Networking the World

Armand Mattelart, translated by Liz Carey-Libbrecht and James A. Cohen, Minneapolis, Mn: University of Minnesota Press, 2000, 129 pp.

Reviewed by Nick Lally

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In Networking the World, 1794-2000, the Belgian sociologist Armand Mattelart traces a genealogy of international communication networks—which include telegraphs, railroads, cinema, the internet, and other technologies—as a way to understand contemporary discourses around globalization. In his analysis of this history, Mattelart is careful to counter globalist views that describe the contemporary moment as being typified by a homogenization of culture, the clash of civilizations, or an “end of history.” Instead, drawing from anthropological and social theory, he describes the hybridization of cultures, the production of spaces and non-spaces, and the extreme uneven results of development, all of which sit in adjacency to a growing ecological crisis on a planetary scale. Globalist views on informational networks, ones that link communication with freedom, for example, only distract from these underlying geopolitical and ecological concerns. Mattelart’s critical reading of discourses that have accompanied the introduction of communication technologies throughout history make this short book a great teaching tool for upper level undergraduate classes on global histories of digital media. It complicates understandings of the global by showing the extent to which ideas like “globalization” are produced through ideological representations that obscure the complex and contingent effects of technologies.

The tension between representations of new technologies and their actual effects is a recurrent theme throughout the book, as the utopian rhetoric of a connected world only serves as a distraction from the more insidious processes driving these developments. Global equality and democracy is a perpetually unfulfilled promise that becomes associated with various networking innovations throughout world history. Mattelart shows how telegraphs, cinema, radio, mass media, and the internet were all met with similar rhetorics and similar expansions of economic and politic interests. Perhaps we could summarize the theme of the book by paraphrasing a well-known Marx quote: history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.

To cover this long and fraught history, the book is broken up into seven chapters, arranged chronologically, bearing titles that reflect a major theme of that era. They include “The Power of Propaganda,” which covers the two World Wars and “Globalization: The Networks of the Postnational Economy,” which covers the rise of global financial networks in the 1980s and 90s. Mattelart begins his account, in a chapter titled “Networks of Universalization,” with Enlightenment ideas of communication originating in late 18th century France. The free exchange of ideas, it was argued, was a human right that transcended borders. The nascent technology of the telegraph held the promise of that exchange and with it, the revival of democracy, now on a global scale. Instantaneous dialogue across great distances, it was thought, would mitigate misunderstandings and lead to a peaceful future. In reality, however, these growing communication networks would be used to serve military and economic interests. Long distance telegraph cables were laid to assist the coordination of troops across distances, connect previously distinct financial markets, and manage the new international division of labor.

But there are always undercurrents, resistances, and revolts that act as a counter-narrative throughout the story. Some movements protest the effects of global networks, while others use those networks for progressive ends. For example, we find liberation movements in the 1950s using radio as a weapon to organize revolutions. In Egypt, Algeria, and Cuba, rebel radio stations were used to counter Western ideologies of developmentalism and fight for independence. Here we find historical precedents for events that have transpired since the book’s writing in 2000—the Arab Spring and other uprisings organized through social media, for example—which force us to rethink narratives that overstate the role of contemporary technologies like social media. Mattelart’s historical account provides important lessons that encourage us to temper the claims and examine the rhetorics coming from both globalist and radical perspectives.

This historical trajectory culminates in the rise of globalization in the 1980s, which Matterlart calls a “model of corporate management.” He links globalization to the interconnection of global financial markets, which become integrated and fluid through realtime networking technologies, deregulation, and deterritorialization. Instead of resulting in a similar social fluidity, he describes the processes of social segmentation and “mass individualization” as economic inequality grows alongside the individualization of consumerism. In regards to the latter, he points out security concerns surrounding personal data collection, even outlining a NSA program from that late 90s that used spy satellites to collect telephone calls and emails with impunity.

With the rise of the internet, Mattelart shows how corporate interests supported by government intervention were woven into this network from the beginning. Al Gore’s plan for the “information superhighway” was interpenetrated with neoliberal logics that looked to circumvent protectionist policies that European countries used earlier to protect their film industries. Once again, these government-supported commercial interests would be obscured by ideologies linking communication with freedom—harkening back to ideas we find developing in the Enlightenment. In the fifteen years that have passed since the end of this narrative, perhaps these hidden ideologies have become clearer as processes of globalization have become more pronounced, but the rhetorics he outlines seem all too familiar and pervasive—morphing into new forms without learning the lessons of history.

By drawing out the historical precedents that have shaped our understanding of the current moment, Mattelart develops a critical view of the hype surrounding discourses of globalization and the “information society.” It is an important lesson for those studying “new” media—one that can help students critically exam taken-for-granted ideas about networks, communication, and globalization. The book is an important and all-to-short intervention that will surely inspire students to view technologies and mainstream discourses in a new light and help them build more complex research projects. It ends with a provocative call for ethics, suggesting the need for a renewed attention to the creation of human communities that escape the individualizing and oppressive consequences of networks developed by and for capital. Because, as Mattelart argues, networks are always at the center of political struggles that shape their functioning and representations.

Syllabus Based on this Book

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