By Armand Mattelart

Translated by Michael Chanan

Can the flow of international communications be regulated and ought it to be so? This issue has been the focus of debate within the major bodies representing the international community ever since World War II.

There are two opposing stances. The view upheld by the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc invoked the principle of non-interference in order to ban broadcasts from abroad. The other, defended by the US, supported the doctrine of the free flow of information or laissez-faire in this area, a doctrine perfectly consistent with the principles of free trade. Throughout the Cold War period, each side remained entrenched in its position. There were two opposing political systems with two opposing communications regimes: one a regime built on secrecy and the withholding of information, the other in which an oversupply, even saturation, of information was the norm.

The idea behind the jamming of the airwaves by the Eastern bloc powers-that-be was to deny the ordinary citizen access initially to radio broadcasts, and subsequently to TV. They went so far as to make listening to foreign radio broadcasts a criminal offence. Jamming techniques, however, became less and less effective at halting the flood of such information which presented these impoverished societies with the consumerist model of the West, via the culture of ‘entertainment’. In 1972, the Soviet delegation presented the first draft agreement covering the regulation of future direct satellite transmission to UNESCO (the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) and the UN General Assembly. (The ‘frontier-leaping’ satellite was still a long way from operational in those days. The array of satellite dishes was still something that was all in the mind.) The resolution was passed by nearly 100 votes to one. The one was the US, which had always been opposed to state intervention.

Yet from then on, it became ever more difficult to devise legislative measures and sanctions to regulate the international flow of information. The very most that could be hoped for was to promote ‘codes of conduct’. US government policy, however, considered that these attempts to establish regulation posed a threat to the very fabric of the entire future information industry. This would have a far greater impact than broadcast transmissions because it affected the fundamentals of the new communication society and its economy. It is no coincidence that while the discussions were taking place, also within the UN, about the need to regulate the cross-border flow of computer data and the operation of detection satellites that were permanently monitoring the globe.

North-South divide

North-South confrontation, which sometimes mirrored the East-West confrontation and sometimes fragmented it, manifested the demands of Third World countries for a redistribution of the flow of information. The main target was always the big press agencies, but the whole structure of news gathering was called into question. At the same time, the Third World tried to redress the imbalance of trade in raw materials. Most of these battles for ‘a new world order of information and communication’ (NWOIC) were fought within UNESCO. A commission chaired by the Irish lawyer, Sean McBride, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and founder of Amnesty International, was set up to study the problems of communication. Its members included eminent journalists such as Hubert Beuve-Méry, founder of the French newspaper Le Monde, and the Columbian novelist who was later to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Gabriel Garcia Márquez.

The commission’s report was published under the title Multiple Voices, One World. Its conclusions favoured redistribution, but found no echo in the delegations from Regan’s America and Thatcher’s Britain, which saw this as a threat to the free flow of information and slammed the door in UNESCO’s fact. Moreover, the double-speak of the governments of certain Third World countries, who were demanding a new world order while imprisoning their own journalists and artists, was a further good reason for disassociation from the debate. So the new winds of the latter-day free-market politics of the 80s definitively swept the mere concept of the inequality of exchanges of communication from the international agenda.


The debate over the need to regulate the international flow of communication and information dropped into the background of government concerns in the 80s. This was the decade of privatisation and deregulation. The latter affected the entire communications network – in every sense that this concept had acquired throughout its history. Airlines, railways, ground transport, telecommunications, radio and TV, etc. all successively altered their mode of operation. They became increasingly regulated by market forces which varied according to the particular sector involved and the history of the country in question. What was happening was nothing more or less than a transformation of the means of exchange and the circulation of goods, messages and people as well as of the way in which production was organised.

Deregulation rhymes with globalisation. This was a concept which flourished in the business world, replacing that of internationalisation. For industry, it signified a change of scale. Money markets, products and services, management and manufacturing techniques became ‘global’ in what came to be called the global marketplace. The communications networks were in this case at the heart of the reorganisation of the major companies on the world stage. They were also the principle users. Ninety per cent of the transnational flow of data is produced by internal or external company networks.

This globalisation of products and services also signified a quest for the ‘global target’. It has become a priority to reach the largest number of consumers using the same message. The advocates of globalisation pushes to extremes are in conflict with those who see these tendencies as creating a uniformity of need and want them to coexist with a move away from the market and towards fragmentation.

There is a gulf between the globalist vision of the marketplace and its actual achievements. If it is open season in the hunt for the universal, there are still numerous pitfalls that lie between the will and the reality. One example of this is the slowness with which pan-European TV is establishing itself. The quest for a common denominator in programming which manages to bring together people of different cultures via a single broadcast is far from being simple. Even if certain TV series have a transnational audience, drama produced locally is always more successful in attracting local viewers. As for the globalisation of the multimedia corporations who reigned supreme in the decade of the take-over bid, the failure of many of these is also a sign that it is harder to create conglomerates on a global scale than the stock markets predicted.

An indication of the shift in priorities in comparison to the 70s is the fact that international debate on the future of the networks has migrated to organisations which are more concerned with the technological aspects, such as GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade). The circulation of information is part of a wider discussion on free trade and the need to deregulate the flow of ‘services’, the basis of tomorrow’s service industries. These include the flow of films, know-how and of tourists as well as financial resources.

This new, world-wide legitimation of the market mechanism ought not to be allowed to overshadow the permanency of those other communications and information networks, the military networks. The Gulf War was the first conflict which demonstrated how the nature of war has changed with the emergence of ‘smart’ weapons, which were made possible by the linking of a series of networks relayed by satellites and computers.

Off-the-peg ideology?

It is undeniable that our societies are ever more closely involved with products and networks that are required to operate on a ‘global’ scale. ‘Globalisation’ is a fact. But it is also an ideology.

Since the late 60s, globalism’ has erupted into our view of the world thanks to two famous works: Marshall McLuhan’s book, War and Peace in the Global Village, which he produced with Quentin Fiore, and Zbigniew Brzezinski’s book, Between Two Ages, America’s Role in the Technotronic Era.

The first is based on the experience of the Vietnam War and the role played in it by TV. Thanks to the small screen, citizens ceased to be spectators and became participants.  The dichotomy between civilians and soldiers has almost disappeared. In peacetime, claimed McLuhan, the electronic media lead all the non-industrialised nations towards progress and technology itself becomes the vehicle for social change.

It was during this period that the slogan ‘the communications revolution’ emerged in the US. It ‘produced consumerism, collective social responsibility, the revolution of the younger generation, the era of individual judgement, in short, a new society.’ This ‘revolution’ sealed up the fate of the last utopias of social upheaval and signified the death of ideologies. The idea of the ‘global village’ began to take shape in the ready-to-think market. Each major international crisis increased the pace of its growth. This is what happened during the Gulf crisis while, on the other hand, the clamp-down of psychological warfare widened the gap between civilians and the military.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, as a political strategist and head of research at the Institute for Research into Communism at Columbia University, preferred the expression ‘global city’. The connotation of a return to the community and the intimacy associated with the village seemed to him to be ill-suited to the international environment. The linking of technotronic networks (in which computers, TV and telecommunications are interconnected) has transformed the world into ‘a node of interdependent relationships, nervous, agitated and tense’.

President Jimmy Carter’s future National Security Advisor claimed the US to be ‘the first global society in history’. These promoters of the ‘technotronic revolution’ ‘communicate’ more than any other power. Sixty-five per cent of all world communications emanate from them via the products of their film and broadcasting industries ‘thanks to the new technologies, methods and organisational procedures’. They are in confrontation, continued Brzezinski, with the bloc dominated by the other superpower, which consists solely of impoverished societies which ‘secrete boredom’. He believed that this ‘globalisation’ rendered the concept of imperialism null and void. ‘Gunboat diplomacy’ is a thing of the past, the future is ‘network diplomacy’.

The collapse of the socialist states puts a seal on the American victory and signifies the demise of communist universalism. Henceforward only a single form of ‘globalisation’ appears to be possible. Thanks to the magic ring of Francis Fukuyama, a councillor at the State Department, the ‘end of the ideologies’ is mutating into ‘the end of history’.

Twenty years after the appearance of his book about the technotronic society, Brzezinski continues to assert that ‘the basis of American power is very largely due to its domination of the world communications market... This creates a mass culture which is strong enough to be imitated by politics.

In the 80s, geopolitics were confused and the language of globalisation was applied first and foremost to the marketplace. The inventor of the ‘global marketplace’ was Professor Theodore Levitt, editor of the Harvard Business Review, whose idea were adopted by the big corporations in order to legitimise their expansion policies. Thus, Saatchi and Saatchi’s 1986 annual report stated, ‘Scientists and technologists have long realised what soldiers and statesmen have tried to bring about without succeeding: the global empire... money markets, products and services, management and manufacturing techniques have become global in nature. It is the global marketplace.’

The philosophy of globalisation has produced a ‘jamming’ of semantics which has resulted in legitimising such concepts as ‘commercial freedom of expression’ within the great international fora. It is a way of placing the public sector in the service of advertising. As a means of controlling the world, the freedom of commercial expression is inseparable from the freedom of the flow of information. This freedom is thus identified with the freedom to trade, and too bad if it involves the splitting of the world between the 20% of its population which owns 80% of its purchasing power and capital and the vast majority of the human race. It’s also too bad if it harbours contradictions in this globalisation, manifested in such forms as speculation, savage take-overs, huge corporate debts, etc.


Though less apparent than globalisation, there was a countermovement in the individualisation of cultures which typified the 80s. The tensions between cultural pluralism and the unifying forces of trading and universalism revealed the complexity of reactions toward the emergence of a market on a global scale. New questions arose concerning the way in which the relationship between the individual and the universal was negotiated in concrete terms in the field. How would the innumerable ramifications of the networks which constituted the weft and warp of globalisation acquire a meaning for each community? How would these resist or adapt? The very terms hybridisation, creolisation and crossbreeding designated realities which the concepts of ‘Americanisation’ or of ‘imitation’ had prevented from being conceptualised. After two decades typified by the media and communications technologies, anthropology and the complex nature of the cultures on which messages have their effect once again had their day.

But this resistance by societies is ambivalent. It could easily become part of the phenomenon of a return to nationalism, which itself contains the illusion that one can rely on the heavy logic of the world market. Yet fragmentation and globalisation are two aspects of the same reality which is in the process of disintegrating and reshaping itself.

The overthrow of the conceptual frontiers has also been accompanied by a redistribution of the institutional frontiers as evidenced by the emergence of a third sector in international relations. Thus, the concept of a transnational public space is emerging which sets civilian societies by the ears. Between the logic of the marketplace and the realpolitik of the prince caught up in the considerations of state, can one not imagine the creation of a different kind of space? The preparation of the Rio Summit indicates that it is hard to ignore the new transnational activists, who, while firmly based in their national territories, have a definite world view.