study quoted is of the use of information on a corporation available on the Internet to an employee on his PC to analyse various cost structures to work out surplus values to strengthen the bargaining position of the labour as also of the consumers.

This is creative use of publicly available information. It is also argued in one of the essays that with the unlimited possibilities of storing and easily retrieving information and subjecting it to quick analysis with the help of various mathematical models, earlier limitations placed on planned economies have been considerably narrowed and the need for the determination of economic direction via the market has been to that extent obviated.The obverse of it is the possibility of the big brother controlling every aspect of human activity.

The power of Internet has to aid the expansion of democratic rights and freedoms and not to put restrictions on them. Internet has opened the possibilities of the creation of an unlimited number of civil society associations with global reach. They can represent various interests effectively across the globe and also coalesce on specific issues to create mass movements of intellectuals to ensure the physical presence. This actually took place at the recent meeting of G-8 at Genoa when more than 150,000 demonstrators came to demand the writing off the loans to the developing world.

Fast flow of information and access to it has created possibilities of significantly cutting down the unearned leverage generated out of ignorance of the other. To that extent it removes the most important limit on the beneficent role of the free market. This will facilitate removal of "unfreedoms" which Amartya Sen talks of. Freedom is required not only for the industrial class but also for all culturally, socially, physically and intellectually deprived sections.

New information flows will radically change social relations. They will also demand redesigning of political structure much beyond the restrictive national states because its police powers will be rendered largely ineffective. The process will be helped by multinational companies themselves in their drive to sell more and more, cheaper and cheaper hardware. Civil society has to ensure three things — namely, easy access to hardware, no restraint on information and creation of educational capabilities among the deprived to make use of information. The rest will follow. This will create equal capacity for equal opportunity for all and not only for the industrial class.