International Communication

Welcome to our blog, we hope that through our thoughts, opinions, and criticisms (constructive of course), you will come to love the field of international communications as much as we do!

Monday, October 31, 2011


As I was sitting down to write my blog this weekend I was at a loss as to what to write about. Network theory is interesting, and I have been the victim of persuasion by dominant actors, and I have been colluded into impulse shopping because of an add I saw on Facebook for a funny Buffalo Bills t-shirt, but I would like to talk about an event that occurred this weekend that has to do with a concept we talked about a few weeks ago, and I in fact blogged about as well. I am not sure if it has changed my mind on my stance, but it was definitely eye-opening.

My family was in town this weekend, two sisters, a brother-in-law, my parents, and my aunt and uncle. We were all gathered at my uncles house in Baltimore watching football on Sunday, and as I was on my laptop attempting to write this blog, I realized everything was eerily silent behind me, even though the TV announcer was blaring loudly. As I turned around I noticed my Uncle, father, and brother-in-law all held their iPads in their hands and were watching their fantasy football teams, while the TV was playing the actual game in front of them. I was instantly returned to our class discussion on “the end of civil society as we know it” due to proliferating technologies and the impact they have on our social network. Was my family falling victim to electronic gadgets? Were they all IMing each other even though we were all in the same room and watching the same game? Why in the world do we need 3 iPads????

I have to admit, I don’t own an iPad. I am the only person in my extended family without one. I refuse to get one because I already have two laptops, why on earth would I need another tablet? My family loves them though, and it isn’t only for the fact that they can play games and watch their fantasy football teams on them. It is a convenient tool that allows my extended family to stay in touch over long distances. With everyone extended across California, North Carolina, New York, and (now) Washington, DC, it is no wonder they love the free face-time, and the video and camera ability of the iPad. While I was momentarily alarmed at the fact that we were all sitting in the same room attached to our electronics, it was only a few moments before the yelling at the refs, throwing of hands up in the air, and playful jabbing at my brother-in-law’s expense began again. The electronics seemed to be an extension of us, but the reason everyone was on them is because we have a bi-coastal fantasy football league to spread some friendly competition among the East Coast/West Coast contingencies, and of course with competition comes the need to watch your team's points second by second. The electronics were not a symbol of the destruction of social relationships, but another channel in which we could have a relationship. 

Friday, October 28, 2011

If six degrees separate in the middle of the jungle, does anybody hear it?

While reading Paul Adams' article on "topologies of communication" I could help but think about an experience a friend of mine had while she was lying in the mud in the Amazon jungle, crawling on all fours, projectile vomiting, and hallucinating her dead grandmother under the influence of Ayahuasca.

I know this sounds weird.  But let me explain.

Ayahauasca is a psychoactive beverage made from the boiling together of two plants that indigenous people in Peru, Ecuador, Columbia, and Brazil have sipped for thousands of years. Many of them use it for healing rituals, most of the time under the guidance of a shaman who helps guide the drinkers through the "underworld" and confront any issues that may arise for them as the hallucinations become more powerful.

Make what you want of this.  Whether or not you believe in "underworlds" many people around the world do, and the various names used to describe these worlds could fill an entire book.   So let's step into this belief system for a second.

Back to my friend.  Many of these communities, looking for additional ways to support their income, have opened up these ceremonies to Westerners.  This is where she comes in.

Ayahuasca is a purgative, so several hours into this experience she is projectile vomiting up a tsunami, when all of a sudden her vision starts to clear and she sees a perfectly lifelike vision of her grandmother.  Not a "hallucination" she tells me, because you can always tell the difference between a hallucination and reality, unless you're schizophrenic.  But this appears to her just as her grandmother would have in real life.

Anyway her grandmother sits down next to her on a log and they talk for a few hours.  Sometimes the grandmother turns into a lion, but mostly she looks like her regular self.  I forget what they talked about, but it's not important.  The really interesting part is what comes next.

After her grandmother leaves the shaman comes and sits down next to her.  He makes a hand-rolled cigarette, waves some smoke around her, and offers it to her.

Then he says, "Your grandmother looks like a nice lady.  I saw the two of you talking but I didn't want to disturb you."  And he goes on to describe exactly how she had appeared, what she was wearing, and even the way she walked.

Needless to say, my friend was a little shocked.  Especially when the shaman followed it up with this:

"You guys have your Facebook, your ways you stay in touch with each other," he said.  "We have the ayahuasca.  Now that you take it you can see that none of us were ever really apart in the first place."

I know this sounds like another wing-nut hippie tale.  There are days when I'm not sure I believe her myself.  Then I read Adams' line-

“ space was structured very differently than the map and it would only yield its secrets to a new, non-cartographic way of thinking and visualizing.”

..and I got to thinking about other "non-cartographic" ways of thinking.  For all of Adam's claims about social media dissolving borders, space, and time, it obviously hasn't.  We still list the country we're in at the present, the times at which we make comments, and even our coordinates (if we dabble in police-state entertainment technologies like FourSquare).  And I don't want to rush to any conclusions, but I'm pretty sure we don't use Facebook to communicate with the dead.

So let's imagine for a  second that Ayahuasca is a doorway into a new kind of networked reality, where everyone living or dead could communicate on an equal basis in a common language that we all could understand. Imagine that we could freely access this reality as easily as logging into our World of WarCraft account. 

How would this change relationships of power and inequality?  How would this affect our real-world and our online networks?  How would it change the assumptions we hold about other people?  

For most people, an online world is the closest they will come to this kind of  reality.  I think the explosion of these kinds of online, networked games masks a deep-rooted, subconscious desire people have to merge with this kind of Ayahuasca reality.  Carl Jung talks about a "collective unconscious," a kind of ancestral memory, like a vast warehouse of symbols and half-remembered stories that we all share as humans. Looking at the global interest in both game worlds and drug worlds, maybe these are two paths that we're unconsciously seeking out in order to plug back in to the same reality.  

It could be that this post is just an excuse to wade off the deep end of the lunatic fringe.  But I think it's important to step outside of the box and study "weird" ideas as seriously as the serious ones.  Why should we keep from looking down certain paths, just because science hasn't caught up to where we're at yet?  

Gotta Share!

Last thursday, Prof. Hayden addressed a question 'What is the effect of technology?" just before the break which I don't think answered yet (or it did and I missed it..) well anyway, my point is, I'm always impressed by the way technology changing our lives. My first encounter with technology as far as I can remember was getting a new SONY betamax video player (at that time, tube tv was already considered ordinary). Soon after that, my family's watching habit was changing. We began to rent video movie at least twice a week. We started to have options on what movies to watch. (It was around 1985-86. Indonesia only had 1 state-owned tv station. Can you imagined what was it like?) And then around 1990, laser disc started booming around South East Asia. Then people began to shift from the square black, red, blue or green box thing to a slimmer one--a laser disc.

Not only movies, new inventions also can be found in video games. Back then, I was so happy playing with Atari, then Nintendo came along, followed by Sega, Game Boy, Play Station, Super Nintendo, Xbox, and cetera (I started to lose track after Nintendo). And the entertainment technology keep inventing new ways in order to simplify our life or perhaps they are exist simply just to change our lives (Well, God always has a funny way to make us excited).

And if my memory serves me well, new technology has been always so dynamic and has becoming part of my life up until now. To answer Prof. Hayden, technology has been changing everything. It changes the way we communicate with others. It changes family's priority. It changes the way family members communicate. It changes the industry. It changes a company's culture. It changes every aspects of our live today. I was ok back then without cell phone, now I'm addicted to it. I cannot go out without it. I'd feel 'lost', insecure, uncomfortable without it. Technology should be liberating, but now I feel as if I'm giving up part of my freedom. Technology is indeed making our life better, but no one told me that I'd have to sacrifice my freedom.

I found this video last night while searching for the latest flashmob agenda around DC. Perhaps most of you have seen it, but I encourage you to watch it again. It is an illustration of how we're so connected and inseparable from social media technology nowadays. Its a perfect picture of most of us. (

One last thing, there's a joke in Indonesia after the spread of Blackberry, they say "Blackberry, shorting the distance, making wall to the closer ones." I hope you get the irony, since I'm not confident with my translation :)

Happy halloween guys!

Monday, October 24, 2011

"OMG, you need to see this show!!!"

As discussed during our last class, today we're seeing how people's relationships with cultural products have been changing. First, it is now much easier to be part of a community based on a common interest, and second, people are not just consuming, they are also producing.

Ever since I first started to use the Internet, when I was around 12, I started experiencing both. I was quite an anime fan during my teenage years, so I started looking at fan sites. I would save and print lots and lots of pictures of my favorite shows, I would engage in discussions with other fans, read fan fiction, and play games. I actually once wrote a fan fiction story about Sailor Mercury, but out of shyness never published it.

Through the years, my interests have changed (Harry Potter, TV show Alias, the Beatles), but I have always found the need to share them with other people online. One of the things I like about these communities is that they grow out of people's passion for a particular creation. I really don't believe that they are commercially motivated.

I do think, however, that they can be easily exploited. The motivation to share makes it so that people want to keep “spreading the word”, which is certainly convenient to marketers and the people behind the products. I myself have acted that part with many shows, most recently with Misfits. Actually, the story of how I came across this show is a good example of how a phenomenon can spread through the Internet and how others can influence what I consume, and I in turn influence others.

I have a Tumblr account that I check almost every day. During a period of time I kept seeing gifs from a show I didn't know. At first I ignored them, but they kept coming up. I finally payed attention to them and found them very funny. I realized later that a few of my “real life” friends watched the show and loved it. Those two factors, and its availability on Hulu, made me watch it. I am now a huge fan of the show, and a sort of evangelist for it. I tell my friends again and again to watch it, and practically forced my best friend to do so. I don't give a crap if anyone makes money off it, I just like the show and think my friends will enjoy it, too.

However, I do realize that, in a sense, I'm a tool; I'm being used. Andy Forssell, Hulu's senior vice president of content acquisition and distribution, said that they were looking for showsthat would evoke passion for a few people even if not a whole lot of people watch them. Fan communities have become an excellent marketing tool, and although I can't imagine any major consequences out of this, they should be wary of it.

The Power of a Cab Driver

On Friday I went to see Waleed Rashed and Ahmed Maher at AU’s Friday Forum. Waleed and Ahmed are co-founders of the April 6th movement in Egypt. A group that started on facebook, and used the power of their network to help organize the protests at Tahir Square. While listening to them speak on Friday I was struck by their sometimes ingenious ways of using technology and communications to mobilize support for their revolution. 

Waleed and Ahmed spoke extensively about the difference between participating in an online group, and transforming that into action on the ground. In order to spread the word about Tahir Square, they employed tactics that multinational corporations employ today in stealth marketing. Waleed and Tahir wanted to harnace the power of ‘word of mouth’ to spread news of Tahir square, however they knew it had to grow organically, they could not just tell people to protest because it would not be genuine or successful. They ended up tapping into the network of taxi cab drivers around Cairo, who in their words would talk to you even if you didn’t speak a word of their language. In order to gain access to the network, Waleed would ride around in taxi cabs all day, and then call his friend and discuss plans for Tahir square, knowing that the cab driver would over hear him and then pass along the message. Sure enough, a few months down the road, Waleed got into a cab where the driver promptly asked him if he knew about the protest that was going to happen in Tahir square? 

By tapping into a unique cultural network in Egypt, Waleed and Ahmed were successful in spreading their message. While these tactics worked for their revolution, Waleed and Ahmer were sure to point out that not every revolution is the same, and the same tactics they used might not work in Syria and Bahrain, who are also protesting their governments right now. I am I awe of the innovation and creative that went into planning the protests in Egypt, but Waleed and Ahmed did end their discussion on a somber note. Waleed impressed upon the audience that although he is lucky to be where he is today, there is a cost to the revolution and if one is to follow the path they took, then they must be prepared to pay that cost.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Robots, Graffiti, Crime, and Convergence Culture

 In Mark Deuze's article "Convergence Culture in the Creative Industries" the author gives several case studies of what he considers "convergence" technologies.  These are systems that stand the traditional dichotomy between "consumer" and "product" on its head.  He gives the examples of citizen journalism, video games in which players can create their own games, and viral marketing campaigns where consumers become the advertisers, as case studies where this type of convergence is used.

Deuze made me think about how this "convergence" technology can also be used to get everyday, law-abiding citizens to take pleasure in committing crimes.  I'm talking about the GraffitiWriter Robot.

You probably haven't heard of the GraffitiWriter or the Institute for Applied Autonomy, but I would suggest that everyone check out a video of their project:

Graffiti is a type of global media we haven't discussed in class, but I don't see why it shouldn't deserve the same treatment as more serious media, like Ugly Betty.  The Institute for Applied Autonomy, an anarchist group that works with robots, has come up with an invention that changes the relation between spectator and tagger when it comes to graffiti.

The group made a machine that "inverts the traditional relationship between robots and authoritarian power structures," according to their video.  They found that, by attaching spray paint cans to a cute remote-controlled robot, you could entice people walking by, many of whom would never consciously commit a crime, to spray paint graffiti on the sidewalk.   When people are given an active role in using the technology, they no longer think of it as a "crime."

This shows the way in which people can become empowered when they stop becoming passive consumers of media and start taking an active role in its co-creation.  Girl Scouts, city workers, and even police were lured into creating graffiti by the robot.   The little robot is redefining the definition of what "public" space is and what an "artist" is.  And he's really cute. 

Monday, October 17, 2011

Economic star of Latin America?!

On The Media System Goes Global Robert McChesney mentions how Chile “is held up as the greatest neoliberal success story in Latin America”. The New York Times apparently stated that Augusto Pinochet's coup “began Chile's transformation from a backwater banana republic to the economic star of Latin America”. Right beside that quote, on the margin of my copied reading is the word ASCO (revolting). Capitalized like that, and underlined three times.

I don't often get visceral reactions like that, but for some reason anything having to do with the overthrow of Salvador Allende's government makes me very angry. I don't think there's any direct, logical reason for it. I have no ties with Chile or Allende other than the language I speak and I guess a shared colonial past (though it's still present for us in Puerto Rico). But injustice is injustice, no matter where it happens, and when I finished watching Patricio Guzman's La batalla de Chile (, and kept crying for about half an hour after it had ended, my emotional connection to Chile and Allende had been established.

For me, it has come to represent everything that's wrong with the current neoliberal agenda that runs the world and that McChesney so criticizes. The system's hypocrisy, its disregard for actual democracy and the unfairness of a world dominated by a single country all come into play in this story.

The quotation included by McChesney demonstrates how the mainstream media oftentimes serves as a lackey to this unjust system. I mean, seriously, “success story”?! Under what standards can a military coup of a democratic government be considered that? And what about the thousands of people who disappeared during Pinochet's dictatorship? And I don't even have to go as far back as Pinochet's regime to confirm that this system does not make Chile an “economic star”. As is happening in other parts of the world, Chile's public education system is in crisis, and thousands of students and citizens have taken their struggle to the streets asking for its democratization, sometimes being victims of terrible police abuse. The problem with such a portrayal is that it can be harmful; and can give the impression that the system is working, that inequalities have been eradicated, and that people are happy as a clam. 

The Transmission of Popular Patois’ through the Media

In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe describes the diffusion of the type of speech used by airline pilots.  “Anyone who travels very much on airplanes in the United States soon gets to know the voice of the airline pilot…coming over the intercom…with a particular drawl, a particular folksiness, a particular down-home calmness that is so exaggerated it begins to parody itself. Now, folks, uh…this is the captain…ummm… We’ve got a little ol’ red light up here on the control panel that’s trying to tell us that the landin’ gears’re not…uh…lockin’ into position when we lower ‘em…” Tom Wolfe directly attributes the origin of this drawl to Appalachia, the home of Chuck Yeager, the man who broke the sound barrier or as Wolfe puts it, “It was the drawl of the most righteous of all possessors of the right stuff.” Chuck Yeager was a man to admire and emulate, thus his lingo influenced every aspiring and active pilot and is still used today.  I find this passage in The Right Stuff intriguing as it highlights how a particular dialect becomes popular in a specific culture. 
                  Today, there is a different type of patois stemming from Southern California and used throughout the United States, particularly by youth in their early 20s.  I’m referring to what many call “Valley Girl” talk, which was something mimicked in the states ten years ago whenever anyone referenced a girl from SoCal (at least in my East Coast experience).  The film Clueless helped popularize this stereotype, however it was not a normal dialect for anyone outside of the SoCal region.  Today, however, you can recognize this patois spoken by young adults from all over the United States. I directly attribute this diffusion to enormously popular MTV reality TV shows, such as The Hills.  A patois that was once specific to a region is now widespread due to the media. This lingo is extremely popular for young adults specifically because they have not yet entered the professional world and also because they were likely impressionable teenagers while The Hills aired, from 2006 to 2009.  Laguna Beach aired from 2004 to 2006, featuring some of the same cast.


The Hills

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Downhill Spiral of News

During our class discussion on Thursday we started talking about the fact that news has become unpopular, and entertainment shows and gossip is now rules the airwaves. One comment was that we are so busy in our lives that all we want is to be entertained once we get home. This resonated with me because of the familiarity I have with this view. I find that within my family (namely my mother), the automatic response to "What do you want to watch" is "I'm in the mood for a No Brainer.”

Anyways, this got me thinking as to why my mother ALWAYS wants to watch no brainers (I'm not sure if this jargon is familiar to all, or just used in my family). I think it has to do with the fact that a lot of news and current affairs nowadays is negatively oriented. Who wants to watch an hour of television showing that there were 3 shootings, 4 robberies, and a flood in your town? That the school loans you took out for your kids are getting higher interest rates, and oh yah, another politician was caught in a scandal. Watching the news can be exhausting and depressing. 

The consequences of this culture of sensationalism and scandal is breeding apathy. We are no longer concerned by the negative events in our lives because we are confronted by it constantly. News organizations want the next big scoop or scandal because our attention span has become shortened, we just don’t care to hear about it anymore. Should we blame people for wanting to bring laughter and comedy into their lives? For them to want to see an underdog succeed, or a unfortunate family get a house? Our entertainment has started to fill the social good 'gap' in our lives with programs like Extreme Home Makeover and American Idol. We see the good in people in these shows, unlike the news which is splattered with the worst in people.

I don't see this trend changing anything soon, do you? 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The MPAA Took My Baby Away

In Tristan Mattelart's article "Audio-Visual Piracy: Towards a Study of the Underground Networks of Cultural Globalization" the author writes about the teeth-gnashing and wailing of the motion picture industry as it lashes out like a trapped animal at the global pirate movie industry.

His article got me thinking about the communications strategies that groups like the MPAA are using to convince the world that the unauthorized copying of movies is, in fact, a serious crime.

They put out this kind of commercial:

And, almost instantly, a thousand parodies of it pop up on Youtube.  This is one of my favorites:

    The seriousness of the MPAA is just begging to be ridiculed.  And the overblown rhetoric, with the idea that 'stealing a purse is the same as pirating a movie' seemed too familiar to me  Anyone my age will remember being forced to attend the D.A.R.E. program in fifth and sixth grade.  The programs were riddled with the same kind of rhetoric, basically "if you smoke marijuana  you might as well shoot heroin into your eyeball."  I almost wonder if the same ad agencies are behind these two campaigns.

The D.A.R.E. campaign, according to most social science studies of it, was as much of a failure as the anti-piracy ad campaign.  Mattelart points out the fact that we should question the statistics that the MPAA puts out showing the hundreds of thousands of pirated movies that are broken down by country, because you can't accurately measure the flow of a black market good.  Similarly, D.A.R.E. used questionable statistics and fuzzy logic to try and prove that marijuana was a gateway drug.

The MPAA scare ads, with their techno music and quick cuts, make pirating movies seem sexy.  If I was a teenager that had no idea what it meant to pirate videos, watching the ad would have made me feel like piracy is definitely something I should check out.

The same is true with D.A.R.E. ads.  I remember having conversations with other sixth graders about how amazing drugs must be, since adults were obviously going to a lot of trouble to keep them away from us.  Without DARE, I don't think many of us would have been interested in drugs at such a young age.

So, thanks MPAA.  Your anti-piracy ads are more entertaining than most of the the movies churned out by the studios you represent.  I have to go check my BitTorrent now.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

When prohibitive content regulation fails

One of the most horrible images I have ever seen was that of a decapitated man. The picture, leaked to a Puerto Rican TV programme, was gruesome to say the least, but somehow it made it to a gossip show that airs at 6:00pm. There were no black bars, no pixelation; there was nothing more than a red stripe at the bottom of the screen that asked for discretion with children.

It was ridiculous. Any 10 year old who was channel surfing could have seen the picture, and the warning would certainly not have been enough. Any of the decapitated man's loved ones could have stumbled upon that channel, and seen was the picture, which is exactly what happened

How could this happen? How could one of the Island's most watched TV shows display such a photograph without thinking about the consequences or not caring about them? Something was lacking in this situation, and I think it was simply proper regulation.

One of the types of media regulation is societal regulation (Global Governance: A Beginners Guide, Siochru & Girard). One of the elements of societal regulation is prohibitive content regulation, “regulating the acceptable 'outer limits' of specific content based on social norms.” This, of course, enters directly into this discussion.

Where were the regulating bodies before and after this event? Well, there is no actual Puerto Rican regulating body, at least when it comes to content. Whoever wants to file a complaint has to depend on the FCC. The picture was published on mid September and so far there have been no sanctions, no punishment. The Puerto Rican Telecommunications Regulatory Committee criticized the show on the press, but not having the power, could not do much more.

This story, however, demonstrates that spectators have at least some say on the content that gets published, and can establish criteria beyond “what sells”. After the fact, people complained. Plain and simple. This led to an apology from the show's host and unmentioned “auto-regulating measures” by the channel's administration. I don't think it's enough, but at least it's a start.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Enhancing Personal Relationships

During class on Thursday, we touched on an interesting topic: the “destruction of civil society” via technology and virtual networks. With the rise of the internet, our personal relationships have become virtual; we interact through E-mail and text messages, skype with distant relatives, and have online discussions through vehicles like blackboard and LiveMeeting. While the mediums under which we communicate may be changing from face to face interactions, to technologically enhanced interactions, personal relationships are still possible, and actually quite successful in the digital age.

Through my personal experiences as an inside sales representative in my previous career, I found that your product can only take you so far, and a large part of the selling cycle had to do with the personal relationship between the buyer and the seller. Even though I communicated with my clients largely through the phone and via E-mail, whether or not they liked me and our relationship together affected my sales success. The programs at our disposal (E-mail, social networking, blackberry’s and iphones) gave us more tools to communicate effectively and quickly with clients. We were plugged into the network at all times so we could respond to issues and challenges as they came up. These tools are not only used in the business world, but in society in general. They give us new and interesting ways to communicate, in addition to face to face communication. They are not intended to replace or destroy civil society, but to enhance it. 

Innovation in America

With Steve Jobs’ death the United States has lost one of the most creative, innovative, and influential minds of this century. Apple’s products and Jobs’ ideas are some of the most influential of the last decade and have changed the world’s personal relationship with technology.  This past week, his life was celebrated across the world in numerous tweets, Facebook posts and articles, however his death also prompted the following blog: 

Last Friday, October 7th, the Wall Street Journal featured a blog entitled, “Why There Is No Steve Jobs in China.”  The piece highlighted that China has the ability to produce the same market value and business model as Apple within the next decade, but due to the education system’s memorization values and the structure of its authoritarian government it will be difficult to produce such an innovative company.   “Wang Wei, chairman of the Chinese Museum of Finance, wrote: ‘In a society with an authoritarian political system, monopolistic business environment, backward-looking culture and prevalent technology theft, talking about a master of innovation? Not a chance! Don’t even think about it.’”

This article assumes that while China may have difficulty producing such great innovation, the United States is still a haven for creativity and development.  Like Steve Jobs, there are other youths making discoveries and inventing in their own garages, waiting to change the world.  However, the WSJ’s blog reminded me of an NPR radio cast from over the summer which highlighted the difficulty for present day innovation.  This is due to “patent trolls,” companies that buy up broad patents and then go out and sue entrepreneurs and start-ups.  Companies, including Flickr are then submerged into enormous legal fees essentially stalling and sometimes bankrupting their businesses.  In September President Obama signed a patent refurbishment bill, which grants a “first to file” right to inventors but many critics say that this will nothing to help entrepreneurs get to market and avoid the “patent trolls.”  According to President Obama, “If we want startups here and if we want established companies, like a DuPont or a Eli Lily to continue to make products here and hire here, then we're going to have to be able to compete with any other country around the world. So this patent bill will encourage that innovation.”  Critics are unconvinced that this patent bill overhaul will do anything to discourage patent trolls and boost innovation. 

Could Steve Jobs' early Apple survived modern day “patent trolls?”  Can the United States maintain its role as a beacon of invention and innovation despite bureaucratic patent processes?

- Claire

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Arrr! Radio Pirates!

In the recent class readings about the regulation of the media industry, most of the authors seem to divide the future of media into one of two camps.  It’s either government regulation or a no-holds-barred free market that eventually ends up in monopoly.  I think this is a false dichotomy, a choice between two solutions, neither of which is really that great. 

But there’s always a third way, and the early history of radio can show us a different way of doing things. 

A few years ago I read the book “Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in American” by Jesse Walker.  In it, he talks about the history of radio up until 1927, a time when the regulation of the airwaves was left not up to the government, but to the broadcasters themselves, who set up a mutual code of conduct so the could help each other self-police the airwaves.

At the time, radio wasn’t the tightly controlled corporate monopoly that we have today.  Radio evangelists, snake-oil salesman, one-man vaudeville shows, amateur reporters, and hobbyists of all kinds sailed along the airwaves.  

The spectrum was a seething sea of anarchy, and the broadcasters quickly learned that they had to have some sort of regulation to keeping from stepping on each other’s frequencies.  But the system they agreed upon was voluntary, brought on by the need for everyone to protect a shared resource.

As an anarchist (Oh no!  I just blew that internship at the State Department.)  I think it’s fascinating to look at historical moments when people came together and worked out their own rules without either corporations or the government being able to dominate the conversation. 

But this was all brought to an end by the Radio Act of 1927 that created the Federal Radio Commission, which later went on to become the FCC.  Attempts at licensing were made before this, but the government didn’t have the power to deny any applicants a license.  The pressure for regulation came not from liberal activists, as it does today, but by the large radio corporations who saw regulation as a way to cement their hold on the market.  

From what I’ve read I would argue that the radio we had back before 1927 was a lot more vibrant, informative, and entertaining than the bland radioscape that we have today, where you have to choose either corporate butt rock or NPR.  Regulation has only meant that the FCC auctions off the spectrum to the highest bidder, and today we have monstrosities like Clear Channel buying up stations like miners in the gold rush. 

So how do we go about dividing up a limited resource, like spectrum?  As a former pirate radio DJ, I helped take some of the spectrum back.  There are, believe it or not, still little islands left on the spectrum where you can anchor your ship and put up a transmitter.  Podcasting has killed off a lot of this movement, but it still exists for anyone that’s interested.  The relative ease of setting up a station in your attic  has shown that the FCC, despite threats, armed raids, and intimidation, will never be able to fully control the airwaves.

And I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. 

Monday, October 3, 2011

Indecisive musings about technology

While reading the Internet diffusion section of the third chapter of The Information Revolution and World Politics, I couldn't help but think about a commercial I saw about three years ago where TV Show Heroes' Masi Oka promotes the One Laptop Per Child Foundation. This organization seeks “to empower the world's poorest children through education”. To that end, they've created computers specifically designed for children, and for the tough conditions many of them live in. They work under five principles, one of which is that the children should have connection to the Internet.

At the time, the advertisement seemed ridiculous to me. I thought: “Seriously? Is a laptop what the poorest children need?”. But right now, I'm not sure that reaction was completely fair. Many of the points made by Hanson do confirm that first impression. Hanson describes how futile these types of efforts can be when power supply is “insufficient and unreliable”, when specialists and technical support are not easily available, and when language represents an obstacle for disseminated use. Furthermore, in the chapter Information Revolution, Global Economy, and Wealth, the author describes different projects to promote and diffuse Internet and computer use that have failed despite being well-thought out. Such was the case of Gyandoot.

However, I can understand the other side. In another video, the company's founder explains the importance of achieving their goal. “Why would a kid in the developing world need a laptop of all things”, he says and lists the different problems that they might go through, such lack of clean water. “Good grief, why should they?” His answer: “take the word laptop and substitute it with education, and nobody would say that”.

I can see where he's coming from. If each child had a computer, the world of knowledge and access to resources that they would obtain is invaluable. I guess it could eventually help them to develop their own projects, and so decrease dependency on foreign entities to solve their communities' problems. However, for that to happen, the kids do actually need a system that supports and enables that type of education.

It's a complicated matter. As Hanson points out, countries that lag in technology are also at a disadvantage, so I do think that getting that technology there would do some good, and it's a beautiful initiative. But it is definitely not a panacea for the world's problems.

History is written by the winners… or now by media powerhouses?

 “Most history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice." 
 ~Will and Ariel Durant, Our Oriental Heritage

The phrase every history major keeps in mind when researching a particular event or era is, “history is written by the winners,” coined by the author, Alex Haley.  It reminds the researcher that sources of history are predominately biased towards a particular viewpoint. In cases where one is studying a particular civilization or era where the written word was not yet used or widespread, completing a thorough source selection is problematic.  For instance, much of what the world knows about Peruvian history pre-Spanish conquest is of the Inca civilization of which had no written language.  The Spaniards came into contact with the Incas when conquering Peruvian land and recorded the history of Peru through the Inca’s oral accounts.  When reading Peruvian history as recorded by the Spaniards the picture of a long and great Inca civilization forms, although we now know that the Inca Empire was only at its height for about one-hundred years prior to conquest and the Inca’s, in fact, gained their power from previous major Peruvian civilizations. 

Today, Alex Haley’s theory should be adjusted to reflect the power of mass media's effect on how people perceive history, current events and the world.  Media powerhouses such as Fox News, CNN and the BBC have a tremendous influence on public opinion and can many times direct an event’s outcome through persuasive, suggestive and manipulated text.  This week the following visual went viral over the Internet, passed through social media and attempted to demonstrate the power of a media outlet’s tone and tenor on it’s readers.  I must have seen this on multiple Facebook Friend’s profiles over the past week and it gives me hope that American’s are not ceasing to question the media’s validity or motives. Social media can act as a tool to spread intellectual ideas and knowledge!  Or, perhaps I am simply attracted to this certain type of information posted on Facebook and have like-minded Friends. 



Corporations or Countries?

In this week’s readings, Elizabeth Hanson highlighted the fact that not only are people becoming more connected via globalization, but that our currencies, financial transactions, and corporations are entangling countries together more and more as well. Some of the more worrisome realities from the reading is that “trade in currencies exceeds the values of international trade in goods and services”[1], that money can flow into and out of a country within seconds, and that this lack of regulation is “creating a world of manias and panics.[2]

With the financial meltdown of 2008 that spread across the world, the ongoing recession, and the US presidential election bringing financial regulation and corporate policies to the forefront, I find this to be a very relevant topic to discuss today. Right now the rhetoric around financial and corporate regulation is that of ‘economic freedom’ and that government ‘should not interfere’. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney even goes so far as saying “Companies are people.”[3] Have we lost the ability of hindsight? Did we forget about Enron, WorldComm, Anderson Accounting, Adelphia, Countrywide Financial, Lehman Bros.? When millions (perhaps billions) of dollars has been lost over corrupt and selfish business practices, shouldn’t a more cautious approach be applied to regulation and not one of laissez-faire attitude?

My belief is that companies are not people, they are entities created to generate a profit, a profit for shareholders and clients in the case of public and financial companies. Notice “shareholders” does not mean all of the public, most shareholders in companies, and clients of large financial services companies, are only those people who have disposable income and can afford to invest their money in companies. A large number of people across this country, and across the world do not represent “shareholders” and are not included in this group.Ultimately it is a dangerous path to equate companies as people. We cannot have such a short memory to forget that the lack of regulations, speculative practices, and a corrupt mortgage industry that took advantage of individuals created the unstable and insecure world we live in today. 

Many MNC’s have more capital than most of the nation-states on the planet[4] and with that comes great responsibility,  we haven’t seen corporations take this responsibility dependably and conscientiously. It begs me to ask the question, are we really that far away from a world pictured in the Pixar movie Wall-E where Buy N' Large runs the world?

[1] Hanson, E. C. (2008). The Information Revolution and World Politics. p. 147
[2] Ibid, p. 150
[4] Hanson, E. C. (2008). The Information Revolution and World Politics. p. 161