Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Here We Go Again...

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Sept 18, 1997

Posted to HotWired 18 Sept 97

Here we go again. Pasty, I think you're right - Jon's articles were probably written in one, maybe two, sittings. There is no indication that he has read any of these comments (p.s. keep up with the News Trolls please... I'm a regular reader).

Let's play Spot the Errors with "today's" column...

Katz writes:

The world's only superpower, for better or worse, has constructed an information empire, and it is now one of the most powerful forces ever assembled. It imposes its odd values on more of the world all the time, not by force, but by satellite and TV.

There's no denying that the United States is a superpower, that it constructed a vast information network, and that this network has been influential around the world.

Where I disagree with Katz is precisely as follows:

  1. His assertion that the information infastructure is in origin and propogation uniquely American, and
  2. His assertion that the American infromation infastructure is the prime, if not only, shaper of public opinion around the world.
Let's look at Katz's specific claims in the light of these two points:

Katz writes,

A queen who, given a few twists of history, might easily have been our own is on bended knee to the power of our technology and the emotional imagery it transmits, demands, creates, and sustains.

Now I have to ask, in what sense is this "our" (ie., American) technology? Television, as was pointed out in previous posts, was not invented by Americans. English citizens are watching their news, not from CBS, ABC or even CNN, but rather, the BBC. They also receive their information about the royals via newspapers (via the printing press, invented in Europe, in newspapers, owned for the most part in England by Canadians and Australians).

Katz writes,

In Tehran, Baywatch is the number-one rated TV show, and the very idea of its fans harming Salman Rushdie has come to seem ludicrous.

Now I have no idea where Baywatch is ranked in Tehran. It would have been nice to have a source for this assertion. My bet is that Katz's source is Baywatch's own press clippings. In any case, the danger to Rushdie remains very real. He remains in hiding. The Iranian government still has a price on his head. If American culture has penetrated Iran, it has not penetrated very far. The Koran, not the cable, remains the dominent influence in that country today.

Katz writes,

Pol Pot is tried, convicted, and sentenced to prison on television. Mountaineers die on Mt. Everest minutes after posting messages via cell phone and on Web sites.

Pol Pot was tried and convicted several weeks prior to the televised show trial. The reason television was brought in was that westerners (not Cambodians) would not believe it until they say the video footage. The 'trial' which you saw on CNN was a staged re-enactment meant for American viewers only.

Mountaineers died on Everest before the advent of web postings. What's new is the cell phone and the web. Well, as pointed out before, the web was invented in Switzerland. As for the cell phone, I don't know where it was invented. I do know that leading manufacturers of cell phone technology may be found in Canada (Northern Telecom (they changed they name - I forget what it is now) and Japan).

Katz writes,

In China, American notions of money and business are doing in a few years what capitalist roaders couldn't do in centuries. We won't have to worry about human rights for too long. Communism proved that outright repression is bad for business.

It's too bad Katz is not familiar with the history of either China or capitalism.

China, as most people outside the United States know, was a monarchy for millenia prior to this century. It entered the capitalist world via a series of conflicts known as the Opium Wars, in which western powers, most notably Britain, forced China into the narcotics trade. This led to the downfall of the monarchy and the establishment of the short lived Chinese Republic, which fell to the Japanese in the early days of World War II. Although (with American and British help) the republic was victorious over the Japanese, it fell three years later to Mao's communists. The days of pure communism lasted three or four decades, ending with Mao's death. Capitalism in China today is limited to certain enclaves, most notably Hong Kong and a special zone around Shanghai.

As for capitalism, it has its roots in the economic writings of Adam Smith, a Scotsman, who in turn was influenced by such libertarian (and English) writers as John Locke. It rises to predominance as a consequence of the industrial revolution, a powerful force of change which started in Britain. It is no coincidence that Marx, when he addressed capitalists in the late nineteenth century, addressed Britons. American capitalism per se does not emerge until the early twentieth century.

Katz writes,

American popular entertainment, beamed across the Iron Curtain, is widely credited with helping to knock it down. Kids who stormed over the Berlin Wall headed for music stores to buy tapes and CDs.

I am not sure who the pundits are who "widely credit" American entertainment for bringing down the communist regimes - again, it would have been nice to see a source or two. But equally, if not more, significant, were probably the following:

  • The Chinese uprising at Tiananman, and the successful people's revolutions in the Philipenes and Korea (against American-supported distators),
  • The deaths, one generation after they took power, or communist dictators, for example, Mao, Tito, Breznev, and others,
  • Commerce, in person, between the people of the communist world and their neighbours in Austria, Italy and other Eurpoean nations,
  • Glastnost, and later, Perestroika, introduced by Gorbachev, as a response to wide-spread corruption and industrial failure, and
  • The Soviet's disasterous war in Afghanistan, which showed the world, and especially Russians, how weak the Red Army had become.
  • East Germans, crossing the wall, for the most part visited family members from who they had been separated for four decades.

Yes, no doubt American culture was an influence. But as the list above surely shows, it was one of many factors, and probably a minor factor, since for the most part CBS, NBC and even CNN were not available in most of the communist world.

Katz writes,

American jeans, fast food, TV shows, movies, sports stars, and sneakers are ubiquitous, part of a universal language defying control and regulation.

Well, as one commentator once remarked at the conclusion of a Super Bowl game, "A billion Chinese don't care." The world's most popular game is soccer, a passtime which barely scratches the surface of American television. The Olympics, founded this time around by a European and tracing its roots to ancient Greece, are the world's largest sporting event.

Travellers around the world will for the most part find a dearth of fast food joints and American cooking. Locating a single McDonalds in Moscow (which, I believe, has closed - check that) hardly constitutes ubiquitousness.

Movie patrons in Britain, Italy and India watch a steady diet of domestic films along with the occasional American reel. That foreign films are not nearly as popular in the United States as they are around the world speaks only of American culture, not the world's.

I'll give the Americans credit for jeans - ubiquitous not because of any cultural message but because they are exceptionally comfortable and durable. As for sneakers - isn't Reebok a British company?

Katz writes,

And the American-conceived and -constructed Internet and digital culture have added interactivity to this technological brew, taking all these diverse realities and combining them into a communications system, a vast collection of teeming hives.

Digital culture has its roots in the inventions of Charles Babbage, an Englishman. Telephonic technology, as mentioned before, was concieved by a Scots born Canadian. What made computers possible for the masses was the invention of the microchip, yes, by an American.

The internet, as we know it, came into existence only in 1986 with the development of NSFnet, yes, another American development. Prior to that, ARPANet was an in-house data transmission system. But by no means the only one. I was involved in long-distance data transmission in 1980, using a system called RJE, which connected computer centers in Austin, Dallas, Calgary, Britain, and Australia. My father, who worked for Bell Canada, was involved in data transmission before I was a gleam in his eye.

What makes the internet the internet is not the process of transmitting data over telephone wires, but rather, the set of protocols known as TCP/IP. And even if invented by an American, these protocols have since become global property.

As for the idea the internet was built by Americans, that is far from the truth. I watched workers laying fibre across Canada through the last decade. They were Bell-Northern employees and most - if not all - of them were Canadian. I would say that the internet was built by Americans in America. To suppose that Americans also wired the rest of the world is the height of absurdity.

Katz writes,

American notions of media, culture, and sensitivity seem capable of crossing every border. Afghanistan remains under the thumb of the fundamentalist Taliban, but is doomed. Instead of sending Stingers in, we should have learned by now to ship over a couple million TV sets and satellite dishes and give everybody in the country free zappers. American ideas cross borders because all ideas cross broders. It has nothing particularly to do with their being American.

As for Afghanistan's Taliban, this "doomed" force defeated the once-mighty Red Army and has come to within a hair of occupying all of Afghanistan. I am unaware of any current American intervention in Afghanistan's civil war. In any case, TV sets would be largely useless in a nation which is for the most part without electricity.

While I'm writing, I may as well offer a few words in reply to cypherpunk (cyferpunk).

For the most part ignoring what I wrote (he offers one snide comment about Italian westerns), his argument is essentially the following: either the event I cite didn't happen, or, if it happened, it wasn't caused by Americans. Thus we get such nuggets as:

  • which we joined late, after the idiot Euro-weenies started them
  • Thus far, there have been no climactic changes which cannot be traced to astronomical causes
  • The selfish USA was responsible for none of them
  • during which the death rate due to impoverishment still declined, compared with the previous decades.
  • As for the environmental issues, I sincerely doubt that such events as the hole in the ozone layer or the fire on the Hudson River were caused by orbital variation.

    As for the rest: my point was not that Americans caused these events. My point was that all of these events happened during the century in which America was dominant.

    And my other point was that the United States did little or nothing to bring them to conclusion, and when they did, acted only when American interests were threatened. Even to this day, the rationalle expressed by American politicians sending troops into foreign countries is always 'protecting American lives' or 'protecting American interests'.

    Cypherpunk's argument reminds me of a person, who instead of stopping to aid an accident victim, looked at the scene and said, 'Well, I didn't do it', and went his merry way to the basketball game.

    My great hope is that the internet, as a global communications medium shared by people of diverse cultures, values and beliefs, will thrust some other points of view into American's living rooms. Because of the internet, we, the rest of the world, are going to be in your face from now on.

    Ironically, communications media, far from Americanizing the world, will most likely globalize the Americans. Finally.

    Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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