According to Mansell (2004), “A political economy of new media insists on examination of the circumstances that give rise to any existing distribution of power and of the consequences for consumers and citizens.” One of the key questions we must ask is what are the specific historical circumstances under which new media and communications products and services are produced under capitalism, and what is the influence of these circumstances over their consumption.
- Flew & McElhinney: We should focus on the political and cultural implications of the unequal distribution of international communications power and resources, and how they intersect with broader structures of dominance, particularly Western hegemony in the international political economy.
- Mosco: “The specific characteristics of the Web result from the particular way it has developed. That is why a political economy perspective considers it crucially important to learn about the history of the Web, its relationship to the history of similar technologies,and how the Web is influenced by trends in business, government, and in society and culture.”
PE Perspectives on the Internet
Orgad (2006) critiques the structural implications associated with the Internet’s roots in the US military: “almost all funding for computer research came from the U.S. military.” According to a copy of Fortune Magazine (1957 – cited in Mosco, 2000), “Peace, if it came suddenly, would hit the industry very hard.” According to Mosco (2000), “This meant that networks were under tight corporate or government security control, run on the authoritarian principle of centralized management of the network, with little opportunity for people to freely use these networks for anything more than established rules permitted.
According to Castells (2001), “The lucky part of the ARPANET story was that the Defense Department, in a rare instance of organizational intelligence, set up ARPA as a funding and guidance research agency with considerable autonomy.” Castells goes on to note that this freedom helped ARPA evolve into one of the more innovative technology policy institutions in the world. Furthermore, its staff was primarly composed of academic scientists.
Orgad (2006) goes on to note that “nevertheless, there have been attempts to explore the democratic uses of the technology by individual engineers, university researchers and other individuals.” The “other individuals” has been a source of much discourse by academics such as Bakardjieva, Feenberg, and Haddon.
According to Orgad, the pattern was set “between a dominant centralised group of networks, based on a paid model, with careful security control and a set of more open, and democratic networks.” This dichotomy can be further explicated using Barkardjieva and Feenberg’s generalized models for networks: the consumption model and the community model.
According to McChesney, “the most popular areas of Web content are similar to those of the traditional commercial media, dominated by the usual ‘corporate suspects.'” This is a questionable claim, particularly in light of the growing popularity of social networking sites; blogs; podcasts – elements that have been referred to as Web 2.0.
Orgad points to unequal distribution of centres of economic symbolic power. One piece of evidence used in her argument is that one half of Internet hosts are found in just 5 states (Moss, 1998). This statistic most likely refers to Web hosting servers. My response would be: who cares? Web hosting servers do not sensor content on the Web sites hosted on their servers: their role is to provide hosting service. If someone really wanted to host their own server, they could literally buy one and host it out of their own home. What are the potentially negative consequences of hosting a Web site in a particular locale?
Continuing her argument, Orgad cites a couple of Schiller (1976) quotes as follows: “the sum of processes by which a society is brought into the modern world system and how its dominating stratum is attracted, pressured, forced and sometimes bribed into shaping social institutions to correspond, or even promote, the values and structures of the dominating centre of the systems.” The second is: ““There is little room in the brave new world of cyberspace for those outside the privileged social strata, whether they live in New York City, Calcutta, or Rio de Janeiro (Schiller, 2001: 63).”
According to Anne-Marrie Slaughter (1996), “The problem is not cultural imperialism, but rather a problem of two cultures. There are more telephone lines in Hong Kong that there are on the entire African continent [ … ] We are talking about a major divide between those who are privileged and online, and the rest of the world. This argument is less focused on issues of westernization or americanization yet still can be identified as examining the Internet through a dominance framework. Obviously, there is a strong association between Internet access and GDP per capita for a given nation. For many nations, issues of ‘control’ regarding the Internet are an irrelevant argument alltogether due to more critical issues (like eating). According to Karanja Gakio, founder of Africa Online, “In a way, the whole Internet debate is actually [… ] quite marginal in Africa because some of the problems we’re facing are much more serious than this. It’s more a question of survival, really.”
Take back the Internet?
For those who believe there is a need to “take back the Internet,” the following options could be considered:
- Attempts to nurture non-commercial, non-corporate sphere of Internet activity.
- More overarching and less ad hoc organization.
- Efforts to institute more adequate multilateral controls; emphasis on the need for democratic, multilateral governance of the Internet (Schiller, 1999).
Castells, M (2001), The Internet Galaxy, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Mansell, R. (2004). Political economy, power and new media. New Media and Society, 6 (1): 96-105
Mosco, V. 2000. Political Economy. In T. Swiss (ed.), Unspun. NY: NYU Press.
Moss, M. 1998. Technology and Cities. Cyberspace, 3: 107-127.