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Blessing in disguise
Media pluralization in the digitial age

January 1, 2005

In the past few decades, the world has entered a new layer (not stage!) of human civilization. Historical layering is a more realistic way of thinking about human civilization than the stages proposed by Marx or Rostow and the cycles suggested by Toynbee or Sarkar.

Digital Civilization historically follows four other techno-social modes of life: nomadic, agrarian, commercial, and industrial. Since we can find all the five modes of civilization around us, it is more realistic to speak of layers. In a site near Jerusalem, an Israeli archeologist once showed me 27 layers of human civilization. That is how human history has unfolded, layer upon layer.

The new Digital Civilization has made war more deadly. We have witnessed "shock and awe" in the new digital warfare in the Persian Gulf Wars of 1991 and 2003, NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 2000, and the Afghanistan War of 2001. In all of these wars, direct and indirect civilian casualties have far outnumbered the military ones.

As for peace, Digital Civilization has pluralized the media of global communication. Media pluralization is adding yet another layer to the nomadic, agrarian, commercial, and industrial of channels of communication. Digital Civilization is, in fact, changing the economies, societies, polities, and cultures of the entire world.

Let's take up the example of the Middle East. During the past two centuries, international conflict in the Middle East has had three major and interlocking dimensions. First, Western imperialism shifted domination from indigenous empires (Ottoman and Iranian) to the British, French, Russian, and American empires. Second, since 1948, the establishment of Israel in the Palestinian mandate has created a strategic alliance between the West and Zionism. Third, the Balkanization of the Middle East created a number of small and unstable states in the region that are strategically allied to the West, but frequently challenged by indigenous nationalisms (Arab, Iranian, Turkish, Kurdish, and Islamic).

How is media pluralization affecting the historical patterns? We know of the critical role of print in the rise of nationalism worldwide. Print and electronic media in this region have brought Western imperialisms and indigenous nationalisms into direct contact and confrontation. Electronic media, such as radio and TV, may be considered as the print for the illiterate. Their rapid diffusion in this region has broadened and deepened nationalism. The impact of Egyptian radio on the rise of Pan-Arab Nasserism is well-known. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein was trying to emulate Nasser, but he had neither the unity nor the cultural resources of Egypt behind him.

In the meantime, due to the deepening and broadening of nationalism, secular ideologies have been overtaken by religious ones. The technologies of a Digital Civilization have facilitated this process.

The Iranian Revolution may be considered as a triumph of orality (the pulpit) over mediated communication (the press, radio and TV). But the Ayatollahs also employed cassettes, telephony, and xeroxracy. Since 1979, thanks in no small measure to oil income, personal computers, internet, wireless phones, satellite television, fax machines, and numerous other small and personal digital gadgets have spread out in the region.

For example, seven percent of Iranians have now access to the internet. In Israel, Lebanon, and Turkey, the percentages are probably higher. In the region, media ownership depends on the level of income. But radio and television can reach most. The Middle East has slipped into what McLuhan called the Age of Second Orality.

Aljazeera Satellite TV provides a lesson on the unanticipated consequences of history. Qatar, a small sheikhdom on the Persian Gulf, was invented by the West along with all the other small Arab Sheikhdoms to insure secure access to their oil resources. Qatar has a small population of less than one million, two thirds of whom are of foreign origin, but due to its oil revenues, Qatar can boast one of the highest per capita incomes in the world. In the late 1990s, the power shifted from a gambling father to an ambitious and educated son.

Among different reforms, the son wished to put Qatar on the map. In 1996, one of his brilliant ideas was to establish a BBC style direct satellite TV. The Qatar government invested $5 million dollars for the first five years in this venture. He also hired a BBC team to run the station. Within a short period of time, Aljazeera has become the most watched television station in the Arab world. On its English language website, it can boast of "more than 30 bureaus and dozens of correspondents covering the four corners of the world." The impact of Aljazeera on the Arab street has been significant.

According to its English website, "In January 2001, (Arabic) was launched as the first mainstream Arabic news site and in no time, it rose to the top of the Arab media. In 2002, (Arabic) received more than 811 million impressions and 161 million visits... Our team of dedicated journalists with their multi-national education and diversified backgrounds share a common set of attributes: objectivity, accuracy, and a passion for truth." [Emphasis in the original.]

A small and dependent country, Qatar, has thus managed to significantly undermine the propaganda efforts of bigger Arab and Western governments. It has broadcast messages from Ben Laden and his colleagues, Western and Israeli officials, and Arab commentators. This liberal method of news casting is unprecedented for a news hungry Arab population that is often dished out only government propaganda.

In addition to the Voice of America and BBC World Service, the Middle East also can receive digital signals from TV stations subsidized by the America, British, French, Arab, and diasporic Iranian sources. In 2005, France is launching its own version of a French CNN. Media digitalization and pluralization have had an unprecedented political and social impact on the Middle East. In the short run, media pluralization probably exacerbates conflicts among competing nationalisms.

But several other medium and long-term consequences can be also discerned. First, due to media pluralization, it is becoming more difficult for governments to lie. Second, thoughtful people now can treat themselves to a diversity of channels of facts and opinion. Third, great access to multi-national channels hopefully challenges the ethnocentric views of conflict. Fourth, that may result in understanding "the other" a little more accurately and sympathetically.

If all goes well, media pluralization is thus a blessing in disguise. In the short run, it intensifies conflict. But in the longer run, it will pave the road to greater mutual understanding and negotiation of conflicts. This is not simply a pious wish. In a project on the Persian Gulf peace building (please don't Chuckle!), the Toda Institute managed to have senior diplomats and scholars from the littoral states talk to each other interactively face to face and via email (See Bridging a Gulf: Peacebuilding in West Asia. London: I. B. Tauris, 2003.).

As John Maynard Keynes aptly put it, we are all dead in the long run. Since life expectancy is still short, it is the short term that counts.

Majid Tehranian is Professor, School of Communications, University of Hawaii at Manoa, and Director of the Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research in Honolulu, Hawaii.  His latest book is Bridging a Gulf: Peace in West Asia (London, I. B. Tauris, 2003).

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